A Leisurely Revolution
I recently went an entire day alone in my apartment, from waking to sleeping. No work, no obligations, a full fridge, and a functioning toilet. Time was emptied of all unnecessary compulsions, an absence of which I thought meant freedom.
This was, in some sense, a dream realized, if only for a day. 24-hours entirely my own, supplied with all necessary means to remain alive & comfortable. A kind of microcosm of utopia where all my basic needs are covered without spending most of the day working to secure them, leaving me to tango with time as I choose.
This dance between freedom & compulsion is what I intend to explore, using my day of leisure as a microscope. Anaïs Nin calls this the hero of her diary, the modern malady where our lives are dramas of compulsion rather than freedom:
“The hero of this book is the malady which makes our lives a drama of compulsion instead of freedom.”
This malady lurks within industrial society and 40-hour workweeks everywhere. In an age of unprecedented wealth, technology, and objective well-being, compulsion remains the magnetic center of too many lives; our freedoms remain skin deep.
Like a virus, the malady of compulsion spreads an institutionalized mentality incapable of leisure in its largest sense. Not leisure as we know it in capitalist modernity, but a more idyllic state, as envisioned by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture:
“Leisure…is a mental and spiritual attitude - it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul…”
Capitalist modernity is eroding our capacity for leisure, inciting an intangible poverty of livelihood. In losing leisure, we risk losing leisures most vivifying fruit: solitude, sociality, and freedom.
In examining my day off, and the rise of the digital attention economy, we might track leisure’s decay from “a condition of the soul” to a few hours binging Netflix. We might look for a path to rehabilitate our capacities for solitude and sociality. We might conclude with the platitude that everyone should just meditate and regularly ingest psychedelic mushrooms. Or we might find such conclusions pointed at atomized individuals are entirely off the mark, the mark actually being upon the sociocultural ecology from whose tapestry our being is woven. We might find it necessary to pull up the structures and mentalities of daily existence by their roots, by considering what modified sociopolitical frameworks support different, more leisurely organizations of life. We might, somewhat troublingly, find the only way to spark and sustain such cultural upheavals is through enough atomized individuals meditating and breaking from their patterned ruts of thought strongly enough to seriously imagine and work towards alternative schemas of human life.
Or I might spend the essay ineffectually indulging myself. But from the standpoint of leisure, either is just fine.
Waking up as the sun stubbornly poured through my un-curtained windows, I considered the day ahead in which I need go nowhere, need do nothing. If this needless state were extended across an entire lifetime, I’d approach what Henry Thoreau calls the art of life:
“The art of life, of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do, to do something.”
When a day is pure and open for the taking, though taken by nothing, leisure can go one of those two ways, solitude or sociality.
Though I suspect neither are common outcomes. More often, some palliative, diluted form of one or the other claims the unclaimed day. A shallow solitude not given ample time & space to blossom, or a sociality composed of distraction and diversion, some variant of shared mindlessness, rather than a communion of human spirits.
While contradictory on the surface, I suggest solitude & sociality are actually interdependent. Solitude is brought to fruition in sociality, and sociality thrives upon an individual’s intimacy with solitude.
I remained horizontal, bathing in the distinctive quiet of an empty apartment. Solitude beckons from inside spacious silence. But, upon sitting up and rubbing my eyes, I found myself scrolling through Twitter. Checking email. On the precipice of solitude, notifications tempt from inside the oblivion of mindlessness.
Social media apps are becoming extensions to the stream of consciousness, and determinants of its flow. Like boulders dropped in the stream, altering the rushing water’s course. When we see something that captures our gaze, whether beauty, oddity, or absurdity, the next logical step isn’t to appreciate or contemplate the view, but to Instagram it. Twitter does the same for thoughts. Holding an interesting thought in mind very quickly leads to Tweeting it.
Though there’s value in the workflow of collecting thoughts, whether via Twitter, Evernote, or a paper notebook, there’s also a sacrifice of stillness. Contemplation is no longer the end of the perceptual chain, we now seek to commodify objects of contemplation, to package them for public consumption. This is the same logic as a book, but digitalizing the process sped it up immensely. Our digitalized stream-of-consciousness-capturing devices decrease the time we spend sitting with these thoughts or sights that hold our attention. We’re quicker to act, quicker to ‘do’ something about them. The space between thought and action shrunk, and with it a capacity for stillness.
This impulse to commodify time followed me throughout the day. Rather than letting stillness wash over and engulf me, I looked for syringes of dopamine to numb the cravings, to fill the solitude with something of ‘use’.
