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January, 2018

REVIEW: Dienstag, J. F. (2009). Pessimism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Laziness, pessimism and the productivity of unproductivity

A legal scholar, Dienstag discusses many forms pessimism takes in mainly Western philosophy and political philosophy (existentialism, nihilism, metaphysics, political theory, literary theory). However, it falls short of recognizing pessimism as a transcendent position in terms of shared, and inherited cultural traumas and social debt.

It's helpful for me to think of modes of expression in terms of performative acts vs. performativity as a ongoing and iterative way of interacting with the world. I think there is a difference between calling a contingent and isolated act pessimism, and calling a pattern of activities pessimistic. The latter is a kind of an attitude. The scale of inquiry is important. But attitudes have been looked at both in terms of isolated events, but also what unique events tell about ongoing attitudes towards social interactions, which unravel over time.

Inspired by Dienstag's contribution, I want to attempt an impossible exercise, which is to put conversations about pessimism into two camps. That: pessimism is a productive attitude, or that it is unproductive one. Further, I want to look at how pessimism and laziness appear in tandem in conversations about the social effects of recent advances in computing and the digital economy. My theory is that we can only define laziness as a negative subject-position of work. Further, I suggest that laziness has traditionally been defined in respect to one's position on whether work is a fundamental aspect of being human. I have only a little space and energy to do what I claim to do. But I want to braindump/note a few different different positions on automation's effect on work, and how these positions rely on the concepts of pessimism and laziness:

1) laziness is a source of critique for the ways that automation has freed up our time, but over time, robots will replace us, leading to mass confusion and disarray because humans like to work and are defined by it. I would call this a way of reading laziness as both an inevitable aspect of automation, (rising unemployment leading to rising psychological, and existentialist questions of what to do with ourselves, and how society can be structured, when humans no longer need to work. In this way of using the word, laziness is sign of a loss of productivity.

2) laziness is considered an aim and sign of productive consumption as a product of technological advancement. For example, our devices are designed to make us do less work, but in the name of freeing up our time to do different kids of work.

I'm riffing on a lot of things Dienstag said, and adding a few. (I need to go back and cite page numbers, but this is a work in progress...) The fear of pessimism is a negative discourse of the fear of a decrease in productivity. A series of theoretical questions I want to explore: Does mass contagion of pessimism occur, and what social structures are in place to thwart them? See: plague, war, slavery, ongoing cultural violence, nuclear threat, hysteria, social control through normalization, antidepressants, psychiatry. Is the cult of the opinion that being happy not just about individual responsibility, but about happiness as a social activity of social influence. See: communication theory on advertising and mass persuasion, propaganda. Pessimism might also be seen as a lack of gratitude in religious contexts. Activities deemed pessimistic are also deemed selfish in this position, in that economic reproduction (and the consumption that productivity affords) are deemed positive because they indicate participation in society.

A lack of positive outlook doesn't categorically result in a lack of productivity. Pessimism can be mobilized for productive uses (both within capitalist frameworks, and critiques of capitalism). But resignation and pessimism are often confused. Dienstag suggests that pessimism can also be a kind of realism, an acknowledgement of struggle and hardship in particular. It's more than a shame that he doesn't discuss Afro-pessimism, extensively activated in the black radical tradition. In that way, pessimism can be a motivating factor for other types of contributions to society, like activism, and also demands for things that might not be possible, to call attention to failures leading to the barriers or impossibilities of immediate realizations or change. In Christianity, suffering is a labor of devotion done in a sort of solidarity conversation with God, a stress on the singularity of the experience and choice to feel pain, martyrdom. We can also explore conversations about the role of tragedy in moralistic storytelling to a kind of mobilization of pessimism in cautionary tales.Finally, we can think about the ways that pessimism has become a cultural trope for suffering appropriated by popular culture, emergent from creative expression and the freedoms art affords as a space of expression of attitudes, which otherwise would restrict one from professionalization (punk, emo, goth).

In conversations about laziness allow us another way to think about pessimism, and how certain attitudes come to be labeled as “positive” or “negative” based on their relationship to productivity or unproductivity. A rich and long line of thought has explored how certain relationships to work and working practices are deemed lazy. Recently, the growth of scale of computing has changed the debate about laziness. Below are some ways I’ve seen laziness read in terms of changes in work:

The premise that the logic of technological invention is the tension between: 1) the drive towards making life easier (automation) and; 2) a reduction of paid labor/jobs and the....

resulting concern of the negative effects of laziness due to less people working * socio-economic inequalities of the relegation of the remaining jobs that can’t be automated to marginalized peoples (some people get to be more lazy) * uncertainty and lack of imagination of what people will or won’t do when they don’t work (speculative design tries to intervene here) * fear of loss of meaning, given that work gives our lives meaning (Max Weber)

resulting concern that jobs aren’t lost but shift from paid labor to unpaid (immaterial, emotional, affective, cognitive, biopolitical) forms of labor rather than reduce the need for people to work * concern that these jobs are more mundane “bullshit jobs” * concern that these jobs are more mundane, but gamification deceives us into thinking they are less mundane (which has other problems, including disguising labor)

The debate about Universal Basic Income (UBI) is heavily engrossed in this debate about the productivity or unproductivity of laziness, based on particular readings of history and views on if/how history will be reproduced.

Also importantly, that the stigma against pessimism and against laziness alike are ways of disguising prejudice against marginalized populations, including the poor, and classes of people often regulated to particular social roles deemed less economically productive, for instance those who take paid parental or family leave (maternity, paternity, adoption), people with disability, and the homeless. We can look to the regulation of smoking as a measure which uniquely effects the working class, and statistics on the correlations between stress and addition to tobacco, the condemnation of pessimism in light of the rise of capitalist will to power/progress (strength), and the condemnation and medicalization of addiction (to certain substances) as an especially working class affliction.

Dienstag's book is useful to anyone looking to explore how attitudes are deemed "negative" by interpretations about how they affect work. Dienstag doesn't bring in gender, but I approach pessimism with the feminist concern that "the personal is political." I think we can use his thought to think about pessimism and laziness together as broader and recurrent pattern in attitudes and critiques about technological progress.


Dienstag, J. F. (2009). Pessimism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Furnham, A. (1982), "The Protestant work ethic and attitudes towards unemployment." Journal of Occupational Psychology. 55: 277–285.

Preciado, P. B. (2016). Testo junkie: Sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era. New York, NY: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.