Great couch potatoes of history

Inspired by his deadbeat son, former wanderer Tom Lutz explores 250 years of horizontal heroes -- from loungers and "nerve cases" to Beats, playboys and slackers.


Gary Kamiya
May 23, 2006 4:03PM (UTC)

Tom Lutz was inspired to write "Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America" by an encounter with his 18-year-old son, Cody. Recently graduated from high school, Cody was planning to take a year or two off before beginning college, so he moved out of his mother's house and into his father's "with uncertain plans."

Before we arrive at the sad and already predictable conclusion of this tale, we must bear in mind that Lutz himself was hardly a model of Calvinist rectitude. "Finishing high school in 1971 without the vaguest clue as to where my life was headed, I was saved from the Vietnam draft by a high lottery number," he writes. He then spent the better part of 10 years wandering around, taking drugs, playing in bands, living in a semi-commune, riding a motorbike through Montenegro, and working as everything from carpenter to factory hand to gymnastics instructor. Lutz eventually settled down to become a teacher and writer, but is unrepentant about his youthful escapades. His adventures, he writes, were worth it for their own sake.

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So, unlike many parents, Lutz welcomed Cody's arrival. "Whatever else, I was glad that I could give him a base from which to chase a dream or two," he writes. "I was pleased that Cody, instead of just following the crowd into college, was taking a more adventurous path."

But after arriving -- and here is the foreordained conclusion -- Cody took up what seemed to be a permanent position on Lutz's couch. As Cody continued to maintain his horizontality day after day, declining even to pick up his bass and go jam with the old man's bar band, Lutz was shocked to realize that he was angry at his son -- a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping anger.

"I started to write this book at least in part to understand my ire as I watched my son do what I had seen him (and myself) do many times before: He was doing nothing," Lutz writes. "In my forties, I necessarily had a more acute sense of the shortness of life, but why should he? He was still husbanding the proceeds of his summer job on an organic farm in Massachusetts, not hitting me up for spending money. He was the one at the classically hormonal age, so why were mine firing?"

If the genesis of "Doing Nothing" was Lutz's attempt to answer that question, the book itself goes much deeper. Rather than focus exclusively on what we think of as the modern slacker - for example, Cody, or the 30-something goatee with no visible means of support -- he delves into the rich history of slackers past, while exploring his own and society's complex attitudes toward work and leisure. Like Lutz's brilliant study of weeping, "Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears," it's a highly intelligent, stimulatingly eclectic and impressively learned book.

Slacking is one of those subjects that is seductive but tricky to explore. It's simultaneously too broad and too narrow -- too broad because writing about laziness is like writing about life or love; too narrow because the literature of triumphant laziness turns out to be a niche form, and is somewhat self-canceling. But if the subject is too slippery and multifaceted for him to completely control, Lutz is fast enough on his feet that "Doing Nothing" is a consistently entertaining and informative read -- even if at the end we're not entirely sure what holds all these loafers, slobs, bohos and loungers together.

Although he limits himself to the last 250 years, Lutz covers an enormous amount of historical ground. After opening with a chapter titled "Cody on the Couch," a thoughtful introduction to the central issues involving slackerism, the work ethic and their related discontents, he turns next to two paradigmatic figures, Ben Franklin and Samuel Johnson. Lutz shows how in complex ways, and at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution that inaugurated alienated labor, these two opposing figures embody the paradoxes built into our attitudes toward work and leisure.

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He then embarks on a fascinating social history of the changing face of work and the wildly varying rebellious responses to it, pausing to look at the 18th century "lounger," the successor to Johnson's "Idler," and the inspiring figure of Joseph Dennie, Harvard dropout, drinker, dandy, half-assed lawyer and the unjustly forgotten father of sophisticated slothdom in America. Successive chapters offer a veritable all-star team of unproductive members of society -- "Loafers, Communists, Drinkers and Bohemians," "Nerve Cases, Saunterers, Tramps and Flaneurs," "Sports, Flappers, Babbitts and Bums," "Beats, Nonconformists, Playboys and Delinquents," "Draft Dodgers, Surfers, TV Beatniks, and Hippie Communards," and finally "Slackers" -- taking us, if the book has not already fallen from our listless and neurasthenic hands, up to the present day.

So back to that original question: Why was Lutz so angry at Cody? The answer, Lutz says, "had to do with my own twisted relation to work, a pathology I share with many people of both my own and my father's and son's generations." Lutz's central quandary is that he can never decide if he is working too hard or not hard enough. Of course, this is really a question about what work itself is, and what it should be. "I, for one, see myself in completely contradictory ways: insufficiently socialized into good work habits and attitudes and, at the same time, overly socialized, overly concerned with my work, my success, my status, my accomplishments or lack thereof. I am convinced, and not without good evidence, that I am astoundingly lazy."

