Monday, January 15, 2007

The Feeling of Uselessness

There is a connection between Marx’s dictum “his work constitutes the man” and the feeling of uselessness fostered in contemporary Academe. It is well known that one of Marx’s goals was the denunciation of the individual’s detachment from its work product. It turned out to be like a detachment from itself, some sort of alienation. I believe that this same alienation is directly connected with the personal satisfaction with one’s own work (which need not be a matter of product detachment) and self-determination of one’s own activities. The former is connected with a feeling of utility, or uselessness, the latter with a feeling of liberation, or asphyxiation. That is to say, the kind of self-alienation that Marx aims at is not chiefly a matter of product detachment, I believe, but mainly a matter of self-determination. Sometimes it is not enough to be attached to the product of your work to feel identified or not alienated from it.

Satisfactory actions result in a feeling of utility. I believe this feeling can only come when the individual determines by herself what that action will be. When this latter condition is not met then it’s only uselessness and dissatisfaction that results. Take the case of academics. The academic is not detached from the results of her academic work. Nonetheless, she is still alienated from it. If things were as simple as being attached to one’s own work products, a lot more academic people would be satisfied with their work.

Academic people, more often than not, represent their work as useless. This obviously, though not explicitly, entails that they represent themselves as useless. A further step, very easily taken, is to feel asphyxiated by one’s academic commitments. I think there is a direct connection here. The individual feels liberated when she feels useful; and this might be true even if she is detached from the product of her work. But, how can she find what is useful? I believe that self-determination is all there is to utility. There is a sea of differences between proving the incompleteness of first order logic because one’s own interest lies on the proof and doing it because one’s own candidacy for a PhD in Political Philosophy is at risk. The former is useful, joyful, and liberating, the latter a torture.

That is to say that every human activity is potentially useful or useless. Academic life is full of excruciating activities that burn out the individual’s capacities because they are pre-established and, most of all, externally imposed. It’s easy to feel asphyxiated here. It’s easy to feel useless. It’s easy, however, to solve the problem. All you should morally do, as Kant says, is do what you want. Even throwing stones into the river can be the most useful and liberating practice if one decides to do it by oneself.

Of course, it’s not easy to know what is in one’s will. This is probably something that is sometimes discovered and sometimes determined. To feel useless and asphyxiated has, perhaps, a positive result in this case. It tells us what it is that we do not want to do in the most clear-cut possible way. To feel useless is to know what it is to do something useful, and sometimes even to know what would be useful to do.