Violet Evergarden: A Non-Character-Driven Epic

Violet Evergarden is a 2018 anime series produced by Kyoto Animation based on a Light Novel series of the same name. The production has been highly acclaimed for its visual style and quality, which is of a typical standard for works from Kyoto Animation, and also for its writing, particularly in its use of pathos and its approach to themes of war, violence, loss, mourning, and love. The series has also received some criticism from various web and popular sources for its narrative structure and characterisation. Specifically, such critiques lay down the claim that Violet Evergarden‘s eponymous protagonist is poorly written and lacks any meaningful character development or an original design, both visually and narratively. It is in part to these critiques that I respond here.

It is my view that these are not errors in execution marring an otherwise well-realised work of visual storytelling, but rather that these are generic (in the sense of genre-related) elements of the work without which the work would lose some of its most important features. It is therefore my position that these complaints about the character Violet Evergarden are true, but that the impact these elements have on the series Violet Evergarden are not detrimental to the overall effect, but rather, integral to it.

Let’s start with narrative and character development. The series is set in a fantasy mock-up of early 20th century Europe. The series opens just after the cessation of a bitter and violent war (roughly analogous with WWI). Violet is a young woman placed somewhere between 14 and 18 years old who spends most of the series working in the profession of “Auto Memory Doll” (自動手記人形 – Automated note or memorandum taking doll); essentially a professional letter-writer. Her backstory revolves around her service in the war as a child soldier (by some estimates no more than 10 years old), a dangerous enough child solider to gain infamy on both sides of the conflict. Violet serves the last days of the war under the charge of a particular officer named Gilbert Bougainvillea, to whom she is loyal to the death. Prior to her time with Gilbert, she is deployed on the other side of the conflict until her capture by Gilbert’s elder brother, a naval officer, through whom she comes to be deployed in Gilbert’s unit. Unlike the military to whom she was originally answerable, and unlike his brother, Gilbert raises Violet as a ward (indeed, he is the one who names her) and is against her deployment in battle. This relationship, somewhere between benefactor and commanding officer is the starting point for Violet’s character, which is, in its most simplistic rendering, split between two poles: machine/animal and child/innocent. Her socialised modes of relation are to respond to orders and to violence and she shows herself perfectly capable of combat skills which it would be no exaggeration to call superhuman in scale. In this sense she is both machine and animal; savage, instinctive and ferocious in a bestial sense but with the discipline, detachment, and precision associated with fine-tuned engineering. Outside of combat she is entirely dependent on Gilbert, however. In this sense she is represented as childlike and an innocent. She has no frame of reference for non-combat social interaction and barely possesses a grasp of language-use outside of command and assent. This gives her the kind of moral non-culpability associated with a child insofar as her actions lack any kind of malice or unkindness – they in fact lack any kind of motivation at all apart from that they are given as orders. This, in combination with her total deference to Gilbert, and indeed to any figure who stands in as a commanding officer, situates her character as innocent insofar as she is never represented as someone who we could reasonably despise or think of as a villain, as evil, or as reprehensible in any way, even though we are repeatedly shown her blithely slaying soldiers by the dozen, with no question of the orders to do so on her part.

This is the Violet we start with: A killing machine capable of inhuman violence, emotionally and socially presented as a child totally bereft of the intent which would allow any traditional system of ethics to condemn her actions. If we are charting character development then, what Violet do we have at the end of the series?

We, in fact, see no change at one pole of Violet’s character and decisive change at the other: Violet remains a precise and merciless combat machine on the one hand, but on the other hand gains the sense of awareness, motivation, intent, and selfhood which transforms her from being presented as an innocent child into a fully ethically responsible actor. While the young Violet possesses no volition of her own and exists in a more or less transparent tool-like function which receives orders as inputs and executes on them as outputs, the older Violet is fully volitional, exerting her own free will, sometimes against and regardless of the will of her superiors. While the young Violet hardly understands death as a concept and is never presented as even recognising her actions within the frame generally accepted as killing, the older Violet understands death, loss, mourning and bereavement, expresses remorse and regret, and, despite retaining her inhuman combat proficiency, avoids killing even when pressed to the point of harm to herself.

Violet undergoes other changes throughout the course of the narrative – the most significant narrative arc being her conceptual understanding of language, mainly achieved through her profession, and in particular her grasp of the verb ‘to love’ – significant not only because romantic correspondence takes up a large portion of her commissions but also because an expression of love also constituted the last words she heard from Gilbert, who spends the series missing-presumed-dead after being separated from Violet at the final battle of the war. The series ostensibly is far more closely tied to this arc than any other, opening with Violet attempting to and failing to write a letter to the missing Gilbert, and closing with her successfully penning a letter equal to her own feelings for the first time.

So with these changes in Violet’s character registered, it may seem unreasonable to claim that Violet undergoes no meaningful development through the course of the narrative. We should not be so swift to dismiss this claim, however. The root of the claim lies not, in my view, in the content of the narrative but its form. Character development, while apparent on the level of content as given above, is in fact almost entirely absent on the level of the formal structure of the work, at least in the sense the modern reader expects.

For the contemporary audience, character development remains essentially within the tradition of the bildungsroman or the coming-of-age novel. Emblematic examples in the English literary canon might be Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The confusion arises because Violet Evergarden fits this model in content, but defies it in form. In content, all three examples take their title character as subject, orphaned or otherwise misfortunate children having small-scale adventures through which they grow up, learn life lessons, and understand the world in a more-or-less realistic representation of life in that world. Formally, however, the difference is striking. Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are both told in the first person, the author and title character speaking their own mind and own experience. The reader receives the novel directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were. This gives the effect of intense familiarity with the character and their motivations as well as a strong psychologisation of the narrative insofar as the world is always viewed through the psyche of the character and never presented objectively without that lens. More recent iterations in this tradition are even more interested in the psyche, its unreliability, and the identity of the speaker from within their own mind than Bronte or Dickens ever were, so when Violet Evergarden makes no formal attempt whatsoever to represent the interior of Violet’s mind, an audience raised on this formal expectation paired with this narrative content immediately detects something amiss, even if they confuse form with content in their critique.

The reason for this formal departure from the bildungsroman tradition is not, in my view, a blunder on the part of the writers or producers (not that their intent is necessarily relevant in any case). Kyoto Animation are very much capable of visually representing narratives which are tied extremely closely to characters’ psyches, their motivations, growth, and internal struggles (see Hyouka and Koe no Katachi, for example), so this is not a question of inability. Instead, this stems from a feature of Violet herself – her initial characterisation. She is in-herself a character whose motivations and psyche are in fact very difficult to represent either visually or verbally, by the simple fact that almost no reader will be able to easily relate to her situation. It is not especially difficult to relate to Jane in Jane Eyre or David in David Copperfield since, though not everyone has lost a parent or been sent to a Victorian English boarding school, their lives and minds are otherwise barely different from that of any child. They make friends, they make enemies, they get angry at injustice, they find relief in good companionship. It is almost impossible to relate to the mind of Violet Evergarden, completely emotionless superhuman child solder who dodges bullets and blocks bayonets with her bare arms while leaping across trenches and razor-wired no-man’s-land with the agility of a gazelle under a hail of artillery and machine gun fire, stabbing, shooting, and breaking the bones of her foes without batting an eyelid. She, from a subjective standpoint, has no friends and no enemies, no sense of right or wrong, no sense of justice, no immediately relatable affective responses at all for a normal human subjectivity in today’s readership. Had Violet Evergarden succeeding in actually representing such a psyche from a first person view in a convincing way, it would have been a monumental achievement because of the feat’s apparent impossibility alone.

Understandably, the series chose not to attempt such an endeavour. So, the series is forced to take the content of a coming-of-age story but represent it in a form not tied to the first-person psychological aesthetic common to that genre. How this is accomplished can be very well established through comparison with another work already mentioned: Kyoto Animation’s Koe no Katachi.

