Sunday, June 25, 2017

Did the Fun Work?

If anything can make enchantment terse, it is the German compound noun. Through the bluntest lexical conglomeration, these words capture concepts so ineffable that they would otherwise float away. Take the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s term, Kunstwollen—Kunst (art) + wollen (will), or “will to art”—later defined by Erwin Panofsky as “the sum or unity of creative powers manifested in any given artistic phenomenon.” (Panofsky then appended to this mouthful a footnote parsing precisely what he meant by “artistic phenomenon.”) A particular favorite compound of mine is Kurort, literally “cure-place,” but better translated as “spa town” or “health resort.” There’s an elegiac romance to Kurort that brings to mind images of parasols and gouty gentlemen taking the waters, the world of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Nevertheless, Kurort’s cocktail of connotations—mixing leisure, self-improvement, health, physical pleasure, relaxation, gentility, and moral rectitude—remains as fresh as ever. Yoga retreats and team-building ropes courses may have all but replaced mineral baths, but wellness vacations and medical tourism are still big business.

What continues to fuel this industry (by now a heritage one) is the durable belief that leisure ought to achieve something—a firmer bottom, new kitchen abilities, triumph over depression. In fact, why not go for the sublime leisure-success trifecta: physical, practical, and spiritual? One vacation currently offered in Sri Lanka features cycling, a tea tutorial, and a visit to a Buddhist temple, a package that promises to be active (but not draining), educational (but not tedious), and fun (but not dissolute). The “Experiences” section of Airbnb advertises all kinds of self- and life-improving activities, including a Korean food course, elementary corsetry, and even a microfinance workshop. (...)

Leisure, it turns out, requires measurement and evaluation. First of all, our irksome question remains: When partaking of leisure, how can you know that you aren’t slipping into idleness? Second, because leisure is a deserved reward, it should be fun, amusing, diverting, or otherwise pleasurable. This requirement begets another set of questions, perhaps even more existential in scope: How do leisure seekers even know whether they’re enjoying themselves, and if they are, whether the enjoyment . . . worked? Was the restoration sufficient? The self improved? The fun had?

These questions are most easily, if superficially, answered via the medley of social media platforms and portable devices bestowed on us by the wonders of consumer-product-driven innovation. Fitbit points, likes, and heart-eyed emoji faces have become the units of measurement by which we evaluate our own experiences. These tokens offer reassurance that our time is being optimally spent; they represent our leisure accomplishments. Social media and camera-equipped portable devices have given us the opportunity to solicit positive feedback from our friends, and indeed from the world at large, nonstop. Even when we are otherwise occupied or asleep, our photos and posts beam out, ever ready to scoop up likes and faves. Yet under the guise of fun and “connection,” we are simply extending the Taylorist drive to document, measure, and analyze into the realm of leisure. Thinkers from Frank Lloyd Wright to John Maynard Keynes once predicted that technology would free us from toil, but as we all know, the devices it has yielded have only ended up increasing workloads. They have also taken command of leisure, yoking it to the constant labor of self-branding required under neoliberal capitalism, and making us complicit in our own surveillance to boot.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong or self-exploitative about showing off your newly acquired basket-weaving skills on Instagram—and anyway, the line between leisure and labor is not always clearly drawn. From gardening to tweeting, labor often overlaps with pleasure and entertainment under certain conditions. But the fact that the platforms on which we document, communicate, and measure our leisure are owned by massive for-profit corporations that trade upon our freely given content ought to make us wonder not only what, exactly, they might be getting out of all this activity, but also how it frames our own ideas of what leisure is. If the satisfaction of posting on social media derives from garnering likes in the so-called attention economy, then posters will, according to a crude market logic, select what they believe to be the most “likeable” content for posting, and furthermore, will often alter their behavior to generate precisely that content. The mirror of social media metrics offers to show us whether we enjoyed ourselves, but just as with mirrors, we have to work to get back the reflection we want to see.

So Many Feels

The cult of productivity is a greedy thing; it sucks up both the time we spend in leisure and the very feelings it stirs in us. Happiness and other pleasant sensations must themselves become productive, which is why we talk of leisure being “restorative” or “rejuvenating.” Through coffee breaks and shorter workweeks, employers from municipal governments to investment banks are encouraging their workers to take time off, all under the guise of benevolent care. But these schemes are ultimately aimed at maximizing productivity and quelling discontent (and besides, employers maintain the power to retract these privileges at their own whims). Work depletes us emotionally, physically, and intellectually, and that is why we are entitled to periods of leisure—not because leisure is a human right or good in and of itself, but because it enables us to climb back onto the hamster wheel of marketplace activity in good cheer.

As neoliberalism reduces happiness to its uses, it steers our interests toward confirming our own feelings via external assessment. This assessment just so happens to require apparatuses (smartphones, laptops, Apple watches) and measurement units (faves, shares, star ratings) that turn us into eager buyers of consumer products and require our willing submission to corporate surveillance. None of which means that your Airbnb truffle-hunting experience—as well as subsequently posting about it and basking in the likes—didn’t make you happy. It simply means that the events and behavior that brought about this happiness coincide with the profit motives of a vast network of institutions that extends far beyond any one individual.

So they want us to buy their stuff and hand over our data. Fine. But why do they demand that we be so insistently, outwardly happy?

by Miya Tokumitsu , The Baffler | Read more:
Image: via