Perhaps like me you occasionally find yourself scanning the professional autobiographies of other people. Opening the CVs of strangers with whom you have only faintly tangential relationships and scrolling down, far down. I feel myself fully aware that I’m wasting time when I do this. What could I possibly get out of this exercise in prurient professional curiosity? Shouldn’t I have something better to do with my spare time? Yet it’s as if there’s a nagging impulse that in moments of potential leisure pushes me to renew this embarrassing little ritual, which trades by turns on shallow reassurance and self-punishing abjection.
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf describes a dispiriting morning in the British Museum spent studying what men have written about women. “Have they souls or have they not souls? … Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness.” In her notebook she begins doodling “Professor von X,” a caricature of an imagined author of a treatise on female inferiority. She looks down at the drawing she has unconsciously sketched: the good professor is all beady eyes and fat jowls and red cheeks, angry and impotent. “It is in our idleness,” Woolf remarks, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
The suspension of effort can clear a space for long-denied fixations or frustrations—Woolf’s anger, my hunger for success—to reveal themselves. In our stretches of idleness, we are released from external demands to work and to produce. But the appetites that structure our unproductive moments—ambition, lust—impose their own demands. Samuel Johnson, one of the most prolific and ambitious writers of his age, was terrified of his own propensity to idle procrastination and abhorred as a vice “the progress of life retarded by the vis inertiae,” heaping scorn upon those “whose whole labour is to vary the posture of indulgence, and whose day differs from their night, but as a couch or chair differs from a bed.”
For Johnson idleness represented an existential threat, the unconscionable expenditure of a precious gift. But idleness is as ordinary as it is inevitable. As everyday as blinking, sighing or sexual fantasy, it is the most insouciant of human states, a default condition into which we sink once our exertions pause or cease. It is also often credited as a precursor to rebellion. Governments and other powerful actors have accordingly sought to minimize idleness among certain coded populations (think of work requirements for welfare) or to direct leisure time into non-threatening, self-improving or monetizable grooves. “The idea that the poor should have leisure,” Bertrand Russell remarked in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” “has always been shocking to the rich.”
With male labor-force participation rates in decline and the concept of universal basic income nudging into the mainstream, idleness has taken on new political urgency. Yet in a culture dominated by forms of empty, solitary leisure aimed at harvesting our data (“We need hours a day” of people’s attention, the new boss of HBO recently told his employees), a slide into indolence can be more alienating than much work. Leisure time can all too often feel like working overtime to keep up with culture.
But that languor is, at present, typically debased does not mean it is beyond recuperation. Just as Marx revered freely chosen work as essential to self-realization but saw nineteenth-century industrial capitalism as a deformation of work’s expressive and educative capacities, perhaps the kinds of idleness close at hand today are historically specific corruptions of a purer, more ennobling form of activity not yet beyond our reach.
Slim, sleek and gently irreverent, Brian O’Connor’s Idleness: A Philosophical Essay is a celebration of the human tendency to passivity and a catalogue of the supposedly wise men (and, with Simone de Beauvoir, one woman) who have opposed it. It is a book that belongs to a controversial tradition that includes such works as William Gass’s On Being Blue and Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit: philosophy as highbrow entertainment.
O’Connor, a professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, defines idleness as an “activity that operates according to no guiding purpose … a feeling of noncompulsion and drift.” This lack of purpose is where idleness’s revolutionary potential lies. Idleness, as he sees it, involves a rebellious rejection of the social norms that press us to be busy and productive. It points us toward a superior form of human freedom, defined by an absence of compulsion.
O’Connor begins the book by marking a pre- and post-Enlightenment divide. In his seventeenth-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy, the scholar Robert Burton feared that human beings have a tendency to degenerate when idle. The idle person is sickly and irritable, prone to be “carried away with some foolish phantasie or other.” Kant focuses, by contrast, not on idleness’s damaging consequences but its inherent irrationality. Our rational natures press us to invent challenges for ourselves, and in dealing with these tasks we develop our talents. Inactivity is the enemy of rational self-determination. (Kant’s exotic contemplation of “South Sea Islanders” who let their “talents rust,” however, suggests that he, like Burton, worried about idle atrophy. From Kant’s imagined islanders to H. G. Wells’s decadent Eloi in The Time Machine, idleness is recurrently associated with the racially primitive, the childlike and the feminine—and presented as a weakness civilization must stave off.) And so the modern aversion to idleness begins.
