Month: March 2017

Leisure and laziness


Image credit: Nu au divan, Gustave Caillebotte, 1880-82. 

What is leisure? Leisure is meaningful activity that we enjoy. Leisure is not work because work has a purpose in mind. Work is a means to an end e.g. money, opportunities, etc. People have elaborated on the great benefits of leisure – it is a means of unwinding, contemplation, reflection, and renewal. But it is not to be treated as merely a means to an end (refreshment or otherwise). It is an end in itself.

We are made to feel like we don’t deserve leisure if we have not worked. We work so we earn the play – but these are never in equal ratios. I quote Maria Popova: “I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive.”[1] The two poles of activity in life are leisure and work and they come together. If you have leisure without work, you are lazy/a burden. If you have work without leisure, you are not alive.

Some people might hold the view that work is a meaningful activity that they enjoy. In my opinion, this is the best synthesis of work and leisure. It is the equilibrium of working and leisure not found by balancing the ratio of work/play, but rather, dissolving the clear boundaries between the two.

However, not everyone is so fortunate to meld work and leisure so nicely together. In my view, the toxicity stems not from being unable to find that synthesis of work and leisure. Rather, it stems from the meaning of ‘leisure’ being tagged to notions of idleness, as well as prestige being attached to the label of a ‘modern workaholic’.

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Image credit: @laurieliptondrawings via @illustrarts, instagram post.

Capitalist modes of order and output push us to equate purpose with productivity. It has become a modern sin to be unproductive (doing little), let alone doing nothing. Even within ‘leisure’, certain modes of leisure are seen as more acceptable uses of our time. Respectable forms of leisure are when we do things attached to certain notions of benefit, other forms get tagged with negative connotations like ‘lazy’ or ‘guilty pleasure’. We do sports, read, go out, and attend parties. We live a life constantly on the move, shuffling from one activity to another. Why is playing football looked upon more favourably than sitting on your sofa staring into space as a warm body of pure awareness? Why are we made to feel guilty and ashamed for certain forms of leisure? To sit and to simply be is to yield concern – “Why are you just sitting here like that?” or “Can’t you put your time to better use?”

Consider Pieper’s definition of leisure—leisure is non-activity not in the absence of physical action, but rather, “an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, [and] an ability to let things go, to be quiet.” If this is true, “leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like ‘breaks,’ ‘time off,’ ‘weekend,’ ‘vacation,’ and so on — it is a condition of the soul.[2] This means that leisure can be action-based – You can play football and Frisbee and spend your entire weekend on the dance-floor… but action for action’s sake is obscuring the true meaning of ‘leisure’.

It has come to a point where leisure has become part of our to-do list. We are vehicles for action and our identity as an individual revolves around a collection of these actions. Have we lost our way because we no longer know how to be with ourselvesWhen did the meaning of (non-active, non-productive) leisure become conflated with lazy, and when did work (in copious doses) become seen as worth celebrating?

Above all, as a condition for the soul, leisure is non-compulsive.

 

[1] Maria Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/22/david-steindl-rast-leisure-gratefulness/.

[2] Josef Pieper quoted in Popova, “Why we lost leisure: David Steindl-Rast on purposeful work, play, and how to find meaning in the magnificent superfluities of life”

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What is Garfield’s gender?

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Image credit: Shared

I refer to the recent debate on the gender of Garfield. Mentalfloss published an article where Davis (the creator of Garfield) claimed that “Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old.”  This seemed to point at the gender neutrality of the character. Hence, activist Virgil Texas updated the Garfield page on Wikipedia stating Garfield’s gender neutrality. This resulted in a 60 hour war on Wikipedia when fans battled to define Garfield’s gender.

Image result for garfields gender
Image credit: Daily Mail

Garfield has been thought to be male because of the use of male pronouns in the comic version of Garfield, as well as the use of a male voice-over (Bill Murray) in the movie. Many people voiced their position on Garfield being male, but this debate has also resulted in plenty of people who did not understand what the fuss was about. They claimed it was a waste of time to be even debating about something so trivial.

Was the debate too ‘trivial’ – Does the gender of Garfield matter? First, I refer to Kiss 92’s reaction to this debate before offering my own thoughts.

Kiss 92’s take on it

On the morning of 8 March 2017, three Kiss 92 DJs had a conversation on the debate and weighed in. Two things struck me during the course of their conversation:

1) A DJ had commented, “…When in doubt, [there’s always the option of labelling Garfield as] ‘transgender’.”

