The Chit from Matron: Work, and the Making of a Modernist Living

The Chit from Matron: Work, and the Making of a Modernist Living.

Steven Connor

A paper given at the Centre for Modernist Cultures, University of Birmingham, 5th May 2022.


A Competence on Which to Rely

Modernism anticipates both the rapture and the ague of a world without work that cannot do without it. Such a condition seems to be anticipated at the beginning of Beckett’s Molloy:

He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money. Yes, I work now, a little like I used to, except that I don’t know how to work any more. That doesn’t matter apparently. (Beckett 2009, 3)

It is taken for granted that what modernist writers and artists did for a living was make various kinds of literature and art, of a modernist rather than traditional character. But one of the singular features of modernist art is that it is so extremely hard, and correspondingly rare, to make any kind of steady living from it, in the absence of any obvious preexisting demand for cryptic narrative and difficult music. As a consequence, a number of the leading modernists were sustained in their work of redefining what will count as literary and artistic work, and what will count as making it, by various kinds of private income. In his Illusion and Reality of 1937, Christopher Caudwell registered the move, beginning in Romanticism, of the poet-artist from a position of relatively sheltered privilege and esteem, often centred on the court or country house, to dependence on an uncertain publishing market.  It soon became possible for writers to regard their very superfluity to need or requirement as a reason for formalising this kind of subsidy, as in Joyce’s remark ‘What I wish to do is secure a competence on which I can rely, and why I expect to have this is because I cannot believe any State requires my energy for the work I am at present engaged in’ (Ellmann 1983, 198). On one occasion in Zürich in 1917, Joyce received a letter from the director of a bank who asked him to come to see him. When he arrived in his black suit, he was told ‘A client of the bank who is much interested in your work knows you are in bad straits financially and wishes to give you a kind of fellowship’. It turned out to have been a donation of a thousand francs a month, deposited by Mrs Harold McCormick, née Edith Rockefeller, who had also been supporting the work of Jung in Zürich since 1913 and would herself become a psycho-analyst.

Lawrence Rainey puts the alternatives like this: ‘if one could neither go back to reconstruct the aristocracy of the salon nor rush forward to embrace the egalitarianism of the commodity, what solution was there? The answer, paradoxically, was to do a little of both – to reconstruct an aristocracy, but to reconstruct it within the world of the commodity’ (Rainey 1999, 42-3). Rainey refers here to the creation of a market of economic rarities, centred on limited editions, and deluxe products, a market sustained by a group of patrons, like John Quinn and Harriet Shaw Weaver, and sustained by sensation and social murmur. As Rainey observes, one of the most distinctive features of modernist art-culture is the apparent reversal of the historical drift, as poet-artists attached themselves to wealthy patrons, sometimes of aristocratic stock, like Lady Gregory, but more often those who had acquired wealth in commercial or industrial ventures. What is more, such writers tended to keep their patrons waiting for returns on their investment for an inordinately long time.

Other modernists had to find more conventioanl means of subsistence. Journalism was understandably popular as an occupation that at least kept one in touch with writing implements, as in the case of Basil Bunting, who was music critic for The Outlook in the 1920s and later on a Times correspondent. Djuna Barnes was a much more successful and well-paid journalist. Not surprisingly, many modernist figures had vague intentions of making a living in some more or less academic manner, for example in schoolteaching, which both Auden and Waugh tried. Beckett turned his back on an academic career, but seemed never to have been able to turn his back on that shunning. Katherine Mansfield had thoughts of becoming a professional cellist. Dorothy Richardson’s start in life was as a receptionist in a Harley street dental surgery, but she was able to support herself and her husband for many years as a freelance journalist. Ella Williams, later to write as Jean Rhys, had ambitions of being an actress, spent a year as a touring chorus girl in musical comedy, worked as an escort and artist’s model, and even put in time during 1918 in a pension office, but largely depended on a series of not very dependable husbands, one of whom ended up in jail for financial fraud. Joyce tried out various occupations, including the idea of being a professional singer, or becoming a doctor, and also worked during 1906 as a clerk in a bank in Rome. Richard Ellmann records that ‘he had to write between two hundred and two hundred and fifty letters a day, beginning at 8.30 in the morning and ending at 7.30 at night, and often later, with two hours off for lunch’. Ellmann adds the Travesties-like note that the effect was to wear out the pair of trousers which he had borrowed from Stanislaus, to whom he complained that ‘they had been made too thin for steady desk work’ (an oxymoronic phrase that concentrates the whole of my argument), so that he had to hide the patches in the seat beneath his tailcoat (Ellmann 1983, 226). Even in the days of his late celebrity, with Ulysses selling well in expensive editions, the temptation of a steady job was still there: in 1939, Beckett had heard about a vacancy for a lecturer in Italian in the University of Cape Town, but Joyce thought better of it after hearing how common thunderstorms were there (Ellmann 1983, 722).

