For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Le philosophe plébéien

by Gauny, Gabriel (2017)


"Born in Paris in 1806, died in 1889, Louis Gabriel Gauny was a carpenter and philosopher. His writings constitute a valuable testimony to the working condition and the struggles for emancipation at the advent of industrial capitalism. Jacques Rancière, who stripped his archives in Saint-Denis, restores the day-to-day experience of this plebeian philosopher. Here is what he wrote about him in 2009: “You are referring to the carpenter Gauny. He left us some quite extraordinary manuscripts – correspondence, articles, poems: no “Memoirs of a child of the people”, but the present experience of a properly philosophical questioning: how can one be a worker? He describes to us, hour by hour, his working day. And there is no question of the beautiful work of the nostalgic, nor of the added value, but of the fundamental reality of proletarian work: stolen time. And we feel that our words – exploitation, conscience, revolt... – are always next to the experience of this “ransacked” life. He undertakes to liberate himself: for himself and for the others, because our oppositions are here also ridiculous: the "chains of slavery" must be broken by individuals who have already been liberated. He takes on the work of a flooring worker by the task, where he frees himself from the master while remaining and knowing that he is being exploited: and he shows us that we philosophers have understood nothing of the relationship between illusion and knowledge, of freedom and necessity. He goes to the end of the paradox. He forges a philosophy of asceticism. When the workers have next to nothing to consume, he rejects the consumer society. He invents an economy of freedom instead of an economy of wealth. He shows us the nerve of the political passion of his peers: not the “awareness” of exploitation (they knew it in advance), not worker solidarity (the others are first of all the accomplices of the master), but the desire to see what happens on the other side, to be initiated into another life. They envy the bourgeois not the positivity of their wealth but the negativity of their "dead time", of their leisure, of their night. At the origin of the discourse of workers' emancipation, there is the desire to no longer be a worker: no longer to damage one's hands and one's soul, but also no longer to have to ask for work or wages, to defend one's interests; no longer count the day, no longer sleep at night... This one has the strength to live his dream, his contradiction: to be a worker without being one." --


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Gauny, On Rancière

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