2021-07-08 Marvelous Pursuits

From “Alienation, Marvelous Pursuits and the New Nomadic Sciences”, by an anonymous author, written in 2001, sometimes a bit exaggerated, but sometimes exactly right.

A hobby is a form of consumption, the marvelous pursuit on the other hand, is a rejection of commodified convenience, it can’t be bought because it has no price. The person who reads Aramaic poetry on the sidewalk, the cramped city dweller who has an intricate knowledge of ferns, the person who can play a sonata with a blade of grass, these people interact with the things around them and the spaces they pass through in unexpected ways and make these places and moments their own. A sidewalk could be a place to pass by one one’s way from home to work or it could become a place to read Aramaic poetry to passers by. A marvelous pursuit refuses socially ascribed use. People learn such socially useless things as the names of fern and the grammar of dead languages because they are bored with the mind-dumbing options dished out to them … – Alienation, Marvelous Pursuits and the New Nomadic Sciences

I truly depends on how you define a hobby. Is any activity within the circumscribed limits offered by society automatically a form of alienated leisure? If you have a piano, and you play it it, using it as a piano, to make piano music, to play sheet music? Knave or Artisan? I suspect it’s not that easy. So yes, on the one hand, this marvelous pursuit is great, this freedom is great. And people seeing ads and hearing influencers tell them what to buy and what to do seem dead inside. But didn’t we all start out as kids, unformed, clueless? Some teacher tried to tell how great this or that book was, how to draw and paint, how to compose and sing, how to play this instrument or another. And sometimes, years later, we suddenly understand. We are quickstarting each other, overwhelming the kids, and letting them sort it out later, and maybe it works.

In this sense, capitalism then allows us to simply buy things to take our next step on the ladder. The important part is to not stay there, either. Moving on up, we use the product we bought, we learn to make our own, we build and synthesize from what we have available, and then perhaps we’re on our way, unalienated at last.

Learning to make things we use ourselves instead of buying them is a fundamental and necessary part of creating a non-capitalist stateless society.

Here we have scope problems along this line as well. How far back do you go. Surely we don’t intend us all to go from stone age to laptops in a lifetime. But learning to craft a table, a chair, an instrument, a tool – or dare I say it, write a program 😄 – are all suitable expressions of the “Do It Yourself” (DIY) spirit.

There was another aspect I thought worth mentioning:

The state did not appreciate the journeymen’s associations’ tendency to strike, nor their ability to move as they pleased when work conditions were unfavorable. … By separating intellectual and physical labor the state took power away from both types of workers. The manual laborers could then only build what others had planned and the planners — who in economic and political terms were the more powerful of the two groups — no longer had the capacity to build anything at all.

It reminds me of a podcast episode of “Thinking Allowed” I recently heard where they talked about the Luddites. Gavin Mueller, Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, was talking about their book. There was talk of Taylor and Taylorism and Mueller said that Taylor was forced to work in the factory and hated his coworkers. He also saw that the workers had a lot of power because they knew how everything worked where as their bosses did not. And just like in the quote above with the journeymen, when Ford organized his own factories, he made sure that no single worker knew how to do the thing. They were alienated of their work and thus kept under control.

Returning to the article about marvellous pursuits, I think this is quite relevant these days:

The ‘master’ of a marvelous pursuit can never be an engineer because the marvelous is by nature useless to society (and therefore to capital). The value in marvelous pursuits lies in their self-creation which evades both use-value and exchange value. These pursuits may or may not have revolutionary potential, but it is very difficult for capitalism to recuperate them precisely because they are so useless.

When I’m on holidays, I always tell people asking me about my plans that I don’t know what I’m going to do but I do know that it’s going to be extremely unproductive.


Sometimes I feel that my hobbies must bear some sort of “fruit” (monetarily) to demonstrate their “worth” or else I am simply “wasting my time.” This is probably a falsehood based on a skewed and biased perspective, but it is still my general orientation, despite evidence to the contrary nature of life (I.e. it doesn’t matter to the quality to the quality of my life whether or not my hobbies are “worth” jack or shit).

Something to ponder for sure.

JB 2021-07-09 02:36 UTC

Sometimes I wonder whether this a regional thing. Would German RPG people feel the same, if they had as easy access to PDF webshop, payment options, and so on. Or is this a consequence of living in a North America. What’s your impression of people trying to monetize their hobbies in South America?

– Alex 2021-07-09 10:33 UTC

I feel something similar, but it’s not about making money off the things I made, but about those things being used by other people. The money enter the picture only because those things are physical, and there are fellow hobbyists who sell theirs, so it would feel bad to give them away for free (and then my hobby might cost too much too). So I sell them at the cost of the materials, pretty much, because I want them to be used (and valued) by others. I also publish the designs freely, of course, but that is usually not enough.

What is the point of making something if nobody uses it?

– deshipu 2021-07-09 10:59 UTC

I guess that’s true. There is only so many wooden toys to give to your children, only so many pictures to hang on your walls, only so may tea cups to make – at some point you are going to give some away, or sell them.

– Alex 2021-07-09 11:52 UTC

I finally finished the whole article, and I noticed that it does this infuriating thing that Cory Doctorov called “terra nulla”, and that is so common in the “hacker” communities: they glorify the individual by yanking them out their context and deleting all the work done by the people around them, so that they look oh so creative and special.

All you have to do is ask “How did that sidewalk poet learn Aramaic?” and suddenly a whole community of people who are (or were) interested in Aramaic pop into existence. People who spent their lives reconstructing the language, who wrote books about it, etc. And once you start pulling on this thread, it all unravels. Why do they write in a dead language that their audience not only does not understand, but is unlikely to even recognize? Are they so afraid of criticism? Is their poetry so bad, that the only way to make it more interesting is to translate it into a fancy language? And why do they need to recite it to stranger people on the streets? Is there no community of fellow poets that would listen to each other poems? Or did this poet leave such a community, and now is desperately looking for any audience?

– deshipu 2021-07-09 13:28 UTC

They called it terra nullius (“nobody’s land”) and proceeded to “improve” it to make it into property. Many of these “improvements” involved acts of genocide against the indigenous people. After all, if something is owned by nobody, then the people on the land must be “nobody.” – Terra Nullius, Cory Doctorow in Locus Magazine

It’s an interesting line of thought, for sure. Rarely does something appear from nothing. There were teachers, fellow students, communities of practice, at least written records, maybe the people who make the products that help others get started.

I think this terra nullius criticism can be valid without invalidating the criticism of productive hobbies, where we apply the logic of the market to our free time, value our time spent by the money received; or the criticism of empty, performative hobbies, where we play the piano because this is what people in our class do.

From my point of view, a more interesting counter argument to the line about influencers telling us what to do and selling us the products to do it is that I don’t actually know any adults that still play an instrument without loving it where as there are many adults that still own that piano their parents gave them and then they stopped playing as soon as they realised that they were doing it for other people instead of themselves. In short, perhaps the entire line is a strawman put forward because it’s easily defeated. And if it is a strawman, then perhaps the difference between a hobby and a “marvellous pursuit” is not so great after all.

– Alex 2021-07-09 14:36 UTC

There is no monetization of hobbies in South America that I have observed. But I have only lived in a small part of S.A. and have only traveled to a handful of its countries.

Still, given the general mindset, I’d think the idea of doing so would be strange and exotic to most. A hobby is something you pay to indulge in frivolously, not something to earn income from.

JB 2021-07-10 16:41 UTC

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