by Tedd Siegel
“Every age…needs a Diogenes.”— Jean-Baptiste Le Rond d’Alembert
“Listen: We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”— Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake (1997)
In this present series of articles, I am exploring far-reaching implications of what I believe to be an increasingly broad-based societal realization: that the overall conditions of “work-as-we-know-it” are becoming quite intolerable.
As it turns out, explaining what I mean by “refusing work-as-we-know-it,” and showing why the standard “Panglossian” neoliberal objections are not terribly compelling (shame on you, nobody has ever had it so good!) proves to be a rather multi-faceted undertaking.
In the first installment, which I referred to as a prologue, I highlighted various dimensions of the new American experience of work: David Graeber’s account of the proliferation of “bullshit jobs” under pervasive conditions of finance capitalism; Elizabeth Anderson’s treatment of the authoritarianism of private employment under today’s state-sanctioned “at-will” contracts; and Peter Fleming’s description of the neoliberal corporation’s intentional reliance on our personal life energies (biopower) in order to make their business models continue to be effective.
By focusing on the manner in which each, in their own way, exposes the widening gap between the experience of “work-as-we-know-it” and the hegemonic ideology of neoliberal capitalism, I was especially keen to show how they each also began to enact a kind of a refusal of work-as-we-know-it.
In Bullshit Jobs, for example, Graeber asks about the difference between productive and unproductive work, and even wonders what it is that gives useful work its supposed value, under current conditions of market capitalism. He very pointedly wants to know why we don’t generally have a four-day work week; and throwing down a gauntlet, he asks, “Why not shutter down the global work machine?”
In this second installment, I want to say something more about what it means to adopt an attitude of refusal as a strategy of resistance to the intensifying neoliberal cocktail of overwork, exploitation, and precarity. Where my first article on “refusing work-as-we-know-it” emphasized the “work-as-we-know-it” part, this installment is focused more on the “refusing” part. Given the pervasive culture of “capitalist realism” supporting the present neoliberal hegemony, there is a need to account for the cultural space of refusal before considering the various modes of refusal or specific acts of refusal.
It is my view that, along with the changing experience of work, there is also a new and distinctive cultural mood or zeitgeist arising in response to these same conditions.
This new cultural mood and/or ethos of refusal also appears to me to be a Millennial-specific, generational happening. If it takes root, it could turn out to be even more of a decisive threat to the bromides of contemporary capitalist realism than the sort of ideology critiques described in the first article in this series.
Thematizing the Space of Refusal
When I was a young master’s student at the New School back in the early 90s, I remember taking a class with the American philosopher Richard Bernstein about the politics of modernity/postmodernity. When it came time to define and describe postmodernity and/or postmodernism in the opening lecture, Prof. Bernstein struck a Heideggerian pose, and declared that the postmodern was best described as a Stimmung, or what he called a cultural mood. To be honest, some of us were shocked. We were expecting something having to do with the cultural logic of late capitalism, a la Frederick Jameson. A mood…that’s really all you got? Years later I still heard someone refer to him in passing as “Prof. Stimmung.”
And yet here I am, thirty years later, appropriating this dubious critical language of “cultural mood.” I guess it’s just something we old guys do.
Nonetheless, if the phrase “refusal of work-as-we-know-it” is going to be meaningful in the ways intended, it remains my contention that it is essential to talk about a certain cultural mood or ethos that first creates the collective “space of refusal.” Otherwise, “refusal of work-as-we-know-it” can be too easily mischaracterized, dismissed via a predictable raft of charges — individual laziness, romanticism, and/or privileged position.
For a sense of what this is all about, consider the carefully-chosen titles (and underlying intentions) of two recent books written by Millennial authors who are clearly speaking to their peers: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, published just this year; and Mark Greif’s 2017 book, Against Everything.
To begin with, let’s look at what these title choices tell us. They tell us, straightaway, that things one would generally consider to be bad or even indefensible, like “doing nothing” and “being against everything” are in fact somehow meaningful; and that understood in the right way (because the world is actually upside down) they need to be seen as important, even essential. This is how the kind of cultural space I am describing gets created at the level of “making tacos.”
