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The Pains of Work and the Relief of the Refrain

Another concept I was unfamiliar with introduced in David Frayne’s superb Refusal of Work. From pg 210:

For most of us, and for good reason, giving up work seems like an extreme solution, and working less is not always a practical option. When the periodic sense of dissatisfaction swells within, most of us resort to a more familiar set of escape strategies. We fight the demon of routine in our minds. Some common strategies are those we might place in the category of ‘refrains’: mental tics and transitory fantasies that remove us momentarily from the mundane reality in front of us. A refrain could be playing a song over and over in one’s head, or it could be having daydreams. Cohen and Taylor write that, at any moment, we can ‘throw a switch inside our heads and effect some bizarre adjustment to the concrete world that faces us’ (Cohen and Taylor, 1992: 90). We can strip people naked, assassinate bosses, or conjure in the mind an altogether different and more pleasant scene than the one set before us. Drink and drugs provide a comparable break from reality, whereas some people rely on an annual holiday overseas. So unhappy are many of us with our daily routines, that even illnesses are sometimes greeted as a welcome refrain.

The role of such pauses, whether internal or external, in providing relief from conditions we’re struggling to cope with is what I was trying to get at when writing about the phenomenology of inertia. How do these breaks work to preclude action? Should they be seen as negative because they engender a propensity to tolerate conditions which would otherwise come to be experienced as intolerable? Here’s a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:

I wrote a few weeks ago about obsessiveness and how I understand it in terms of internal conversation. I’m particularly interested in the role that differing forms of obsessiveness, as a generic term for difficulty with drawing deliberations to a close, plays in making decision making difficult. There’s no logically necessary end point to our rumination about a potential course of action. There’s always other possibilities we could consider. There’s always other ways of looking at the issue. There’s always other people whose advice we could seek. The divergent tendencies of individuals with respect to these possibilities could be conceptualised in a range of ways. I’d argue that they’re more significant than they may seem. Not necessarily because of their implications for action at one point in time but because of their cumulative implications for the trajectories of social action which an individual will tend towards.

It’s from this standpoint that I’m also interested in inertia. The capacity of people to go months, years or decades pondering a decision without making it is one which fascinates me (albeit slightly morbidly). I’m currently reading John Lanchester’s novel Capital and there’s a wonderful passage which made me come back to these issues, which I’ve been thinking about less since I (finally) finished the data analysis for my PhD. In the chapter introducing an Oxford educated classicist who entered the police force on a graduate fast track, Lanchester has a lovely couple of pages in which he paints a vivid picture of the ambivalence which characterises the relationship of this middle-class teetotal Christian to his career in the police. Having “wanted to scratch an itch to do with authority, his need for it, his desire to have it, his liking of hierarchy and order” he found the social politics deeply challenging. While he felt he was doing some good, this nonetheless went hand-in-hand with a perpetual consideration of a possible exit:

“That didn’t mean he didn’t think about giving it up and doing something else. He did, almost every day. The thought was a safety valve; the idea that he could quit whenever he liked was one of the things which kept him in the job. The exit was always in his line of sight. The idea of it helped him to stay put and to cope with the rough parts of his job and his day.”

This is what I mean about obsessiveness and inertia. This fictional character deliberated almost everyday about a potential exit (“could I leave? should I leave? is this right for me?”) but far from deliberation leading functionally towards action, the obsessiveness which characterises this consideration actually engenders inertia. Reminding himself of the possibility of exit offers fleeting protection against the facets of the job, as well as his feelings about them, which engender his desire to do something else. But if this continues then with the passing weeks and months the cost of exit (and entry elsewhere) become higher and the inertia becomes ever more entrenched. How much of life is lived this way? How different would the world be if inertia of this form didn’t exist? Is such inertia simply a product of the tyranny of choice which privilege allows? Is inertia always negative? Is it possible to investigate inertia in an empirical way? Or will the stories people tell themselves and others to make sense of their inertia prove too much of a problem?

Unfortunately the pleasures of the refrain are fleeting. They can promise change yet remain defined by their underlying escapism. From pg 210-211:

The problem with refrains, however, is that their buzz never lasts long. A holiday overseas might provide us with a refreshing sense of distance from our usual circuits of possibility –we might arrive home pledging to relax more, eat more interesting food, and reconnect with old friends –but it is never long before life takes over and we are once again overwhelmed by the ordinary business of living. Try to make the temporary escape more permanent and one runs into trouble.

As Frayne asks on pg 214, do “they only serve to reinforce our tolerance of the toxic situations from which we seek escape”? I suspect they usually do.

Categories: Cognitive Triage: Practice, Culture and Strategies The Intensification of Work

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Mark