Sabbath

Part Gillie Kleiman’s WebRes ‘Not Working.’ Find out more here.


This text will be published at around 6pm on a Friday. For me, even though I have grown up mostly in Britain in a secular family, it is my experience of being with my Jewish Israeli father’s family in Israel for big chunks of time that has most influenced my sabbatical feeling. Friday evenings are this special moment, a kind of closure, a suspension of time, so filled with a dusky excitement that even though I’m not doing anything particular this evening I feel something is still hovering around me.

The following fragments are from my PhD thesis, which I also mentioned in yesterday’s text. They are commentary, a kind of lengthy theoretical notation to a description of a person, CJ, who was taking part in a choreographic project I was making, entitled Recreation. They have a more scholarly tone than what I’ve written so far in this residency. I’m not hiding the rest of the text and did consider simply publishing all of it, but it doesn’t seem necessary to what I’m asking myself today. (In any case you can read it from my website.) I hope the fragments can be something to swim in, to think with, even if that to which they refer is somewhat obfuscated. One day I’d like to write more about the sabbatical.

Today’s questions are something like these:

  • What might be produced if we understand our lockdown/pandemic limitation moment as a form of sabbatical?
  • What would it be to create, deliberately, for ourselves and for others, sabbatical possibilities?
  • What happens when artmaking arises out of sabbatical power?

There are rituals to end and begin sacred moments, sacred timespaces in which other things can happen. This needn’t be the sacrality of religion—this timespace could be secular—but there are always certain things to be done, said, heard, smelt, moved, touched, and even tasted which mark the beginnings and endings of things which we might find important; political theorist Bonnie Honig describes this as ‘a dense cultural sensorial synagogue that acts to wrest humanity or sacredness from the creaturely world of the everday’ (2015:469). I don’t know what is done around Christian special days; I’m not and have never been a Christian. I know that in Judaism even many secular Jews will host some kind of special meal at the arrival of the Sabbath, maybe eating or saying or drinking special things. There is a parallel to the start and end of retreats in the Buddhist tradition in which I practice, where a dedication ceremony starts the period and a ritual, often involving a fire and ending in a chant, will close the events. These things are not exclusive to religious people. I wonder if a secular version might be a beer at the airport before going on holiday.

Giorgio Agamben’s writing on the sabbath is that which returns in bibliographies related to the term, and his writing begins with a Jewish take on the concept. For Agamben, the sabbath, the Jewish Shabbat or Shabbas, is not simply an extra bit of time added to the workweek, but a special time which exists in both continuity and heterogeneity with the six days that precede it in each cycle (2011:109). The sabbath sits in a ‘relationship of proximity and almost reciprocal immanence’ with work and inoperativity (110). The sabbath and inoperativity, that state which is the other side of the coin to potentiality (Prozorov 2014), are neither consequences nor preconditions for one another (Agamben 2011). Instead, inoperativity ‘coincides with festiveness itself in the sense that it consists precisely in neutralizing and rendering inoperative human gestures, actions, and works, which in turn can become festive only in this way’ (Agamben 2011:109). In this sense, inoperativity is connected to the kind of life that I am searching for in this chapter, in these accounts, a state that includes the potential for human endeavour without the necessity for its exercising, not a suspension of labour precisely, but a ‘temporary suspension of productive activity’, regardless of the realm of that productivity (economic, domestic, etc.) (Honig 2015:478). 

It strikes me that the workshop is a way of practising the Sabbath, in the way that Honig suggests (2015). She proposes that there exists a sabbath-power which emerges from festive inoperativity, through which new forms of relation are possible. The sabbath-power is enacted through practice, a practice of the senses. In the workshop we use at least four of the five usual senses (taste is usually excluded), but also others: we use proprioception and balance, we feel one another’s body heat, and more mysterious things, like sensing another’s feeling of comfort or discomfort in coming into contact with them. Honig’s sabbath-power seems strong; a force. Thinking it in practice allows it to become much more subtle, it permeating, rather than charging, through a space and time.

Just as ‘[p]resents, gifts and toys are objects with use and exchange value that are rendered inoperative, wrested from their economy’ (Agamben 2011:111), so are these postures recuperated from a state of high charge. Their economy should be one of dance, their value coming from stage dance’s traditional values of poise, strength, skill, and virtuosity, but the dancerly frame drops out of operativity in this sense in favour of the sensorial. In the practice of sabbath-power choreography changes on a level of quality rather than shape. Just as the sabbath can contain the same tasks as the workweek, so can the choreography retain its normative values, but the alteration is visible as a result of the suspension of the productive. In movement this shows.