In general, then, modernist writers and artists tended either to depend on wealthy patrons, or some other source of the ‘small charitable sums’, on which Beckett’s Murphy depends (in his case mostly the earnings of the prostitute Celia), or on a discontinuous series of what would nowadays be called precarious employments. There are some notable, rule-proving exceptions: T.S. Eliot, declining to be rescued from Lloyds Bank through the intervention of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens’s steady career with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Georges Bataille sedately holding down his day-job at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Modern writers who made any kind of living from their writing – the despised Shaws, Wellses, Galsworthys and Bennetts – seemed automatically thereby to disqualify themselves as modernists.

What modernist artists also had in common was that they were, as a sardonic review of Blast in the New Statesman in 1914 put it, all species of ‘hustler’ (Squire 1914, 406), a word deriving from the primary notion of knocking or shaking about, then transferred to pickpockets, in reference to the disorientating barge often imparted to the victim, and finally to the actions of a vigorous or aggressive salesman, as well as, from the 1920s, a prostitute. All needed to make the most of a little. If it is really hard to see this as any kind of steady job, the different forms of hustling nevertheless constituted an important and growing part of urban economies.

By the late twentieth century, with absolutely no change in the power law governing the distribution of publishing revenues, meaning that only half a dozen of the several thousand or so literary novelists could ever actually generate a living wage from their royalties, there is hardly a single writer who was able to keep the wheels on their exalted calling without a spell of some length employed in a creative writing programme of a university. Most modernists became aware quickly, and few more quickly than Joyce, of the importance of academic institutions and the sizeable esteem economies they would create.

Tom Stoppard brings the antagonism between the worlds of art and work to articulation in Travesties, a play that imagines the meeting of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in Zürich in 1917, or rather imagines how that meeting might unreliably have been imagined by an obscure consular official called Henry Carr. During one of their encounters, Carr delivers a harrumphing tirade on Tristan Tzara’s foppish ideas of art:

When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called Labour – weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from Matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the Art Room. Labour or Art. And you’ve got a chit for life? (passionately) Where did you get it? What is an artist? For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist. (Stoppard 2017, 36-7)



And yet, modernist writers and artists did not operate entirely apart from working life, especially as that was beginning to be organised around the idea of the professional. In his book, Paranoid Modernism, David Trotter sees a link between the growing idea of a professional identity and the pressures put on literary form.

The writers who will concern me wrote about professional identities under extreme pressure. They were themselves, as professional writers confronted by a rapidly developing literary market-place, under extreme pressure. So they wrote about madness, and they went a little mad themselves. I want to suggest that the literary experimentation by means of which they hoped to achieve a degree of magical power can be understood as a psychopathy of expertise. (Trotter 2001 7-8)

The relations between two of the elements in Trotter’s title, literary experiment and psychosis, are not hard to intuit. Max Nordau early on saw the link between mental and stylistic forms of collapse and degeneration. Perhaps surprisingly, though he is in tune with other writers in the 1890s, Nordau thought that degeneration was the result of a generalised increase in work, unmatched by any corresponding increase in the amount or quality of nutrition. He measured this tellingly not just in the increase in tonnage of ships entering the ports of Britain, from 9.5 million in 1840 to 74.5 million in 1890, but also in the increase in reading and writing, especially of letters. In other words, this is a world, not just of thermodynamic, but also of informational labour, in an increase in the levels of reading and writing that are seen not as avenues for expression and imaginative enlargement, but as a demand for toil. Reading and writing, for which numbers of letters are a proxy, are imagined as a curious kind of autonomous system, in which it is the writing that has the agency, as we nowadays automatously like to say, rather than the writers:

