Work, Play, and the Zany Blurring of the Public and Private Self

February 19, 2016 Updated: February 21, 2016

As summer holidays begin to fade from memory and the routine of work has well and truly traced its habitual pathway back into our daily lives, I got to thinking about work. When do we start and stop working? Not just for mini breaks or Christmas holidays, for parental leave or retirement, but also daily.

It seems that in many careers we are never fully switched off from our professional role. With technology bringing information and the ability to communicate into our private spaces more than ever previously, it is not unusual to check, and respond to work emails first and last thing; upon waking and before sleeping, in bed!

There have been studies conducted and advice offered about ‘no screen time’ before sleepy time so that we power down, switch off and rest properly. Then we can awake refreshed and ready to launch back into our chosen work all over again the next day. But at the same time, our contemporary society is giving us an altogether stronger message about being “on” all the time.

There are obvious benefits to the labour market if people work insane hours for the prestige, the profit, and the power. But it is not just corporate leaders working at 160 per cent!

Stanford Professor Sianne Ngai has spoken and written about the more mediocre aesthetic categories of the cute, the zany and the merely interesting, which respectively link to consumption, production, and circulation in our postmodern world.

Ngai writes,

The commodity aesthetic of cuteness, the discursive aesthetic of the interesting, and the performative aesthetic of zaniness help us get at some of the most important social dynamics underlying life in late capitalist society today.

The Cute, the Zany, and the Merely Interesting

The mundane aesthetic categories of cute, zany and interesting are taken seriously in a way that philosophers previously reserved for analysis of the beautiful and the sublime. Yet why is this problematic?

Ngai speaks about how the zany has come to infiltrate our relationship with work such that labourers are asked to be enthusiastic, playful, creative, passionate, and yes, zany. Workers are asked to be hardworking, and to love it!

I must admit that I have bought whatever it is being sold by the ideology of Capitalism as I have always said I’d rather work at something I love than just work out of necessity in order to bring home the requisite pay check. Yet I can see the downside to this approach.

The Capitalist marketplace suggests we find a job we are passionate about and then we start to identify with this professional identity. As a result the boundary between work and play merges and creates a confusion as to how to find and maintain work life balance.

Delineating where the professional work life ends and creating space for ‘me’ time, ‘family’ time, and ‘friend’ time becomes increasingly difficult. The marketplace continuously advertises solutions to the problems we have of being tired and lacking time. We are told to Sleep Better! Take Vitamins! Exercise! Buy this product or service! We are not told to ‘do less’ or be less passionate as that doesn’t make anyone any money.

Doing Everything 200 Percent

Is this too cynical? We spend an awful lot of time at work and of course we want to enjoy something we spend so much time and energy on. Having something to do is a good thing. Ideally our work does help us to create meaning in our lives and feel valued, along with paying the bills. Yet helpful technology means we are always within reach, contactable and able to be updated and informed.

It is not surprising that there have been counter culture movements based around slowing down. Slow food, for instance, which started in Italy, reacts against the notion of fast food and a disconnection between suppliers and consumers. It is more likely we will enjoy the food we eat and the time we spend nourishing our bodies if we are not gulping down lunch while sitting at our desk or rushing between meetings.

We play so many roles in life from Professional to Familial to Friend to Salsa dancer to Red Wine lover. It seems as if we are not only meant to put 200 percent into each and every one of these, but to also document these zany moments on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter! On the plus side we have so many more options available to us – about everything! Yet surely we don’t really want it all… we just want the right amount at the right time.

With women playing larger roles in the workplace and modern families trying to figure out the work life balance; we all need options. These options need to be supported by flexible policies and supportive governments and institutions. Yes, we want to be passionate about what we do – but we also need to set ourselves realistic goals so we don’t burn out.

Perhaps less is more rather than more is more? Truly, balance is key and we should be aiming at flourishing – not at capturing and trying to tie down the fleeting feeling of happiness 24/7. Flourishing is about knowing which activities will form good habits for us to feel satisfied with a life well lived. For me that includes my work and family, but it also includes walks on the beach, and time spent laughing with friends as well as space to day dream and just be.The Conversation

Laura D’Olimpio is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.