Beyond the Leisure Principle

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

"The game is up; there is nothing to lose any more, not even an illusion"
Raoul Vaneigem, "The Decline and Fall of Work"

In 1920, Freud defined pleasure as the drive for gratification that is subordinated to reality in the developed ego. This opposition of the pleasure principle and the reality principle posited 'true' pleasure as outside the realm of mundane reality, a subversive transgression undermining the bourgeois order. It's stand in, leisure, was introduced as that "pleasure postponed and diminished" which "obeys the reality principle". Pleasure itself, meanwhile, was increasingly relegated to the realm of decadent fantasy. Defined primarily in terms of one another, the modern notions of work and leisure serve to sequester daily experience from this fearsome loose pleasure that cannot coexist with the developed bourgeois ego: leisure time existing as time spent outside the office or factory and work functioning as a desired space - a catalyst for the manufacturing of wealth. This ontological deadlock, which lies at the base of so much writing since the industrial revolution seemed particularly depressing to European neo-Marxists writing after the war. Disillusioned from earlier attempts to delineate leisure time as an autonomous zone freed from the rationality of capitalism's reign of work, they often depicted leisure as its shadowy double, exposing the structural similarities between Club Med and the forced labour camps of World War II.

When art broached the subject it tended to side with this analysis, the equation of leisure activities with work's oppressive regime leaving pleasure untouched, a conspicuous absence at the heart of this triad of human existence. In Laurie Simmons' Tourism series (1984), for instance, the lonely ghosts of tourists gather in secular places of worship as defined by the leisure industry: Stonehenge, the Acropolis, Las Vegas. Simmons' surreal photographs, with their alternately washed out and saturated colours are like postcards from a dead future, the figures having melded with their environments, become stone pillars or molten plastic stalactites in some apocalyptic senario yet to take place. These one-dimensional dummy tourists seem lost in the pseudo-eternity projected by the monolithic shrines, unable to experience either the sublime pleasure promised in the brochures or any sense of real history. Simmons' work seems almost like a materialisation of the Situationists' declaration that "after all the dead time and lost moments, there remain these endlessly traversed postcard landscapes; this distance organized between each and everyone". Curiously, but perhaps not so surprisingly after all, they also get to visit Bikini Atoll for a private view of the atomic mushroom.

For Joseph Beuys, the caravanning classes were a pack of wolves, a primal instinct driving them to experience holidaying as a matter of survival: his famous sleds spilling out of a Volkswagen van ('The Pack', 1969), currently on show at the Tate, are equipped with fat, felt and a flashlight, the items that supposedly saved his life when he was shot down in the Crimea. While Beuys may have been making a more general statement about man, civilisation and the forces of nature, his piece also seems to chime in with the sentiment phrased by Raoul Vaneigem in the chapter on "The Decline and Fall of Work" in his seminal post-hippie critique of modern life, The Revolution of Everyday Life: "What spark of humanity, of 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 from the hell of weekdays and the nugatory paradise of weekends, where the crowd communes in a brutish weariness?" In these examples, pleasure remains on the outside of the representation of reality, a lack experienced only by the viewer from a privileged, external point of view as some kind of Kantian imperative. Art might be, in Beuys' formulation, "the science of freedom", but it conceives of pleasure mostly in terms of the failure of leisure.

Gradually, like so many of the dichotomies that have defined modernity, the axis of work and leisure has been destabilized by what David Aronowitz has termed our "post work" society. In the vacuum created by the disappearance of Western welfare on the one hand and the stability of the postwar model of 'a job for life', the boundaries that once bound work, leisure and pleasure deferred together are collapsing. Creativity has become one of those enigmatic management-speech words associated with work, while leisure, according Alain de Botton for one, has mutated into a state of "status anxiety". In Aronowitz' post work world, the 1920s socialist dream of "leisure ethics" via shorter work hours seems utopian but the American dream of a good life achieved through hard work is just as distant. More importantly, though, where is pleasure to be found once it ceases to function as an unattainable other to a reality of managed desires grounded in labour and rest? In our post work society, with its freelance contracts, rampant consumerism, soaring debt, recreational drug use and no pensions in sight, the neat triad of work, leisure and pleasure comes unraveled. With little room for repression and transcendence, it is barely contained by the Romantic scheme of the reality principle.

In a post-work world, work and play come dangerously close to one another, becoming almost interchangeable. TV game shows such as "The Apprentice", in which contestants compete for a job in Donald Trump's business empire and try to avoid the now iconic "You're fired!" at the end of each episode, simulate a condition which does not exist anymore, performing work for the entertainment of the viewers. Mr. Trump, apparently, wants to transform his real estate firm into a viable brand and has plans to print his immortal phrase on T-shirts and baseball caps: not only the worker, but work itself, in a way Marx never anticipated, is the ultimate commodity.

