Lévinas on Work

With a friend, I’m reading through Lévinas’ Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. In the section on “Interiority and Economy,” Lévinas writes this about work:

Work can overcome the poverty that not need, but the uncertainty of the future, brings to being.

The nothingness of the future, we will see, changes in a moment of time when possession and work are inserted. The passage from instantaneous joy to the fabrication of things refers to habitation, to the economy, which assumes the welcome of the other (l’accueil de l’autrui). The pessimism of dereliction is therefore not irremediable–a person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils and the remedies preexist the evils.

But work itself, thanks to which I live freely, assuring me against the uncertainty of life, does not bring to life its final meaning. It becomes in this way that from which I live. I live out of all the contents of my life–even out of the work which assures the future. I live out of my work as I live out of air, light and bread. This fact limits where need imposes itself beyond joy, the proletarian condition condemns one to cursed work, and where the poverty of bodily existence finds neither refuge nor leisure at home, there is the absurd world of thrownness (Geworfenheit).

Le travail peut surmonter l’indigence qu’apporte à l’être non pas le besoin, mais l’incertitude de l’avenir.

Le néant de l’avenir, nous le verrons, vire en intervalle du temps où s’insèrent la possession et le travail. Le passage de la jouissance instantanée à la fabrication des choses, se réfère à l’habitation, à l’économie, laquelle, suppose l’accueil d’autrui. Le pessimisme de la déréliction n’est donc pas irrémédiable – l’homme tient entre ses mains le remède de ses maux et les remèdes préexistent aux maux.

Mais le travail lui-même, grâce auquel je vis librement, m’assurant contre l’incertitude de la vie, n’apporte pas à la vie sa dernière signification. Il devient aussi ce dont je vis. Je vis de tout contenu de la vie – même du travail qui assure l’avenir. Je vis de mon travail comme je vis d’air, de lumière et de pain. Le cas limite où le besoin s’impose par-delà la jouissance, la condition prolétarienne condamnant au travail maudit et où l’indigence de l’existence corporelle ne trouve ni refuge, ni loisir chez soi, c’est là le monde absurde de la Geworfenheit. (156)

Lévinas, in the pages leading up to this passage, continually makes the interesting comment that we live from all the contents of our world: air, bread, shelter. Here he adds also work, as that which tames the uncertainty of the future and its seeming nothingness (néant). Work enables us to find “refuge” and “leisure at home,” ensuring that we are not really living in the “absurd world of thrownness.” But is perhaps Lévinas granting too much to the utility of work here? Is it too much to say that, “A person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils”? Is not for too many in our world work the very thing that makes the future so uncertain?


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