While I was eating a sliced red apple with peanut butter and a hefty drizzle of honey, I wondered if I could find a way to prop a book up on my desk so I could read while eating. I did so out of guilt. A kind of learned restlessness. I resisted, because when is the last time you allocated the full force of your attention on the succulent delight of a fruit? In the case of this woman from a Humans of New York post, it saved her life:
French philosopher & mystic (though no mystic nor philosopher worth their weight in beans is one without the other) Simone Weil writes that solitude’s value lies in the “greater possibility of attention”:
“Solitude, where does its value lie…Its value lies in the greater possibility of attention. If we could be attentive to the same degree in the presence of a human being…”
This attention is a clearing out of our usual mental clamoring. An interior silence drapes itself, delicately, across the mind. Should this state be left to settle, the wilderness of sentience beyond our habitual thought patterns comes into the clear. Thoreau writes of the interior calm:
“To be calm, to be serene! There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind; there is the calmness of a stagnant ditch. So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives…so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal and without an effort our depths are revealed to ourselves. All the world goes by us and is reflected in our deeps. Such clarity!”
Both Weil & Thoreau are describing Pieper’s leisurely solitude, a state of non-striving that, paradoxically, heightens attention to a greater vantage point than the humdrum of ordinary busyness:
“Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies…an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy’, but letting things happen…Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.” (Pieper)
All this leaves me fearful as the digitalized economy continues its march upon consumer attention. Leisure time is unclaimed capital, a gold rush for companies trading in attention. Uncommodified attention is lost profit. In 2018, Google was the third most valuable company in the world at $766 billion, yet charges nothing. How? Because attention is becoming a more valuable form of capital than dollars. This means the market will evolve to develop evermore intricate and intrusive ways to capture attention, to ‘use’ our attention for its own purposes, which, as a profit-seeking company, scant align with our own.
Devices are inching their way towards us, crawling into our pockets (phones), onto our wrists (Fitbits), even into our eyeballs (the thankfully failed Snapchat and Google glasses, where the lenses were actually screens). These products are seeking to implant themselves into our bodies, to become not products but parts of our selves, merging with our perception of the world. With their profit-seeking incentive structures, attention will be further pressured to commodify itself.
Still, today I endeavor for solitude. I meditate briefly, read quietly, write sporadically. I eat frequently, focusing on the textures and flavors. I lay on the floor for 20 minutes in a kind of anti-meditation, watching thoughts roam & wander like fireworks in a night sky, curious where they might go. My usual hangups remain - I worry if my time is well spent (is time really currency?), I wonder if I carry some latent potential I may never realize, I debate whether I’ve already missed the boat that might’ve taken me to a fuller life. These hangups don’t linger, so much as amplify. Usually I run from them, diving into the day’s next task, or into my Twitter feed. But today, with a commitment to solitude, I sit quietly with them by my side.
Self-referential thoughts grow less interesting as attention settles into solitude. Recent findings in contemplative neuroscience corroborate this: meditation down-regulates the default mode network (DMN), our hub of self-referential thinking.
I wonder, will leisure time, rather than labor, ever be the basis of the common human’s schedule? Will the Voyager 1 Spacecraft still be wandering the universe long after our sun exhausts its supply of hydrogen and collapses into a white dwarf?
And if I’m being programmed against solitude, what of sociality? Can’t we find the same nourishment of spirit in the company of friends as in the company of ourselves? Might this day of mine be better spent popping over to my friend’s apartment down the hall, having a few beers and playing guitar?
If only all my social relations were so wholesome. They aren’t. As modalities of entertainment proliferate, sociality increasingly revolves around varieties of shared mindlessness. A collective numbing of minds, rather than a shared venture into those “greater possibilities of attention”.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, & co., friendship was a supreme virtue, essential to the examined life. The idealized community of friends are not retreats from solitude, not breaks from life, but more lively and participatory contexts in which to support the attention of solitude.
But the mentality of solitude is fragile, and the company of others is unpredictable. This is what Emerson calls a form of greatness, the ability to maintain the independence of solitude in the company of others:
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great [wo]man is [s]he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
From the isolation of my apartment, I daydream of an ideal balance: deep solitude followed and enriched by deep sociality.
Nietzsche has an idea called the ‘eternal return’. It asks: if I had to re-live my life up to this point, making the same choices, experiencing the same emotions and thoughts, everything an exact replica, for all eternity - my life played on repeat ad infinitum - would I be happy?
Asking this of my day to myself, no. My day did not cut the Nietzschean mustard. Putting the 24-hours I had entirely to myself on repeat for all eternity wouldn’t be terrible, but I wouldn’t choose it either. I can see two main reasons.
