What is the most valuable work? I was confronted with this question last summer, when I got the opportunity to participate in the Arete Project, a two month program combining academics, labour, and self-governance. For the first time, I was in an educational setting where cooking and cleaning were considered just as important as reading, weeding in the garden scheduled prior to classwork. One of the books we read was Simone de Beauvoir’s “the Second Sex”. It was an interesting read in that context for two reasons: one, we were all women, and two, we were doing lots of labour. Apart from the giant contributions this book has made to feminist theory, the Second Sex also talks about different kinds of work, and how they relate to existential meaning. My experiences that summer led me to see the limitations in how de Beauvoir frames valuable work.
“the Second Sex” was conceived when Simone de Beauvoir set out to write her treatise on existentialism. She realized that she couldn’t talk about existence without unpacking what it meant ‘to be’ as a woman. In this book, she argues that the way society conceives of women denies them the ultimate freedom which makes existence meaningful. Rather than considering that women, like men, may freely define themselves and their lives, they are already attributed an “essence” based on their gender; what it is to be a woman. This view of women confines them to “immanence”, a concept she will contrast with “transcendence” throughout her writing. Whereas men ‘transcend’ through projecting themselves into the world with the realization of projects and creations, women are limited to immediate work, caring for the parts of life which maintain rather than invent. Woman is the keeper of the home, tiring away at repetitive tasks which have no definitive endpoint of success. Yet a fruitful life requires realizing and acting on our freedom, engaging in action which extends beyond us. For de Beauvoir, the way forward to the emancipation of woman is the realization of her own freedom and opening in society for her to access transcendence as well.
de Beauvoir underlines a crucial fault line along which women and men are considered differently as beings. However, the way she framed her transcendence-immanence dichotomy didn’t settle with me. I got to thinking, if the best in life is creation, who will maintain?
I realized that her depiction of work was not just about gender. We should put her writing into context: she is an intellectual, from a particular class; and from this perspective, the ability to create is the source of fulfillment. The ‘transcendence’ she describes involves going beyond the immediacy of needs, connecting to ‘something greater’. Only some have the privilege to choose this. In contrast, the immanent work she refers to is more like menial labour, usually done by those who have no choice.
So we can see how the oppression which limits women to certain work may also function through class. Even though she doesn’t address this element, de Beauvoir is making an important point about the situation of women in the mid 20th century. I agree that women and men should be equally able to take part in ‘transcendent’ work, and for that matter, non-elites as well. Yet I question her veneration of this work over others.
I don’t think it makes sense to create a hierarchy of value between work which sustains and work which invents. They need each other.
Especially in academia, we tend not to think much about the maintaining labour which provides for our basic needs: the labour that goes into the food we eat, the homes we live in, and the early years of life in which our parents cared for us. We devalorize such work in our daily lives and plans for the future; it is a necessary but peripheral part of life.
Think about the stereotypical university student; living in filthy squalor, eating only crackers, running on caffeine so that they might finish their papers on time. Things like cooking and cleaning are viewed as the mundane essentials which only sustain us so that we can continue about our ‘real’ ambitions; higher aspirations, those which involve creation, knowledge, problem-solving.
But how could striving for anything be possible without sustaining ourselves? This question brought me to consider how these ideas might be relevant on a political scale. Today, the difference between maintaining and creating is at the crux of our relationship with the environment. In my mind, this is where a concept from feminist theory can intersect with environmental philosophy.
Arguably, ‘negative externalities’ of development like pollution or depletion of resources are overlooked because producing is prioritized over maintaining resources. Perhaps it seems like I’m making a leap from philosophy to politics to ecology to everything, but this mentality of focusing on what de Beauvoir calls ‘transcendence’ seems pervasive. This point is difficult to illustrate because it is taken for granted all around us; a kind of cultural norm. In practical terms, the development of infrastructure can reflect this mentality. Rather than renovating and maintaining existing structures, it is always more attractive to propose entirely new ones. Even within the environmental movement, the expectation that new green tech will solve our problems is more appealing than letting go of the dream of ever-expanding growth and reducing our consumption.
All of this is not to say that innovation isn’t valuable.
Valuing “transcendence” is only a problem insofar as we devalue maintenance which is, in a literal sense, sustainability.
So what does all this mean for us? Clearly, it is a privilege to study and learn. But, as I discovered last summer, whether I was chopping wood, milking cows, or washing dishes, it is interesting to experience “maintaining” work as a valuable end in itself; to submit to the cyclical repetition of the nature of certain things, the domain where we cannot claim final success or create our individuality.
The Second Sex highlights how there should be more equitable relationships to work, emancipating women to enter in fields that were largely closed to them at the period of de Beauvoir’s writing. I would go a step further to say that, not only those limited to only ‘maintaining’ work need to be liberated, but those of us at an arms’ length from the labour that sustains us can find meaning by closing the gap.