The 18,000 new publications, the 6,800 newspapers in Germany, desire to be read, although many of them desire in vain; the 2,759 millions of letters must be written; the larger commercial transactions, the numerous journeys, the increased marine intercourse, imply a correspondingly greater activity in individuals. … A cook receives and sends more letters than a university professor did formerly. … statistics indicate in what measure the sum of work of civilized humanity has increased during the half-century. It had not quite grown to this increased effort. It grew fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria. (Nordau 1993, 39)

But Trotter’s focus is not on the luridly romantic kinds of insanity associated since Horace with the irregular habits and hairstyles of the poet, but on the more generalised and benign pottiness that began to be documented – documentation being of its essence – from the early nineteenth century onwards, for example in patients like James Tilly Matthews, and Charles Lamb, who relieved his time as a clerk in the East India Company with recreational periods in a Hoxton asylum. This is the new specifically bureaucratic battiness, the madness of systematic delusion, sometimes brought on by bureaucratic employment, but usually manifesting itself in a kind of perverse apotheosis of it, that would acquire the name of paranoia.

Paranoid patients tended not to go in much for burning and raving at close of day, but rather, like the respected Senate judge Daniel Paul Schreber, set themselves to prodigious tasks of documentation and accountancy, so that, rather than succumbing to madness, as an earlier idiom would have had it, they went in for it, as one would go in for a career or a civil service examination (the latter an institution originating in the nineteenth century). Religious history suggests that there have always been opportunities for human beings to be taken up in, or over by, obsessive-compulsive forms of routine, but not until the nineteenth century did these routines come to exhibit so striking an affinity with the routines of what began to be thought of as professional life, for which the collusion of a religious and a bureaucratic register in words like ‘clerk’, ‘profession’ and ‘office’ provides a kind of shorthand. Shorthand, too, which had in Tudor times been associated with cryptography and the occult arts, became, in the work of the young David Copperfield, a kind of professional ‘mystery’ – a word that probably derives from ‘ministry’, but that also carries the sense of the restrictive and secretive practices of different kinds of trade. Much in the world of scrivener seemed to be moving closer and closer to the world inhabited by the artist, especially as the magical powers of writing attested to in words like ‘spelling’ and ‘glamour’, offshoot of ‘grammar’, started to be made ever more systematic and generalised.

The point and premium of work had always been, by and large, to provide indubitable evidence of itself in the form of changes wrought visibly and laboriously to states of matter, as defined in the definition of work as mass moved through distance that became a principle of nineteenth-century physics, and summarised drily by Bertrand Russell as ‘altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter’ or, alternatively ‘telling other people to do so’ (Russell 1935, 12). Increasingly, though, it was not at all clear what kind of work was being done by the clerk or accountant and therefore, why anyone should pay them anything for it. The response, as always seems to be the case, was not to find something else to do but to work harder, or harder at least at the pretence or performance of working. Luckily, technological developments in forms of automatic writing, like the polygraph for which Jefferson was such an enthusiast, seemed in fact to multiply the demands of reproduction rather than ever seemingly likely to free one from them. Once one could make two copies of a letter simultaneously, the utility of, and therefore the need for, three and more, spontaneously arose; the typewriter multiplied the number of typewriters, or, as they started to be called, typists, to distinguish them from, and assert their dignity against, the machines they operated.

But magical thinking, of a kind that resembled the hypertrophied forms on display in paranoid psychosis, was also available, as Trotter observes: ‘During the nineteenth century the status the upwardly mobile professional classes sought for their expertise was the status of a “magical power” […] They did not always find it. Sometimes, when they did not find it, they made it up’. The magical operations are shared between artist and salaried citizen, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, which may seem to be built around the taken-for-granted gulf between the professional and the aesthete, but in fact depends on them both being observed on a half-holiday, in which their paths move in quasi-parallel. For, in fact, Leopold Bloom is not a salaried citizen at all, but rather, in a phrase which would have hummed with significance for Joyce, a canvasser for advertisements, or species of ‘commercial traveller’, navigating the ‘waters of civic finance’. He does not, that is to say, ‘go to work’, as, ironically enough, Stephen does, at least on the morning of Thursday 16th June, since his hustling work is a matter of coming and going.

