I’ve been on holiday.
Or at least, it’s what I have retroactively decided to think of as a holiday. There’s an essay in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies that goes off on one about writers not being able to detach themselves from the work they do. How a temporary relocation offers new experiences that can be worked on as material in the formation of a text, along with access to different mental states precipitated by a change in working environment. But it’s a holiday, so stop thinking about work.
But work happens on holiday, and it is worth thinking about. Barthes’s proposition that ‘the writer’ is somehow different in essence from other types of worker, is based on a simple observation that writers are not restricted to work particular hours in the week. Nobody gets to choose precisely when to have an idea, and since coming up with ideas is pretty fundamental to the work of writers, they can’t have full control over when to stop and start – it’s part of the job. But other types of worker don’t get to have full control over when they get to stop and start work either, since their hours are dictated by a boss.
This writer referred to in Barthes’ essay is the idealised figure of a self-directing adventurer, liberated from the need to follow other people’s rules, autonomously working through writing towards some higher purpose, of say, perhaps, self-transformation. Which is all sweet and dandy until time comes to pay for the cost of living. For as Walter Benjamin points out in his essay The Author as Producer, when it comes to making a living from creative activity, the writer is revealed to be nothing so much as a producer of capital, a worker, same as most.
So whether on holiday or not, hours have to be put in to make a product to sell. The writer or artist is their own boss inasmuch as they choose what to produce, and can’t really fire themselves for working erratically. But unless they can coast comfortably on money derived from elsewhere (inheritance or savings from another job, for example), certain productivity targets do have to be met in order to satisfy the material needs of the writer, and the professional needs of those who oversee the work’s wider production and distribution in one form or another. The demands of capital prevent even the ‘creative professional’ from using their labour time in a way that belongs entirely to themselves.
Relatedly, taking holiday photographs and writing status updates for social media is a kind of labour that’s enjoyable precisely because it is self-transformational before anything else. We don’t spend time and effort producing our pictures and texts for profit, we do it for reasons that are particular to us. If we extend Barthes’ category, ‘writer’, in line with the more up-to-date term, ‘content producer’, which many of us seem to be, then it might become apparent enough that engaging in this relatively unproductive (i.e. not profit generating) labour whilst on holiday has the potential to effect processes of self-transformation outside of capitalist production.☨
To be ‘on holiday’ then, is to be in a position where you are allowed to do something primarily for your own interests, and to think of this as a kind of labour is helpful because it challenges the capitalist common sense definition of work, which always implies the production of profit, as opposed to the production of a more tolerable society.
What Barthes said of the writer is true for most of us, a holiday isn’t an escape from work; it’s a change in the type of work we do, defined in terms of who and what we’re working for.
The reason I mention all this is because I’ve been on holiday in Liverpool for a week with some university friends to participate in the Independent Biennale. It was quite a self-indulgent experience in terms of doing unprofitable things for my own self-transformation rather than any sort of socially useful project. But I’m not gonna beat myself up about it, and I did get a mention in this write up, which is good for me at least.
The .gif up top was taken (do you ‘take’ a .gif?) by Iva Yos, of me at Formby Beach – one of the North West’s most beautiful bits and one of the last few places in the UK that still has red squirrels – a great environment for socialist holiday makers.
Finally, whilst on this holiday, I unfortunately mislabelled one of the people I was travelling with as a ‘bourgeois fascist’. For this, I apologise, and would like to offer the corrective that he’s actually a sexist bourgeois fascist. (Bit of background: he makes vapid art about Donald Trump, bums off algorithms, and sucks up relentlessly to university management.) Although he shouldn’t be (-and thankfully, isn’t) taken seriously by anyone with any intellectual credibility, serious work is required for dissecting and criticising the very suspect ideological currents that are floating this toxic shit round art departments at the moment. Check out the first footnote in this Jeremy Gilbert text for more details on what that is.
☨Not wanting to get too carried away with the optimism of self-transformation here, it is useful to note, as Tithi Bhattacharya does, that this process alone doesn’t take us outside of capital’s chain of incessant profit accumulation, since it contributes to the reproduction of labour power needed by capitalists for maintaining their system.