Monday, July 2, 2012

life's a beach (alternate mix)

"If there's one thing practically all futurologists once agreed on, it's that in the 21st century there would be a lot less work..."  Owen H's Guardian piece on how technological progress has not led, as was once expected, to the abolition of work reminded me of  Bow Wow Wow's "W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don't)"

If you don't feel like twisting your neck around and squinting to read, the kernel of the lyric is "'T.E.K. technology /Is DEMOLITION of DADDY / Is A.U.T. Autonomy"  .  That's Malcolm McLaren taking the Situationist idea that automation would lead to a world liberated from labour and adapting it for the age of Thatcher-imposed mass doledrums.  Demolishing Daddy would good for everybody, including Daddies (here doubly signifying as wage-slaves and bosses), because everybody would be freed up to live like children, dedicated only to play and imagination. Or, as per the other key line "demolition of the work ethic takes us to the age of the primitive", like tribal societies, here (as so often) naively imagined to live without alienation.  Paradise regained.


All this struck me as both desirable and plausible at the time. (I'd recently acquired Leaving the 20th Century...  and followed McLaren's spiel religiously, right up to the New Hobo thing he was pushing around "Buffalo Gals", before growing sceptical circa Duck Rock itself  and finally jumping off the train with Fans and that opera/return of romance angle). The limited experience I'd had of paid labour--various form of skivvying and market-selling plus a summer working in a factory packing insecticide into cardboard boxes--would have confirmed this sense of the humiliation and futility of work.  I'd have concurred with the too-sensitive-for-employment stance of "Still Ill" -- "And if you must go to work tomorrow/Well if I were you I wouldn't bother", "England is mine - it owes me a living", etc.

Still that was then... and for a long while now it's seemed to me that a life without work would be  alarming and absurd....   If not empty, then certainly missing something.
Most of the really satisfying things in life to some degree mimic the form of work: dancing, sports, most children's games...  they all involve focused exertion, a set of demands... in some cases, positive stress.  And that's because work--satisfying but not necessarily creative work--is one of the surefire ways of escaping Time. Because I am a chronic procrastinator I spent most of my working day putting off the thing that is most satisfying, which is work. Right up until that point, time hangs heavy  on me, fraught with anxiety, shadowed by the awareness of what I should be doing, the guilt of knowingly wasting all that time.... but when,  finally, I enter the flow, Time no longer exists. Work makes free.

I remember my own period of (voluntary) unemployment after graduation as mixed. In those days, the Eighties, it was almost the norm for the ex-student to sign on and mess around for a year or two. And it was a pretty tolerable existence if you didn't have expensive habits, could get around without public transport, using a bike.  At the start of this state-subsidised sabbatical, the intention was not to do nothing, but quite the opposite: there were numerous plans for self-improvement and self-education. But life without structure or external demands can slip so easily into inertia. Monitor seems, in retrospect, to have been our unconscious attempt to create jobs for ourselves.  But even with this collective project and the sense of purpose it provided, the absence of routine, the irregularity of hours (which had a tendency towards partial or even complete inversion of day and night)... there was a pull towards indolence that was hard to resist. You have to be very strong to withstand that amount of free time, that degree of non-structure.... it requires extraordinary capacities of imagination and improvisation...  As the anniversary of signing on rolled around, I could feel a sense of vacuum... anomie in its purest form. Every day was like Sunday. That summer I realised I would have to break with the group, move to London, try to make something of myself.

I was thinking of the Situationists and the naivete of their belief that "no work = paradise" this very afternoon. We were at the beach and I remembered their slogan "under the pavement lies the beach".  For a second I wondered what was so good about beaches, compared with sidewalks? (Paved urban walkways lead to all kinds of cool places and are much better surfaces for aimless derive too).  But this was because I was going through this phase I often go through immediately after arriving at the beach, which is feeling restless and vaguely trapped: the idea of being cut off from my usual networks of stimulation. "There's nothing to do here!" Then I capitulate, remember that the point of the beach is to do nothing, in a variety of enjoyably pointless ways.  Splashing about, getting knocked over by waves.  The building of castles or networks of canals in the sand teaching you, in the most kindly and pleasing-to-look-at way, certain things about time and futility and "all this too must pass away."

It's the same with vacations: I almost dread them at first, and then slowly succumb. At first I don't want to give up my habitual state of unrest.  But slowly and steadily, Life reduces to absolute simplicity. Extremes of temperature and sensation. Hot, cool. Dry, wet. Exercise, rest. It reduces to the basic functions of  life. "What shall we eat?".  You feel your mind gradually emptying.  The books and magazines you brought ( in order to make productive use of all that free time) go unread. It's genuinely therapeutic, totally necessary.
In a vacation, there is always that middle point when you actually lose sense of Time.  And then towards the end of the vacation, you feel again its urgency begin to assert itself again. You grow aware that there's only a few days left, time's running out, which is really more the case that timelessness is running out. You're about to  re-enter regular time, regulated time: weekdays and weekends, office hours and evenings.

Vacation, or the beach, that is one way of escaping temporality...  an affirmation of the pure passage of time...  doing nothing in various enjoyable, repetitive, mildly demanding ways (swimming, games, etc).

And then there is escaping, or defeating, Time, through total immersion in work.

The idea of a permament vacation would be hell, wouldn't it?  Likewise, the beach achieves its significance and its enjoyment through being paired with the pavement, its inseparable other half....  The beach is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. (People who do live there, full-time, seem a bit cracked.)

All those Eno songs about Time ending, a gentle apocalypse, sung by protagonists whose will and agency has haemorhaged away completely .. often the mise en scene is a beach or a becalmed seascape

 And now I recall, one of McLaren's early slogans with Bow Wow Wow was "sun, sea and piracy", they were meant to be playing tropical rhythms... one of his interview fantasies was creating a gigantic artificial sun to turn the U.K. into an endless summer paradise... to chase away the greyness of Thatcher and postpunk.

See also: the Parrotheads and Margaritaville and "Cheeseburger in Paradise" - a similar fantasy of getting away from it all and never coming back...

Interviewer: In one word, what's this all about?

Parrothead #1: Non-work.

Parrothead #2: Living.... This is what we work for, 364 days a year, is one day, to really do what we want to do.

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