While not exactly a bildungsroman, Koe no Katachi is an especially good example from Kyoto Animation’s oeuvre for presenting subjective experience in filmic form. The narrative focuses on the male lead, Shouya, whose character and development the film follows for almost its entire runtime. Throughout the film, Shouya is presented in shots which leave most of the frame filled with dead space. This is especially prevalent in dialogue scenes both when cutting between Shouya and other speaking characters or when presenting them both within the same frame. Shouya will, most often, have his back to a big expanse of empty space – often miscellaneous scenery or out-of-focus background. Other characters will have at least one other human figure in their background, sometimes an actual named speaking character, sometimes a crowd, sometimes a solitary background figure. This leads to a strong sense of imbalance whenever Shouya is framed with or against almost anyone else. Even if two speaking characters are placed in what should be perfect balance in the centre of the frame, the emptiness of Shouya’s half of the screen gives the viewer a strong sense of his isolation, solitude, and loneliness.

This formal presentation is reflective of the content of Shouya’s character – he does not speak well or confidently. Many of these frames contain long pauses, hesitations, difficult and weighty silences saturated with unexpressed meaning. These verbal silences are filled with the ambient soundtrack. A very minimal backing track, it is notable for using dampened, muted, and indistinct sounds which fill these auditory spaces with an extraordinarily tender and delicate atmosphere. In a film which is dedicated to the spoken word and the burden of speech, the union between form and content here is thematically wonderful. The empty space presses in on Shouya, sometimes almost burying him out of the frame; his silence, accompanied by detailed and loving animation of his uncomfortable shuffling, fidgets, and half-mouthed sentences, fills up with these immeasurably delicate ambient sounds, his barely-formed words. The camera lingers on him and the space behind him perfectly represents all those unsaid and unformed inklings which weigh on him as he struggles and struggles and struggles to give spoken shapes to the meanings he can barely look upon without fear of them shattering.

By contrast, Violet Evergarden‘s framing is positively boring. Most dialogue scenes place Violet in the middle of a nicely balanced frame or on one side of a frame neatly balanced by having the other character squarely on the other side. If Violet is foreground, the other character is background. If Violet faces the camera, the other character faces away. If Violet faces left, the other character faces right. If Violet is alone in the frame and we cut to another character, the next frame will contain the other character alone, mirroring her, etc. etc. The shot composition is all extremely balanced and may perhaps even be called traditional insofar as it conforms fully to the standard measures of good shot composition established through the history of the film medium. If there is an analogue here in literary terms, this would be a third-person omniscient narrator. This shot composition is a technical feat performed by someone outside the text, who we may admire for their skilful work, but who has no relation to the subjective inner life of the characters inside the text. This is precisely the same function as a third-person narrator, who sits outside the events of the tale, has no active, lived, or immediate stake in the events, and tells the story as a series of events, with more or less skill, craft, and accuracy.

Even at Violet’s highest points of narrative and emotional turmoil and resolution, the camerawork does not shift from this finely balanced viewpoint. Where it is perhaps old hat in an age of mass film production and high-quality criticism in every form from silver screen to youtube home-production to say that a shaky-cam is an indicator of discord and an upside-down frame is an indicator of moral disorder, Violet Evergarden‘s framing hardly ever makes any formal representation of its title character’s inner world using such techniques. Now, there are some ways in which emotional states are reflected formally, but even these do not appear in the subject-oriented mode we have described above.

In the example of Koe no Katachi, we see a quite literal interpretation of perspective. The character’s inner world is captured by the act of framing alone, which is to say, the perspective from which the camera views the character and the world he inhabits. In other words, the camera views the world subjectively, which is to say, with the perspective of the characters in mind. In Violet Evergarden, the formal techniques used to present subjective experience typically involve cutting from dialogue to either a landscape or a natural still-life image. Sometimes the dialogue will continue over the new image, and usually the music will continue uninterrupted. The camera here is not viewing the world from a perspective belonging to any character or presenting the perspective of any character, but rather, views the world entirely objectively like a traditional painting; a landscape view in timelapse of the town which is the main story’s setting or a close-up of a flower, not unusually a violet, of course symbolic of the title character.

The difference between these two visual rhetorics is almost identical to that found in literature between the Realism of Europe’s 19th century novelists and the Modernism of Europe’s 20th century novelists, but in reverse order. An emblematic Modernist in this style might be Virginia Woolf, whose writing presents the world entirely subjectively. It does not call the nature of the world itself or of the viewing lens or writing pen into doubt (which would be post-modernism), but simply holds that there is no view which may be presented which is not subjective – from inside some viewing subject. The camera in Koe no Katachi behaves this way – always framing relative to a certain subjectivity, a certain in-world view belonging to one or more characters, figures, moments, instants.

19th century Realism may reasonably be described here in Honoré de Balzac or Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert’s style presents the world in a way referred to as ‘self-interpreting’ or rather, such that the representation aims to describe the objective events with such adroitness that there can be no possibility of the subjectivity misinterpreting them. For Flaubert, the subjectivity is extraneous to the reality under representation. Balzac is slightly different in that his key motif is the unity between inner and outer world. In other words, for Balzac’s realist fiction, the world is ordered such that subjective experience is represented as an objective figure in the world. This may be parsed through what is now thought of as the not-unusual technique of pathetic fallacy in which natural elements take on characteristics of the human subject. In its most bastard form: it rains when we are sad. Balzac wrote fiction in which if a person were a violent, cruel, and petty man, they would live in a broken, mean, and small dwelling and if a person were a virtuous, well-mannered, and honest man, they would live in a nicely kept, respectable, and clean home.

Violet Evergarden‘s visual rhetoric resembles the realism of Flaubert and Balzac, or rather tacks a course between the two. In its depiction of everyday life and its events, it resembles Flaubert – direct, objective, without embellishment, consistent. In its depiction of subjective experience it resembles Balzac – the external world is used as a reflection of the inner world. This is not to say that the subjective deforms the objective, as in surrealism, or that there is no objective viewpoint as in Woolf, but that the subjective inner world and the objective external world are in accord, share a harmony. The overall visual aesthetic here, therefore, is one of order. An ordered world, told in an ordered manner, with which the subjective inner lives of the characters share an order. This is borne out in the composition of the soundtrack too, which, unlike Koe no Katachi‘s modern ambient music which is a performance the characters’ inner worlds, is a set of full orchestra compositions reminiscent of the Romantic period of European culture. By turns redolent of Verdi and Rachmaninoff, making full use of piano, strings, brass, wind, a notable oboe, voice, and the sound of typewriter keys, Violet Evergarden‘s soundtrack is, as one might expect, in full harmony with its world, setting and general aesthetic.

This is why I earlier referred to Violet Evergarden‘s setting as a fantasy representation of early 20th century Europe rather than a realist representation of it. For, even though the work’s visual aesthetic relayed by its camerawork is realist in character, its overall aesthetic is not. Violet Evergarden‘s overall aesthetic sense is much more nostalgic than realist, a hearkening back, particularly evident in the tone of its soundtrack. The atmosphere is one of a world full of hope and longing, heavy with the weight of pre-war arcadian nostalgia. This is apparent, again in the tone lent by the soundtrack which, in its order, structure, and periodisation is an explicit callback not only to a particular period of musical history, but to an entire cultural epoch – essentially 19th century romanticism and neoclassicism and their own respective debts to the 18th century age of enlightenment. This, in addition to the lavish colour palette of almost every frame of the work infuses Violet Evergarden with the sense of rich nostalgic fantasy, or rather the sense of a mythologised past presented through a realist gaze – an historical epoch imagined as a mythic antecedent to a very real history presented in the frame of actually occurring events.

There is one aesthetic which best suits this configuration of representational modes, and that is epic. Whether epic tales from as long ago as world cultures have records such as The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, epic tales which define particular cultures and societies and their tropes such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Tale of the Heike, or epics which actively produce a moral and spiritual picture of the world such as Moby-Dick or War and Peace, all of these correspond more or less to the mode of representation detailed above. All of these present actual real historical periods contained within mythic or nostalgic fictions – wars featuring as the premier choice on the list – told as sets of really occurring events (whether the reader is actually expected to believe in the tale of the white whale or the interventions of the gods is irrelevant to the point that the text itself takes these events as really seriously as it can).

