Saturday, April 04, 2015

"All Work and No Play" and the Philosophy of Feeling Bored

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. - 17th century European proverb

The most politically significant question we face day-to-day is perhaps “How do we spend our surplus leisure time?” that is “the time when waiting to go back to work.”

Zizek covers the concept of “surplus”, but only in regard to commodities. A key property about "surplus" is that it lacks a sense of purpose. In Zizek's example, it is hard to rationally explain what the attraction of coca-cola, as opposed to simply drinking chilled sugar-water, is, but the attraction is undeniable. The cause of this attraction is the "surplus" quality of Coke. The surplus that comes with commodities is important, yes, but surplus leisure time even more so defines our labor-market-driven society. The idea of "surplus time" develops alongside "wage labor." Surplus leisure time does not exist in agricultural societies, because all work was self-directed. Self-sufficient farmers work for themselves--if a task is on their mind, they can always work on it, without any waiting involved. The idea of "surplus" a.k.a. "vacation" time is only possible when workers no longer feel in control over their time management. Like the attraction of Coke, vacation time is similarly undirected. We feel that we have to "enjoy it properly" or that we will have missed out on something essential within our culture. Purposeful, productive use of vacation time holds the risk of having yourself written off as a bore--someone who works all the time and doesn't know how to have fun. We have little control over it, so when surplus time is there, it ought to be "spent" wisely.

Do you feel bored when don’t have any money to spend, and have nothing scheduled to do? You too might be afflicted with what psychologist Erich Fromm, building off of Marx's theory of alienation, refers to as "compensated boredom":
Chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological [because] most people are bored, and a shared pathology--the “pathology of normalcy”--is not experienced as pathology... One may state that one of the main goals of [humanity] today is “escape from boredom.”
The cause of this condition, according to Fromm is “insufficient inner productivity.” “[Sufferers]”, he explains, “are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple stimuli.”

“Surplus leisure time” separates our emotions from self-creativity and expression. As Marx put it:
“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working, he is not at home.”
Instead, the only cultural experiences left for emotional engagement are our reactions to the creations and expressions of others. Think about how Facebook has dramatically decreased its emphasis on users’ “notes” and “about me” sections, while increasing its emphasis on its “like button” feature. The move is away from user-created content and towards user reaction to (primarily consumerist) cultural products.

Can we break out of this utter dependence on the market values for meaningful emotional engagement?