Episodes in the Refusal of Work

by Felicity D. Scott

What I want to offer here are some brief episodes from the story of the ‘refusal of work’ within the American counterculture of the 1960s and early 70s, a refusal to interface properly, or at least seamlessly, with the machinery of what President Eisenhower so famously called the military-industrial complex in 1961. Resisting compliance with socio-economic, institutional and spatial norms, countercultural strategies of ‘dropping out’ served for a short moment as effective interruptions in the disciplining and integration of working bodies into the labyrinthine assemblage of post-war capitalism. Central to this story, as with its earlier industrial counterpart, was (quite literally) the coupling, or uncoupling, of bodies and machines. As Anson Rabinbach argues in The Human Motor, the initial promise of industrial efficiency was soon haunted by the threat of bodily fatigue, a danger posed not only to the working body as such, but to capitalism itself since fatigue marked the limits of the body’s ability to function as profitable labor power. By the late nineteenth century, the scientific and medical discourse of fatigue (in its ever more intensive pursuit of knowledge about the human body) had largely replaced the moralism and religious proscription inherent to the earlier rhetoric of idleness, laziness, sloth, ‘ennui, lassitude, weakness, and world-weariness’.1 This field of research informed decisions to limit the hours of a work day, acts undertaken not in the service of social justice, but as a means of rationalizing industrial labor power, in order to manage productivity through regulating the activities of the working class as they interfaced with the industrial apparatus. For instance, the early twentieth century efficiency studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth reveal the degree to which this biopolitical rationality – with its ever-more systematized spatio-temporal articulation of the body – extended not only to Fordist paradigms of industrial production, but to the very modes of life intended for subjects of modernity.

Fatigue was not the only element driving such a disconnection from forces of industrial production, whether within the metropoles of Western capitalism or their colonial counterparts. There were also interventions, that in rejecting the claims of modernity’s inherently progressive character, refused integration into that system. One of the stranger versions of such a refusal was theorized by none other than Karl Marx’s brother-in-law, Paul Lafargue, in his polemical treatise The Right to Be Lazy, a text written from Sainte-Pélagie Prison in 1883.2 Faced with systemic crises of overproduction driven by what he presented as a lust for work among the laboring classes, capital and its ever-expanding markets had entered an unending cycle of misery. ‘Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty; work, work, in order that becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production’, he wryly suggested. Beyond giving rise to an ever-more dissolute leisure class in Europe, according to Lafargue, such a passion for work drove another form of violence. On account of their increased productivity, the workers ‘force their government to annex Congo, to seize on Tonquin, to batter down the Chinese Wall with cannon shots to make an outlet for their cotton goods.’

Do such refusals have a post-industrial, post-Fordist or even a neo-colonialist counterpart? At stake would be whether or not we can recognize a distinct pattern of refusal to contribute to capitalist relations of production emerging during the late 1960s and early 70s in countercultural practices commonly known as ‘dropping out’. Moreover, as three distinct, if not entirely unrelated examples might suggest – Drop City, Pacific High School (via Lloyd Kahn), and Ant Farm – architecture and the built environment were not incidental to this story. Dropping out was widely read as a form of laziness, a simple refusal of productivity in favor of idleness (a sort of precursor to slacker culture). If we can read such practices symptomatically as harboring a new form of apathy or ennui, they are perhaps better understood as moments of radical disobedience or engaged withdrawals from extant work ethics, normative lifestyles and their function within capitalist modes of productivity. Paolo Virno posited that such lines of flight could take on a political cast when acts of withdrawal, subtraction or defection became coupled with the founding of new social and political ‘republics’, collectivities, even new publics outside the regulation of state control. Exodus, he argues, is not dialectical – it does not involve opposing or protesting the government in order to overthrow and replace it. Rather, it institutes a positive form of production, the production of a ‘non-State Republic’.3 Virno references mid-nineteenth century mass defections from the North American factory – an ‘exit’ that to Karl Marx posed a seemingly paradoxical aberration with respect to capitalist social relations4 – along with the refusal of work by Italian youth in the late 1970s. In both cases, he remarks, ‘pre-established roles were deserted and a “territory” unknown to the official maps was colonized.’5 In their production of new territorial organizations and new modes of interfacing with technology, aspects of the American counterculture put into effect a related phenomenon of inactivity within the cycles of capitalist productivity. Here I want to offer three short installments of a much larger story for which the built environment was crucial both to their mode of operation and their visual mediation.

