‘I pitched to various magazines with no success. Your aunt Chana lent me another two hundred dollars; I burned it all on a scam bartending school. I delivered food for a small deli in Park Slope. In New York, everyone wanted to know your occupation. I told people I was “trying to be a writer.” That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. In New York of the early 2000’s.
I stumble upon those lines with my mind preoccupied with the thought that the question about money is not what money can can give us, but what we lose when trying to make it. Thinking of money not through what it can buy, but what it consumes. Put differently: the question is, what is money’s inverse? The idea that I cannot let go of is that it is energy. Burned with every movement in the performance of this action or that, in the process of translating it into the myriad of tasks required of us to fulfil our job descriptions, so that on the last day of the month, we can pay our bills. Our bread and butter and sweat and tears.
I do not deliver food for a small deli: formally educated philosopher that I am, I work as a waiter and a bartender at a small restaurant. I am, besides, sidelining as a volunteer at a bookstore. In the latter place I sell books, in the former: coffees (and I drink them—pretty much the only similarity I can think of—in both.) Living the fissured life, like most of my friends. One of them, now, a PhD scholar, more Coates’s style, delivered food on a bike round Oslo over the course of the three summer months. Another walks dogs. The majority, obviously, go for bartending and waiting, but I know cleaners too, or the parcel warehouse staff. Someone drives an Uber, someone washes cars, someone baby sits. In our own ways, we are all Becky from Tempest’s The Bricks that Built the Houses.
It is not that I do not like my job at the restaurant, neither that I feel that I am working below my qualifications or not in my field: I am fine with all that, not complaining. Truth to be told, I enjoy what I am doing in service in many—often even to myself—surprising ways. I have truly amazing colleagues (like the cat-gifs queen Jenni), not to mention this peculiar pleasure of serving people and, once in awhile, seeing them genuinely happy. No, if I have any regrets—troubles? doubts? questions?—it is only that I know all too intimately how much energy I use in this way every week. This precious energy that I tell myself I could have used so much better. Because of this common denominator of my body’s physical capabilities, my life is a one of a constant compromise. It is this hypothetical trade off that I am made aware of, which causes me qualms sometimes. They come as vague intuitions, visceral impulses. I struggle to put words on them, because it almost feels like I lack the vocabulary to make sense out of them.
I talk to my mum over Skype.
“It’s all good here. Went to jog and to sauna, then to the restaurant. Then I came back round 10:00 p.m. and read until 2:00 a.m.”
“But it is your work, this reading of yours, right?’
Yeah, I guess it is. But then what is the restaurant?
Because it almost feels like I work for free at the bookstore and in my free time I go to the restaurant to make some money. This paradox stroke me during our discussion with Dr. Holt for a podcast on a theme of leisure in Adorno and Arendt a few months ago. It was on that occasion that the Ancient Greek understanding of labor, work, action and leisure paved a way to rethink the meaning those categories demote today: to rethink my own immersion in them.
Perhaps I got it all wrong and my idiosyncratic worldview does nothing to change the fact that this formula is biased or plain wrong. But at least as far as the phenomenology of first-person perspective is concerned, this is how things go. The direct translation of any given activity into money is but an irrelevant factor according to this personal logic—making money is just one of the necessities of life I have to cope with—it is what feels significant and worth pursuing that defines what I consider work, paid or not. In Copenhagen, everyone wants to know your occupation. I tell people I am “working in a bookstore and making money in a restaurant.”
it is all interconnected. If not through money then through the energy: everyone is implicated, even if this implication is implicit, disguised.
This brief revisit of Arendt and Adorno made me see how it is almost like nowadays a meaningful idiom to conceptualise and discuss these things may be missing. At the very least, it is distorted. The categories at our disposal—work, job, free time, interests, hobby—are abstract and find no corresponding referents in reality. But it is precisely through them that the narrative is constructed: and as such, by proxy, carrying this abstraction over into our lives. That said, there is nothing particularly unique about this predicament—both geography and history remind us how commonplace this condition is.
‘There were no grounds for being certain that one would eat next week, but this was accepted serenely. My friend, the novelist George Andrzejewski, invented a “theory of last penny” which I can recommend to everyone as tried and tested. It propounds the following: at the very moment when you have nothing in your pocket but your last penny, something has to happen. And it always did.
‘The steps I took to encourage destiny a bit give some idea of the possibilities that were open to us then. I began by trading such things as Players and Woodbine cigarettes and whiskey (war booty from Dunkirk; it circulated on the black market), as well as less elegant articles like blood sausage and ladies’ underwear.’ That’s Czeslaw Milosz. In Warsaw of the Second World War period.
Wittgenstein observes in Philosophical Investigations: ‘(…) one may say of certain objects that they have this or that purpose. The essential thing is that this lamp is a lamp, that it serves to give light—what is not essential is that it is an ornament to the room, fills an empty space, and so on. But’—and here is a point that I find relevant to this meditation on money—’there is not always a clear boundary between essential and inessential.’
Because what is essential about money? The most commonplace answer is that one can use it to buy thins. Even so, however, it seems that it does not automatically render other of its workings inessential. Perhaps it is also fair to say that the loss of energy consumed in the process of making it is as essential as the goods we can then obtain for our wages and salaries. What money takes away from us, our energy—is that any less of an essential characteristic here? Not some specific abstract ‘work-energy’ that is put aside in our bodies in advance to be used for this specific purpose. It is always the one and only energy we have to do everything else, also that which is not work; ultimately—the one we have to live. It is what our bodies can do, our inescapable predicament that forces choices and compromises upon us. One of the cosmic schemes binding all the elements in one piece. And so it is all essentially interconnected:
my tired face glancing back at me from the mirror in the semi-darkness of the night;
the coffees I make and the dishes I wash to make money;
the google docs documents painstakingly filled with the lines of texts;
the books I arrange at the shelfs;
the nights I seek repose hoping to fix my body so it can wake up again the next day;
the morning coffee as dark as the yet-another-day outside;
the muscles that hurt;
the books I should pick up but I don’t;
the hands that sometimes shake;
my empty fridge or a pizza around the corner:
essentially, it is all interconnected. If not through money then through the energy: everyone is implicated, even if this implication is implicit, disguised. Say what you may. We have not chosen the world we live in but this is where we live nevertheless.
Obviously, we use energy also for things that are not work. But we live in the world in which no use of energy is innocent: every such use is at the same time the use that is not work. It is true that the use of energy is more essential than the money itself, but it is only the more telling that something as contingent as money has risen up to the position of the energy’s inevitable counterpart. But it should be noted that, while the consumption of the energy is an inextricable element of the human condition, the social convention of translating it into money is not. Seen from this perspective this dominance and undisputed necessity of money for conducting our lives appears flabbergasting. And it is this predicament that is both the most prevalent and most scary. Whether we like it or not, this one thing is as certain as it is inevitable: Money etches into our lives.
I bike to work listening to Kate Tempest:
‘I feel the cost of it pushing my body.’
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates,
The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
Native Realm by Czesaw Milosz
Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
‘Europe Is Lost’ by Kate Tempest