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Let's Work!

photo: authors' archive
photo: authors' archive
Opus (2022–2023)
Authors: Teja Reba, Špela Trošt, Tomaž Grom, Loup Abramovici

Now and then we need to hold up a mirror and admit how impotent art is.

Work that wants to be invisible.

The only time I’m not working is when I'm lying on the beach.
When they tell you you’ve served your time.

The body as a tool of collective work.

So what if it's Ferragosto? We’re working!

Is a concert for a donkey really a concert?

The death factories almost mystically announced: Arbeit macht frei; and the walls of Paris carried the revolutionary message: Ne travaillez jamais (Debord, 1953). Etymologically, the word work has origins in different languages. We can trace it back to the Latin tripalium, which suggests torture, and to the Greek ergon, which allude to care for the other. Might we say that work is a relationship between two concepts – torture and care?

The concept of work has been approached from different perspectives throughout history: from slavery to feudal relations, from Marxist analyses to the capitalist idea of constant progress, from feminist demands for the valuation of caring and invisible labor to the contemporary theory of growing up that places production in the context of ecological crisis. Of course, we cannot ignore the five-hundred-year-old Protestant tradition that sanctifies and glorifies work (Weber, 1905), where the performance of work and how to become better and more efficient is understood as a sign of morality and ethics. In classical times, work was despised by the aristocracy, but philosophers such as John Locke developed a puritanical notion of virtue through suffering that justified working class labor as something noble. Centuries later, flow theory (i.e. a state of real engagement at work) articulated the key to happiness and success at work as a constant balance between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for human skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). Today there are corporations that employ happiness managers and introduce exercises to encourage flow work. Love what you do. Be fanatical in your work. Be committed to work because work is a source of personal satisfaction and happiness. But we know that the experience of flow is rare because it is a theory that primarily addresses highly specialized expertise. The psychology of experts has been studied in many fields: among chess players, surgeons, musicians, ballet dancers, athletes (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer, 1993; Chase and Simon, 1973). It was found that what these experts have in common is that they are actively engaged in an extremely defined and narrow field and receive frequent feedback of a high quality which is not typical in most workplaces. So how is it that a particularistic theory of flow at work has become a general theory of happiness at work? If flow is related to expertise, and if expertise is not (or only weakly) related to happiness, why would flow be related to happiness? Perhaps one way to understand flow in terms of happiness is to place it in the tradition of the Stoics, who believed that happiness is found in active engagement with the world. (Amor fati: Treating each and every moment – no matter how challenging – as something to be embraced, not avoided.) Nietzsche and Russell also had similar ideas, except that flow in their work flirts with the fanatical and obsessive.

When we think about happiness and satisfaction at work, we also encounter questions of meaning and utility. Most people genuinely want to believe that they are contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and even become sick and unhappy if they are denied this meaning. In our society, useful work is often not respected and is poorly paid, despite the fact it is often done in the context of jobs with difficult working conditions. In contrast, a substantial number of meaningless jobs are very well-paid. David Graeber speaks of these useless jobs as jobs for their own sake –  “dead-end jobs” – that benefit no one. Even the people who do them, he argues, know that it would make no difference if they stopped working tomorrow (Graeber, 2018). Some important economic thinkers, such as John Keynes, predicted that technology would advance to the point where we would reach a fifteen-hour working week by the end of the twentieth century. But, instead of a shorter working hours, today we multiply the amount of meaningless work with the assumption that more jobs are better regardless of what they entail. In recent years, we have seen not only new forms of work that blur the established relationship between work and leisure, human labor directed and checked by algorithms, inhumane working conditions of an almost post-colonial nature, but, not surprisingly, the increase of burnout in the workplace, depressive illnesses, and the reluctance to work at all.
Perhaps it is time to rethink on the global level how much work we actually have to do and how many essential tasks technology can perform for us. To work less would mostly be a matter of adapting the ingrained, historically-conditioned valuation of work. This adaptation, in addition to reflecting concern for a decent life for all, would also include the recognition of values that today do not fall under what we consider “work” but which nevertheless make a fundamental contribution to the development of society.

Authors: Loup Abramovici, Tomaž Grom, Teja Reba, Špela Trošt
Production: Teja Reba
Coproduction: Zavod Sploh
Partners: Bunker Institute - SMEEL, Associazione Culturale YANVII, Moderna galerija, Španski borci
Financial support: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia

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