Work in the End Times


Winston Zeddemore: Hey Ray. Do you remember something in the bible about the last days when the dead would rise from the grave?

Dr Ray Stantz: I remember Revelations 6:12…? “And I looked, and he opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake. And the sun became as black as sack cloth, and the moon became as blood.”

Winston Zeddemore: “And the seas boiled, and the skies fell.”

Dr Ray Stantz: Judgement Day.

Winston Zeddemore: Judgement Day.

In an increasingly secular West – one where Christianity is on a rapid decline – the representations of religious doctrines found in film and on television have become more and more formative in shaping our understanding them. In lieu of a knowledge of – and indeed a commitment to – the Lord’s scripture, Zeddemore and Stantz’s eschatological exchange in Ghostbusters (1984) has become one of the foremost references we have of the Rapture according to the Christian faith. While the skeptical Stantz goes on to dismiss John the Apostles’ account of the apocalypse as a myth, Zeddemore considers how the recent and strange supernatural occurrences that have been wreaking havoc in downtown New York may be a sign of the end times.

Today, as both natural and man-made disasters become greater and more frequent, we may be forgiven for engaging in our own soothsaying.

Indeed, amidst the pestilence, famine, war, and death, there is a palpable disquieting – the end is nigh!!?

As the conflict in Ukraine rages on – and even though the media’s coverage of the struggles has somewhat subdued in recent months – the potential for nuclear war persists. In mid-July, New York City’s Emergency Management Office delivered a stark warning of this very real threat, releasing a 90-second public service announcement giving practical guidance on what to do if ‘the big one has hit’.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic lingers as new variants of concern continue to emerge – the most recent being the highly-contagious BA.2.75, commonly known as Centaurus. Although the pandemic has not reached the high levels of devastation commonly found in post-apocalyptic fiction as many predicted it would, Covid-19 has not been shy of laying bare how vulnerable we are to a highly transmissible contagion. To date, there have been over 600 million cases and a near 6.5 million deaths.

Beyond the Russo-Ukrainian War and the Covid-19 pandemic, the last few years have been dogged by a deluge of destruction. We have witnessed wildfires ravaging Australia and America, the Gulf of Mexico catching fire, and floods overwhelming parts of Belgium and Germany, while hundreds of billions of locusts have swarmed East Africa. All adding to an overwhelming feeling that humanity is besieged by upheaval and emergencies to a degree we have not seen before.

Such events have provoked many thinkers including Derek Parfit to consider that we are living at the hinge of history; an unprecedented period in which – given recent scientific and technological discoveries – we have a profound power to transform, not only our surroundings but also the fate of our species. But, with this great power comes great responsibility, and consequently, the level of influence that we hold over our planet means that we live at a time of unusually high risk of self-annihilation. One where a single catastrophic event such as rapid climate change, nuclear war, or the release of a synthesized pathogen may bring an end to human and perhaps all sentient life.

Having arrived at such a unique moment in history – one where extinction has become a part of common discourse – purpose, and meaning are drawn into sharp focus. In contemplating these ‘hingey’ times, one may recall Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s gloomy YouTube lullaby, Waiting for the Tsunami in which he draws a comparison between the paralysis felt when standing in the shadow of a tidal wave and the general malaise of modern life. He begins.

“…Before the tsunami arrives, you know how it works? The sea recedes for a time that may be short or very long, the wave recedes. It leaves sand, it leaves swamps, it leaves a huge feeling of depression. The sense of there being nothing there, the sense that everything is finished.”

The presence of the wave – that will surely wipe us away – should hold a certain lightness; soon we will be unburdened. The command to work, procreate, consume, relax, be happy, be ethical, to obey – in short, the command to live – can be safely ignored. As Bifo concludes, all we need to think about is having the right clothes to wear and words to say, before the wave finally wipes us away.

Previously, critics including Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming have noted that Bifo’s metaphor only functions until the final moment, when the wave hits. They argue, we are not lucky enough to be blessed with the convenience of such terminus. Instead, we are plagued with mental atrophy and left to wander the desolate landscape of modern life, waiting…

However, in the face of our apparent and impending doom, such criticism has become increasingly inconsequential. The wave is here!

Naturally, the threat of annihilation renders our actions futile, and with our labors being the dominantfacet of our lives, it is by extension that –

in the luster of perpetual turmoil and perennial disasters – we may ultimately start to find our jobs pointless.

Of course, the concept of pointless work is nothing new, with many theorists already articulating the difficulties faced when trying to extract value from modern work. Or, as the late David Graeber so eloquently puts it, modern work is bullshit.

But this feels different. Even bullshit jobs can serve a purpose and impose meaning on a person’s life. They give us structure, a reason to get out of bed and get dressed. And of course, importantly, they give us money to pay the bills. However, when contemplating the end, these apparent merits cease to be of value. So why work when there is no reason to?

Perversely, as we stand under the wave, we may find an elevated purpose. Since the Reformation – when the ability to perform methodological work in a vocational calling became sanctified and considered a sign of God’s favor – the work we do has defined our lives; acting as a barometer for meaning and self-worth. This cast of mind, according to Max Weber, gave birth to the capitalist spirit.

Despite faith being in recession, and with even capitalism’s most ardent supporters admitting that it died sometime in the 1970s, the ghost of the spirit of capitalism lingers. And as we choose to revel in this unique moment – the end of all that has been before – it is this inertia that compels us to work harder and more diligently than ever, embracing a mania for work as we strive to leave our mark.

However, instead of fulfilling us with a sense of purpose, this mania for work only intensifies the feeling of disorder, perpetuating chaos and the absence of meaning, rendering the call to work equally more urgent and absurd. It is this strange dialectic between an unadulterated nihilism and (for a lack of a better term) a profound existentialism that pervades our current turmoil and indeed the modern workplace.

As we confront these ‘hingey’ times – as both natural and man-made disasters become greater and more frequent – attitudes towards work are changing, becoming increasingly polarized. As a result, discourse on the subject is rendered arduous and fruitless, as work progressively holds both no and absolute meaning, leaving us to endlessly question its value.

Ultimately, whether we choose to embrace the end or lose ourselves in the mania of work appears to be immaterial as there is no hope in nihilism, and no meaning in meaningless work. Agonizingly, even at the end, the age-old question endures, why work? Why not?