Idle Chatter

New York
12.15.07

Left: Cabinet editor in chief Sina Najafi with Aaron Levy, executive director and chief curator of the Slought Foundation. Right: Jean-Michel Rabaté, senior curator of the Slought Foundation. (All photos courtesy Cabinet/Slought Foundation)


God, how did they get me out of bed for this one? If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then theorizing about sloth is like masturbating about peace. Or something like that. And this was no Beckettian affair, with broad expanses of idle silence to contemplate nothingness at one’s leisure; this was six and a half hours of nonstop lecturing, paneling, questioning. On a Saturday. OK, there was a lunch break. But really.

Co-organized by Cabinet, a fine magazine to which your correspondent has contributed, and the Slought Foundation, which must be the artiest organization in Philadelphia (see for yourself: slought.org; no hoagies allowed), “In Defense of Sloth,” at Cooper Union, turned out to be a standard academic conference—professors delivering papers, abetted by slides—gussied up by its odd topic and a couple vintage nature films.

To honor the symposium’s theme, I tried to be late. I really did. I overslept, inched my way into Manhattan, and lingered outside by the statue of Peter Cooper. To no avail: The symposium out-slothed me. I took my seat inside the sparsely populated Great Hall a good five minutes before it began. Cabinet editor Sina Najafi and Slought director and curator Aaron Levy welcomed us and proceeded to list synonyms for and other words related to sloth. So, not exactly “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but at least commensurate with the level of underachievement implied by the event’s title.

The first lecturer was Marina van Zuylen, French-department chair at Bard, who spoke about Paul Lafargue’s 1883 treatise against work, “The Right to be Lazy.” Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, preempted Calvinist attacks on his argument by pointing out that God worked for six days and rested for all eternity. Then again, his father-in-law once said of his writings, “If that’s Marxism, I’m not a Marxist!” (You keep score; I’m too lazy.) Titling her presentation “I Work, Therefore I’m Not,” van Zuylen summarized Lafargue’s passion for idleness, his sense that our “absurd and lethal rivalry with machines” was killing moments of authentic being in human life. She also quoted Nietzsche, who wrote that “work is the best police” and that “American work madness is infecting Old Europe.”

Left: Pierre Saint-Amand, professor of comparative literature and French at Brown University, and Marina van Zuylen, chair of the French program at Bard College. Right: Marina van Zuylen and Aaron Levy.


Next up was Pierre Saint-Amand, from Brown, also French. His talk on Rousseau’s slothful predilections—as expressed in his autobiographical writings and rather at odds with his political thought—drifted by me into the ether, mainly due to Saint-Amand’s thick accent and breathy delivery. He seemed like a very nice, very smart guy, but I found myself thinking about banana-nut muffins. I do recall that he said that Rousseau purposely threw away his watch, though, which I liked.

Daniel Rosenberg, associate history professor at the University of Oregon, and also nice/smart-seeming, began his talk about the talented Taylor family of the nineteenth century and how their children’s books inculcated the youth of the day with a strong work ethic—but really, I had to go. This was too much like college, or work, so I left. Snack, cigarette, stroll, gaze at Peter Cooper. When I returned, Christopher Turner was giving a wry, entertaining look at the early-twentieth-century fad for the Steinach operation—vasectomies with monkey- or goat-gland transplants on the side—which attracted attenuated males from Freud to Yeats with promises of restored vigor and virility. While there was no proof the procedure worked, many believed it did—until it was rendered obsolete by injectable synthetic testosterone.

After lunch, the old nature films ran—one on the Dodder, a parasitic plant of creeping tendrils, another on those busy, busy ants—both narrated in the psychotically cheery 1950s style that must have been partly responsible for the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s. Then, when Cabinet’s UK editor Brian Dillon told the room that he wouldn’t start his talk until his friends returned from a Japanese restaurant, a well-dressed middle-aged man loudly objected, “You’re half an hour late already!” and stormed off with his companion in a huff.

Left: The sloth doll. (Photo: Grayson Revior) Right: Emily Apter, professor of comparative literature and French at NYU, with Cabinet UK editor Brian Dillon.


After this inappropriate blast of officiousness, Dillon’s friends returned, and he gave an engaging talk on the relationship of British hypochondria and sloth, noting that Darwin (who frequently farted and vomited), Boswell (who envisioned a mechanical bed that would raise his torso every morning), and Florence Nightingale (who did much of her work from bed) all developed surprisingly efficient routines through the management of their real and imagined maladies. Slought curator and University of Pennsylvania professor Jean-Michel Rabaté followed, lecturing on Belacqua, the indolent character in Dante’s Purgatorio, and Samuel Beckett. As he mentioned how Beckett’s students would often find him sleeping at home instead of teaching them, I began dozing myself. Older than the rest, Rabaté was deeply substantial, but I was ready for Molloy’s ditch.

There was no stopping the Sloth Express, however. MIT architecture professor and Grey Room coeditor Felicity Scott seized the dais and delivered a rapid-fire talk on the Drop City geodesic dome commune, Santa Cruz’s way-alternative Pacific High School, and the Ant Farm collective—all late-’60s iterations of the counterculture’s refusal of work and straight society. Her mannered, staccato speaking style, along with her ideas, did manage to jar me awake but also made me realize how much pedagogical effort went into this afternoon’s celebration of inactivity. Curator Katherine Carl then gave a casual overview of the charmingly slothful Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic—who has said that there are no Western artists, because they’re not lazy enough to earn the title—with slides of his witty, maudit artwork and of him sleeping. At this point, my ass hurt. Had exhaustion exhausted itself?

No. There must be the requisite panel discussion, and so there was. All of the speakers lined up behind a long table and were joined by NYU comp-lit professor Emily Apter, who moderated. By now, there were hardly more people in the audience than onstage, but a few questions were fielded: one from a young man who stuttered, another from an older man I presumed to be homeless but who flaunted his SLOTH T-shirt and waxed about the Jewish Sabbath, and the obligatory “You’ve been talking about white men the whole time; where are the women?” question. The last, in this case, was a good one—all the sloth champions discussed were men, save Nightingale—but it was neatly, and very untheoretically, parried by Apter, who said, “There are women of certain classes who are just women.” Nice work if you can get it.

Andrew Hultkrans