In one sense, modernism is characterised by the effort to distinguish the work performed by the artist, which usually seems to mean not very much obvious work at all, from that performed by the professional, the clerk, accountant, stenographer, secretary, or journalist. But the elective affinity that Hugh Kenner long ago made between the modernist writer and the typewriter brings to a focus the uneasy rhyme between the professional and vocational forms of writing, explored in Bartleby the Scrivener and throughout the work of Dickens, in which the clerk, or demented documentarist like Mr Dick in David Copperfield, is the double of the writer.


Work of Redemption

The recoil from the rationalisation of work that comes increasingly to be part of everyday experience, for example in the Taylorisation of the workplace in the USA may appear to substitute for solid, four-square existence a utopia of evanescent sensations, as evoked by Virginia Woolf in ‘Modern Fiction’. All the way through, Woolf counterposes the kind of fiction for which she feels the need to an image of fiction writing as a species of industrial manufacture. She begins by complaining that

the analogy between literature and the process, to choose an example, of making motor cars, scarcely holds good beyond the first glance. It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature (Woolf 1984, 157)

Arnold Bennett is the writer, out of the gang of three materialist realists plummily disdained in the essay, and routinely put to the critical stake in the essays of generations of undergraduates who have never been tempted to read a word of them, who is most squarely accused of betraying the novel into mere workmanship:

Mr Bennett is perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as he is by far the best workman. He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay may creep in. There is not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards. (Woolf 1984, 158)

The response to this is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is a rejection of the whole sphere and idea of work, embodied specifically, as it seems, not in mining or cottonpicking or industrial manufacture, but in professional bourgeois existence, or in the work of official bureaucracies: Woolf indeed accuses Bennett of ‘taking on his shoulders the work that ought to have been discharged by Government officials’ (Woolf 1984, 159). Oddly enough, the idea that literature might be a sort of unofficial work of sociological documentation recurs, in parodic form, in the work of Mass Observation in the late 1930s, a project prompted by the late, mild arrival of surrealism in Britain a decade after its European heyday, which actually took the form of a kind of mass documentation of the national inner life called for by Virginia Woolf, only rendered in a sort of Schreber-like bureaucratic archive, of, recording such phenomena, for example, as the dreams dreamt by British people on the morning of the Coronation. In its gradual move toward market research following the War, Mass Observation begins to anticipate the capture of data from the unconsidered trifles of people’s inner lives that would become possible with the development of social media technology, which would make the difference between work and leisure definitively inscrutable. This was veritably, a kind of dream-work.

But Woolf`s project also represents something like a transfiguration of the very idea of literary work, a redemption of labour that is itself claimed, loudly, if somewhat inchoately, to be a redemption of labour itself: ‘So much of the enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life, of the story, is not merely labour thrown away but labour misplaced’ (Woolf 1984). Her concern is to characterise ‘the task of the novelist’ (Woolf 1984, 160). Like many other writers about writing, encouraged by the growth glimpsed out of the corner of its eye, of that new profession known as academic literary studies, Woolf is at pains to stress the importance of the transformation of method rather than its abandonment: ‘Is it the method that inhibits the creative power?’ she asks, only, with prompt precaution, to emphasise ‘Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers … This method has the merit of bringing us closer to what we were prepared to call life itself’ (Woolf 1984, 162). Modernist fiction is to Edwardian fiction as 3-D printing is to industrial mass-manufacture.

The most important thing in Woolf’s manifesto piece is the attempt it makes to save the idea of the work of literature, which, while spiritual, is also seen as a task, a word deriving from Latin taxare, to rate or estimate, but a word that is drawn increasingly into religious discourse. Her use of the word may recall Conrad’s in the 1897 preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, which ends:

To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. … To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile – such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a very few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. (Conrad 1988, xlix, li)

The word is given a certain extra purchase by the note which Conrad wrote for an American edition of the novel in 1914, which makes it clear that the book marks the transition from one kind of work to another, the work of the seaman to the work of the writer:

After writing the last words of that book, in the revulsion of feeling before the accomplished task, I understood that I had done with the sea, and that henceforth I had to be a writer. And almost without laying down the pen I wrote a preface, trying to express the spirit in which I was entering on the task of my new life. (Conrad 1988, xlv)

But Conrad seems never to have been able to let himself believe in the work to which he committed himself to, looking back throughout his fiction to the magical ideal of purely practical, unreflective work, in which the self may be lost, rather than the existential cauldron that literary work was for Conrad, work of which he could never be sure, never even be sure that it was work. As he looked towards the end of Under Western Eyes in 1909, Conrad wrote to Norman Douglas ‘It’s mere hard labour for life – with this difference, that the life convict is at any rate out of harm’s way – and may consider the account with his conscience closed; and this is not the case with me. I envy the serene fate and the comparative honesty of the gentlemen in gray who live in Dartmoor’ (Jean-Aubry 1927, 2.105) .

