Not Working by Josh Cohen review – The madness of work
Our culture is driving us to exhaustion, even despair, by forcing us to be always on
Regular work can be the home of delusion and madness, tedium and loss. Photograph: Getty Images
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop
In Not Working, Josh Cohen argues that we are in the middle of a crisis of work that is spilling out into wider life.
Our culture is driving us to exhaustion, even despair, by forcing us to be always on. We have become “working beings”: all day, every day. This is not only the work of labour but the work of consumption, and latterly and increasingly, the work of performing the self – a thin, fragile, transient, endlessly renegotiated surface of self – through professions of opinion on social media, through “curating” and “sharing” life experiences.
Cohen writes: “In conceiving of ourselves so narrowly as creatures of action and purpose, in insisting we put all our time to work, we are declaring war on an essential dimension of ourselves, depriving ourselves of what the British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott calls ‘the simplest of all experiences, the experience of being.’ ”
Cohen makes a convincing case that human contentment is only possible if we value equally work and non-work and make space for simply being
Cohen explores a typology of four alternatives to work: the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer and the slacker. Through often fascinating readings of literature, reflections on his own experience and case studies drawn from his psychoanalytic practice, he explores the consequences of overwork and the separation of being from doing. He discovers that while the most productive people seem like models of agency and energy, they are often, in fact, creatures of passivity, stuckness and inertia.
Drawing on Freud’s theory of the pleasure and the reality principles, Cohen sharply distinguishes the inner life of unlimited possibility from the quotidian world of shaping and making. Practical people are required to distinguish the real from the unreal, but without access to the internal world of limitless fantasy, free from the pursuit of concrete purpose, our external life loses its quality of aliveness and can wither into a miserable state of habit and inertia. Cohen seems to take external human realties – power, wealth, social position – as givens, as rigid objects that we must negotiate, and, of course, they are this, but they are also human things that have been made over time out of imagination, conflict and negotiation.
In his short but intriguing discussion of Don Quixote, Cohen recognises that the “supposedly sane gentlemen, cads and distressed damsels that Quixote encounters on his travels are no less compulsively enmeshed than him in imaginary worlds. The difference is … that they’re able to harmonize their illusions with reality, while Quixote’s delusions are on a perpetual collision course with it.” In the real world, however, there is overwhelming evidence that realities can proceed from illusions, and that fantasy, if empowered with sufficient force of economic and military firepower, can remake the world in its own image. It is a weakness of Cohen’s psychoanalytic approach that he does not place his argument about work in this wider political and historical context.
In one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, Cohen reads Emily Dickinson as an exemplar of the daydreamer. He describes the singular process of renunciation and intense noticing through which Dickinson became, in her words, “A soul admitted to itself”. The common notion of daydreaming, with its senses of disconnection and inattention, does not seem to fit with this nuanced account, and this is not the only passage in which there is a tension between the reductions of theory and the expansiveness of Cohen’s insight.
Delusion and madness
Cohen contrasts the artist’s insubstantial, head-in-the-clouds imaginative life with the hard-edged, functional, action-oriented world of non-creative work. But all kinds of work have their own imaginaries: cultures of purpose and meaning. Work is not always, or perhaps even often, a place of reason and clarity. Most of us have had the experience of working for a business whose inner workings are anything but completely rooted in the real – you don’t have to be mad to work here, as the coffee mug slogan goes. Art can be a centre of truth and clear-sightedness, equability and aliveness; and regular work the home of delusion and madness, tedium and loss.
Cohen’s typology of the non-working is not convincing in a rigorous sense, and probably is not meant to be, but is a compassionate and thought-provoking way of thinking about what work is and might be. The book defends psychoanalysis as a practice that values “a state of undirected alertness, a curiosity and openness unconstrained by prejudices and expectations”, and as an antidote to our culture’s busy overdirectedness. But he fails to address the fact, borne out by the occupations of the clients described in his case studies, that very few people can afford either the money or the time that analysis demands.
In Not Working Cohen makes a convincing case that human contentment is only possible if we value equally work and non-work and make space for simply being.