One of the strange things I’ve found about living in New York is that there are a lot of freaks out there.  Not crazy or malicious freaks but quirky and imaginative ones who’ve burrowed into their quirky and imaginative groups. They grow basil in Bushwick, make temporary installations exploring the ravages of capitalism, live in gutted buildings in Bed Stuy, and attend bike shorts where homemade micro-brew is served and quaffed.
I’ve been essaying the various Freakdoms since I moved to New York about 1 1/2 yrs. ago. In February 2010, I joined the Park Slope Food Coop, a democratic organization comprised of authoritarian, peace-loving, non-GMO, cynical, and idealistic types. The letters in The Linewaiters’ Gazette run from Israel-Palestine to stocking fish oil. You go to check-out and this one’s a peach, but the next one’s a crank who, referring to some filed-away or made-up policy, requests that you place your basket right here–not there!–and that you take your items out in a certain fashion. Freud might insert some quip here about the anal phase of psychodynamic development. My strategy is to ask, “How would you like to do this,” as I step up with basket in one hand and ID in the other. Then I ask about her day, her shift, and invariably her life. All usually goes swimmingly.
That’s one group of freaks: yoga instructors, freelancers, magazine types, jewelry makers, wives and husbands and partners of well-paid professionals, also architects and painters and pilots, and, not the least, scraper-byers.
Another is the group at the 2-month-old New Public Thinking, a largely London-based set of alternative educators with whom I’ve been working on, well, we’re not really quite sure what that is yet: some vague notion, we believe, of what it could conceivably mean to think in public–but then what’s that in the 21st C.?–in an increasingly globalized world. The collective’s subtle but pervasive anarchist tendency entails eschewing top-down leadership, arbitrary rules, and set guidelines in favor of maximal freedom. As a result, we’re freewheeling, and I’m manning the colonial outpost here in New York City. So far, no barbarians at the gate; then too Agamemnon has yet to return.
The portrait gallery at New Public Thinking contains a “risk management consultant,” a “freelance thinker and doer,” an organizer of “lots of nice things,” a “nerdy crank about play,” and, most absurd of all, a “philosopher living in New York.”
And now–warming to my subject–I’m getting to know the indie writers dotting Brooklyn but also Portland and Austin. This anthropological experiment began as strangely as the rest. As was my wont, I arrived early at Ozzie’s in Brooklyn for my Monday night writing group (beyond description, this bunch) and as I’m pulling out my copy of n+1 I overhear someone, cross-legged, seated on a ratty couch, and talking into his flip phone, say something about n+1. There’s also what appears to be a thick manuscript in his lap.
Afterward: “So, n+1?” I point to Issue 11, “Duel Power.” Goofy bastard I am. Campy Polaroid shot conceivable. At least, I didn’t say, eyebrow raised, “Hey, you know, small world, huh?”
The guy with the thick manuscript goes by the name Greg Gerke. Sounds made-up, I think, too film noirish to be real, but there you are. A goodly long conversation following a natural course–names of writers I don’t know, my friend Montaigne whom he doesn’t know, publishing houses I haven’t heard of, books we love but don’t have in common, prizes I should probably be familiar with, couch surfings and Midwesterners and philosophical counseling–ends with an invitation to check out Big Other.
Big Other: What’s that about—Lacan? Angst? Penury?
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That was last Monday. On Saturday night, I’m talking with John Haskell, a contemporary writer whose short bio I read beforehand. Something about Jackson Pollock. Books published with Farrar, Straus & Giroux which everyone seems to call FSG. Seems nice John.
“A philosopher? So what do you specialize in? Or won’t I understand?”
I want to say that I don’t specialize in anything and that the problem with the humanities is precisely the very idea of specialization. How could a philosopher specialize in Life?
“I work on ethics. On what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life.”
“Ah. But happiness and goodness, I suppose these are two different things?”
“For the ancients, being good and being happy were actually the same thing. After Kant, they became two separate things. Kant thought you needed to be worthy of being happy, not that you would be.”
A sober, Christian thought this. But then I think Kant got things all wrong, and I think most of us have as well. Kant wouldn’t have understood where money and work factored into our overall conception of human flourishing, why happiness needn’t be put in the bedroom and goodness in the non-profit, and how we got to the point where the life of the mind became so fucking unsustainable and so hopelessly naïve. Nor would he (Kant, again) have put much thought into philosophy of life: into devising a sensible, workable philosophy that we can reasonably live by.
