Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

By Andrew Taggart, Practical Philosopher, Ph.D.

Total Work Newsletter #25: Samu





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July 21 · Issue #25 · View online
Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World
Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.
Announcement: I’m just getting back from a weeklong sesshin. It was just amazing. Impossible to put into words. I write a bit about samu, or work practice, in the final short essay below. 

Against UBJ: Reader's Letter
In Issue #24, I briefly discussed how we framed the future of work in terms of Universal Basic Income and “the right to work.” One reader, Alex Hardy, elaborated on his disagreement with Universal Job Guarantees (or UBJ) in this following way.
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I’ve long taken issue [Alex writes] with the idea of UBJ, or Universal Job Guarantees. Not because of any political leanings, but because I don’t think they will actually solve the the core issue. In my view, these schema are a “cargo cult” solution for the deeper problem. Universal Basic Meaning.
One effect of Total Work is that many people now define their identity through their job. This gives them a budget (pun intended) version of “meaning” in their life.
However, once the market stops valuing the work of, say, a truck driver (due to autonomous cars) or a factory worker (due to Amazon’s robots), I suspect the “meaning” that folks would derive from performing such jobs would also disappear, even if they were allowed to keep them ceremoniously.
Indeed, there may be nothing so evil as forcing sometime to do a job they know is pointless. As Dostoyefsky says in his autobiography:
It once occurred to me that if one desired to reduce a man to nothing – crush him in such a manner that the most hardened murderer would tremble, all one would have to do would be to give him work of a completely useless character… Let him be constrained to pour water from one vessel into another, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another, and then immediately move it back again, then I am persuaded that at the end of a few days, the prisoner would hang himself or commit a thousand capital crimes, preferring rather to die than endure such humiliation, shame, and torture.
Basically, there is nothing magical about the physical act of driving a truck, moving factory inventory, or even writing code that confers meaning. The meaning derives from the fact that I believe it has value, or the market communicates that there is value.
Therefore, to simply compel people to ritualistically perform (definition of cargo cult) such tasks without conferring commensurate meaning is pointless if not morally wrong.
I view UBI and UBJ as almost synonymous here. As with UBI, Similar to UBJ, “income” isn’t the primary thing people will miss if they’re technologically unemployed; it’s meaning. And a handout from the government (or from Google) won’t fix that.
So, What Do You Do?
Peter Limberg
The proper way to respond to “so, what do you do?” is to give your interlocutor an existential crisis.
Click on the link above to read the comic strip. 
Debt, Convulsions, And #WTF Only Your Perceptions
#1: STUDENT DEBT | James Altucher's Answer to the Question: Will the United States Ever Collapse? | 5 min. | Quora | Opinion
#2: CONVULSIONS | What Makes For An Excellent Human Life? | 5 min. | Big Think | Interview
The Time Of Leisure Is A Separate Time
From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)
From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)
#3: ONLY YOUR PERCEPTION | Want To Love Your Job? Read This Article | 10 min. | Quartz | Opinion HT Pamela Hobart
#4: WHITE COLLAR NONSENSE | It Doesn’t Matter How Hard You Work--Just How Busy You Look | 5 min. | Spectator | Opinion HT Daniel Doyen
#5: CO-WORKING | Sorry, Power-Lunchers. This Restaurant Is a Co-Working Space Now | 5 min. | Feature HT Lori Davies
Workplace As Portable Labor Camp
From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)
From Byung-Chul Han's In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Credit: Peter Limberg)
Late Tuesday night Alexandra and I returned from our sesshin. I still don’t know how to talk about this our first sesshin, not yet anyway. Don’t know how to convey how transformative it was, how many insights about myself I came to, and how I’d like to live in the light of these insights. Not yet.
I suppose, though I’m not sure how yet to put into words the experience, of sesshin, I can say something about what a sesshin is, at least when it’s seen from the outside. A sesshin, which means “touching the heart mind,” is a seven-day form of extremely rigorous meditation in the Zen tradition.
The Form Ordinarily Called "Andrew" on the Final Day of Sesshin (Credit: Alexandra Taggart
The Form Ordinarily Called "Andrew" on the Final Day of Sesshin (Credit: Alexandra Taggart
The schedule is very exacting: each day, which itself feels outside of time, starts quite early around 4:30 or 5 a.m. Chanting in Japanese and English begins at 5 a.m. Kinhin (walking meditation) follows. Then zazen (seated meditation) and an interview with the roshi (teacher) during which you discuss the roshi your practice and receive some guidance. Then walking in silence to the dinner hall where you and other sangha members eat a light breakfast while following a a set of rituals consisting of prayers, sophisticated use of bowls, and silence. Afterward, samu (work period), most of which is undertaken in silence. Then meta (lovingkindness meditation) which gives way to more zazen. Then a highly ritualized lunch. Then a period of rest and, for me, yoga and silent walking. In the afternoon, a teisho (a talk given by the teacher) touched off by prostrations and kinhin. Next, more zazen. After a brief exercise period and light dinner came the most important period: an hour of zazen during the Golden Hour from 6-7 p.m. Next, kinin, zazen, and interviews with the roshi. The night formally ends at 9 p.m. or so with chanting, prostrations, and tea, yet some will meditate on their own long into the night or until the following morning. 
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Let me return to samu, which for us went from 8-11 a.m. each day. It took 21 hours for Alexandra to sand a table and apply the first coat of finish. Meanwhile, I worked alongside two men to sand down drywall, to apply primer, and then to apply two coats of paint in the foyer, hallway, and stairwell of the Zen temple in which we practiced.
It’s worth noting a few things about samu. First, it’s folded into the tapestry of a day of meditation and therefore is shaped by the meditative practices within which it’s couched. Second, samu is itself a kind of meditation: the practitioner intends to keep his mind clear and squarely on the task at hand and may have a “wordless koan” held gently in mind such as “What is Truth?” As to keeping the mind as clear as possible, to apply edge paint carefully just below a viga beam just is to apply edge paint–and nothing else, more, or other. The masterful Zen calligrapher Kaz Tanahashi speaks of calligraphy in terms of “brush mind” and so also everything else. Sanding mind. Brush mind. Brush cleaning mind. Walking uphill mind. Third, samu is only three hours long. The lion share of the day belongs to zazen, which is its focal point.
Samu, therefore, reveals the loving care shown in attentive work while at the same time putting work in its proper, limited place in the overall context of a human life and here also a particular community. Work is done, yes, yes indeed, yet it is not there that one shall find the True Source of Life. 
A lesson, I think, for all of us.
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you (palms deeply pressed) to new patrons, Barbara and Dylan! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <>.
For Newcomers
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <>. Lastly, visit my website, <>, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.
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