Founded in May 1965 on a six-acre goat pasture near Trinidad, Colorado, Drop City was the first dome-building commune, and served as a mediatic catalyst for the subsequent exodus of urban youth. As Jesse Kornbluth suggested in Notes from the New Underground, ‘Drop City is the oldest of the rural communities, and its success is celebrated whenever a news magazine wants to show seminude hippies against a backdrop of geodesic domes.’6 In August 1967, a reporter from the Denver Post visited the commune. ‘The very existence of a place like Drop City', he wrote, ‘confounds, and often irritates, a great segment of tradition-bound, middle-class America – the huge group the Droppers call the Establishment.’7 ‘The quiet group’, he explained, ‘lives frugally, and happily, totally removed from the traditional economic system.’ To which he added, ‘The very fact that Drop City’s population of 18 or 20 can exist, build and create without actually putting in 40 hours a week on a salaried job, goes against all that Western Society expects of its members.’ In just two years, the commune had ‘constructed, with their own hands, nine dome-type buildings, including a large triple fused rhombic dodecahedron’ clad in old car tops, and were then in the process of building a ‘theater for electronic psychedelics’, an art form, as Droppers explained, that had recently debuted at Expo 67 in Montreal. It was not, then, that the Droppers did not work, but rather that they were not productive within the extant socio-economic system.

Despite the industriousness of its members in their attempts to construct a post-revolutionary environment, the commune soon became emblematic of dropping out. ‘Contrary to the public’s general assumption’, the Denver Post reported, attempting to clarify a widespread misrecognition, the term Dropper ‘has nothing to do with “dropping out” of college, society or anything else. Rather than having the negative connotation, “Dropper” is a positive term, meaning someone who creates.’ Drop City was built from used 2x4 inch studs, tarpaper, scavenged railroad ties, factory reject plywood, bottle-tops, junk cars, and other detritus. Constructed through recycling the waste products of an advanced consumer culture, the domes arose literally from, in their words, the ‘garbage of America’. ‘To the townspeople of Trinidad, five miles away’, wrote Dropper Peter Rabbit, ‘we are scroungers, bums, garbage pickers. They are right. Perhaps the most beautiful creation in all Drop City is our junk pile. The garbage of the garbage pickers.’8 That their particular mode of creation seemed to pose an immanent threat to the system was exemplified in what Droppers saw as the ‘unfounded hostility’ of the local community. As recounted by the Post, ‘Svenson tells of a local supermarket manager who, he said, hates them, a state patrolman who harasses them and legislators who suggest laws to prevent Colorado becoming a haven for subcultural groups. “It’s insane for the Establishment to try to stop new directions,” he said. “I guess I can understand paranoia about new things, but you can’t save something by destroying something else.”’

The Dropper’s withdrawal from economic structures was self-consciously political, albeit harboring a politics distinct from more familiar modes of labor or union activism. This was not due to a lack of familiarity with Marxist paradigms. (One Brooklyn-born Dropper’s actual name was instructive in this regard: although known as Gene or Curly Benson, he had been christened Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, his brother Karl Marx Bernofsky.) When work was undertaken – for instance in the construction of the domes – it was not in the service of the production of saleable commodities, but as they insisted, the expression of a positive desire. ‘We play at working … We are based on the pleasure principle.’9 As explained by Peter Rabbit (aka Peter Douthit and even ‘Bill Voyd’), ‘All creative activity is done for its own sake, without ends. All noncompulsory activity is art. We get away from job-oriented society, work apart from life. We get away from “work” as the Western industrial world has known it, away from the Protestant ethic.’10 In addition to recycling and welfare, Drop City ran largely on donated money. Riffing on R. Buckminster Fuller’s rhetoric of ‘turning weaponry to livingry’, Rabbit noted (with respect to an escalating militarization) that ‘People who give us money to make things prevent their money from being used to destroy things.’11

Buckminster Fuller was also not incidental to this story: the prophet of efficiency had widely captured the imagination of the counterculture, including the Droppers, who encountered him at the moment of the commune’s founding. (The use of domes came after the commune’s initial inception, which was supposed to have been located in the Nile delta in Africa.) Yet if Fuller’s technocratic vision of an efficient, repeatable and universal dwelling unit had touched down here in Southern Colorado, Drop City was hardly in sync with Fuller’s ideals. ‘Creative scrounging’ was not part of his ambitions to harness and redirect the military-industrial apparatus to domestic ends. Yet despite their decidedly low-tech, do-it-yourself version of geodesics, and despite their political aims, Fuller recognized an opportunity and was happy to be identified with Drop City, awarding the commune the 1966 Dymaxion Award for 'poetically economic structural accomplishments’. Fuller had recognized the prospect of harnessing such youthful energy for the cause of dome-building (just as he would soon after with the World Game). Indeed, the counterculture would prove to be an excellent source of publicity and the somewhat hallucinogenic dissemination of his geodesic vision. John McHale, then executive director of the World Resources Inventory, conveyed in a letter to the Droppers that ‘Professor Fuller has further suggested that you might consider the future possibilities of such “shelter production” as your own local industry to help maintain the city’, a proposal revealing that while Fuller (or at least his colleagues) had recognized a potential new market, there remained a significant misrecognition of what was at stake in the Dropper’s interest in alternative structures.