It bears noticing that, in epic, the internal perspective, growth, and development of a given character, is almost entirely irrelevant. Typically, the reader is simply told that a character feels a certain way as an objective fact in the world. How that character subjectively experiences that feeling internally is not important. Thus, finally, we arrive at how and why there really is no character development in any formal sense in Violet Evergarden: as an epic, it is not a character-driven story in the bildungsroman style which the modern reader expects, complete with first-person interior perspectives and a subjective viewpoint. Instead, this work presents an entire historical epoch in a mythic light to the aim of presenting its moral picture of the world. Though on the level of content, it is objectively true that Violet changes as a character, ie, she develops – in a formal sense, she strictly does not have any character development, which would entail a subjective illustration of this change and its internal struggles. An epic does not engage in these, thus it is a native feature of the genre to which the work rightly belongs that Violet as a character should appear as an entirely objective figure within the fiction (as do all the other characters). It may be argued that many other characters have more moving stories than Violet’s overall arc, which is perhaps true, but this is not identical to other characters being presented in a subjective way, which they are not. Violet Evergarden‘s representational mode remains consistent in this way.

And now we can come finally to Violet’s visual design as well. The general criticism here is that Violet Evergarden as a character has an unoriginal and generic design, at the very least uninspired if not overtly borrowed from other designs. The most common point of comparison is to argue that Violet very closely resembles the Fate/ series’ recurring heroine Saber. This is undeniable. At the very least, the two share colour palettes and the feature of being nigh-unconquerable combatants, combined with arch and formal personalities and a devotion to the values of duty, service, and problems with interpersonal and social relations. But in the context of reading Violet Evergarden as part of the genre of epic, this should not be any surprise or a detriment to the work.

An epic hero must, by definition, be archetypal. Their purpose is to be an image of bold strokes which define a certain attitude to the universe which transcends and encapsulates human existence. An epic hero should be the very essence of an archetypal hero. Achilles of the Iliad, for example, is perhaps one of the most powerful and lasting archetypal heroes of all Western culture. Blessed by divine providence to be almost invincible, he is proud, unafraid of death, noble, and full of the contradictions that come with heroism – respect for the gods matched by arrogance against them, egoism, spite, vanity, and self-centred petulance matched by mercy, compassion, and an intense love of his fellows. His passions are an image of the highest passions of man, or at least the Iliad‘s version of the highest passions of man. That Achilles resembles hundreds of thousands of heroes created and written over the years should be no surprise then, since his design should be no less than reaching to be the blueprint for them.

Violet’s design, therefore, should be an archetype equal to the world in which she is presented – and the world in which she is presented is one in which the great conflict is between bloody, indiscriminate war, and the sacred power of the written word. Like Achilles, she is the beneficiary of supernatural abilities – both her never-explained (and therefore effectively divine in character) combat prowess, and one other feature of her design; her arms. Violet spends most of the work with mechanical arms attached to her body at the shoulder, having lost her actual limbs during the final conflict of the war (a conflict at which she, like any good epic hero, served as the spearhead of the assault and effectively single-handedly conquered the enemy fortress, only wounded by the immense odds stacked against her and the treachery and cowardice of the enemy [much like Achilles it might be added]). Where her fighting skills are an obvious supernatural power (at least, I know no 10-14 year olds who are such ruthless and proficient killers), it bears noting that her arms, which serve as the conduit for her near-magical powers behind a typewriter, are as much a supernatural wonder in the mode of epic. No such complex prosthesis exists in the real world as her arms, which are essentially fully operational limbs in a metal-and-mechanism steampunk form. Like all divine objects, it is never explained how they operate (are they welded to her bones, attached to her muscles and her own actual nerves?). This human-machine hybridity is used as a recurring symbol of Violet’s more-than-human capabilities, again in the vein of any good epic hero (Achilles had his shield and armour as corresponding symbols). The repeated motif of Violet removing her gloves with her teeth to reveal her mechanical fingers before setting to the typewriter underscores the almost epithetic nature of this design feature: just as epic heroes are almost always introduced through a certain identifying trait by which their heroism is elevated (Achilles ‘the swift-footed’ or Odysseus ‘of the many wiles’, for example), so too does this motif in Violet’s case act as a prelude to and indicator of her heroic traits – ‘Silver-fingered’ Violet would not be an unreasonable epithet to use in an actual epic text in reference to her mastery of the written word.

On other design features: her ornate and embellishment-heavy outfit and her hairstyle situate her firmly within her mythic world. Her extremely blue eyes and the brooch she is almost never seen without serve similar functions to the weather and landscape shots in that any close-up of the brooch or her eyes is an objective indicator of her inner subjective and emotional state in a character whose emotional expression is otherwise very limited within the work. Her voice actress is essentially type-cast into “characters of few words, who are also good at fighting” (see Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan or 2B from Nier: Automata, for example), which is especially important in Violet Evergarden since Violet’s being of few words but having a magical power when offered the medium of a typewriter, and being extremely good at fighting but choosing to overcome conflict through the magic of the written word is indispensable to Violet Evergarden‘s narrative as a whole. Her colour scheme – well, as generically as possible blue and white is sky and clouds, sea and surf, ice and snow, all images of nature which evoke a sense of distant grandeur or poignant or wistful majesty. Whether we care to analyse this through the Japanese concept of mono no aware or the European one of the sublime is not particularly important since each will roughly conclude that this colour palette lends Violet these senses of distant grandeur and wistful majesty as well, marking her as a figure of the heroic (on par with natural forces) but also someone whose sensibility is distant, neither earthy nor passionate. These might seem almost facile points to make, but since we must bear in mind that an epic hero must be as archetypal as possible, even such simplistic ideas are not beneath consideration here.

Alongside all this discussion, it seems strange to even consider Violet’s similarity to the visual design of the Fate/ series’ Saber – but since Saber’s design itself is meant to be evocative of her characterisation as the avatar of Arthur Pendragon (rendered in Fate/ as Arturia Pendragon), himself a tragic epic hero of the round table and knight and king of legend in his own middle-English epic tale, it hardly needs to be mentioned that there are perfectly good reasons for their design not to be dissimilar.

In sum: Violet Evergarden is a work which centres upon a nostalgic longing for and faith in the power of the written word, in particular the letter. Set in a mythic past based on a real historical period in which mass literacy was a highly held ideal but a far-from realised actuality, and in which the devastation of war threatens the structure of society and the sacred cultural ground embodied in the art of letters, the work uses an aesthetic mode similar to the epic poem to depict the tale of its eponymous heroine, Violet Evergarden, and defend the sanctity of the art of letters. The character, Violet Evergarden, as epic hero of the work, must therefore act as the representative hero of the written word. This, she does in every conceivable way. A character whose essential characteristics include being almost incapable of normal verbal socialisation and being known explicitly as a tool of war turns, through the medium of writing, into a character who transforms memories into meaning, wishes into words, and longings into letters; a character who turns from a machine of violence to an embodiment of the unity of man and machine in her own flesh – part living typewriter. She is an epic hero, and epic heroes do not develop – they are ordained to shine as an example of their heroic ideal. Thus, the fact that Violet Evergarden contains no formal devices which produce the sense of character development familiar to modern readers from the bildungsroman genre is perfectly adequate to the work’s structure insofar as the work itself is not a character-driven story. As epic, Violet Evergarden is the tale of an epoch and the tale of its hero who, like all epic heroes, sets out relentlessly on quests across the land (reminiscent, frankly, of any number ancient Greek epic heroes from Odysseus to Heracles to Jason) performing great feats on par with the divine. In place of Achilles and his armour, Odysseus and his wits, Ahab and his peg-leg or Arthur and Excalibur, we are offered as our hero Silver-fingered Violet Evergarden and her typewriter – or in her own words, a fully epithetical catchphrase in its own right: I will hasten anywhere should my client so wish; Automemory Doll, Violet Evergarden, at your service.

***

For those who have made it this far, thanks for reading! What can I say, I like Violet Evergarden and even if I didn’t, I’d defend my interpretation of it without hesitation. It should be noted that the translation of Violet’s catchphrase at the end is my own, with some relatively fanciful alterations which I feel would fit an English poetic form better were the entire work rendered in such a way, to the neglect of some of the finer points of Japanese grammar.

If you like literary realism and would like to read more on it, I can highly recommend Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. It’s a big book, but mightily worth reading if you like such things. As for epic, I simply heartily recommend reading the epics themselves, as many as you can from as many cultures as you can. For comparative literatures, a wonderful study comparing texts of all sorts across cultures and genres is David Damrosch’s What is World Literature?.

Anyway, until next time, thankyou again.