A sabbatical texture is one of being in the present, mindful of what is happening and what is being done. The sabbath’s actions are not in preparation for any future or the fallout of any past, but are undertaken within the sabbath itself. Work, particularly project work, conducts itself always towards a future: a project is a projection (Bayly 2013; Wikström 2016). The projectness I experience is the busyness Agamben suggests is the human race’s answer to our very sabbatical nature: ‘[h]uman life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. Man has devoted himself to production and labour because he is in essence deprived of work, because he is above all a sabbatical animal’ (2007:138). 

This is the true feeling of sabbath, this when actions that could be done anytime are done with a relationship to the productive potentials of work without realising those potentials. The activity of work—and even its site—has not changed, or not changed much, but this reframing of the space and time as one of a break—a sabbath or sabbatical—allows for ‘the liberation of the body from its utilitarian movements, the exhibition of gestures in their pure inoperativity’ (Lucian in Agamben 2011:111). This makes it possible, paradoxically, for something that could be called an important part of the rehearsal process to occur as part of a break. I think it is Recreation itself, its interests and agendas and methods, that allow this suspension to occur.

Agamben doesn’t use the common phrase ‘day of rest’ to describe the sabbath, but Honig, writing through Agamben’s work, does so several times in one article, even playing in her writing with rest and wrest as homophones. I don’t know where I stand on this. It seems to rather suppress Agamben’s assertions about the sabbatical as inoperative, as unrealised potential; is the potential still present when the being is only semi-conscious? I come to two thoughts: either rest, particularly sleep, is so personal as to not belong to the political project of the sabbath, which always involves others; or rest is still so associated with recuperation from the last workday and preparation for the next that it cannot be sabbatical proper.

To my mind, this creation of a sabbatical landscape, a way of being together that suspends, as Agamben suggests, work and inoperativity in proximity to something festive like the sabbath, should be enough for anyone. CJ’s request represents the privilege of the sabbath, the fact that to take time out of the productive is not necessarily available to all people equally, however you cut it; there are material conditions in which people have to operate which prevent sabbaticals.

The sabbath has its own ethics, its own political charge. This is not about making work better for the worker, but in coming into contact with productivism and seeing what else is there by stepping through it. Honig writes: ‘we see here a practice that has some family resemblance to the idea of the General Strike: a suspension of work that presupposes the productive power of workers, but also generates the generative powers that may open new and different orders of economic life’ (2015:474). I’m inclined to disagree, for a strike presents itself as a temporary state through which, indeed, economic imaginaries can proliferate and cause change, but ultimately the impact remains within that sector of human action. Sabbatical inoperativity, on the other hand, has the potential to open up other orders completely, ones where deeds and words occur for lifeful purposes unrelated to economics.

Honig writes that ‘[i]n the sabbatical state of exception all divisions are meant to disappear, rather than to be (re)inscribed’ (2015:473). In the conversation I am describing to the left our social divisions are becoming blurred. In conventional terms I am the boss and CJ is the worker; his asking to take time out of what is contracted work is a challenge to this relationship, to this instance of power and control. But CJ’s understanding of what is happening is that it is a form of sabbath, in which ‘the laws of social division are suspended and everyone is a king’ (Honig 2015:473). For us together to maintain our collective practice of the sabbath it was necessary for me to meet this challenge with what then felt like capitulation, and what now feels like a reasonable—and even desirable or ‘enchanted and enchanting’—pursuit of the sabbatical (Honig 2015:474).


References

Agamben, G. (2007). Art, Inactivity, Politics in Guerreiro, A. (ed). Criticism of Contemporary Issues: Politics. Porto: Fundação de Serralves. pp 127–141.

__________. (2011) Nudities. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Bayly, S. (2013). The End of the Project: Futurity in the Culture of Catastrophe. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. 18(2) pp.161–177.

Honig, B. (2015). The Laws of the Sabbath (Poetry): Arendt, Heine, and the Politics of Debt. UC Irvine Law Review 5(463). pp. 463–482.

Prozorov, S. (2014) Agamben and Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wikström, J. (2016) A Comment On Bojana Kunst’s The Artist at Work. Sarma Docs #2.