In one of the most penetrating discussions in the book, Lutz examines the contradictions of his work life, which as a college professor and writer lacks clear boundaries between working and not working. He watches "The Sopranos" and March Madness to keep up with pop culture; he finds himself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about a transition in a piece he's writing; he's always working and always playing. "And so my life of sloth blends imperceptibly into my pathological flip side, my workaholism, and this is the odd thing: I can just as easily argue and believe that I work, not too little, but entirely too much. My sense of my own laziness may simply be the perverse guilt engendered by a work ethic that digs its dominatrix heel into my back and rarely lets up."

Lutz writes that his paradoxical, deeply split attitude toward work is shared by his peers. "Everyone I know is in the same boat. We are all lazy impostors, and we are all workaholic slaves. We work too hard and not nearly enough. What can this possibly mean? Is slackerism somehow as much a part of our lives at this point in history as our vaunted work ethic? Are the two simply two sides of the very same coin?"

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Lutz argues that they are. In his view, today's work ethic, and perhaps the work ethic throughout modern history, is always haunted by slackerism, and vice versa. This is the "twisted" and "pathological" relation he decries in himself, the one that won't let him off the hook. "None of the work, the quasi-work or the semi-work I do seems to lessen my slacker guilt, if for no other reason than the simple fact that I aspire to be a complete slacker ... In seeing my son on the couch, I suppose, I saw my ego, my alter ego, my alter alter ego, and on and on, in a hall of opposing mirrors."

Lutz implies, though he does not come right out and say it, that he aspires to be a complete slacker for societally induced reasons. Slackerism is an irresistible cultural meme. Moreover, Lutz is an American, and as he points out, America is especially hung up about work. Meditating on his anger at Cody, Lutz writes, "Marxist cultural critics would have an easy explanation for my anger: they would say that my body was simply showing itself to be an unwitting agent of ideology, my anger literally an embodiment of mainstream cultural values. And they might be right. At least since Tocqueville, foreigners have noted the intensity of the American work ethic, and perhaps I was just mindlessly, bodily enforcing community standards." Lutz cites an extraordinary passage in which Tocqueville observes that the American obsession with industriousness could lead to exhaustion: "a kind of virtuous materialism may ultimately be established in the world, which would not corrupt, but enervate, the soul and noiselessly unbend its springs of action." This aristocratic critique of labor recalls Nietzsche's nightmarish vision of the flea-like "last man" for whom all ideals have been erased by ease, routine and sensuality.

It is Lutz's "twisted relation to work" that prevents him from going one way or the other -- either embracing work like a Japanese salaryman or rejecting it as a curse. The latter attitude, Lutz points out, has held sway for most of history. The immortal words of George Sanders, the blackmailing slacker in "Rebecca," "I'd like to have your advice on how to live comfortably without hard work," seem to be imprinted on mankind's shared DNA. Throughout the classical and medieval ages and the Renaissance, labor was regarded as a lowly activity: man's highest occupation was disinterested contemplation of religious or philosophical subjects. This belief was made possible by an aristocratic, pre-capitalist organization of labor, in which the vast majority of humankind labored so that the enlightened few might indulge in Aristotelian theoria or the vita contemplative of the Middle Ages. (Presumably those nameless peasants would have been happy to retire even if they did not use their leisure time to contemplate the mysteries of the Unmoved Mover. In fact, we don't know one way or the other: As Lutz points out, one of the great lacunas in human history is what people think about work.)

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Lutz dispels the notion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the source of the modern work ethic. "Antipathy toward labor, we might even say, has been the norm since the beginning of time: in Genesis, when God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise, he does so with a host of curses, damning Eve to experience pain in childbirth and subjugation to her husband, and he damns both of them to a life of labor, saying 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.' The necessity to work for survival is thus, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the original curse, the punishment for the original sin."

Indeed, Lutz reminds us that, contrary to the pious homilies of conservative Bible-thumpers, neither the Old nor the New Testament contain the "internalized work ethic counseled by later sermonizers"; in the Bible work is "primarily a diminishment rather than an expression of human being." (In this light, George W. Bush -- whose lifelong aversion to work Lutz describes in rigorous detail, and whom he lists as a prototypical draft-dodging slacker of his era -- may be seen as embodying the deepest precepts of that Christianity he so piously avows.)

