Cohen is good at revealing all the ways in which, even as the 21st century induces exhaustion, it banishes the expression of it; and everyone will recognise what he has to say about how life can feel like a facsimile, one in which we merely go through the motions, when we should be living it to the full... Nevertheless, Not Working is rather a clunky mashup of case studies, memoir, literary criticism and biography. His wildly creative slackers and opt-outers include Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol and Orson Welles – examples so extreme as to be less than useless in terms of illuminating his central arguments about the possibilities of non-work.
While Blanchflower’s diagnosis is insightful, his prescriptions sometimes lack imagination. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – and Blanchflower’s hammer is Keynesian demand stimulus: Central banks in advanced economies should maintain – or even further loosen – monetary policy, while governments should reverse austerity and avail of low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. Maybe this is necessary, but it is unlikely to be sufficient.
How would a regime of idleness and lassitude affect the inner life? This is the question posed by Josh Cohen [...] in his eloquent defence of shiftlessness. Cohen’s dual professions colour his perspective on this issue: in the neoliberal imagination, those who puzzle over sonnets or sit in consulting rooms are useless, entitled and unproductive. Their activities lack purpose. But, for Cohen, this is precisely what makes them worthwhile... Against this insistence on utility, Cohen argues for the replacement of pre-given goals with open-ended curiosity... Cohen describes how a pathological aversion to commodified labour facilitated an immense creative output... Cohen’s writing reflects his central thesis: his prose is airy, effortless, free-associative, meandering, digressive and unhurried. In its refusal of tight structures or scholarly rigour, Not Working deftly conveys its basic message: that pointlessness has a point in itself... Cohen’s character portraits are at once inspiring and depressing because they show that the idler cannot escape from a hostile social context. They illustrate how resistance to work functions within a specific historical environment – one that is inimical to the autotelic. And yet this book raises the possibility that such resistance may function differently, more effectively, in the future.
I don’t know how difficult it is for Josh Cohen, who is an engaging, multitasking cultural theorist, even though he claims to be a bit of a daydreamer in this book about not working... For this is a book about our secret desires and our secret desires involve, for many of us, doing nothing... Cohen is attuned to all the ways we may avoid ourselves... Cohen, though, is fantastically good at making us question our hard-won strategies of avoidance and resistance to stopping.
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop explores the relationship between inertia and the life of the mind by revisiting the lives and works of several giants from cultural history. It is a curious blend of personal memoir, arts criticism, literary biography and psychoanalytic sleuthing... Not Working proceeds in a similarly languid, round-the-houses fashion, the destination being less important than the journey. Lack of through-line notwithstanding, there is much food for thought in this erudite homage to catatonia.
Not Working is not a manifesto for the downing of tools or a mass walkout, nor is it an overtly political book — an author interested in that particular angle could surely fill page after page about the apathetic populace in the modern age. But it is a persuasive call for a re-evaluation of how we live our lives and the things we find value in. Cohen usefully grounds the more theoretical wrangling of each chapter with a composite case history gleaned from his consulting room. This is then followed by a famous example to illustrate each of his character types: the Pop artist Andy Warhol (burnout), the actor and director Orson Welles (slob), the poet Emily Dickinson (daydreamer) and the writer David Foster Wallace (slacker), figures we’re no doubt familiar with, but about whose lives Cohen proffers new insight