Monday, April 25, 2011

idle and demoralizing vacations

It is about this time of year that schools have spring vacations and colleges release their students to put on display all that they haven't acquired over the past semesters in places like Panama City Beach or Cancun. And, of course, summer vacation for both parties is not far off.

If you think about society in a more Marxian sense, vacation is a strange concept. I got to thinking about this when wondering when the notion of vacation evolved. The broader concept of leisure only developed in connection with labor itself as a separate entity. Once man has been placed in the position of needing to devote large portions of his time to "labor" (output, production, capital markets), then he must similarly schedule his down-time. One time was not his (labor) and the other was intended to be (leisure). As Doğan Kilinç explains in his thesis on labor and leisure:
...for man leisure means rest, the improvement of skills and "the free exercise of his creative capacity." [Dumazedier, Toward A Society of Leisure] In this definition leisure signifies not only non-working time but also [time] beyond social obligations. Thus, it is conceived as an individual's own world, time belonging only to him. ["Labor, Leisure and Freedom in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse"]
Is vacation a time for rest, a space of freedom, or a time to further cultivate one's individual creativities? Can we be completely idle, or is that alone a risky endeavor for the whole of society and the future of mankind? And could we even be idle (letting go of our IPads, cellphones, adventure vacations, etc.) if we wanted to? If man, as Marx posited, is already alienated from his labor, will he thereby be alienated from his leisure as well? Is leisure a commodity just as labor? There certainly is a vibrant and robust leisure industry...

God created the world in six days... and on the seventh, he rested. Rest, at least for a Christianity-based Western civilization, is structured in relation to work. Furthermore, rest is a reward for work well done (though sometimes I'm not so sure, God...) The philosopher Bertrand Russell felt that the working day should be reduced to four hours time and that 'structured' idleness was, in fact, praise-worthy and invaluable. In what he saw as our illogical 'slave state,' he posed the following thought experiment to prove his point:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as must leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined? [Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness," 1932]
In the end, Russell felt idleness essential not only to freedom as Marx posited, but to happiness. When work is humane and there is sufficient time for idleness,
...there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid....Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.
Wow! Let's all go on vacation then! It will end all wars, enable us to create inspired and meaningful things and ideas, and instill us with the morality for which we strive but are too distracted to achieve. Russell seems remarkably naïve here. Or perhaps just the product of an entirely different society and era. What about companies like Google that seem to incorporate leisure time into work time, obfuscating the once-clear boundary between the two? Google employees who are part of the engineering development teams are offered up to 20% of their work time to pursue any project that interests them.. .time that has been dubbed "Innovation Time Off." Is this freedom and happiness while working? Or just another sinister manipulation of laborers by capitalist overlords?

I think a lot of us attempt to 'escape' during our vacations... to forget about work and its related stressors... even to forget about particular realities of our lives and their related stressors. What are we running from? And then, what does it mean to have to return, the weight perhaps weightier after having felt the release from it?

Even as far back as 1898, vacation was an old concept. In an article about the re-installation of year-round schooling (funny how things work cyclically...), Sadie American writes:
There is an old-fashioned notion that pictures vacation as a period of relaxing all the restraining discipline of the school year -- a time when the whole being can stretch itself, as it were, and attain fuller proportions by doing as it listeth, running about in green fields, chasing butterfly, or bird, or bumblebee, climbing trees and wading brooks, or browsing in pure animal enjoyment.
The growth of our large cities, with the consequent crowding of population, has changed all this, and what grass there is no longer invites the tripping feet, but sternly warns "keep off!" Birds and butterflies have fled to the parks, too distant for the child to follow; and the buzz of bees is replaced by the gong of the electric-car Moloch, claiming the street for its own, and sacrificing all who may dispute his sovereignty. [Sadie American, "The Movement for Vacation Schools," The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.4, No.3 (1898), p. 309]
And Miss American (how fitting!) ends her article noting the critical importance of these proposed (and experimental) 'vacation schools' in their ability "to convert the vacation from a time of demoralization to one of recreation in the best sense of the word." [325]

I want my vacations to be idle... but probably not demoralizing. It seems intriguing that the whole issue of morality keeps getting wrapped up in the time when we just want to rest our brains and put our minds at ease. It all comes down to this question of what constitutes 'quality of life'? What I most remember from my summer vacations, often consisting solely of a month spent at a summer camp in Maine and the rest of the time participating on a local swim team and generally lazing at the outdoor pool, is just the sort of ideal idleness I would like to continue to cultivate somehow. We were not really idle at all... us kids roaming around in the freedom of summers that do not seem to exist for the over-structured, over-disciplined, over-achieving kid of today. Yes, I did lay by the pool after swim practice. But, in doing so, I learned to enjoy the simple act of just being... of feeling the warm heat of the concrete re-instill my frigid body with vitality. Yes, I did sometimes skip our 'free blocks' at camp in order to sit in the woods and gossip with friends about what cute boys at the neighboring boy's camp we might ask to dance on the following Saturday night. But this too was time well spent. Time spent among friends. Some of the truest and dearest I can remember. And despite all my idleness and perhaps excessive freedom, I was indeed inspired to create... just as Marx and others hoped. Our band of neighbors spent long hours scripting, producing, and filming indie-style films...before we even knew how cool those were. We invented new forms of play, known as 'night games'. We sat out late at night in the dark weaving tales from our uninhibited imaginations. And we became independent. We learned to be alone as much as to be together. We learned to be idle with purposeness.... perhaps the most valuable kind of idleness.

Perhaps it all comes down to how we value and use time. When I lived in France, life seemed to move more in alignment with all time. Waking each day, work, free time -- it all seemed less disjointed from a broader context. Doing errands was not a thing to be rushed through, but an event... an unfolding. I often spent up to an hour or more waiting at the post office. In the U.S., this would be unacceptable. But, in France, it was not the process of getting one's individual business done extremely efficiently that mattered, but what happened as one went to mail a letter. The post office was a social venue, a place to run into and chat with friends, a place to purview posters on the wall of upcoming events. It was a place to be treated with a sense of leisure, with 'unhurried ease'... as was lunch at the café or the long stroll to or from one's official place of work.

Perhaps this should be the essence of vacation... the unhurried ease that you found once before. For, we all need to relax... really. "It's those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same. With all of our running and all of our cunning, if we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane." [J. Buffett]

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