07 July, 2016

The profitability of leisure

By Sneha

We live in an age where every moment is enslaved in the service of capitalism. Productivity is regarded as the highest virtue and leisure a wasteful self-indulgence. But sometimes, the best ideas and innovations are lurking mischievously in the fogs of loitering.

About four years ago, a book titled Why Loiter? put forward an apparently simply, but effectively radical, proposition: why not loiter? Arguing that it is mostly almost always men of a certain class, caste, and religion who have the privilege of loitering in public without the risk of stigmatisation, dishonour, and violence, this book proposed loitering as an emancipatory political act which women and other subaltern groups might take up. The authors of the book argued that loitering out of choice means resisting codes and norms that make it acceptable for men to do so but not women. Taking this a step further, one might even add that loitering as an act in itself is an affront to capitalism which thrives on the principles of efficiency and productivity. Loitering and doing timepass do not have the kind of productive potential that generate profits in a monetary sense. Since time is money, according to capitalist diktat, wasted time is a costly affair. Due to such a mindset, leisure takes on the character of structured and planned activities that focus on developing one’s personality, skills, or resumé. Ironically, we seem to be working towards leisure.

Not too long ago, I was conducting preliminary research on public displays of affection in Mumbai and during that time a friend’s mother invited me over for dinner. Upon learning about my research, she was initially overwhelmed by a cascade of shrill giggles but after a while, she regained composure and decided to share with me her insight on the issue. After going through the motions of talking about crammed houses in Mumbai pushing people to public spaces for intimacy, she said, “Although, it is obvious that these people have nothing better to do than sit with each other for hours together. They should read a book, pick up a hobby together, or something! What is the point of just sitting like that?” I commented on her wry sense of romance, which she took to be a compliment for some reason, and asked her if there was no place for romance anymore. To this, she quickly said, “Look, priorities should be priorities. As young people, you need to think about jobs and career, not just romance. These films are spoiling everyone…The smart ones will get all the jobs, and these lovers can continue doing timepass with each other.”

While consistent with the general angst that older generations reserve towards the untoward habits of the younger generation, what this particular woman was saying additionally referenced contemporary social anxiety about the productivity and efficiency of our country’s greatest asset — its youth. Not wanting to engage in a fight while unabashedly devouring the three-course meal she had prepared for me, I kept mum. However, this conversation continues to haunt me whenever I see couples or groups of young men and women doing nothing ‘productive’ for hours: sitting and chatting, sharing stories of laughter and pain, texting, or simply watching pulsating crowds on the road while waiting for a perennially late bus. Very often, I see young men and women in cafés in America looking very busy, very stern, very seriously watching a show on NetFlix or browsing Facebook. It does not matter whether what they are doing is work or not; the point is that they perform busy-ness precisely because it has so much social sanction. As I see this trend catching on even in cafés here, I wonder if we can accept leisure without terms and conditions. I, for one, am finding it hard to.

In a neoliberal modern India that is impatiently trying to cultivate a sense of global belonging and superstardom, unproductive acts of leisure index a dangerous residue of people who are indolently strolling in an Olympic running race. Loitering, doing ‘timepass’ and loafing around — and the people who partake of such activities — are perceived as roadblocks in the path to speedy progress and socio-economic development. Take, for example, anarticle in The Wall Street Journal that took the dangers of loitering and ‘timepass’ to an extreme albeit with the intention of solving the ‘problem of rape’ in India. This article argued that if young men in India had productive jobs, and if they didn’t indulge in ‘timepass’, perhaps cases of rape and molestation might be avoided.

It, unlike the book, did not make a case that men and women of all castes and classes ought to loiter; it said, instead, that it is precisely loitering and timepass that are probably causing crimes like rape. Reeking of a class bias, this article is exemplary of a certain attitude towards the act of loitering and the elite perception of those who indulge in unproductive ‘timepass’. Too quick to mount the blame on working class and unemployed men, it also very quickly and conveniently stigmatises certain behaviors as suspicious and problematic. Such an attitude also makes it appear as if unproductive leisure is something that one would not do if one had a productive avocation in hand.

Of course, the negative associations with ‘timepass’ are not new. ‘Waste fellow’, ‘jobless’, or just ‘loafer’ are terms of derision and mockery in everyday conversation. Films and books from the past are littered with references to slothful characters, being reprimanded for their lack of initiative. However, the difference today is that along with increasing emphasis on self-cultivation through activity-oriented projects, choosing to do nothing in an age brimming with a wide array of things-to-do is becoming unthinkable. Why would one not want to squeeze the productive potential out of every moment when there are so many options available? This is precisely what my friend’s mother was getting at. Why would young couples while away time talking to each other instead of doing something that might be more profitable? Something must be wrong with someone who wants to waste time, while it away. It must be privilege (and, sure, it could be); it must be pathological; or, it must be criminal amounts of laziness. In the haste to wish away the act of ‘time waste’, however, we need to be a bit more cautious. Must the way we spend time involve some tangible benefit to oneself or someone else? Are we not being too arrogant in our understanding of ‘productivity’?

Sure, one can be supremely productive and do activities that involve structure, are close-ended, time-bound, and fairly predictable in their input-output models. Amid the increasing range of leisure-oriented activities, the quest to add more activities to one’s bucket list is hardly in danger. However, for those who find their calling in the slowness of life, in the randomness of every moment, ‘unproductive’ ventures like timepass and loitering might actually be the source of unbridled creativity and joy. In being so committed to developing productive capabilities, we need not give up on the pleasures of being surprised by moments that sneak up on us while we are doing nothing: one might chance upon a strand of conversation one hadn’t planned for; a string of puns and wordplays, strokes of genius repartees that one is never going to be awarded for; one might see a whole new side to one’s own neighbourhood while loitering on the streets without an agenda; one might feel a whole new feeling while sitting by the beach watching the sunset; one might smell something noisome which might provoke curiosity, thought, a solution, a story; one might hear a sound that inspires a whole range of musical notes; one might also end up discovering nothing surprising, be assured of life’s rhythmic humdrum; or, one might simply want to be. We only always hear of the dangers of loitering and timepass; let’s, for once, embrace the possibility of the pleasure and profit that they offer.

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