Jenny Odell: The Value of Certain Nothings
A closer look at the introduction to Odell’s book further confirms what I am talking about here. At the most basic level, the book is about “disengaging from the attention economy.” Odell is an artist and adjunct professor of Digital Arts at Stanford. But this is no mere self-help book about remembering to put down our devices, or even a straightforward discussion about how contemporary technology is changing our everyday experience, presumably for both good and ill.
Odell describes the book as a “field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy.” What sticks out here is the word “political.” In what way is resisting being directed by the attention economy political? The use of this word tells us that Odell is concerned about much more than just overcoming technological mediation and over-optimization of free time in the name of work-life balance.
Another immediate give away is the introductory chapter title, “Surviving Usefulness.” Odell wants us to recognize that the attention economy’s power derives from living in a world “where our value is determined by our productivity.” The book, she says, is thus “for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument, and therefore something that cannot be optimized.”
She goes on to say the stakes are actually higher than just the individual recovery of the sort of things “that give life meaning,” which are often found by way of “accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters.” When we are being directed by the attention economy, we are bereft of the time and space that is necessary to carry on some version of a collective life, to exist as what Hannah Arendt, following Aristotle, calls homo politicus.
The stakes are thus also cultural as well, she adds, since the “narrowing horizon for things deemed unproductive” results in impatience with anything “nuanced, poetic, or less than obvious.” These nothings, Odell says, cannot be tolerated, because they “cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables.” In general, the point of doing nothing, Odell explains, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.” The nothing that I propose, she states, “is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity.”
There is a lot more to say about what Odell means by doing nothing (more on this below). What I hope is starting to be clear, however, is that Odell is valorizing “doing nothing” and “surviving usefulness” as an explicit strategy. She is trying to challenge what Mark Fisher calls the condition of capitalist realism, which concerns the “pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations, and hopes by capitalist culture.” The valorization of “nothings that cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables” is necessary then, because the attention economy, she writes, “hijacks and frustrates our most basic desires and then profits from them.” To resist-in-place she says, “is to make oneself into a shape that cannot be easily appropriated by a capitalist value system.”
Doing this, it turns out, begins with a specific sort of “doing nothing” where we learn “to redirect and enlarge our attention.” To resist-in-place is to stake out this territory that lies somewhere between withdrawing (or escaping or dropping out) on the one hand, and simply remaining within the framework of the attention economy.
Mark Greif: To Figure Out What Living is For
Now consider also the preface to Mark Greif’s Against Everything. Although Greif like Odell is also a professor at Stanford, he says the essays in this book were written in his twenties and thirties, and previously published in the journal N+1 of which he was a founder. There is a specific reason, immanent to the book’s over all logic, as to why it makes sense for him to publish a book of what otherwise (in an academic setting) might be considered his juvenilia.
Greif writes that the essays, “reflected an effort, in my twenties and thirties, to try to figure a few things out. What I was living for, principally, and why so much around me seemed to be false and contemptible, yet was accepted without a great collective cry of pain.”
In writing in this way, as will soon be made clear, Greif’s strategy is to re-inaugurate and then re-enact a specific sort of a philosophical journey. In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Walden, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts…it is to solve some of the great problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Next, he tells us that whereas “a lot of books tell you how to do things you are supposed to do, but better, this book asks about those things you are supposed to do.” He says he wants to know whether we really do these things, and if so, for the reasons supposed. Also, if it turns out that the true reasons are not the ones usually proclaimed, then it might also be that “the right reasons to do things, to be good and true and righteous” are in fact wrong. Young Greif asks, as Thoreau first asked in American letters, “What if the usual wisdom is unwise?”
But what are these things, of which he speaks? As it turns out, he means all manner of things concerning the body as understood through popular culture, including exercise, sex, food, and child rearing, among others. There are also essays on popular music, reality TV and YouTube. Animating his concern, across the various essays, however, is his sense that “the ceaseless grooming and optimizing of ordinary life stands in the way of finding out how else we could spend our attention and energy.”
