Lecture on laziness

Written by Petra Van Brabandt on 28 March 2013

In the framework of the group exhibition Bon Travail, Argos invited two philosophers who talked about the role of laziness in society today: Isabelle Stengers (ULB) and Petra Van Brabandt (Sint Lucas Antwerp). During a debate on the 27th of March they talked to each other about what our ambiguous position regarding laziness says about working, enjoyment, the modern day production and consumption model and our mortality. You can read the lecture Petra Van Brabandt gave before the debate down below.

'Le vrai travail, pour cela, on ne l'a pas encore trouvé' 
(Ernst Bloch, Traces)

At the heart of contemporary capitalism, with its knowledge economy and creative industries, there are images and knowledge. In late capitalism, even the most critical words and images are welcomed with open arms. What matters is not what you send into the world – you can send whatever words and images you want into this world; what is important is that you send words and images into the world; words and images that succeed other words and images in an endlessly accelerating carousel of words and images.

It is precisely this fast succession of words and images that disarms any critical potential. The time for a critical interpretation process to unfold is pulled from under your feet. The maker’s body gets disciplined to the hellish rhythm of producing words and images – an animal laborans; the receivers’ bodies are conditioned to an endless succession of shots – consumers. Neither words nor images get the time and space needed to make a difference.  Nor does the receiver get time or space to keep the pairing of addiction and indifference at a distance.

Next to the neutralisation of potentially critical words and images by their densification in space and time, there is also the specific work ethics that is the paradigm of labour organisation of today’s capitalism: contemporary capitalism is craving for flexible, creative, innovative, and temporary workers who make no distinction between life and work, between self and work, between day and night. Today’s capitalism, we could say, is craving for the artist work ethics. For the artist, work is not a means to an end; to make art is to be an artist, or to work is to be.

This work ethics is a very profitable strategy: if you can make people believe in this mantra, they will beg for work, compete for work, and fight for work. They will show their endless willingness to find work, whatever work, at whatever price, even if there is no work, even if there is what Isabelle Stengers calls an open politics of non-emploi; the constant endeavour to cut jobs away, everywhere, in the public and the private sector, and as many as possible. Nevertheless, to work is to be. To be lazy is not to be. And we keep on believing it.

I could give here examples of how this neo-liberal spirit is working its way into education, healthcare, we all know about how it has colonized academia, but since we are in a cultural institutional setting, let us consider some aspects of its impact in the cultural world.

With the arrival of cultural festivals in the city, the supermarket is everywhere. You look at their programs in the same way as you look at the colourful shelves. You get dizzy, nervous, and anxious. There is no way of choosing, because every article is competing as hard as the other for your attention. Every event is seducing you and promising you an unforgettable experience. An experience you need so badly, they tell you, to lead a fulfilling, interesting, and critical life. You try to pack two days full of cultural experiences, yet you will still be a cultural loser and miss out on 24 other society changing experiences. The city cultural festival repeats the neo-liberal organisation of consumption, and continues its hold on our bodies as consuming desire machines.  It collaborates with the neo-liberal city’s marketing and entertainment objectives and foregoes any critical dimension it pretends to embody. 

The cultural festival also copies, and by this affirms, the neo-liberal organisation of production. It tends to work with quasi volunteers. The festival wants to produce as many cultural experiences as possible to establish its cultural prestige (or we can also call it status, or profit).  So what does a festival do when it wants to maximise profit? It engages cheap labour. Cheap labour that is eager to be exploited by the festival, because, remember, to work (for the cultural festival) is to be (part of culture).

The same holds for cultural institutions; let’s take a look at the new public library as we see it popping up in every city. The public library should be the fort of cultural resistance. With the arrival of the manager in the public library however, the walls are turned into glass, the doors are broken open to the market, and we read together on the rhythm of the city fanfare. Now it is difficult for the reader to forget the time whilst sitting reading in a dark, quiet and lonely corner. In the library there are no longer dark, quiet, and lonely corners.

The manager ignores that the books were the first to burn. It was the city that burned the books. A library should be a memorial for the burnt books and carry this menace with dignity into the future. A library should remember the prophecy: it will be the city that will burn the books. A library should be a stranger to the city.

A living memory for books to be burnt is not made of glass and open doors. A living memory has the architecture of protection. The door falls heavily in its lock after your entrance; to protect the books in which the dangerous seeds shelter from exposure, and to protect you, visitor, against the noise and clocks of the market, and the zeal of the perpetrator. The walls of the library should be thick and keep the light out. The owl of Minerva, Hegel said, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

Yet the busy manager carries the books out of the library and puts them in broad daylight on the market stalls. She hastily collaborates with the city and in all her haste the precious seeds fall through her hands; those books on the market stalls will never burn. The public library has to honour the tragic mission of taking care of books that in the near or far future will burn, and as a good caretaker knows, fragile seeds need to be handled by careful fingers, not by plentiful busy hands; books that will burn need the slow, secret, consoling caresses of the lazy librarian.