1) Sociality is to solitude what water is to plants - I had no social nourishment, no opportunity to bring the fruits of my solitude into contact with others.
The obvious problem with my day is I spent it alone. Well-being, however internally concentrated, thrives off relationships. Among the ties that weave solitude and sociality into interdependence are the fruits of bringing solitude into communion and conviviality with others.
The internet is a kind of limp proxy for this. I can Tweet thoughts, or post essays and through those mediums engage with others who share an appreciation for the ideas. But digital sociality, while invaluable in its breadth and ability to bring people together who’d otherwise never connect, is no substitute for the physical presence of others.
The second reason has less to do with me & my actions, more to do with our cultural orientation towards time itself.
2) Leisure is not a pocket of time, but an attentive and perceptual capacity. A trained & inevitably conditioned mentality. My day, and my perception, were still permeated with a utilitarian unease.
Is it fair to say that in capitalist modernity, leisure is time spent not working? Josef Pieper cautions:
“A break in one’s work, whether of an hour, a day or a week, is still part of the world of work. It is a link the chain of utilitarian functions.”
A state of leisure, then, is the opposite of utilitarian relation to time. Work, or anything in the ‘chain of utilitarian functions’, is always for something else. It is literally the spending of time to receive something else in return. Leisure is to cease living for anything else. Pieper describes it as a kind of ‘acquiescing to our own being’, accepting things as they are, no longer seeking to change things or purchase something more. Finding a delight in the present:
“Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being…is is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
Obviously, then, leisure requires certain economic and emotional well-being (or an uncommon asceticism). See if it feels right telling a debt-ridden single mother working 50 hours a week to barely support her family that she ought to simply ‘acquiesce to her own being’ and steep herself in the whole of creation.
Assuming a basic foundation of wellbeing, my favorite understanding of leisure is as a celebration, a festival. Pieper writes “The festival is the origin of leisure, and the inward and ever-present meaning of leisure…leisure is thus by its nature a celebration”.
Leisure is not a link but a breaking of our ordinary utilitarian chains of action. The longer these chains grow without disruption, the greater their restriction of consciousness. Leisure is a celebration of suchness, of the splendor of things as they are.
“The point and the justification of leisure…means that [humans] should not be wholly absorbed in the clear-cut milieu of [their] strictly limited function; the point is also that [they] should retain the faculty of grasping the world as a whole…”
Reclaiming leisure, then, calls for a change in mentality. It requires the routine stilling of our utilitarian bustling about to remember and commune with what it actually is we’re working, living, for.
A change in mentality is demanding, especially one as deeply entrenched in the cultural and sociopolitical fabric as the mentality of utilitarian work. In the past, this kind of essay might’ve asked the individual simply to remember more frequently ‘the world as whole’. Or to meditate, or take themselves less seriously. These are fine, but they conceive of the required change as a matter of individual willpower. But recent thinking suggests it’s not individual willpower or rational thinking, but ecological design that brings about sustainable changes in mentality and behavior.
Mark James recently wrote an essay coining eco-behavioral design (EBD):
"The received view is that behavior is what follows from the intentions of a rational, self-determining agent; to initiate change, we simply need more will, more discipline. In contrast, the practice I outline here, ecobehavioral design (EBD), implies a different take…the individual in interaction with their environment is construed as a complex adaptive system, an organizational unity of diverse though interdependent parts that self-organize to meet adaptive needs, where behavior is a relational term that describes the attunement between embodied subject and changing milieu.”
This line of thinking goes back to Felix Guattari, who founded ‘ecosophy’, or a similarly ‘eco-mental design’. Guattari writes that no changes in mentality can be achieved without also changing the sociopolitical, economic, cultural ecologies in which an individual’s subjectivity is embedded:
“Without modifications to the social and material environment, there can be no change in mentalities. Here, we are in the presence of a circle that leads me to postulate the necessity of founding an ‘ecosophy’ that would link environmental ecology to social ecology and to mental ecology.”
Among Guattari’s concerns was mass media’s standardizing effect on ‘subjectivity’, on individual and group consciousness. He worried that late 20th century society threw us on its assembly lines, mass-producing humans into specific forms, into pre-fabricated molds of subjectivity that render us ideal consumers, ideal fuel to keep the industrial machine running.
In this view of things, the economy is not for us - we are for the economy. This is utilitarian logic run amok. This is such an overextension of pursuing means for living well that we became the means ourselves. We became for a system of our own creation because we didn’t consider deeply enough how the system might remain for us.
