A Comfortable Couch

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Quitting the Paint Factory

This article really spoke to me and my wife. A year ago I probably wouldn't have understood what it was talking about, but when my daughter was born somehow I began to realize how sick I had become, how I was valuing things that didn't make me happy. An excerpt:
What I am suggesting is that just as the marketplace has co-opted rebel­lion by subordinating politics to fashion, by making anger chic, so it has qui­etly underwritten the idea of leisure, in part by separating it from idleness. Open almost any magazine in America today and there they are: The ubiq­uitous tanned-and-toned twenty-somethings driving the $70,000 fruits of their labor; the moneyed-looking men and women in their healthy sixties (to give the young something to aspire to) tossing Frisbees to Irish setters or ty­ing on flies in midstream or watching sunsets from their Adirondack chairs.

Leisure is permissible, we understand, because it costs money; idleness is not, because it doesn't. Leisure is focused; whatever thinking it requires is absorbed by a certain task: sinking that putt, making that cast, watching that flat-screen TV. Idleness is unconstrained, anarchic. Leisure - particularly if it involves some kind of high-priced technology - is as American as a Fourth of July barbecue. Idleness, on the other hand, has a bad attitude. It doesn't shave; it's not a member of the team; it doesn't play well with others. It thinks too much, as my high school coach used to say. So it has to be ostracized.


Ned Batchelder said...

This is one of the fundamental limitations of capitalism: we are bombarded with messages from companies urging us to spend our money on their products. Only activities that involve spending money will be encouraged by these messages. So leisure that involves spending is very visible. No one is going to make money off of idleness, so no one is going to spend money to encourage it.

5:14 PMlink  
Damien said...

That's true of advertising certainly, but what about other popular media? Books, TV talk shows, newspapers, magazines, etc?

How many bloggers brag about their new car, house, laptop, trips to China, etc? How many times have you read about someone sleeping in and doing nothing all day, and say it like it's a good thing, not a shameful thing?

I'm as guilty as anyone of this.

9:35 PMlink  
Anonymous said...

Damien, because it is all too easy to sleep in all day- it is not productive- not to society nor to the self- and if everyone did it more often, then we might suddenly have a soccer-country kind of economy. It's irresponsible. The entire life process slows and precious momentum of personal growth and advancement is lost. It allows for mistakes, but the mistakes get made at a much slower pace, and less is learned from the experiences when our time is consumed and thrown away to oversleeping. Where is the accountability?

David Boudreau (who commented under People depicted as Design Elements)

10:06 AMlink  
Damien said...

Idleness is destructive in the same same way that working is destructive, do it too much and the end result is the same, you become miserable and die.

But what I'm talking about is just taking SOME time to do nothing when you feel like it. But so often we feel guilty if we do nothing, like its a shameful weakness to want to it, and we don't talk about it even when we do it. So instead of saying we did nothing, we say we got in touch with ourselves, we communed with nature, we got some fresh air and exercise, etc.

People have no problem confessing that they work a 80 hours a week, they sleep only 4 hours a night, they have no time to read the magazines they subscribe too, etc. They confess it because they are actually bragging, bragging about how industrious and important they are. But it's destructive to continuely live like that, but people still do it and take a perverse pride in it. I'm guilty of this as well.

Well today I woke up late, watched some TV, browsed the web and posted this response. Today I didn't try to better myself or mankind. I loved it and I don't feel guilty about it.

12:38 PMlink  
Anonymous said...

Well ok then how about this... imagine during your idle time, while watching TV, an advertisement for a mattress airs. an office setting, and the boss goes: "where's Johnson? it's 10:30 already." "gee I don't know. he left work early yesterday to stop by the mattress store...." cue dreamy chime, fade to Johnson lying down with eyes closed on his new mattress. We all stop and realize what's really important in life, taking time to smell the roses. Idleness itself is celebrated and exploited by the evil marketing machines, to an idle audience no less watching TV. Of course, for it to work out for the kind sponsors of that television you're enjoying, you have to actually get to the store and buy the mattress, instead of sleeping in, but marketers can have full faith in people to go to extra lengths to get their idle on. I don't think this is so out of the ordinary- or that marketing actually discourages idleness? Mass market products like Coke and McDonald's typically have commercials that attempt to associate this very kind of fun, good times, happy people, "let's all be really idle" with their products. But you still have to fulfill your end of the bargain; if you stop patronizing the advertisers, then you won't HAVE the television shows, the magazines you enjoy, etc. And then it's suddenly so much more difficult to enjoy such slothful, stagnant idleness.

