Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Idle Self-Interview: Mark Kingwell

From this Saturday's Globe & Mail:

Mark 1: So what's with the interview?

Mark 2: Well, I wanted to write something about why the idle life is the best life, especially now that we're spiralling headlong into an economic meltdown. It's also the natural time of year to think about the direction of your life, to take stock. But the thought of structuring a formal essay, arguing the position, made me feel tried. And no wonder: "Essay" is from the French essai, for try; an essay on idling seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Mark 1: So now I have to do the work of thinking up questions for you? And transcribing the answers?

Mark 2: Don't think of it as work! One of the common mistakes people make about idling is assuming that it's always inactive. On the contrary, there are lots of idle activities. Thinking and writing about ideas like this is a perfect example.

Mark 1: So what makes that idling rather than work?

Mark 2: Enjoying it for its own sake, for one thing. The reason idling is often closely associated with aestheticism or even dandyism - Baudelaire, Huysmans, Stevenson and Wilde were all accomplished idlers - is that idling sees the possibilities of life being lived as a work of art.

Mark 1: Hmm. Is that what distinguishes idling from slacking?

Mark 2: Yes, exactly! The problem with the slacker is that he is, in the very act of resisting them, wedded to the norms of work. In avoiding work, or pretending to work, or hiding from the supervisor in the mailroom, the slacker is implicitly granting the world of work a dominant position. He gives work power as that which he should be doing even as he does not do it.

Mark 1: And idling?

Mark 2: Idling establishes an independent scale of value. It's like the difference between dozing - falling asleep from overwork - and napping, which we all know is an art form. The true idler enters the moment of not-working and takes it into a new realm of not even thinking about work, of strolling away from that collective addiction of the past 2,000 years.

Mark 1: I sense a philosophical reference coming.

Mark 2: Well, yes. Aristotle's claim of the contemplative life as the most divine life, as well as his idea of peripatesis - philosophy done while walking - suggests an idle disciple. The issue of gait is essential, actually: strolling, ambling, dawdling, flânerie - these are all an idler's actions. Aristotle also emphasizes political activity, but this is not work; it is action in the service of friendship and justice. Entirely consistent with idling.

Mark 1: What about the Eastern traditions?

Mark 2: Absolutely. I think Lao Tzu is perhaps the greatest idler of the ancient world. "Move along old ruts," he advises us in Tao Te Ching. "Blunt the sharpness." We know he's right - we still talk about "taking the edge off" after a hard day's work. Typically, we do it with temporary self-medication - a sitcom, a martini. Not that I have anything against martinis, but diversions like these just serve to recharge the batteries for the next bout of work. Addiction reinforced.

Mark 1: You make it sound easy. What about making ends meet, now that unemployment is spiking so high? Aristotle, after all, had slaves to do work for him. Lots of people are simply out of work, not not-working. Isn't idling revealed as an elitist pursuit, an aristocrat's indulgence?

Mark 2: It's true Aristotle had slaves. He saw them as the bearers of repetitive actions, the boring features of the realm of necessity. My point is that nowadays, most of us are self-enslaved. And each one of us, jobless or otherwise, has some portion of what the Germans call Freizeit, free time. The real issue is how we use that time. Or rather, whether we see that it should not be used at all.

Mark 1: You're saying we should live for the weekend?

Mark 2: No, no, on the contrary! The weekend was created, through collective action and forward-looking legislation, to ease the burden of work. But look what's happened to it. It has annexed leisure - what the Greeks called skholé, the root for school - into a form of consumption. We have reduced forms of play, like sports, to mass spectacles that offer reward for the past week's work and rest for the coming one. Everything entails the production of consumption, with ourselves as the final product, consumed by our desires under the sign of the consumer. Not only is it obvious now that we can't go on this way, it has been obvious all along.

Mark 1: What? Give me an example.

Mark 2: Well, notice the etymological traces contained in the English words "negotiate" and "otiose." Otiose means redundant or useless. Negotiate means to transact affairs, to conduct business. But the shared Latin root tells the story. Neg-otium, the negation of that which lies beyond use, is the origin of business. Business is an obliteration, a nulling, not a positive value in its own right. And what is negated? The very thing, idling, which we now condemn as useless. We have got it exactly backward.

Mark 1: Suppose everyone was idle, though. How would society function?

Mark 2: Think of it this way. Any market economy is a failed attempt to distribute goods and services exactly where they are needed or desired, as and when they are needed and desired. That's all markets are, despite the pathological excrescences that nowadays attach to them: derivatives funds, advertising, shopping as leisure. If we had a perfect market, idling would be the norm, not the exception, because distribution would be frictionless. Most work is the result of inefficiency, not genuine need. In other words, idling is consistent with capitalism's own internal logic, which of course implies, even if it never realizes, the end of capitalism.

Mark 1: Huh. But surely idle hands are the devil's work. You don't have to be a hard-line Calvinist to appreciate that people need things to occupy them, limits and purposes. Otherwise they fall into ennui or worse.

Mark 2: True, all art is about the tension between constraint and possibility, between discipline and freedom. But work is too often deadening rather than purposeful; that's why it cycles with boredom. We should get over this perverse need to locate people in work terms, to fix them under occupations, the way English proper names make identities: Smith, Cooper, Fletcher. When you meet someone at a party, don't ask "What do you do?" Instead ask, "What are you thinking about?"

Mark 1: You keep using words like "should" and "backward" and "can't." Aren't you ensnared in a performative contradiction, enjoining this normative change of attitude, while talking about idling?

Mark 2: In philosophy, we prefer to call these "tensions" or "aporias" rather than "contradictions." Still, you've put your finger on a real problem. It has two distinct aspects.

Mark 1: That is exactly what I'm talking about! Distinction, the lever of philosophy. A lever is a machine, a tool for work! You're working right now!

Mark 2: Take it easy. You need to relax. This is supposed to be fun.

Mark 1: Fun? Ha.

Mark 2: As I was saying, two aspects. The first is what we can call The Idler's Conundrum. That's when idling, pursued too normatively, becomes a form of work. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, was described in one biography as "having a talent for organized leisure." It was meant as a compliment, but it makes my blood curdle. The sort of person who herds you from one "pleasant" activity to another, chivvying you along.

Mark 1: Yeah, I get it. The second?

Mark 2: The second follows from the first. Let's call it Positional Goods Creep. That's when your idling becomes a form of conspicuous consumption, the sort of thing Veblen analyzes so brilliantly in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here leisure is not only a form of work, but, disguised - even to oneself - as not-work, it becomes a form of publicly exhibited wealth. And we're right back into the false value system.

Mark 1: Okay, I get that, too. But still - "false value system"? Seems as though a basic contradiction is still there. This idling business looks like a program, an ethical system.

Mark 2: It's a program in a sense - a recovery program. I once composed an 11-Step Recovery Program for Idlers, because I was too lazy for 12. That was an intentional paradox, because you can't really program idling. But maybe these steps will make you start thinking about what matters most in life.

Mark 1: Meaning?

Mark 2: Meaning you must change your life. But no pressure. Take your time.

No comments: