What is your Occupation?

What is your Occupation?

A talk by Dr Miles Kennedy given to Occupy Galway at 3pm on the 3rd of December 2011.


This is a serious question, perhaps only the question of the moment, perhaps the question of the age. I ask it in earnest: What is your occupation? Of course being Irish every question is answered with a question: You might ask me, “Who are you to ask?”, “What is your occupation?”Teaching philosophy,that is my occupation, thinking is, I suppose, a pre-occupation for me, or to be more precise, I am pre-occupied by it. I am an asker of questions, who am I to ask? Another question as answer: Who else is there? As a philosopher I am, though, an outsider, I can only offer a view from outside, not outside the world, not, indeed outside the situation, there are none of us beyond that and this is precisely why the question must be asked, why it asks itself, but outside the occupation, outside the invisible walls of the camp.  You occupy this space of action, this space is, at least from the outside, your action, though, if this is the question of the moment, then we all form part of the answer, the situation demands it. Whether resistance, collaborator or attendiste we are all involved, even doing nothing is doing something. What matters most is how and where one, you, I, do this nothing so I’ll return to that primary question.

What is your occupation? You occupiers, this is asked of you, here, and in Dublin, in London, across America, and around the world, not as a question but as an answer: “Why don’t you get a job?”, “What the hell are you doing that for?”, “Why don’t you do something useful?”. Here the Occupying activist and pre-occupied thinker share the same fate, our questions are cut short, pre-maturely answered, by other questions that are themselves answers, questions that imply their own answers: rhetorical questions. My question to you is not a rhetorical one, I really want to know: What is your occupation? As a philosopher I, like you, am asked these same questions, “What kind of job is that?” or even more pointedly “Why don’t you get a real job?” and sometimes I ask myself this too.  That is why I ask the question in earnest of you, because I want to know for myself. You insiders, you occupiers, you who are within can, I hope, teach me. That is my truepreoccupation, trying to move thought from the outside to the inside, turn thought outside-in. Does any of this matter? Am I just talking about myself? The answers are less important than the question, like any good son of Socrates I ask more to hear your answer than to voice my own.

 By way of answer, for my part, all I can do is employ my own occupation, use the tools I have at hand, ply my trade, ask the basic questions of philosophy. The first has already been asked, the fundamental question is always: “What is the right question to ask?”. The right question is that one that asks itself, the question of the moment, whether it is significant in “the great scheme of things”, whether it is “the question of the age” cannot be answered, or even appropriately asked, now, as that is a question for history, a question for the future, by which time it will have been answered. The next primary question is “How should the question be asked?”. This too has been answered; it should be asked appropriately, in this case it should be asked in earnest. The occupation movement, as seen from the outside, is meant in earnest and cannot sufficiently be investigated or comprehended by rhetorical or ironic responses which, by answering themselves within themselves, fail to engage with the question that asks itself. So, with these primary questions both having already been asked, both having asked themselves, what is the next move, the next job of philosophy? To ask the secondary questions we have always asked but this time in regard to what emerges from these primary questions that ask themselves.I will ask, then, three interwoven secondary questions, secondary because the pressing questions of existence always precede these traditional questions of essence. These secondary questions are the three questions of logos: of language, logic, and life.


On the question of language we must engage in an analysis of words. What does the word “Occupation” mean? We have already heard it in its most prevalent contemporary sense, its natural everyday and therefore least philosophical sense, the sense of occupation as what one does for pay, what one’s job is. This rhetorical question, the question of “What one does? What one is good for?”, is answered, in large part, by the inauthentic relation of the waiter to himself as merely “being” a waiter (Sartre, 59), or the young woman as “being” only her body” (Sartre, 55-56), each being equal to or encompassed by their external sign, their value.  Another sense of “occupation” is what one does to pass the time, what one does for oneself, “occupation” as occupying oneself. We get a little further in terms of our primary question “What is your occupation?” when we move away from the rhetorical question of what one’s job is, regardless of its answer, and into this question about life and how one chooses to pass their own time. This is a more appealing definition for you, perhaps, because it implies that the occupation of these town and city centres is directed toward occupying oneself rather than having to do with jobs or the established structure of labour economy and capital which it seeks to critique. Occupation as occupying oneself, personal occupation, then, is a step along the way to a more legitimate definition.

