Tom Lutz Explores The History Of Working—Just Not Working For You
You’re supposed to be doing something else right now, right? Nobody gets paid to read alternative weeklies, so you must be avoiding some kind of moneymaking activity, thereby hindering the world’s most powerful economy from churning out revenue at its usual fiendish pace. America didn’t get to where it is today, buster, because of slackers like you—but then again, as Tom Lutz rightly points out in his excellent cultural history Doing Nothing, the slacker has always been with us. As good as Americans are at working, we’re equally good at not working, and we celebrate a certain kind of principled sloth, whether it comes from Walt Whitman (“I loafe and invite my soul”) or Ferris Bueller (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”). Doing Nothing entertainingly and exhaustively explores this forgotten American archetype, the majorly mellow yin without which our workaholic yang can’t exist.
Lutz, a friendly-voiced writer who can pack conversational prose thick with academic meaning (his previous book Crying was an exploration of the cultural history of tears), casts a fine and indiscriminate net over 400 years of high and low culture to tease out an evolution of the slacker. This basal lazy boy first appears as an “idler” in the works of Samuel Johnson, the English literary giant who countered the prevailing Industrial Revolution’s busy-beaver ethic with bon mots like “To be idle is the ultimate purpose of the busy.” Johnson, while hardly a slacker—compiling the first major dictionary of the English language is a major disqualification—introduced the archetype in a 1758 essay. Marginally ambitious lawyer/essayist Joseph Dennie—whom Lutz identifies as the first true slacker—expanded on this profile in semisatirical publications that included works like “The Lounger’s Diary,” a by-the-hour account of waking late, skipping church, ironic snipes at a friend’s unstylish stockings, and complaining that he “got Vapours looking out Microcosm,” a hungover Sunday schedule that would give a modern twentysomething no pause.
Part of this indolence was a ghetto-fab imagining of how the idle rich passed their days. Lutz points out, however, that much of this desire for inertia was a reflection of the radical workplace changes of the Industrial Revolution, when the precision of clock time replaced an agrarian economy’s “sun time.” He writes: “However much Dennie and his loungers pined for an aristocratic yesteryear, they also looked forward to a more fully individualized, more open world of options for work and consumption,” a startlingly parallel vision to the work-is-play, internet-driven ideal of modern office life.
That brings in the moral dimension to willful sluggishness, an essential aspect of our (sometimes grudging) admiration of slackers and an astute observation that elevates Lutz’s analysis beyond just listing famous couch potatoes. It was that same desire to avoid work—and not just work, but soul-crushing, meaningless, unfulfilling, injurious, or morally repugnant work—that drove the Industrial Workers of the World to demand the eight-hour workday. The term “slacker” first gained momentum in 1918, specifically referring to draft dodgers who refused participation in World War I. From this vantage, to be a slacker is to be someone unafraid of upsetting the status quo in order to maintain integrity, a brave soul refusing to hamper eventual greatness with a fixed and conforming schedule, like Henry David Thoreau or Jack Kerouac, whom Lutz cites as writing, “Did I come into this world through the womb of my mother the earth just so I could talk and write just like everyone else?”
Still, Lutz points out, there’s a tremendous amount of ambivalence regarding our own slacker tendencies. The fable of Rip Van Winkle—free to do nothing but let his beard grow and wake up an obsolete fool—reflects this conflict between our desire for unlimited leisure and our fear of unplugging from the grid. Regardless of our own ambivalence toward work, those who aren’t pulling their fair share drive us into a fury. Think of the lather right-wingers work themselves into over “welfare queens,” or left-wingers over the ascendancy of C-student George W. Bush, a man Lutz posits “will go down in history as our slacker president.” Lutz wisely points out that the slacker is not any one thing at one time; rather, it’s a conceit we use to divine our own relationship with work—how it fits in our life, what makes it important, how we choose and choose not to make it part of our identity. As he acknowledges, “Slackers represent our fondest fantasies and our deepest fears.” To read Doing Nothing is to become aware of the most intimate, yet most unacknowledged long-term relationship of our adult lives—the one between us and our jobs. This book is a joy and a pleasure. Now get back to work.