Jérôme Toussaint — Jul 19, 2021

Labor is everywhere!

In post-industrialized societies, a significant part of labor is immaterial, digital, fluid, limited in time, performance-oriented, achievable everywhere.

We – the workforce –are adaptable, flexible, physically and mentally mobile, always reachable, smoothly managed. We are activable human capital.

Besides, we are always soliciting, applying. LinkedIn is our FB. FB is our LinkedIn.We are brands, entrepreneurs of ourselves, assessing the cost/benefit, mentally if not already legally independent entrepreneurs. We kept the bill after having had a drink with you. You enjoyed our company.

Business is everywhere!

We are lying teleworkers stuck in our soft and ultraconnected prisons.1 The coronavirus has finished off Fordism. Our laptops optimize the extraction of our work.

We are said to be detached, disloyal, opportunistic, and cynical. We are curious, adaptable, disobedient. Stressed and depressed.2 We forgot how to unplug.

In recent years, some authors have called for laziness as a resistance mechanism.

But »laziness« is too dubious. It does counterintelligence, always on the side, trying to make you feel guilty.

»Leisure« is acquainted with entertainment.

»Idleness,« like the German Müßiggang, is better.

But the French oisiveté has the virtue of being rooted in the Latin word otium.

Through Müßiggang, Nietzsche only praised the otium.3

The Greeks and early Romans clearly distinguished otium and negotium. The latter being the negation of the first one (nec otium). Otium comes directly from the Greek skhôlè, which covers free time, inaction, studious leisure, the quest of beauty, sense, values, truth. It enables thoughts, contemplation, meditation, study, and speculation. It is autonomous, detached from any personal interests, and deployed without any external justification. It is a side of self-care, the viva contemplativa. The way to reach art, politics (as the quest of general interest), philosophy. The ontological basis of individual emancipation.4

With the rise of the Roman empire, the otium has been progressively locked in the private sphere. In doing business (negotium), Greeks and early Romans were literally negating the otium (nec otium).

Later, in the Christian era, time was counted by God and it was therefore forbidden to waste it. The so-called principle of non-oisiveté.5 The pastoral power directed the consciences. Self-revelation – which is at the core of the oisiveté – became self-denial.

The Classical age (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) posed the principle of a theoretically ever-growing use of time/workforce. The rise of capitalism. Utilitarianism. Disciplines. Efficiency. This is still ongoing.

So, the fact that the French word oisiveté comes from and therefore envelops the otium has to be praised. It is better equipped this way than »laziness,« »leisure,« or even »idleness« to challenge the world trade of things and its corollary, the ever-growing labor market.

Oisiveté is treated by French-speaking people with distance but without disdain. Neither ideologues nor human resource management thinkers like it. The concept has not aged, but does not seem to fit in our time.

Are oisifs or oisives the ones who do not work, temporarily or durably, who do not have any kind of business or pseudo6 activity? They are not lazy, no Bartleby. They are not employed – they are birds.7

That essential peace in the depths of our being, that priceless absence in which the most delicate elements of life are refreshed and comforted, while the inner creature is in some way cleansed of past and future, of present awareness, of obligations pending and expectations lying in wait … No cares, no tomorrow, no inner pressure, but a kind of repose in absence, a beneficent emptiness that brings the mind back to its true freedom. Here it is concerned only with itself. Freed from its obligations toward practical knowledge, and unburdened of any care for things to come, it creates forms as pure as crystal.8

Paul Valéry, The outlook for intelligence

  1. See Paul Preciado: »Biosurveillance: sortir de la prison molle de nos intérieurs,« in: Mediapart, April 12, 2020.

  2. See Paolo Virno: A Grammar of the Multitude, Cambridge, MA 2004.

  3. See Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science, Cambridge 2001. no. 329.

  4. See Jean Miguel Pire: Otium, Arles 2020.

  5. See Michel Foucault: Surveiller et punir, Paris 1995.

  6. »People intervene all the time, ›do something‹; academics participate in meaningless debates and so on.« Slavoj Žižek: Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, London 2009, p.183.

  7. As oisiveté is spread into sounds, French-speaking people first hear oiseau, which means bird in French. Oiseau and oisiveté are the only two common French words beginning with »ois-« and the first one is much more used than the second, so that phonologically the bird cannot be clearly separated from oisiveté.

  8. See Paul Valéry: The Outlook for Intelligence, trans. Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews, Princeton 1989.

Jérôme Toussaint graduated from Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, with degrees in law (2007) and performance studies (2012). He works as a lawyer and legal researcher in German and Belgian law, and is also a certified translator. Toussaint was a fellow at the Akademie in the discipline of Jurisprudence/Law.

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