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I had always assumed cost excluded us from such utopias, but when my waitressing tips covered a trip to Jamaica my first college spring break, I realized it wasn’t my parents’ lack of funds that kept me from returning from school vacations sunburned or with ski-lift tickets dangling from my jacket — it was their deeply held philosophy of labor. My parents believed that people who took escapist holidays were the unlucky ones: uninspired drones performing alienated labor, whether punching a clock on the assembly line or closing million-dollar deals in a soulless corporate tower, dreaming of days off.
They, on the other hand, were blessed to be paid to “pursue a life of the mind,” a job — sorry, calling — that required understanding, as my father would gush, “the entire world as a text ripe for interpretation.” To exist as an uncritical consumer rather than a cultural observer was a failure, or at least a missed opportunity. Taking time off was literally impossible, and who fortunate enough to do such work would want to?
This worldview, I now understand, was a loftier, late-20th-century version of the “if you love your work, you’ll never work a day in your life” / “no days off” mentality that became a linchpin of early-2000s hustle culture. As an adult, I seek out pools and palm trees more than my parents ever did, but I have been unable to escape this outlook entirely. As an academic who analyzes “everyday life,” I instinctively seize every opportunity to historicize, whether at the grocery store or the gym.
It’s not a bad way to live, but it is difficult to just enjoy anything when your default state is to analyze everything. My archive is potentially endless, a professional profile I usually find invigorating, but being “always on” is also exhausting. At the same time, that sense of depletion is also kind of embarrassing. My research has involved poring over piles of old sex-ed curricula and watching hours of Chippendales videos — is that even real work?
This ambivalence is probably why I am incurably addicted to productivity content, whether the stuff that promises to make me speedier, slimmer, and smarter or that which skewers such self-optimization efforts as internalized neoliberal oppression. I devour it all, hoping that somewhere amid rise-n-grind Instagram and essays on rest as anti-capitalist resistance, the boundary between labor and leisure will be revealed. Two fascinating new books get to the heart of this distinction, with which I think many of us struggle mightily: Jenny Odell’s Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock (Random House) and Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time (Melville House). As the titles suggest, each challenges our modern productivity culture. Odell urges readers to consider that they might be “living on the wrong clock”; Liming tells us to imagine an alternative organization of our lives, one that begins with relearning how to hang out.
Saving Time pairs vivid and at times poetic examples with an argument that neoliberalism is the organizing structure of modern life. The destruction of the natural environment is central to Odell’s narrative, but she doesn’t succumb to fetishizing the “natural world” or to teleology. Her warning that “now is not the time to turn your back on the ocean” is as much an urgent call to fight climate change and one to stay vigilant about the destructive potential of nature itself, in the storms and wildfires that have ravaged her home of California. With similar nuance, Odell excoriates the obsession with efficiency and output born of capitalism but cautions that “it’s too easy to read history as a linear story of the encroachment of capitalist time into all locales and areas of life.”
Saving Time almost feels deliberately structured to force the reader to relinquish the aspirations of the efficiency impulse it critiques. Analysis is interspersed with sensory-rich descriptions of the natural environment, a typical section winding from a 1950 public-education film about the societal value of recreation to a detailed characterization of the “vanilla, clove, lemon, and black pepper” scent of a hiking trail to a 1750 Ohlone mortar and pestle to a 1934 survey on leisure time, all in a few paragraphs. The book is impossible to read in the extractive fashion taught in graduate school. While slowing down to parse such a text is a risky proposition in our distracted culture, the book mostly rewards the reader for doing so.
Hanging Out is equally contemplative, if less historical. Sheila Liming details her experiences as an itinerant writing professor crisscrossing the country from North Dakota to Vermont and endeavoring to make meaningful connections at dive bars and dinner parties during the pandemic. “There is no sublime to be found on the internet,” she declares, point-blank, a statement that feels both obvious and a bit transgressive, given the rapid encroachment of the web into every aspect of human experience. The presentist orientation of Hanging Out works perfectly for a text that is largely a defense of hanging out, primarily in person, as a way to carve “out a space for what feels genuine and real.”
