The Emotional Economy of Busywork

Busywork, or work that keeps one busy but serves no value in and of itself, is variously familiar to us all. But busywork seems just as likely to affect the lives of researchers, of “knowledge workers,” as it is to bear upon those of other professionals—if not more likely. Indeed, if academics are not excoriating the increasing intensity of the administrative tasks and duties they must perform in their day-to-day lives, they are likely to be heard speaking of “administrative creep” and “administrative glut,” the suggestive expressions given, respectively, to the unstanchable rise of non-academic positions, and the disproportionate load of administrative staff members appointed to them, within modern universities.1 But these commiserations, of course, amount only to a synecdochic dismissal of busywork more generally, a eulogy for a time in which the predomination of administrative tasks in academia was allegedly less pronounced.

But even the academic blog risks becoming an exemplary instance of work that keeps its author busy, but serves no material purpose. Despite its potential popularity, the blog post, it seems, could never substitute for the gold standard of academic publishing, namely, the refereed (peer-reviewed) journal article, especially when it comes to the assessment of professional academic achievement, the inevitable instance in which one academic’s research profile and activities are adjudged against those of their peers, whether for a new job, a promotion, or an award. That the blog may still be regarded less as research proper than as a category of professional service must seem instinctively true to many researchers, even despite the fact that many authorities, both within and outside academic institutions, have urged academics to blog.2 Of course, as I write this post, the advantages that the blog imparts to one in improving their research toolkit—their set of writing and reading skills—seem obvious. Blogs can surely help researchers to formulate their thoughts, to express their ideas more clearly, and to improve their writing. What is more, an academic blog, as many have argued before, promises to grow one’s readership, to pique the interest if other researchers and would-be readers—even (although it is quite difficult to know for certain) to create a positive impression in the minds of those considering one’s potential productivity as a scholar, or one’s status as a “public intellectual,” if not a tenured or full-time one.3

But (to return to where I began) the academic blog may also be categorised as busywork, as a mode of pointless, repetitive, habitualised writing, just as readily as it may be understood as a skill-honing praxis or a “lead generator.” For even as it transpires to improve one’s writing, to enhance one’s effectiveness as a composer of text, or to bolster one’s reputation outside the cloisters, the academic blog, unfortunately, is the wrong kind of text for attaining scholarly cachet. For as many academics will admit, the academic blog has proved unlikely to offer anything of value to the job-seeking scholar in the cold, increasingly market-led and budget-aware academic economy, the specular (read: intercitational) institution in which one’s status as a knowledge producer, as a “productive,” output-driven academic professional, is paramount, and less affirmed by the volume of one’s voice before the world at large (much less the world wide web) than by the frequency of one’s citations among one’s institutional colleagues. The academic economy, of course, has myriad persuasive reasons for remaining in this way so hermetic and self-enclosed. After all, the university, at least when it comes to knowledge, cannot be expected to respond to populism or celebrity—other than when for specific disciplinary purposes, of course.

In a 2016 essay commiserating the death of the academic film blog, a form whose life, we learn, lasted a mere fifteen years (from 2000 to 2015), Amanda Klein observes the unfortunate truth about digital academic discourse. The problem is that the impact of the research, however obvious it may appear to the author, just cannot be measured, or at least cannot be quantified in the same way that the peer-reviewed journal article is purported to be quantifiable—namely, by citations. Mourning the death of the academic blog, specifically that of the film scholar, Klein argues that the form simply

did not yield the legitimacy so many of us hoped for. Despite my best efforts to demonstrate the value of my own blog—citing research opportunities it unearthed, connections made in the field, and the way the medium forced me to grapple with new and exciting ideas I never would have explored on paper—the glaring absence of traditional peer review makes it difficult to quantify how blogging has impacted my research, teaching and service (the holy trifecta of academic values), even though it has greatly contributed to all three.4

Klein’s experience makes obvious the fact that academic blogging occurs in an ecology or environment that is decidedly more “digital” than that of traditional, refereed academic research. But her essay also indicates how the academic world has yet to embrace or trust, much less to adapt to, the new parameters, the new rules, of this digital ecology. Not only is the academic blog post never expected to be published in paper form, neither by its author nor its reader; it is also understood as a different kind of research work, with a distinctive set of aims, to that which is published under the consraints of the review process. Understood less as the site of formal knowledge transmission than a means by which to report or disseminate the act of knowledge making, the academic blog can do little more than advise its reader that, somewhere else, in the heterotopia of real work, of bona fide erudition, knowledge has been, is being, or will soon be made. The busywork of the academic blog may consist in adumbrating its shape, in sketching this knowledge at some spatio-temporal distance from its origin, but rarely will it substitute for the work itself.

