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Idle Forms

15, Fall 2023
Issue Editors:
Yoav Ronel, Oded Na'aman

The naturalist novel is celebrated for its depictions of labor. Yet the grim determinism of this genre, with its plots of inexorable decline, suggests that one is doomed no matter how hard one works. Under such conditions, idleness offers to naturalism’s working-class characters a reprieve, a weapon of the weak, a rational response to an unjust regime. Drawing on eight of Zola’s novels and focusing on The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883), this essay argues that naturalism rescues, rather than rejects, the ground of idleness and aesthetic surrender. One implication of this argument is that naturalism and aestheticism are closer in character than is often understood.

This article considers how the theme of waiting is treated in two African realist novels: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Waiting: A Novel of Uganda at War. Building on recent scholarship that seeks to understand waiting as more than deferral or failure, the article develops the notion of idleness as an important aspect of waiting. It shows how the novels engage with waiting on both thematic and formal levels, thereby conveying “a human measurement of time” that is grounded in the nexus of community, nature, and storytelling. Specifically, it suggests that the communal temporalities of waiting are indebted to animist storytelling practices, which allow communities to construct themselves through their embeddedness in nature. Comparing two novels in which waiting is a communal strategy for resisting political oppression in the wake of colonialism, the article thus teases out culturally specific modes of temporality and waiting that predated colonialism and which offered — and still offer — a rejection of the binaries of productiveness/idleness, growth/stasis, and failure/success.

Religious thought is often deeply concerned with work — what it is, how we should feel about it, why we must do it, and when we should stop. In this article, ideas about work from two different religious traditions are explored and compared. One tradition, stemming from the Talmud and early Rabbinic Judaism, thinks of work as the opposite of rest, and sees work and rest as, ideally, part of a divine cycle, alienation from which is painful. The other, a branch of Hinduism known as Shaivism, thinks of work as the opposite of play, and yet similarly thinks of play as a divine dynamic in which we are encouraged to participate. In both traditions, the relation between the isolated individual and the community is the key to understanding participation in divinity as well as what holds us back from that. This relationship between the individual and the community is understood differently in each tradition because the self as such is understood differently in each tradition. But both traditions, despite their religiosity, find deep parallels in modern, secular, political thought in ways that help us better understand the foundations of our own assumptions about community, work, and political flourishing.

This essay proposes a conceptual inquiry into the stakes, implications, and continued relevance of amateurism as a contemporary form of life and thought. Taking a cue from Roland Barthes’s fascination in his later years with the amateurish ­disposition — as a type of activity that is carried out “without the spirit of mastery or competition” — I identify two modalities of amateurism. The first, explored here through Barthes’s profound yet problematic relation to Japan and the haiku, is implicit and relational, concerned with forms of knowledge and thought. The second, more explicit and practical, and more directly opposed to the capitalist ethos of the professionalization of everything, is experienced as an intervention in forms of living. Tracing the paradoxical fate of the amateur in our contemporary neoliberal, post-COVID-19 moment, the essay argues for the need to conceptualize the simultaneous availability and precarity of the amateur praxis today, the elusive intersection of amateurism and politics, and, ultimately, amateurism’s modest yet persistent liberatory horizon.

“Enough” is a slippery signifier — it is never clear enough, or else it always means too much. In this inquiry, we investigate the social and psychic work that “enough” performs. We do so by following an associative series of narrative instantiations that demonstrate how enoughness holds the paradoxical capacity to signal both sufficiency and excess simultaneously. By close reading polyvocal, genre-hybrid texts (from Hélène Cixous reading Sigmund Freud and Clarice Lispector to Maggie Nelson reading Eve Sedgwick), we examine the capacity of enoughness to produce and reproduce psychic violence in the same stroke as it opens up a horizon of recuperative potentiality. As we pan across these intertextual dialogues, Donald Winnicott provides a metaphoric figure for the relative and relational nature of enoughness; from the “good enough mother,” we probe the relational prospects of “a good enough language” and its embodied effects and affects. As a threshold and as a speech act, as a gesture and an imaginary, “enough,” we argue, operates against the capitalist imperative “to have,” while setting and transgressing limits between subjects. Ultimately, the dialectic between sufficiency and excess enables “enough” to express both a boundary and the lack thereof, a finite form and its indefinite expanse. “Enough,” as it were, isn’t enough to anticipate or determine the reach of its own relational effects.

Cookbooks do not write themselves. Like any book, in any language or genre, they have authors and readers and cooks that use them and, in periods prior to print, also scribes who copied them in manuscript form. In medieval Iraq, cookery books were born out of idleness. Furthermore, they were not necessarily penned by cooks. The article probes the question of why and how recipe collections were created. Using a variety of sources — such as biographical dictionaries, the literary form known as mirrors for princes, and illuminated manuscripts — the article explores the political and social environment that led to the development of cooking and cookbook-writing as leisure activities of the caliph and his entourage. It contends that in medieval Baghdad, idleness led not only to the invention of dishes, but also to a whole literary genre: cookery books in Arabic.

The article discusses the role of idleness in late neoliberal times in light of the glaring crisis that the institution of work is today going through. It suggests that today, as work becomes more and more problematic, and as the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism become more apparent and catastrophic, idleness becomes a viable existential and political option. In reading works of contemporary Israeli literature which are concerned with idleness and non-work, it shows the different potentials for resistance that are encapsulated in different forms of idleness and how they gain prevalence today. Leaning on thinkers such as David Graeber, Nancy Fraser, and Byung-Chul Han, the article first explains the manners in which work under neoliberalism brings about burnout and depression. Afterward, it moves on to reading contemporary Israeli literature by Michal Ben-Naftali, Noga Albalach, and Tahel Frosh. Reading these works through Giorgio Agamben’s concept of inoperativity, the article discusses various forms of political idleness — idle labor, asceticism, and strike — while framing them facing the potential political imagination of a post-capitalist society.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University