November 12, 2012
Issue Seven (“On the Lam,” 100 pages) of New Escapologist, the Glasgow-based “magazine for white-collar functionaries with escape on the brain” edited by Robert Wringham, is available now.
The latest issue of New Escapologist features a Q&A with stand-up comedian and purple Teletubby Dave Thompson; Reggie C. King on the life of Robert Walser; an escape kit designed by Robert Wringham; Neil Scott on what we can learn from Steve Jobs; Drew Gagne on the elasticity of “normality”; Tom Mellors on Hitch-Hiking; Bernice Murphy on apocalypse road-trip movies; Samara Leibner on Luke “Milquetoast” Skywalker; and more — including a Q&A with yours truly, on the topic of idleness and wage slavery!
Here’s a brief excerpt of my exchange with Wringham. Who, by the way, has recently written a couple HiLobrow posts.
NEW ESCAPOLOGIST: What is the history of The Idler’s Glossary and The Wage Slave’s Glossary? How did you, Mark and Seth come to collaborate specifically on these books?
GLENN: In the ’90s, during the first several years of Tom Hodgkinson and Matthew De Abaitua’s The Idler, I was the journal’s American contributing editor. I sent in various bits of writing: a short intellectual biography of Henry Miller (as an “Idle Idol”), an essay in praise of hangovers, pointers on idler etiquette, that sort of thing. Researching and writing these features sensitized me to the often subtle differences between so-called synonyms for idling — for example, loafer vs. lazybones vs. slacker. According to the thesaurus, these terms are equivalent… but if you do a little digging into etymology and usage, you discover that a loafer is someone whose life is irregular and unsettled, while to be “lazy” or “slack” is to be averse to labor because of a deficiency in will and spirit. An idler might well be a loafer (though one can be idle without being irregular and unsettled); but an idler is averse to labor not out of any deficiency, but instead because she believes one should work to live, not live to work.
I took notes on this sort of thing — and in 1999-2000, when The Idler turned into a book-magazine, I contributed an appendix containing some 200 idler- and slacker-related terms, titled the “Idler’s Glossary,” to issue no. 25. The motive of the Glossary, which is primarily intended to be fun to read, is to (a) defend the theory and practice of idleness against the dominant work ethic, and (b) distinguish carefully between idleness (which I consider productive, even courageous, though not necessarily useful) and slackness (which I consider lazy, cowardly, detrimental to the cause of idleness, and even useful to the world of work). The goldbricker may rebel against working hard — and who can blame him? — but he’s no revolutionist. The do-nothing, on the other hand, is a danger to the status quo. Tom and Matthew were terrific editors; I have to credit their influence on the glossary.
In the mid-2000s, Mark Kingwell and I started corresponding by email about, among other things, my distinction between idleness and slacking — he’d referred to my glossary in lectures to his philosophy classes, when trying to explain Aristotle’s conception of leisure. In 2007, we decided to pitch it to publishers as a stand-alone pamphlet, with a long essay by Mark as its introduction. Something like Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, was the concept. Dan Wells at Biblioasis — in Canada — took us up on the idea. He and Mark suggested new terms, and I’d been collecting new terms — e.g., Schweikism, umbraticand, Murrumbidgee Whaler, señorito, lickdish, Superfluous Man, quatorzieme — too. So the stand-alone glossary is an evolution of the original. Even better, Mark and Dan persuaded Seth — who’d worked with Mark on a 2006 cocktail recipe book — to do an amazing set of illustrations.
I should only add a footnote explaining that because Mark’s introduction to my idler’s glossary was in-depth and beyond amazing, I suggested strongly to Biblioasis that we should be listed as co-authors of the book. And so we were.
When Mark and Dan and Seth and I were having a beer in Toronto, before the book’s launch party, we’d talked about doing a sequel — a matched set. So in 2009, I started writing a sequel — a wage slave’s glossary, which instead of focusing on why we should want to be idle, focused on why we should resent not being idle. I wrote the first draft in two days and sent it to Mark. He liked it, so we approached Dan and Seth, and they did too. We did the same process again — Mark and Dan offered more ideas, Seth did beautiful drawings. I ransacked my wife’s collection of books about labor history and the organization of contemporary offices.
Between one delay and another, the book didn’t come out until September 2011. (In a strange twist of fate, Occupy Wall Street started up later that same month. About a dozen copies of Wage Slave’s Glossary ended up in the OWS free library in Zuccotti Park, which made us all very proud.) Anyway, sales were good and more nice reviews.
Will we collaborate on a third glossary? I hope so!
NEW ESCAPOLOGIST:You used to have a 9-5 kind of life at the Boston Globe but now you’re independent and spend your time making cool things of your own devising (the glossaries, HiLobrow, Significant Objects, HiLoBooks). Perhaps a silly question, but are you glad of your choice to escape the 9-5?
