Camus, repetition, and the pains, graces, and distractions of consciousness

Here is Albert Camus on Sisyphus in 1942: “the gods. . . thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” This, as Jill Fellows pointed out in her discussion of Camus is a myth about repetition. But, as Jill also showed us, there is a necessary supplement to the association of repetition with punishment. “The myth is tragic,” Camus asserts, only “because the hero is conscious.” Not otherwise.

Repetition and consciousness: the stuff of tragedy?

What do you think Camus means by “conscious”?

What would unconscious repetition look like? (Can it ever be, in Camus’s terms, “human”?)

Camus’s own example is the “workman of today, who works every day in his life at the same tasks.” Such a worker, under the early twentieth-century regime of Taylorism or in today’s neo-Taylorist workplace, might spend her days feeding napkins, but never Turkish towels, into an industrial iron; soldering microchips to a circuit board without ever holding or using the finished smart phone or PC; reading a series of prompts and statements into a telephone headset at a call centre, debarred from taking the “wasted” time for unscripted conversation.

According to Camus, such a worker’s “fate is no less absurd” than the fate of Siphysus, “[b]ut it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

Do you agree that workers engaged on repetitive tasks are not conscious?

Do you agree that consciousness alone makes overwork and alienation tragic?

Repetition and rescue: the case for consciousness (as thought and as imagination)

Camus offers a rescue from the more unconscious kind of repetition, which threatens to subsume life, as well as a consolation for the conscious repetitions that comprise the tragedy of Sisyphus: “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” To read, implicitly, is to imagine Camus’s version of the myth into life.

Camus went further: he found the joy in Sisyphus. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . He knows himself to be the master of his days.” And so “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In discussing Camus’s text, and his myth-making, Jill Fellows argued that the “must” is crucial: what’s needed is agency, which she attributed to the work of the reader.

Among the questions we might want to think about: Can compelled labour (any action subject to a term like “must”) be a source of true happiness? (This is a question especially germane to the life of the student—and to the question, too, of how to find joy in what one does not especially wish to read.)

We might also want to consider the politics of this emphasis on agency as “mastery,” or at least as self-assertion and self-regulation. Does every possible kind of agency require the agent to act on something? Must all agency result in tangible ends? What kinds of subjects (or actors) exist without objects (the targets of their action)? What takes place in acts without mastery or outcomes?

What can imagination (and ideas) do? A conversation

We could also think about–and then decide what we think about–Karl Marx’s claim that ideas make nothing happen (other than other ideas), and that the contrary argument amounts to “ideology” (a false idea–that is believed to be true–about ideas.)

The position is laid out most baldly, perhaps, in Marx’s The German Ideology (1845) and the “Theses on Feuerbach” that he wrote in the same year, though he never published them. Thesis XI, from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” states that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” In The German Ideology (Ch. 1. §A.), Marx wrote that “Since [philosophers] consider conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute an independent existence, as the real chains of men. . . it is evident that [philosophers] have to fight only against these illusions of consciousness. . . . It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of. . . philosophy with. . . reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings.”

Marx’s counter-proposition is that only events make events happen. The consciousness or unconsciousness of workers is irrelevant to the “reality” of their “chains.” The chains exist and require a fight.

And then there is the claim of W. H. Auden for the non-agency of poetry, the expression of imagination.

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth. (W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 1939) 

Is Auden’s statement more modest or less modest than Camus’s claims for conscious imagining? Does it agree with or depart from Marx’s insistence on the intractability of “material surroundings”? 

What happens when you read Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” (and think about or comment on it)? Can it change your life? Can you imagine Sisyphus–or yourself–happy?


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