But this venerable disdain for work, Lutz argues, is not slackerdom. Until very recently, he writes, "Everyone, we might say, was a slacker" -- which means that no one was. What, then, is a slacker? Lutz gives several different definitions -- a necessary move, considering the bewildering variety of shuffling and recalcitrant ne'er-do-wells he must try to whip into some kind of conceptual shape. Obviously, slackers are people who deride or avoid work and sing the praises of idleness. But that definition would cover everyone from Cro-Magnon man to Bertie Wooster to Sgt. Bilko. Lutz narrows the field down by starting slackerdom at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, about 250 years ago -- the age when "work" acquired its modern meaning.

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The slacker takes the stage, Lutz says, whenever the "world of work undergoes serious structural change. The change from an economy of manual farming and manufacturing to one of mechanized farming and factories in the eighteenth century, the change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy in the middle of the twentieth century, and the change in the 1980s from a world of paper to a world of bytes are in many ways very different, but they have had a number of comparable effects."

The key factor, Lutz notes, is insecurity: Generations who feel that they may not be as well off as their parents tend to produce slackers. "There may be ethnic or racial slurs about laziness in the lower classes, but slackers are almost entirely middle-class or already on their way down to meet it." However, Lutz refuses to define the slacker in strictly economic terms. "Many of my academic colleagues want me to say that it is 'just the economy, stupid,' that the slacker is a class phenomenon, but it is not that easy," he writes.

For Lutz, then, slackers are members of the modern (starting circa 1750) middle class who are spurred into their manifestoes or stances of rejection when their class undergoes a structural change. They are also people who not only did nothing but who also wrote about doing nothing. Since no one wrote slacker manifestoes before 1750 or so, this makes Lutz's definition feel airtight.

By narrowing his focus, Lutz keeps the concept of the slacker from becoming unwieldy. But there are obvious objections to his historical definition. What's so magic, for example, about 1750? Or capitalism? One could argue that certain pre-capitalist social movements contained elements of slackerism. Take the Ranters, that heretical anarcho-mystical group that sprung up during and after the English Civil War. As Norman Cohn points out in "The Pursuit of the Millennium," the Ranters and similar millenarian groups attracted members of threatened and marginalized social groups -- "peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment" -- groups analogous, making due allowance for the difference in historical context, to the threatened manufacturing workers or paper-pushers cited by Lutz.

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And the Ranters shared other traits with slackers. Cohn notes that many of the Ranters basically dropped out of the work world: They shared property (as well as each other's wives), refused to repay debts, and lived on charity. A contemporary text called "The Ranters Religion" notes, "That idlenesse is the mother of all mischiefe was never so evidently proved, as by the ... Ranters, a people so dronish, that the whole course of their lives is but one continued Scene of Sottishness..." Millenarian kooks? Totally! But hard-partying slackers, too!

Of course the Ranters, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the medieval eschatological gnostics from whom they descended, were religious movements. But theirs was a religious age, and one could argue that economic dislocations -- and perhaps beneath those, the universal human desire not to work -- were the real driving force behind them. John Ball, who led the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, famously preached, "When Adam delved and Eve span,/Who was then a gentleman?" From here to revolutionary movements like Marxism is but a short step. But Lutz will not go there: He confers slackerdom upon Karl Marx's son-in-law, who in a priceless bit of historical irony wrote a screed titled "The Right to Be Lazy" before he and his equally aged wife committed dual suicide, but he denies that honor to the old workaholic communist himself.

Lutz would doubtless argue that revolutionary movements, being goal-oriented, communitarian, and celebratory or at least exhortatory, are fundamentally different from slackerism, which he sees as predominantly individualistic, reactive and melancholy. In one sense this is a fair distinction: None of the slacker groups or movements he discusses really have much of a program. It's difficult to imagine an army of 19th century "nerve cases" storming the Bastille, or a horde of ascot-wearing, pipe-smoking "Playboys" rising up to demand greater libidinal satisfaction in their daily lives. (Although Greil Marcus, in his wildly sui generis book "Lipstick Traces," makes a provocative case that punks -- whom Lutz welcomes as anomic slackers -- tried to do just that. Marcus even links the Sex Pistols to the Brethren of the Free Spirit.) Still, Lutz's refusal to reduce the slacker to a strictly class phenomenon, and the heterogeneous groups he includes under the slacker rubric, make this distinction difficult to maintain. Revolutionary groups, too, are driven by hedonism and laziness and frustration with shitty jobs, not just by theory and fervor. The fact is that work is such a universal human preoccupation, and the modes of rebelling against it or simply trying to get out of it are so various, that just about any social movement that aspires to fundamentally change the conditions of work could be considered a version of slackerdom.

Lutz rejects this. For him slackers are conflicted middle-class rebels like himself, whose maverick sensibilities cannot untangle the coils that keep them trapped in conflicting attitudes toward work. Formed by the tension between work and leisure, the slacker is incapable of escaping it. He is a self-deconstructing entity. In its most rigorous form, then, Lutz's definition rules out not just revolutionaries and pre-1750 slackers, but anyone in any era who has successfully checked out.

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It's a sophisticated, but disconcertingly dark and historically deterministic definition. Lutz is well aware of the constructed nature of the work ethic, of the "iron cage" of alienated, inescapable labor decried by Max Weber. But that awareness brings no liberation. We are all locked in Calvin's Geneva, waiting for the spiritual police -- into which we have turned ourselves -- to burst in and discover that we are not working hard enough. For Lutz, the inability to either completely embrace or reject work is characteristic of the modern era, and slackerdom itself cannot escape it.

Lutz does acknowledge that joyousness, glee and wit are integral to the slacker ideal. A true child of the '60s, Lutz would accept his son lying on the couch, as long as he did it in a sufficiently Dionysian way. When pondering his overheated reaction to Cody, he notes that "[m]y anger at my loafing son, however much it might have been directed by my own internalized work ethic, was also a desire that he experience some kind of Whitmanian loafing exuberance." But Lutz is less interested in that exuberance than in the slacker's duality, his uncertain relation to his own do-nothing program -- the melancholy, irony and confusion that haunt his dreams of pure idleness, pleasurable vacancy, fulfilled indolence.

Lutz explores this duality brilliantly in a chapter contrasting Benjamin Franklin, apostle of hard work, and Samuel Johnson, author of "The Idler" and a famous proselytizer for slackerdom. In fact, Lutz points out, each man simultaneously played the opposite role. The nose-to-the-grindstone Franklin couldn't keep his nose out of the décolleté of French ladies, and idling Johnson was a depressive who was extremely hardworking. Johnson, "the busy idler," and Franklin, the "industrious dilettante," created a series of complex and contradictory images about work and idlers, images "that may seem, at one level, like a call for converts, like an invitation to identity, but which are in fact riven with self-doubt ... The slacker has rarely been the advertisement for himself he advertises himself to be."

Lutz is surely right to deflate the sentimental vision of the slacker as staging a permanent successful getaway, like one of those nauseating advertising images of "relaxation" -- beautiful man and beautiful woman on a deserted beach, holding drinks with little umbrellas in them -- that now wander about unbidden in our ids, turning everything they touch to plastic. Still, there is something depressing about his definition. It is one thing to acknowledge that the "invitation to identity" held out by the slacker, which is at bottom the dream of productive and pleasurable leisure, is not easy to realize. But it is quite another to insist that try as we may, none of us -- ulcer-ridden salarymen and stoned slackers alike -- can ever escape the siren song of the work ethic.

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Much of this can be explained by the fact that his subjects are by definition flawed slackers: If they weren't, we wouldn't know about them. As he points out, "The famous or almost famous idlers, loafers, loungers, and slackers throughout history had to produce work about not working in order for us to know them. And many of them, it turns out, were closet workaholics or reformed slackers. Anything even approaching uncorrupted firsthand testimony is impossible to find." Discussing Richard Linklater's film "Slackers," he observes that Linklater himself is not a slacker -- at 45, he has made 15 movies. "What can he really know of it? Real slackers would be, logically, too slack to write their own history."

This may be true, but it raises a fundamental question: Is Lutz's enterprise even possible? Finding a slacker, as Lutz defines him, is beginning to seem akin to the famous philosophical conundrum known as the "Cretan paradox." (Epimenides the Cretan says "All Cretans are liars." Is he lying or telling the truth? If he is telling the truth, he is lying; if he's lying, he's telling the truth.) But these kind of sterile conundrums only trap those who are locked into a priori definitions, and Lutz isn't that dogmatic. He's a historian of slacking, not a theorist of it, and he's wise enough to let his characters take center stage. Lutz's definition of the slacker may hint at a dark and claustrophobic conclusion, but when he actually engages with his subjects a happier portrait emerges.

Throughout his stimulating tour of slackers through the years, Lutz does not rule out the possibility that some of them succeeded in their quest for the cosmic Barcalounger. There are depressives and lost souls here, but also lords of misrule, kings of the permanent spiritual vacation, happy outlaws who could and sometimes did succeed in thumbing their nose at the system or simply in walking away with enough swag to live life on their own terms.