Most of the accounts, not that there are many of them, of the occupational or professional aspects of modernism fall into discussion of economics. But economics, in modernism as elsewhere, is really a proxy for work, indeed the principal proxy, since work is assumed to be necessary primarily for economic reasons. But the economic is work’s proxy in a double sense: for it is a proxy for what is in any case a phenomenon of proxy phenomenon, that is anyway knowable only through surrogates or correlatives, all of them serving to fill out fetishistically the void where work should be. Modernism centres in particular on the substitutive oscillation between the substantive and verbal forms of work: one works in order to produce what is called work, or works, the function of which is however to provide proof of the work that has, as we say, gone into them. The work is proven to be work by the work of which it is itself the proof.


Life’s Work

Woolf and others make the task of the modernist the effort to get closer to life. But there is another sense in which work and life are twinned. For, if modernists were not all that good at making a living from modernism, they nevertheless were often enough pledged to the work of making a modernist life, which is identical with a life’s work, or work of self-making through art. In his poem ‘The Choice’, Yeats declares that ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work’ (Yeats 1982, 278). In fact, though, modernist writers toiled to overcome the separation between the two, even if their ideal is more aristocratic than Morrisian.

The purgatorial paradox of the modernist is the agony of a work that is at once the transfiguration of a life and the sacrifice of it, without the possibility of remission. Ellmann records a conversation in which Joyce said to Lois Gillet ‘ “When your work and life make one, when they are interwoven in the same fabric … ” and then hesitated, as if overcome by the hardship of his “sedentary trade” ’ (quoted Ellmann 1983, 149). Joyce, it is well-known, was both prolific and stingy in his literary production, producing only four major works. Ulysses was able to be Ulysses only because of the deadline of his fortieth birthday which Joyce had fixed on for it. It is clear that, for all its monumentally intricate interconnections, the work that was to become Ulysses as a sort of interim bulletin, was already on its way to becoming the work of becoming that would for many years bear the name of Work in Progress, a title that is itself subject to working and unworking throughout Finnegans Wake – ‘warping process’. Joyce would remark in a letter to Jacques Mercanton ‘’Work in Progress I am making out of nothing’ (Ellmann 1983, 543)

Asked to contribute a comment on Joyce for the centenary of his birth, the 76-year-old Samuel Beckett wrote, on one of his cameo postcards, at almost precisely the length of half a tweet: ‘I welcome this occasion to bow once again, before I go, deep down, before his heroic work, heroic being.’ The heroism of the author of Stephen Hero lies not in what is conventionally called ‘his work’ but in something like his being-to-work. The point of Finnegans Wake is precisely to be a kind of practical joke, the joke consisting in the fact that it will be a work that will hover on the abyss of being nothing.

Astonishingly, Joyce asked H.G. Wells if he would help prepare the public for Finnegans Wake. Wells took the trouble to explain why he would not at some length, in terms which find themselves repeatedly reechoed in the work itself:

Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary rights and restricted time and intelligence and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. … Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so may waking hours of the ones I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering? (Ellmann 1983, 608)

Here the sacrificial logic that is always at work in the idea of work is transferred from writer to reader, in a way that chimes with Joyce’s own reported ambitions for the life-consuming demands of his work: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant’ and, in a conversation with Max Eastman, ‘The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works’ (Eastman 1931, 100). Like Wells, Eastman quails at the thought of the sacrifice involved in that kind of monastic devotion, and ends his reminiscence of Joyce with the puzzled judgement that ‘He is doing an intellectual and imaginative labor gigantic in its proportions, obdurate in its persistence, with no practical end in view whatever, not even that of communicating his experience, but solely to perfect himself in the art of playing by himself in public’ (Eastman 1931, 102).

