Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vacation from Vacation: Operating Inoperativity

      Vacationing on lake Bomoseen once more leads me to revisit the seemingly false yet nonetheless exigent binary of work and idleness, that bugaboo of Protestant theology. Since beginning to take seriously my work as a “scholar,” I have met with a varying degree of skeptical ambivalence those wise words warning of the devil and his lust for hands. What I “do,” after all, amounts to so much idle-kindling for the devil’s fires: I sit around all day and read.
      Which is mostly what I do when I am on vacation, too. An external observer of my life and activities would be tempted to find this summer’s vacation a proper, all-American, middle-class holiday: I leave an observably active job (landscaping) and sit around “doing” a lot of nothing. Now, this “nothing” is what I am deeply concerned with – not only when I am sitting around visibly doing nothing, but here and now, as I write (which is, visibly, not nothing). What constitutes this “nothing” with which I will fill my coming days?
    The easiest answer is the one I typically use: I am reading and as an academic reading is my proper habit. Yet this answer answers is not so; it fails to answer “nothing.” Because reading is what I “do,” my vacation is, therefore, not so – my two weeks reading on the lake will amount to two weeks work done in a new, more scenic locality.
    Yet my vacation is, nonetheless, a vacation; therefore, “reading” cannot be that which composes my “nothing.” A second tack could be to argue the puerile point that “nothing” is inscrutable and I am better off fishing. But “nothing” always is something – something within the limits of language, i.e. within the scope of my current “activity.” Plus, I don’t have a fishing license and I can’t read/work all the time.
    So what the heck is the nothing I am supposed to be doing if I am to be the all-American, middle-class vacationer daringly courting the devil’s favor?
    Now, upon reading this post, one might be tempted to think of “nothing” as a relative term. Surely, while my “nothing” cannot be reading someone else’s “nothing” could be reading, as long as one’s vocation is suspended while on vacation. Yet vocation’s suspension is not, according to this logic, what is requisite for a vacation to be a vacation. Instead, the ends of an activity belonging to a specific vocation must be suspended. Hence, for my vacation to be a vacation, it is not necessary to simply stop reading. In fact, I can both read and vacation. Only I must read without an end – I must read Wilkie Collins for the “simple” “pleasure” of experiencing plot, suspense, shock, etc without recourse to any critical exegesis.
    Yet such a relativity of “nothing” fails to truly explain anything. It has simply set up parameters for the guise of a new logic, one that seems to lead benevolently beyond that old, Protestant work ethic always painting the edges of one’s vacation with guilt. But more than that. The logic of such relativity of idleness does literally nothing to interrogate the construction of vacation’s specific nothingness; the binary of work and idleness (and its coeval God/Devil dyad) remains in utter force, although the obscurism of a relativity approach has rendered its force invisible.
    The nothing of idleness is, in fact, something, even according to the void-tending logic of the Protestant work ethic (of which modern, hypercapitalist ideology is the direct progeny). Idleness’s nothing engenders the Devil’s power. Yet, and this may seem like tautology, but even the Devil himself is a part of the very machine that produces his power. He is, accordingly, only in force because he has been set over and against God and his works. So, here we have a closed set of correlating binaries, the paradigmatic force of which has permeated the West to the degree which thought, our most crucial “activity,” falls under their spell: {God/Work::Devil/Idleness}
    I have placed these binaries in brackets (and separated them with double colons to represent their central hiatus) to emphasize their constitutive unity: they are all form a singular machine, a “work-machine.” Now, the nothing I have been seeking can be in one of two places within the dynamic of this machine. First, we can equate it with idleness – the approach I have taken thus far. Such an approach solves the consistency of nothing without reducing it to a void by placing it at one pole of a process defining work/activity. But there is, I hope, another place where “nothing” arises: the machine’s very core, that no-man’s land between activity and idleness, between God and the Devil.
    If what we normally call idleness is the opposite of work such that work can be define through that very opposition, then idleness is, in fact, very busy. It has the herculean task of constituting work without appearing to do so (if it were to be seen as working to constitute work, then we would no longer call it idleness). Yet, what about that other nothing located between work and idleness? If both work and idleness are in fact active, what is going on between them?
    Inoperativity, an action which is neither work nor idleness because it has no stake in the work-machine. Such an action has been excepted from the work/idleness binary, excepted from the entire means/ends thrust of Protestant (by now one should read: hypercapitalist) ideology.
    Such is the “nothing” that I “do” while I am “doing nothing.” In reading Collins to answer critical questions while on the lakefront, I have excepted myself from the work-machine and leapt into an operating inoperativity – a vacation from the vacation.

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