An Emancipatory Philosophy of Work and Sleep, #1–The New Wheel of Ixion: Work, Sleep, and The Mechanization of Everyday Life.

By Robert Hanna

“Mr Sisyphus-Head On His Way To Work” (Reykjavik, Iceland) (Author’s photograph, 2019)


Sleep, you say, is the image of death; for my part I say that it is the image of life. (Pascal, 1995: p. 333)

This essay will be posted in three installments.

The REFERENCES will be included in the third installment.

You can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay HERE.


I. The New Wheel of Ixion: Work, Sleep, and The Mechanization of Everyday Life

In Greek mythology, the “human, all-too-human” King Ixion was bound by the all-powerful Zeus, King of the Gods on Mount Olympus, to a burning, fiery wheel for eternity, as punishment for abusing Zeus’s hospitality and seducing the über-God’s wife. The Wheel of Ixion initially rolled across the sky, but was eventually moved below to Tartarus, the better to darken and increase Ixion’s suffering, just like the exceptionally cruel and more famous punishments also meted out to Sisyphus and Tantalus. Now, Arthur Schopenhauer was a pessimistic philosophical genius of the early- to mid-19th century, and in his brilliant essay, “On the Sufferings of the World” (Schopenhauer, 2004), he used used Ixion’s Wheel as a vivid metaphor for the endless cycle of burning desire, its frustration or merely temporary satiation, followed immediately by renewed desire, pain, and suffering, on and on and on relentlessly, and finally death, that’s built into the “human, all-too-human,”condition and the “will-to-live” (Wille zum Leben) alike.

Correspondingly, let’s now consider the thought-shaping visual image displayed directly below:

What thoughts and emotions does this depiction of a worker slumped over his open laptop computer, with a supersized clock looming overhead, spontaneously suggest to you?

Here’s what it suggests to me. If you are like most adult people alive today (I mean all those adults who have jobs: for simplicity’s sake I’m leaving aside the important but also complicating issue of temporary or permanent joblessness or unemployment), then

(i) you work at a salaried job for more-or-less eight continuous hours a day, five days a week (similarly, and again for simplicity’s sake, I’m leaving aside the equally important but complicating issue of part-time jobs and overtime work), and

(ii) you sleep more-or-less eight continuous hours every single day (ditto, for sleep disorders), and

(iii) because your work occurs at some distance from your home, then you also spend at least another two hours getting ready to work, traveling to-and-from work, getting ready to sleep, and or slowly waking-up.

Or, as during and beyond the 2020–2022 COVID-19 pandemic, if you’re distance-working at home and not traveling, then you spend another two hours per day working, probably unpaid. Of course, there are usually weekends off, or at least two discontinuous days off, every week, and a few weeks off for holidays, every year; but the unending, unrelenting work-and-sleep pattern continues throughout. So the stunning fact is that most human adults spend up to or even more than 2/3 of their lives continuously working, continuously sleeping, or going through the supplementary rituals associated with work and sleep.

By jobwork, aka labor, I mean human work that consists in “the activities necessary to society’s survival” (Kranzburg, 1981: p. 932). But, sadly, most jobwork/labor is shitwork. Why do I say that? I say it, because it’s a plain and simple fact that most jobs are

either (i) bullshit, that is, absurdly pointless and also unproductive and useless for anyone other than the job-holder — even if well-paying (Graeber, 2013, 2018),

or (ii) fairly or very boring,

or (iii) even worse: badly-paid, dangerous, demeaning, or otherwise exploitative or oppressive.

So, more generally, I’ll call any job that is either bullshit, fairly or very boring, badly-paid, dangerous, demeaning, or otherwise exploitative or oppressive, a shit job.

In my 2018 book Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism, I defined human work as follows:

any form of creative, productive, or otherwise energy-expending rational human agency or performance (roughly, intentionally changing or moving oneself or other things, in the natural or social worlds). (Hanna, 2018c: p. 122)

And in that same book, I also said that there are two basic kinds of work, namely,

(i) jobwork, aka labor, and

(ii) lifework, and that

[l]ifework … is … creative, meaningful activity (aka a project), or a series of such activities (aka projects), pursued as a full-time, or almost full-time, lifetime calling. Simply put, lifework is whatever you would do for the rest of your life if you were freed from financial worries. (Hanna, 2018c: p. 122)

But in order to be more complete and precise, I’ll now define human work like this, with the changed bits [in boldface]:

any form of creative, productive, or otherwise energy-expending rational human agency or performance (roughly, either intentionally changing or moving oneself, other people, or other things, in the natural or social worlds, or intentionally keeping oneself, other people, or things in their current conditions or positions, or preventing their change or movement, in the natural or social worlds).

Correspondingly, I’ll also now categorize and sub-categorize the basic kinds of human work as follows:

(i) jobwork, aka labor: human work that consists in “the activities necessary to society’s survival” (Kranzberg, 1981: p. 932), including

(ia) advanced capitalist jobwork/labor, in exchange for money or some equivalent form of payment (oppressive, inconsistent with lifework), and

(ib) paleo-capitalist jobwork/labor,[i] with payment (non-oppressive, consistent with lifework),

(ii) slavework: coerced, compelled work, with or without payment (oppressive, inconsistent with lifework),

(iii) domestic work: human work for creating, maintaining, or sustaining a household, including looking after partners, children, or other family members, with or without payment, including

(iiia) oppressive domestic work, and

(iiib) non-oppressive domestic work,

(iv) basic-needs work: human work for providing what is necessary for the satisfaction of basic true human needs, including food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, other public services like transportation/ thoroughfares, etc., with or without payment, including

(iva) oppressive basic-needs work, and

(ivb) non-oppressive basic-needs work, and

(v) lifework: creative, meaningful activity (aka a project), or a series of such activities (aka projects), of any kind, done for its or their own sake, with or without payment, pursued as a full-time, or almost full-time, lifetime calling; or, in a nutshell, what you would freely choose to do for your entire working life, if liberated from financial worries, worries about social status, slavework worries, domestic work worries, and basic-needs work worries.

Notice particularly in the list of categories of work, that on the one side, (ia) and (ii), and on the other side, (v), are contraries, and therefore mutually inconsistent. Recognizing this antithesis then enables the further recognition that there’s a profound sociohistorical and political connection between slavework and advanced capitalist jobwork/labor: the social institution of chattel slavery is when some people own other people as private property, and the slaveowners have coercive authoritarian control over the lives of those people by forcing them to work solely for their owners’ self-interest; so chattel slavery was the historical precursor or prototype of advanced capitalist jobwork/labor.

I’ll now turn from the critical analysis of how we work during the era of advanced capitalism and of what I’ve called the military-industrial-university-digital complex (Hanna, 2022a), to a critical analysis of how we sleep during this era.

For five days a week, during your more-or-less eight continuous hours of sleep, exhausted by your jobwork and by your two hours of associated jobwork rituals, together with the rest of your life squeezed into the other more or less six continuous hours, you do nothing but lie there, either dreamlessly or merely passively dreaming, meaninglessly alive, listlessly rolling over from time to time. And the same sleep pattern recurs over the weekend, precisely in order that you can laboriously resume it on Blue Monday, ad infinitum, like Sisyphus endlessly pushing that enormous boulder up that slope, only now that enormous boulder is where your head should be, as per the image at the top of this essay.

In fact, most ordinary people in the Middle Ages and other pre-industrial societies naturally engaged in multiphasic, polyphasic, or segmented restfulness or sleep, usually in a biphasic pattern consisting of

(i) roughly four hours of sleep (which was often called “the first sleep”),

(ii) roughly two hours of contemplative or meditative, or in any case, restful wakefulness in the middle of the night (for lack of a better term, and with Andrei Tarkovsky’s exceptionally eerie and hypnagogic 1979 post-apocalyptic science fiction film Stalker in mind, I’ll call this The Zone) and

(iii) another roughly three or four hours of sleep (which was often called “the second sleep”) (Ekirch, 2001, 2005, 2016; Yetish et al., 2015).

Of course, this natural, organic human sleep pattern and rhythm changed radically with the gradual advance and eventual domination of capitalist industrialization.

Indeed, endorsing but also extending the main line of argument in Jonathan Crary’s excellent book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Crary, 2013), I’m claiming that our natural, organic human sleep patterns have been social-institutionally mind-shaped and life-shaped (Maiese and Hanna, 2019; Maiese et al., 2022)by advanced capitalism and digital technology since 1950, as these have gradually turned US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”[ii] into the military-industrial-university-digital complex. And insofar as our natural, organic sleep patterns have been social-institutionally mind-shaped and life-shaped in this way, that seventy year regime of mind-shaping and life-shaping has been systematically destructive and deforming for us (Maiese and Hanna, 2019: chs. 2–3).

So what I’m hereby calling The New Wheel of Ixion is the stunning real-world fact that most adult human beings are permanently locked into an utterly commodified, mechanized, digitally technologized, and more generally robotic routine consisting of

(i) more or less eight or more continuous hours of working at a shit job five days a week, much of it spent either sitting in front of a computer screen in an office or while distance-working at home, or messing around on your smartphone in either location,

(ii) another one to two meaningless hours of associated jobwork rituals supplementary to those, for five days a week,

(iii) weekends spent trying to catch up with the rest of your life, but often enough including overtime work at the office or online, or worrying about work, and

(iv) more or less eight continuous hours of passive, meaningless sleep seven days a week.

And thereby, most of us spend up to, or even more than, 2/3 of our lives either shittily or passively and meaninglessly, until so-called “retirement,” or death, whichever comes first.

No wonder, then, that many or most contemporary professional academic philosophers, formal scientists, and natural scientists, not to mention cognitive scientists, social scientists, billionaire technocrats, and politicians, dogmatically gripped by the hegemonic ideology of the mechanistic worldview, unquestioningly believe and endlessly tell us that we’re nothing but decision-theoretic biological machines — “biochemical puppets” (Harris, 2012), “moist robots” (Daniel Dennett, as quoted by Schuessler, 2013), or “survival machines” (Dawkins, 2006), which is a direct implication of what I’ve called the mechanistic worldview (Hanna, 2022a). And notice how very convenient that particular hegemonic ideology and that particular worldview are for our advanced capitalist bosses, world-wide, who help keep the military-industrial-university-digital complex up and running, and, in a complementary way, self-servingly use that ideology in order to “justify” heavily funding Big Science both inside and outside universities. So in a nutshell, The New Wheel of Ixion is perfectly symbolized by the image I displayed a few paragraphs above, depicting the supersized clock looming over the sleeping worker slumped over his desk and his open laptop computer, at the office or at home, dead to the world at 10:35 am or 10:35 pm, take your pick.


[i] For a definition and explication of what I mean by paleo-capitalism, see section III below.

[ii] This phrase originally occurred in Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” in 1961:

[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together. ([boldfacing] added)

See, e.g., (Wikipedia 2022).


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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.