The readings–John Madera’s poetic anaphora and long, sweeping sentences; James Iredell’s jabbing deadpan humor (“Americans speak American.”), and John Haskell’s frenzied beat in the voice of a narrator who half-gets it–were quite different and powerful in their own ways, but the truth is that I spent most of the 2 hrs. dimly confused by how all these indie writers and aspirants were able to make ends meet. What brought them here? Here, drinking wine from cups. Sitting in a basement of a bookstore in Prospect Heights. Charming post-lapserian Bohemia to be sure, but doubtless penury all around.
This is not the first time I’ve been confused about this. I’m just under 2 yrs. out of finishing the PhD, 1 yr. out of adjuncting hell, less than 1 yr. out of starting a successful philosophical counseling business, and nearly every creative type I’ve run into to a turn has thought precious little–I mean in a highly imaginative, cunning, paradigm-shifting sense–about leading a financially stable, meaningful, sincere and honest life. The Big Other could also be this Great Unthinking.
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After the economic collapse in 2009, after the shift from the Organizational Man to the Gig Economy over the past 30 years, after the end of the Last Career, and during the slow unraveling of the university as a patron of arts and letters, in a word, after all this topsy-turveyness, we who believe in the life of the mind need to think seriously about our received understanding of work until we manage to come up with and work out some feasible models for living well-considered and financially sustainable lives.
To begin with, we need to examine our received understandings of work.
- Work is drudgery.
- Work is technical problem-solving.
- Work–in the sense of profit-making in the age of late capitalism–is soul-sucking, corrupt, or sinful.
Leisure time, the counterpart to work, is either
- a time during which we pursue moderate or hedonic pleasures (entertainment, sports, drinking, diversions, retirement, and so on), or
- a time during which we are actualize our creative potency (painting, writing, start-ups, and so on).
This work-leisure nexus, this shape of consciousness, is fundamentally untenable. For consider that work is an instrumental good while art is an intrinsic good. We work for the sake of making art, and we make art for its own sake. Hence, the value of work must be sought elsewhere so that work itself occasions frustration (while we work, we would prefer to be making art), resentment (the hours we work in order to make art possible eat into the number of hours we can spend making art), and ultimately despair (either we can’t make enough money to make art possible, or we spend all our time making ends meet, thereby leaving no time for what we deem intrinsically worthwhile).
The further consequence of this form of consciousness is that we are pressed into an irresistible yet irresolvable dilemma: either we “sell out” to “the Man,” or we naively laud the conceit  of the “Starving Artist.” The exit strategy seems to be to seek shelter in the academy, yet over the past 30 years that shelter is showing remarkable signs of wear. More schooling equals more years without a steady income, greater debt burdens, blinkered focus on work that can pay off loans, and–mark this–years spent neglecting the fundamental question with which we began. Things don’t get any easier; we just get older.
Keep kicking the can down the road, but on its own this dilemma won’t go away. Instead, it will show up most acutely as a philosophical feeling of self-division, rivenness, half-heartedness, ironic self-posturing, and vacillation, all antitheses to peace of mind, wholeness, and meaning.
Well, this bloody well sucks.
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I want to leave you with a set of prescient questions. First, why have writers–and, more generally, most creative types–become so hobbled by The Great Unthinking, giving so little time or thought to how they shall live and live well? Second, why have we become so unimaginative when it comes to things that allegedly fall outside of the honing of our creative craft? And, third, how do we get off this conceptual see-saw without doing considerable damage to our tender genitalia?
I want to pick up this line of thought in Part 2 (to appear in Big Other a week hence) where my aim will be to reconceive work in more humane, meaningful, creative, and financially secure terms. In the meantime, you can learn more about this predicament by reading a few of my columns below. You may also wish to check out my friend Charlie Davies’s short, amusing, enlightening riff on money.
 Thanks to John Madera and Greg Gerke for inviting me to contribute to and take part in Big Other.
 “Conceit” in the sense of an extended idea.
Further Reading and Viewing
Andrew Taggart, “Models for Post-University Life,” Inside Higher Ed. Part 1.
Andrew Taggart, “Our Failure of Imagination,” Inside Higher Ed. Part 2.
Charlie Davies, “The Nature of Money,” Stand-Up Inspiration.