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Does it not strike you as a stunning, unbelievable, a bizarre and grotesque inversion, that work, which to begin with was the “Great Curse” that drove us out of Eden, was irksome, tedious, and a malaise, no, an outright condemnation, that work is now no longer the means that we’re prepared to suffer for some other end? No. We have devised a contraption, a new-fangled squirrel cage that has transformed work into the mysterious and ultimate desideratumthe treasure that heroes now go out to find, to bring home, to their city or their state.

Frithjof Bergmann

Six years ago I won a video contest the U.S. State Department put on as a way to publicize a social network they’d built for the alumni of exchange programs. The theme of the contest was the highly platitudinous “Your Culture + My Culture = ?” I made a video about a half-baked research trip to China I’d gone on as an undergrad during a summer vacation. I had met some Chinese college students who were playing Ultimate Frisbee (which they’d been taught by study-abroad Westerners) and had filmed some of their games, so I submitted a video about them and their charismatic captain. The prize was a trip to any country in the world that had a benevolent diplomatic relationship with Washington. I wanted to go somewhere far enough away to justify a free round-trip plane ticket, but somewhere I could still use English. I chose South Africa, my aim being to track down in Johannesburg a German-American philosophy professor named Frithjof Bergmann.

Just before I graduated from college, I wrote a paper called “Progress or Apocalypse.” Ensconced as I was within the cushy, leisurely, totally unrealistic and unsustainable undergraduate nutshell, and susceptible as I was to any sort of over-the-top utopianism or apocalypticism, I wrote the paper about two lectures I’d heard on campus that spring, one by the pessimistic environmentalist Derrick Jensen and the other by the Panglossian eco-architect William McDonough.

Jensen and McDonough both began their lectures with the same apocalyptic vision: human civilization is killing the earth and will soon be killing itself. Jensen’s response was that civilization and its cities must be dismantled and deactivated so that we can return to a simpler and more rural way of living, in harmony with plants and animals and the patterns of the earth. He said we could either wait for society to collapse on its own and risk total destruction, or take it apart now and try to salvage something. “Violence is incredibly effective,” he said. He delivered his lecture while sitting cross-legged on a chair. His hair was fluffy and greasy, and he wore a teal sweatshirt that had an embroidered duck on it. Jensen’s lecture reminded me of what Ted Kaczynski wrote in his “Unabomber Manifesto”: “If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.”

McDonough’s reaction to the impending apocalypse was basically the opposite: the system, he thought, would give us architects, scientists and chemical engineers as our gods and saviors. McDonough cycled through a stylish PowerPoint presentation while talking about his illustrious career creating eco-friendly buildings like the headquarters of the Environmental Defense Fund or the Ford River Rouge Complex assembly plant, and co-authoring a book about industrial recycling called Cradle to Cradle. He ended his lecture by showing sketches of the eco-cities he had been commissioned to design by the Chinese government. He asked what our intention as a species should be. He suggested modestly: to love all the children of all species for all time. People in the audience were crying. McDonough said it took human beings thousands of years to put wheels on their luggage. If such a simple solution to an everyday problem could have escaped us for so long, then maybe the answer to looming economic catastrophe is right under our noses. He wore an all-black suit and a red bow tie. The skin of his face and his balding pate glowed with satisfaction.

And I totally bought it. Like Agent Mulder of The X-Files, the unstated motto of my life in those days was “I want to believe.” I wanted heroes to worship and models to imitate. I concluded my “Progress or Apocalypse” paper by saying McDonough’s philosophy was the right way to do business: the future instead of the past, creation instead of destruction, hope instead of despair.

