MA Dissertation, 2019 (Excerpt)
Royal College of Art, London UK

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NOTIONS OF NOTHING: TRANSCENDING LANGUAGE THROUGH INERTIA

There are proven correlations between the rise of poor mental health conditions and the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in the west. ”'The mental health plague' in capitalist societies suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”.1 In the 10th revision of International Classification of Diseases, the burn-out condition was recognized as an occupational phenomenon2, defined as a ”syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”3 The main attributes are exhaustion, dissatisfaction with work, and reduced productivity. As categories for emotional distress are rarely the same across different cultures, mental health conditions are to some degree based on social norms.4 Regarding burn-out as a health-related syndrome, thus illuminates contemporary ideas on labour. If work were generally considered inherently exhausting, we'd consider work exhaustion as a natural response to an exhausting environment. But if a resentment for work is medically recognized as an abnormality, this means that satisfaction as an outcome from work is regarded as the norm. This neutralizes the notion of humans as essentially productive agents, in which labour has become the logos, the purpose, of our being.

The development of the affective engagement in labour emerged as a central feature of the Christian Reformation. The Protestant branches that sprung from the 1500s saw changed attitudes towards work, as it became a meaningful end in itself. Martin Luther repurposed work into a calling and a devotional practice. It differs from pre-capitalist ideas of labour, where work was a morally neutral means to attain certain necessities for survival.1 The Calvinist belief in





predestination made subservience to work indicative of the virtue of the soul2, and the Puritan's 'worldly asceticism' aspired to generate material evidence to prove their inauguration amongst the heavenly elect.3 Along with the increasing secularisation of western societies, the work ethic departed from its religious origins. Instead, it sustained itself as an independent ideology, encompassing the productive forces in society. As the advent of Capitalism treaded in the tracks of the developing work ethic, we find a theoretical angle that illuminates how they could have mutually benefitted one another. According to the Marxist tradition, the 'state apparatus' is a repressive machine that works in the interest of the ruling classes. The two levels of the state are made up of the Superstructure (ideology), which is dependent on the Infrastructure (the productive forces). For the Superstructure to sustain itself, it is forced to reproduce the social conditions of the Infrastructure.4 These relations are secured via the creation, or interpellation, of individuals as subjects, where state structures are internalized to function independently within the ‘free’ agent of the individual, and allows for ideology to operate invisibly. This interpellation occurs when individuals participate in the institutions required to become part of the productive forces, such as the educational system. As we shall see, the capitalist Infrastructure provided the necessary foundation to support the Superstructure of the work ethic, whereas the work ethic ideologically reproduced subjects that enabled the rapid development of capitalism.5

In 1913, Henry Ford introduced the automated car-assembly line that allowed for mass employment of unskilled workers. Since the monetary surplus that stimulates the means of production can only be ensured as long as industrial goods are actually consumed, the development of the consuming subject was required to sustain a meaningful motive for expanded production output. Wages as a means of sustenance tied individuals to the productive forces and offered them the funds to consume. Therefore Fordism forged a new relationship to





consumption as an essential economic practice.6 Work became a domain where labourers could access the means to satisfy material needs and fulfil their roles as consuming subjects. This unprecedented material and spiritual independency created self-reliance divorced from religious institutions and allowed the disruption of social communities. As workers became responsible for the social reproduction of consumerism, they forged a new dependency on waged labour. What the vast project of Fordism and Frederick Taylor's scientific management then managed to produce, was the 'engineering [of] profitable modes of individuality'.7

As the post-industrial era of abstracted labour enabled the growth of managerial, sales and service sectors in the West,8 the productive forces became more difficult to control. Other forms of management had to be invented to maximise productivity. The internalization of the willingness to work established an advanced form of standardisation, and required individuals to engage more passionately in work than they would throughout the industrial period. This commitment does not only ask for obedience, but for an emotional dedication to work. A worker is no longer rewarded for disciplinary behaviour alone, but for social skills, adaptability and enthusiasm, to the degree where the value of attitude can exceed the value of competence.9 A 'profession' has historically included a narrow selection of vocations that demands specialized knowledge of some sort. However, this growing feature of 'professionality' seems to address mastery of personality rather than expertise. Professionalization is a disciplinary mechanism that applies onto 'style, affect and attitude.'10 It is not mere incompetence that threatens employment, but rather a failure to live up to behavioural protocol.11 David Graeber suggests that modern white-collar workers do not produce more than 4 hours of productive labour per day. But instead of clocking out, they lend their unproductive hours to the art of skiving, performing work tasks while actually





just making time pass.12 This emphasizes that demonstration of professionality, form, might be more important than skills, content. As Weber notes, 'The surrogate of mere appearance is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view13.'

