Outward and Visible Signs
I have an idea I’m backing into writing about this morning as I stand on the subway platform, a thing that I’m thinking about as “A Theory of the Information Class,” which attempts to unpack the bizarre merger of Weber and Veblen that so many of us seem to live under today. We operate under a not-exactly-Protestant work ethic that selectively defers the benefits of that work to some mythical after-life. We spend on certain kinds of material display, certainly — technology not least among them — but more than that, we conspicuously display our stress levels as if they were an outward and visible sign of grace.1 The markers of our stress seem to have become the real fruits of our labor, the proof of our virtue, the evidence of our success.
I came to this notion this morning as I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I weren’t so overwhelmed that I can’t fall asleep, if I weren’t waking up at 4 am thinking about everything I have to do, if I weren’t too busy to go to the gym, or go to yoga, or cook healthier meals, or see my friends. The first thing that occurred to me — and trust me, I recognize how sad this is — was that I’d be afraid that I wasn’t working hard enough. Or rather, if I’m going to be honest, I’d be afraid that other people would think I wasn’t working hard enough.
Stress has become, I think, the contemporary sign of our salvation. This doesn’t take us all that far from Weber, of course. But simply being too busy to relax isn’t enough; it’s the need to make visible to those around us how busy we are, to prove our worth by forever demonstrating how little time we have for leisure, that I think begins to carry us into Veblen terrain. It’s not simply about deferring pleasure; it’s about the pleasure we take in deferring pleasure, a pleasure that’s all about how the deferral looks to others.
I’m not sure how much more I want to dig into this right now, or whether I’m at all qualified to take this line of thought much further. But it’s clear from my last few months of posting here, as well as the reading and thinking I’ve been doing in my (precious little! really, very impressively infinitesimal!) leisure time, that I’ve got questions of balance, of self-care, of stillness very much on my mind. I am going to let those thoughts linger, and see where they might take me.
- It only occurs to me as an afterthought: this phrase of course comes from Catholicism’s description of the sacraments. Has stress become a sacrament, something we receive regularly as a form of grace? Is this emphasis on good work(s) evidence of the development of a more properly Catholic spirit of capitalism? ↩