A couple of years later, I was writing a lecture about apocalyptic environmentalism while working at a university in Argentina. Naturally my thoughts turned to McDonough. With the slightest amount of googling, I found both a Fast Company article entitled “Green Guru Gone Wrong” and an episode of Frontline called “Green Dreams.” Both of these were thorough exposés of McDonough that made him look like a greedy and ineffective charlatan who refused to share his ideas, was blind to the failures of his fancy-sounding projects and was, more or less, full of shit. The worst of his hypocrisies was a Chinese eco-village in a town called Huangbaiyu, which was a prototype for the tear-jerking eco-cities I’d seen in his PowerPoint presentation and his TED Talk. The Fast Company article goes:

Shannon May smelled the rot firsthand. An anthropology Ph.D. student from UC Berkeley who lived in Huangbaiyu for nearly two years, May first met McDonough in 2005, the year the project broke ground. But within several months, it became apparent to May that everything from the village’s overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living … May says McDonough visited the village only twice while she lived there “for one or two hours at a time, and only when there was a video camera following him.” The supposedly $3,500 homes were costing nearly $12,000 to build, more than ten times the villagers’ median income. By 2006, only two families had moved in, and they did so because their previous homes had burned down … “[McDonough] could be such a leader for true world change, such an amazing man. But he’s choosing not to be.”

I had originally heard of McDonough because of a girl I dated sophomore year of college who I’d categorize both ideologically and personality-wise as a tortured pseudo-activist. She’d shared a link with me of McDonough giving a TED Talk (this girl put a lot of stock in the ideology of TED Talks). I never told her about the Fast Company article or the episode of Frontline. I thought it’d make her terminally depressed. For me it was easier: I just scrapped the lecture on apocalyptic environmentalism and talked about sci-fi conspiracy movies insteadmovies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, where the hero is trapped in a virtual-reality pseudo-world and struggling to escape.

By the time I discovered McDonough was a phony I had already left the virtual-reality pseudo-world of homework, tests and grades. Pining for utopia and worrying about the apocalypse were no longer necessary daily activities for me. Life felt challenging enough as it was. I didn’t want the world to get wiped away; I wanted experience.

I had met the TED girl in a philosophy class that orbited around the theories of Frithjof Bergmann. Bergmann was the protégé of the Nietzsche translator Walter Kaufmann at Princeton in the 1950s. Later on he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and rode the “Further” bus with the Merry Pranksters before eventually becoming a Continental philosophy specialist at the University of Michigan. There he advised many of the graduate students interested in Hegel, Nietzsche and Sartre, including both the professor who was teaching my class and Robert Solomon, who gave a monologue in the movie Waking Life (2001) about why existentialism is a more life-affirming, less solipsistic philosophy than post-structuralism or deconstruction. Anyway, the class on Bergmann was called “Freedom and Work.” We read Bergmann’s sketches for a social revolution as well as his tract On Being Free. The upshot of On Being Free is that freedom has little to do with autonomous choice-making or moral or dutiful behavior and nothing whatsoever to do with God or the nation. Rather, freedom is about becoming a self-possessed person, driven, productive, in the zone life-wise. No one is born free.

“New Work” is Bergmann’s social and economic philosophy. It is a theory of how people could make a living and take care of themselves while also living freely in this sort of hard-assed, Athenian master-morality sense, spending a lot of time being passionate about stuff. New Work is supposed to take place in and around a “Center” which is, hypothetically, financially self-sustaining and combines a small business incubator, a workshop, a toolshed, a community kitchen, a counseling center, a computer lab, a miniature farm and a classroom. If you’ve ever read B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, a New Work Center would look a lot like the setting of that novel. New Work emphasizes that the full-time, forty-hour workweek has to be done away with. People need to have more sabbaticals and more part-time forms of employmentmore stretches of open-ended, free me-time in order to figure things out for themselves and work on stuff that might not immediately make them money. In his essays, Bergmann mentioned New Work pilot projects in Michigan (Flint and Detroit) and in Canada, Germany and South Africa. The professor of the class said New Work was Bergmann’s attempt to come up with the political philosophy and vision of an ideal society that Nietzsche never got around to articulating. And when you read Bergmann, you do feel the same sweeping, energetic disdain for the pettiness and the passiveness of everyday middle-class life that you feel in Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.

