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The Project

Often, when people attempt to describe the most difficult work they do, they will say that there’s “an art” to it. In many ways, the Theory of Conceptual Labor is a way of answering the questions

  • what do people mean whey they say that
  • what are the common qualities of the work they’re talking about
  • how do they fit together?

This site is meant to be the first step of publication of a theory of work that is hoped to be useful to anyone who does this kind of difficult work, whether it is with their brain, their body, or in conversation with other people. It is meant to serve as a central reference point of discussions surrounding Conceptual Labor and provide public access to the main theory. Future relevant resources and projects will be announced or archived here.

You can follow @conceptuallabor on twitter or the RSS feed here.

Where Conceptual Labor Comes from

This project began a decade and a half ago when I began to notice patterns in the way that people talk about how to do their hardest work. I was studying one artform at a storied institution built to teach it and another at evening classes in the spare rooms of old churches. On my own I tried to develop as a writer and as a computer programmer. On any given day I would try to listen to and learn from professionals, fellow students, academics, books, websites, and my own hunches in my efforts to learn any one of these arts. I got much of what I heard confused in the most interesting ways.

Much of what I heard from experts in each field sounded strangely similar. They emphasized that some of the most important work could not be directly explained, instead it had to be cultivated and chased down. Most of my experiences of feeling like I finally “got it” revealed that I had been chasing certainty rather than what I started out looking for. The vigilant self-assessment that it took to keep my eyes on the changing conditions of work seemed, at first, like a by-product, but I later understood it to be central.

So the broader pattern I recognized in the weightier lessons that came from really trying to learn or teach art was that this work had to combine domain-specific practices with intense, recursive analysis in an attempt to cultivate or discover novel ideas expressed through a particular medium. At first I thought this was a special condition of the arts, but once I noticed the pattern I began to see it everywhere.

Conversely, I saw how much one could talk about and work on “art” — or whatever their central subject was — without getting closer to it. On one hand we could say that the most important methods of our work were difficult, if not impossible, to fully describe, while on the other hand spending most of our attention and words on describing all the other parts.

I couldn’t completely describe this type of work either, but I was certain it showed up regularly and unexpectedly, especially in the process of learning and studying.

I wanted a better vocabulary, and thought that it should not be so hard to find one if everyone kept saying roughly the same things over and over.

I was in my 20s then. I am 40 now, and I have been trying to find that vocabulary since then. Like most conceptual labor, it was a little harder than I expected.

Ním Daghlian, author


This text (and my life) would be far poorer and less interesting without the support, insight, kindness, and unswerving critical eye of my talented wife, Martha Daghlian. At different stages of its development, Lucy Bellwood, Amber Case and Delphine Bedient each contributed sustained, meticulous and critical attention that shaped the text in crucial ways, for which I am more grateful than I can say. Alex Black, Alexandra Dolan-Mescal, Carl Diehl, Claire Heacox, Chris Herdt, Vivian Hua, Mathew Lippincott, Van Pham, Dustin Zemel and my family provided incisive and thoughtful feedback on early drafts. The regular quorums I have enjoyed with John James Dudek, Evan Dumas, and Nik Wise provided vital space for these ideas to breathe. My Wuji instructor, Jaime Tan, has been a guide and inspiration in the practice of art with generosity, patience, humor, raw skill, and integrity as a teacher and martial artist.

Contributions, Use, and Sharing

The text of the Theory is available publically on Github. Interested readers are encouraged to open issues or pull requests with revisions or comments. You can also annotate this site with using this Annotate me link or the one found in the sidebar. Updates to the Theory will be made through numbered Drafts, with all previous Drafts preserved in the repository. The current draft is Draft 1. You are welcome to download and share but not modify this material in accordance with our Creative Commons licensing guidelines.


This site is built using the Ed. theme for Jekyll. Set in Cardo, Nanum Myeongjo, and Work Sans.

The Author

The Theory of Conceptual Labor and the contents of this site were written in their entirety by Ním Daghlian.


Contact me here.