Professionalisation entails a personification with the trade, eroding the boundaries between work and everyday life. Since devotion is naturally more difficult to measure than material results, ploys like elongating working hours can be applied merely to measure the commitment of a worker. The introduction of digital technologies, smartphones and social media has even further intermingled leisure and work. People are becoming increasingly accessible via email, every hour of the day. The distraction of phone calls, text messages and push notifications, along with the oversaturation of information distributed by online media, can compromise the ability to allocate attention to more demanding tasks. James Williams considers the attention provided to these distractions as a form of labour, draining a finite cerebral resource that could have been spent on something else. Attention is the capacity that guides both individual and collective goals. Achieving goals in the long term are dependent on limits and regulatory practices, as we denounce our desires and submit to certain constraints so that other ends might become achievable.14 Many external boundaries historically placed on the individual by the Church, was reduced along with mass-secularisation throughout the 20th century. The rejection of these philosophical narratives demanded the individual to create their own guiding narrative, and bring their own boundaries to places it previously didn’t have to. In the attention economy, the increasing demands of self-regulatory practices are not something that everyone can afford, considering the many compromises and trade-offs people who live in poverty are forced to complete daily.15 Eventually, 'our faculty of desire, like a damaged internal organ, burns out, shuts down and begs to be spared the





crippling anxiety of choosing.'16 Mark Fisher claimed that we have done away with the sense of 'realism' that we used to experience as solid and immoveable. 'Capitalist Realism entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment.'17 We're faced with a situation in which different truths are produced, re-constructed and recalled at any time. We must then compromise our critical capacity, to keep our sanity in check. The only way to survive in a society that is anything else than stable, is to normalize the oversaturation of information and violent turnover of events. It becomes necessary to daze the entire repertoire of conceivable emotions just to get through the day.18

Leisure is often confused with 'entertainment', but is more accurately depicted as 'unstructured thought', necessary in the process of formulating meaning and values. It is imperative to children, culture, collective identities and 'the thoughtful invention of societal institutions'.19 Leisure lies very close to the ability to reflect. According to American philosopher Christine Korsgaard, reflection is imperative aiming our attention to our own thinking and questioning our values, ambitions and beliefs.20 The neurasthenic landscape that subjects are impelled to under the neoliberal mode of production, is severely challenging these skills.21 Jeapordising mental capacities such as prediction, memory and reasoning, has the potential to dislocate our abilities for knowing what's likely to be true and to make deliberate decisions. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” If the attention economy aids the intrusion of work into leisure time, and produce potentially epistemic consequences that compromises the human will, it could therefore pose a threat to the cornerstones of democracy.22 In the words of Hannah Arendt, 'No doubt, it is obvious and of great consequence that this passion for freedom for its own sake awoke in and was nourished by men of leisure, by the hommes de lettres





who had no masters and were not always busy making a living. (...) Needless to add, where men live in truly miserable conditions this passion for freedom is unknown.' Throughout the course of Maria Eichhorn's exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2016, '5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours', the entire gallery staff was given 5 weeks off fully paid, leaving the gallery vacant. Following a one-day introductory labour-themed symposium, only a sign placed on the gallery entrance indicated that the performance was taking place at all. The funds that made the paid leave possible was raised ahead of the closure and throughout the symposium. The sole act of being is proposed as an alternative definition of value, opposite to the act of doing, making or possessing. The work of art is life itself, an anarchic denial of the 'tyranny of labour' imposed upon the individual. Achieving a healthier and less hectic work-life balance has along with other trends in holistic medicine gained popularity throughout the past few years.23 Eastern philosophy, mindfulness, yoga and meditation, has been diffused into corporate workplaces and proliferated via books and ted-talks. But instead of looking at inertia as inherently valuable, these movements are looking to transform passivity into more productivity. Josh Cohen notes, 'the argument for slowness is liable to get pulled between a fundamental challenge to the status quo and cosmic amelioration of it.'24 Inertia is employed as a method to cope with stress and increase efficiency, and cements the conception of humans as inherently instrumental and task-driven. It recognizes that the passive facet present in all individuals needs to be cultivated and submitted to standards of productivity. Although a yoga-session might act as a remedy against stress and as a method to increase work performance, passivity becomes a means to optimize human capital. It does not challenge the nature of the work ethic, it rather becomes a means to support it. To create a forum for post-work visionaries, and re-structure the capitalist organization of labour, something entirely different is needed.





Via an 'affective investment in the symbolic order'25, subjects tend to identify their needs and wants with that of the market. A multitude of subjects can only exist insofar as there is an absolute Subject, that lives in the centre of the Superstructure. In Christianity, this is God, as God creates the human in his own image. Individual subjects are reflections of the central Subject, and can recognize themselves within the Subject and the Subject within themselves.26 It represents the symbolic fabric, the collective imagination. For this imagination to stay intact, it has to ignore contradictions that threaten to dismantle it. If however these contradictions are actively recognized, the social fabric disintegrates.27 In the 3-month performance piece 'The Trainee', Finnish artist Pilvi Takala enacts a marketing intern at a business advisory firm. During the traineeship she engages in long states of idleness, staring into the open-plan space in front of her desk, or riding up and down the elevator for hours. Without masking her passivity with Facebooking or social media browsing, she turns into 'an object of avoidance and speculation'. The situation becomes unbearable for her colleagues, a testament of Takala's criminal act. In her nondoing, she demonstrates a threat against the social contract of the work ethic, to which the appearance of productivity must always prevail.28 She disidentifies with the central Subject that demands her personification with work, and exhibits the potential for other forms of commitments.

