Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Emil Cioran's Criticism of Work (stage setting)

Is work intrinsically bad? Are certain jobs dehumanizing? What type of work are we supposed to do if we are to stay true to ourselves and our human nature?  

In the section "Degradation Through Work" (reproduced below) of his book On the Heights of Despair, Romanian existentialist philosopher Emil Cioran makes the point that work is essentially degrading because it engages man in the external reality and trumps the spiritual impulses pertaining to his genuine interiority. 

In the following I take some preliminary steps toward placing Cioran's remarks in the broader context of philosophical thinking about work, human nature and society.

Picture by Lewis Hine
Karl Marx famously argued that the capitalist economic system leads to alienated or estranged labor. The worker losses his humanity and becomes increasingly contaminated by the mechanical or bureaucratic features of the production system he is part of. To illustrate, consider a Filipino worker preparing sandwiches in her sleep, her eyes moving frantically under her eyelids, her lips repeating the menu. Or the Chinese workers manufacturing shoes for Nike while weighing the pros and cons of suicide. (For those who enjoy horror fiction, I recommend reading Marx's description of alienated labor. It's more terrifying than most zombie novels out there! In fact, most horror fiction nowadays is horrific in precisely this sense: it exemplifies the zombification of the artist's imagination in a capitalist economy.) Following Aristotle and Hegel, Marx conceives of man as a social and rational animal who is naturally inclined toward participating in communal, coordinated work in support of the public good. However, Marx argues, the capitalist system distorts that natural tendency and turns man himself into a commodity. 

In contrast to Marx, Emil Cioran's criticism of work is much broader. Cioran rejects the thesis that man is a rational animal and considers man essentially as a spiritual being, an insomniac animal capable of understanding and reflecting in his consciousness the deep mystery of the world, the inner tensions and contradictions of the universe. Man is capable of transcending time into eternity and transfiguring himself into God be it a dead God, an undead God, or a bored God tired of its own lucidity and prone to bouts of sadomasochism. Since work, on Cioran's view, signifies an engagement with external reality as opposed to a spiritual exercise, it follows that work leads to the repression of man's essential nature. But, as opposed to Marx, this is true for both capitalism and communism and each and every social and economic system which doesn't appreciate man's spiritual destiny. 

But, someone might object, not all work is concerned with the external world. For instance, writing a novel is work, but it also has the spiritual aspect Cioran talks about. I think there is something to this objection and the scope of Cioran's criticism must be clarified. We need to distinguish between different types of work, the complex ways they are connected to the external world, and what kind of objects they produce. However, in Cioran's defense, it's important to emphasize that the commercialization of fiction and art in general turns interiority itself into a commodity. So, then, in a deep sense, interiority itself becomes external. Based on this insight, it's interesting and worthwhile to work out clearly the way contemporary western culture distorts the notion of soul or inner-self. I think one important criterion to be used in discerning authentic interiority is the artist's own expression of the intention animating their work. For instance, a horror writer might say that he just wants to scare people. In his case, his interiority is filtered through an external grid. A different artist might say that his work is a record of his conversations with God. Or, someone might use art as a way of working through obsessions which haunt them. In this latter cases, interiority appears to be genuine, uncorrupted by the external world. Of course, there is always the problem of self-deception; artists who aim for commercial success but immediately repress this desire into the tunnels of their unconscious. 

This issue aside, a different objection to Cioran is that a society in which everyone is focused on their spiritual life will lead to self-destruction because no one will actually do anything. Who will then produce food, build houses or make cars? After all, man needs to adapt to the world if he is to survive. Given his megalomanic nihilism, Cioran will probably observe humanity's self-destruction with delight and even admiration for its romantic heroism. But, for those of us concerned about the future of our species this is an important objection. However, I think that especially in the western culture people are confused about their needs. And this confusion is a product of capitalism, which works best when it manipulates peoples' desires by creating false needs. We think we need a bunch of stuff in order to survive, but we don't. And the belief that acquiring a lot of stuff  leads to better lives is a product of capitalist indoctrination. 

Moreover, a focus on interiority may give rise to a renewed concern for the world, for our community values and traditions. This is one of the important points Heidegger makes in Being and Time and is further developed by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity. Simply put, an individual's spiritual development may naturally give rise to a concern in the spiritual development of others. So coordinated communal efforts which lead to meeting the community's members basic needs for food and shelter in order to create the conditions of possibility for their spiritual journeys, are not excluded by Cioran's ideas, but, on some interpretations, naturally flow from them. 

This being said, let's read carefully through young Cioran's short and striking remarks about work. As indicated, this section appears in his first book On the Heights of Despair, a book he published at the tender age of 22, when he was already an 'expert in the problem of death.'

Degradation Through Work

"Men generally work too much to be themselves. Work is a curse which man has turned into pleasure. To work for work’s sake, to enjoy a fruitless endeavor, to imagine that you can fulfill yourself through assiduous labor—all that is disgusting and incomprehensible. Permanent and uninterrupted work dulls, trivializes, and depersonalizes. Work displaces man’s center of interest from the subjective to the objective realm of things. In consequence, man no longer takes an interest in his own destiny but focuses on facts and things. What should be an activity of permanent transfiguration becomes a means of exteriorization, of abandoning one’s inner self. In the modern world, work signifies a purely external activity; man no longer makes himself through it, he makes things. That each of us must have a career, must enter upon a certain form of life which probably does not suit us, illustrates work’s tendency to dull the spirit. Instead of living for himself—not selfishly but growing spiritually—man has become the wretched, impotent slave of external reality.

Where have they all gone; ecstasy, vision, exaltation? Where is the supreme madness or the genuine pleasure of evil? The negative pleasure one finds in work partakes of the poverty and banality of daily life, its pettiness. Why not abandon this futile work and begin anew without repeating the same wasteful mistake? Is subjective consciousness of eternity not enough? It is the feeling for eternity that the frenetic activity and trepidation of work has destroyed in us. Work is the negation of eternity. The more goods we acquire in the temporal realm, the more intense our external work, the less accessible and farther removed is eternity. Hence the limited perspective of active and energetic people, the banality of their thought and actions. I am not contrasting work to either passive contemplation or vague dreaminess, but to an unrealizable transfiguration; nevertheless, I prefer an intelligent and observant laziness to intolerable, terrorizing activity. To awaken the modern world, one must praise laziness. The lazy man has an infinitely keener perception of metaphysical reality than the active one."

Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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