sisyphus and the machine


‘I feel like I’m being turned into a machine.’

I hated translating. The only thing interesting about it was the hate I felt for it: why did I feel this way? Was it the sense of going nowhere, the repetitiveness of the job?


To fear being ‘turned into a machine’ is a common enough refrain, describing a process formalized by Marx and his many acolytes in their theories regarding reification. But do coders feel as if they are turning into machines? They do work with machines all day, and coders have a reputation for being anti-social, a most inhuman trait.

But I have a feeling they don’t. The whole point of programming is, well, to program: to make machines do the repetitive, machine-y bits so human beings are left with the work that machines can’t do, like interpretive dance or novel-writing.


But it’s a funny thing these days: there are machines now that ‘do’ both, interpretive dance and novel-reading (perhaps not at the same time). However, a machine can’t appreciate interpretive dance or novels—not to our knowledge, at least—and it’s this appreciative faculty where our supposed humanity really lies, not in the creation of the object-of-appreciation per se.

But a machine isn’t a machine because it does repetitive things; such a definition fails to explain why so many people are into, say, knitting or sports. It’s really the mindlessness of the repetition that makes the task machine-like. I was turning into a machine.

A machine is a machine because it doesn’t appreciate what it’s doing. Our appreciation makes us human.


I suppose this is where the ‘human’ in ‘humanities’ comes in. The humanities aren’t about the creation of aesthetic artifacts (like the arts are); the humanities are about the appreciation of them. It is an examination into this appreciation, into that very thing (appreciation) which makes us human. Translation, like criticism, is interesting only insofar as it is a tool for appreciation. And I was simply incapable of appreciating the work I was doing.


I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

There is potential meaning in “each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain.” As long as Sisyphus is able to appreciate the prospect of such meanings, he will be fine. He will even be happy.

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