More formally, we know that the academic blog is a work in which an author’s references will usually go uncited (instead taking the form of hyperlinks—although an exception, of course, is this blog), and one in which the author’s arguments go unreviewed by their peers. In fact, the entire system in which blogging occurs—from the initial administrative processes (finding and commissioning a webhost, developing a content management system, paying for hosting, and so on), to the production processes (perhaps writing within a CMS rather than a word processor, uploading or publishing work unilaterally or independently, rather than by means of a collaborative, bilateral email process)—takes place outside of the academic publishing system, and in reality at many removes from the standard peer-review process. What is more, the blog, at least in theory, is sometimes understood as a provisional, temporary, reviewable, and redactable form. Unlike the apparent permanence of the printed page, the material life of the blog post is at once unreliable and indeterminable. The effects of the blog’s perceived impermanence are both epistemological and technological, as if leaving the impression of text on paper marked a grand point of termination, an authoritative condition of finality, and a truly “material” imprimatur of authority, that the blog post can never receive, can never engender on its own.

But the material and conceptual distinction between the digital page and the printed one—between, say, the online website and the analogue book—is by now an old and overstated one. If anything, it is a distinction or dichotomy with many comparable antecedents, such as that between page and screen, or between stage and screen, distinctions that, in the broadest of practical terms, cannot be said to affect the communication or reception of knowledge. How else, for instance, to explain the unquestioned acceptance of airplane safety videos, whose contents, only decades ago, were distributed in paper form? Instinctively we know that, when it comes to essential meanings, the medium does not generally have an impact on comprehension. And, despite the obvious attractions of McLuhanism for detailed media analyses, varied linguistic studies have concluded that, at the level of comprehension and learning, it makes no difference if the knowledge-producing object is a hypertextual medium or a printed medium.5 Presented with the same information on a page or screen, and with all other things being equal, learners or readers will generally learn and read at the same rate, and with the same rates of accuracy. If it is a provocative conclusion, it is one that is at least generally supported by an attestation expressed by various textual theorists: that the move from analogue to digital texts is far from “an absolute paradigm shift.”6 And, in any case, doing away with this distinction allows us to address the emotional and affective economy of busywork, to gain fresh insight into the desires or drives (triebs) that lead some of us to engage in busywork as a matter of priority, and of the rewards or compromises that flow therefrom.

The discussion of paper texts reminds me of remarks once uttered by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, remarks that gesture at the erotic allure of busywork, and which are not at all—excuse the pun—immaterial in this note, which addresses busywork in the digital context, the newer ecology in which we busy ourselves today. For those authors, the seduction of busywork lay in the fetishism of “fondling records”—of, in other words, paper shuffling. As they write,

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on.7

Here we see an instance of the aftereffects of busywork. The bureaucrat who “fondles his records” does so while remembering the gratification he has received not only in compiling but in coming to possess and rely on them. For what is likely to be remembered, here, and what is likely to be continuously incanted as the documents are stroked, is the accomplishment of the task that engendered them. It is an act of self-assurance, a performative recitation of the very same pleasure that coincided with these documents’ original production. And yet, the word “production” here, as with all nouns related to engenderment, is misleading, as it is an ersatz efficacy, and in fact a false economy, that underlies the busywork of administration. (No wonder, then, that so many contemporary administrative processes have become automated. Institutions and governments have come to realise the essential paradox of modern-day administration, the circuitous logic of busywork in the age of digital reproduction: however useful the busywork may actually be, and no matter how large the return on investment, it is at once always too expensive (for bureaucrats, after all, are well paid) and never cheap enough—at least not when automation offers the tantalising hope, the utopian dream, of costless administration, of free busywork.8)