The rat race for status that O’Connor identifies as a major legacy of the Enlightenment in our time—in which we grind away tirelessly to win a place for ourselves in society—is backed, in his telling, by a philosophical pedigree of the most prestigious order. He links it to one of the most searing moments in the history of Western philosophy: Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave.
Hegel imagines a quasi-mythic scene. (Out of this scene, he intimates, all of human history unfolds.) Two men confront each other. Each sees in the other only a dangerous animal. Each is subjectively certain only of himself. What follows is a struggle to the death. This struggle is fueled by the desire for recognition: each man wants to impose himself and his reality on the other. Only by being “recognized” by his adversary can he verify his own humanity. The fight results in one man giving way: he submits and recognizes his adversary as his master. In so doing, the slave verifies the master’s consciousness and reality. The slave receives no such recognition; he is viewed as a thing.
As the dialectic develops, though, the apparent dominance of the master begins to reverse itself. The master becomes aware that he is totally dependent on the slave. The slave, meanwhile, experiences a dawning self-consciousness, which comes about through labor. By transforming material nature, the slave becomes aware of his own reality. The objects he makes offer external proof of his humanity. In the world transformed by his work, he recognizes himself. To the master, this stable, external reflection of consciousness is denied. He is an idler, moved solely by fugitive desires.
Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is not just a narrative thought experiment. It is also, observes the political theorist Susan Buck-Morss, a diagnosis of the modern economic order. In Hegel’s account of the connections among work, self-consciousness and social recognition, O’Connor senses something unsavory. A recognizable place in society, achieved through work, comes with a cost: we must subject ourselves to the standards and opinions of other people. “The triumph of self-mastery,” O’Connor notes acerbically, “can look, after all, like a process of self-enslavement.”
Marx, following Hegel, is even more explicit about the social character of labor. For Marx, idleness is egoism, a disregard for a community of others. Freely chosen work, Marx believes, is driven by an affectionate concern for other people’s needs. And because human beings project their personalities onto the objects they create—coats, tables, ribbons, novels—the circulation of goods involves the sharing of consciousness. (That industrial capitalism destroys the ability of workers to imprint themselves on the world is, arguably, the insight that animates his life’s work.) “What the revolutionary position aims to do,” O’Connor summarizes, “is to abolish … miserable and socially useless work.” In Marx’s view, as distilled by O’Connor, conditions where people rationally prefer idleness to work are those in which social progress has been compromised. O’Connor objects that “there is pleasure in retreat too.” Marx, he warns, asks us to “surrender the lesser goods of rest and happiness” for virtuous exertions in service of an as-yet speculative notion of higher sociability.
O’Connor’s criticisms of Kant, Hegel and Marx suggest a world-weary conclusion: we cannot be free while in society. What idleness promises are the pleasures, and freedoms, of withdrawal. But O’Connor does not think that we truly become “ourselves” in solitude. Idleness, he suggests, involves the shattering of selfhood, the fracturing of ego when removed from the external demands that give it coherence. The result of passivity is disintegration. He does not think this is a bad thing. Nor, am I convinced, should we.
Of the many social expectations and constraints under which we labor, however, O’Connor never sorts out which are truly oppressive and which are valuable or liberating. Any external pressure, he seems to think, intrudes upon freedom. That is, upon our freedom to do nothing. Idleness, O’Connor promises, allows us to act “in accordance with values that we take to be our own,” rather than those of the larger society. But even if such claims for idleness are true, is this a good way for a person to live?
In his essay on “free time,” Adorno proposes that, in modern society, “free time” has been corrupted into “recovery time”: spells of lethargy between periods of work that merely prepare us for the resumption of labor. Today, the social shaping of leisure time remains apparent. We are pressured to spend our leisure time in certain ways (watching Netflix, shopping, exercising) and not others (organizing boycotts, attending protests, leading revolutions). If all we do is drift between tasks, we give up our ability to discriminate between these various kinds of uncompensated activity.
O’Connor is the author of two books on Adorno, so his claim that our idle time offers a haven from social norms is a surprising one. Because idleness, like work, is shaped by social conventions, O’Connor’s repeated description of inactivity as “implicitly critical” begins to look overly broad. When does idling support the status quo, and when can idling be a vehicle for political critique?
The philosopher Tommie Shelby points us to the example of voluntary joblessness among the black urban poor. In many cases, the jobs available to the black urban poor are substandard, with no opportunities for skills enhancement or promotion. Work requirements for welfare payments look, to some, suspiciously like race-based servitude. We can thus view the refusal of work by poor black citizens, Shelby writes in his book Dark Ghettos, as “the moral equivalent of a rent strike against a slumlord: they refuse to pay their civic debt until the government makes good on its promise to treat all citizens fairly.” This, then, is a form of non-work (it would be imprecise to call it “idleness” in O’Connor’s sense) that is critical of the status quo. What makes it oppositional is not its phenomenology but the social positioning of the non-workers.
Imagining a society in which work is significantly reduced is not impossible. That the wealthiest countries in the history of the world have sustained manic work regimes has puzzled thinkers for more than a century. Why could we not limit work to, say, three hours a day—the figure favored by writers as divergent as John Maynard Keynes and the revolutionary journalist Paul Lafargue? Pick your utopia: we can redistribute the world’s wealth, or set up small-scale communes, or tamp down our wasteful levels of consumption, or lie back and wait for an army of intelligent robots to cater to our every desire.
O’Connor deals with none of these alternatives, and he does not seem interested in them, committed as he is to probing the limits of a particular kind of interiority. The result is that he never deals with the question of how the “rebellious” idlers are to fund their inactivity. What’s more, he makes no distinctions between the fit, young subject whose idleness encodes an obstinate refusal to work, and the people for whom idleness—for reasons of age, illness, disability, chronic pain or some other impairment—is not freely chosen.
Other “intermediate” states between work and idleness, most significantly love and aesthetic experience, he tries to import into the category of idleness, with unconvincing results. “Among the lasting pleasures,” O’Connor writes, “are loving relationships and sheer delight in the presence of what one finds beautiful. Any one of these experiences might be considered idle, though. They have no telos: they are enjoyable in themselves, are unproductive, require no effort.” If the states of passivity and retreat O’Connor recommends could be shown hospitable for love and aesthetic pleasure, this would be a major point in idleness’s favor. But O’Connor misstates what love is. Our attachments to lovers, family members and friends impose obligations on us. When we love someone, we often have to exert ourselves on their behalf. The sympathetic regard for others that Marx thinks characterizes work in its ideal form colors the tasks we take on in our more personal circles of affection.
Moreover, the claim that love is compatible with idle freedom is hard to reconcile with O’Connor’s extensive account of the dangers of social pressure and conformity. If the demands of society at large are so damaging to freedom, why is the same not true of the expectations of friends and lovers? In O’Connor’s world one could enjoy, at best, only a fleeting and situational kind of love. The torpid passivity O’Connor prescribes seems like an unlikely path to romantic transcendence.
Beauty, like love, requires effort. When I think of “difficult” art—art that requires work to appreciate and understand—I think of the two maddening weeks I spent reading Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, unable to make sense of his syntax, crashing against unyielding paragraphs, making out the irrepressible Kate Croy and the doomed heiress Milly Theale like rouge-streaked shadows in a silver mirror. But difficulty is not reserved to high culture or to modernism. Outside the window to my left is a slim gray tree, about twenty feet tall, its delicate branches curving in all directions. How long would I have to stare at this tree to take in the full measure of its beauty? Thirty seconds? Two hours? One premise of aesthetic education is that deepening our sensitivity to art and beauty demands the deliberate application of attention. Lest we turn out like Oblomov, the winning yet incurably lazy hero of Ivan Goncharov’s classic nineteenth-century novel, who lives in rooms strewn with books he never finishes.
Beauty brings us to a halt: it imposes, if only for a flash, the cessation of activity. (On the lawn in front of the library, seeing a runner in red shorts complete the last flailing strides of a sprint before pitching forward, his fingers caressing soft dirt: I let my book fall.) Indolence and aesthetic experience both involve feelings of unbidden influence, involuntariness or absence of will. But where the experience of beauty is often significant and always pleasurable, idleness is more equivocal in its effects and character. Essentially contentless, idleness obtains its phenomenological shape from the objects around us—the pliancy of a chair, the gloss of an advertisement—and the thoughts and desires within us.
O’Connor, to his credit, resists conflating idleness with aesthetic bliss, or animal repose, or other unambiguously positive varieties of passivity. Yet experience without content has little to recommend it. Without some consciously chosen value that organizes how we do nothing, we may find that our idle time makes us less free rather than more.
Art credit: Willy Verginer