I don’t want to write this. I have put off doing it. I like this book very much but writing about it is… work. And sometimes I don’t want to work.
Before you say “writing is a privilege and it’s not like working in a coal mine”, all I can say is: yes, I know. I have spent enough of my life doing meaningless jobs to know this is a meaningful one. Or is it? It’s still work. It’s what I do. It pays the bills, but it’s not who I am. Or is it?
My favourite quote about writing is from Thomas Mann, because its sums up my own ridiculousness: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
I don’t know how difficult it is for Josh Cohen, who is an engaging, multitasking cultural theorist, even though he claims to be a bit of a daydreamer in this book about not working. He is also a psychoanalyst and a professor of modern literary theory, which, I have to say, all seems a lot of work to me. For this is a book about our secret desires and our secret desires involve, for many of us, doing nothing. Mine is not secret. I make a lot of effort trying to achieve it. Which is exhausting.
In his consulting room, Cohen sees many clients who are also stressed out by work. Some appear to be achieving a lot in their professional lives, but feel half dead. They feel they need to keep going, but really all they want is to dissolve somehow. To stop. This huge weariness is now everywhere.
The culture of work is making us ill. Sleep disorder, depression, anxiety, RSI, burn-out. The strivers suffer and must scorn the shirkers – that, after all, was the official Tory policy to divide us and to justify austerity. As psychoanalysis informs us, we pour scorn on that which we most desire – and what we most desire may be inertia.
These new disorders of eating and sleeping and attention deficit and the itchiness of permanent distraction may feel contemporary, but there have been periods in history of chronic enervation or withdrawal. Now, of course, the work ethic is tied to Protestantism, which has been further ramped up by neoliberalism, creating ever higher levels of anxiety. A jobseeker must also chronicle her efforts to find work.
In Japan in the early 1990s, Saito Tamaki came across so many young people who had chronically withdrawn, retreating from the outside world and living in their bedrooms, that he wrote a book about it calling them the hikikomori. These young people were not simply depressed, but irritated and impatient about their own refusal to participate. Their seeking of freedom from the system meant they could not be in the world at all. Cohen sees this as the collateral damage of our “culture of permanent distraction and activity”.
Drawing on Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Cohen reminds us that Freud both saw work as important and acknowledged that it is human to have an aversion to it. Brilliantly, he connects the Freudian insight about our desire for “non-desire” – how we battle within ourselves for a radical detachment from passion and feeling – to Buddhist thought. The instruction to “be”, rather than “do”, can lead to a lot more work. Go to another mindfulness class. Wake up early to meditate. Oscar Wilde said it was much more difficult just to be, and his own life can be understood as resistance to Enlightenment values that associate lack of activity with moral laxity.
So it is to art that Cohen turns, to explain another way of being in a world where creativity turns nothing into something. Apathy, lethargy and indifference is Cohen’s subject matter, and he writes about slobs, slackers and daydreamers. Tracey Emin’s genius was not to tidy up the detritus of a life falling apart – My Bed – but to preserve it. Andy Warhol, fearful and fascinated by death and sex and bodies, wants to feel nothing, to be a machine. He wants to cancel himself out but cannot sleep alone. His aesthetic of indifference is brilliantly described.
The slobs we most admire are Homer Simpson and Jeff Lebowski (of The Big Lebowski) because they are what we wish we were. In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer, who can’t be bothered to take out the garbage, stands for election as Springfield’s sanitation commissioner. He wins over town hall meetings with his slogan: “Can’t someone else do it?”
How satirical is this, one may now wonder? Cohen is attuned to all the ways we may avoid ourselves. The poet Emily Dickinson lived in a heightened state of emotion by avoiding almost all relationships. David Foster Wallace was “a noticing machine” who could no longer cope with all the noticing.
At the root of all this, though, are more mundane questions about how our lives might be meaningful if our self-esteem does not come from work. For most people that is already the case, and all those fun theories about what happens when automation comes along or universal basic incomes are introduced could well do with understanding that any economic or social theory that does not consider what work means to us is superficial. What happens if we don’t produce? How do we produce ourselves? What does such a world even look like?
Some work, I would suggest, is unavoidable, however much of a slacker one is. Childcare, for instance, which may feel as devoid of meaning as any other other kind of work. That is strangely missing here.
Cohen, though, is fantastically good at making us question our hard-won strategies of avoidance and resistance to stopping. So many people complain when they go to a therapist that nothing happens. Indeed, the psychoanalytic space is one of the few places where nothing is allowed to happen. Or everything.
All of us are surely caught in this tension between doing too much and doing too little. Which of us has a healthy relation-ship to work? No one I know. And certainly not me. I would like to go for a lie down now, until another deadline comes looming into view. The thing that I dread is the very thing that I do.
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop
Granta, 304pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail