Capitalist Realism and Public Intellectualism

Although a few books, numerous essays, an art movement, a literary tradition, and an ideology have all been given the title “Capitalist Realism,” it is likely that what first springs to mind when a cultural studies scholar hears those two words is a small book published in 2009.1 More than six years since its publication, that book, with the long title Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, remains a lively, engaging, and valuable critique of neoliberal hegemony, a book that, as Dwight MacDonald wrote of some British journalists’ work, treats its “readers like equals,” and offers a persuasive indictment of managerialism in the “post-Fordist” era, which is to say in our global society since “October 6, 1979.”2

As this volume reminds us, it was on that day, some thirty-six years ago, that “the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by 20 points,” and so prepared “the way for the ‘supply-side economics’ that would constitute the ‘economic reality’ in which we are now enmeshed.”3 Indeed, this event was significant—“the most widely discussed and visible macroeconomic event of the last 50 years of U.S. history,” according to one economic analysis.4 But unlike the many economists who celebrate Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s decision to restrict monetary supply in an attempt to staunch inflation, and contra the multitude who continue to regard Volcker’s disinflation strategy as a salutary lesson in achieving macroeconomic stability—in avoiding a major recession—here, in this book, we receive a completely different impression of the event. Capitalism Realism makes the remarkable contention that Volcker’s decision was a broad mistake of economic governance—a fateful decision with far-reaching social consequences for workers, who thenceforward faced only the grim prospect of “a new ‘flexibility,'” one defined by the broad “deregulation of Capital and labor.”5

Before going any further, I will finally note that the book’s author was the writer and theorist Mark Fisher, who died last week, on the 13th of January, at the young age of 48 years old.6 While many have remarked on Fisher’s book—and indeed, commiserated the author’s passing—my own appreciation for Fisher’s writing, both in Capitalist Realism and elsewhere, stems from my admiration for his attempt to avow and to formalise a singular, powerful proposition: that, for a great many who are “enmeshed” in it, post-Fordist capitalism entails brutal psychic consequences. In this historical context, Fisher acknowledges, schizophrenia marks an ontological border—a “limit concept,” a phantomic outer-edge; but the psychotic disorder is also, he writes (after Lacan), a “‘suggestive aesthetic model’ for understanding the fragmenting of subjectivity in the face of the emerging entertainment-industrial complex.”7 But if schizophrenia “marks the outer edges of capitalism,” then “bi-polar disorder,” he adds, “is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism,” so allegorically synchronised, so correlative, are the economy’s “boom and bust cycles” to the “moods of populations” within the system.8

Among the many thinkers who people the author index on the Zero Books website, Fisher certainly seems one of those most suited to the Hampshire publisher’s stated aims, one of the most in harmony with its philosophy. (As one of the imprint’s commissioning editors, this is perhaps no surprise.) An imprint of John Hunt Publishing based in Ropley, East Hampshire, Zero Books (sometimes written as “Zer0 Books” or “0-books”) stands for, as it notes on its website, the production of a more disruptive, a more incisive form of writing than that which currently passes for intellectual work:

Contemporary culture has eliminated the concept and public figure of the intellectual. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their stupor.

This disillusioned view, with its eulogy for the public intellectual’s disappearance, is, of course, nothing less than accurate. For better or for worse (as, depending on how one defines them, what ramifies from the loss of the public intellectual remains unclear) the dominant media outlets seem no longer interested in according kudos, in showing any earnest deference to—and perhaps can no longer really even comprehend—those figures who had once been called (and who, lamentably, are sometimes still called) “Men of Letters.”9 “In the age of late or neoliberal capitalism,” write Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Peter Hitchcock, “society at large no longer affords its iconic or star public intellectuals much respect.”10 They are instead “widely regarded as merely representatives of ‘one side of the argument,'” their views subject to sensationalism and reductionism, whichever “side” they may happen to find themselves on (“liberal or conservative, left wing or right wing”). Unlike what may have once been the case, the public intellectual today is no more permitted to hold a finessed, conditional, qualified, or partial view, no more authorised to occupy a “rational middle ground,” than any other vendor in the ideas marketplace.11

If in the first half of the twentieth century, the exemplary public intellectual might have manifested in the form of someone like Aldous Huxley, a regular interviewee on BBC television before his 1963 death, another exemplar may have been Bertrand Russell, the talented mathematician–philosopher who routinely appeared on BBC broadcasts including The Brains Trust, and who just as often authored newspaper articles published in what we would today call the mainstream press. What soon becomes obvious, however, no matter to whom you point, is that public intellectualism in the early twentieth century was a man’s business—a boy’s club. But in addition to being men, and as well as possessing the requisite academic bona fides (although Huxley, holding only an undergraduate degree, drew his intellectual authority less from the institution than from his grandfather’s reputation), Huxley and Russell were also typical of the “writers and thinkers who,” as Russell Jacoby wrote in 1987 (in a book on American, not British, intellectuals), “address a general and educated audience” and “whose works are [not] too technical or difficult to engage a public.”12

In the later twentieth century, however, perhaps in the wake of Simone de Beauvoir’s “Femmes de lettres,” and (later) Hélène Cixous’s L’ecriture feminine, among many other feminist schools and currents, public intellectualism, losing some but by no means very much of its phallocentric bias, tapered its ongoing resistance to the image of the woman academic—or, at least, disavowed it long enough to accord some recognition to the forceful erudition of such women intellectuals as Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, Naomi Wolf, among many others.13

But no sooner had the longstanding exclusion of women from the intellectual public forum begun, in part, to abate (though, as Jeffrey Di Leo points out, “only 17 percent of professional philosopher are women”14) than “immediation”—the “cultural logic of the new public intellectual”—began to reconfigure the nature of the public performance.15 Rather derisive, Richard A. Posner identifies what might be advantageous for a public intellectual in this immediated context, namely “name recognition” and a nimble enunciative style:

Many public intellectuals are academics of modest distinction fortuitously thrust into the limelight, acquiring by virtue of that accident sufficient name recognition to become sought-after commentators on current events. Some of them are what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls le Fast Talker.16

But it is perhaps the very speed of capital circulation, the pace of the “entertainment-industrial complex” and the depth of immediation, that has conjured into life this “fast-talking” incarnation of the public intellectual. Indeed, as Hitchcock notes, the “velocity” of capitalism “affects the logic of intellectual production and exchange.” And, of course, something of this velocity is also immanent in, and is in fact constitutively a part of, not only what Fisher’s Capitalist Realism mourns but what it represents.

Even if Fisher was not himself one of Bourdieu’s le Fast Talkers, it remains true that his writing, swift and piquant, exudes a combustible intellectual energy. As one one reviewer of Capitalist Realism commented,

Fisher’s style of exposition has a fast-paced, free-wheeling quality to it reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s writing—and, indeed, there is a Žižekian audaciousness to many of the ideas that Fisher puts forward.17

On the back of its dust jacket, Steven Shaviro is quoted as describing Fisher as a “master cultural diagnostician,” a writer highly skilled in surveying “the symptoms of our current cultural malaise.” It is not by accident that Shaviro uses a grammar borrowed from psychiatry and medicine, Fisher being so clearly a disciple of the critical-psychiatry set, of the “radical theory and politics” of “Laing, Foucault, [and] Deleuze and Guattari.”18

However, what is perhaps most clearly apparent about Fisher’s writing, in ways sometimes quite distinct from those other authors’ works, is the extent to which it yearns so urgently for genuine political change; it is less interested in proposing a new theory of the political system, or in adumbrating a tantalising speculation about the future, than it is committed to proposing reform. After adverting to the work of the critical psychiatrists, Fisher’s tone becomes abruptly more pragmatic: “But what is needed now,” he writes, “is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS.”19 Fisher’s scholarly episteme might be described as a kind of “no-nonsense” political sociology, an unpretentious style of public intellectualism. His was an earnest yet unidealised approach to the work of political theory—one to which we should all aspire, now more than ever.

Emotions and Publishing

I assume that, on occasion, many early-career researchers are tempted, as I am, to reach for those kinds of books that offer a system or model for publishing success. After all, what better way to reassure oneself that an academic career is feasible than to learn about others’ achievements? Dean A. Shepherd’s The Aspiring Entrepreneurship Scholar offers ample straightforward advice to early-career scholars—indeed, the advice is sometimes so straightforward, and the book’s tone so informal, that one may even begin to suspect, as I did, that Shepherd had managed to somehow manipulate the review process to publish it (a sure sign of his scholarly aplomb). How else to explain the offhand equanimity, the conversational register, of some of the remarks? Chapter 2 opens with an exemplary line: “Okay, so maybe this is self-delusional, but I think of scholars, at least the good ones, as highly entrepreneurial.”20

Despite a profusion of many such general statements in the book, statements with a wide application for would-be scholars of all types, what I discovered within a few moments’ reading—but which I had not, I admit, initially realised when I downloaded the book via my institution’s subscription—was that Shepherd’s manual is not for all scholars at all. It does not explicitly propose that we, in whatever fields of study, take an “entrepreneurial” approach to a scholarly career—and why would it? The book is not addressed to all scholars but is, rather—and of course!—a guide written for—quite literally—“entrepreneurship scholars.” Of course, as you might have guessed, I had somehow, no doubt frivolously, imagined that Shepherd’s title was a strange nominalisation of the phrase “entrepreneurial scholar,” and that his book therefore sought to advance a particularly “entrepreneurial” strategy for a “successful academic career,” whatever the field. How wrong I was. But, despite this, my own quite remarkable misprision, the book proved to grant a few noteworthy insights for all of us in academia.

But first a little more on the book’s tone. It should probably be noted regardfully that the book is published by Palgrave Pivot, an imprint of Palgrave Macmillan designed for scholars who wish to publish a work longer than a journal article but shorter than a monograph. These compact books are published as e-books, but perfect-bound volumes can be ordered on demand. And it seems that this Palgrave imprint facilitates—or, better, encourages—precisely the kind of informal, this expert-but-accessible, style of writing preferred by Shepherd; or, in fact, I should say that it facilitates this as well as many other kinds of idiosyncratic writing, since Palgrave Pivot is set up to allow authors to publish their works at their “natural lengths”—to save them the adversity of cutting a long work down to the standard 8,000-word article, and the hardship of elaborating a short book up to to the 80,000-word breadth of the monograph. The imprint is also, it seems, all for authors publishing works that do not bear the seriousness of the monograph, nor the epistemological rigour of the article. As such, you might even say that these books represent, in some ways, the formalisation of the academic blog. After all, they’re also very quickly produced, with a turnover publication time of only twelve weeks following peer review. Hence, I suppose, the name “pivot.” But just in case I am being unclear, I think these volumes represent a positive expansion of the academic publishing ecosystem.

And while I’m talking shop: one thing that I immediately noticed about this imprint’s productions were the books’ formatting details—clearly the ramifications of this new modality of academic publishing—such as the way the chapter title pages were organised. Like journal articles, each chapter title page had a selection of keywords, a copyright notice (stipulating that copyright in the work was held by the author), and a DOI number. It’s certainly a smart-looking series, typeset in the classically sleek but sharp ITC Galliard (the same font the Library of America uses in its books), as opposed to ITC Stone Serif, the usual fare in Palgrave’s non-Pivot series books; although it is also a curious hybrid, what with this strange chapter metadata in a text that is released digitally, as an e-book, but is yet-not-fully digitised, a “photographic” pdf rather than a “live” hypertext.

None of this has much to do with Shepherd’s writing, however. And, lest my earlier meaning be misread, none of my earlier comments were supposed to suggest that Shepherd’s informality, this aporetic self doubting (“Okay, so maybe this is self-delusional”), is threaded through the entirety of his book—far from it. Shepherd, I soon realised, writes not with the insouciance of the careless, and not with “informality” as such, but with the openness and directness of a guru. It is, of course, the appropriate tone for a guidebook, something of a Dale Carnegie or Carl Crow done gone academese. And I imagine that, as an “entrepreneurship scholar,” Shepherd’s “down-to-business” style of writing is an asset—and not uncommon in journals in the field of business entrepreneurship, such as the one of which Shepherd is himself the editor, the Journal of Business Venturing. But what I thought would make an interesting and productive addition to my notes, here, were the various references and allusions Shepherd makes to the emotional world of the aspiring scholar, and particularly to the emotional conflicts they face in their attempts to publish their research.

In the opening chapter, Shepherd discusses the unusually buoyant attitude he took to the revise-and-resubmit (“R&R”) decision letter while still a doctoral student: “Believe it or not,” he writes, “I was excited when I received a rejection letter,” excited “that three scholars had read my work, found something interesting in it, and provided me feedback.”21 And while Shepherd implies that he “no longer feels” as positive about receiving R&Rs as he did then, he does continue to feel more positively about them than most of his colleagues, one of whom, when they asked him “how to deal with the negative emotions associated with such a decision letter,” prompted incredulity on his part.22 But what Shepherd writes next about his process is worth quoting at length, if only because few scholars seem to have written as candidly as he does of their emotional reactions to R&R letters—that is, of the way in which they have learnt to manage their own emotions. But this long quotation will also allow me to quickly look at the tropological figures Shepherd produces to explain his emotional defences against the familiar melancholy of dejection:

Returning to the issue of excitement in receiving feedback on a rejected paper, I used that excitement to drop other work and immediately begin to interpret the letter and the spirit of the reviewers’ comment [sic] to improve the paper and resubmit it to another journal. I thought about a paper as having momentum and believed it was important to keep the momentum rolling. On the flipside, I felt that if a paper sat, it lost momentum and required more effort to “start the ball rolling” again. Fortunately, having peers as co-authors and choosing to work with people with similar values, I was able to quickly learn, enhance the quality of each paper, and put them “back in play” at journals. Speed came from energy and momentum, not from cutting corners.

Through speed and working with colleagues on papers out of our dissertations, my colleagues and I were able to generate a reasonable number of papers in the first couple of years post-dissertation. We believed that having a “reasonable” number of papers “in play” (i.e., at least three or four papers under review at top journals) was important for two primary reasons. First, we believed that the more papers we worked on, the more feedback we would receive. Feedback not only helped us improve the quality of the specific paper but also provided the basis for a deeper understanding of what reviewers were looking for and how to address these issues and follow their recommendations. Upon reflection, we were engaging in deliberate practice and hopefully building expertise. We certainly had many opportunities to learn from our failures, but fortunately, we also had some successes—some small wins—which allowed me to start to believe that maybe I could make a career as an entrepreneurship scholar.23

While Shepherd magnanimously—and doubtless truthfully—attributes a degree of his success in turning papers over quickly and effectively to his helpful peers and colleagues, what is perhaps more notable about the above summary is Shepherd’s emphasis on “excitement,” “momentum” and “speed.” None of these three words is a one that we would first associate with the monastic labour of research. They better convey the personality of the explorer or adventurer—even the champion sportsperson.

Better still, these nouns remind me of Freud’s haughty, swaggering vision of himself as a “conquistador” in the letter of which I wrote in my last post. The year was 1900, and Freud, vainglorious, wrote of his personality thus: “I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador . . . with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity of a man of this sort.”24 I suppose there are many ways to find success as a scholar; however, what strikes me as salient about Shepherd’s keywords and Freud’s self-portrait is the common emphasis they place on this constitutive tenacity, this positively “dopaminergic” sense of ferment, that seems required of the emotionally durable scholar. In different ways, both authors suggest the importance of maintaining, for want of a better idiom, something of a quickness of mind and spirit. Excitement and energy, it may be, then, are the emotional antinomies of dormancy, the affective defences to torpor, no less in academia than elsewhere. But then, of course, we already knew that.

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.25 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.26 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.27

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.28

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.29 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.”30 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.31

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.32)

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.33 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.34 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.35 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.”36 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.37

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.38 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.39

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.”40

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.41

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.42 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.”43

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.