“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

pissing while

“Many people use their social activities to mark time rather than the other way around. In parts of Madagascar, questions about how long something takes might receive an answer like "the time of a rice cooking" (about half an hour) or "the frying of a locust" (a quick moment). Similarly, natives of the Cross River in Nigeria have been quoted as saying "the man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted" (less than fifteen minutes). Closer to home, not too many years ago the New English Dictionary included a listing for the term "pissing while"—not a particularly exact measurement, perhaps, but one with a certain cross-cultural translatability.” – Robert Levine.


It is no news that the President was not born the twin of industriousness. But blaming Bush’s indolence doesn’t really get us too far in understanding the culture that allowed New Orleans to drown, and the cornered class to either fight or starve; nor does it explain the spectacle of seeing the governing class and its thugs in the press jeering at drowning wheelchair victims for “not getting out when they were told” while waiting for their “welfare checks” (which is apparently what a social security payment has become).

That culture – the Bush culture – precedes, of course, its namesake. But Bush, a garbage fly in human form, is as wonderfully implicative of the American governing class as the garbage fly is of a garbage can: if one is buzzing around a can, you can guess there is rotting meat in it. Similarly, the buzzing of the President’s men tells us a lot about the decaying assumptions that are embedded, over the last thirty years, in those circles that have money and power.

How to approach the thing we have all seen, and still can’t comprehend?

Here’s one small approach. The latest issue of Social Research is devoted to busyness. This is one aspect of that culture which we saw, in appalling living color, last week, fail at every juncture. An understanding of busyness is essential to understanding how “Brownie” did an outstanding job last week in helping to kill ten people in the Civic Center, one hundred in Chalmette, and so on.

We think that you should start with Robert Levine’s article, “A Geography of Busyness.” Levine, who teaches at California State University, Fresno, has been studying cultural differences in the perception of time – and his researchers have gone so far as to clock the speed of your average walker in cities in Brazil, Germany, the U.S., etc., to understand the use of time, under the sign of busyness, in two respects:

“I propose that the subjective experience of feeling busy has two main components: speed and activity.

Speed refers to the rate at which an activity is performed. It is the amount of activity per unit of time. The speed may be measured over brief and immediate periods of time, as when one experiences rapidly oncoming traffic or an upcoming deadline; or over longer, more sustained intervals, such as when we speak of the accelerating tempo of modem life.

The second component of busyness, activity, is the absence of unscheduled time. It is the amount of time that is consumed with activity; or, the ratio of doing things to doing nothing.”

Levine hypothesized that walking would be faster in European countries than in Brazil and the middle range of developing countries, and faster still in the U.S. He found that “pedestrians in Rio de Janeiro walk only two-thirds as fast as do pedestrians in Zurich, Switzerland,” for instance. This was important, insofar as walking is emblematic of speed as a measure of busyness. It is also exemplary of one variety of the emptiness entailed by busyness. The value of that walk is purely in its being completed with speed from the perspective of busyness. It is, in a sense, clipped out of life. It is dead time.

In another sense, nothing can be clipped out of life, which is made up of all of its parts. Of course.

Now, LI’s feeling is that the men around Bush are busy men. The Homeland Security Secretary, the director of FEMA, they are of that quality that no one could deny them busyness. It is also our feeling that their busyness is at the root of their incompetence. And that they reflect a kind of incompetence-in-busyness endemic to the managerial class.

Levine makes an interesting observation, contrasting event time with scheduled time:

“Keeping time by natural events has become increasingly less useful, or even impossible, in most contemporary urban cultures. There is, however, a variation on this type of timekeeping, what we might call "event time," that continues to be dominant in much of the world. In clock-time cultures, the hour on the timepiece governs the beginning and ending of activities. When event time predominates, scheduling is determined by activities. Events begin and end when, by mutual
consensus, participants "feel" the time is right. The distinction between clock and event time deeply divides cultures. Sociologist Robert Lauer (1981) conducted an intensive review ofthe literature concerning the meaning of time throughout history. The most fundamental difference,
he found, has been between people operating by the clock versus those who measure time by social events.”

In a previous post, we noted the interesting coincidence of two functions that give us the two faces of the “then:” the logical then, which moves from a possible condition to an entailment; and the narrative then, which sequences events. Busyness complicates this relationship, and might explain why planning has become a lost art, in the Bush culture. We will expand on this in a later post. Meanwhile, we recommend the issue of Social Research, if you can get ahold of it.

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