Workers are often warned of the seemingly eternal struggle for work-life balance. The Mayo Clinic offers “tips to reclaim control” (“track your time,” “learn to say no,” “leave work at work,” etc.); the OECD’s Better Life Index allows us to compare our well-being against those of workers from 35 other countries (Americans are better off than the Turks but far behind the Danes); a recent e-mail at my own workplace from the SVP of HR reminded employees that we don’t always need to be at work, that we’re not always supposed to be at work, and that we (presumably) have homes. “[W]e consider our employees taking their full holiday entitlement as important…please encourage the people in your work area to take their holiday/vacation days before the end of the year.”
Some of us manage to derive some enjoyment and purpose from the work we do, but this is anomalous to almost any modern, post-industrial consciousness, whether evolutionary or revolutionary, tangibly or symbolically. Take for example the Situationist theorist Raoul Vaneigem in his early 1960s manifesto The Revolution of Everyday Life: “What spark of humanity, of a possible creativity, can remain alive in a being dragged out of sleep at six every morning, jolted about in suburban trains, deafened by the racket of machinery, bleached and steamed by meaningless sounds and gestures, spun dry by statistical controls, and tossed out at the end of the day into the entrance halls of railway stations, those cathedrals of departure for the hell of weekdays and the nugatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in weariness and boredom?…From the butchering of youth’s energy to the gaping wound of old age, life cracks in every direction under the blows of forced labour.” (Fifteen years later, Situationist theory would obliquely influence the Sex Pistols, who worded their dissent to the technocratic machine somewhat differently.) Or, for a more recent denunciation, the Invisible Committee, “authors” of the 2009 pamphlet The Coming Insurrection (L’insurrection qui vient), who offered that “[t]he horror of work is less in the work itself than in the methodical ravaging, for centuries, of all that isn’t work: the familiarities of one’s neighborhood and trade, of one’s village, of struggle, of kinship, our attachment to places, to beings, to the seasons, to ways of doing and speaking.” With these words in mind—whether in the original French or in English translation—the question becomes, not how do we do it every day, but why?
The usual explanations (money, meaning, real/virtual interrelationships, etc.) aside, perhaps more existentially for some, the How is the Why. Some of us do it not just because of a need (financially, psychically, socially) to work but because the work in question can be perpetrated in ways that engage as opposed to crushing the soul.
One example of this is the commute to and from work itself, which rather than weariness and boredom can instead be experienced as what Situationist theorists referred to as dérive, or drift. Guy Debord, philosopher and founding member of the radical Situationist International, defined the dérive in a 1956 journal essay as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” Unlike a typical stroll or directed walk through a city, a dérive involves “playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects,” a surrender to the “attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there,” to a city’s “constant currents, fixed points and vortexes,” to random chance and perpetually unexplored possibility. Debord contrasted this with the example of a student tracked for one year who moved exclusively between her school, her home, and her piano teacher’s studio, and whose movements invoke the overwhelming emotional effect of “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.” Dérive on the other hand embraces encounters with the unknown in uncharted mental maps in an ongoing struggle against the boredom of the everyday.
(Conceptually, dérive can be contrasted with the commodified, timebound, non-random “ghost tours” most major urban centers offer, generally marketed to tourists, e.g. Haunted Philadelphia, Haunted San Diego, London Ghost Walk, Mysteries of Paris, etc. More transcendentally, one perhaps recalls the omniscient talking billboard in the Steve Martin film L.A. STORY: “Let your mind go and your body will follow.”)
True dérive may be difficult during morning or evening rush hour, never mind between an 11 AM and 1 PM WebEx. It may work better outdoors than indoors, in indifferent than inclement weather (as even Debord himself acknowledged, prolonged rains can be detrimental to dérive), in urban areas than suburbs or exurbs, and in Old City Philadelphia than on Anna Salai or the 405. But true work-life balance doesn’t just mean balancing hours at work with hours at home or at the beach; it means ensuring that the hours at work or commuting to work are also the hours we’re human beings and, in the words of Walt Whitman, contain multitudes.
It is of course true, to quote the May 1968 Situationist slogan, that la beauté est dans la rue, but it’s also true that even when we’re on the 1 PM WebEx, not remembering where we may or may not need to be simply because we are accustomed to being somewhere, some of us is in the street too.