Not Working: An Interview with Josh Cohen

“What, if not work, makes life worth living?” asks author and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen. “And what kind of beings are we if not fundamentally working beings?”

In the new book Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (Granta, Jan 2019), Cohen meditates on the relationship we humans have to work, and the forceful disregard, judgmental disdain, or guilt-laden shame with which we frequently view unproductivity. Cohen walks us through four archetypes of non-workers—the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer, and the slacker—and the particular allure and hazards of each orientation, interwoven with studies of four representative artists, stories from his psychoanalytic practice, and reflections on his own relationship to the working life. Written with a condense lyricism that approaches prose poetry, Not Working is an impassioned entreaty to appreciate anew the idle space as critical to our humanity. Cohen speaks in this interview about work, art, and the relationship between the two.

Your book takes as its starting point the demonization that often accompanies idleness. Let’s start with a steel man argument: How is idleness indeed harmful, and why should we keep occupied?

Idleness is harmful because there have been a lot of epidemiological studies to suggest that inactivity is one of the greatest dangers in public health of the moment—even more so than obesity, although of course the two may well be related—and because idleness often goes hand in hand with solitude, which often is equated with loneliness, another psychological epidemic that has quite serious physiological implications. Productivity and purpose have an association with optimism and a sense of achievement and therefore with all kinds of indicators of a better life. So, there are many ways in which we could make the argument against idleness and for a fully purposive and active life.

That being the case, what’s wrong with the demonization of idleness?

It narrows our conception of our own humanity. It isn’t a point of contention that activity, purpose, and ambition are important dimensions of human life—everything about the way our culture works confirms that. In this sense, activity is not in danger of becoming unfashionable or people being put off by it. But, if we think of activity as the sole dimension that really has the claim to define us, we lose a vital element of what it is to be human. Idleness, stillness, silence, and inactivity are the conditions for a very different kind of experience, particularly for an experience of the interior life, and I think a condition also for creativity.

What’s happening with our hyper-stimulated, overactive culture is that we’re putting artificial constrictions around the ways in which we understand, perceive, and define ourselves. Of course that is most evidenced by the rise of social media, where we’re encouraged to project ourselves to the world, and understand ourselves in terms of our visible, measurable, and attestable activities. In that way of relating to the human being, there’s really very little space for the interior life.

What are we talking about when it comes to “inactivity”? That is, we readily say that we “aren’t doing anything,” but since it’s not possible to do literally nothing, what do we mean?

I think “not doing anything” merely registers the absence of visible and attestable activity. It doesn’t consider inactivity as a substantial thing in itself. Part of the meaning of “doing nothing” is that it’s hard to define, precisely because it doesn’t conform to a specific target-oriented purpose. You cannot really say what it’s for. In a sense, doing nothing means doing away with everything that has a prescribed outcome, aim, or purpose. And that can mean anything, from walking, to talking, to drawing, to writing in a journal. For me, it means undertaking an experience of something without knowing where it’s going.

You argue that even leisure has been transformed into “work” by nature of the need for activity. Can you explain?

There are various ways in which that’s happening, the first of which is incorporation with the workplace. Exercise, instead of being an organic pleasure in the body, to discover spaces or commune with nature, becomes confined to a workplace gym and scheduled as a kind of physical hygiene. Contemplative reflection is boxed into a lunchtime mindfulness session. Yoga becomes an activity not to commune in solitude with oneself, to take pleasure in the movement and the circulation of blood around one’s body, but to display on Instagram. These become exercises in either dutiful activity or virtuous display. There are all kinds of devices like flotation tanks or meditation that appear to be solitary reflection or contemplation that have turned into dutiful agenda-items for the day or objects to be bragged about on social media.

Once work takes over the whole field of human self-understanding, everything comes to be filtered through work. What I feel like we’re seeing so much of in the age of the internet and social media is the workification, monetization, or commodification of every aspect of the human being that could once be seen as outside of the grind of activity. This is something I wrote about in my previous book, The Private Life, the idea that the radical externalization of the self squeezes out all those spaces in our lives that might’ve escaped the grip of work.

You express not working through a few different models, like work vs. leisure, productive vs. unproductive, doing vs. being, etc. Can we only understand “not working” in its relationship to “working,” or by the negation of the supposedly real activity?

I think you need the contrast initially as a heuristic device. It’s useful to have the distinction between doing and being, for example, but I’m not trying to make an oversimplified plea for being over doing. Rather, I want to get people to recognize a kind of intimacy between the two. We are blindly driving our culture towards a doing that in a sense is cleansed of being—a purified activity. There’s a flattening effect that reduces the richness and complexity of human life.