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Not a soul alive or dead has ever deserved love…

“Everyone is deserving of love, but few are capable of finding it”.

I was watching a video essay in which someone uttered this flagrant offence to actual love and became so incensed I had to write down why I find this position a despicable misunderstanding of any meaningful discussion of the concept.

First, let’s clarify our definitions. The above is referring to love in its noun form, describing the state of being-in-love or being loved or loving or falling in love or complete happiness (which is invariably the supposed outcome of a properly fulfilled love in fairytales and popular media East, West, North, and South) or any number of other variations familiar from everyday life and film, art, literature, gossip down the hairdresser’s, or two pints and a whiskey in the bar. It’s already clear that there is some difficulty in pinning down to what exactly we might be referring when using the term ‘love’. Therefore the question arises, straightforwardly enough: what is love?

Language can only describe concepts in the negative and in the abstract – which means we can effectively say what love is not and what it is generally (as opposed to extremely precisely what it is, and what it might be in any specific situation).

The concept of love here is not familial or platonic love, both of which are noble passions with venerable histories, but not our subject. This leaves romantic love in its fully complex, multifarious, cliché and intimate forms. Love in this sense is distinguished from friendship – though one can certainly be friends with a partner with whom one is also in love. Love here is also distinguished from a relation based purely on physical contact, which can be familiarly and generally known as lust – though again, one can certainly also lust after a lover. Love should also be distinguished from other terms including fondness, affection, duty, responsibility, kindness, compassion, care, interest, passion, comfort, convenience, fairness, support, exchange, calculation, mutuality, consideration, obligation, dependence, happiness, bliss, joy, fulfilment, contentment, satisfaction. These are all things which love is not. And, to respond once more to the quote above, love is most certainly not something of which everyone is deserving.

Perhaps the immediate question here will be: do I therefore argue that there are people who are not deserving of love?

Yes. There are people who are not deserving of love. The quote above, by suggesting that everyone is deserving of love, is able to also claim that love is like some rare species of near-extinct insect. Known about by many, actually encountered by few. This assumption that love is inherently difficult to encounter (as if there’s simply a scarcity of the commodity on the world market) and that everyone should somehow be entitled to a share is what I am opposed to here. It is not the case that A) love is an entitlement for all; and B) love is hard to locate in the uncharted jungles of misguided passions. It is the case that people fail to encounter love because, straightforwardly, they do not deserve to encounter it. But that requires more nuancing.

More precisely: I’d argue that most people do encounter love in a minimal form. The reason that it remains only in a minimal form and does not transform into a lasting form, or rather, resembles the transcendent model of pure bliss or unfailing contentment that is so familiar from poetry, painting, and mythology is an entirely different problem.

I’ll briefly set out more of what I mean.

Firstly, love is asymmetrical by definition. On the subjective level it can only be given and never asked for. That which is given under duress, or given at request, or even given at the offer of mutual benefit does not qualify as love. If one partner gives the other something in exchange for reasonable recompense, then this is nothing more than an economic relation – which can be extremely pleasant, affable, and compassionate, it must be said, but does not qualify as love. This is why it is possible to be in love without being reciprocated and to receive love without reciprocating, or perhaps even realising.

Secondly, love is an absolute relation by definition. On the subjective level there is no negotiation about it, by which I mean, if asked a question such as ‘what do you love about me?’, it is an incorrect answer to list any specific set of qualities and also an incorrect answer to say every, any, and all qualities. This is not a case of ‘all or nothing’, which remains a negotiation. One who demands you receive and accept all of their character traits or none at all is not asking for love – he is asking for a positive response to any behaviour imaginable, which means he is asking for a guarantee of a positive outcome, which amounts to narcissism, like playing poker alone and congratulating oneself on a high-stakes victory. The correct answer to ‘what do you love about me?’ is nothing, which is to say that regardless and irrespective of any given quality which may define your character or transiently pass through your personality (many of which one may find distasteful, unpleasant, ugly, and even overtly caution against or despise), the object of love remains unchanged. This is what I mean by absolute, with no negotiation, in this case. Of course one may individually love and hate various traits of personality or appearance, but this is not relevant to love of the singular object beneath the various traits.

Thirdly, love is non-pragmatic and non-utilitarian. A principle reduced by example from the two above, this means that love is always an end-in-itself. One never loves for-the-sake-of something else, and one never does something for-the-sake-of love. Any such action is disqualified from the realm of love. The first formulation will not be so objectionable; philosophy since Kant has been happy to claim all people should be ends-in-themselves, and that one should not use people for-the-sake-of some other goal, much less love them in such a way. The second formulation will strike the modern listener as more strange, however. Is it not one of the most common tropes of love in its current romantic expression that we ‘do X for-the-sake-of love’? A glace at a hundred romcom film scripts will show that a love has come to be measured by what one is willing to give up for it – but this is a misunderstanding. Love is not pragmatic – it cannot be reduced to what one does any more than the more common criticism that it not be what one says. If love were measurable in this way, the outcome would be calculable in advance, which would, again, make it no more than an economic exchange, which it is not. Rather, love never has a what-for, and never has a for-love, which is to say it has no reasoning that is publicly expressible. Privately, within one’s own subjective experience, it may make perfect sense, but this sense should never be fully expressible in word, gesture, action, or any form of information available to the public. In other words, it cannot be generic, but must be specific to the direct union between the loving subject and the beloved object.

Fourthly, love is uncertain by definition. Directly related to and due to the above, because it is simply not wholly expressible, calculable, knowable, and only really communicates by analogy, allusion, and metaphor (which is why the tenderest expressions of love have forever been heralded as beautiful whether they be in literature, song, film, physical gift, photograph or facebook message), it is never certain that the love one is giving is being received by the beloved party, and it is furthermore never certain that the love one receives truly qualifies as love. The only real counter claim possible here would be to suggest that direct access to the inner mind of another subject is possible. I think it is not. As such, in order to adequately love for any meaningfully extended period of time requires a constant renewal of commitment in the face of uncertainty. This means a reaffirmation that one’s love is being given without any guarantee of reciprocation or even of it arriving at its destination; a reassertion of the love’s absolute character – that it is not confused with any characteristic of the beloved or its totality; a renewal of the love’s independence, that is, its refusal to be reduced to mere pragmatic acts or utilitarian gains; and a repetition of the love’s uncertainty, that there is no necessary correlation between anything one might know, think, or feel about the love and its reality, and the resolve to pursue it in spite of this. As the great author Murakami Haruki puts it: it always has to be the first time and the last.

With these tenets established, it is much easier to see how and why I declaim the idea of love being deserved by all but encountered by few. Love is rather encountered by many in a minimal form, but fails to take root because those who encounter it fail to complete the commitments necessary to make it into a meaningful relation.

Consider again our definition: expressions which are utterly one-sided, absolutely centred on one love-object, without rhyme or reason, and without any certainty of reciprocation, acknowledgement, or even understanding, are in fact, extraordinarily common. I cannot think of an individual I know who has not attempted to either deliver or perhaps witlessly received such an act in her lifetime. Hence, acts of love, in a minimal mode of expression, are practically universal. The reason Love as an enduring and stable state is much less common is, to my mind, largely because of a failure to understand the basic characteristics of what it is to love as set out above, and in particular, a failure to complete the final stage of repetition or commitment. Note that I am not talking about the failure of successful relationships here – as one can be wildly in love but have a catastrophic relationship, just as one can have a lifelong relationship which is explicitly loveless. I am specifically focused on an ongoing state of love (which, it should also be noted, does not have to register as necessarily ‘romantic’ in the terms with which we are familiar).

So to be clear one more time: to claim that ‘everyone is deserving of love’ is straightforwardly incorrect. Noone, in fact, is deserving of love in any inherent sense. Unless one is willing to give it and ask for nothing in return, to love an object without any criterion save its own identity, to love without ever being understood in the why or what-for, and to repeat these commitments in the face of uncertainty, one will never successfully give love. And giving love, or rather, loving, is a much more important category than deserving love, which noone does, since given the above criteria for love itself, if one only gave love to one who deserved it, this would by definition disqualify it from the realm of love in the first place, and if one only received love because one deserved it, this would put into question the very intention of the love-giver (because who indeed evaluates who to fall in love with by assessing their moral right to deserve it?).