At the same time, Liming is no uncritical cheerleader. Now an associate professor at Champlain College, in Vermont, she astutely captures the blurred lines between personal and professional that characterize academic conferences — a dynamic that enables precious moments of bonding in a geographically far-flung profession, but also grossly predatory behavior. Liming recounts bailing on a conference to avoid a harasser and crashing a wedding in the same hotel, practically invisible in her professional attire amid a swirl of satin and taffeta. In a moment of dark hilarity, she runs into her harasser — already after another mark — in the elevator, Liming wearing a party-favor scarf with an open bottle of wine sticking out of her laptop case.
Hanging out is always an act of vulnerability, Liming instructs. She ends up roaming the streets of Scotland with strange men and realizes the emptiness of a friendship while awkwardly playing a role on a reality TV set. Still, Hanging Out’s celebration of getting together feels like a balm in our late pandemic moment. Parties, jamming, wedding-crashing, and even stilted elevator encounters are all part of connecting in a more social, more human future.
Historically, it is usually a technology shift that accelerates the pace of life, rather than a pandemic that slows it. Streetlights redefined nightfall to signify more than cover for danger. Railroads and highways turned exotic produce into salad-bar staples and rural areas into commuter suburbs. VCRs liberated viewers from a fixed television timetable, and GPS made travel time so predictable that arriving late is a less permissible social offense.
A sprawling social-science literature centers “neoliberalism” as the most powerful force in American society since the 1970s, emphasizing how overarching political and economic systems, rather than specific inventions, have energized the spread of productivity culture. Scholars such as Matthew F. Delmont, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, and Jonathan Crary have shown how austerity policies have eviscerated social programs and blended with a souped-up self-help ideology that leaves people to fend for themselves, all while making us believe this is the proper order of society rather than its disfigurement. Liming and Odell’s rich storytelling deepens these scholarly analyses and feels like a welcome new stage in the critiques of overwork that have been intensifying since the 1980s. First, tentative calls for “work-life balance” gave way, in the early 2000s, to individualized instructions to “practice self-care.” Then, that prescription was swapped for today’s more-explicit provocations to “embrace mediocrity,” “quiet quit,” or unionize.
The attendant social atomization Liming dwells on has received relatively less attention, perhaps due to the role of progressives in its intensification. Since the 2012 publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet, introversion has, curiously, become almost enshrined by some as a superior character trait. The pandemic then gave this antisocial stance the sheen of public-health virtue. As remote workers acclimated to their new solitude, it became commonplace to express outrage at the expectation of even minimal collegiality. At least I don’t have to pretend to be interested in my boss’s weekend. Why should anyone have the right to see my face? Am I seriously expected to wear pants?
Interestingly, the retreat of the laptop class (academics included) could be seen both as a rejection of productivity culture — privileging home life over the office grind — and as a capitulation to it: Some types of outputs surged when inefficient commuting and socializing were stripped away, it turned out. “What happens to a left that dislikes society?” a recent viral essay asked, pointing to the enthusiasm among progressives for pandemic lockdowns and their dehumanizing accouterments, from contactless delivery to video-off Zoom. Public-health officials talked about collective care but often encouraged an inward turn: On New York City subways, a ubiquitous poster instructed riders the “best” behavior was to stare down at one’s phone, masked, rather than converse. Schoolchildren ate silent lunch while sitting on the floor.
These books stop short of specifying how such policies melded understandable health concerns with unfortunate misanthropy, but they are refreshingly unsparing in chronicling the harms of isolation now acknowledged by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, which if articulated even recently could have gotten you condemned as a eugenicist. Liming vividly describes the desiccated interactions of the pandemic, such as solitary Zoom Thanksgiving and a student who explained her compulsive selfie-taking as a way to confirm her own existence. Odell writes of a haunting nightmare she had in the fall of 2020 of grasping a stranger’s hand — a mundane act that was then both comforting and transgressive, reminding her of how “the present cannot and should not be borne alone.” These small but searing memories are a crucial part of what should be a collective chronicle of our Covid era.
