Introduction: Fever Pitch

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The right to have leisure time which is separate from labor time is deeply ingrained in the ideology of the "work ethic."
Steven Rubio and Jillian Sandell, Issue Editors

Issue #35, November 1997


There's a bumper sticker which says "The Labor Movement - From the People who Brought you the Weekend." The sticker is important because of the way it reminds us of the intimate relationship between work and leisure, and between the rights of workers at their jobs and their rights to have relaxation time outside of work; to have a weekend. Indeed, the right to have leisure time which is separate from labor time is deeply engrained in the ideology of the "work ethic." Which in many ways is remarkable, since few people have a weekend completely devoid of work.

For one thing, the weekend is frequently a time to catch up on other kinds of work, most notably those kinds of labor classified as "housework" or "domestic work," which can encompass everything from laundry to childcare to cleaning to gardening to neighborly duties to shopping and more. While these kinds of unpaid labor do not directly contribute to a person's income, they are - as feminists have long argued - crucial to the maintenance of the paid labor sectors. Furthermore, even when we are not doing housework on the weekend, our "playtime" directly affects "worktime" since it is the space within which we recharge our psychic and corporeal batteries, allowing us to be able to once more do our "work."

Crucially, there are also those who must work on the weekends in order that others can enjoy their leisure time. The labor performed by sports facility attendants, cab drivers, bar staff, hairdressers, video-store clerks, hot-dog vendors, security guards, waiters, store assistants, librarians, park rangers, gallery attendants, movie-theater ushers, cleaners, bus drivers, farmers, hotel workers, and more, makes possible the "play" of others.

All of which puts a kink in the neat dichotomy of "work" and "play."

Indeed, as the above list reminds us, the element of class enters into any discussion of work and leisure, with one large segment of the working-class populace engaged in work that eases the leisure of others. The things we enjoy in our leisure are also commonly utilized as a kind of semiotic code through which the astute "reader" can ascertain the class pretensions of the leisured. What we use for leisure identifies us in the public mind with a particular class of people; that such classifications are mostly bogus offers ample opportunity for people to play with their apparent class identifications, adopting the leisure activities of a "different" class (or exaggerating the attachment to the "correct" class leisure activities as a means of promoting class pride).

One of the ways in which this happens is that many of the leisure activities that get coded as "middle class" frequently look more like "work" than "play," thereby perpetuating a certain kind of myth that the only people who work hard are the "successful" middle-classes. At the gym people catch up with their reading while on the stairmaster. In cafes many customers are doing some kind of work. The rise of modems and home computers, and the ability to send memos or letters in the middle of the night, blurs the line between "work-time" and "play-time." In the park people jog while listening to their foreign language tapes. Hikers buy the appropriate guide book and read up on the best walks to take (and the most quaint town to visit en route). Even the most personal and intimate kinds of play - like friendships and sexual relationships - are perceived to require a certain amount of therapeutic "work."

The underside of this class-coding of what is considered "play" is that those leisure activities which are relatively inexpensive, or which do not require large amounts of equipment - in other words, those available to the working- and poverty-classes - become not only class-coded (so that, for instance, watching too much TV is perceived to be beneath the upper-classes) but also morally and sexually coded (so that watching TV is perceived more "passive" than, say, going to an art gallery). These kinds of distinctions between "high" and "low" culture are widespread and important because they suggest that how we choose to "play," what kinds of "play" are available to us, and what our "play" will mean to us and to others, will have important cultural, political, and economic repercussions.

In particular, they have economic repercussions. Most kinds of leisure activities in western culture require some form of economic consumption. Play time is, therefore, not so much time which we spend "not working" as it is time in which we spend money - i.e., being a consumer. It's impossible to think of any kind of leisure activity that doesn't in some way require money. Even just "hanging out" invariably requires a specific and culturally coded space within which to do it - a mall, a park, a beach, and so on. This may sound like a no-brainer - since we live in western culture, and we live within capitalism, nothing escapes the workings of capital. Yet we continue to project and invest so much of our personal, intimate, and affective lives into how we choose to "play," so it's important to remember that no matter how much we think of our leisure time as our "free" time, we are still participating in the economy in vital ways, but as consumers, not as producers. Even the kinds of metaphors we use to think about our play are economic - we invest time and energy in activities, with the pay-off being a more defined body or seeing our favorite team win the World Series.

Not only does almost everything we consider "leisure" require money and participation in consumer culture, but that participation often demands or creates an implicit endorsement of a larger set of political ideas. As Scott Thill argues in his article on Nike, for example, being a "sports fan" frequently requires not only buying a certain kind of gear, but also buying into the mind-set and ideology of the producer of that gear. Or as Mark Van Proyen suggests in his article on the "theme-parkification" of art galleries, buying a ticket to see the latest traveling art show means participating in the society of the spectacle. And as Jim Castonguay argues in his article on the Superbowl, the underside of professional spectator sports can be the implicit endorsement of a number of conservative ideologies with which that sport becomes associated. Pro football in the United States, Castonguay suggests, is completely inextricable from the military-industrial-complex, so that "team support" becomes imbricated with support for various forms of nationalist, racist, homophobic, and sexist agendas.