First off, when gender is not ascertained or known, this does not mean that one is transgendered. Being transgendered involves experiencing dissonance between your birth sex and sense of gendered identity. They often feel like they are trapped in a wrong body – For instance, a person born male may identify strongly with being either a ‘woman’. However, transgender might also include both people who do not identify exclusively as being a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as ascribed by gendered societal norms (NB: some people interpret this to be ‘genderqueer’ since a large bulk of transgendered people have a strong attachment to being the ‘opposite’ gender).

This subverts assumptions that ‘masculinity’ corresponds to being male in constituting what it means to be a ‘man’, and ‘femininity’ corresponding to being a female ‘woman’. However, the extents to which ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ operate will vary with societal contexts. For instance, a male might be called out on being ‘un-manly’ because he is not sufficiently ‘masculine’ as defined by his society.

This brings us to an important conceptual distinction.

2). One DJ had conflated sex with gender by using the terms male/man and female/woman interchangeably.

Sex and gender are not the same! Sex is what you were born as in terms of chromosomes, hormones and anatomy, gender is constructed by society and norms. It is also maintained by institutional structures (both formal and informal) and reproduced by people in their cultural contexts. In what Judith Butler calls ‘gender performativity’, she argues that people perform a particular gender, by continually acting in a particular way that your society deems how a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ should behave. One is not automatically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, but learns to be, and reproduces it in daily life. Being a certain gender according to ascribed gender norms takes consistent ‘performances’, even if it has been socialised and entrenched such that one does not realise the gendered constructions at work.

In summary, (because diagrams are always better than words):

Related image
Image credit: Scalar

Hence, it is perfectly possible to be a female lesbian woman who has andro/tending-toward-masculine gender expressions. It does not hold that female has to correspond to ‘woman’, ‘feminine’ and ‘straight’.

My take on the Garfield debate

Gender is tricky. We have to be mindful that it not only exists on a spectrum, but is also a construct. Many statements (like the two I raised above – I apologise for lack of precise quotations and examples) are founded on misinformed conceptions of gender and sex. Returning to the question on what my thoughts are on the whole Garfield debate: I take no stance on what I believe Garfield’s gender is. Some might be surprised that I am not advocating the gender-neutral position. Indeed, public acknowledgment of a popular cartoon character to be gender-neutral will be a huge step in terms of rethinking gender not as discrete binary categories. However, the outcome of Garfield’s gender is secondary.

In this context, I only take a particular stand of how I think ‘gender’ should be understood: Gender is fluid, problematic, and cannot be essentialised or neatly categorised. Even though the discussion did not yield particular conclusions, no space for discussion is too trivial. On the contrary, it gives us reason for hope. I believe that space for discourse is always healthy until it escalates to aggression and spirals into violence, be it in physical or verbal form. Having open discussion allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints to be put forth. The implication of this is a poststructuralist, multi-layered engagement on gender. ‘Gender’ as a fixed concept is destabilised, and this is perhaps the greatest win – Not Garfield ending up to be gender-neutral, but a space for contestation and conversation.

The more we facilitate discussion, the more we promote open-mindedness and reasoning. We can defend our positions, receive criticisms, and refine our positions.

What Marina Abramovic’s ‘Rhythm 0’ has in common with Black Mirror’s ‘Men Against Fire’

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Image credit: The John Doppler Effect

Known for her work as a performance artist, Marina Abramovic has produced many different artworks involving the engagement of both artist and audience. One of her most controversial pieces, Rhythm 0, took this engagement to a whole new level.

Rhythm 0 involved a table with 72 objects laid out on it. The list of items included flowers, a brush, a sheet of white paper, a box of razor blades, a polaroid camera and a gun, etc. The description read “I am the object,” and, “During this period I take full responsibility.” For six hours, Abramovic would be a passive object, and the audience were free to move her and use the objects on her as they pleased. Some of the objects on the table were harmless or even pleasant. Others had the potential to seriously hurt her.

Rhythm 0 reflected performance art as a way to transform both artist and audience. The audience was invited to direct the action and collaborate in art-making. They were no longer mere observers. The art-space was shared by both artist and audience, and entailed objects and agents. However, the twist lay in the inverted relationship between artist and audience: Instead of art being produced by the artist as the agent, the audience has become the agent and has transformed into, to some extent, the artist.