It is natural to work toward a meaningful life, I think, but we need to expand the terrains where such exertion happens and for whom.
Odell reiterates the critic and gender-studies professor Brittney Cooper’s argument that “white people own time,” in the sense that productivity metrics established by slaveholders and refined by devotees of Frederick Winslow Taylor undergird a capitalist system that leaves minoritized people with less wealth and thus less time, whether because they must abide by a shift schedule, cannot afford to live near work, or endure inefficient bureaucracy that stretches simple tasks into hours. This “time tax” is undeniable yet intractable if we do not move beyond individualistic solutions such as “better time management.” Alternatives are not always clear. Citing a Filipino writer frustrated with his country’s incompatibility with the pace of global business, Odell acknowledges that enshrining “Filipino time” as inherently problematic — or preferable as somehow more authentic — verges on fetishization.
Such concerns are not merely philosophical; they remind me of a working-class Black student who would consistently show up 10-15 minutes late to our 9 a.m. class after working the opening shift at Starbucks, a job that financed her education. By contrast, a white classmate with a prominent surname arrived just as reliably 10 minutes early — in a chauffeured car. How to fairly assess their attendance, given their divergent degrees of control over time and the historically embedded reasons for the disparity?
This class-stratified experience of leisure also comes crashing through in Liming’s rich chapter on dinner parties. First, a faculty dinner goes off the rails. An evening at a fancy restaurant was planned to celebrate an esteemed visiting writer, and Liming and her partner, “always poor back then,” were thrilled to be invited, despite having to cover their own meals. Midway through enjoying their careful selections — no appetizer, cocktail, or dessert — the university chancellor, downing filet mignon and wine by the glass, joked he had no idea who was paying for an evening that, to him, was clearly just another work commitment. When he left without paying, Liming and her partner could barely swallow their food. There would be no fair splitting of the bill, as they had assumed — nor would they stiff the server, whose presence the chancellor had barely noticed. They would instead cover the chancellor’s check, their carefully planned leisure experience suddenly anything but relaxing.
Another strange mealtime scene is equally striking. Liming bonds with an acquaintance who introduces her to Midwestern fare like hotdish and cookie salad. They hang out over rich snacks, but the friend’s culinary and entrepreneurial talents boost her from blogger to reality television star. Soon, Liming is only invited over by producers, to partake in staged meals made for on-screen consumption. The idealized, transactional gatherings eventually become their only connection and a poor substitute for the spontaneous sociability of an actual dinner party. It’s a story about the perils of turning a hobby into a hustle, but also a reminder of the preciousness of a good, real dinner party, in which time and class difference are suspended, at least until the bill arrives.
One realm where we might consider this intersection is surprisingly invisible in these books: parenting. Thanks to feminist scholars, the uncompensated work of parenting, largely borne by mothers, has become an intrinsic part of conversations about labor. But what of the power of parenting to liberate us from traditionally defined productivity pressures? One personal period of nonproductivity stands out in my memory. After eight months of relatively uneventful pregnancy, I started gushing blood while crossing the street to attend my own baby shower. Within hours, I was settled in the hospital on bedrest for the foreseeable future, attached to a circulation machine. “I feel so useless, unproductive,” I remember crying to my dad, who reminded me that my rest and stillness was actually the most productive thing I could do — it would allow my body to heal and my baby’s lungs to develop. That expansive definition of meaningful work has stuck with me.
Less dramatically, because caregiving prevents me from most professional work on weekends or after hours, and because parenting engages me so differently from my mostly cerebral job, I tend to meet Monday mornings intellectually renewed if not actually rested. Might we elevate the growing productivity discourse by acknowledging how different the work of parenting is, rather than how much it resembles more familiar forms of labor?
If anything, these books and the pandemic moment from which they emerged make it clear to me that seizing every moment as an opportunity to live meaningfully — or productively, a term that doesn’t bother me at all — is my paramount priority, and not because I’ve so internalized self-optimization imperatives, but because I know being fully alive, with one another, is a privilege worth pursuing.