Along with the what reverberates within the book title, then, perhaps you hear in the opening part of Greif’s preface some echoes of Thoreau; for example from Walden: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good, I believe in my soul to be bad…one generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels”; also, “men labor under a mistake. The better part of man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.”
But Greif is doing more than providing echoes of Thoreau. At the outset, I referred to Against Everything as a kind of a re-enactment of Walden, and suggested that this re-enactment is the deeper philosophical purpose of the book, its true raison d’etre. In the second half of the preface, this re-enactment gets inaugurated. He writes, “I can imagine someone asking, “Against everything? I’ll tell you what this impulse means to me.” Following this, Greif tells a decisive story from his own childhood, about how he actually grew up going on walks around Walden pond with his mother, who told him stories about Thoreau; about how he had written in his book that things that people considered superior, were often inferior; that the best things might not belong to anybody per se; that work was over-rated.
Greif and his mother would play a kind of a game. His mother would point out every “folly driving to the pond or coming home: billboards, luxury cars, malls, political signage, mansions…”. My portion, Greif writes, “was to figure out exactly what his critique and alternative could be.”
As a result, he says, from an early age, for young Greif, to be a philosopher was “to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything.” When he finally read Walden at seventeen, he says he had an experience he’s had with only a handful of books, “of knowing I didn’t deserve to finish it until I would no longer have to cast down my eyes, abashed, in the presence of its words. That kind of growing up, I though uneasily, could take a lifetime.”
In reading the essays that come after this preface, we are meant to understand Greif’s various observations, ruminations, and reflections in a distinctly Thoreau-like register; as an enactment of what it means to ask “what life is for,” and how to dwell in such questions, at least for a time, “as a way of life.” This is what binds the diversity of things found within Walden. Whether he is reflecting on nature, the practices of “the Hindoos,” building a house, comparing the ancients and the moderns, fretting over home economics, or wondering at the citizens of Concord, Thoreau does so as part of a grand, youthful personal experiment within a larger young national experiment.
Finally, if the directness of Greif’s book seems somehow disarming, even immature, and thus not in accord with the what Thoreau refers to as the “subtle reasonings” one would expect from a philosopher, it’s because he has followed Thoreau in the need to valorize this specific sort of youthful reflection warts and all. He does so, I believe, in order to show that young people should be free to take this journey without inhibition, and to do so before the vagaries of work have managed to “plow them into the soil for compost.” In this sense, Against Everything has a lot in common with Odell’s “field guide for doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy” which has the dedication, “to my students.”
Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau
Picking up the thread from Odell’s book again, recall that where we left off, she was advocating for something she referred to as “resisting-in-place” by making oneself “into a shape that cannot be easily appropriated by a capitalist value system.” One of the ways that we do this, she writes, is to survey the “history of refusal.”
For such examples, Odell turns to Diogenes of Sinope, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and Henry David Thoreau.
Diogenes, Diogenes…I can hear you mulling it over…Diogenes the Cynic? Lives in a barrel? Barks like a Dog? That Diogenes? The one Plato called “Socrates gone mad?” Yes, that one. Diogenes, Odell writes, “has much to teach us about how to refuse.”
Unlike Socrates, she explains, Diogenes is not concerned to teach the noble youth the meaning of virtue, seeing no point in helping to prepare them to lead a society he considered to be so “upside down.” Instead, he practiced what Odell characterizes as a kind of in-your-face performance art, and she goes on to relate some of the still shocking stories of Diogenes’ behavior.
Odell’s purpose, in looking to Diogenes, is something more than just to point out that “stories like his contribute to our vocabulary of refusal, even centuries later.” She says that while it’s hard to not laugh, and think “f*ck yeah!” when Diogenes “blows off” Alexander the Great, Diogenes can provide more than just a “locus for our wish” to do likewise.
