On being lazy


I’ve been meaning to write this post all week. But I’ve not done so. And here I am on Sunday morning with the prospect of not having anything to publish, for the first time ever. I’ve sat at my desk on several occasions fully intending to write. But other things called to me – the exercise bike needed to be pedalled, that paper needed revision, and the several books on my to-read pile called out for attention. I succumbed to two of these competing demands, bike and books.

It was when I was dipping in and out of one of the books that I came across the term ‘radical laziness’.

Radical laziness reclaims time from the institutional and/or internalised cultural pressure to produce and perform regularly, routinely and rapidly. Laziness of the radical variety is a form of resistance to the frenetic churn of activities, and a way to create space for reflection. Laziness is an interruption to a flow of activities which might then open up the possibility of doing/thinking/being something else. ( What was I reading? Kuba Szreder’s The ABC of the projectariat. Living and working in a precarious art world)

Radical laziness seemed a good way to describe the digging-my-toes-in reluctance that I felt about writing a blog post. It ‘s not that I was burnt out. I wasn’t blocked. I didn’t particularly want to waste time. I just didn’t want to blog. Or mark. Or revise that paper. I wanted something else to do. Something different. Just look at how easily I dug into a book and started burrowing down the rabbit hole of ‘laziness’.

I googled radical laziness, as you do. And found old and new delights. Historians, I am sure, already know of the anarchist Paul Lafague’s The right to be lazy. Written in 1883, Lafargue argues that the working class has been conned into doing all the work and making all the things. Refusing to work for peanuts and support a few people to live rich and idle, he says, means first of all reclaiming the right to be unproductive – or perhaps reclaiming the right to be productive only as much as is necessary to live.

Sorry Paul. Even though writing is a form of work, me feeling a bit bolshie about writing a blog isn’t really overthrowing the system. But I do see Lafague’s point. Start with the attitude. Get with the laziness programme. Stop being so performative.

But google had more to offer. Next came an old interview with Roland Barthes in Le Monde entitled, in translation, “Let’s all just be lazy for once”. Barthes began the conversation with etymology which works in French but not in English. Paresse, he said, comes from the Latin word for slow (pigritia). This Latin derivation was a pity, he said, as slow is the “saddest of a laziness which indeed does things, though badly, against our will, to satisfy the institution in giving it a response, though a response which drags on.” Slow is capitulation, albeit at a different pace. A rather interesting perspective given the current discussion about slow scholarship and slow professors.

Barthes’ preference was for the Greek a-ergos – he who does not work – a laziness which does not perform at all. Barthes acknowledges that laziness as paresse is often accompanied by shame. He says,

I might be tempted to say that I make no place for laziness in my life and that that is my mistake. I feel it as a lack, and a wrong. I often place myself in a situation to struggle to do things. When I don’t do them, or at least during the time when I can’t manage to do these things—because I do end up doing them in the long run—it’s more a question of an idleness that is imposed upon me rather than a laziness of my choosing, and imposing myself upon it.

Barthes talked of himself as being diverted from tasks through a laziness which was more like “stewing” over things, he didn’t indulge in distractions like sport, craft or doing household chores. He just worried away at things.

Obviously this rather shameful idleness does not take the form of a “not doing anything” which would be its most glorious, philosophical form.

And with these words another tangent opened up. De Certeau famously described the ways in which not doing anything – wandering around the city and daydreaming on trains – led to surprising thoughts; ideas emerged from submerged subconscious depths. Such ideas were often subversive, apparently tangential but insightful. Lazing and idleness were a positive practice for de Certeau, they supported other ways of being thinking and doing.

Did this mean that procrastination is also a Good Thing? And this thought led to a new association… Bauman wrote about procrastination as a means of delaying the gratification that is characteristic of modern societies – dutiful workers work now, and benefit later. Paradoxically, dutiful consumers, who ensure that workers have work to do, crave immediate gratification through their consumption. Bauman suggested that it might be a good idea if this situation was reversed and delayed gratification was applied to consumption rather than work. Consume less, work less, procrastinate more.

Well, that all seems a long way from blog writing and laziness. Such is the way of the chain of ideas. And my rabbit-hole is getting rather crowded with (mostly dead) white blokes. Thanks google, thanks mental Endnote.

I knew there must be a lot of women out there writing about radical laziness. There is, and here’s one blog post I found by Lola Olufemi where she makes the case for laziness as feminist resistance to capitalist regimes of time. Reclaim time and then choose what to do with it. And bell hooks reminds me that laziness is not always resistance, and that being lazy about the things that matter can equate to allowing the status quo to prevail. Bonnie Honig suggests that a simple politics of refusal is insufficient, there must be resistance but also transformation.

Oh yes, there’s certainly more to find out about laziness. I was just a bit too lazy to fight the algorithms to go on. I could have kept linking and associating ideas I guess, but … Enough now. It’s sunny. The exercise bike calls. There are still books on my desk. That paper won’t revise itself.

On my way out of the burrow, I paused again with Barthes for a moment longer, as he had said something about laziness and writing.

I believe, really, that to write, we mustn’t be idle, and that is precisely one of the difficulties of writing.  Writing is a pleasure, but at the same time a difficult pleasure because it must cross through different, particularly difficult work zones, with all the risks that this suggests: desire for, and threats of, laziness, temptations to abandon, fatigue, revolts.  …  And, indeed, if we are fundamentally lazy, or if we decide to be, which is both easily conceived and defended, we cannot write.

Well Roland, I could have told you that.

And knowing that writing is hard work is not going to get a blog post written. Even if I have still got some thinking to do about the idea of radical laziness, I might slowly, ever so slowly, meet my self-imposed Sunday deadline of writing a post.