Bergmann was singing the song I wanted to hear. I’d grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by people who worked exhausting, full-time jobs and who owned too much stuff and took a break and went on vacation for just a hasty, over-planned week or two each year. I didn’t want to live like that. New Work sounded great! Plenty of free time. A minimum quantity of material possessions. Living and hanging out among dedicated people. I added Bergmann to my list of heroes.

So that’s why, when it came time to tell the State Department where I wanted to go for this prize trip, I got in touch with the friend of Bergmann’s who’d taught the “Freedom and Work” class. Within a week or two I was talking to the man himself over Skype. It was the first time I’d heard his voice. He spoke ponderously and emphatically, with a mild European accent that made him sound refined and authoritative but also charming. He was fine with me coming to South Africa but warned me not to get my hopes up. He said things were slow-going and hard. Though he was always “frantically busy,” Bergmann suggested the two of us meet in Ann Arbor around Christmastime.

I took the Megabus from Chicago to Ann Arbor. Bergmann picked me up at the bus stop in a rickety Nissan sports car and took me to lunch at Red Lobster, which he said he preferred because it was “funkier.” Bergmann had a bushy beard and wore a beret and a scarf. He had a hideous comb-over but no gray hair (a situation he claimed was natural). He was nearly eighty years old, but more energetic and lively than any human being I’d ever interacted with. After we’d finished our food, Bergmann excused himself to use the bathroom. When he came back he declared, “I believe in toilets!” (He’d had an idea while taking a dump.) The sun went down and we transitioned from Red Lobster to Denny’s. Bergmann ordered pancakes and talked about New Work, explaining how our current civilization has the chance to flourish more spectacularly than that of the Egyptians or the Athenians. He said it took thousands of years for human beings to put wheels on their luggage. Imagine what progress and enlightenment the future could hold!

When he made the remark about luggage, I remembered who else I’d heard say such a thing. In hindsight, that was when the idol began to crack.

A few weeks later I flew by myself from Chicago to Johannesburg. I brought two books with me: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. At the Johannesburg airport a friendly white lady gave me her home phone number and told me I could visit her at her country house in KwaZulu-Natal; she also said that Johannesburg was a terrible part of the earth. I stayed in an upscale suburb at a hostel called the Backpackers Ritz, which was located in a retrofitted mansion. The hilly streets and the fancy homes, beating sun and fluorescent plant life reminded me of Los Angeles. The only thing to do within walking distance of the Ritz was to go to an underground, fortress-like shopping mall, which I did. I got in touch with Bergmann over the phone. He was staying with his African girlfriend at a luxury brothel run by a German man with a silver Mercedes sports car. The night after we got in touch, Bergmann met with his South African New Work people, but he didn’t call me until their meeting ended, saying it was too late to get together.

The next day Bergmann came to pick me up from the hostel along with a fidgety, sweaty Croatian cabbie who served as his personal driver whenever the “professor” (as the driver called him) came to Africa. At a café, we continued our conversation from the Denny’s in Ann Arbor. Slowly, carefully, and with the utmost ponderousness, Bergmann answered my questions: about his life, about his career in philosophy, about the history of New Work, about his travels in Europe and Africa and India. When I mentioned Slavoj Zizek as a philosopher who’s also trying to criticize the current world order, Bergmann’s face clouded over and he warned that he’d punch me in the nose (he had allegedly once been an amateur prizefighter) if I kept talking about such an incoherent pseudo-intellectual.

Bergmann and I met again at a café the next day but in a different neighborhood. I asked more questions and he offered more answers. Wearing a pair of rose-colored sunglasses, he told me about how he had lived in New York City for several years, writing “Tennessee Williams-type plays about people arguing with each other in their underwear.” He had wanted to become a playwright because he loved to get applause, but, finding that his characters kept going on these rambling philosophical digressions, he soon realized his talents lay elsewhere. He told me about how he’d used colored chalk to save his grad-school career at Princetonthe chalk allowed him to draw connections between different parts of Being and Time so that his lecture audience could see what the hell he was trying to sayand he told me about when Allen Ginsberg would visit him at a cottage he was renting in New Hampshire. Ginsberg would write through the night and Bergmann would wake up and read what Ginsberg had left in the typewriter. He told me about the life crisis he went through in California while he was working at Stanford and about a moment on a beach when he decided to say fuck it and devote himself to New Work, even if it might mean academic obsolescence and ruining his marriage.

