An elegy to the loser’s genuine vita activa

We want to stop our planet from burning, but we can’t even stop ourselves from burning.

The only news coming about climate change is that it is worsening, Earth is getting warmer, and we can’t seem to stop it even though we know how to. We know we should stop it since its consequences can be seen everywhere. In Greece, three years of rainfall occurred in some weeks, even creating the possibility of new perennial lakes, but also, almost in parallel, unprecedented wildfires were running amok; the city of New York flooded up to knee-high levels; Libya suffered some of its most devastating floods in decades; in Mexico, the city of Acapulco was devastated due to a hurricane that went from Category 2 to 5 in a matter of hours giving no chance to prepare for it.

All of these events are accompanied by scientific reports that the general temperature of the planet continues to break temperature records and that we have already crossed most planetary boundaries, casting us to uncharted territory. Scientific projections indicate that Earth will continue its scorching pathway. And what are we doing about it? We can’t even seem to stop ourselves from burning. And like to Earths’ pathway ours doesn’t seem to be much different. Everywhere around us people are burning. Is there a relationship between the two?

With a burning world, can we, as humans, be detached and not follow a similar trajectory?

Image generated by AI (Credit Jonatan Godinez)

In complex thinking theory, the holographic principle states that the whole is the sum of its parts and that parts phenomenologically reflect the whole. In that sense, the parts and the whole are inseparable. Therefore, not only does what happens in the whole affect the parts, but the parts undergo a similar process just like the whole. The planet is burning, and we are also inadvertently burning ourselves in our daily frenzy. As a society, our epoch has been characterised as no other for our propensity to burn out. This modern malady occurs when a person, through overwork, worries and anxieties, consumes their psychological resources (one can argue that even their elan of life) to a point where they end up as a useless vegetative entity for months.

Of course, this modern societal malady cannot be explained with simplistic reasonings based on individualistic explanations of human conduct and individual responsibility. The philosopher Byung Chul Han (2015: 8) points to a more complex explanation involving the role of ideology and power relations:

“Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society [as argued by Foucault], but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves… Unlimited Can is the positive modal verb of achievement society. Its plural form—the affirmation, ‘Yes, we can’. Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation. Disciplinary society is still governed by no. Its negativity produces madmen and criminals. In contrast, achievement society creates depressives and losers. Burnout represents the pathological consequence of voluntary self-exploitation. The imperative of expansion, transformation, and self-reinvention—of which depression is the flip-side—presumes an array of products tied to identity… Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient. The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.”

From the previous quote, I am interested in unpacking two concepts: the achievement society and the numerous ‘losers’ it creates, and what is the role of those losers in society. Regarding the achievement society and its compulsion to act, if capitalism’s non-stop aim for productivity and consumerism is the root cause of climate change, then its ideology is the root cause of the burnout pandemic affecting the world all over, especially in wealthy countries. If GDP is the insane measurement by which economies monitor their progress and compare to each other, personal achievements are the indicator by which individuals (and scientists) compare each other via likes, re-posting, and citations on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Twitter (X, or whatever…), Instagram, Google Scholar and TikTok. The world – and us – are burning, but at least our growth rate (of GDP, followers, likes, citations…) is exploding!

It is hard not to come back to the story of Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who conjectured the existence of what was known as the Higgs’ boson. In the 60’s, Peter Higgs concluded that a yet undiscovered particle was necessary to explain an invisible mass-giving field. For many years, this remained but a conjecture, unproved. Its existence was so consequential to our understanding of the universe that in popular culture this particle was known as God’s particle. Yet, Peter Higgs could not produce a solid and steady scientific publication record – he published less than 10 papers after his groundbreaking conjecture-, so in the 1980s, he was about to be fired from the university. It was not until the rumours about his impending Nobel prize that deterred the university’s management from firing him. After finally receiving the Nobel prize in 2013,  Peter Higgs reflected in some interviews that he would not have been suited to the current academic system, which appeared to him like an industry.

Have we forgotten about thinking while pursuing a vita activa?

Image generated by AI (Credit Jonatan Godinez)

For the university, a long-term achievement to understand the universe was apparently less important than a steady scientific production. The university thought Peter Higgs’ unproductivity was a sufficient cause for dismissal. But perhaps our understanding of what active means is a source of confusion. Psychologist Erich Fromm elaborated on an apparent misconception between Vita contemplativa and Vita activa. For Vita activa, we commonly think of the person who is perennially busy, going up and down, waking at 4h30 to start sending e-mails, going for a run, preparing conference presentations and lectures, running and juggling between different projects meetings and penning the latest paper only to end the working day late at night sending the last emails. Fromm (1977) argues that we may counterintuitively judge what is active and passive life since a meditative person, staying still for a long time without seemingly doing much, may be experiencing a profound and intense epiphany capable of transforming their work, relations, and approach to life. Peter Higgs reflected in 2013, “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of [academic] climate to do what I did in 1964.” Just like Hanna Arendt, quoting Cato: “Never is a person more active than when they do nothing, never is a person less alone than when they are by themselves.” But, alas, what a waste! Such experience is internal and non-communicable; it cannot be shared on social media!

