Against the Cult of Productivity
Monday Notes
Against the Cult of Productivity
Is it possible to live forever through one's writing?
Published on: Apr 25, 2022  

I’m going to try something a bit different for today’s Monday Note. The Monday Note was intended to be less structured, more a collection of thoughts and observations than a fully-fledged argument. For better or worse, though, Damir and I like writing essays,  so we’ve struggled to live up to the promise of a more fractured form of writing. Today, however, I’m going to try. Because, today, I don’t really have an argument to make, and perhaps I should embrace what is, for me, an unusual but probably healthy feeling of indeterminacy and being in the in-between.

As my friends will know, I’ve been feeling a bit torn this month of Ramadan, between my Muslimness and the fact of the very secular world I inhabit—one that isn’t oriented for religion or community. It is much easier to fast in Muslim-majority contexts where nearly everyone is fasting (or pretending to fast). There is no expectation of productivity, which allows people to take pleasure in their “laziness” rather than feel the nagging guilt that I’ve been fighting off for the past three weeks. Sometimes, there are days when I find myself feeling frustrated by Islam’s apparent lack of concern for getting things done. But, of course, the very premise of fasting—much easier to grasp in a pre-modern, pre-capitalist world—is to carve out a long stretch of time where metrics of efficiency and economic or intellectual production aren’t foremost in our minds. We’re not supposed to be productive, because life (at least for a month) is elsewhere.

In a Muslim-minority context, however, there’s a disequilibrium, because while you (and the other 1 percent of American Muslims) may be fasting, the rest of the world around you is operating according to an entirely different logic. Everyone else is going about their lives and their work as they would any other month, which is to say that they are maximizing their output in a liberal, capitalist society that elevates self-improvement and success well above spiritual contentment or even happiness.

There is something quite wonderful about not working, but it’s a sense of wonder that I simply don’t get the opportunity to experience as much as I’d like. As my friend, the Evangelical theologian Matthew Kaemingk, put it to me recently, not working—or not feeling that one must work to be worthy—allows us to feel weakness, vulnerability, and finitude. But it’s more than a feeling. Instead of an economy of scarcity, competition, and output, there is instead an economy of joy and dependence: “Rather than putting faith in our own productivity, we reflect that it is God who makes the world.”

Among Christians of the left but also increasingly the right, there is a growing appreciation of the dangers that late capitalism poses to traditional religion. It reorients us away from the moral and the metaphysical and towards things that are important, to be sure, but not necessarily the most important. What would it be like to live life in a lower gear, after living in a higher one for most of my adult life? It’s an intriguing question.

In a tweet the other day, someone made the comment that philosophers—a famously self-regarding group—orient their work in the hope that they will be read, admired, and perhaps even celebrated 200 years from now. Everyone wants to be a Wittgenstein or a Kant. And, indeed, those men have “lived on” through their work. Of course, there’s a catch. They weren’t alive to know it. Does something matter, in any real, perceptible sense, if you don’t know it now but others might know it after you die? When you’re dead, you won’t be in much of a position to benefit from this posthumous embrace. Which is just another way of saying that by writing, and writing ambitiously and with high self-regard, we are waging war against our own mortality.

It is human to be afraid. And so we fill the vacuum where meaning might have been with the prospect of vicarious meaning into the future. In so doing, we elevate ourselves to the center of a world-historical narrative. We become more than mere individuals, specks in the long march of time. There is a certain romance in wanting to live your life on an epic scale, but this is also the romance of grand gestures that may be remembered by no one but ourselves.

(Oops. I guess I wrote an essay after all.)