News of Drop City, with its geodesic domes and open door policy, spread quickly. Articles appeared in Arts Magazine, Aspen, Architectural Forum, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, fueling a ‘success’ that would lead to its rapid demise. In Spring 1968, the commune posted a large sign at the entrance in an attempt to stem the onslaught. It read: ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHS, VISITING HOURS WEEKENDS ONLY 8 AM TO 8 PM’. And as recounted by one visitor that year, the tenor had changed: ‘“We’ll let anyone come for a while, but only those who contribute, can stay”, stated a resident. “It has to be that way. We’ve learned the hard way, by letting too many come who could only take away…We’re going to move; start out in Canada or Virginia or on a farm near here, but this time we’ll keep it a secret.”’12 Indeed, by 1968 most of the original members had fled. Without the goal of building communal structures, the community fell apart. Paradoxically, without ‘work’, life without work ceased to function as an alternate social project.

Pacific High School, an experimental school in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, stands as another distinct and key part of this story. Here students were largely free to decide their own ‘curriculum’, or lack thereof. Peter Marin described the scene at the school as follows: ‘Young men and women dozed in tropical torpor against walls and trees; some lay naked and indolent in the grass; others labored at grotesque projects: digging the world’s deepest hole…casting spells to keep spirits away; a few drifted by as thoughtless and high as balloons…it all had a tattered, earthy and fleshy feel to it – as if one had stumbled on a blueridge moonshiny whorehouse.’ But despite the appearance of sloth, of a lack of care or productivity, Marin insisted that profound changes, even a sort of subjective training was going on here. ‘There was no way to explain’, he continued,

that the young were even in these negligent ways (especially these ways) changing and gathering strengths. But they were. For long stretches some would turn dumb or blind, or doze for weeks in the sun, sleep with mate after mate idly, carelessly, or fall without moving through endless internal chambers one could not see. One might say they were “unmotivated” or bored; more kindly that they had not yet learned “to use their freedom.” But one would be wrong. No matter how they looked, most of them were not inactive.13

After an initial period in which the school was housed in conventional structures, a chance encounter with Lloyd Kahn led to the building of domes for communal living arrangements, and with it a bodily engagement in the construction of environments. Kahn brought Jay Baldwin on board, fresh from Fuller’s office (and later to become one of his key biographers), and a period of heightened physical activity ensued as ten domes were rapidly constructed at the school. A byproduct of the experiment, the do-it-yourself Domebook 1 was published to ‘communicate our experiences and discoveries’. Drawing on the Whole Earth Catalog model of alternative circulation and feedback, it included detailed diagrams, photographs, instructions, and helpful hints on techniques and materials for the would-be dome-builder, typically cast through stories of dome construction. Multiple dome types were offered to the reader as possible ‘prototypes for future industrial production of low-cost housing’.14 It quickly gained a wide readership and sponsored a surge in dome-building activity.

Despite early ideals of open access to dome-building information and the belief that domes would facilitate escape from normative institutional spaces (school, house, etc.), Kahn’s vision of ‘shelter production’ was (unlike Drop City) in fact quite close to Fuller’s own, and would even soon subject itself to Fuller’s copyright claims. In an early letter to Fuller, Kahn even cast dome-building as a possible panacea to ‘the massive and growing student unrest’: ‘Many young people these days either rebel or drift aimlessly because they cannot find meaningful outlets for their youthful energy’, he wrote, proposing therapeutic building workshops. Far from facilitating dropping-out, or withdrawal from the ‘system’, here was a proposal that capitalized on desires for alternative lifestyles, and even ecological ideals of ‘minimum violation of land’, to ensure that youth might function productively within the system. Kahn even proposed seeking corporate sponsorship for experimental dome-building communities. Identifying Alcoa and Union Carbide as possible candidates, he explained that such companies might be interested since ‘individuals will innovate where large organization cannot (as in your comparison of the Dymaxion car vs. Chrysler).’15 In exchange for a place to live and test dome-building strategies, the companies would gain publicity and information on new potential uses of, and hence markets for, its products.

My final example derives from the work of the Ant Farm collective (1968-1978) and brings us back to the question of how paradigms of refusal were articulated with respect to post-industrial technologies and new spatio-temporal modalities explored at once through the use of psychedelic drugs and information technology. Ant Farm’s use of psychedelic drugs, far from unproductive, served as a vehicle for architectural research into an environment radically transformed under the impact of electronics and computerization.16 The psychedelic experience of the ‘trip’ has been described as an ‘expanded time phenomenon’, as having given rise to the ability to ‘dwell exponentially’ in time, or to experience not the sequential passing of time but accelerating rates of change and the forces driving that transformation. Victor Gioscia, a sociologist of this phenomenon, explains: ‘Just as computers can process billions of bits (binary digits) of information per second, so when high, can one seem to experience hours and even years in a few minutes.’17 Ant Farm would go on to thematize such psychomimetic data flow in projects like 1969’s Enviroman. As reported in Rolling Stone, they had been working on ‘a laboratory instrument which can program the human brain with entire environments, from around the world and across the ages’. Ant Farm would continue this pursuit to architecturalize the trip experience of LSD by building kits of parts to facilitate such virtual travel – including multi-screen installations with trippy slide collages, intermedia events with inflatables, etc.

This research found its apotheosis in Truckstop Network (1970-72): Ant Farm’s attempt to produce an alternative community through engaged withdrawal from the capitalist state. Truckstop was Ant Farm’s dream of a ‘liberated territory’ within the geographic space of the United States, a vision of a parallel world, or as they wryly put it, an ‘eco-conscious American Empire’ that would occupy space and time but use advanced technology differently. It was conceived as an interconnected system of life support nodes that would support the alternative lifestyle of a dispersed community of ‘global media nomads’. A document entitled ‘Truck stop fantasy one’ included the notion that ‘eventually we will abandon physical movement for telepathic/cybernetic movement (television) and our network will adapt to the change. We are already doing it to a degree, and the videosphere is the basis of that system.’18 Like television, one could now travel while remaining in place. Ant Farm’s network-based community envisioned not only a reworking of the organization of geopolitical territory and one’s social and political identity within it, but also a restructuring of the subject, overcoming spatial and institutional boundaries through the interconnected figure of the cyborg or cybernetic organism. Truckstop Network even imagined an alternative economic system that would function through ‘outlaw energy credits’ redeemable at any node in the network.

I want to return here to the question of whether we can read these utopian acts of withdrawal from a mainstream work ethic as a late-twentieth century counterpart to Lafargue’s critique of the ‘consequences of over-production’, his proclamation of the ‘Right to be Lazy’. This would entail identifying an irreverent refusal of the normative code of conduct as well as refusals with potentially disastrous consequences for capitalist profitability and/or the state (now in a global or neo-imperial phase). Dome builders’ and communards' socio-economic privilege (typically white and middle-class) facilitated their self-styling as ‘refugees’ from the work ethic, normative lifestyles and culture of consumption characteristic of their parents’ generation. At the very least, we find the threat of a boredom born of affluence or of being incarcerated within the gendered identities of the ‘organization man’ and housewife. But more significantly, we find a growing awareness that the ‘system’, notably including universities, functioned to train youth as unquestioning worker drones for an economic and political matrix bent on environmental destruction, social injustice, racial inequity, imperialist wars (e.g.,Vietnam), and global (even interplanetary) capitalist exploitation. In this sense, this phenomena was not simply a refusal of work in favor of a ‘laziness’ supported by the labor of a different sector of society. But all too quickly this growing awareness offered an important lesson to the state and those multinational corporations: they too needed to change their image.