Not a soul alive or dead has ever deserved love. But every soul that has ever loved has found that each and every single time they’ve given it, it has always been the first time and the last.

A Flat Ontology of Payscale Accountability

I was recently non-consensually offered the non-negotiable opportunity to increase my equitable market value and improve my tradable worth in the volatile employment marketplace, which is to say, I was made to do mandatory training last week. Ostensibly for the benefit of all employees in our team, and in no way related to the inspections taking place in my offices (who operating companies, for the sake of confidentiality, will all remain anonymous), the day-long course was, to the trainer’s credit, well-conceived, pedagogically sound, and well-executed, to my mind. In spite of this, the content of the course largely fell on deaf ears, doomed to fail from the outset, partly because of the failure to tailor the material to the attendees’ specific needs, and also partly because of the generally anaesthetised attitude inevitable to those in attendance at mandatory training not either already well-versed in the subject, or stricken by the condition of being insufferable suck-ups. Even still, there was one instant during the afternoon session of ‘practical’ training which ejected almost everyone in the room from their stupor, a moment which, if intentionally constructed by the training programme, constitutes a stroke of tragicomic genius, at least by the standards of professional skills enrichment.

The moment came during an exercise in which the trainees were required, in silence, to listen to a recording of a conversation and take down notes by hand, as if recording minutes for a meeting. The recorded conversation, a peppy performance by three voice-actors just barely outstripping the standards of believability necessary for a secondary school level foreign language exam, was the cause of this remarkable occurrence. For, before our very ears, the strident and clear voice capable of belonging to who we all imagined to be our own senior manager, a female voice conceived, at least in my head, as a thirty-something career woman with a bob, loudly proclaimed that, for the month of August, an annual leave rota was to be imposed upon all staff below managerial level. Heads already rising from the artificiality of the exercise and struggling with barely suppressed laughter/outrage, the voice went on to defend the thesis that it was the responsibility of the managers to organise and lay out the terms for what constituted minimum cover in the office and that in no uncertain terms were the lower payscale staff capable of organising such a system themselves. The mood in the room by now veering wildly between rankling and guffawing, the voice concluded with a rebuttal to the suggestion that the same system would have to apply to the managers for the sake of fairness: ‘that would be a complete non-starter.’

Incredibly, this otherwise banal recording had managed to cause sustained and even interested engagement from a room of tired journeymen (and journeywomen) office workers without any strong impressions of contrivance or crassness. I would, in fact, be willing to wager that our transcripts of the mock meeting likely increased in accuracy across the board as a result of our unexpected interest in its contents and further suggest that the use of a sudden reframing of an exercise or re-sceneing of a scene in the same vein would produce repeatable results, though that’s not the focus of what I’m writing about here. What I do want to focus on is, in fact, the contents of the mock meeting recording; the very cause of this aesthetic moment of awakening among us that day. Specifically, I want to pursue with a degree of seriousness the idea that workers should be able to impose administrative and organisational systems upon managers asymmetrically.

What would such an idea mean? The history of management is disputed, but, to my mind, it would be relatively uncontroversial to claim that management in its current workplace form first emerged in the early 1900s, with the gradual separation between the managers and the managed maturing across the century. Broadly, it is possible to assume that two main kinds of system exist which instantiate the structure which maintains the separation between the manager and the managed.

The first appears as a system in which a worker is promoted out of his job. This system sticks to a hierarchised model of leadership in which it is, perhaps reasonably, assumed that increased experience correlates with increased skills and therefore merits increased responsibility. This might make complete sense in a small-scale workplaces, almost regardless of the industry: a ten year blacksmith is far better placed to take on high level tasks and supervise a couple of new apprentices just as a ten year coding expert is far better placed to manage and mentor one or two novices at C++. However, for a number of reasons this hierarchised model fails in the current style of management. Firstly, workplaces are simply too big. An employee of any serious managerial clout is unlikely to spend a great deal of time with any one team member and will certainly be largely non-functional in the capacity of teaching, training, or in any meaningful way supervising their work. More significantly, and as already noted, the tasks belonging to management and to the employee tend toward divorce. It is commonly the case that there is little in the day-to-day work of a manager that is in common with the underlings who are managed by them. This is why it is possible, in this system, to be promoted out of your job. Since this model retains a direct hierarchy in which experience leads to rising in the hierarchy, it is natural that experienced and capable workers should be expected to move to higher positions. However, since the day-to-day tasks of managerial staff and their working counterparts are entirely divorced, not much of the experience accrued as an underling serves the worker well when she is moves up to manager. It is as if she is starting a new job over again from scratch.

The second system doubles down on the separation between managed and managee such that there is no transference between the two bodies at all, despite the maintenance of the systemic hierarchy. The exemplary figure of this structure is politics – whether today’s or the kinds from days gone by. In the liberal capitalist democracies of Europe and the USA, despite being ostensibly chosen from amongst the electorate as their representative, most of those who are in governance simply never experience the lives of their governed bodies in any meaningful way. It is simply not a requirement for being in charge that one should also have a seasoned understanding of what it is one presides over. In kingdoms and dictatorships this structure is identical, but with less pretense of empathy and sympathy between the rulers and the ruled over. And of course, in the workplace this is common in the form of management consultancies – entirely separate companies whose expertise is ‘management’, who have precisely zero experience [here, I exaggerate for effect] of the grunt work done at the ground level, yet who still perform the function of management, holding a superior hierarchised position over those who work below.

The long and short of this point is that there exist positions which are designated as specialised in management – management is their field and the brunt of their work. These positions are typically hierarchically situated above positions which carry out the majority of the actual work upon which the given industry is based: The policeman answers to the commissioner (who does not go out on the beat); the doctor answers to the hospital manager (who does not treat any patients); the builder answers to the contractor (who shifts no bricks on site); the shop teller answers to the shop manager, who answers to the boardroom bureaucrat, who answers to the shareholder, none of whom regularly perform the functions belonging to one another, yet all of whom remain fixed in a stratified hierarchical structure, one neatly on top of the other.

It may seem like I am against this (which I am) or that I am advocating a kind of primitivist idealisation of the localised workplace where everyone works with their hands on rustic tasks without bureaucracy (we should all be blacksmiths and farmers and have to earn our right to stand above someone else in merit). This is not what I am pursuing here. Retro-fitting the massively networked modern workplace with person-to-person accountability is untenable, and furthermore, undesirable. It is right to see the separation of labours of different kinds in one workplace. Management is indeed a skill in itself, just as is smithing, and administrating, and cooking, and public representation. None of these are derivative qualities which can be simply degraded in favour of more tangible ‘hands on‘ kinds of skills. But if each kind of labour is to be seen as properly its own discipline and each retain its separation, then what must be dispensed with is not specialisation, but hierarchisation.

If we are to accept that directorship, leadership, management, innovation, vision, and organisation are qualities and skills independent enough to hold disciplines of their own, separated from whatever other task the work may require, then it is no great leap to argue also that a director, manager, leader, or consultant should hold no hierarchical superiority over someone not within that discipline.

In terms of corporate structure, or the structure of organisations of all kinds, this would be necessarily transformative. Firstly, it should be possible to be an entry-level manager, or an entry-level director. If the disciplines are separate entirely, then it should not be any great problem to hire a specialist in management who possess particular training in management, and no other specialism in a particular working environment. This separation also necessitates that, if management is a separate skill to any other, then an entry-level manager should be no more valuable than an entry-level anything else. Hierarchy can only exist internally to each discipline, since each discipline maintains its separation and measures the merit of each worker based on its own criteria alone. This also flattens tacit dead-end immobility of certain kinds of work. If each discipline is taken as independent, then there cannot be some which are less essential to the workplace, since each contributes an entirely independent and non-derivative resource to the office environment. An office cleaner, for example, could, in principle, never be justifiably paid less than a typist or manager of comparable quality. An entry-level cleaner should fundamentally be no different in terms of their valuation than an entry-level manager since each fulfils a task which cannot be made derivative of another.

