Never reward blind effort

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

When I taught English at University, back in France, we would have a meeting at the end of each term to discuss borderline students. ‘Oh, but they’re working really hard’, one of my colleagues would say, to justify lifting the mark. And I would reply ‘Well, if they’re working hard and that’s the result, all the more reason to fail them.’

Embarrassed laughter, and the mark would eventually be lifted. Yet I made my point seriously. Is it ethical to reward effort, irrespective of consequences? Or should we fight our bias towards action, and properly value the art of doing nothing, and feeling satisfied by it?

By contrast, when I was working in government policy, I once heard a precious piece of wisdom from a colleague. ‘When you’re doing work,’ they said, ‘there’s three types of things you can achieve. You can contribute to the goal. You can sit and do nothing. Or you can flap around and stand in the way. So, if you think maybe you’re not able to contribute, better go surf the web.’

Should we be fully rational, encourage doing nothing, and punish misdirected effort? At least, this might help us shift our collective mindset, and better appreciate the worth of anything that saves energy.

On categories

When I lived in Paris, I had a friend who worked in auction houses. He taught me this: “There’s a collector for everything. My art is to place an object in the category most appealing to collectors.” Is this chest of drawers an heirloom from a Belgian celebrity baron, or a rare piece of Art Nouveau furniture? Is this a letter about the first World War, or a rare autograph from a famous pacifist?

We carry categories in our heads, by which we make decisions. Breakfast food, lunch food, snack food. Person I could work with, person I could sleep with. There’s a collector in all of us. Some are simply more overt about it, or their collections are more immediately visible. What is yours? Dates, shirts, food photographs, or vintage teddy bears?

Our world is a complex web of relationships and comparisons: things, people, we rarely let them ‘be’: we sort and filter Or if we do let someone or something ‘exist’, it’s only because we decided that they should belong to that category, ‘things that are unique’.

As these networks intersect, constant struggles occur, to debate where things and people fit, and how they relate. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, useful, useless, familiar, foreign. It is a rhetorical battlefield with clear practical stakes, where strategies differ. Confrontation is one: my things are better than yours; another one is stealth: the things I want, let’s hide their true value from others; seduction is a third: the things you want are things I have.