Furthermore, when you have no money, or are unemployed, free time is no longer "leisure time," but, as Clint Burnham suggests, something else entirely. For kids living on the fringes of society, having "free" time, and creating "free" spaces, are not the same as being able to live a leisurely or leisured life. In other words, the very notion of having time to play implicitly depends upon having already spent other time at work.

Perhaps all of this is well understood. Yet how we spend our leisure time remains vital to how we think of ourselves, and how we assume certain kinds of identities based not only on gender, race, religion, nationality, and sexuality, but also on our emotional and imaginative investment in certain kinds of activities. Which means that leisure time is not just time spent spending money, but is also time spent re-creating ourselves, and connecting with people we identify as being like ourselves in some way - as art fans, say, or as Giants fans. As Lil Bartholo's article demonstrates, despite her participation in a range of political and social communities, her identity as a baseball fan in many ways supersedes all other aspects of her life.

When we attend a baseball game or go to an art gallery, we are not only exchanging money for goods, we are also participating in various kinds of ideological exchange -- participating, and implicitly endorsing, the ideas and politics of those who produce our "play." "Playing" - no matter how we define it -- becomes a crucial site for ideology in action. In part, this is simply because the existence of playtime often allows us to tell ourselves that the work we do is fair. (In his slave narrative Frederick Douglass argued that in allowing slaves to get drunk once in a while, the masters endeavored to distract and pacify their slaves into thinking that, since they were allowed to blow off steam once in a while, life on a plantation wasn't so bad.) Some have argued that "play" amongst the working classes can be interpreted as a substitute for political action; desirous of a sense of collectivity, workers replace class-consciousness with camaraderie. Leisure amongst all classes similarly reproduces the status quo, but this would seem to be a problem only for those who are oppressed by that status quo.

However, as the articles in this issue demonstrate, many of us are far more aware of the contradictions involved in our pursuit of leisure. For instance, this column takes its title from a book by Nick Hornby about being an obsessive fan of the English soccer club Arsenal. The relationship between fan and participant is a complex one; throughout this issue, our authors work the wandering borders between spectator and actor, as often as not exploding the supposed separation between the two. Two contributors who are also admirers of Hornby's book, David Hawkes and Steven Rubio, offer their perspectives on sport and sport fandom. Hawkes looks at the spectacular life of the great Argentine soccer player Diego Armando Maradona and finds parallels between the career of Diego and that of his countryman, Che Guevara. Rubio writes mostly about being a fan of baseball, but the influence of Hornby is clear in Rubio's desire to understand himself and the greater world through an examination of his obsessions. Robert Hamilton takes a more distanced approach in his essay on "virtual idols." However, his analysis of the varying ways consumers use virtual idols describes a community which refuses to merely spectate. Finally, Jo Rittenhouse and Elisabeth Hurst describe their own active participation with a different kind of idol, female "action figures," providing convincing evidence that our obsessions and our fandom involve much more than letting others do while we watch.

Indeed, play is not only a time for "escapist" fun; or, what Bahktin referred to as "the carnival." Indeed, where Bahktin sees the containment of play, others also see an opportunity for social connection. Play is not only about denial, but also - as even the examples of going to the pub or a soccer game suggest - about our conscious desires for community. Play is not only an escape from, in other words, but also escape into. Because of this, how we play is a vital way in which we think about who we are. While the kinds of community and social connection we derive from sports and play may be ephemeral, or rooted in regressive politics, there are nevertheless a utopian elements to them as many of the authors capture in their articles. In other words, leisure time is more than simply an act of consumption; it is also an act of creation. And, according to some of the writers in this issue, an act of creation with implications that are not only economic, but frequently moral and ethical as well. As Steven Rubio argues, being a "fan" often means more than merely following a team. It requires an economic, emotional, and time commitment, the pay off of which is the sense of community and caring you develop with other fans over time. Or, from the other side of the diamond, as Chris Rubio suggests in her essay on lesbian softball, playing team sports and experiencing the solidarity between players and audience also creates a profound sense of community that many people rarely experience in their everyday life.

A couple of months ago we published an issue of Bad Subjects on the theme of work and many of the writers argued that what counts as "work" is inevitably bound up with larger networks of power and economic stratification. Moreover, many pointed out that the relationship between our "personal" lives and our "work" lives has become increasingly blurred and hard to sustain. It is appropriate, therefore, that in this issue on "Sport and Play" many of the writers suggest that how we spend our leisure time is inseparable from the larger political agendas of capitalism, nationalism, sexism, and racism. But also, importantly, how we play suggests some radical possibilities for a better world.

Copyright © 1997 by Steven Rubio and Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.

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