One might object here that the skills necessary to become a manager (or a teacher, pilot, or automotive engineer, for that matter) are simply more valuable than those deployed by a cleaner because they take more time, effort, and diligence to acquire and execute. This might make the skills more valuable in-themselves, or more valuable on the level of the individual in the purview of personal growth, but not more valuable in light of a workplace which maintains the separation and equality of the disciplines integral to its functioning. As far as an organisation adopting this stance is concerned, it would simply cease to function should there be no cleaners, just as well as it would cease to function should there be no typists, call-centre operators, or managing partners (some might even say the absence of cleaners is more likely to cause failure than the absence of managing partners). From this very basic stance, the value of different roles cannot be hierarchised. Beyond this, it is easy to contend that cleaning is a skill that takes some acquiring anyway (since more or less anyone can bring to mind an occasion where he or she thought someone else’s idea of clean was thoroughly inadequate), and that there are certainly entry-level cleaners, cleaning executives, senior cleaners, and emeritus professors of cleaning out there, each deserving of their hierarchical status internal to the discipline of cleaning (since most people can scrub a surface and mop a floor, some can graduate to washing dishes and clearing a kitchen, those of a certain skill can really leave a bathroom spotless of limescale, mould, and skid-marks, and only those with superior skills and experience will be able to adequately maintain, clean, distinfect, and keep dust-free sensitive equipment such as that used in robotics manufacturing or technologically augmented surgery).

So much for office roles necessarily being valued with full equality if they are to maintain their separation. But if hierarchy is to be removed between roles, this also suggests that accountability cannot be hierarchised either. If there is no vertical structure, a worker can no longer be accountable to his manager and the manager accountable to her senior manager, and she to the general manager, and he to the director and she to the shareholders and he to etc. Instead, accountability must be reciprocal, which is to say that the managees must be accountable to the managers, but then so must the managers be to the managees. Initially, it seems impossible that this should be workable – how can the various roles maintain separation (with therefore little knowledge of each others’ skill sets) and still assess the adequacy of each others’ performance? Well, here it must again be remembered that all these bodies are held equal in their fulfilling of a function for the organisation and as such, their performance may be assessed in terms of how well they promote the other bodies in fulfilling their functions.

For instance: an administrative team and a managing team work in an office. The administrative team use a system requiring all outgoing correspondence to be hand-signed by the document’s owner and paper copies to be kept in filing cabinets in the hall. The management team call the administrative team to account for the inefficiency of this system on the grounds that its cumbersomeness hinders the proper function of the management team. Conversely, an administrative team operate under a system split across three databases which do not share any compatibility features, necessitating manual input of the same data separately into each database. These databases were outsourced at the recommendation of the management team. Here the administrative team calls the management team to account for the imposition of this system because its unwieldiness hinders the proper function of the administrative team. Here we can see how each body may hold another to account with the only necessary criterion being that this is in the interest of their functions promoting the functions of other bodies. It may be that this initial example appears somewhat trite, but this becomes significant when, for example, a management team imposes a working-hours requirement upon medical staff which might jeopardise patient care, or site management places a deadline for a finished build which necessitates either unsafe working conditions or shortcuts on the building work itself, or an accounting team fail to adequately file their work such that management is required to put together a paper-trail piecemeal. All these are cases where, if roles are really held to be independent and therefore valued equally, it would be not only right and proper, but also beneficial to all parties involved to have them call each other to account for failing to promote the function of their counterpart disciplines.

It is my feeling that the division between disciplines in workplaces and organisations will only grow as globalised economy, the gig economy, and networked theories of business continue to proliferate. It makes sense, therefore, for this separation to be properly attended to as I have proposed. I only ask the reader to consider the potential of being able to formally supervise and provide feedback on the performance of who today is your own supervisor and imagine how such a transformation of the flow of responsibility would alter your working relationships and the character of the workplace in general and I think the essence of the idea will be communicated.

Please forgive how badly this piece has been written: I’ve wanted to get an idea like this off for a while, but my concentration has been poor and it shows in the structural confusedness here.

To Kathy, Hailsham. Ishiguro’s breath and ink; Lover, Heart, no more.

Here’s a repost of a poem in honour of the venerable Kazuo Ishiguro; newly adorned Nobel laureate in literature. May your work collect all the things we’ve lost since our childhood for many years to come.

weihao2

I am a carer.
See my fingers, soft, gentle,
Hold this withered hair.
Hands, friends. Organs without Flesh:-
Persistence, Desire, Longing.

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The Non-Tragedy of the Vegas Mass Shooting

If there is any notable commonality between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it is the tendency to portray as tragedy events of great violence. Perhaps it is a generalised strategy of the modern politician, but at least amongst these two otherwise utterly disparate men, it is observable in in Trump’s response to the Las Vegas shooting of October 2017, and in Obama’s speeches given in response to the numerous mass shootings across his two terms in presidency.

The gloomy, sombre tone, the grave, ashen face, the big, slow delivery of weighty words – these are the hallmarks of mass-shooting speeches. It is my view that, as a response to the acts with which these men grapple politically and ideologically, this approach fails. This is because these acts are ultimately not tragic.

This is not to say that these events are not sad. It need not be stated that the depth of the grief endured by the bereaved, the trauma suffered by the wounded, and the horror born by the survivors is without fathom. It also does not do to deny that these events demand a bearing witness, a mourning, and a frank and direct scrutiny of what these lives might have been lost for, what they might have meant, and what life might mean for those who continue in the wake of such violence. Yet it remains the case, and must be stated even moreso if justice is to be done for the lives lost, that these events are not tragedy.

The tragic, in the long history of Euro-centric culture, has been about Man in the grip of the supreme, about Humankind in the wash of vast tides; ‘the pride and refuse of the universe’ (I can’t remember where that quote comes from). In all cases of tragedy, in the broadest possible strokes, Man conspired against by forces against which (s)he cannot triumph. Whether this be the Gods of Olympus, the Lord in Heaven, Satan in Hell, or our own blessed soul, the great vices of men, their hubris, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, and fear, all of these forces appear as elements of fate in the tragic. This is present from the Ancient Greeks where oracles foretold great doom, and the tragic hero falls to his doom precisely because it is irrevocable, inexorable, it is his very nature, his tragic flaw to succumb to this fate. This has been retold endlessly throughout Euro-centric history, and is retold again now.

When Trump says that the mass shooting of October 2017 is ‘an act of pure evil’, he appeals to precisely this mode of representation: that the events here were of a divine nature, of forces inescapable and unpredictable, of power so sacred and indefiable that only a disembodied moralism could explain them. It is as if Evil himself, embodied perhaps in a demonic angel or a fiend from one of the more elaborate Buddhist circles of hell was the cause of these deaths.

It is important to note that this is quite different from the ‘evil’ mobilised by speakers such as George W. Bush, who, of course, used ‘evil’ to frame a friend-enemy distinction in order to mobilise the Afghanistan / Iraq wars in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. Where Bush’s ‘evil’ was designed to morally justify an act of violence (war), Trump’s ‘pure evil’ is used to absolve all responsibility for an act of violence. For Trump, when over fifty dead and five hundred injured are the result of ‘pure evil’, it allows him to forget and deny by omission the fact that over fifty dead and five hundred injured are actually the result of one man being able to access and purchase, without any  known impediment, tens of firearms which are designed for military use in the sole pursuit of transforming living tissue into perforated flesh. Tragedy here is used to cover over the need to address gun ownership and ease of access, something which sits rather well with the National Rifle Association, who, of course, unequivocally support the Republican party. Need it also be said that when events of an actually tragic scale (two of the worst hurricanes in recorded history to make landfall in the USA) took place, Trump was the first to forget all tragic rhetoric and insist upon immediate point-scoring?

The case is more nuanced with Obama, who, it will not do to forget, vigorously campaigned to regulate gun ownership in the USA during his presidency. For he used the tragic to try to gain support for gun control, to develop an empathetic community with victims of gun crime, and to attempt a call a stop to needless loss of life. One of the reasons that he rhetorically failed is again, his misuse of the tragic. Once again, the tragic belongs to forces of disembodied and irresistible power: God(s), or the fatal flaws of man. Tragedies are always divinely wrought, or self-wrought, or both. Just read some Shakespeare – Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, some of the greatest tragedy of literary history bears witness to the tragic notion that man is most miserably struck down when he would defy fate through vice (indecision, pride, ambition), and in his defiance is the one who brings his fate to fruition. Noone would claim that the victims of mass shootings are tragic in this sense. Did they defy any Gods to deserve their fate? Did they bring ruin upon themselves for some unholy misdemeanour against ancient rites and sacred pacts? No, no, and no! Obama’s use of the tragic fails because, in an almost tragic irony of his own, his very deep-felt belief that gun crime is avoidable and that this loss of life is tragic, ends up absolving American culture as a whole of responsibility and covering over the direct action needed to address the issue. The more he portrayed the violence as tragic, the more, by definition of the tragic, it seems possible to deny that anything could by done about it.

