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Work

A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

Last tended to March 25, 2021

Why I'm Reading This
Book info on Library Thing

One of my very kind brothers bought this for me as a birthday gift.
It was a great pick – the anthropology of work is one of my eternal obsessions.
David Graeber was my gateway drug into thinking about the very strange and bemusing cultural beliefs we construct around money, value, morality, obligation, employment, and salaries.
While no one writes quite like Graeber, I was thrilled to hear another anthropologist had written a fat new book looking at the long historical arc of labour through a cultural lens. I'm hoping Suzman tackles such a vast topic with the right balance of detailed research and accessible summarising it needs.

Suzman opens with a rather stereotypical, romanticised narrative. He begins with the Ju'/hoansi Bushmen - a community of modern day hunter gatherers who can gather all the food they need in just a few hours of work per day, and have the rest of their time to do as they please. I should mention Suzman did his ethnographic fieldwork with the Ju'/hoansi Bushmen, so he's not flippantly referencing their ways of life as a passing anecdote like a Gladwellian writer might.

This narrative about hunter-gatherers being the original affluent society was started by Marshall Sahlins in a 1966 essay, and later expanded upon in his book Stone Age Economics.

The thrust of the argument is that modern society invents endless needs, requiring endless work, making us very un-affluent in comparison.

As Sahlins put it, "Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world's wealthiest peoples."

This argument is obviously oversimplified, but points out an curious contradiction that's worth examining. What is the point of all that extra work?


To talk about "work,"" Suzman steps way back to an origins-of-life philosophical level to talk about entropy and energy balances.

One of our universal human myths is that our world "is subject to chaotic forces and that humans must work to keep these in check" (21). The balance between chaos and order is always present in our mythologies. Putting the world in order became tightly bound to work during the enlightenment in Western Europe.

Nearly every culture has a mythological character of a trickster who runs about causing trouble and social disruption - the serpent in the garden of Eden, Satan himself, Loki, ravens in indigenous North America, Anansi in west Africa and the Caribbean. They create work for the rest of us to clean up their mess.

As living things, we need to actively gather and use energy to keep regenerating ourselves. In order to live, we have to work to move that energy. Life fights against entropy by growing and reproducing.

The second law of thermodynamics says all energy will try to distribute itself evenly across the universe. This is the mythological trickster undoing the order of the universe - decay, rust, illness, death, and the constant maintenance we do to hold our lives and societies together.

Doing work is simply spending the energy to arrange our world in a particular order we've decided upon.

Animal Work and Human Work

Suzman raises the question; what is the difference between the kind of work humans do, and and the work all living creates do to feed themselves, build shelters, protect their young, and move about in the world?

The commonly accepted argument is that animal labour is purposive - it has a purpose but the agent can't necessarily describe why they're doing it. Trees grow new leaves to harvest solar energy but we wouldn't say it knows it.

Human labour is purposeful - it is full of multiple layers of conscious purpose. When we engage in the work of writing a research report, we do it for a myriad of purposes. To earn money, to learn, to achieve social status, to please others, to entertain ourselves. At least that is the argument. It is not a hard and fast line between us and the animals.

"Being purposeful requires an intuitive grasp of causality, the agility to imagine an outcome arising from an action, and so also implies having 'a theory of mind'"(42)

Plenty of animals other than humans engage in "pointless" "extra" work that Burns energy and does not earn them food or shelter. Weaver birds create hundreds of baskets when a dozen would do. They might be practicing their skills, or like humans, finding pride and joy in the practice of making beautiful objects. The inherent enjoyment of a craft.


Suzman argues the defining feature of humans that sets us apart from animals is our capacity to acquire new skills. We are by far "the most prolific, expert and versatile makers and users of tools." (63)

This was apparent early on - both Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis were making sophisticated Achuelean hand-axes and blades. Dating back to 1.6 million year ago.

We are also informavores - a term coined by cognitive scientist George Miller. Miller was interested in the idea all living creatures spend a significant amount of time and energy sensing, filtering, processing, and responding to the information in their environments. Plants, bacteria, insects, and mammals all have to figure out where the light is, what predators to avoid, how to find food through information seeking and processing.

Humans are the biggest informavores, "We are uniquely skilled at acquiring, processing and ordering information, and uniquely versatile when it comes to letting that information shape who we are." (88)

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Maggie Appleton © 2021