In all of its banality and repetitiousness, and in spite of its obvious irrelevance, busywork imbues the busyworker with the validating pleasure of realising their effectiveness and productivity, a requisite catharsis that is central to the emotional wellbeing of all humans, to our feelings of stability and security in the world, and perhaps just as central to the lives of most (other) animals. And it is no surprise that, like a child who grips a teddy or doll (or, perhaps more likely today, their iPhone), the bureaucrat is said to keep a caressing hand on their documents. For in each case, the object marks the symbolic vessel into which so much of the subject’s exertions, so much of their energies, have been channelled. It hardly seems relevant whether those exertions have been “productive” on any objective accounting of performance—whether those exertions have had greater benefit to society, to research, or to the economy, for instance. The triviality of the work, which is to say of the busywork, is of no importance, just so long as it is capable of producing the emotional discharge, the catharsis, for which it was undertaken (unconsciously or not).

Of course, many pursuits are trivial in precisely the same way as administrative busywork is trivial. Online gaming, for instance, is often acknowledged as an activity that provides the gamer with the short-term emotional rewards they may desire, and yet is also liable to problematic, if not plainly destructive and compulsive overuse, can become an excessive and problematic preoccupation that affects the gamer’s life in other, seemingly unjustifiable ways.9 And sports and other recreational activities, including running, might also be regarded as comparable to busywork, at least insofar as these activities are also liable to dependence behaviours.10 All of this, of course, assumes that busywork is itself the product of an addiction or a compulsion, an assumption that I am late to address. However, rather than turning to the cognitive science, psychological, or psychiatric literature, I would like to now supplement my discussion of busywork with a brief historical excursion into the life of Sigmund Freud, specifically relating to his close friendship with Wilhelm Fleiss.

Fleiss was the German Jewish throat and mouth surgeon (otolaryngologist) whom Freud had befriended just after Freud and Josef Breuer had published their Studies on Hysteria in 1895, and after which Freud parted ways with Breuer, whom he had scolded (at least privately) for a dubious incident involving “Anna O.,” Breuer’s patient.11 Didier Anzieu has written about the relationship that subsequently developed between Freud and Fleiss. As Anzieu notes, Freud and Fleiss were “bound together by their noses,” sutured in a strong “bond made all the stronger by cocaine.” Whereas Freud had “revealed the substance to medicine, and only just failed to discover its anaesthetic properties,” Fleiss had adopted the substance as his go-to medical tool for almost all nose complaints, urging “his patients, Freud’s patients, and Freud himself to undergo treatment of the affected parts of the nose with a local application of cocaine.”12 In many ways, Freud both depended on and idealised Fleiss, whom he called on often for prescriptions of cocaine. As time wore on, however, and notably after Freud had faced two transformative incidents, he and Fleiss’s relationship began to break down.13

What is of significance in this biographical history for the purposes of this note’s discussion of busywork? The answer lies in the distinction between busywork and “effective work or achievement” that Freud would soon come to focus on, a distinction that he would use to define the difference between himself and Fleiss as he began to distance himself from his colleague at the turn of the century. Patrick Mahony has drawn attention to the destructive impact that performing only busywork had on Fleiss during this period, both in terms of Fleiss’s own health (increasingly poor under the strain of his cocaine addiction and associated bouts of paranoia), and in terms of his professional reputation as an academic scientist, most notably relating to his loss of standing before Freud himself. In fact, as Mahony suggests, it was Fleiss’s increased tendency to prioritise busywork over serious scholarship that led to Freud’s dismissal or “deidealisation” of his once-beloved colleague, a man for whom Freud, as he would later suggest to a friend, had once harboured not just amorous but erotic feelings.14 As Mahony writes,

In his narcissistically influenced break with Fliess, the conquistadorial Freud was expecting more than prolific production per se. As time went on, the author of a publishing cure became less enchanted with Fliess’s orally delivered flights of imagination, and attributed mounting significance to the qualitative distinction between Arbeit (work in general) and Leistung (effective work or achievement)—a crucial distinction often obfuscated in Strachey’s translation in the Standard Edition. The record speaks for itself. In 1897, Fliess published a book completed the previous year; between 1897 and 1900, however—the period when the great masterpiece of psychoanalysis was being penned—Fliess published but one short article, a state of affairs that periodically stirred Freud, even while he still considered Fliess as his critical reader and unique “Other,” to vent his disillusionment about Fliess’s lack of effective work in a series of ironical remarks.