Her major point (which also provides the through line for the seemingly incongruous triplet Diogenes/Bartleby/Thoreau) is that “faced with unrelenting hypocrisy,” Diogenes “did not flee…nor did he like Socrates kill himself” but rather “neither assimilated nor exited society,” living instead “in the midst of it, in a state of refusal.”
Odell says that the decision “to participate, but not as asked” is what produces a third space, or what I have been calling here the space of refusal. It is also what connects the “I’d prefer not to” of Bartleby the Scrivener to Diogenes the Cynic, despite temporal and cultural displacement. The added twist, of course, is that Bartleby’s acts of refusal happen in a Wall Street law firm, as a scene of resistance to white collar working conditions.
As for Melville and Thoreau: they are connected via their common acquaintance with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and mutual engagement with his ideas; they share a common mise en scène (both writing about working conditions in the northeast, with nearly simultaneous publication). But Odell doesn’t simply focus on Thoreau’s writing on civil disobedience here; she also wants us to see the connectedness of Bartleby’s strange performance of resistance to Thoreau’s odd spectacle, his own Walden pond “experiment in subtraction” as Slavoj Žižek would say.
If Jenny Odell were the only one making these connections and showcasing them, this summary of her account of the history of refusal might be interesting, but not especially noteworthy. But along with Odell, Mark Greif’s Against Everything is also peppered with thoughts on Epicurean ataraxia and austerity, Stoic apatheia, and of course, the cynicism of Diogenes, along with continual (albeit often subterranean) ruminations on Henry David Thoreau.
This, however, is really just the tip of an iceberg. In various places, and in different combinations, Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau seem to keep popping up. Bartleby has been embedded in academic political discussions about “what is to be done” for quite some time (Derrida, Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, Žižek). As with Odell, the focus of these discussions is on how it might be possible to “do something” in a way that is not easily appropriated and assimilated by market logic, with its tendency to pre-structure any and all movements of resistance. But Bartleby has found his way into (albeit highly educated) popular culture also. See for example, this recent humor piece on Bartelby the Scrivener in McSweeney’s: “I Cannot Recommend My Former Co-Worker Bartleby for Your Scrivening Position.”
Odell is right to string together “Diogenes, Bartleby, and Thoreau.” Where Bartleby is found, it is often the case that Diogenes and Thoreau are not very far away. The thread of connection among them is the (lately) smoldering possibility of a widespread recovery of the attitude of classical cynicism under conditions of late capitalism.
Walden 3: Thoreau & the Question of the Political
I want to say something more about Henry David Thoreau, so that those who look to him for inspiration (like Greif and Odell) are not accused of political quietism, on the false assumption that Thoreau is merely advocating for a withdrawal from society and a “return to nature.”
Reading Thoreau’s Walden as an extended meditation on labor and work in relation to a set of more elevated ends of man, it makes sense that he should become the nineteenth century “poster boy” for the contemporary refusal of work-as-we-know-it. But unless one continually reflects upon the idea that conditions of labor and work are such that “men lead lives of quiet desperation,” it’s easy to miss why Thoreau does not stand for a withdrawal from society and an avoidance of politics.
In 2015, the New Yorker published a highly polemical article by Katherine Shultz called “The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau.” Since the article appears to have been written specifically to thwart the budding Thoreau/Walden revival, it’s worth stepping through some of her claims in order to draw out what is still left to be said here.
The centerpiece of Shultz’s criticism is the claim that he actually had little interest in or feeling for other people, and therefore should be recognized primarily as a failed moralist. As she writes near the end of the article, Walden is “a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people.”
Ridiculing his asceticism, Shultz paints a picture of Thoreau as an oddly pedantic, Puritan Calvinist who is hopped up on Transcendentalist steroids. Thoreau, she writes, “never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam…food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect…he recoiled from the idea of a doormat.” I am not aware, she says, “of any theology which holds that the road to hell is paved with doormats.”
Since there is indeed an air of madness about this stuff (as there is with Diogenes, living in an overturned barrel) it’s hard to argue that this polemical arrow does not find its mark. But Shultz really goes out of her way to be completely non-comprehending of asceticism and the choice of austerity in general. The last time I checked, both have a rather long religious and philosophical pedigree, and are found in almost every period of every culture on earth, save perhaps that of the contemporary bourgeoisie, hopped up on consumerist steroids.