There is, though, yet another sense of “occupation” that has been all too familiar to Irish people, that is the historical sense of “occupation”, the sense of political or wartime occupation, the relationship between the occupied and the occupier. We here in Ireland were occupied by the forces of British Imperialism for a very long time. Irish occupiers and occupiers in Ireland can be said to have a special historical understanding and closeness with occupation and counter- occupation in the sense that Occupying British forces were first successfully confronted by a Nationalist act of counter-occupation undertaken by a materially weaker force. Due to this history Irish people have, at least on some level, assimilated this idea of counter-occupation. This is a point about the specifically Irish context of resistance but it should be noted that the British people have shared and continue to share in this history of violent occupation with us, for better or worse, and that today London too is finally being occupied by its own people.

In a more general example, though currently still very close to home, the German people have been both occupied and occupier by turns throughout their history and seem to rarely exist as a nation for any length of time without being in one or the other of these roles. Perhaps here lies the Germanic obsession with the master/slave dialectic? Which, we might ask ourselves, are they now? In this context, I see the worldwide occupy movement, rather than for example the movement toward a more unified Euro, as a reversal of how this political relationship of occupier and occupied has historically manifested itself, as an example of a kind of counter-occupation.  So, by way of these violent historical interjections, we come some way further toward defining “Occupation” in a more meaningful way by recognising that it is both personal and political.


The second basic, intertwined, question of logos is the question of logic, here we must describe the appropriate mode of thoughtful engagement that best addresses our primary question. As with all authentic philosophy which will not satisfy itself with mere “word games”, questions of language and definition must lead to questions of more fundamental meaning, questions of logic. In the philosophy of situation, the philosophy that attempts to approach the world as it asks itself, the appropriate logos is phenomeno-logos, or phenomenology. In other words we employ the logic of reduction, as distinct from induction or deduction. To apply this phenomenology we must attempt to engage with the experience at hand in its most essential form, thus we must discuss occupying as encountered in its simplest lived-state, “occupation” as dwelling or living within.

In his 1954 essay “… Poetically man dwells…” the German phenomenologistMartin Heidegger went some distance toward describing this simple state of living within in his contention that to “dwell” authentically “Man” must strive to dwell poetically. ‘But…’ he asked ‘… how is man – and this means every man all the time – supposed to dwell poetically?’ in a situation in which


Our dwelling is harassed by the housing shortage. Even if it were not so, our dwelling is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain or success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry.’ (Heidegger, 213).


In a way your dwelling too, your occupation, is “harassed” and “made insecure” in a very real sense because of the inherent problems of living in a public place, especially at night, and you too, it seems to me, are in fear of being “bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry” that strives to make your action a TV or local-newspaper media event, perhaps presenting it with a phone-in vote to see who gets kicked out of the site this week, or, as in America a media trial to see which site gets dismantled, or as a live soap opera, or urban fashion show.

Again moving from the specific to the essential, Heidegger’s appraisal of Modern, post-industrial, conditions of life, on first viewing, seems to hold even truer today than it did at the time of writing. ‘Work… gain… success… entertainment… recreation’, are now proposed as all embracing standards for good living the world over, as the ultimate ends of history. People fight in the streets and launch their own forms of counter-occupation in many Eastern cities and towns right now in an effort to attain access to this “good life”. Heidegger’s list of what mid-twentieth century Western Man was harassed by now reads like the life-line of a flourishing post-industrial being, working hard at school in order to gain paid employment, achieving success in a chosen profession in order to afford periodic entertainment and eventually, very near the end, retiring into a much anticipated state of continual recreation.