A major factor in Freud’s deidealization of his alter ego Fliess, therefore, was the recognition of the increasing gap between the latter’s self-glorifying busywork, and his capacity to externalize or transfer (übertragen) it into publication—that is, into a substantial amount of effective written performance that could be evaluated by the scientific community at large.15

Mahony’s account is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because of the implications it has for Freud’s own view about the emotional economy of busywork. Mahony suggests that Freud must have wished to end his friendship with Fleiss, not because he resented him after his “bungled surgery on Emma Eckstein,” but because he viewed Fleiss as timorous and weak-willed, as a scholar who was just not courageous enough to produce in writing—and to publish—what his oral presentations presaged. As Mahony writes, “The Interpretation of Dreams marks Freud’s distance from the publicly less adventurous Fliess, and it stands as an example of how Freud’s taking the risk of a partial writing out did not vitiate the overall status of his scientific and textual masterpiece.”16

To achieve a “partial writing out,” then, involves taking a “risk,” involves a willingness to fail, to be ridiculed, as well as a wish to be recognised. Indeed, when Mahony refers to Freud as conquistadorial, the adjective is no mere decoration. In a letter to Fleiss of 1900, Freud identified himself as just such an explorer:

For I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador—an adventurer, if you want it translated—with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity of a man of this sort.17

By contrast, those who compulsively engage in arbeit—busywork, or “work in general”—may be expected to exhibit a distinctive pattern of risk-avoidance, to be otherwise commonly engaged in compulsive or addictive behaviours (such as in Fleiss’s case), and, in short, to be lacking in the “curiosity, daring, and tenacity” characteristic of, in Freud’s appellation, the conquistador.

Freud would go on to write of “repetition compulsion” in 1920 as “the manifestation of the power of the repressed.” It is a conceptualisation of repeated behaviours (such as those often brought into action during busywork) that understands them as the reflections, as the symptoms, of the now-repressed disappointments and frustrated desires of the scorned infant.18 However, Freud’s varied examples of these behaviours do not strike the reader as examples of busywork; in all its banality, in its inanity and innocuousness, and owing to its apparent lack of, say, suitable new targets for deeply emotional feelings—“objects for their jealousy”—busywork does not, at first instance, appear to be a suitable way for a traumatised individual to repeat their “unpleasure,” not the kind of performance that is likely to sate the urges of the individual who, for one reason or other, is led to “repeat painful traumatic experiences and to recreate inner issues and relationships from the past.”19

And yet, if we are to interpret busywork more broadly, and at the same time offer a narrow example, it begins to appear as an excellent candidate for Freud’s conceptualisation of repetition compulsion. Take, say, the “unofficial” example of busywork given to us by the narrative of Freud’s relationship with Fleiss. Here the otolaryngologist begins to busily postulate ever more improbable psychological theories in various unpublished documents (letters, for instance), as well as to communicate them orally; but he never publishes these ideas in scientific journals. In this case we can begin to see ways in which busywork—specifically writing and thinking but not publishing—may in fact function as a profoundly appropriate substitute for the trauma that comes from unsuccessfully performing the so-called “real work” (Leistung), which, in this case, would be constituted by Fleiss’s publication and dissemination of his theories and ideas. So, it might be said that the author who is led to write continuously but does not change their writing habits or patterns—and who never concludes their writing, their work thus forever remaining in draft form—may be understood, if not as a candidate for hypergraphia or a related disorder, as having been given over to a repetition compulsion. And while the repeated behaviour may well take the form of a completely unrelated performance (so that a writing disorder, such as hypergraphia, need not be based on a traumatic writing experience), the compulsion might also be said, in Fleiss’s case, to have been precipitated by the very trauma of not producing, say, publishable or rewardable writing in the past. Or, more to the point, we could say that it has been precipitated by the trauma of having produced only poor writing—work that has been severely criticised or impugned by precisely those whom one writes for.

There is much more that I could write on this subject—on repetition compulsion specifically, on busywork as an example of the same, and on writing as an incidental spur to emotional and psychological trauma. (The irony of saying so not is not lost on me.) However, at the risk of giving myself only more busywork, I will save those impulses for future notes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *