An Appeal for Balance: 'Action Versus Contemplation'

Billions grapple with a frenetic paradigm shift which scuffs lines between a carefree ant's and a diligent grasshopper's domains.

Action Versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters
Jennifer Summit, Blakey Vermuele

University of Chicago Press

April 2018


The current US presidential administration proposes merging the Departments of Education and Labor. After all, the White House's rationale insists, they're both aiming at the same goal: the workplace dictates student outcomes and management expects compliant employees. Whether Aesop's fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper", C.P. Snow's divide between the humanities and the sciences as "The Two Cultures", or the slow decline of the liberal arts in academia contrasted with the rapid rise of business majors, these gaps expose cultural and economic tension.

Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule taught a course at Stanford on this dichotomy between the cultivation of wisdom and the demonstration of skills. Action Versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters begins with an appeal for balance rather than conflict when these two realms are juxtaposed. The classic busybody and lazybones characters reveal to the authors not only conflict in the university but a battle between stress and relaxation engaged in by many of us. Activity without leisure proves meaningless; downtime without engagement turns purposelessness. Summit and Vermeule, trained as literary critics, aim this brief book towards those who seek to recover a wise balance while never dismissing the life of the mind.

They delve into the ancient and Renaissance divisions between theoria/ "useless"/ elite and praxis/ "practical"/ laborers. The authors posit that a caricatured standoff between fuzzy and techie contingents in Silicon Valley fades as cross-pollination unites two cultures. They pinpoint 1459 as the date when the ideal of "humanitas" emerged as distinct from practical endeavors. Five hundred years later, they chart when the '60s-era celebration of dropping out mingled with the '70s-era promotion of the small-press bestseller, What Color Is Your Parachute? This earnest trend pivoted from going back to the country and accelerated into "deep happiness" obtained from a "self-knowledge" which would pay (sub-)urban bills while somehow satisfying one's inner child, as if long lost lazy summer afternoons could be resurrected.

The Ant and the Grasshopper by Charles H. Bennett (Public Domain / WikiMedia Commons)

Halfway through this concatenation of topical chapters—presumably the result of the pair's collaboration and division of labor—the fabled insects' reprise this conflict through entertainment for the masses. Disney's 1934 "Silly Symphony", the French storyteller Jean de la Fontaine, and John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton's 1998 film A Bug's Life, exemplify treatments of the titular "ancient debate" in pop culture. The authors treat the last in this list as indicative of today's youth, who seek creativity within community.

This return to a differently domesticated idyll than that romanticized half a century before by the hippies marks two representative texts as case studies. Sue Bender's 1989 Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish complements Marie Kendo's 2014 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Their surprising publishing success illustrates the appeal for a primarily female readership of a "New Domesticity". That is, not a retreat into the home but a self-help regimen to repair the imbalances of late capitalism. This book's value derives from its array of diverse ideas from religion, literature, and art. But stretches plod along with intermittent scenes of interest, most reliably engaging whenever media portrayals loom.

Summit and Vermuele predictably add their tones of the seminar and the professoriate to this material. Their cosseted perspective from serving, living among, and observing the Bay Area's privileged classes limits its scope. Yet their theme of how setting things straight in our daily lives, whether in chores on "time off" or duties on the clock, dominates present-day concerns in a blurred work-life continuum will prove relevant to many readers caught in this far from polarized predicament. The authors reason how redemption of accumulation and activity may be elevated within our material age. Adapting Charles Taylor's influential 2007 study of secularism, A Secular AgeA Secular Age, these scholars define strivers for meaning who strive for "a sanctification of ordinary life."

Finally, Summit and Vermuele argue for not "sanctuary from the outside world" but instead "a microcosm modeling an ordered world" as viable. They support integration of public and private space. They look back at the pairs of women who entered fiction as dramatizing these opposite loyalties. Leah and Rachel and Martha and Mary's opposing character types from the Bible, and Barbara Kingsolver's narratives typify this strain of searching for authenticity, pursued in impractical downtime rather than necessary tasks. Whether it's the heroines of George Eliot's Middlemarch or politician Hillary Rodham Clinton, official narratives from Bartleby and Kafka, or David Foster Wallace's reporting on Tracy Austin's tennis career, tales from celebrities and classics fill the short shelf where play and duty overlap or clash.

This section expresses in livelier style the impact of these positions. Billions grapple with a frenetic paradigm shift which scuffs lines between a carefree ant's and a diligent grasshopper's domains. Peter Drucker's prescient coinage of a "knowledge worker" (The Landmarks of Tomorrow, 1959) epitomizes this social drive; information replaces manufacturing and manual labor means data control. The Space Age dream of an automated age of fewer demands, higher income, and happier hours remains deferred. Retirement retreats into a feared future of McJobs, gig economies, debt, and depleted bank accounts. Some of this survey's audience profit via the security of tenure or the surety of pensions. For the rest of us, how downtime, kicking back, and chilling out, whatever the slang, will survive this occupational whiplash stays a conundrum.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.