In contrast to this work-a-day existence Heidegger proposed his version of poetical “Dwelling” as a more authentic mode of being-in than merely inhabiting the locations of one’s life. Authentic, perhaps, for that time and its questions of post-war destitution and homelessness (both figurative and literal, metaphysical and concrete), but authentic for our time and our question? As hinted at previously, we can indeed see traces in the occupy movement of a kind of violent occupation, an occupation by force, intended as an act of de-familiarisation set to ignite latent anxiety and thereby bring awareness of concrete being as unheimlich or uncanny, and through this action, to address the question it currently asks by way of a kind of counter-occupation. Taken in this sense the Occupy movement is quite Heideggerean.

On closer inspection, though, we can detect that the questions of the early twenty-first century are considerably different to those that asked themselves in the 20th century. On the purely material level here, today, in Ireland, and in many other “advanced” economies, there is no housing shortage but, rather, a so-called “over-supply”. We are haunted by the spectre of “ghost estates”, a rather poetic expression in itself. On the philosophical level, Heidegger fell back into a typically German lauding of poetics due, at least in part, to a self-imposed alienation from the possibility of political discourse that resulted from his short-lived but fervent association with Nazism. While I can agree with Heidegger that a life without poetry is not a full life, for today’s questions, the questions of a new millennium, the answer you offer in your occupation is more appropriate. Your occupation saysnot “... poetically Man dwells...”but “… politically Man dwells…”. What though is it to “dwell politically”? Here we uncover thelogic of occupation in its fullest sense, bringing into view the third question of logos, the question of life.


On the question of Life, Being, or The Logos, then, we find that, in essence, “… politically Man dwells…”. Politics is derived from polis meaning city, a space of mass living, and also from the polis meaning the people, the community that live together in a particular place under the same ethos.

Dwelling,in its purest sense, is inhabiting, it is the mode of being in a habitat. In-habiting and habitat find both their verbal connection and their ethical sense in “habit” which, as Aristotle wrote, is the basis of all morality. Morality by this definition is founded on what one does, consistently and with purpose, rather than what one knows or intends. In his 1953 essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, which was originally delivered as a lecture entitled “Man and Space” in 1951 (Heidegger xxiv), Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, “Dwelling” which he characterised as a human mode of existence that has the potential to reveal the nature of Being as a whole in the form of a pseudo-mystical “four-fold” schema, and, on the other hand “merely inhabiting” which, he held, does not participate in ontological revelation of this sort. The more fully formed definition of “Occupation” offered here adds to Heidegger’s discourse on dwelling the possibility of ontologically revealing ethical action, thus questioning his belittlement of “merely inhabiting” and taking seriously the significance of habit and its moral implications for the question of dwelling. In short, then, this binding together of ethical and ontological insights is expressed in “Occupation”.  

 So, political dwelling itself is found to inhabit the space of morality, and by doing this, it is hoped, it can lead to a more general re-habilitation on a moral level. This re-habilitation can only be achieved in relation to a “habitat”, a space in which people live, a site of co-habitation, this moral action, this ethos, must then take place in the heart of the polis, the city and the people. The activity of occupation is, by this account, both political and personal in nature. Occupation, and you as members of the global occupy movement, are the living expression of this new comprehension of the essential condition in which “… politically Man dwells…”.

Perhaps on another occasion I can discuss with you the merits and de-merits of using this term “Man” as synonymous with “human-being”, particularly from the point of view of gender difference, but that is not the central concern for now.

The point here is that “Occupation”, as a mode of political dwelling brings before us an expression of ‘the basic character of human existence’ (Heidegger, 215) thus opening the possibility of approaching the question of Being through a different but equally fundamental direction than that which Heidegger chose: the direction of ethical space. Occupying this ethical space is an authentic mode of being-within, a mode of dwelling inside a space with others, co-habiting in a world of spatially related beings and, most fundamentally, authentically grasping ourselves as beings which are themselves spaces.


