Over the past few years, countless reflections on the ‘post-work future’ have been published. Most of these come from political theorists and economists, whether it’s liberals demanding a universal basic income to soften the impact of automation or leftists anticipating an immanent transition to ‘fully automated luxury communism’. Yet the psychological consequences of a society in which advanced technology obviates the need for human labour are frequently neglected. How would a regime of idleness and lassitude affect the inner life?
This is the question posed by Josh Cohen, a professor of literary theory and practising psychoanalyst, 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: they are resistant to the logic of contemporary capitalism, which attempts to instrumentalise our every action for the market. Against this insistence on utility, Cohen argues for the replacement of pre-given goals with open-ended curiosity.
Psychoanalysis, for Cohen, is ‘talk for the mere sake of it’. It relieves us of that ‘pressure to produce, to formulate a solution, to get somewhere’ that afflicts the gainfully employed. Yet this refusal of purposive action does not create a deadened or static subjectivity. On the contrary, it puts