A dear Mexican friend and colleague opened my eyes some years ago, thinking about the privileged position of scientists and academics, “we’re the only people in the world who are paid to think!”. In the same vein, philosopher Martin Heidegger, provocatively asserted that ‘Science does not think’. At first glance, this seems contradictory, academics and scientists are the only ones who are paid to think, but at the same time science does not think? Heidegger meant that in the life of the mind, science is performed with a mental capacity other than thinking. Immanuel Kant separated the life of the mind into two mental capacities: Verstand (intellect) and Vernunft (to reason). The crucial mental capacity to produce science is related to understanding and knowing, which are related to the intellect and its crusade to find truths. However, as Hanna Arendt argued, thinking as Vernunft, is a completely different animal, since truths cannot be derived from thinking. Thinking is not bounded by knowledge but by the will to understand meanings beyond the sensory realms. One is capable of thinking beyond an objective quantified reality. That is so because thinking is concerned with beings and the intangible meanings we provide to reality. As such, thinking is primordial for the scientific endeavour.

But our current rat race precludes thinking (an internal non-visible activity) to favour appearances in the form of external awards (proxies of the inherent value of a scientist and academic’s work). For instance, currently, vacations are often used to stop for a while the rat race which many academics partake, only to gain strength (or avoid burn-out) to get back to work more dynamically, intrepid, and efficiently than ever. However, many academics use vacations to write texts they cannot dedicate time to in their working hours. Should not vacations and free time be used to reflect on one’s own life, the building of our inner life, our life priorities and choices, and reconsider our trajectory and relationship with the world and our closest human relationships? What has happened with long-time (but slow boiling) achievements, heart-driven projects where we put our effort and energy not into achieving career goals but simple and invisible rewards? We cannot seem to afford the free time nor heart to think about projects with low possibility of visible rewards.

An elegy to the losers of the world

Image generated by AI (Credit Jonatan Godinez)

Does the absence of visible (shareable, clickable, followable, retweetable) achievements make anyone a loser, or more specifically make a scientist a loser? Rosaria Gasparro, an Italian teacher furthering the thinking of Italian intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, argues the importance of cultivating a different sight (instead of only academic ‘cite’ as Isabelle Stengers (2013) playfully put it) in better words that I ever could:

I believe it is necessary to educate the new generations on the value of defeat. To its management. On the humanity that emerges from it. To build an identity capable of perceiving a common destiny where it is allowed to fail and start again without our value and dignity being affected. Not to become a social pusher, not stepping over other people’s bodies to get first. In this world of vulgar and dishonest winners, of false and opportunistic abusers, of important people, who occupy power, who steal the present, let alone the future, from all the neurotics of success, of appearing, of becoming… To this anthropology of the winner, I much prefer the loser. It’s an exercise that I do well. And it reconciles me with my sacred few things. [quoting Pasolini] «I’m a man who prefers to lose rather than win in unfair and unkind ways. Gross negligence on my part, I know! And the best part is that I have the nerve to defend this guilt, to consider it almost a virtue».”

Stuart Lane (2017) penned a magnificent article to argue in favour of a different kind of science, “slow science”. He argued that practicing science without the importance carried by performance indicators can nurture scientists’ sense of creativity and curiosity and engage with the subjects we study in a more transformative manner. In other words, trading the fast (often) inconsequential achievements that contribute to performance indicators for long-run often unappreciated engagements with topics with a high chance of ‘failure’ and that are not deemed as ‘hot topics’ by funders or other scientists, with people who are not precisely trend-setters, decision makers or ‘important people’ to speak back to us and appreciate the perspective of the forgotten and losers.

What is the rationale of this anthropology of the loser, working with and coalescing with the forgotten and the losers? I believe it is quite simple: winners are too comfortable with the world as it is. The losers are the ones most invested in changing this world, and are often the ones who invisibly keep this world from further deterioration as the poem “Los justos” of Jorge Luis Borges indicates:

A person who cultivates their garden, as Voltaire wanted.

Who is grateful that there is music on earth.

Who finds with pleasure an etymology.

Two employees who play a silent chess in Café del Sur.

The potter who premeditates a color and a shape.

A typographer who composes well this page well, who perhaps doesn’t like it.

A woman and a man reading the final triplets of a certain song.

The one who caresses a sleeping animal.

The one who justifies or wants to justify a wrong that has been done to them.

The one who is grateful that there are Stevensons on earth.

The one who prefers that others be right.

These people, who are ignored, are saving the world. Can a cultivated sight based on slowness, apparent passivity and focus on losers improve our relationship with the world and, therefore, with ourselves? A fixation on being constantly active as opposed to contemplating has trapped us into a rat-race. Perhaps our only hope to address the climate emergency is to abandon a system and ideology that makes us self-exploit for the sake of a ‘Fata morgana’ skewed grandiose vision of ourselves. What if, as Slavoj Zizek argues, our first impulse to act against the current multiple natural and humanitarian emergencies is driven by a pseudo-vita activa incapable of thinking deeper about underlying issues and potential futures based on new radical imaginaries? So many global forums (World Economic Forum, United Nations conferences, etc.) are structured in such a way that we always hear the same sermon: “We need to act now…”. But what if acting is in itself part of the problem, never making the uncomfortable questions that put into perspective how inadequate our current and new proposed actions are? Just like the intervention of the Dutch historian Rutgerd Bregman at the World Economic Forum of Davos in 2019 when the urge to act of billionaires in the form of philanthropy was questioned and put into perspective by exposing the hypocrisy of the rich by uttering the taboo word of ‘ttaxes, taxes, taxes’, adding “Everything else is bullshit in my opinion”! Of course, Rutgerd Bregman was never invited to Davos again.

Perhaps we must resist the urge and continuous exhortations to act in favor of thinking as a more radical intervention. After all, Socrates was condemned to death not for acting, but for thinking. Let mirrors of pseudo-vita activa be smashed and put windows instead to allow a refreshed outward sight!




Cite this blog post
Jonatan Godinez Madrigal (2024, January 19). An elegy to the loser’s genuine vita activa. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vmp2

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