In the cultural institutions we happen to think that we are protected from the neo-liberal system and that we are the last resort of refuge and criticism. But the neo-liberal city is at the heart of our organisations, and they collaborate in the disciplining of people’s bodies as workers and consumers. Not surprisingly, these disciplined bodies are working themselves towards the depths of resentment.

Capitalism has not the objective of creating work; it is a system that aims at profit. By means of the technological revolution, this aim is reached with less labour than ever before. The knowledge and service economy is progress; it diminishes the costs of labour. To keep the little labour that capitalism still needs as cheap and accessible as possible, the neo-liberal system came up with a solution: make people crave for work.
One achieves this by putting work forward not only as a means to consumption, but also as the sole road to self-esteem. This self-esteem through work is dually structured: in relation to others it is defined by social status and in relation to oneself by self-mastery and endurance. My self-esteem is based on my worth that is firstly defined by the professional position I occupy in relation to others (social status). And secondly, even more importantly, it is defined by my endurance to find a job, to keep a job, to work harder, and better, and more than I did yesterday.

If people relate to work accordingly, capitalism realises the perfect internalisation of its aims. People want to work, at whatever price or sacrifice, because it gives them not only access to consumption and social status, but it also demonstrates their self-mastery. Our new worker is the addict, the competitor, and above all, the top-athlete.

This system is also very profitable in a second, related way. The one who does not work, ridicules with his idleness my dressage and sacrifices. This is why the non-worker has to prove that he wants to work and master himself, and be responsible for finding work. He has to prove that my self-mastery is the sole source of my worth; and that it is not a question of sheer luck. If my work is my merit, then his laziness should be his fault.

It is clear that this attitude is advantageous to the capitalist system: in our demand for proof we end up pushing the non-worker out of the welfare system and into work at any price. Cheap labour, precarious labour, flexible labour, stupid labour, labour that destroys man and nature, we couldn’t care less, as long as the other is not lazy and proves his worth by merit, like we do. Our self-esteem as constituted by hard working is at stake; and this is why we resent the lazy, those who resist joining in the apology of work. Those who are just sitting there.

Sitting there, just being there, and being welcome, we forgot about this option some time ago. That ‘just being there’ justifies your ‘being’ can probably only be revealed to us by a vertical transcendence; call it the word of God, the whispering of the face of the other, or the caress of the angel of history. Yet it is the ultimate law of hospitality, by which we keep the barbarian in ourselves at distance, and it should thus never be overridden, overturned or put between brackets by our economic arrangements.

Derrida wrote:

Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner,
an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.  (Derrida, Of Hospitality, 2000, p. 77) 

It is time for us to become lazy in our adherence to economic models, arrangements, and policies. It is time to sit down again, take our time again to acquaint us with the barbarian within, and rediscover the first moral law of caring for human and non-human beings and non-beings, just because they are there. It is time to become lazy in our barbaric resentment.

By working like crazy we become resentful, and reproach the other for not working. There is a direct relation between the laziness we refuse to undertake and the laziness we reproach in the other. In the same way there is a direct relation between the laziness we should practice and the resentment we should deconstruct. We should become lazy and change our relation to the other. We should become lazy and reconstruct our social justice criticism. We should restate the other’s intrinsic value simply because he is around, and our economic arrangements should follow.

And we should restate our own preciousness. Laziness is also beneficial in relation to ourselves. The lazy woman stays in bed. It is in bed that her senses awake and that she meets herself as a desirous body. In Dutch we have a beautiful word for that: ontmoeting; this is ont-moeting. The obligations are being undone. Upon meeting herself she is stripping herself of all dressage and discipline. She honours herself for what she is, an awakening of the senses, a desirous body.

Consumer society makes us believe that satisfaction should and can be reached somewhere in the always near future, and thus it chains us to this endless quest for satisfaction. Yet consumption will never bring satisfaction, simply because we are not in need of satisfaction. This is the truth we discover in our lazy beds; our pleasure precisely resides in sensing ourselves as desiring bodies, and not in the satisfaction of these desires, which would mean our annihilation.
It is in the lazy bed that we discover that sexuality is more about sensing the bodily desires than about orgasm, not surprisingly called little death, the point where desires are silenced for a brief moment. In our lazy, voluptuous encounter with others and ourselves, it is not the orgasm we are after, but the simple pleasure of sensing and honouring others and ourselves as desirous, sensual creatures. What we need is a bed to laze around in, to sense and host and caress our desires. All the rest is ballast. It is in the lazy bed that we discover that we don’t need much.

In laziness we also stand face to face with the world. When Calvino’s Palomar looks at the waves of the sea he slowly but surely becomes the sea. Or the sea becomes Palomar. In our slow and aimless encounter with the world, we become part of the world, part of what is, just because it is there. It is in this mode that we realise how subtle the difference is between being there and not yet being there or not being there any more.

It is not in hectic activity, living as if we were sentenced to death, but in laziness that we come to share with the world the simple mode of being there. Maybe we don’t need any vertical transcendence after all; we only need laziness to reveal to us that just by the fact of being there beings and non-beings have intrinsic value. Like the child thrown in the world and seeking asylum with us has intrinsic value just by the subtle fact of being there.


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