"Leisure is a performance"

At one point, I had my car serviced by a mechanic who left the town I lived in to return home and open a garage in his home town. I followed him home, as it were, because he was such a good mechanic. I would arrange my schedule to wait for the car until work was completed, and I had an opportunity to see what his day was like. 

He began work at seven a.m. and did not finish until eight in the evening, sometimes nine. Thirteen, fourteen back-breaking days it would seem, but they were not. His work was folded into the life of the village. Everyone who stopped for gas, left a car to be worked on or picked up a paper and coffee would take a moment to talk, pass news along, wonder about Jones, worry over Newton, laugh at Smith. He was not tied to a rigid schedule, as he would be at a lathe in a factory, but was free to participate in the life of the community while he was at work. He was judicious in how long he talked. He would not have had the reputation he had otherwise. He may be tired at the end of his work day, but it is of a different order from the fatigue of the factory worker, whose work is distinct from his life at home.

In contrast, my roommate in college, kept as rigorous a weekly schedule as the factory worker did. On Fridays, for example, he might put down classes in the morning, library in the afternoon, work out at the gym at four, dinner in the dorm at 5:30, and then, FUN, 9-1. Only rarely did he depart from his schedule. 

Today we work so hard to have fun. We must prepare for it, schedule it. We need skis, fishing rods, an RV, airfare, cruise tickets. We need to plan an itinerary, check out highways, motels and hotels, historic sites. It costs money, and we must save money for weekends and vacations. In some way, we want to be seen by what our leisure is. We can’t put our feet up on the porch railing and watch the day go by. We need to go to Cancun, Paris, a lake in northern Ontario, a ski resort in the Rockies. We need to ski, lie on a beach, see the Eiffel Tower. It is not leisure unless it has been licensed, as it were, as a legitimate pleasure (that is, commercialized).

The leisure the mechanic takes between cars is part of life in the village. The leisure the family which goes to Cancun takes is a break – a rupture if you will – from life at home. For two weeks, their lives are not what they are, even if their trip may have reverberations back home. The family next door may not be able to afford Cancun. But what, you may ask, is wrong with a vacation in Cancun or Paris? 

We insist on individual freedom. We can do what we want, given our capabilities and resources. At the same time, we want community. We want to be part of a group, a party, church, organization, town, not be alone (the pursuit of pure individuality leads to isolation). We do not see to what extent legitimized leisure is a mark of difference. Leisure is a performance, Thorstein Veblen writes, and the thing performed is class. It underscores not only how we define ourselves but also where in the community we stand. We think we are on vacation, enjoying ourselves. We do not see that the individuality that our leisure establishes makes it less possible, so it might seem, to be part of community.

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Volume 3, Issue 8, Posted 10:30 PM, 04.09.2007