I asked Bergmann why there hadn’t been a book about New Work. He said that although there was one in German, the time still wasn’t quite right to publish its translation in English or to write a long article about New Work for a major American magazine, as if these things were in his hands to decide. (Since I met with him six years ago, Bergmann has self-published two e-books of conversations about his theories on work.) He also told me he’d chosen over the years not to spend time overseeing a New Work pilot project, and that neither writing nor management were the best ways to make New Work come alive. The real answer, he thought, was money. New Work, he said, had had a close call in Detroit in 1994, when the city council was voting on either New Work or casinos. Articles were written in defense of Bergmann’s ideas and there was a series of programs on Detroit public-access television called “New Work for a New Generation.” But the casinos won by a pair of votes.

In search of more information, I tracked down Bergmann’s main South African contact, a woman who had been a deputy minister in the government and was currently working as a part-time advocate for New Work. She said the problem was raising $50,000 to $100,000. I asked her how hard could it be to get that kind of seed money. She hitched her eyebrow and looked at me like I was a piece-of-shit American capitalist. She said that when Bergmann makes a pitch the investors love it, but then they complain that the plan needs to be more practical, at which point he bristles and refuses to compromise. They’d started a community garden in a township called Orange Farm, but it wasn’t going wellwhen I asked where it was, hoping I’d be able to visit, she changed the subject. If you google “New Work South Africa,” the only sites that come up are government pages about work permits and visas. If you search for “Frithjof Bergmann South Africa,” you find videos of Bergmann talking abstractly about what New Work might be, about why the job system is a residue of industrialism that we need to let go of, about how a person, in order to properly work, has to figure out what they “really, really want to do.”

I met one last time with Bergmann and his South African group, which consisted of the minister lady, her grown son and her son’s friend. I sat and listened as they talked about vague plans for a concert in Johannesburg involving musicians from both the U.S. and South Africa. The concert would be an elaborate cross-cultural catalytic promotion for New Work. I bit my tongue, thinking to myself that this is what New Work has been for the past twenty or thirty years: Bergmann talks, lesser souls listen, plans are drawn up, pleasantries are exchanged and nothing happens. Bergmann then gets on his horse and rides onward to the next cosmopolitan gathering, and the process repeats. It made me think of him as a Quixote-like foolpersuasive, charming, always on the move and yet dedicated to a world that will only ever exist in his head. The running gag in Cervantes’s novel is based on the distance between how gloriously the Don thinks of himself and how shabby and hapless and impotent he is in reality. The running gag about Bergmann is that his declared task is to change how we work but his restless, jet-setting lifestyle prevents the kind of steady, show-up-everyday-and-get-shit-done-type commitment that making New Work a reality would actually require.

Bergmann flew to Cape Town the next day, not offering to let me see whatever was going on there. I spent another week and a half in South Africa, but I wouldn’t see him again until I visited him in Ann Arbor six months later, along with a friend I was hoping to impress romantically by introducing her to the interesting and important people I knew. She was not impressed.

Bergmann is well into his eighties now. I haven’t talked to him on the phone for a few years, but I get updates via my professor friend who used to be his student. He’s had health issues and has had to hunker down in Ann Arbor more often than he’d like, and his temper’s gotten short. Recent videos on YouTube show him with white hair and a bushier beard that makes him look like late-period Marx, at least if Marx had worn a black, leather motorcycle cap like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. He still describes himself as being “frantically busy,” declaring optimistically that New Work is just around the corner. His voice still sounds like the voice of a believer.

Image credits: Erica Prince, “Planet” and “Moon,” from the Extragalactic series

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