Schultz’s generalized non-comprehension of asceticism leads her to the conclusion that “Walden is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment the word implies.” From here, once again, it is religious moralism and transcendentalism that explain why Thoreau so thoroughly rejects the opinions of others, moves away to Walden pond, and supposedly looks down on other people, especially his Concord neighbors. All of this also leads her to frame Thoreau’s remarks about lived experience as beset by metaethical problems. She says she doesn’t know what he means when he says he wants to separate what is life from what is not life; and she weirdly characterizes the statement “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” as an unsubstantiated allegation.
Contrary to the popular, straw man version of Thoreau as “our national conscience, urging us to be true to ourselves and to live in harmony with nature,” Shultz wants to show up Thoreau as a hypocrite as well as a solipsist. Further challenging the view of Walden as “the story of voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude” Schultz points out that in 1845, Walden pond was scarcely more off the grid than prospect park is today, that the commuter rail to Boston ran along its southwest side, and that he could, and did walk home to Concord several times a week in only about twenty minutes, and that he often had large numbers of guests visiting him in the cabin.
Reaching a final apotheosis of unfairness, Shultz writes, “rather than compare him to Emerson, Muir, or Garrison, he is closer to Ayn Rand — suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced other people lead pathetic lives, but unwilling to help them.”
Henry David Thoreau…and Ayn Rand? Really?
In order to counter the basic charge that Thoreau is a solipsist, a failed moralist, and a hypocrite, in favor of the view (found in Greif and Odell) that he is more like a modern classical cynic, it makes sense here to take a partial step back.
If one grasps Thoreau’s underlying concept of experience, Walden need not be encountered, as Shultz finds it, “an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice,” and the desire to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” and to “put to rout all that was not life” really need not be all that mysterious. One merely has to forego Kathryn Shultz’s end-of-history, capitalist-realist assumption that every asceticism is an unwarranted fanaticism because in our present neoliberal capitalist reality, we are already living in the best of all possible worlds.
To Learn What Life has to Teach
When I was in philosophy graduate school, we didn’t read Thoreau’s Walden, except perhaps On Civil Disobedience in applied ethics. American philosophy was the pragmatists, including Charles Sanders Pierce, and maybe the Transcendentalists (i.e., Emerson). To the extent that we thought about “philosophy as a way of life” it came up in ancient ethics, and via Foucault, as a bridge to the writing of Pierre Hadot.
We pondered Heidegger’s negative-theological pieties on the meaning of “dwelling” but didn’t give any thought at all to what Thoreau had to say about shelter. Like Kathryn Shultz, I didn’t think Thoreau’s ‘house building and bean planting and whatnot’ had anything to teach me about what life has to teach me.
For those who have not read it, the opening section of Walden, called “Economics,” is a heartfelt reflection on labor and work, and is permeated with a kind of a bitter soul-sickness that gives the book its overall propulsion. Watching the spectacle of his fellows in their barns, and at their plows, Thoreau asks himself, “why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? The laboring man, he says, has no time for anything but to be a machine.
Thoreau’s reflections on the condition of the townsmen of Concord are also strikingly contemporary: “always trying to get into business, and trying to get out of debt…always promising to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent…making yourself sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day…the slave driver of yourself.” Reflecting on his neighbors, he says he finds that “they have been toiling, twenty, thirty, or forty years that they may become the real owners of their farms.” Since for him the cost of a thing is “the amount of “what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” it is clear that Thoreau thinks that this is too high a price to pay for a dwelling.
From here, the narrative mood shifts; when we consider what is the chief end of man, and what are the necessities of life, he writes, “it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode because they had preferred it to any other…but it is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.”
There is a world of mere appearances, Thoreau wants us to understand, and human life is in a disordered state (Socratic/Cynical). What kind of proof would alleviate this additional skeptical stance? Thoreau answers, “Here is life, a great experiment, untried by me…we might try our lives by a thousand simple tests.”
