By Laura Martz
To sustain itself, consumer capitalism relies on (1) the maintenance of an outdated survival imperative and work ethic, and (2) a totalizing commodification and consumerism, which necessitates work beyond perceived survival needs. Play has been diametrically opposed to work (defined as wage labor), coded as decadent within the sphere of rationality and radically excised. One's time off the clock is allegedly the proper realm of play. Yet under consumer capitalism this time is cleverly commandeered for other means as intrinsic to keeping the machine running as the activities engaged in under the watchful eye of the clock.
Play will be defined here only loosely, as all that which is diametrically opposed to and excluded by work (its elements of delight, surprise and affect will be preserved). Bataille conceives of a general economy of global energy flows which inevitably generates a surplus of energy which must be expended. Under capitalism, excess (human energy not necessary to survival) is diverted into accumulation and endlessly-climbing profits for the ruling class. Yet for Bataille the proper object of the expenditure of this energy is dissipation, "nonproductive expenditure": "into the effervescence of life." Play is a fitting expediture; put another way, this nonproductive expenditure defines another aspect of play crucial to the following argument. Play is the refusal of regimentation, supervision and clocks. In this sense, play is a precondition for resistance, which demands time and energy for spontaneity, contemplation, communication, and unity. Play must be recovered.
Reintroducing play into adult life would necessitate the rupture of what Debord called the spectacle (so as to open the way for other species of meaning besides exchange value) and the recovery of some unity for life against the separateness of present conditions, especially the effacement of the boundary between art and life (in order to despecialize and render accessible more forms of activity). Both of these aims were part of the project of the Situationist International. I will attempt to reexamine the ideology which keeps time divided between producing and consuming in a situationist light, chipping away at it in the process, and begin to suggest some possibilities for reclaiming time from work.
The survival imperative in the technologized world as a rationale for wage labor is an alibi used to legitimate capitalist profit and thus domination and alienation. That the worker does excess work (more than demanded by her own, or anyone's, necessity, and more than she is paid for) is a law of capitalism. Capitalist profit is the reification of this excess labor, which is either channelled into the reinforcement of the status of the ruling class or redirected into capital accumulation. The worker will never be paid more than she or he needs to survive and remain fit to work. This axiom was altered slightly with the need to metamorphose the worker-producer into a consumer when off the clock. Henry Ford introduced the five-dollar day in the recognition that with the surplus being produced as a result of increased efficiency under industrialization and Taylorization, the consumer market needed to be "vertically expanded": workers, most of the population and thus putatively the predominant buyers of products, needed excess income with which to absorb the system's waste output. (Workers also needed incentive to stick with Ford at first, when other employers did not yet enforce his scientific management principles, which the workers found demeaning and tiresome. They were forced into step, nevertheless, as scientific management rapidly took hold everywhere.) The purpose of the "consumer wage" is thus to keep the machinery of capitalist overproduction in motion.
The consumer must be conditioned from birth to hand over the "excess" wage in exchange for the excesses of capitalist production. In the early twentieth century the new requirement of capitalism became the total cultural control of workers outside the workplace (when their role changed to that of consumers), through the new advertising industry, as well as in it. Advertising is perhaps the most obvious mode of spectacular ideology. The spectacle holds workers in thrall, teaching them in what is called their "free" time that their desires can be satisfied through consumption. The upkeep of the capitalist economic system thus finally encroaches on all our waking hours.
Half a century after the development of advertising and consumerist ideology, the situationists held that the "society of the spectacle" (commodities, art-as-commodity, the mass media, the entertainment industry) alienates its "spectators," who are condemned to do nothing more than watch themselves, experiencing satisfaction (but not really) only through the mediation of the commodity. The spectacle steals every experience and sells it back to us, but only symbolically, so that we are never satisfied: via this mechanism we support the machine of endless consumption over and over.
Play is thought of as the opposite of "work." Yet under the existing order play is officially allowed only children and the workers of play-as-spectacle, which is not play. It is reified through the professionalization of select people as "athletes," "artists" or "entertainers." These physical, creative activities are reserved for "professionals," who must sell the product of their "play" as spectacle. As observed by the Bureau of Control (pamphleteers from Houston, Texas), in the realm of "art" behavior is tolerated that would not be in the "real world." Play in the "working world" is diverted, channeled off as "art," contained as decadent behavior in the mainstream of life. Children are punished in school for playing except at scheduled break time, as training for the radical split between what one is ordered to do and what one might like to do.
Furthermore, to play professionally today and live off it, one must be able to command a mass audience and license the spectacle-commodity to a hierarchy of managers and owners, each of whom creams off an ascending percentage of profit from the "work" (for that is what this "play" has been converted or inverted into). "Performance" is now also always subject to endless monitoring and control by the professional judges and censors.
According to the situationists, the desire for experience is "continually commodified and in turn wrenched free from spectacular relations in a perpetual struggle for its realisation." This axiom is beautifully manifest in the US in 1993 in a Nike commercial. A young, white actor boasts, "My name is Fletcher and I work as little as possible." The company slogan "Just Do It" appears on the screen in wavy acid-green letters on a hot-pink background. We have here the co-option and price-tagging by the spectacle of the anti-work, pro-play ethic of the situationists' American brethren, the hippies; presented simultaneously with the suggestive phrase: just do it! (Just try LSD! Just blow up that military installation!) But in this case, "just do it" is only supposed to mean "just buy this hundred-dollar pair of shoes."
The supreme irony of capitalism might be that an anti-production and anti-capitalist ethic can be used to promote capitalist interests, by inducing people to consume through teasing them with oppositional desires. In the operation of the Nike ad, giving in to anticapitalist desires ("working as little as possible") is OK, and what's more, it's achievable through consumption (which is to say, not at all, except through a commodity fantasy). But someone who understands how advertising works will be able to separate the commodity from the impulse the ad attempts to link with it and examine that impulse for the symptom it is.
Only those who do work can afford to buy products like this. Nike obviously perceives a grain of dissatisfaction with the capitalist system and channels it into support of that system. But we can be sure dissatisfaction with the status quo is alive and well when the status quo has to commandeer it. I see this ad as targeting that US media-generated grouping called "Generation X" or "slackers." They are constructed as an un- or under-employed, downwardly-mobile group of recent college graduates. As the mass media have it, the state of the economy, US politics in the 1980s, the condition of the ecosystem, and growing up in suburbia have made them skeptical of capitalism's lures and promises, its ideology of bourgeois ambition. Made aware of their status as a demographic category through advertising and its supporting media, they have been co-opted by the spectacle and used to sell upscale goods like cars, though it is unclear to whom--those more ambivalent "cynics" of the same age and class grouping, one suspects.
These people are would-have-been-desirable consumers (and employees) gone bad. They're not suitably ambitious (sometimes they almost resemble their European counterparts, the "unemployed generation"--who, because they could, founded autonomist scenes) to make capitalism comfortable, and allegedly cannot get and/or do not want the lucrative jobs that are their inheritance. They are interesting because they seem so skeptical about capitalism as the promised road to happiness, so uninvested in the ideology that keeps it going.
Laura Martz is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Literary and Cultural Theory. You can read this article in its entirety at Cultronix.