David Boudreau

11:08 PMlink  
Damien said...

Yes, advertisers do market idleness - idleness using their product. The problem is that for people to get the actual benefit of the leisure product, they must actually spend time relaxing, and they could have done that without the product. Instead they spent the money but gained no benefit they couldn't have had anyway. So the leisurer (is that a word?) becomes a consumer, they had to work that thing they bought, which means spent time working to acquire it - the thing that's supposed be their idleness.

And just because you spend idle time and happen to see advertisements, you obviously needn't be obligated to do as they command, none of us are. If that means fewer shows get produced, then so be it, but why not take advantage of the free entertainment if its available. It doesn't make it wrong to take advantage of the free product just because its not sustainable if everybody ignored the sponsors. Lots of shows go off the air because they can't get sponsorship, often with large but unprofitable viewer bases. Enjoy it while it's free, it's not wrong to do so.

Also, it's not like I'm saying spend $0 money on your leisure or else you are not experiencing leisure. I think its just fine to buy things that are fun, relaxing, whatever. Just be careful about how you spend, are you really just buying another fancy toy/service/subscription that you don't have the time to really appreciate? Is buying a $3000 TV really going make your TV viewing that much better, or is it just going to be another line item on your ever growing credit card bill? Is spending $50 bucks a month extra for all the premium cable channels really necessary when there is already 60 channels of basic cable?

So maybe instead of constantly buying stuff that enhances our leisure in an attempt to turbo charge our leisure, instead we could work less and relax more and learn what real idleness is. But that’s very hard to even imagine for lots of people, like me for instance. It’s not just that buying stuff gets confused with relaxing, it’s also that free time often brings anxiety. I've realized that somehow I feel guilty when I don't work my ass off. In the past if I have a more than 1 day off, I literally could not enjoy myself, I felt guilty for not working. As such, my free time, which should be relaxing turned into something filled with anxiety. I literally didn't know how to relax. I still feel like relaxing and taking time off is something I'm not good at, the guilt is still there a little and I have to actively try to squash it. That sucks, even now I’m tempted to list reasons of why more and better leisure will actually benefit your overall productivity, as though better work is the only justification for more/better idleness.

2:26 AMlink  
Bob Balaban said...

Thanks Damien! Great article, I was especially struck by the comments about how "idleness" promotes thinking, and about how the Futurist vision is anti-thought, and ultimately fascist.

Makes sense to me.

8:27 AMlink  
Anonymous said...

It might be difficult not to be able to relax and be idle. (Personally, if I give it my best, I can kick so much ass at being idle and relaxing... but yeah there definitely have been times when it is hard to enjoy it.) As bad as your disability (of not being able to relax) may be, I think the far worse thing is to be stuck in some stagnant mudpit of a lethargic, listless existence; a rut, a mental state of severe passivity and even depression where you want some direction, some motivation, but it just isn't there. All of a sudden the weekend is over, but worse, you didn't accomplish anything. At least when you're active and anxious, this somehow translates as charming to your future self, especially if it drives you to get some things done, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. I think it's important to have goals because it gives you something to _focus_ on and work towards for a satisfying result at the end of the day. Then at least, your work brings you one step closer to your goal. It also fosters discipline and prevents those ruts.

The Quitting the Paint Factory article tries to put all of this very personal condition into some kind of relevance to society, which is preposterous because it is so inconsiderate and irresponsible to the others around us to be idle, a non-worker, when everyone else is at least showing up and on time- let alone not abandoning co-workers at the paint factory. It may indeed be best for someone to get out of his current situation, and we should respect each other's personal decisions to do so- but is society supposed to celebrate it? What does society have to gain? They just lost one worker that could still be contributing Social Security tax benefits for their grandmothers.

David Boudreau

9:44 AMlink  
Damien said...

