Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge. In discussions with contemporaries we review the assertions, clichés and ideals which circulate around work environments. This time we talked with Robert Pfaller, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Among other places he has been a visiting professor in Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Toulouse and Zurich. The topics covered in his publications include the role of common sense in present-day culture, the pleasure principle and the “good life”. His most famous books include “Wofür es sich zu leben lohnt” (What it’s worth living for) published by Fischer in 2011, and “Die Illusion der anderen. Über das Lustprinzip in der Kultur” (On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners). Robert Pfaller spoke to Désirée Schellerer about his everyday working life, philosophical friendships and the pleasure of concentration.
Robert Pfaller, your research deals a lot with the issue of what makes a good life and what it is worth living for. How significant should daily work be in a good life in your opinion? Doesn’t a lot of work actually stand in the way of the pleasure of a good life?
First of all, drawing on philosopher Georges Bataille, I would like to point out that you work to live. You do not live to work. We should not overlook this difference – particularly as work presently, for example in the so-called creative industry, is generally burdened with high expectations in terms of fulfilment. The demand to have a good and fulfilling job is also legitimate – but only in relation to work and not to life itself. However, many of our contemporaries appear almost unable to lead a fulfilling life unless they work like the devil. Admittedly there are lots of social functions in our society which are linked to work, e.g. related to social contacts, respect, contemporary life, taste, political participation, etc. This is why you can barely lead a good life these days without a reasonably decent job. But the same is true when you have one, as work can threaten to leave no room for a good life.
What is a typical working day in the life of a philosopher who is also university professor? Is there anything that resembles a regular workday, a certain routine or consistency in your activities?
Part of my work, i.e. the somewhat hectic part, involves responding to e-mails and dealing with administrative processes (which have been increasing since the university reforms), etc., and there is another part that requires a lot of peace and quiet – such as preparing for a lecture or seminar, researching an issue, giving an interview or writing an academic text. I have to switch between both these roles several times each day. This is why my job seems to me to resemble that of a biathlete who has to dash along as quickly as possible on the cross-country ski run on the one hand, and then also has to calm down again as soon as they can so that they can shoot precisely at a target.
What should be done to encourage discipline in today’s working environment? Is the office a place where pleasure is not welcome? And isn't this necessary if actual work is to be done?
Ideally there is something along the lines of pleasure in concentration. The fact that you are not distracted by other domestic pleasures at the office or studio can definitely been seen as a benefit. Admittedly this only applies insofar as the work is in itself interesting - i.e. as the sociologist Richard Sennett puts it, to the extent that it inspires the worker to do it for its own sake.
Where do you most like to work?
In a library.
Are there any places which encourage your creativity and inspire you?
The projects and work from students that I see at the University of Applied Arts often provide me with significant inspiration and pleasurable challenges.
Do you have a “main workplace”, and if so where is it?
I complete most things in my university office and do some others in libraries. But some of my research work I can only do surrounded by my own books and archive materials.
Do you consciously distinguish between free time and time spent working, or do the boundaries blur?
Since philosophy is also a culture of friendship, meaning that in many cases I am a friend of the living philosophers whose books I value, and since all of my friendships really have something philosophical about them too, meaning that I also get something out of almost all of my private conversations which gives me something to think about, it’s barely possible to draw the line in my area, for me at least. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to banish a lot of other things so that I can work in a focussed manner – however, generally this is less to do with private disturbances than other disruptive work requirements, such as calls.
Do you think that the working environment has become “more strict” in recent years? Cocktails at lunch and flirting at the office are really only seen these days in television programmes such as “Mad Men”.
It seems to me that it is our personal lives that have become more strict – for example, people are hardly permitted to flirt anymore, and even when they can, there are clearly only a few people who still know how to do it. However, work has lost a lot of its perks that were not only pleasant in nature, that often also were the diversions necessary to enable true productivity: for instance going for a drink with colleagues and talking about issues that are still a long way off. Some arts universities don’t even have parties any more. Yet these used to be opportunities which gave rise to the important things: the highlights of your studies that you would remember later.
On the other hand, there are opportunities for rest and recreation in some work environments that at one time would have been unthinkable. However, this opportunity for rest and recreation is subject to rigidly forced efficiency. You can’t just have a snooze, it has to be a “power nap”.
Are there certain rituals that you consider important in your everyday work routine?
Reading a book or an article over a coffee which is not directly part of a research topic.
What is the most important tool for your work?
A pencil, which I use to mark places and make notes in the margins of my books.
What would you wish for in your work and your workplace?
The peace and quiet that is necessary to be able to create worthwhile results.
© Cover: Jeff Mangione