Not surprisingly, Joyce takes many opportunities to set the work in progress to work on itself, for example in the recycling of the title of readings of his work that Joyce commissioned in advance of its appearance: ‘His producers are they not his consumers? Your exagmination round his factification for incamination of a warping process. Declaim!’ (Joyce 1975, 497). The work in process in Finnegans Wake is thework of demonstrating, and reflecting on, the promiscuity of process itself, in which

every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected with the gobblydumped turkery was moving and changing every part of the time: the travelling inkhorn (possibly pot), the hare and turtle pen and paper, the continually more and less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators, the as time went on as it will variously inflected, differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns (Joyce 1975, 118)

The figures of the professional and the confessional artist are embodied in Shaun and Shem, the latter frequently imagined as taken up in a work of scriptive-excremental self-fashioning:

the first till last alshemist wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body, till by its corrosive sublimation one continuous present tense integument slowly unfolded all marryvoising moodmoulded cyclewheeling history (Joyce 1975, 185-6)

Joyce borrows from the traditions of alchemy here, as the Great Work that is really no work at all, and yet is, as embodied in the frenetic action of dissimulation that makes up Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, a superb anticipation of the capitalisation of the phantasmatics of work.

The alternatives of productive and unproductive labour are also put into conversation in the interpolated fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper, which retells Aesop’s providential fable of the ant and the grasshopper, wit the Shem-like improvident the Gracehoper being the one of the pair who hopes to hop his way to grace via gratuity, even as, according to the song that concludes the fable, the two embodiments of what Bataille characterised as restricted and general economy, are codependent: ‘We are Wastenot with Want, precondamned, two and true’ (Joyce 1975, 418).

Work is the means whereby life is styled, and lifestyle is the means by which the modernist cultivation of the life given over to art has been generalised, meaning that HR departments must now devote their time to coaching workers in the engineering of work-life balance. Under such circumstances, the ironic difference between thermodynamics and informational ordering evoked by Bertrand Russell, is dissolved, and, as suggested by Michel Serres, ‘to work is to sort’ (Serres 1986, 86).

Indeed, the academic profession has led the way in what is a new round in the academicisation of labour. Academics were really very early on the scene of the ascenic utopia, or rather pantopia, of the truly open university, in which one need not any more go to work in order to get to work or set about it. Work has evaporated into phantasmatics, though one might as well say hardened, since the obvious distinction between soft and hard work is one of the things that has, like the Boojum, softly and suddenly vanished away, even as the dreamwork or labour of that phantasmatics has intensified and proliferated.

In 2019, David Graeber published an influential lamentation on the vacuity of the occupations he calls ‘Bullshit Jobs’, which suggested that ever more employees in different areas of capitalist economies thought they were employed in a ‘bullshit job’, defined as ‘a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case’ (Graeber 2019, 8). Graeber offers as an epigraph to one of the chapters in his book the following quotation: ‘In the Scilly Islands … the natives of that group are popularly said to have eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in each other’s washing’ (Graeber 2019, 145). He offers as a reference only ‘obscure nineteenth-century joke’, though there seems no particular reason why he might not have given its 1876 source in a report of a lecture ‘On the Uses of a Landed Gentry’ given in Edinburgh by J.A. Froude, though the phrase does not in fact occur in the text of Froude’s actual lecture (Froude 1876). Graeber’s book is devoted to convincing us that such circumstances are so absurd that the requirement to work should be swept away by putatively rational means such as a Guaranteed Universal Income. It seems much more likely that the point of work may be precisely to disguise this absurdity. The fact that the pretence of working is itself a kind of ordeal, privation, or exploitation, may be a proof of the importance of ensuring that work is indeed of a kind we can call `hard` even and, in fact, especially, when it is not.

This is perhaps part of the reason that the peculiar practice, or rather, perhaps, the peculiar category of practice, known as ‘art’ got itself so mixed up in modernism with the question of difficulty. Just at the point, from the late nineteenth century onwards, at which artists started to react testily against the expectation that their work required special kinds of skill or laboriously acquired technique, and began to insist that art in fact embodied the ideal of transcending vulgarly laborious craft, and just as the suspicion began to grow that the forms of modern art they produced did not really make many demands at all on their time or technique, so a set of occult beliefs began to be brewed about the special kinds of spiritual vocation and striving that was needed to be a modern artist. In fact, a special charisma had begun to be accorded to the figure of the artist from the Renaissance onwards, but from the late nineteenth century onwards the visionary power thought to be possessed by the artist began to be transferred to his or her products, which acquired their value, not from the qualities, of verisimilitude, beauty, absorptiveness, and so on, that had been readily recognisable by their audiences, but from the evidence they supplied of being the outcome of particular kinds of work, that no longer seemed to be governed by accepted aims or techniques. In lockstep with this, the audiences for modern art were persuaded that their own responses needed ever more elaborate training, not least in the huge expansion of courses of academic study devoted to the understanding and interpretation of the different kinds of art that multiplied during the twentieth century. Increasingly, the point of a work of art was not to supply pleasure but rather to furnish difficulty, even if that difficulty was supposed to constitute a new kind of pleasure. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, making art had been thought to be hard, in order that its reception should furnish a kind of ease; by the end of the following century, it was the reception of art that was turned into hard work. The work that goes in to the fantasy of difficulty in modern art is acidly mocked by John Carey, in the course of his remarks on the case made by John Tusa for increased government funding of opera:

‘The fact is’, he explains, ‘that opera is not like dipping into a box of chocolates. It is demanding, difficult.’ Despite this assurance, the association of opera with difficulty seems questionable. What sort of difficulty, it might be asked, do those attending operas encounter? What is difficult about sitting on plush seats and listening to music and singing? Getting served at the bar in the interval often requires some effort, it is true, but even that could hardly qualify as difficult compared with most people’s day’s work. The well-fed, well-swaddled, beneficiaries of corporate entertainment leaving Covent Garden after a performance and hailing their chauffeurs do not look as if they have been subjected to arduous exercise, mental or physical. (Carey 2005, 46-7)

Much twentieth-century art devoted itself to the paradoxical project of unworking, or working art free from the structures and expectations of work, in particular through a refusal to produce what are known or recognised as works of art. There are two forms of this refusal. One is the idea of the readymade, as inaugurated in Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’ submitted in 1917 to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Thereafter, it was open to artists to claim that their acts of choice, as dramatised by the displacement of objects from their familiar contexts into the context of the gallery, were enough on their own to make objects into works of art: or, what increasingly would come to the same thing, objects of speculation as to whether they were in fact works of art or not. This is really a replay of J.C. Maxwell’s conundrum of the demon who might be able to perform work merely through the action of selection or sorting molecules. It was only a matter of time before artists would realise that there was no need for any kind of work-like object to act as a bait or decoy, since the very act of conceiving or projecting various sorts of actions or procedures might be regarded as art work. The surprise is that it did in fact take almost half a century for what was called ‘conceptual art’ to emerge, first of all in the US and then in Europe. As Sol deWitt explained in 1967, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair’ (LeWitt 1999, 12). As often as not the execution is so perfunctory that it can safely and perhaps even preferably be left to others to carry out, making the artist a kind of designer or commissioner, and the artist’s idea ‘a machine that makes the art’ (LeWitt 1999, 12). LeWitt does not go out of his way to suggest that the work of producing concepts is itself particularly hard work, and his statement concludes with the observation in a footnote that ‘I dislike the term “work of art” because I am not in favor of work and the term sounds pretentious’ (LeWitt 1999, 16).

None of this could possibly have gone anywhere were it not for a peculiar kind of paradox that came to constitute the whole realm of art practice, or, since the point is that the practice is arbitrary and incidental, what we must call the mythos of art. On the one hand, the purposes, process and effects of art became increasingly self-determining, that is, meant to demonstrate the capacity of art to make of itself what it liked. Seen somewhat more expansively, one might also say that the point of a work of art seemed increasingly to be to dramatise the question of what kind of work it actually was, often by teasingly hinting that no work of any familiar kind (‘brush-work’, say) might have been involved at all. One might expect such a project quickly to have diminished into nothingness, with the institutions and audiences of art drifting away to busy themselves with the many other modes of leisure and distraction that began to be provided by new media and technologies. In fact, however, the dissolution of the traditional understanding of the kind of work that might go into making a work of art went along with a dramatic consolidation of the power, fascination and prestige of the idea of art, as embodied especially in the theory that the sphere of art involved access to a special kind of experience, or world within a world, called the ‘aesthetic’. Nothing proved the distinctness of the idea of the aesthetic, a term that in much common usage seems to mean nothing more, or less, than ‘being-art-ness’, more than the apparent ordinariness of the kinds of thing presented as art – supermarket items, bricks, blocks of wood, light bulbs, empty rooms, unmade beds and so, limitlessly, on, for what possible limit could there be to the capacity of art to turn non-art things into art things? The galleries, museums and concert-halls that had previously existed to contain or make available the specific and distinctive kind of art-work that were the precipitates of the work putatively done by artists, now became arenas for the performance of a special kind of work of vague musing on, or, as it was sometimes called, interrogation of the nature of the work, involved in art.