Initially, members of the public were tentative and timid. They started off with repositioning her arms, placing objects on her and taking photographs. As the hours drew on, they became increasingly aggressive:

“They poured oil on her head. They pricked her with the thorns of the rose. They cut her clothing. They cut her. One participant actually licked her blood. They carried her around the room half-naked, then put her on a wooden table and stabbed a knife into the table between her legs. One participant put a bullet in the gun and pointed it at her head, and held it there, finger on the trigger, until another audience member eventually pushed the gun away.”[1]

At the end of the six hours, she stood up – bleeding and in tears, and walked towards her audience. She no longer existed as a ‘thing’ in a particular state of passivity. It was a reminder to the audience that she was very much ‘alive’, just like them. Knowing that Abramovic (as a person with a ‘self’) had been subject to their abuses for the past few hours, the audience scattered immediately. This reaction exposed a fear of facing up to the aftermath of their wretched humanity.

Abramovic believed that confronting physical pain and exhaustion was important in making a person completely present and aware of his or her self. [2] However, Rhythm 0 pushed the boundaries of morality and its relationship with personhood. To what extent do we treat a person as a ‘person’ (i.e. relational recognition of their ‘self’ with respect to our own) when they are thing-ified? How is morality affected? Abramovic challenges the possibilities of action taken against another person in the face of two things: 1) Absolving the responsibility of the agents, and 2) Her passivity, transforming herself into a mere object.

Responsibility is an important driver in directing people’s actions. However, even if they could not be held responsible, surely they would have felt it against their conscience? I suggest that Abramovic’s passivity was key in emboldening the audience. As far as possible, she turned herself into an object, just like the 72 others laid on the table, and the audience had no qualms inflicting violence on ‘things’.

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Image credit: Movie pilot

Rhythm 0 took place in 1974, and the latest season of Black Mirror was released in 2016. However, despite the years between them, there were eerie parallels that can be drawn between Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror’s Men Against Fire (S03E06). If you have not already watched the episode, this is a spoiler alert. Black Mirror provides an interesting spin to notions of ‘conscience’ and ‘responsibility’ using technology. The episode is about how soldiers are issued implants, changing their sense of smell and vision. They do not see the goriness or smell the blood upon massacring the ‘enemy’. More importantly, the ‘enemy’ appears to them as subhuman monsters. The plot twist is that these ‘monsters’ are really just humans like the soldiers, and the soldiers are all part of a political ploy to eradicate certain groups of people. They are merely a vehicle for politics through the means of warfare.

Firstly, the dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’ is reminiscent of the ‘thingification’ that goes on in Rhythm 0. When you strip a person of their personhood and objectify them, violence and aggression is easily inflicted. It does not go against conscience because there is no tension to begin with. Secondly, the soldiers have the memory of receiving the implant erased. They do not have to bear the burden of knowing that their conscience has been tampered, making the killing a lot easier.

Both Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror invokes important and disturbing questions on humanity and agency. Men Against Fire’s dark themes are speculative fiction, but not without some degree of truth. Rhythm 0 is testament to this. When a person relates to another not as a human of equal standing but as an ‘other’ or an ‘object’, this potentially alters the nature of the relationship. Rhythm 0’s bold foray into these sinister themes is controversial because it is a real-life incident that has revealed the dark possibilities of human action when parameters of responsibility and conscience are tweaked.

[1] John Doppler Effect: http://johndopp.com/reality-0-marina-abramovic/

[2]The Art Story: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-abramovic-marina-artworks.htm

Restaurant Kyo

Restaurant Kyo is a place where relationships converge and intersect with food. This is a story of three couples with three very different dining experiences.

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Barachirashi

There was a queue. L’s legs hurt from the standing, and it was cold. “The wait will be worth it,” N assured her, and L did not doubt N’s impeccable taste in food. With N’s adventurous taste buds, there was never a dull day in the past month that they had dated. True to N’s unconventional nature, they spent most of their time trying different foods. Tonight was Japanese food night.

When their food finally arrived, it took L only one bite to know that N was right. It was worth the wait. They ate silently from large bowls of seasoned rice, topped to the brim with generous chunks of raw fish. The seasoning was delightfully savoury, but left a sweet aftertaste. It was the best thing L had ever tasted.

They wolfed down their barachirashi in content silence. L thought about how the modern dining experience sometimes entailed shallow chatter during the meal. It was as though conversation served the function of filling the void left by subpar food in overpriced restaurants. Today, there was no need for that. Even without words, dining together had become an intimate experience for the both of them.