Conclusion: through the discussion of these three secondary questions we have come, finally, to the third, and most often overlooked, of our primary questions, not “What is the right question?” or “How should the question be asked?” but a different kind of primary question “Is the question right?”. This ultimate question is the question of ethos, or how to live well. Inauthentic being, we have found, is, first of all, being-in the they-self of occupations that encompass and answer the most rhetorical and therefore least meaningful question of occupation. Any form of life that renders a human being into a mere quantity, a standing reserve, to be tapped and used up when required; any form of being which makes human life a numerical sum; any system which only asks the questions of economy, or attempts to create an economical form of life generating questions to be answered always with 1, what 1 does, how 1 should act, what good 1 is, and in which when that 1 is gone or used up or deigned surplus to requirement it is simply replaced by another 1 or perhaps not even replaced by another 1; any system of this sort is inauthentic and breeds inauthenticity within itself, and ourselves.

Anxiety at this age old situation of simply being 1, doing what 1 does, is ever present and has been offered, notably by Heidegger, as a revelatory experience gesturing toward a more authentic logic of occupation as “Dwelling”. However, this lauding of anxiety accepts the state of affairs from which the anxiety emerges as it is and does not question the fundamental, forward driven, temporally determined, and implemental structure in which humanity purportedly “always already” finds itself, in which, in other words, 1 is 1.

You are doing what one does not do, you are living in a park, occupying a city, being your own message. You are dwelling politically. An analysis of this mode of Being-within has been offered here as an appropriate conception of the type of occupation that attempts to answer the current question, to speak Being as it presents itself. But this conception too is lacking in the full meaning of your occupation, this too fails to encompass your occupation, because your occupation is an expression of another question of philosophy: the question of ethics. Your occupation asks the question of right and wrong, good and evil. Your occupation is clearly not merely falling in with the they-self, it is not merely something one does, though it is something you are doing; nor is it just a statement of more authentic “Dwelling”, it is not just an engaged act of Heideggerean de-familiarisation perpetrated on “the other” in order to violently wake them from “false consciousness”, though it is that too; it is not even “only” a fundamental act of being-within, an acknowledgement of the primordial human relation to each other through co-habiting the same place, this world; it is also, above all of those, a fundamentally ethical activity. Yes in a sense you are “just doing your thing”, you are “just here”, you are merely being “in the world” but it is the location of that ‘just being’, the situation within the situation, the site of occupation, that acts as a call of conscience. Ethics is based on habitual occupation, good habits, what you do not what you know, habit, habitat and habitation, how you in-habit your own space, how you occupy yourself, only this opens up the possibility of a more general re-habilitation. What you are doing is more than mere doing, more even than authentic dwelling, perhaps, just perhaps more even than Being, you are occupying.

In conclusion, it has been my intention to ask you to ask yourselves “What is your Occupation?”, the tentative answers I have offered from the outside are, put negatively, to paraphrase a great poet of the 21st century:


You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank.

You’re not the car you drive.

You are not the contents of your wallet.


Or, put positively:


You are your own occupation;

your own core project;

your own basic task.

You are your own location;

your own first space.

You are what we ought to be, your own engaged, political and ethical activity.

You are both the mode and the means of this occupation;

you bring into view for the rest of us a fundamental expression of the basic character of human existence:



To end on a personal note, I say this to you in earnest and I hope it makes you feel good, you should feel good because you are good. I hope that these few words and observations give you a particular kind of good feeling, that they make you feel warm inside and ‘full of merit’ and that this warmth can, in some small way, sustain you in your efforts. Given the attacks and dismantling of Occupy sites across America, you must remember the most fundamental, meaning of “Occupation”, to occupy means ‘to remain, to stay in place’ (Heidegger 148), on that note I leave you with three winter wishes:


Stay warm,

Stay safe,

Stay here.


Thank you.





Aristotle (1996), The Nichomachean Ethics. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Heidegger, M. (1975), Poetry, Language, Thought. New York and London: Harper & Row.

Sartre, J-P. (1972), Being and Nothingness. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

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