It remains important to distinguish Kahn’s practical ambitions for domes within the existing system from the more radical exodus sought by Drop City and Ant Farm. But that these groups could converge in the practice of experimenting with environmental technologies, creating captivating images of alternative ways of life, and that those images would so widely pervade the popular imagination of the moment perhaps speaks to the contemporary experience of other historical forces. The world-weariness of the counterculture as well as their new modes of productivity appear in retrospect to be symptomatic of encounters with a rapidly transforming technological milieu, one sponsoring an updated type of ‘competition between man and machine’, to recall Lafargue’s thesis. This transformation was driven, at least in part, by post-industrial technologies and modes of communication – by servomechanisms, computers, television, video, etc., as well as by the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production. We no longer see a perverse acceleration of the work ethic driven by the mechanization and efficiencies of industrial processes. What we see instead is a decoupling of certain bodies from traditional sites of industrial labor and their re-coupling within a distinct economic and technological matrix, one itself not incidental to contemporary geopolitical transformations. The post-war period in America was, of course, a moment characterized by a massive increase in immaterial labor and the service economy. It was the moment in which advanced information technologies and their new processing and interfacing capacities colonized the minds and activities of its subjects, training them not to adopt the fixed habits of the factory worker, but to operate in a state of ‘permanent mutability’, to produce – in the words of Virno – a ‘habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change ... a nondeterministic mentality’, and ‘responsiveness to transformation without pause’.19 In other words, the new types of ‘innovative’ social subjectivities emerging within the counterculture often unintentionally figured as the vanguard of this subjective transformation, their environments providing the very training-grounds for this sort of mutability. Moreover, the increasing dominance of immaterial labor over the capitalist machine sponsored both the emergence of new forms of creativity and the production and dissemination of images for which countercultural strategies, wittingly or unwittingly, provided equally instructive lessons. This is not to suggest that there are not many historical lessons to be learned from the counterculture and their rapid cultural integration. Far from it. Rather, perhaps the most important contemporary provocation lies in the need to understand the functioning of one’s work as it operates necessarily within, and not outside, the logics of capital. Not in order to hasten those forces of integration or subsumption, but in order to forge with tactical precision other modalities of the refusal of work – moments of transformation, interruption, or redirection – that create an intentional, even if temporary, opening for alternative modes of productivity and their subjective logics.

1. This text was first presented at ‘In Defense of Sloth: An Eclectic and Entertaining Series of Presentations about That Most Philosophical of Vices’, coorganized by Cabinetmagazine and the Slought Foundation, and held at Cooper Union on December 8, 2007. I want to thank Aaron Levy and Sina Najafi for their kind invitation to resituate my research on the counterculture in that context. Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books 1990), p. 6.
2. Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy (Charles Kerr and Co., Co-operative 1883). At: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/index.htm.
3. Paulo Virno, ‘Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus’. In: Paulo Virno and Michael Hardt (ed.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 189-210.
4. See Paulo Virno, ‘About Exodus’, Grey Room 21 (Fall 2005), pp. 17-20.
5. Paulo Virno [note 3], p. 199.
6. Editors note to Albin Wagner, ‘Drop City: A Total Living Environment’. In: Jesse Kornbluth (ed.), Notes from the New Underground (New York: Viking Press 1968), p. 232. For a more detailed account of Drop City, see Felicity D. Scott, Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism (Cambridge: MIT Press 2007).
7. Morgan Lawhon, ‘Work, Thrift, Artistic Creativity’, Denver Post, August 6, 1967, p. 33.
8. Peter L. Douthit, ‘Drop City: A Report from the Energy Center’, Arts Magazine 41 (1967), p. 233.
9. As reported in Avatar, Droppers ‘have attempted to create in Drop City a total living environment, outside the structure of society’. Its ‘tribal unit’, they explained, had ‘no formal structure, no written laws’. All ‘time is free time’, and ‘survival is provided for’. Hence, ‘Each Dropper is free. Each does what he wants. No rules, no duties, no obligations. Anarchy … Droppers are not asked to do anything.’ Albin Wagner, ‘Drop City’, Avatar (August 4-18 1967), p. 7.
10. Bill Voyd, ‘Funk Architecture’. In: Paul Oliver (ed.), Shelter and Society (New York: Praeger 1969), pp. 158-59.
11. Peter L. Douthit [note 8], p. 49.
12. Richard Fairfield, Communes USA: A Personal Tour (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc. 1972), 208.
13. Peter Marin, ‘Foreword’. In: Michael S. Kaye, The Teacher was the Sea (New York: Links 1972), p. vii-ix.
14. Domebook One (Los Gatos, California: Pacific Domes 1970), p. 3.
15. Lloyd Kahn to R. Buckminster Fuller, April 9, 1969.
16. Felicity D. Scott, Living Archive 7: Ant Farm (Barcelona: ACTAR Editorial 2008). My account here derives from this work.
17. See Victor Gioscia, ‘Groovin' on Time: Fragments of a Sociology of the Psychedelic Experience’. In: Richard D. Hicks and Paul Jay Fink (ed.),  Psychedelic Drugs (New York: Grune & Stratton 1969), pp. 167-176.
18. ‘Truck stop fantasy one’, n.p.
19. Paulo Virno [note 4], p. 15.