Before L met N, she was content to stuff herself with convenience store noodles and refrigerated sandwiches from the deli counter. Since then, L and N’s dates always revolved around good food – to N, sharing food was a form of love. “This is how you love yourself and others”, N said. “Food is nourishment not only for the body but also the soul.” She showed L five different ways to prepare linguine, the art of rolling sushi, and the trick behind choosing sweet watermelons. N’s fascination with different foods symbolised her capacity for wonder. It was with small bites that L discovered N’s big heart.

When the last grain of rice had been picked off the bowl, L licked her lips. She was the first to break the silence. “I love this. I love you.” She said.

L’s declaration of love was truncated by the sound of glass smashing against a wall.

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Img credit: Kyo Roll En

Matcha

S and J finished their sushi dinner. S cupped her hands around a cup of green tea. The scent of the green tea wafted to her nose as she brought the cup to her face. The smell of ocha was familiar, but had conjured some discomforting memories.

“You were having a bad day so I got you this!” He revealed a tub of matcha ice cream he had hidden behind his back. “Green tea! Your favourite!”

Like always, we got two spoons and ate from the tub. The ice cream was sweet, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. There were bitter nodes amidst the sweet and I loved it for the very combination of these flavours that constituted its unique taste. Matcha ice cream was not cloying…Just like our relationship. We gave each other sufficient space. But perhaps, too much space.

When you said that I had changed, we were eating matcha ice cream. Suddenly, the ice cream tasted too bitter.

I haven’t touched it since.

 “Where shall we head to after this?” S asked.

“I’d like to stay for dessert. I love their green tea ice creams.” J suggested.

S felt her stomach sink as J ordered a matcha and vanilla parfait. J scooped some ice cream using her spoon. S watched as the spoonful of matcha ice cream traversed the space between them. It hovered in front of her mouth. “Try this.” J said to S.

S opened her mouth hesitantly as J fed her the matcha ice cream. It was bittersweet, just as she had remembered. She felt the ice cream melt on her tongue as the memories began its slow spill from the crevices of her mind. It was at this point that J leaned over, cupped S’s face and kissed her firmly on the mouth.

 “Does this taste good?”

Her kiss tasted of vanilla.

The vanilla overlaid the taste of the bittersweet matcha, resulting in a delightful combination of sweetness that was perfectly balanced. S took a second spoonful of matcha ice cream. Some of the vanilla ice cream had melted and mixed into it. The bittersweet matcha was in harmony with the subtle fragrance of the vanilla.

The mind forms new associations to sensations when introduced to new memories. With each mouthful, S felt the gustatory imageries of the past overlay, but not override, that of the present. Both old and new lovers had converged and she was slowly beginning to heal. The matcha was no longer as bitter as she remembered.

“Thanks for suggesting we get the ice cream,” she said, knowing that J would not be able to fully appreciate the gravity of her words. A grateful smile spread across S’s lips.

S’ thoughts were cut short by a loud noise in the corner of the restaurant and they both turned to look. “It seems like they’re fighting,” J said.

Sake-Boom

Img credit: AWOL

Sake

 “When were you going to tell me about this?” C exploded.

“I was going to –” W tried to explain, but C cut her off.

 “How could you do this? You didn’t have the right.”

C fumed as she downed her ninth glass of sake. The bottom of the sake glass was not where she would find herself. Sake warms the body on a cold night, but that night, it burned for them both. C regarded the sake glass. For some people, alcohol provided temporary relief – a sanctuary that they retreated to whenever emotions got too overwhelming. For C, there were times when she drank to forget, and when she woke up the next day, the pain would be lessened. Not this time. This time, she would remember and feel the same hurt over and over. How could she possibly forget?

She felt a fire in the pit of her stomach threatening to unleash its fury in the form of verbal carnage. No. She could not bring herself to yell at her lover. In a fit of uncontrollable anger with no other form of release, C smashed her glass against the wall next to them.

The loud noise of glass shattering had alerted the people around them. Some restaurant staff rushed to the table. C had cut her hand smashing the sake glass against the wall. Her lover looked on in shock and horror as crimson streamed down C’s hand.

W had watched helplessly as the glass shattered. It seemed to be a telling metaphor for the state of their relationship. Sake was her favourite thing in this world, but that was before she met C. Tears streamed down her face as W began to sob.