The four artists whose work and biography punctuate the book—Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Emily Dickinson, and David Foster Wallace—constitute models of lives in which doing is soldered to being. I mean, these are very prolific, active lives. Doing is not opposed to being but is intimate with it. A good example is Warhol, who had a quite frenetically driven, creative productivity, but instead of being driven towards the production of more and more objects, he was actually interested in reaching a state of inertial flatness: sleep, stillness, and flatness of color, shape, and size. A sort of zero state of the undifferentiated. And that means that there’s a wonderful paradox animating his work, a kind of intimacy between prolific productivity and inertial lethargy. For me, that intimacy is electrifying.

In the book, you emphasize that he actually wanted to be a machine. Does that effort to remove his humanity not run counter in your mind to the human idea you’re reaching toward?

I do empathize but I do not endorse. Clearly, none of the case studies that I mention are presented as exemplary lives.  Their lives—certainly three of the lives, arguably all four—are saturated with misery and suffering, which caused one of them to end it prematurely. It’s less about thinking of these as model lives that we might want to emulate than it is thinking about them as artists who opened up ways of questioning ourselves, ways of questioning our own self-definition, the ways that we prefer to see ourselves.

These four artists explore and draw our attention to states of inertia: flatness in the case of Warhol; slobbish excess, and moral and physical collapse in Welles; a radical reclusion, a total withdrawal into the space of the mind and imagination in Dickenson; and the catatonic lethargy of Wallace. All of those fields on the outer edges of human experience that our culture tends to disavow or screen out. They enrich the conversation about what it is that makes life meaningful, and what it is that makes us who we are.

What about our humanity do you think can be learned, or uncovered, while not working?

When you give yourself over to the inactive state, you’re also giving yourself over to an internal roaming. Without that, there really isn’t a capacity for surprise, for discovery, for actually learning something new about yourself or the world. So, what’s at stake is the capacity for imagination and creativity itself.

If we follow the current dominant trajectory of the culture, it feels to me that we’ll be railroading ourselves into a state of permanent measurable activity that we can show the world. And where does that leave space for what we don’t yet know? Our lives are then liable to become a series of repetitive gestures that we know we’re going to make from the outset.

Roaming allows us to make contact with the unconscious dimension of our lives, with the imaginative dimension, that tells us something unknown. An overactive life is one that is just repeating things about ourselves and the way our lives work that we already know.  

When it comes to artists, you point out that Socrates and Wilde seem to agree on the point that “the making and enjoying of art express an implicit refusal to understand life’s aim as doing,” they only disagree on whether that is positive or negative. Where do you think art rests on that spectrum between effort of work and idleness?

That’s one of the paradoxes that fascinates me so much that I keep coming back to it, because I would never have the temerity to offend the entire community of artists by saying that artists are idle or art is easy or art doesn’t involve work. I’m drawing a lot implicitly on the work of Maurice Blanchot, who talks about the work that the artist does as being ontologically different from the work that a laborer does. A laborer works on the stubbornly physical material of the world and transforms it for human use to intervene in the history of the world. The example he gives, which he takes from Hegel, is that you can take stone and iron and shape it into a stove, which in turns creates fire, which of course transforms the history of human civilization. So, that is work in the real world that has real world effects, and that’s what Hegel calls “the labor of the negative,” because it involves negating the raw material by shaping it into something else that has human significance and meaning that participates in the human world. The labor of the negative produces something positive.

Now, the artist seems to do something similar, that is, he or she takes raw material like stone or ink or paint and transforms it into something else, but this material, in being worked, instead of becoming something substantial that intervenes in the world, becomes something spectral that in a way becomes non-existent. In what sense can the characters in a novel be said to exist, or the characters in a painting? Although we know that art can have all kinds of real world effects—it makes money, it entertains, agitates, provokes—there is something about the artwork that is fundamentally, ontologically different in kind from any other kind of object in the world. The example I give, which is a rather common one, is that in a play you can kill the same king every night and he’ll come back and be killed again the next night. In that sense, art repeats these gestures in which nothing is really allowed to happen. The quality of the existing thing is of a completely different order than real world objects or activities. And that spectral, imaginative substance of the artwork is what makes the imagination on one hand able to do absolutely anything and on the other hand also able to do absolutely nothing.

I can sit in the privacy of my own head, shut my eyes and make absolutely anything happen, and at the same time, make absolutely nothing happen. And if I transcribe that nothingness to the page, again everything is happening and nothing is happening. What Blanchot says is this undermines the seriousness that Hegel ascribes to the labor of the negative in the world, because where that involves the production, the advancement, and the progress of human history, art really sets up this other life which is idle—not in the sense of lying down and not doing anything but idle in the way that we talk about idle thoughts or idle gestures; that is, something that doesn’t really effect anything.

One of the words that comes to mind and that you use throughout the book is “useful.” How do you see the concept of usefulness coming into play?

I like the word “useful” partly because it’s one of those words that the minute we start to try to define it, it starts to trouble its own definition. Is it useful to spend an hour looking at a painting? Is the painting itself useful? From the perspective that’s only really interested in concrete human activity and progress, the useful has a very constricted definition. Again, it’s something to do with the intimacy of apparent opposites, that you can also live in a space where the useful and the useless are actually much closer to each other.