Let us not continue to muddy the issue. It is admirable, and perhaps even a necessity of the public figure to show solidarity with victims, to empathise, to console, to acknowledge suffering and grief and loss. These events are not tragic. They do not belong to tragedy, and they never have. They have a direct causal root which can be found in the constitutional American obsession with the ownership of firearms. This is not tragedy, this is violence – and autoimmune violence at that. A mechanism put in place to defend the citizenry of the United States of America turns virulent; a right held to be a fundamental liberty of a people releases septic discharge into the bloodstream of a nation. The doctor does not tell the patient their perfectly treatable polyps are grievously incurable cancer in order to acknowledge the subject’s suffering. If we wish to be witnesses to these events, to take responsibility for them, and to do justice to them, then dispense with the tragic; lest our commitment to the dead do nothing to prevent more – and incidentally occasion the cause for a real tragic irony.

Work, Work, Work; The Embrace of Self-Obliteration

In its basic form, contemporary employment offers two kinds of work: Work which creates things and work which completes things. That is to say, broadly speaking, work can be split into two types: making and fixing, beginnings and ends, aperture and closure, desire and need.

Consider the builder. Her work is that of making, whether it be bricks and mortar on an industrial estate or laying the foundations on an episode of Grand Designs. It is work in which the object of work is formed through the work, work in which the fruits of one’s labours arrive after the work is complete.

Consider the doctor. Her work is that of fixing, whether it be hearts, lungs, brains, bones, or bipolar. This is work in which the object of work is fully formed at the start, and in which the objective of the work is to make the object of the work disappear. The fruits of one’s labours here, in a sense, never appear. The completion of this work involves a kind of self-obliteration: if all the doctors in an imagined ideal world completed all their work perfectly, there would be no more need of doctors.

Hang on. This is too ideal is it not? Isn’t this imaginary binary too far from reality? Builders in reality don’t merely create the objects of their work according to desire, they don’t merely fabricate endlessly. They have projects that they are given, they have contracts to fulfil, of course they respond to need just as well as desire. And equally the doctor does not merely solve problems, does not merely perform a machininc task according to need. The best doctors are of course creative, otherwise how to improvise when a high risk operation goes wrong? How else does one consult with and support a combined sufferer of schizoid-type personality ailment and Alzheimers dementia? Doctors are not mere algorithms designed to fulfil a task.

This is all true. Yet it does not diminish the value of the division between the two types of work when considering the nature of the work itself in a teleological sense. Teleology (from τελος, telos) refers to a goal or an end, a what-for, if you will. The work of building, that is, the act of building itself, the deliberate and essential executions that the work is composed of possesses a τελος that is, in a sense nonexistent. There is no total end goal to being a builder, one can build one house then build another and another and another. In theory, one could continue being a builder forever (material concerns like available resources notwithstanding). For the doctor this is not the case in the sense that, for the work of the doctor, the work of medicine, its essential execution, there very much is a whole and complete τελος to the work. The end goal is the cure of patients, with the hypothetical totalised goal being the cure of all possible patients of all possible ailments. Ideally, it would be impossible for one to go on being a doctor forever, rather it is only possible to continue being a doctor because of material constraints (there are many humans who will continue to suffer illness and injury and the condition of medicine cannot be perfected for the simple reason that we are not Asclepius the god of Medicine himself).

It is important to note here that in these two examples, the role of the ideal and the material flip. For the maker, the ideal of his work is infinity, without end. Materiality constrains this ideal and forces the maker to perform tasks for finite purposes. For the fixer, the ideal of his work is finite, total, completion. Materiality makes this completion impossible and consigns the fixer to work that is de facto infinite. This is why there is more to this binary division than mere arbitrary categorisation. If the we may posit the essence of the work in its τελος in the way I have described, then in the ideal terms I have denoted, I am yet to be able to think of an occupation, employment, vocation, pass-time, hobby, or job which does not fall cleanly into either the category of making or of fixing, or creation or of completion, of desire or need in the way I have described.

Why make this claim? Understanding the ideal form of one’s work and the way its material reality abrades against and facilitates different facets of this form affords us the ability to approach the work in the mood, in the attitude most appropriate to it.

Let us consider a new batch of examples. Consider the call centre worker. Worker A is a helpline call handler. This makes his work the fixer type. It responds to need. Teleologically, it is self-obliterating. At the τελος of his work, the helpline caller should have ‘helped’ every caller possible (whatever that means) and there should be no longer any need of his existence. The materiality of the work (we lack infinite time, we don’t really care much because we’re not flawlessly morally upstanding and we do this job for the money but hate being abused by irate customers, we’re in a call centre with eighty-four other loud, coffee-crazed individuals, our phone connection hasn’t been updated since 1994 to boost profit margins) makes it an infinite pursuit, one in which the end is inconceivable, even if in principle there is an end towards which we work.

Let’s say Worker A has been to a compulsory employee wellbeing and support workshop because his employer is being scrutinised for malpractice by a regulatory body and they need to show a commitment to employee health and satisfaction. At the workshop, he is advised by a lively and cheerful consulting agent that a creative and proactive approach to work will not only improve his own experience of the work and his mental wellbeing, combating stress and burnout, but also improve outcomes for the business overall, benefiting both the employer and employee. He is instructed in the importance of the three Fs: Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment, and subsequently informed of the ways a creative and proactive approach to his work increases all three of these key factors in the workplace. Finally, he is given a certificate of completion and asked to complete a feedback form while remembering the importance of an enthusiastic and fun approach to office tasks and co-worker interaction. Now, most workers, for reasons of they think it’s stupid, will struggle to take seriously the efforts of consulting workshops of this sort. However, imagine that Worker A is an earnest and straightforward type of man who thinks; ‘what the hell, why not give the three Fs a shot?’. What will Worker A accomplish with a creative and proactive approach to helpline call handling?

In terms of creativity, this is obviously not an arena where Worker A will be producing artefacts like the builder, the sculptor, the musician, or the engineer. In what frame could answering the phone be possibly approached creatively? This will only happen for Worker A in the manner of his answering itself, in the how of his execution of his role. This will be a processual or procedural creativity. What he can create is a method, a way of thinking, of responding to caller queries and accusations, a way of positioning himself and manipulating the task at hand which is unique to him alone. If he goes so far as to formalise this methodology, he perhaps creates a document endorsed by the company for good phone manner, and then goes on to create, by extension, an entire culture of phone operation in the helpline service. Good job! Yet notice that what he has created has the antithesis of creativity in it: he has created a set of instructions which are to be obeyed for positive outcomes, he has created nothing other than dogma, a method designed to accomplish a task, to meet a need. His creativity has reversed into its opposite! Why? Unlike the created objects in building, in art, in brewery, in cooking, in writing, and in music, for example, what Worker A has created is impossible to share or distribute. The work of creativity he has performed has operated entirely on himself; he has been forging his own habits, manner, and mind. The act of attempting to move this fundamentally private act into a public form transforms it from the freedom of an individual in a creative act into a script of performative gestures which prescribe action as law. Even more importantly, it must be noted that this creative act has precisely nothing to do with the work at hand. Worker A could have quite feasibly, nay even more powerfully, worked on his character and developed his selfhood in an entirely different environment. He could have achieved something like this as a sportsman, or an astronaut, a gold prospector, a stock broker, or an ocean trawler fisherman. The self is the object that is always at one’s disposal for working on in an act of creativity. The fact that it was the only way for Worker A to perform a creative act in his workplace demonstrates the total absence of creative potential in his position. This altogether demonstrates the absurd nullity of approaching such an occupation with the ‘three Fs’ attitude – sprinkles on a turd cannot make it any more appetizing to the palate.

It hardly needs to be mentioned that proactive helpline calling would be just as total a failure: is there a waste of time more gratuitously frustrating and infuriating than cold-calling dressed in the pretext of ‘I wondered if I’d be able to offer you any help today?’