That some lucky souls succeed in slacking to their heart's content seems irrefutable. Take retirement and wealth, two subjects Lutz somewhat inexplicably ignores. People retire at all ages; some retire never having worked at all. People are born rich, inherit money, make a killing at 30, win the lottery. For some of them, instant retirement is challenging; guilt, nihilism, the difficulty of constructing a meaningful world without external constraints, loom. But many of them are quite happy -- and surely some of this group, too, can be defined as slackers. There is, after all, no law that says that one can only receive a get-out-of-Calvinist-guilt pass when one hits 65. (In this light, the ultimate slacker may be that tough 60ish businessman in the ad who boasts to a youthful underling that he subscribes to some phone service or other because it's "my way of sticking it to the man." When the underling says, "But you are the man. Does that mean you're sticking it to yourself?" he says, "Maybe" -- thus simultaneously enjoying the rewards of being a slacker and the boss.)

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Lutz does not investigate these familiar (and admittedly banal) examples of "successful" slackers, but he does acknowledge that the slacker has a legitimate goal. "Slackers are precisely those who argue that the good life is better than the good job. We don't have to quit our jobs to feel the full force of the argument ... The demand made by those who attack the work ethic is that we ask: Are the goals we are working toward worthy? Do we believe our own rationales? Does our work deliver the implied promise of our work ethic? Are we wasting our lives?" In different ways, some of them ludicrous, some profound, most some combination of the two, Lutz's loafers posed these questions.

And did more than pose them. "Doing Nothing" provides a fascinating account of the actual working conditions that formed a backdrop to slacking, or in some cases actually constituted it. In his chapter on "Loafers, Communists, Drinkers and Bohemians," for example, Lutz points out that American laborers in the 19th century "were loath to accept the new, excessively regimented work schedule that factories attempted to impose." In practice, this often meant a workday so bibulous that it made the martini-drenched afternoons supposedly enjoyed by ad executives in the '50s look like models of ascetic restraint. "An owner of a New Jersey iron manufactory made the following notations in his diary over the course of a week:

All hands drunk.

Jacob Ventling hunting.

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Molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach.

Peter Cox very drunk.

Edward Rutter off a-drinking.

"At the shipyards, the same tendency to stop working at irregular intervals and drink was the rule. One ship's carpenter at mid-century described a daily round of breaks for cakes and candy at least every two hours, a whiskey-soaked lunch, and regular trips to the 'convenient grog-shops.' Although some never went drinking, he said, others 'sailed out pretty regularly ten times a day on the average' for whiskey. Management attempts to stop such midday drinking breaks were routinely met with strikes and sometimes resulted in riots." Compared with this workers' paradise, the dot-com office of alleged yore with its Aeron chairs, nap room, espresso cart and foosball table resembles a work gang in Auschwitz.

Beyond the social history of slacking, Lutz is interested in that ambiguous moment when the motives that drive it -- revulsion at meaningless work and personal and spiritual ideals -- collide with reality. Once he breaks out of the 9 to 5, the slacker still has to engage with himself, has to use his time in a world unstructured by The Man, by the clock or by guilt. If the most entertaining parts of "Doing Nothing" are Lutz's sketches of slackers throughout history, the most thoughtful are his attempts to describe the slacker's positive goals -- and why they are both worthwhile and difficult to achieve.

His analysis takes him to the insightful analyst Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who argues that the key to gratification is completely absorbing work -- he calls it "flow." The concept of play, upheld by the Beats and other artistic renegades and slackers, offers another path. Nietzsche united the concepts of work and play when he wrote, "A man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play." This could stand as every artist's credo, and indeed, one could argue that the slacker's dream of a full life is really the dream -- alluring, but not easy to achieve -- of living like an artist.

Lutz does not directly make this connection, but he touches on a similar theme. In the course of realizing he needn't have been so worried about Cody, he invokes Buddhism. "As the Beats -- who rediscovered in Buddhism a do-nothing philosophy -- argued, doing nothing is far from easy. It is a discipline, a practice. 'To do nothing is the most difficult thing in the world,' Oscar Wilde wrote a half-century before them, 'the most difficult and the most intellectual.' The Way of the Loafer is steep and hard. Sometimes one needs to hunker down and work to relieve the pressure. 'I have achieved satori,' the Zen monk said to his master in a famous koan. 'Now what do I do?' 'You could sweep the floor,' the master replied. After doing nothing, doing something is the only next move."


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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