He proposes to examine first the necessities of life, how they are obtained, and what attitude toward them one ought to take (he considers food, shelter, clothing, fuel). Then the discussion turns to consideration of luxuries and comforts, and to voluntary poverty and austerity. The general thrust is captured when he writes, “when he obtains those things which are necessary…there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is to adventure on life now.”
It’s also important to point out, given what Kathryn Shultz has said, that Thoreau is very direct and clear about for whom Walden is written. “I don’t mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures who will mind their own affairs, whether in heaven or in hell, he says. Nor is he addressing “those who find encouragement in precisely the present condition of things…I do not speak to those who are well-employed…but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot, or of the times.” Finally, in case there is still the temptation to see him as a do-gooder, looking down his nose, he writes, “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.”
One last rejoinder on the question of “withdrawal from society.” Initially, Thoreau says, he goes off to live at the pond just to cut expenses while he figured out how to start a small business. But while Walden might have been a “LinkedIn article” about how to be an effective small businessperson, it isn’t. His sojourn turns instead into a kind of a laboratory for an experiment in living, and for what Jenny Odell has called “refusing in place.” Like Descartes, sitting in his oven to stay warm, and contemplating the wax, Thoreau creates a spectacle of himself bracketing prior experience and arguing from first principles.
Perhaps you think that this sort of epoché is either something wholly antiquated, belonging to the distant past, or merely a form of adolescent activity. That is all well and good. But tell it to the tiny house movement; tell it to the millions of people trying to find paths to wellness and recovery from work-related stress; tell it to the people who decide to Marie Kondo their lives.
From Walden Pond to Zuccotti Park
Just prior to the story of the history of refusal in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, there is a chapter called “The Impossibility of Retreat.” Faced with the need for digital detox, she writes, “we might conclude that the answer is to turn our back on the world, temporarily, or for good.” Here too, she tries to make the case for a third way, something other than either ‘temporary life hacks designed for increasing productivity once back at work’, or ‘saying goodbye permanently, and neglecting our responsibility to the world’.
Odell is skeptical of dreams of permanent retreat from society. She thinks that fully utopian attempts to begin with a “blank slate” as were attempted with some Sixties communes, “lead to a technocratic solution where design has replaced politics, presaging the libertarianism of Silicon Valley tech moguls.”
Relying on Robert Houriet’s Getting Back Together, Odell points out that there was a sort of a “second stage” to the communal experiments; facing “unfinished geodesic domes, crops gone wrong, and arguments over how to raise children,” the naive optimism gave way in some places to a “more rigid and less idealistic approach” epitomized by B.F. Skinner’s novel Walden Two.
For B.F. Skinner, she says, utopian experimentation takes a scientific turn. Odell writes, “in the void left by politics, the emphasis in Walden Two lies on the aesthetic (better design, more efficient, etc.).” Skinner addressed problems like exhaustion of resources, pollution, over-population, and nuclear threat, she says, “but he fails to mention the Viet Nam War, or struggles over racial equality.”
Since the question for Skinner was not how power could be redistributed, or injustice redressed, but how technical problems might be solved, Odell sees a direct line between Skinner and Peter Thiel, for whom the future requires a total escape from politics; democracy and freedom are incompatible, and the task is to build a machinery of freedom that ultimately makes the world safe for capitalism.
By contrast, Odell invokes the possibility of what she calls “collective refusals,” in which individuals align with each other to form flexible structures that can hold open the space of refusal. Here again, a third space, “not of retreat or withdrawal–but of refusal, boycott, and even sabotage,” she says, like a “crowd of Thoreau’s, refusing in tandem,” in a spectacle of noncompliance.
It remains to say a few words about how it is that Mark Greif, also “gets it.” To begin with, where Odell describes some high points in the history of refusal, Greif writes instead of what he calls “the rise of eaudaimonic hedonism” in bourgeois European culture, starting sometime in the nineteenth century. Under this cultural shift, Greif says, the pursuit of happiness becomes the quest for experience. But since happiness is ambiguous, and pleasure evanescent, “you amass experiences,” and you inevitably learn that “they’re not enough, and never will be enough.”
