23 August 2014

The theopolitics of busyness and time

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

One of those very new books that I want to add to my ever-growing pile (oh dear, now I’m doing it too!) is Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte. From the cover it promises to be a fascinating exploration of the psychological and social phenomenon of ‘busyness’, a chronic state in which a certain type of urban upper middle class American proclaims, with a certain degree of boastfulness camouflaged by a patina of self-deprecation, that she is always and perpetually behind in her work and living her life at a frantic breakneck speed, and simply does not have the time to commit to leisure activities or social relationships. The phenomenon itself seems to be of particular interest because it both contributes so greatly to an unhappiness, unease and dissatisfaction with life, and yet also is considered a kind of status marker – of the sort which says: ‘I have so many demands on my time because I am important, useful, productive, indispensable.’ Moreover, this sort of status marker points to a fundamental misrelation, to use the Kierkegaardian language, that ‘relates the self to itself’ – a way of measuring self-worth by comparison to the most ‘valuable’ people as measured by the standards of capitalist modernity.

Value is measured under capitalism in terms like gross domestic product and purchasing power parity. Along these lines, a person is valued based on how much she produces, and how much she is able to buy with what she earns from her production. So great has this value become that productivity has become a sacral marker, a marker of personal purity and holiness. Those who cannot produce or who do not produce in the ways which the capitalist economy measures value are robbed of their moral capital. I am not speaking merely of the jobless or the homeless here, though the analysis absolutely and unequivocally includes them as well. The jobless and homeless are the first victims of this form of moral deprivation, and those hit the worst. But there is another, more insidious aspect to this measuring of value and the religious and moral consequences of that measurement. A recent article (29 July 2014) by Sarah Burnside in the Guardian (of all places!) notes:
The approving glow that surrounds remunerated work entails disregard for both leisure and, more damagingly, unpaid care. Manne quotes a stay-at-home mother unable to sit down while her children are at school - “I feel anxious. I have to be productive” - and a man looking after his elderly mother who observes that caring for others “shows the world he has failed as a man”. Being busy, by contrast, denotes success, and much of the focus on this phenomenon centres on the upper middle classes.
It is not merely paranoia, bluster or contrarianism on the part of those of us who consider ourselves left-traditionalists, when we draw the conclusion that capitalism harms the family. The ways in which capitalist economies define value and in which they flatten or disregard all morally-relevant differences (including those between the sexes) place precisely these sorts of cross-pressures, particularly on stay-at-home mothers. The labours of care are disregarded and religiously devalued in ways which produce intense social and existential pressures on people who are made to feel as though they are worthless when they are not ‘producing’ anything which the society around them values.

Even this political-level analysis, though, only scratches the surface of the deeper question, which is a psychological and theopolitical one. For one thing, it says something about a deep void in our self-formation that we feel the need to erect a barrier of ‘busyness’ in order to validate ourselves. ‘Busyness’ may indeed be real, but the need to be seen as successful (or important, or useful, or productive, or indispensable) seems to be driving a lot of the language one hears from those who are overwhelmed, to the point where the gloss of ‘busyness’ provides a sort of cover for narcissistic behaviour. With the ‘busyness’ rationalisation, time may not only be used as a means of self-focussing and instrumentalising relationships, but also as a means of sorting them into hierarchies of usefulness. But at an even deeper level, as Christopher Lasch suggests, ‘busyness’ may be a reflection of the inability of our culture to take an interest in the well-being and life of future generations, or more generally to cope psychologically with the reality of mortality. Lasch writes in The Culture of Narcissism:
The real value of the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime is that it can be handed on to future generations. Our society, however, has lost this conception of wisdom and knowledge. It holds an instrumental view of knowledge, according to which technological change constantly renders knowledge obsolete and therefore nontransferable. The older generation has nothing to teach the younger, according to this kind of reasoning… Because the older generation no longer thinks of itself as living on in the next, of achieving a vicarious immortality in posterity, it does not give way gracefully to the young. People cling to the illusion of youth until it can no longer be maintained, at which point they must either accept their superfluous status or sink into dull despair. Neither solution makes it easy to sustain much interest in life.

[Journalist Gail] Sheehy [in her book Passages] appears to acquiesce in the devaluation of parenthood, for she has almost nothing to say about it… Her solution to the crisis of aging is to find new interests, new ways of keeping busy. She equates growth with keeping on the move. She urges her readers to discover “the thrill of learning something new after forty-five.” Take up skiing, golf, or hiking. Learn to play the piano. You won’t make much progress, “but so what! … The point is to defeat the entropy that says slow down, give it up, watch TV, and to open up another pathway that can enliven all the senses, including the sense that one is not just an old dog.”
As seen here, for adults who grow old without children – and even those who, with children, find themselves increasingly marginalised in a technological society which can find no use for them – face enormous pressures, and ‘busyness’ is one way of fending off these pressures, even as early as we enter the workforce. And where there is just such pressure on the ninety-nine per cent of us who rely on wage labour to sustain ourselves to be ‘productive’ in a way which the society values through the medium of the wage system, all such forms of leisure are made to seem like a moral deficit to be taken against and justified by how much we produce, even if those forms of leisure are spiritually upbuilding and necessary to true human and civilisational flourishing: reading, writing, socialising (face-to-face), gardening, building, listening to music, making music or praying. For all intents and purposes, we are being pressured into praying to an idol not of our own making when we begin measuring ourselves by our contributions to the gross domestic product, by our personal purchasing power, or by our personal cost-benefit analysis.

