Rethinking Work: Walking With Theoder Adorno
Work is integral to our existence and it gives one a sense of purpose. However when work becomes alienated, it deprives one of inner freedom. Here we understand the domain of work and its inherent possibilities and limitations taking into confidence the great thinker Theoder Adorno.
Ananya Pathak is Feature Editor, The New Leam Magazine
Work is an integral component of our lives; we seem to be occupied with diverse kinds of work throughout the day. However there are kinds of work that give us creative fulfillment and there are some that we treat as a chore or do out of habit or obligation. Work gives meaning to our existence and an opportunity to express ourselves within the larger social context.
For many people having nothing to do is their worst nightmare and even the most unpaid, unimportant and unpleasant work is better than no work for them. The absence of work frightens us, leaving us perplexed as to what we can do with our time. However, although all kinds of work may fill up time yet not all work gives us a sense of purpose and creative satisfaction. The element of constructiveness is an important source of happiness in any kind of work. When the worker and his work become one, happiness is the outcome.
If we look around we would find that most people are perpetually engaged with work and are busy. It is true that Work is an important part of our lives, but why have we allowed it to become synonymous with life itself, why has the part taken over the whole? Many of us have become slaves to the jobs we have and can no longer think about our identities without the context of our profession. Perhaps this enhanced definition of the self as merely a professional/worker is an outcome of capitalistic society. It is in this context that we can recall the ideas of a great German philosopher Theodor Adorno and his classic essay ‘Work and Pleasure’. In this essay he talks about the damaging work and life disjuncture which fractures the inner wholeness within us.
One of the basic ideas that Adorno’s asserts through his philosophical works is that we have begun to look at everything in terms of its economic value. Everything we do or consider worth taking up is generally something that is related to work. What is both interesting and ironical to observe is that this utilitarian definition of work is penetrating even into a field that is creative. Not surprisingly painters, who normally understand painting a profound medium of creative expression bringing out their perspectives of the world, call their paintings “works of art”. Is this then just like any other work, almost like laboring 8 or 10 hours in an office? Adorno with his critical insights could foresee the negative consequences of this market oriented/utilitarian conception of work. He noted how capitalism as a force had begun to rule our consciousness and enslaved us to its transactional logic. Indeed the world is focused on money, since it is cleverly argued that the more earns the happier one is. But this only furthers the idea of the “self” into the dustbin, when it should be the self alone that should determine and help one find their path life. We could look into Adorno’s philosophy and return to our cultural values to understand how sharp his social observations were.
It’s hard to ignore the modern resonance of this insight in a recent cultural trend that found voice at the Silicon Valley’s surge of interest in meditation and mindfulness training — an ancient spiritual practice. We can see how the logic of the market transforms even non-market ideas into consumable commodities. Thus this ancient practice is reduced into a means to a practical end: to make employees more “whole” for the ultimate purpose which is to bring more of their wholeness to the work. It has technically been more than half a century since Adorno dies, but it seems nothing much has changed except the fact that we have only refined the machinery of operationalizing human beings into cogs — perhaps slightly more ‘enlightened cogs’ — in the economic apparatus of consumerism.
Much emphasis in contemporary life is put on excellence in the work domain, making a lot of money, and looking professional. Would you not agree that if we forget to discover our inherent creative instincts, if we do not allow ourselves to engage in work that allows us a sense of purpose and meaning, if we work merely like parts of a gigantic machine then we reduce ourselves into simply robots? The argument above should not be overlooked merely by assuming that it propagates Marxism or opposes capitalism. We have done that for many years now, and that has allowed us to very conveniently escape the need for critical introspection. It is time that we stop for a moment and reflect upon what we are becoming and what we are losing in this mindless race. Adorno’s insights were indeed ahead of their times, and it is important for us to engage them once again. After all the work that we are now giving so much value to has reduced us into money-making machines full of killer instincts, spirit of competitiveness and growing internal and external disharmony and restlessness. Do we not realize how this is impacting our world, our preferences and choices each moment? As parents our time with the kids is reduced because of work, in the office we remain colleagues competing to outdo each other and seldom become true friends and most painfully we turn into individuals who burry their love for creativity and imagination only because money is considered more important than the heart.
The summer vacations are here, and so are the times that we cherished once and now are afraid of. How will we keep the children busy while the school is shut and the homework is completed? Which are the best summer camps in the city, which one’s can help them learn ‘useful’ skills that can later even be taken up as ‘work’? These and many other questions must be haunting parents all over. Can we take out some time to discover the heart’s calling before mechanically jumping into activities? A life that is drained of creative fulfillment, tires one’s being even when it stimulates the bank balance. A time where one has no work, or is completely empty is a time where one can hear the beating of the heart – if one trusts its rhythm one is destined to find a work that fulfills one and is not merely reduces one into a cog in the wheel!
IMAGE: THE NEW LEAM MAGAZINE