Finishing Work on the Incomplete
These notes are aimed at the problem of unfinished work in the context of an inexhaustible project.1
In the following, I assume that we share a common aim in life: to help realize a way of being together that is kind and nurturing and, in its flourishing, encourages all others to flourish.
I postulate (1) that there is no limit to the compassion and kindness we can achieve (Cf.) and (2) that the importance of this aim calls for an intensity of focus and depth of thoughtfulness which is also limitless. What we aim to do and the way it is to be done preclude the possibility of completion. So we try to break our pursuit into many small tasks, which themselves can be completed.
Yet this aim requires careful planing and critique. If we just get busy executing items of work that appear to be candidates for completion, our efforts are likely to be wasted, or, worse, they will work effectively towards the degradation of our potential for peace and kindness. The worst fate for humanity is not extinction, it is becoming borg. Contributions that enhance our systems of power without embedding an immanent critique2 to protect against the malicious use of that power are ultimately irresponsible.
Yet, if we spend our remaining decades3 tinkering at this and that facet of the endeavor, leaving partially worked surfaces, half finished forms, and tools and plans scattered around, we will fail to realize improvement or make useful contributions. Worse, such wasted work might clutter the work sites and contribute to confusion. Though completion is impossible, some measure of finish is necessary.
There must4 be a way of executing finishable work that builds towards our incompletable aim. Therefore, a clear distinction must be made between finishing and completing. As is often the case, the etyma lead the way:
late 14c., “to bring to an end;” mid-15c., “to come to an end” (intransitive), from Old French finiss-, present participle stem of fenir “stop, finish, come to an end; die” (13c.), from Latin finire “to limit, set bounds; put an end to; come to an end,” from finis “that which divides, a boundary, border,” figuratively “a limit, an end, close, conclusion; an extremity, highest point; greatest degree,” which is of unknown origin, perhaps related to “figere” “to fasten, fix” (see fix (v.)). Meaning “to kill, terminate the existence of” is from 1755.
The roots of ’finish’ meant to “bring to an end”, and originally to limit and bound. To bring something to an end, we set a boundary and then take the thing to that limit. Think of finishing a race, crossing the finish line: someone decided a certain spot should mark the boundary, and they marked the limit with a line. The racer finishes by crossing the line.
When working construction, we called the last productive stage of a project the “finish work”. This was the work done to clean up all the rough edges, cover up the joins, fill the holes, apply the paint, etc. The The Great Soviet Dictionary defines ’finishing work’ thus:
(in construction), a group of construction operations relating to the exterior and interior finishing of buildings and structures to enhance their service and aesthetic qualities. Finishing work is the concluding stage of construction; in many cases, the overall quality of a building or structure being put into service depends on the quality of its execution. The main types of finishing work include facing, plastering, flooring (and parquetry), painting, wallpapering, and glazing.
What is finished is not perfected! If you’ve ever seen a racer crawl across the finish line, or taken a peek into the space between your walls, then you know finishing can be executed despite aspects remaining imperfect or subpar. But without the finish the home would not be livable and the racer could never escape their race.
To be finished is to be terminated with a measure of elegance.
late 14c., “having no deficiency, wanting no part or element; perfect in kind or quality; finished, ended, concluded,” from Old French complet “full,” or directly from Latin completus, past participle of complere “to fill up, complete the number of (a legion, etc.),” transferred to “fulfill, finish (a task),” from com-, here probably as an intensive prefix + plere “to fill” (from PIE root *pele- (1) “to fill”).
<This part is inducing paralysis. Let’s say I’m leaving this elaboration incomplete as a sly, ironic gesture.>
So let the terminology be settled thus:
Finishing is a matter of termination, particularly of determination. In order to finish, a terminus must have been decided and finishing is the act of carrying the work to that terminal. What is finished may still be extended further or improved upon, as the limit set was likely more or less arbitrary, and not at all an ideal limit.
Completing is a matter of fulfillment and exhaustive satisfaction. In order to achieve completion, all defects must be removed, all parts present. Completion suggests conclusion and so the closure of any need for further work. What is complete is over and done with, and no longer susceptible to improvement or advance.
A Measure of Satisfaction
In order to finish work towards our incompletable goal, it is necessary that we understand how the work can satisfy some aspect of our aim. But it is not required that the work complete the project, nor even that the work be complete in its own narrow range. Completion is not required for useful work! But finish is critical. Without finishing work, even a solid, well conceived structure can be virtually useless.
In order to contribute useful work towards the aim of realizing a kind and nurturing way of being together, it is vital that we learn how to measure out portions of what must be done and delimit those chunks with a finish. In the context of Information Technology, the finish generally pertains to the interface (the API and UI). Generalizing the other way, the finish can be seen as an interface between ongoing work and whatever is left incomplete, still to do.
I aim to explore this line of thinking further, but I must bring these notes to a close at this point, because they are an exercise in finishing.
Further work to be done:
- explore the principles for this kind of “measuring out”
- explore the concept of embedding immanent critiques in work to protect against the malicious use of power
- elaborate a theory of the module (or an understanding of the module as theory) that helps explain how these units of finished work can form larger composites, and thus build towards the goal. Cf. The Measure of a Module.
I took these notes in order to analyze and exorcise blockages in my own workflow. However, they are written from an intersubjective view point to help counter the idiotic tendencies of self-obsessed naval gazing.
“The purpose of immanent critique is the detection of societal contradictions which suggest possibilities for emancipatory social change. It considers ideas’ role in shaping society, with focus on future emancipatory change. An immanent critique of a value is a discussion of the principles (overt or implicit) the value proposes. It highlights the gaps between what something stands for and what is being done in actual terms. Immanent critique tries to find contradictions and indirectly provide alternatives, without constructing an entirely new theory.” (wikipedia)
However many you have left, they are infinitesimally few relative to the scope of this mission.
“must” here expressing a practical necessity.