For all the contemporary excitement around the gamification of the workplace and so-called Fungineering in office environments, approaching certain kinds of occupation with this mood is entirely futile. Tasks which fall into the fixer category, which fulfil a need, which are meant to be completed, will never benefit in their essential form from being approached with creativity: these tasks, by definition create nothing. As I have stressed, these tasks are self-obliterating: the end goal of the doctor is to require no more doctors. To put the problem in reverse, imagine a doctor in an entirely healthy community. Whether by incredible coincidence or genuine divine miracle, this doctor has nothing to do. His work can only fulfil a need – with no need, there is no need for the doctor. If he were to be creative, would he not commit the heinous villainy of creating the sick that he might become their healer, a sort of self-satisfied anti-Jesus who blinds men and strikes beggars down with leprosy so that he might restore their sight and cure their dreadful ailments somewhere down the line?

Once again, creativity is strictly impossible in roles of this kind. One can always work on refashioning and tempering the self, sure, and this will bring new facets to the work, but this, as already stated has nothing even slightly to do with the work itself. And buried under all this disavowal of creativity lies the true ideal mood for the function of this kind of work: pure disillusioned instrumentalism. Gamification and Fungineering advocates hold that the workplace as disillusioned and disenchanted instrumentality is the cause of anxiety, stress, and employee dissatisfaction, but through our understanding of the maker / fixer dialectic, it emerges that this is simply untrue for a full half of the kinds of work that exist on today’s job market. Think how different Worker A’s story is if he abandons the pretense of injecting creativity into his work and simply creates his call handler methodology as pure, logically deduced, fit-for-purpose machinery. No longer burdened by the impossible task of producing a creative and proactive helpline service, is he not freed to carry out his tasks without the imaginary emotional investments and duties the workplace ideology that the ‘three Fs’ attitude demands of him? Is it not the case that one of the great taboos of modern employment is admitting that your work is nothing more than a functional, soulless task? Is not this burden of guilt, the sense that one has to sincerely enjoy one’s work at all times as a vocation or be condemned as lacking commitment or as a freeloader the true source of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety? Does not Worker A not only feel much better, but also work, live, and be much better when he is under no illusions about what his work is and the reality of what he spends eight hours a day doing? Compared to the worker who carries the emotional burden of a fixer workplace with them everywhere he goes, the worker who embraces disillusionment lives a life of spiritual luxury.

Expanding this principle even to the doctor; indeed, what doctor could carry out his or her work without understanding it as disillusionment and instrumentality? The whole practice of medicine is the practice of transforming the human being into an instrumentalised form, a machine which can be repaired, tinkered with, and reformatted more or less as you like within the limits of your tools. Is not modern medicine precisely the process through which the elements of the spiritual and the soul leave the sphere of health and are replaced by pure instrumentalised reason? What surgeon could daily slice open, crack open, vise open, scrape open, and sew up, stitch up, suture up, bind up, clamp up, human bodies as a butcher does to pig carcassses without fully appreciating her work is pure instrumentality? The conscientious medecin may well treat each patient as if he were her own parent, but does this not show that in the practice of medicine even one’s own family are instrumentalised as objects of treatment? It should be obvious that the ‘three Fs’ attitude to the workplace would be entirely nonsensical in the medical profession, whether in the high-stakes operating theatre of the neurosurgeon or the relatively sedate world of the community locum general practitioner. One cannot treat this kind of work as ‘creative’; that would be antithetical to its nature. And furthermore, one should not try to perform this movement. ‘Fun’, ‘Focus’, and ‘Fulfilment’ are not conducive to fixer professions, whose only calling card remains Necessity. A doctor may say that she achieves fulfilment in restoring the health of the sickly and in easing the suffering of men, women, children, and families of all sorts. This may well be true, but as found in Worker A, personal development, the reason why a person chooses to pursue their work, or the how through which they carry it out have no bearing on the nature of the work itself. Fulfilment is peripheral to the act of practising medicine. In fact, if one did find fulfilment or fun in the act of practising medicine itself, would it not demonstrate all the more than it is a profession, like all fixer professions, best embraced as instrumentalised? Who, indeed, finds a prostate examination or a transrectal ultrasound in itself fun or fulfilling without somehow imagining the entire process as a series of entirely functional and impersonal procedures, biology disenchanted?

So much for fixer professions, but what of the maker professions? What of their lot in this analysis?

Well, straightforwardly speaking, there is much less to say about maker professions firstly because their overall prevalence is on the wane, and secondly because much less is said about them already. When was the last time anyone mentioned an artisanal shoemaker or a carpenter attempting to gamify their workspace? In what instance could it be imagined that a filmmaker or a dance troupe would invite a professional Fungineer to impress upon them the value of the three Fs in the office? What would instructions to take a ‘creative and proactive’ approach even mean to a bricklayer or an architect?

Such professions suffer far less from the problems imagined to exist in the fixer workplace. Stress, anxiety, and disinterest and their magic antidotes Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment are not especially prevalent problems for the maker because they are intrinsic to the form of the work. Recall that for the maker, the object of her work only arrives at the point the work ends, whereas for the fixer the object of the work is present to begin with and is destroyed through the work. By definition the maker generates the object which is the source of stress/fun, anxiety/focus, disinterest/fulfilment. The maker needs no extra input from consultants or advisory bodies to regulate their emotional input in the work – the work itself demands this input as such. Where personal commitment strikes the fixer as a burden no matter what, the maker’s work lives within that commitment from the start.

For these reasons, and not surprisingly, the appropriate attitude for the maker is the opposite to that of the fixer. Those in the making professions cannot embrace instrumentality in the way that the fixer can, indeed, this is the most powerful way to destroy the essence of the work. Working to contract or on a production line in a maker profession is the exact way the these professions have been materially ruined. Can the artist who produces work as a mechanical task for sales purposes truly be called an artist? Is not the electrician who fits the wiring for large housing developments fundamentally compromised in the nature of his work if he is contractually obliged to complete the work of five projects in the time proper to only one? Is not the production line manufacturing worker divorced from the essence of her work, the making of the product as such, in her reduction into a functionary carrying out the same task endlessly? This is a much more traditional critique of industrialism / modernism; it need not be repeated by me at any great length. Suffice to say that here it is appropriate to invoke the figure of the artisan, the artist, the creative, in today’s jargon.

What the mobilisation of this binarism has demonstrated is not an overall ideological or discursive critique of work and the modern job market, and I have certainly not spoken in the vein of the Marxist nor intended to. These are projects for another time and other writers. Rather, the understanding of the division between making and fixing, or the understanding of the nature of the objects of these two different kinds of work, should here offer, as demonstrated throughout, a way of approaching one’s affect, one’s mood, one’s appropriate sense to the work at hand. Contrary to the contemporary wisdom and pop shamanism which encourages the creative in all things, which argues for a self-enriching spiritualism everywhere, and a self-care regimen of dietary restriction, silent isolation (meditation), and structured exercise to make a prison officer weep with joy, I hold that it is vital to embrace the moments where these are simply not appropriate postures towards the task at hand. For every uplifting youtube video and shared facebook post, every consulting workshop and professional advice paper demonstrating the merits of optimism in the workplace, self-fashioning entrepreneurship as freedom, community and camaraderie as obligations of employment, and the benefits of feeling valued and integrated in one’s role, there is a complete cultural failure to approach a solid half of the kinds work offered by society for what it essentially is. To try to force the fixer to approach her work as if she were a maker does no more than impress upon her an irreconcilable guilt which devastates hours of nine til five five days a week for years of her life. The lawyer, the doctor, and the deliveroo courier should therefore be under no illusions: their work is instrumental and fie on the fools who come in with their clipboards and target quotas who want a service delivered otherwise. For the programmer, the graphics designer, the hot-dog stand man, well, they’re fortunate enough that the mood of the times is with them: go and be non instrumental, be creative and all that jazz – fortunately your work is appropriate to it, and long may you flourish in your freedom. For the rest of us, embrace self-obliteration. If you can think of no reason to continue performing your work once its need is satisfied then make no mistake: you are in the role of a fixer. Creativity be damned and wish unashamedly for the day you may say fuck the niceties and let a robot do the shit jobs.