Why Work? (a double feature)

Kym Ward 2010 Die Scheiß Ideologie deiner Nation

I. There is a scene in Jason Reitman’s recent film Up In the Air in which Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) try to console one of the employees they have been hired to fire (Bob, played by J.K. Simmons) by telling him that now he can finally take up that career in French cooking he abandoned years ago. At first sight, the suggestion is outrageous given that the fired employee’s first and foremost concern will be how to get any food on the table at all. But the scene also contains a degree of truth in that it shows one’s energies to be laid bare in a situation of crisis. From this perspective, Up In the Air could be read as a modern-day retelling of the Prometheus myth: “to be fired” would then come to mean “to have the fire returned to you”, to be “given back” the fire that Zeus, angered by Prometheus who cheated him, took away from humanity.

Reitman’s film adds a particularly interesting twist to this ancient tale in that it associates the return of the fire with a humanity without work. In Up In the Air, it is in a state of non-work that humanity’s energies are laid bare. It should be noted, however, that the consolation that Bingham and Keener offer does not exactly lie in non-work; rather, it is the prospect of doing another kind of work that the employee is supposed to find appealing. The point that the film is making thus appears to be that, liberated from the body- and mind-numbing office jobs in which they are caught up, human beings are restored to a hyper-energized state of working-otherwise that is comparable, perhaps, to the one evoked by Karl Marx in The German Ideology, when he imagines a humanity that could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic”. One could argue that human beings are thus restored to a “technical capacity”—the uncanny capacity to bring something from non-being into being–that overcomes the alienation of labor.

sketch for short film

II. It might be, however, that today, the association between humanity and work that Marx maintains (the human being is still essentially a working being, for Marx) needs to be questioned further in response to the crises of all kinds in which human beings are caught up. If Reitman’s film arguably reveals the simple point that “there is energy in crisis”, the situation today appears to be that “energy itself is in crisis”: both the amounts of energy as well as the kinds of energy that humanity consumes are up for reevaluation. In response to this situation, analysts have often insisted on the exploration of alternative energies (the “green energies” argument) and on the reduction of energy uses (the “ecological footprint” argument). But is unclear what the ecological component of both these arguments really is: the “ecological footprint” argument for example might ultimately simply be convenient for modern, bio-political governments invested in securing the borders and reducing the global citizen’s mobility (as a recent manifesto from the revolutionary left has suggested).

Because of these suspicions, some have begun to challenge the notion of energy itself, tracing it back to Aristotle’s distinction between “energeia” and “dunamis”. In this perspective, the response to the contemporary crisis of energy might not so much be to use less energy or to use alternative energies, but to rethink the notion of energy itself as a radical potentiality that does not necessarily flip over into the actuality of its consumption. Instead, energy would be conceived as the persistence of a potentiality not-to, as a perpetual state of energized potential that is not necessarily immediately consumed. It might ultimately be from such a thought of energy as a potentiality not-to—from this capacity to separate out from what one is, does, or think “the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think”, as Michel Foucault puts it in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”—that our energies will come.

As will be clear, this is not the same as the “green energies” argument. Whereas the green energies argument immediately perceives of the world as a “standing-in-reserve” (to use Martin Heidegger’s language) of energy for use, in other words: in terms of its actualization or consumption, the philosophical argument about potentiality not-to would reconsider the world as being one step removed from this. The philosophical argument has to do, to put it in slightly dramatic terms, with a “saving of the world” from its increasing actualization in consumption. For if there is no longer a world in which everything is possible, if there is only a world of actualized consumption, then energy will have truly disappeared: communicability will have been sacrificed to communication, and questions about the quantity and the quality of our energy uses will have become meaningless. As Up In the Air reminds us, our energies come from our states of crisis, emergency, and exception—from a world of possibilities. Rather than resist this world, it might be necessary to embrace it as the spacing in which humanity’s original technical capacities are exposed.

References: Jason Reitman, Up In the Air (Paramount, 2009); Robert Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978; Michel Foucault. The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007; Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977. Images: Kym Ward, Die Scheiß Ideologie deiner Nation, Performance, 2010 (Clarke Gallery, Berlin); Photograph by Elly Clarke; Linda Franke and Kym Ward, Sketch For a Short Film, 2010.


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