It has been drearily clear for at least a century that art can be anything – any kind of object, any kind of action whatsoever. But this does not in the least imply that anything can be art, since in order to be art (remembering of course, that being art is identical with being taken to be art, or being taken to be the kind of thing that other people would be likely to take to be art, etc) some kind of claim, assumption or assertion needs to be made regarding the artistic status of the object or action in question. Being art depends on the magical operation of framing or put-up job, that is the veritable work of art required to turn an unartistic object into art.

And it is hard to deny that some kind of work, or at least some sort of operation, must have occurred, or be able to be assumed to have occurred. Work and operation overlap almost completely in the range of their usages in English. It is hard to avoid the fancy that this operation is to be located somewhere between the heaving and straining of the word work, and the fancier kind of thing, both more elaborate and also more rarefied, that the Latinate operation might more often seem to mean, as for example in a military operation or a surgical procedure. For more than half the time that art has been assumed to be able to be anything, that operation has been able to be discursive, or institutional-discursive, as well as physical – that is, the soft kind of transformation effected by Maxwell’s neat-fingered entity, of designating something as art, or declaring it to be so, or perhaps even just floating the possibility that it might be (‘Art or not? You decide’). This process is at once wholly imaginary and completely real. What is more, it is wholly imaginary and completely real in just the same way as work is. By seeming to be the opposite of work (‘That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it’), the work of art succeeds in being functionally identical with it. Art is whatever can succeed in being imagined to be art, in just the same way as work is whatever can succeed in being imagined to be work. That the success is not assured in either case is what makes it necessary to work at it.

One of the dominant modes of pseudo-work operationalised in modernism is the principle of elaborated omission. Where the conventional world of work is governed by productivity (or the idea of it), the principle of concentration is supposed to prove the productivity of the parsimonious. The doctrines associated with imagism, amplified by stories like that of Joyce claiming to have spent a whole day working on the order of the words in a single sentence, gives rise to a mythos of the minimal that has been vastly productive in the ideology of modern art and design, even in its escape from modernist aesthetics into lifestyle magazines. The ancient principle of the ars celare artis is at work here, but it may also partake in the strange ambivalence observed by Vilém Flusser, that all the central principles of mechanical design depend upon efficiency-reductions that amount to a kind of work-avoidance, doing more work by less, or doing less work for more. The central image of this is the lever, but it is expressed in the strange tendency of words that mean work to turn over on themselves and become words that mean the pretence of work: art can be artifice or artfulness, craft (German Kraft, strength) becomes craftiness, design can be designing; even trickery seems to have a relation to the genuine work signalled by tricoter, knitting (Flusser 1999, 21). Skiving, that is conventionally derived from French esquiver, to slink away, can seem like a kind of work through its rhyme with striving, as in the parallel pairing of working and shirking.

The dissolution of work is in in this sense an existential risk. But, in an exactly equal and opposite sense, and a completely literal one too, it is business as usual. For the real work of work has been all along, not that of having done with work, or getting it over with, but of elaborately defending against the anguished apprehension of its non-necessity, by turning it from the triviality of the simply unnecessary into the existential ardour of the unnecessarily essential.

In its recoil from the world of work, modernism anticipates the decompression of the very idea of work that will have become general a century later. This does not take either the heroic form of a strike, itself a kind of abstentive apotheosis of work, or the even more utopian form of the abolition of work, but rather a generalised anguish born from the exhausting tension between the ontological evacuation of the eidos of work and the ongoing longing for it. This does in the least mean unemployment, but rather work that has more and more difficulty in convincingly counting as work, a world in which work threatens no longer to work in the ways that work previously had, ideologically, morally, psychologically or even economically. As those who shower before work strive in ever more versatile ways to be mistaken for those who get in the bath after it, this anguish shows signs if anything of intensifying rather than melting away, and even of beginning to take the place of work itself, in the strange toil of preserving the possibility of work.




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