Capitalism places us at odds with right Christian practice (orthopraxis) as well, when ‘busyness’ pressures our relationships. This is not to make a defence of the sin of sloth (akedia), which at any rate has been already much altered in meaning by those forms of Christianity which want to make themselves amenable to capitalism, in order to give it the vernacular flavour of what is generally meant by ‘laziness’ (meaning, those who don’t produce according to the capitalist standard of value!). Given the context in which the Church Fathers were writing, akedia referred on the first order to dejection and despair, rather than to physical want of productive use. Note well the description of S. John Cassian:
And when [akedia] has taken possession of some unhappy soul, it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance, as if they were careless or unspiritual. It also makes the man lazy and sluggish about all manner of work which has to be done within the enclosure of his dormitory. It does not suffer him to stay in his cell, or to take any pains about reading, and he often groans because he can do no good while he stays there, and complains and sighs because he can bear no spiritual fruit so long as he is joined to that society; and he complains that he is cut off from spiritual gain, and is of no use in the place, as if he were one who, though he could govern others and be useful to a great number of people, yet was edifying none, nor profiting any one by his teaching and doctrine.
In akedia, therefore, we can see there is a greater element of distress arising from an awareness of inadequacy than there is of physical laziness (which is a result rather than a cause of the sin). Ironically, akedia bears a greater resemblance to ‘busyness’ than to the ‘laziness’ decried by capitalist-apologetic Christians: akedia in S. John Cassian’s hypothetical spiritual patient’s case arises from discontent with his surroundings, with his neighbours, with himself; grows when he compares oneself against an imaginary standard; and flourishes when he begins complaining (perhaps in a somewhat boastful way) that he can be of no use among such worthless people and in such a worthless place.

But how can it possibly be that the demands of the rat race which keeps us so ‘busy’ can give rise to the sin of sloth? May it not be because we are orienting our labour to the service of the wrong things – things which don’t enlighten us or fulfil us or care for us? Let us look instead to another Father, a saint of the desert, S. Isaac the Syrian. S. Isaac was no friend to akedia. ‘Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul,’ he wrote, ‘and they can injure her more than the demons.’ But if he felt idleness to be so destructive to the soul, what did he find most suitable for its nourishment?

If he had found ‘busyness’ to be suitable for the soul’s nourishment, he would never have written that ‘as a man whose head is under water cannot inhale pure air, so a man whose thoughts are plunged into the cares of this world cannot absorb the sensations of that new world.’ No – instead, he instructed that the soul should seek silence: ‘What watering is to plants is exactly the same as continual silence for the growth of spiritual knowledge.’ Silence, stillness of the heart, is needed for any person’s soul to grow. Being receptive to the presence of God which, though persistent, is often drowned out by wilful chatter and mental noise, requires silence, a silence which is regularly observed in time. The kind of silence which S. Isaac the Syrian described, the kind he lived and cultivated in his life, is not idle dissipation, but rather a discipline – but it is a subversive discipline fundamentally at odds with the allures of cyberspace, with the 24-hour news cycle, with the demands of a job where one is always on-call, with the entire world of modern commerce.

The capitalist economic world colonises time away from the practical purposes of human use. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart consistently ridicules CNN as well as FOX News for eating up time with non-stories, cheap special effects, speculation and gossip when they have nothing to report, but they are always on air anyway. The omnipresence of the digital world, as wireless technology has become portable and increasingly affordable and accessible, is there to consume time as well as space in entertainment and in the generation of idle chatter and outrage (it certainly does so with mine!). To those less privileged even than myself, for the lowest-paid workers, it has instituted mandatory overtime and flex time. Cellular communications have diminished the silence of our private lives, and regimented and subdivided our time in ways hitherto unimaginable.

The new urbanists, including thinkers like Jane Jacobs and Philip Bess, rightly worried about the modernist division and regimentation of our physical space, and the evaporation of public spaces in favour of single-use urban and suburban zones dominated by private concerns, each dedicated solely to work or consumption or rest, and at that usually only to a single socioeconomic or racial stratum. However, these divisions can make sense only when considerations of time on the personal level – and how it is spent getting to and from these privatised physical spaces – are ignored or overridden. As such, the new urbanist critique of modernity must address the way in which so much of our time has been broken up for the service of the same economic and political powers which have depersonalised our use of space. Now not only is the employee’s – or the consumer’s – spatial life so attenuated, but also the employee’s now-morally-suspect leisure time is made available around the clock, especially for the employer’s concerns.

One of the challenges that faces the Christian who values orthopraxis as well as orthodoxy, will be how to resacralise spaces and times away from the economic background noise – how to bring the silence of the monastic life into the spaces normally dominated by the ‘busy’ life. This will naturally have to involve the public assertion of a distinctly non-material set of values and measure of value – a Sabbath economics, and an assertion of the value of non-busyness (to be distinguished from idleness). This may be a problem of near-intractable scope, because the busyness mentality is embedded within the technological orientation of our relationships, especially education and younger generations’ relationships with their elders. Youth having forgotten how (and more frighteningly why) to honour age, ageing in such a society has become a moral and an existential crisis. Our Sabbath economics may have to assert that – as a society – we must undergo an examination of our love-affair with technical over liberal education, possibly informed by the critiques of George Parkin Grant, Simone Weil and Jacques Ellul. Until that examination comes, we may be faced with ameliorating these contradictions.

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