It’s fair to say that I am a productive person, both academically and more generally. I view getting my work done as an opportunity to finally get some work done. I’ve written before about the somewhat sad origins of this productivity, which started as a survival strategy of being always above reproach. But I do mostly enjoy my symptom. Last week, for instance, I far exceeded my own expectations by finishing a talk and a major administrative task, both of which I thought would dominate much of the next week and a half — and that evening I was riding what can only be described as a productivity high.
Normally, I try to schedule things so that a project is ramping up just as another is winding down. As I was finalizing the manuscript of The Prince of This World, for instance, I was already beginning to work with Carlo Salzani on our edited volume, Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage. Every so often, though, I “clear the decks” in a situation where I am in no real position to start something new, where I can just barely keep treading water with my day-to-day obligations of teaching and doing things associated with deaning. I am living in one of those moments: all the irons in my fire for the past few months are either finished (an article based on my Australia/New Zealand talk, my Loraux translation) or tantalizingly close (wrapping up the edited volume).
Notionally, being “done” is the goal of all my labors. Sometimes I catch myself thinking things like, “It’ll be nice to be able to do things like read Proust once I’m done” — as though I could be globally done with every project and finally relax. But as anyone who has skimmed a summary of Lacan could tell you, that’s not actually how it works. I may once have done my chores promptly as a means to the end of having them done and clearing out — in the style of Cool Hand Luke — a brief respite of freedom. As a fully-baked adult, though, I have turned that fateful corner so that the ostensible goal is only a means to the means themselves. And so, “clearing the decks” could be better termed “falling off a cliff.”
That’s when it becomes clear that I still bear the scars of the original formation of my routine, which I adopted to quell anxiety and assert some minimal control over my situation. And the same reversal holds — in the absence of the defense mechanism, anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness arise unbidden, regardless of whether they are objectively justified. Right now, I have plenty of things to sincerely worry about, from Trump all the way down to the major institutional transition Shimer is going through. But I know from past experience that the surplus-anxiety released by idleness can attach itself to anything: the potential health problems of a healthy dog, for instance, or whether our landlord will renew our lease when there’s literally no possible reason he wouldn’t.
Maybe on some level these periods of workohol withdrawal are healthy for me. Maybe it’s okay to do the bare minimum sometimes, to sit with the fact that a lot of very important factors in my life are beyond my control. Or maybe — wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before — learning to relax can be my next task!