Into the breach of this experience of nihilism (each and every moment is lost to time, and leaves a residue of perpetual loss) there arises various attempts to radicalize experience as some sort of a solution. Greif says that by the 1850s, there are actually two radical solutions offered: the aestheticism of Flaubert, where you must perceive the world as art, and make of your life a work of art, and the perfectionism of Thoreau, where you charge yourself with weighing and choosing, with changing yourself.
Greif acknowledges that Flaubert withdrew to Croisset, and Thoreau to Walden, in order to figure out “how to survive their time.” It’s possible, he adds, that these methods “make people appear to withdraw from the living. And it’s true, he admits, that Flaubert and Thoreau seemed hermited, by the standards of their friends.” But then he adds, similarly to Odell, “Against the obvious criticism of these solutions as solipsistic, the efforts to remake your inside world inevitably turns you outward.”
Greif also understands, along with Odell, that there are a number of reasons why Thoreau’s reflections converge on the building of a simple cabin in the woods, and why it is connected to Diogenes in his barrel; it’s not that everyone should consider withdrawing into an isolated natural setting — rather its about austerity, and the attempt to recover a certain kind of autonomy and conviviality. As Jenny Odell writes, “Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.”
The philosopher occupied a cabin, Greif writes in his concluding section, “because he wished to live outside all houses…Occupy Wall street occupied a park in the financial center of the United States, not because they wanted to sleep outdoors, but because its participants wanted to live in a democracy.” It’s important to remember, Greif writes, “that jail is the other notable site with which Thoreau is associated, after the cabin and the pond.”
Many Thoreaus, Refusing in Tandem
I’ve tried to dispel a number of different preconceptions that are likely to arise about the cultural space of refusal, as a condition for some sort of a politics of refusal (of work-as-we-know-it). But this under laboring (to steal a phrase from John Locke) is incomplete if I don’t address “privileged position” along with its close relatives, solipsism and romanticism/withdrawal.
After all, who, precisely, is really free to refuse the most general of working conditions?
It is certainly true, as Jenny Odell has written, that whatever refusal might mean, “some can more easily afford to refuse than others.” At the level of group ideology rather than individual action, however, there is a kind of tipping point with respect to immiseration that apparently brings things out into the open. This is because some people’s misery counts for more than others on the terrain of public discourse. Once the middle class and the professional classes join the ranks of the miserable, it starts to become possible to talk about the problem at the level of the system itself.
In Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government, as discussed in the previous article, the author’s major explanation for the gap between the (increasingly miserable) experience of work-as-we-know-it and the dominant neoliberal capitalist ideology is that, at least until recently, there was an aggregate class of people who “do not find the situation so bad.” She includes in this professors and students, the self-employed, and the many in the professional classes who have thought themselves exempt from the most onerous aspects of their employment contracts’ range of discretion.
If it is true, as Jenny Odell also writes, that refusal requires a degree of latitude, “a margin enjoyed at the level of the individual,” it is also true, she says, appearing to agree with Anderson, that this margin “has been shrinking for a long time now.” And once “there is a growing perception that neoliberal capitalism is irrevocably bereft of future promise,” as Peter Fleming writes, and that neo-rentier finance capital “must increasingly gain sustenance from the living communities and rich sociality of the 99 percent,” then the extent and texture of collective misery opens up at least the possibility of collective action.
If the dominant ideology cannot manage, per Lincoln, to “fool all of the people all of the time,” then the question becomes, following Fleming, “Can the impossibility at the heart of contemporary capitalism be politically activated to oppose and escape work?”
I believe that the answer to this question is that it can. But I believe that the emergence of an action potential in this regard has to start with a generational culture change that opens up the space of refusal as a meaningful proposition. I realize that I have cited evidence only from within a very educated, literary domain. But in the darkest times, ideas have a way of jumping over the fire break. It may turn out to be the case that this distinctly changed cultural mood is already busy discovering itself.