GLENN: It’s risky quoting T.W. Adorno (that is, because many people who ought to know better claim that he is a strident, preachy, cranky mandarin), but I believe he’s one of the greatest idler theorists of all time, so here goes: “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” That is to say, we live in a wrong social order where even if we don’t directly contribute to societal wrong-ness, we do so indirectly anyway. In my own so-called career, I’ve struggled to achieve the elusive state of idleness (which, as you know, does not mean laziness or doing nothing) as a full-time employee, a part-timer, a self-employed entrepreneur, and as a freelancer. I’ve been a bicycle shop manager and a skateboard courier, a busboy and a barrel-washer, a handyman and a substitute teacher, a bartender and a housepainter, and I’ve worked as an editor at a magazine, newspaper, and startup dotcom. I currently freelance as a semiotic brand and culture analyst (mostly for marketing agencies), and sometimes as a writer; and I publish and edit websites and books. I’m happy with where I’ve ended up, I’m glad I no longer work full-time for someone else — but no, to answer your question, it’s not good enough! I’m no Marxist, but I think the young Marx’s depiction of a society in which “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic” is an idler utopia. Until a society along those lines exists, i.e., a right social order, none of us — not even freelancers — can live life rightly. That sounds very strident and preachy and cranky, I know. I’m not a gloomy, bitter person; but I am, in my way, a utopian!
MORE IDLENESS: THE IDLER’S GLOSSARY | THE WAGE SLAVE’S GLOSSARY | The Perfect Flâneur | The Sweetest Hangover | You Down with VCP? | NEW ESCAPOLOGIST Q&A | H IS FOR HOBO — excerpts from The Idler’s Glossary and The Wage Slave’s Glossary | WAGE SLAVERY — Josh Glenn and Mark Kingwell discuss | IDLENESS — Josh Glenn and Mark Kingwell discuss | IDLER Q&A WITH THE PROGRESSIVE | IDLE IDOL: HENRY MILLER | WATCHING THE DETECTIVES | A SCENE FROM GOODFELLAS.
What do you think?
I love your quote on the cover, Joshua. it’s my fond hope that ideologies & other brain diseases are curable by carefully administered doses of reality with just a smidgen of utopian hope.
Your differentiation between idling and slacking off brought to mind a Celebrity Deathmatch-style melee between Samuel Johnson and J.R.”Bob”Dobbs. Dobbs, of course, being the messiah/used car salesman of the SubGenius religion/parody religion.
“I currently freelance as a semiotic brand and culture analyst (mostly for marketing agencies)” Sounds like a version of Cayce Pollard from “Pattern Recognition.”
As far as Marx as idling goes, what about the utopian ideology of Fourier? His industrious, sex-positive, quasi-spiritual phalansteries are a strange twist on the whole productivity/idleness dichotomy, especially since those utopian ideas involved people regularly changing roles. Barthes give a great analysis of that, contra Sade and Loyola in his book “Sade Fourier Loyola.”
Karl — Cayce Pollard from “Pattern Recognition” is a version of me! I thought everyone knew that.
And yes — Fourier is a great inspiration.
I’ve found it really interesting the way The Idler changed over the years – it used to be a more radical celebration of the art of doing nothing, but has more recently developed a new ‘busy-ness’ of the knit-your-own-socks and print-your-own-books variety. I know that this kind of busy-ness is meant to be alternative – but it’s still a form of busy-ness, of constant preoccupation with small tasks.
I used to love the way The Idler talked about idleness but got put off by the way it became more and more about activities of various kinds – now it seems to be all about doing arts and crafts, rather than staring at the ceiling, like it used to be.
I understand your distinction between nihilistic slackerism and alternative idleness, Josh – but do regret the loss of nihilistic slackerism for its attunement with more radical forms of alienation.
Idling is a big tent, Louise — room for staring at the ceiling *and* DIY activities.
Of course. But I think the move towards DIY focus and the overall change in tenor of the Idler ideology (idlerology?) is culturally interesting in itself. It’s moved away from anomistic slackerdom and towards a new/alternative kind of productivity. What I find interesting is the way ‘productivity’ has re-entered the frame, albeit in a new guise. We still have to be doing stuff all the time – just now it’s small-scale, DIY rather than corporate, office tasks. But the space to challenge the whole idea of the ‘productive’ seems to have dwindled under various cultural pressures.
“I resemble that remark” — as Bugs Bunny used to say. As the world’s most productive idler, I want to stress that “idle” and “productive” are not antonynms. On the other hand, I commend you for remaining vigilant against the return of the repressed, in the form of neurotic busywork.
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