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Posts Tagged ‘capitalism and relaxation’

“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, KunstwollenKunst (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.

Of course, moral and physical uplift do not have the sole claims to leisure, and certainly not to pleasure. The chaste delights of the wellness vacation do not appeal universally. In Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, Sylvia Tietjens (perhaps the most diabolical bored wife in English literature) prefers the filthier pursuits of social climbing and ruining her doltish lovers. For her, the genteel health resort is enraging rather than soothing. “How rotten it must be for her,” she imagines her friends sympathizing, “to be shut up in a potty little German kur-ort when the world could be so otherwise amusing.” Yet even Sylvia is not immune to the allure of the self-improving retreat, or at least the social esteem it can bestow. At one point, Sylvia decamps to a convent to make a show of trying to get right with the Lord, and perhaps also her husband. For those who can afford it, a spot of leisure done right can be the necessary corrective to life’s wrong turns.

Danger: Relaxation Ahead
The Tietjenses are English landed gentry, and so it would not surprise a midwestern American moralist like Thorstein Veblen, the disapproving theorist of the so-called leisure class, that someone like Sylvia would approach leisure with entitlement and cynicism. Leisure has always made middle-class Americans (and their bourgeois counterparts throughout much of Europe) rather anxious.

In Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States, Cindy Aron notes that though the American middle class invented the modern vacation as a social institution, they were also wary of its hazards. If industry and work were fundamental to the success of both individual and nation, leisure could expose America to “moral, spiritual, financial, and political danger.” As the middle class cohered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vacationing became an institution shot through with contradiction. The hard work and industriousness that helped define the middle class seemed to entitle its members to vacations (as well as other consumer goods betokening self-conscious respectability, like pianos), but at the same time, vacations embodied the very opposite of what the middle class valued. The wellness vacation was one solution to this quandary. From the mid-nineteenth century, Saratoga Springs, Cape May, and a host of other destinations became associated with good times that were restorative to both body and soul. The nagging question nevertheless remained: How could you enjoy leisure without jeopardizing commitment to work? “This tension pervaded and shaped the history of vacations in the nineteenth century,” Aron writes. Indeed, it determines our own attitudes toward leisure to this day.

The social ascendancy of the middle classes, and especially the upper middle classes in America and Europe, is essential to this story. While some of these people may have pined for the splendor of aristocratic life, the members of the bourgeoisie mostly savored the knowledge that their material comforts were earned, not given. They embraced personal virtue as the key to challenging the aristocracy’s traditional place at the center of political and cultural life, and developed elaborate patterns of consumption and social rituals to enact this moral superiority: athenaeum memberships for men, Italian lessons for women, park promenades for the whole family. A ceaseless drive toward self-improvement undergirded these leisurely pursuits. Even when the duties of bureaucratic paperwork and homemaking were done for the day, the impetus to self-improve remained constant. Thus did the bourgeoisie distinguish itself from the parasitic leisure class excoriated by Veblen.

Today’s middle class still proudly embraces this moral distinction—and none more fully than those near its upper end. In fact, the ceiling of the self-identified “middle class” seems to keep creeping upward, not because the very wealthy feel any special solidarity with schoolteachers and postal workers, but because to join the “upper class” would be to join the ranks of the useless and the idle. The victory of bourgeois values is so complete that much of the world’s elite has embraced them. The Trumps, for instance, owe their class position to inherited wealth, but they—especially Donald and Ivanka—still brand themselves as successful workers for the status and self-esteem that it imparts. Both have produced (“written” may not be entirely accurate) entire books about how hard they toil and how good they are at it. These people may be obscenely rich and control more than their fair share of resources, but they will have you know that they are darn productive.

Maybe this is why some of the only people in America who could feasibly enjoy that thing we call a “work-life balance” end up bragging about how they renounced it. Together with Marissa Mayer and Victoria Beckham, Ivanka Trump is part of a rarefied coterie of hyper-elite working mothers whose financial fortunes and powerful networks would allow them to take extended maternity leave—in fact, not to work at all, not even at child-rearing or homemaking—but who ostentatiously return to work within a few weeks after childbirth. While it should be up to each family to determine how much parental leave is necessary, it is as if these very publicly announced returns to the workplace somehow validate the outsize wealth of these women, both to themselves and to the rest of us. These are only a few extreme examples from our peculiar cult of busyness, in which energy-intensive but culturally feminized tasks like childcare, along with private biological needs like sleep, are cruelly recast as leisure in order to be devalued. These women will make body and family bend to accommodate the demands of work. The idle rich they emphatically are not.”

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Miya Tokumitsu, “Did the Fun Work? Relaxation as Fitbit app.The Baffler. No. 35. June 2017.

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