On Work Experience
Naked Punch, No. 8, Nov 2006
We sometimes rub our ears after the event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, “What have we really experienced?”
– Nietzsche1

The intern, to borrow the words the above quoted philosopher, ‘is expert in silence, in long memory, in waiting, in provisional self-deprecation, and in self-humiliation’.2 She is weak. Some call her actions pragmatic, however, this is only to acknowledge that she has accepted a burden of suffering. How does she suffer, and for what?

An intern is someone who is undergoing internment. She is a detainee. But if the role is voluntary then how is she being confined? ‘[A]ll pragmatic purposes are simply symbols of the fact that a will to power has implanted its own sense of function in those less powerful’.3 The ‘pragmatic purpose’ is voluntary internment. The ‘sense of function’ manifest in the edifice of work experience is such: The intern occupies the position of debtor in relation to the pseudo-employer’s creditor. The latter extracts time, energy and enthusiasm from the former, which he deploys towards his own ends. And what is to his credit? Simply, establishment in a professional firmament; a status deployed as collateral underpinning – and concealing – wooly exhortations that imply benefit where there may be none. These suggestions are calculated to stoke the flames of the intern’s ambition while, at the same time, quietly neutralizing the potential threat they pose to the status quo. The snake-oil is well known and vague: “It’ll be good experience” and, only a little more specific, “it’ll be good for your CV”.

Such crap is sometimes justified on the grounds that internment is a sort of initiation process – as much can be gleaned from pseudo-employment advertisements that require candidates to demonstrate ‘commitment’. The truth of the matter is, however, that unpaid work-experience amounts to unregulated private taxation of persons wishing to begin careers in the creative sector – a kind of ‘tribute’ to professional mafiosi and their institutions through indentured labour. Without a contract – an all too typical predicament – servitude is indefinite. It is not unheard of for companies to ask for six months of unpaid work without promising or a thing.

Nietzsche rightly points out that what makes people rebel against suffering ‘is not suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering’.4 If suffering is given a ‘sense’, or justification, then it is easier to bear – and may even sought out – provided that the excuse is powerful enough. Our mustachioed friend claimed that early man invented gods to perform this function. The gods acted as a ‘divine audience’ for the spectacle of mankind’s torments, redeeming them through their regard.5 What is the Curriculum Vitae if not a secular god, bearing witness to the misery of the intern? Instead of undergoing privations for the sake of a deity the intern does so for a list of accomplishments. The pseudo-employer appoints himself priest, mediating between the intern and this god, demanding pious observance of the rituals that he proscribes. He is an unwanted middleman. Find new priests! Better yet, be your own.

The invention of divine witnesses was the first intimation of the ‘ascetic ideal’, whose apogee – Nietzsche claimed – is the Judeo-Christian morality which calls suffering and those who suffer ‘good’. This credo was charged with locating good outside the realm of ‘mortal existence’ – that realm of the ‘affective urges’, of ‘beauty and sensuality’.6 Whether or not Nietzsche was right about Judeo-Christian morality, there is still value in trepidation of a good elsewhere. The exhortation “it will be good for your CV” disregards the good where you are.

Often, the ‘good’ of work experience is located in the future. Such is the underlying premise of statements like “it’ll be good for your career”, which suggest that you aren’t even working! Well then, what are you doing in an office? Why not take a nap in a park, have sex or pick your nose? We are often told that our generation only lives for the moment but things are more complicated. For every binge at Berghain there are five times as many days spent in austere resolve, sucking up, swallowing, eating crow, scheming, buying value-brand supermarket items, producing project proposals on spec, facilitating other people’s dreams. So many of us effectively ignore the fact that the future lies beyond our power, and frequently turns out contrary to expectations. The sun might not rise tomorrow! You might get hit by a tram. Such people, Seneca asserted, ‘hustle [their] life along’ and are ‘troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present’.7 This is living ad interim. They would do well to attend to the words of Schopenhauer – ‘[t]he present alone is true and actual; it is the only time which possesses full reality, and our existence lies in it exclusively’.8 The good elsewhere is none other than ‘life loathing itself’ – echoes Nietzsche.9 The Scotsman David Hume, before them, also made this appeal – ‘Oh deluded mortals, thus to lose your youth, thus to throw away so invaluable a present, to trifle with so perishing a blessing. Contemplate well your recompense’.10

It would be remiss not to reiterate a common criticism of unpaid work experience: that it is socially exclusive; that pseudo-employment is biased in favour of those with the economic power to work for free. This should be an uncomfortable truth, given the fact that many creative institutions claim to be committed to inclusive hiring practices and egalitarian agendas. All the more reason, then, for these organizations to not eventually hire their unpaid staff.

Philosophers are often criticized for offering too much analysis and not enough in the way of prescription, so at this stage perhaps some concrete strategy is appropriate: One should have no scruples in pretending to have undergone an internship. By all means, embellish your CV with fake voluntary work – just as pseudo-bosses would decorate your life with unpaid suffering. Better yet, if no paid work is forthcoming then become your own pseudo-employer – the director of an all guns blazing, thrusting, life-affirming institution devoted to realizing your happiness projects in the here and now. Award yourself titles, medals and stellar references. Create art and rituals that make sense. Have a work party, make a pass at yourself after a few drinks and then fuck yourself in a stationary cupboard.

1. Frederich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy & The Genealogy of Morality, Anchor Books, New York, 1956. p.149.
2. Ibid. p.172.
3. Ibid. p.210.
4. Ibid. p. 200.
5. Ibid. p.218.
6. Ibid. p.11.
7. Seneca, On the Shortness Of Life, Penguin Books, 2004. p.11.
8. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, 1995. p.19.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 1956. p.11.
10. David Hume, On Suicide, Penguin Books, 2005. p.60.