This is even clearer in Avalon, a polish speaking science fiction film from 2001, from the director of Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii. In this take on the epistemological crisis of virtual reality, an immersive war game named 'Avalon' is not only the only form of escape available to a poverty stricken eastern bloc society, but also a primary source of employment for players who can gain credits by excelling at this killing game and ascending it's level structure. Rumours abound of a secret level known as 'Special A', or 'Class Real', which offers rewards far beyond the capacity of the standard program, but none has returned from this hidden corner of the matrix and many players end up comatose. Protagonist Ash is one of the best players around and obviously undeterred even by the fate of her former team mate, languishing in hospital 'unreturned' from his search for 'Special A'. She embarks on the dangerous quest in search of her lost friend and follows a series of clues and 'cheats' on the yellow brick road leading to this final stage of virtual reality.

What makes Avalon different from other 'mind fuck' science fiction thrillers of the last ten years (from Dark City to Existenz) is that beyond the familiar, albeit spectacularly beautiful, treatment of the fabrication of reality in a universe built on cinematic language, the movie makes radical claims about the end of work. The film's initial setting suggests a communist society, sepia tones conjuring a barely remembered history. Its virtual counterpart, the world of Avalon, is similarly almost monochromatic, the flatness of an old photograph exaggerated through digitised special effects. But when Ash finally reaches 'Class Real', she enters the full colour three dimensional film space that we have come to know as the present. In keeping with the Hollywood definition, reality is one hundred percent capitalist – with coke ads and shops vying for visual attention. Here Ash finally finds her old lover, who she is instructed to kill in order to get her game credits. Instead, he invites her to stay and enjoy reality, her reward. A veteran of shifting perspectives, Ash doubts his evaluation of this supposed reality, as do we, having noticed several inconsistencies so far, recurring motifs that shouldn't be there. When he asks her to shoot him and see that he really dies and does not dematerialise digitally, as in the game, she takes up the challenge, only to see him uncoil in a pixelated whirlpool. What the viewer was originally asked to accept as 'reality' in the movie is exposed not only as a simulation but also as a simulation created by what we generally accept to be 'reality'. Finally, Ash chooses to go on, and, opening the gateway back 'into' the game, she is confronted with one final image before the credits roll – a caption that says 'Welcome to Avalon'.

By the end of the film the old world, a vestige of a historical industrial age, is hollowed out and re-written by a more total version of 'reality'. Disturbingly, it is not the Hollywood dream of freedom that is being posited as a false projection of the real material conditions, as in your standard Marxist critique, but poverty, manufacturing jobs and the working classes that figure as a strange computer glitch in a universe written by Microsoft. In the post-work world, labour is more than a commodity – it is also a nostalgic search for a world that promised more than the total breakdown of consumption and production, game and work, art and living. In this context real pleasure, or transcendence is no more impossible than work and leisure. All three are bounced from one level of reality to the next, and no fixed perspective is allowed to emerge. The attempts of both Marx and Freud to organise reality in terms of its separations fail in the face of this utter collapse. Human experience is reduced to purely relative notions of liberation. Work has no outside and neither does play, all are degrees of the same program, and it is impossible to tell whether a programmer exists, as the game itself seems to engulf everything. Ash is unable to accept her reward because gratification is impossible. The world of Avalon has left the pleasure principle far behind, and what few moments are presented of physical enjoyment, whether of food, in the grim mess halls of 'reality' or of opera in 'Class Real', never quite reach Ash, even repulse her, as she remains affectless almost throughout. Even the dog that she appears to care for is revealed as a fictitious when it mysteriously appears in what she understands to be inside the game.

Avalon's serpentine like narrative – its pockets of fictional worlds within worlds and its exploration of the relationship between power and game are also found in the greatest work of that 'architect of Pleasure', the Marquis De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Here, pleasure is not situated beyond work but is laboriously created through a methodical, repetitive and infinitely complex meditation. As De Sade's protagonists construct elaborate sets, stories and situations for their own arousal, they produce a form of pleasure that is in no way transcendent, residing in the artifice of narrative, rather than some primal beyond. And when Ash chooses to reject 'Class Real' as a final destination, perhaps she too sets off in search of more narratives, deciding not to restrict herself to just one truth. Refusing to be a tourist in someone else's reality, she defines her own as a movement forward, beyond the leisure principle.