Wilde makes the point that there is something useless and lazy about a life devoted exclusively to action. I think we have to have a much more dynamic and paradoxical sense of how usefulness and uselessness relate to one another, to recognize that a life that is centered on the principle on utility exclusively becomes blind, compulsive, habitual, and a bit dull. And a life that is apparently given over to uselessness can yield all kinds of richness and surprise, and can be useful in the sense that it brings us new ways of thinking and perceiving.

To sum up, I think that the useful is too often equated with what perpetuates the state of the world as it is. It keeps things in place—that’s what’s “useful.” And something that is airy, whose use is not yet clear or determinate, that becomes “not useful.” Because if it was useful, we would know how we were using it. But there has to be a place in our sense of the useful for something whose use we don’t yet know.

Despite this space, as you said, offering the opportunity for imagination and creativity, might it be that we still would prefer to escape it? Being a human is hard. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, our main problem is that we’re very uncomfortable just sitting in a room alone with ourselves.

I think that’s right. Those escape attempts are never unambiguous and one of the things that I’m careful not to do in the book is to simply idealize inactivity. There are all these books now called “The Joy of” something. I don’t want to equate inactivity with joy, or place a specific value on it, as though to say this is better than that. I’m much more about conferring recognition on the full spectrum of our humanity, and inactivity is a part of that spectrum. There is a wish to exit the circuits of habitual, repetitive activity to sink into oneself and into silence, and I think we’re getting to a point where we don’t really see the validity or the meaning of those kinds of impulses in ourselves. We see them as failings to be overcome rather than sources of possible meaning and life-enhancement.

Coming back to this “intimacy between opposites,” an obvious paradox comes to mind: You’ve written a book—which is a lot of work—about not working. How was that experience?

It was a lot of work. This book, more than anything else I’ve written, really took it out of me. I think because there was something very elusive about what I was trying to get at. How does one make inactivity visible on the page? How does one bring it to life? What is it exactly that you’re talking about? You’re not talking about literally just sitting still and doing nothing. It’s more the way that inactivity insinuates itself into the texture of daily life and how we miss it and ignore it and pretend it has nothing really to do with what matters. I was trying to argue that it has everything to do with what matters.

The whole book is written from the inside of the problem—not with the guru’s perspective, above the fray. What I like about psychoanalysis is that it doesn’t ask its practitioners to live an exemplary life. As an analyst, you can only respond, listen, and interpret from the inside of your own conflicts, and I’m not somebody who has resolved the conflict between working and not working himself. Not at all. But I think that gives the work a more interesting vantage point.

This reminds me of a scene in your book in which you describe yourself “impassive and unkempt,” slouched on your sofa in a state of deep inertia with TV, a bowl of peanuts, and a half-empty beer bottle. It’s not a scene of happiness or well-earned relaxation but is rather about a nagging guilt and shame of the wastefulness of torpor, which is all too recognizable. Is that reaction something to be overcome or just encountered?

It’s very hard to overcome it, really. As I said, I’m writing from inside the phenomenon rather than from above it. I don’t feel like I’m somebody who’s gotten over the guilt and shame of not working and not being productive, and that’s what that passage is about: the transient pleasure of the gratification, this temporary descent into a kind of idiocy. I really feel pleasure in the regressive movement of the mind, where you take a private, quite intimate joy in just saying dumb things to yourself, or humming dumb tunes to yourself. I think what being a slob teaches and reminds you is that there is a pull in that direction, and that that’s part of your humanity.

Life being what it is, it’s almost inevitable that the external world, which is always sort of prowling around the edges of your pleasure, is going to intrude and tell you that this has to stop. But, you don’t need to choose programmatically between being a slob or being a virtuous citizen and worker, because they’re both dimensions of your humanity. 

From the opposite perspective, what about those who experience work as a “calling” or who feel that their work fulfills some greater purpose or meaning? How can we reconcile that with the danger of overwork?

Vocation is great but it can also over-entrench our sense of what we’re doing and it can turn the love of something that is perpetually surprising into a set of repeated, habitual gestures. A lot of vocationally gifted people report this, and I hear it also as a complaint in my consulting room, that the work that they saw as their calling has become flattened and drained of color by repetition and by over-familiarity and by overwork. One of the ways you have to address this is by not sacralizing work to the point where you become radically disillusioned when it disappoints you.

Hannah Arendt makes a very useful distinction between work and labor, where labor is the habitual repetition in the daily experience of any job, even one that you love, and work is what is creatively produced in the process. Put quite crudely, lots of people can love their work but really nobody likes labor.

I think acknowledging that rather than trying to power through it and pretend that you love it—acknowledging the dimension of labor in work—is really important. You have to be in an ambivalent relation to any work you do, I think.


Josh Cohen’s new book Not Working: Why we Have to Stop has been published by Granta.