In his essay 'The Subject of the Crisis: Complicity, Depression, Disidentification', Georgios Papadopoulos explains that when an economic crisis occurs, the affective investment in the economy causes subjects to react in a specific number of ways. It either blames itself, the social environment, or other subjects. This either leads to depression, disengagement or over-identification.29 The fact that depression is the overall most common reaction, where subjects blame themselves rather than external circumstances, exhibits





how rooted capitalism is within the emotive landscape of individuals in the west. But as 'crisis disrupts the affective link between the economy and the subject'30, a work-induced crisis could hypothetically lead to a disidentification with the central Subject of affective investment. 'Bartleby, The Scrivener', tells a story of a newly employed young man at a Wall Street law firm. The clerk in the 1853 Melville tale executes his duties in a pale and industrious manner. But being asked to examine a paper after some time passing, Bartleby monotonously replies 'I would prefer not to.' Bartleby doesn't violently protest the overall business at the New York office, he simply stops working. This manifestation initiates a process in which Bartleby permanently terminates all productive activity. Without leaving the premises he becomes a static installation that disrupts the seamless proceedings taking place around him, causing an insufferable impact on his coworkers that eventually has the entire enterprise removed from the building. The silent withdrawal from work bears the most devastating consequences, as he 'collapses the foundations of his world as ruthlessly as Samson dislodges the pillars of the temple.'31 The medieval word 'acedia' derives from the Greek term for indifference or apathy. It drained spiritual belief from the productive forces of faith, and thus posed a fundamental threat to the authority of religious institutions. As the burnout disengages from the productive capacities essential for labour, 'the burnout's malaise is fundamentally a spiritual one, a draining of his faith in a meaningful universe.'32 It peels the world of a spiritual presence. To 'prefer not to' is to defy the binary system of semiotic production, and has Bartleby transcend the logic structure of language itself. The muteness of this protest is what makes it so effective. The subject is 'accompanied by a symbolic death', that makes it unrecognizable by the shared rules of communication.33 It is unable to define the meaning of its actions, providing an 'invisible' resistance to the control of the market.





The challenge the burn-out condition pose against the work ethic, therefore bears the potential to expose the labour virtue as a myth, and subvert work as a meaningful end in itself. Burning out can become an initiation to new insights, a vehicle departing from the centre of the work ethic, a process leading to a critical review of the founding pillars that supports the Infrastructure of capitalism.





1 Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. pp. 19
2 Olivia Petter, 'Burn-Out' Recognized as Chronic Condition by World Health Organization' https://www.independent.co.uk/lifestyle/burnout-world-health-organisation-medical-condition-chronic-stress-a8932806.html
3 https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/129180281
4 Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D. & Read, J. The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the identification of patterns in emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour, as an alternative to functional psychiatric diagnosis. (Leicester: British Psychological Society, 2018) pp. 6
5 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1956) pp. 63
6 Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic, Uploaded by BBC Radio 4 (30 Mars 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-0sIHDzsU4
7 Sascha O. Becker, Steven Pfaff, Jared Rubin, 'Causes and Consequences of the Protestant Reformation ' Explorations in Economic History (31 December 2015) pp.6
8 Althusser, Louis. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation' in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (NYU Press: 2001 pp. 85-126)
9 Paul Kinasevych, 'The Work Ethic Myth as Bourgeoisie Ideology: A Structural Marxist Critique of Weber’s Methodology' (November)
10 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers,1989) pp. 125
11 Ibid. pp. 58
12 David Graeber, 'On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant.' Strike! (#3, August 2013)





13 Weeks, Kathy. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2011) pp. 70
14 Ibid. pp. 73
15 Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2018) pp. 103
16 Ibid. pp. 101
17 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1956) pp. 53
18 Williams, James. Stand out of our light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.(Cambridge University Press, 2018) p. 21
19 Ibid. pp. 22
20 Cohen, Josh. Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (London: Granta Books, 2018) pp. 10
21 Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (John Hunt Publishing, 2009)
22 Anne Helen Petersen, 'How Millenials Became The Burnout Generation https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work
23 Williams, James. Stand out of our light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.(Cambridge University Press, 2018)p. 70
25 Ibid. pp. 68
26 Williams, James. Stand out of our light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.(Cambridge University Press, 2018)p. 47
27 https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/aternative-medicine-therapies-market (accessed 29 June 2019)
28 Cohen, Josh. Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (London: Granta Books, 2018)





29 Papadopoulos, Georgios. 'The Subject of the Crisis: Complicity, Depression, Disidentification' in Disrupting Business: Art & Activism in Times of Financial Crisis, edited by Tatiana Bazzichelli & Geoff Cox. (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2013) pp. 76
30 Althusser, Louis. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation' in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (NYU Press: 2001 pp. 85-126)
31 Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (John Hunt Publishing, 2009) pp. 45