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Idle Threats

Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in Nineteenth Century America

Andrew Lyndon Knighton
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Idle Threats
    Book Description:

    The 19th century witnessed an explosion of writing about unproductivity, with the exploits of various idlers, loafers, and gentlemen of refinement capturing the imagination o fa country that was deeply ambivalent about its work ethic. Idle Threats documents this American obsession with unproductivity and its potentials, while offering an explanation of the profound significance of idle practices for literary and cultural production.While this fascination with unproductivity memorably defined literary characters from Rip Van Winkle to Bartleby to George Hurstwood, it also reverberated deeply through the entire culture, both as a seductive ideal and as a potentially corrosive threat to upright, industrious American men. Drawing on an impressive array of archival material and multifaceted literary and cultural sources, Idle Threats connects the question of unproductivity to other discourses concerning manhood, the value of art, the allure of the frontier, the usefulness of knowledge,the meaning of individuality, and the experience of time, space, and history. Andrew Lyndon Knighton offers a new way of thinking about the largely unacknowledged productivity of the unproductive, revealing the incalculable and sometimes surprising ways in which American modernity transformed the relationship between subjects and that which is most intimate to them: their own activity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4891-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Procrastination and Prolegomena
    (pp. 1-24)

    This introduction finds itself poised somewhere between Levinas and James; it harbors both a curiosity about the past and an apprehension about the future. It inaugurates my attention to what James calls an “impossible” task—that of documenting the “pattern-setters” who, over the course of a century rife with cultural negotiation, solidified the relationship between an American “national type” and the value of productivity. The task is daunting, both because of the considerable complexity and discontinuity of the history involved, and because of the ambiguity of the central concepts with which it will work—for the cultural meanings of productivity...

  5. 1 The Bartleby Industry and Bartleby’s Idleness
    (pp. 25-50)

    Despite being perhaps the single most profound work about idleness in the whole of American literature, Melville’s “Bartleby” is also, ironically, among the tales in that tradition that have been most badly overworked. Suspecting that “Bartleby” has been done to death, one initially recoils from the duty of critically rewriting this scrivener’s tale once more. Yet the tensions of this contradictory position—of being compelled to rework the text and simultaneously preferring not to—may only be discharged by a renewed engagement with its inscrutability, its inevitability; one can inquire into the history of neither American literature nor American productivity...

  6. 2 Repose: The Expression and Experience of the Circulatory Sublime
    (pp. 51-86)

    Though the supposed hostility of nature to utilitarian progress is an ideological formation that continues to be relevant to us today, it can be difficult to conceive of the unique burdens that “nature” bore in the nineteenth century. The capacious concept housed some very different, and often contradictory, imaginings of a national destiny and a leisured manhood. The foregoing excerpt from Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” suggests some of the complexity of the relationship between nature, art, and the history of industrious “progress” in the first half of the nineteenth century, giving voice to a rather common apprehension suffered...

  7. 3 The Line of Productiveness: Fear at the Frontiers
    (pp. 87-123)

    The sentiments expressed inOur Barren Lands,a cautionary 1875 pamphlet written by General William B. Hazen, give vent not just to his discomfort with the headlong rush to settle the West, but also to a more widespread apprehension about the threat posed to productivity by the modes of life characteristic of the nation’s geographical and economic frontiers. Though eastern men of refinement had gravitated to the limits of market culture for an assurance of natural harmony in repose, others who confronted the western and southern boundaries of capitalist productivity posed the question of the value of activity there with...

  8. 4 Vital Reserves Revisited: The Energies of the Social Body
    (pp. 124-151)

    By the close of the nineteenth century, a signal shift transformed discussions of the limits of productivity—a response to, and a condition of, increasingly rationalized disciplinary systems revolutionizing notions of work, the home, and the nation, as well as the lived experience of working bodies. On the one hand, there occurred a rearticulation of the once explicit moral proscription that leisure time must be used in an instrumental fashion. In this respect, the emergence of a leisure economy and a highly orchestrated realm of diverting amusements increasingly ensured that even time spent away from work proper would nevertheless produce...

  9. 5 Conclusion: Idle Thoughts and Useless Knowledge in the American Renaissance, and Beyond
    (pp. 152-180)

    This study is grounded by the premise that an enriched understanding of the cultural function of unproductivity depends on resisting the simple binaries that oppose industry to idleness, unproductivity to productive labor, and “free time” to work time. Adorno’s blunt reminder of this principle is appropriate here, not only for its forceful condemnation of this traditional opposition between work and its other, but also because a serious consideration of his work forces us to rethink how this binary has grounded much of the intellectual agenda of Western modernity, and no less the critical projects of American studies. A criticism obedient...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 181-232)
  11. Index
    (pp. 233-242)
  12. About the Author
    (pp. 243-243)