Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company others….Regardless of the specific occasion, though, or of the amount of planning that has gone into creating it, the objective is the same: it’s about blocking out time and dedicating it to the work of interacting with other people, whoever they might be.
The fight for hanging out is the fight for inclusive access to scenes and places like the ones I have been description. and it starts with recognizing that hanging out at, or around, or in the context of work is, in essence, work.
I started my current job in a world shaped by COVID-19. We had a campus mask mandate, still, and students were coming off more than a year where their educational experience was shaped by trying to keep people separate from one another in the name of limiting disease transmission. One of the most pronounced effects of this caesura was the abandonment of study spaces in academic buildings. Even the library seemed abandoned that year. My building has numerous comfortable chairs and tables in little nooks that never seemed occupied.
By a happy accident, the exception to this general observation took place immediately outside my office where you could usually find several history majors in their final year occupying the four chairs. Sometimes they would be reading or working on papers, but other times they were just there to hang out. I never had any of these students in my class, but I got to know them pretty well and often offered informal mentoring. I liked that their presence made campus feel a little more vibrant—and I could always close my office door if they became too distracting.
Last semester their numbers dwindled to one. As much as I like that one student (another whom I have never had in class), the change me realize how much I missed their presence.
So I started hosting small gatherings.
I bring baked goods and offer them tea. These started as ad hoc affairs on Friday afternoons, that I have now made a standing part of my office hours once a week. There have been weeks recently where I have been too distracted to do much more than offer the food and drink and attendance fluctuates week by week, but there are 6 or 8 regular attendees and I have had several faculty members comment how much they enjoy seeing these gatherings. There is no agenda for these gatherings, nor expectations. Students can grab me for “regular” office hours activities, chat with me informally, read a book, or just hang out with anyone else who shows up. My only objective is to invite students into the building.
If I needed validation for these gatherings, Shiela Liming’s new book Hanging Out is just that.
At its heart, Hanging Out, subtitled The Radical Power of Killing Time, is a manifesto about resisting the encroachment of productivity culture. Rat-race culture is hardly new. Long before the advent of the internet, critics in the late 19th and early 20th century already complained that the pace of life was too fast, as Randall Monroe of XKCD once observed. However, Liming contends that the last twenty or so years have marked a dangerous acceleration of these trends, combined with the rise of media that allows us to simulate connection while simultaneously eliding the realities of physical space. Liming declares, “We were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along and made hanging out hard” (xii). Thus, Hanging Out serves as a call to action, to reclaim the power to resist the the forces that grind us to dust.
The seven chapters of Hanging Out each centers a different type of hanging out—at parties, with strangers, jamming, on TV, on the job, at dinner parties, and on the internet—that allow Liming to tell one or more stories connected to her experience in that context. Every chapter is engaging enough, even if you have never, say, become friends and thus hung out with someone whose Food Network show replicates the experience of conviviality for viewers all over the country, or played bagpipe and accordion with not one but two bands in the Pittsburgh-area bands. But in each case, Liming’s broad perspective on hanging out reinforces the central message that hanging out can take place almost anywhere and the willingness to do so has a rejuvenating power.
Compared to the two examples above, Liming’s chapter on hanging out at work struck a particular note with me. This chapter blends two examples, working a bar job somewhere without much else to do and the academic conference. The latter part particularly struck a note with me, as someone who has a love-hate relationship with these events. Conferences are where academics go to present papers, network, and see friends. The share of the pie chart for each varies by the person. These can also be intimidating, isolating venues for young scholars, impossibly priced for contingent faculty, and places where “known creeps” like to turn the space hostile. Liming describes how the worst experience of her conference life spurred her to be more fully present at this conference and to commit to hanging out, those creeps be damned.
Liming describes this hanging out and the experience of rounding up an audience to hear a graduate student talk with a certain panache, but what she describes is not an easy thing to do. These can be big conferences with a bewildering number of famous and important people in your corner of academia, which can easily lead one to travel in your pack, prowling rooms and events to see if you know anyone there—and turning away if you don’t. I have presented to a room with only my panelists for audience members and delivered a paper immediately after a significant portion of the audience walked out of the room, their colleague having presented the paper before mine. I attended my first AIA-SCS conference (the big professional organization in my field) back in 2011, before the latter organization took its current name. While I started to acquire “conference friends” pretty quickly, it was only this year where I felt like I’d reached a critical mass of contacts that it seemed like I knew someone in any room I stepped into, and, even then, I met a ton of new folks or made physical connection with digital friends. However, the fact that I knew this many people made me feel all the more responsible for inviting other people into the space—especially since one of the first-time attendees was one of our undergrads. Because the reality is that hanging out in a space like this is how cross-pollination of ideas works. Nothing might happen over a coffee or drink or at that reception, but it builds out a rolodex that can result in anything from more hanging out, to an introduction to a friend of a friend, to opportunities to collaborate on future ventures.
“Hanging Out on the Internet” was the only chapter where Liming lost me, but only a little bit. She uses this chapter as an extended discussion of the Sublime, which she argues is impossible online because the digital works exists as a purely human creation. Further, she takes issue with “hanging out” online in two ways. First, the digital world creates the illusion of proximity in a way that ironically heightens the absence, while, second, the process of “searching” and curating one’s experience online is antithetical to the (sublime) power of physical chance.
I disagree with none of this.
However, hanging out in the sense that Liming calls for also requires reciprocity. I love physical mail, but a one-sided letter delivery is not much of a correspondence and I have found that the rise of digital technologies have allowed for the rekindling or perpetuation of friendships that started or bloomed in the physical world, but would have otherwise faded. These are not a replacement for friendships or activities in the analog world, but a valuable supplement to them.
The underlying message in Hanging Out is not that different from Oliver Burkemann’s Four Thousand Weeks or Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout, but with a key twist. Where both Burkemann and Malesic focus on work culture, Liming wants us to consider seriously the work involved in not-work.
I have once again fallen way behind on writing about books here, both because I am in the midst of another busy semester and because I haven’t had substantial-enough thoughts to share about a number of the books. For instance, over the last month I have read Archer Mayor’s Bury the Lead and Mick Herron’s Spook Street, both installments in series, as well as Brandon Sanderson’s Tress of the Emerald Sea, which is the first of his “secret” novels he ran a Kickstarter for last year. I might have something to say about Tress, but less as a novel and more about Sanderson’s larger Cosmere project. I also read Fonda Lee’s Jade War, which I didn’t like nearly as much as the first in the series (and not just for second book reasons, though I expect I’ll read the third) and Percival Everett’s Dr. No, which was amusing enough but didn’t elicit a particularly strong reaction from me. Ironically, this is how I feel about a lot of “literary” authors. On the other end of the spectrum, I read Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath right as the semester started and while I liked a lot of the ideas I found myself having a hard time engaging with the story, which might have also been a function of my brain space so far this semester. In fact, the only book in my backlog that I know I want to write about is Marissa R. Moss’ Her Country, which is a discussion of country music industry and the recent wave of female artists who took it by storm.
I am currently reading Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction an about to start a buddy read of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children with my wife.