Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'A Woolf in the Garden': reflections on work and civilised leisure

One of the themes of this month's 'G8 of Philosophy' in Amsterdam was modern work.

My lecture was about labour in this global age, and the example of Leonard Woolf: how his leisure allowed him to reflect on work and its value.

An extract from my lecture is in this month's (typically handsome) New Philosopher magazine. A sample:
The overall impression of working life, and the leisure left over, is a second nature that repeats and reinforces the worst of the first. A new necessity, which provides plenty of commodities, but at a price: we give up thinking about the point of it all. Before commodity exchange, there's a more basic exchange: whatever liberty we have, for a slot in the machine. "This is our groove, this is the rut of the great and would-be great," as Max Horkheimer put it. "This is reality as it is and should be and will be." 
This is why Woolf did one thing among the apples and irises of Monk's House that is becoming increasingly rare: he took leave of his paid work to reflect on its value -- and the value of any labour, artistic or otherwise. 
Of course gardeners aren’t outside of history and biography. Woolf had poor servants. He had a Cambridge education. He lived awkwardly but handsomely within the English empire, and before the rise of 'liquid times'. The garden itself is not somehow beyond class, status and gender. 
But for Woolf, his fingers "faintly dusty" with soil, the garden was not an illusory escape from the world. It was a way to recognise its risks, beauties and brutalities. He also saw what might otherwise be; he perceived that the rut, the groove were contingencies, not necessities. And he recognised that healthy civilisation asked for a longer view than daily radio broadcasts or stock market reports.

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