What does society have to gain from idleness? Well, the food and shelter problems are pretty much solved, how many people die of starvation and exposure in this country? How many people die of TB or dysentery or other diseases associated with abject poverty? The biggest killer in this country is heart disease, the second biggest is cancer. Both of those are shown to be made worse with excessive stress and lack of sleep, many of us are literally working ourselves to death. We eat tons of convenience foods because we don't have the time to prepare a decent meal, we can't sleep or relax because of our crushing debt. And our health and happiness suffers.

I'm not denying that there are poor people in this country, there are plenty. But even the well-to-do suffer from the same stuff that the poor suffer from, we feel like we can't make ends meet.

And why? To pay for toys we don't need, to pay for fancy educations so our kids can get high paying jobs and be top-dog consumers, like us. We are passing our screwed up values on to our children through our example. The goal of society shouldn't be that we continually produce more and more toys, but rather that our citizens live longer, more fulfulling lives.

What do we want most for our kids - for them to be happy, right? Is true happiness achieved with buying stuff? Is true happiness achieved by getting a degree from an Ivy league schoool? Couldn't we be happier with less? Couldn't we learn on our own, learn about the things that really interest us even if they don't increase our earning potential?

12:36 PMlink  
Anonymous said...

Question for David: why do you think it's difficult to enjoy being idle if you don't have the TV shows, magazines subscriptions, etc? Isn't the idea that we shouldn't be scared to let our minds wander, and give ourselves time to follow our thoughts? Maybe it will lead to something brilliant, or maybe it will just help us relax and enjoy ourselves more.

3:00 PMlink  
Anonymous said...

To answer the first question, I guess it's all about options-- you certainly don't _need_ TV or magazines, in fact books and weblogs are perfectly good fillers as well- and since you _do_ have access to them, how do you know what good you're missing if you don't even check to see? At some times I feel it is a kind of good faith clause in the social contract between television producers and the consumers/audience. These idle-filler things even allow you to function on a social level- you get a sense for the social consciousness, or at least what others have access to, and many are tuned in to. When you take those options away from your idle time, you isolate yourself, in a sense.

Take driving, for example- I love to do it. It's a hobby in and of itself. But it's not quite enough- I also demand my excess auditory capacity to be filled with music, usually. Music in the car gave way to recorded speech, eg books on tape, which peppered it all as a new experience that was more cerebral. Each advancement filled an idleness. You buy one CD, it's really good. a month or two later, you still like it but want another, to repeat the experience. There is hit and miss but soon enough, you have a collection. And hopefully, you learned from the misses to know better. You can hit slumps and think, I've hit 3 misses in a row here, what is wrong with music these days? and Whatever happened to "real" rock bands? or whatever. I think you can get into a very dangerous state where you might actually listen to only the classics for an extended period of time.

As for the second question:
>>Isn't the idea that we shouldn't be scared to let our minds wander, and give ourselves time to follow our thoughts? Maybe it will lead to something brilliant, or maybe it will just help us relax and enjoy ourselves more.

I feel the problem with that approach usually has to do with lack of quality thought, due to insufficient input. Really, how often does it lead to something truly brilliant? Brilliance is 98% _persperation_, isn't it? Saying that it will help us relax and enjoy ourselves more seems like it could be the mirage, to me. The grass is always greener on the other side.

To be fair, I do value things like having a Sabbath in your week, taking a step back to see the forrest for the trees, etc. but even then I would like to think that it's all in line with some overall goal or direction. As soon as we delve into the "what is the point of life?" kind of questions, it all becomes a lot more personal and internal, and completely separate from social ramifications which become secondary issues in that context.

Damien, you say what do we want most for our kids? "Happiness" is so... temporary, and fleeting. They might not get true happiness from an Ivy League degree- but one thing is for sure, they'll have a lot more options for the long-term. If we really wanted to learn about the things that genuinely interest us, we absolutely should and that should be encouraged. The problem is, learning is very un-idle. Well, there's always the Discovery/History channel documentaries, NPR radio, etc. but half the time, you don't even know how interesting a documentary might be until you're well into it, and have given it a chance. Again, hit and miss and takes an investment of your time.

I might seem facist (I prefer "totalitarian"), but this idleness still seems like anarchy to me.

David Boudreau

10:05 AMlink  

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