Guattari saw leisure as space in which we ‘singularize’ ourselves, that is, develop an original and autonomous relation to the Universe, of the variety Emerson called for. If leisure is lost, so too is our capacity for these modes of being.
Guattari writes what might be the siren song of a revolution for leisure, for modes of living that make available new sensibilities, new capacities for autonomous relations to to ourselves, to others, to the universe:
“Henceforth it is the ways of living on this planet that are in question, in the context of the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations and of considerable demographic growth. Through the continuous development of machinic labor, multiplied by the information revolution, productive forces can make available an increasing amount of time for potential human activity. But to what end? Unemployment, oppressive marginalization, loneliness, boredom, anxiety and neurosis? Or culture, creation, development, the reinvention of both the environment and the enrichment of modes of life and sensibility?”
Along with Guattari, I wonder: to what end? For Pieper, leisure is the sensible end of utilitarian logic. Leisure is culturing, creating, developing, reinventing, and enriching our modes of life and sensibility. Leisure is our capacity to celebrate and delight in things as they are.
So what courses of action lie ahead? What modifications to the social and material environment can we make that might sustain changes in our mentalities of work & leisure?
I could direct you to 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s policies page, featuring three main policy initiatives: universal basic income, medicare for all, and “human-centered capitalism”. These followed by 75+ further modifications to the sociopolitical framework of human existence.
Yang’s vision reflects Guattari’s, who also saw UBI as only one of a series of required reforms to rectify our existential course. UBI, though, offers an interesting step in the direction of democratizing leisure, as it ultimately proposes to detach livelihood from work. Alan Watts’ vision for UBI depicts our achieving this detachment, and the modes of living it might support:
“If, if we get our heads straight about money, I predict that by AD 2000, or sooner, no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card. This card will be valid up to each individual’s share in a guaranteed basic income or national dividend, issued free, beyond which he [or she] may still earn anything more that he desires by an art of craft, profession or trade that has not been displaced by automation.”
This vision glimmers set against a swelling world of work and its underlying value-added, utilitarian logic.
Further scrutinized, my guilt in failing to capture and commodify my time off is driven by fear. I worry if I don’t work now, if I don’t sort out a long-term financial situation that promises to sustain me and interest me so long as I breathe, I will be shackled into a life of servile, menial labor just to survive.
That the sentence for those who don’t ‘earn’ an interesting and passionate living is mere survival, filled with toil and drudgery, with no capacity, or time, for celebration. What better compensation is there for those who continue to work after having enough wealth to live leisurely than providing for others who haven’t found a way to finance themselves that same capacity to celebrate and delight in life?
In the corner of my apartment sits a meditation cushion, partitioned off from the rest by a wooden room divider painted white. I try and sit there every morning, in search of both nothing and everything. It’s here that I first learned what solitude feels like.
It was as if I’d lived my entire life with a pair of headphones on blasting white noise, and all of a sudden, for a few minutes amidst patient and dedicated bouts of meditation, they cut out. I briefly saw the white noise is not the world. I found myself sitting in a much larger room than I realized, a much quieter, calmer one with high ceilings and no walls. It’s inside this edgeless room of consciousness, which I am seldom able to reenter, where things transpire just as they are. Apprehension of their suchness is pure celebration. That there is a sentience aware of its improbable emergence in the cosmos, its brief sojourn through a time and place, a brief dance of matter and mind; this is what my life is for, to provoke this full-body sensation in myself, and perhaps in others.
Emerson’s challenge is to dismantle my wooden partition, to open my solitude to the world beyond my cushion. To carry this celebratory sentience with me into the corner bar that offers a variety of mezcal and draft beers. Into the restaurant where I carry pricey plates of food to customers in order to afford my living space and general livelihood. Into the company of others.
But solitude is delicate and I’m relatively unpracticed. So it’s easier for me to blame my stubborn, self-referential sentience on the industrialized sociocultural framework that contextualizes my brief life. My solitude remains fragile not because I haven’t practiced enough, but because society works against me! Against all of us! I don’t know. I suppose the question isn’t binary. What anchors my life in compulsion is not one or the other, it’s both and. It’s my own choices, and the organization of society. My choices are an expression of the ecological organization of my being, and the cultural ecology is an expression of individual choices.
My giving undivided attention to the aforementioned honey-drizzled red apple is then indeed as revolutionary an act as implementing UBI, and both are equally necessary and interdependent strategies for reclaiming leisure. Both are practices of deconstructing acquired patterns of thought that mire us in narrow compulsions. Both might help us surface from the swarming means of modern life to ask of all moments…to what end? For the end is always now, should we be leisurely enough to see, and wise enough to celebrate.