The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role (Illich 25).
The most basic definition of Stillness refers to a state of being in the absence of both motion and disturbance. Some might say it is anti-American. Stillness denies the democratic freedom of mobility in a social system where, as Ivan Illich writes in Energy and Equity, people “believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in its absence is the result of access to the television screen” (26). In America, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that most are quite used to being interpolated as some sort of subject of the screen, be it the windshield or the flat screen. Whether in transport or tele-vision, life is full of traffic and flickering images. In the best of times there is a choice between being citizen-audience member or citizen-passenger. A full day might include both.
But during the summer of 2008 things seemed to change. The citizen-passenger was left beached, not in some sandy paradise but in their backyard. In this state of SIMBY (stuck in my backyard), the citizen-passenger experienced the energy crisis first hand. Middle class suburbanites were forced to come to terms with a new disturbance due to rising fuel prices: unattainable motion. Domestic travel had been exchanged for domestication. The citizen-passenger was rendered what Paul Virilio might call, “a voyager without a voyage, this passenger without a passage, the ultimate stranger, and renegade to himself” (Crepuscular 131). The threat to capitalism posed by this unattainable motion was quickly thwarted by America’s 'big box' stores, hotel chains, and news networks. What might have become a culturally transformative politics of attainable stillness was hijacked instead by The Great American Staycation.
The Staycation is a neologism that refers to the activity of making a vacation out of staying at home. But the Staycation is more than a passing phrase; it is a complex cultural phenomenon that targeted middle class homes during the summer of 2008. A major constraint to a happy Staycation was the uncomfortable fact that the middle class home was not really a desirable destination as it stood. The family home would have to undergo a series of changes, one being the initiation of a set of time management strategies; and the second, the adoption of new objects for consumption. Good Morning America first featured the Staycation as a helpful parenting strategy for what was expected to be a long and arduous summer. GMA defined the parameters of the Staycation with four golden rules in May of 2008:
- Schedule start and end dates. Otherwise, it runs the risk of feeling just like another string of nights in front of the tube.
- Take Staycation photos or videos, just as you would if you went away from home on your vacation.
- Declare a 'choratorium.' That means no chores! Don't make the bed, vacuum, clean out the closets, pull weeds, or nothing,
- Pack that time with activities. (Leamy)
Not only did GMA continue with the theme throughout the summer but the other networks also weighed in. Expert knowledge was doled out and therapeutic interventions were made to make people feel better about staying at home. Online travel companies such as expedia.com and tripadvisor.com, estimated that 60% of regular vacation takers would be staying home. With the rise and fall of gas prices, came the rise of fall of the Staycation.
The emergence of the Staycation occurred precisely at a time when American citizens were confronted with the reality that their mobility and localities, including their relationship to domestic space, were structurally bound to larger geopolitical forces. The Staycation was an invention deployed by various interlocutors most threatened by the political possibilities inherent in stillness. The family home was catapulted into the circuits of production, consumption, and exchange. Big TV and Big Box stores furthered individual’s unease towards having to stay at home by discursively constructing the gas prices as an impediment to a happy domestic life and an affront to the American born right to be mobile. What was reinforced was that Americans ideally should be moving, but could not. Yet, at the same time it was rather un-American not to travel. The Staycation was couched in a powerful rhetoric of one’s moral duty to the nation while playing off of middle class anxieties and senses of privilege regarding the right to be mobile and the freedom to consume. The Staycation satiates all of these tensions by insisting that the home can become a somewhere else.
Between spring and autumn of 2008, lifestyle experts, representatives from major retailers, and avid Staycationers filled morning slots on ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, and CNN with Staycation tips. CNN highlighted the Staycation as a “1st Issue” in their Weekend Report on 12 June 2008 (Alban). This lead story centred on a father in South Windsor, Connecticut “who took the money he would normally spend on vacations and created a permanent Staycation residence.” The palatial home was fitted with a basketball court, swimming pool, hot tub, gardening area, and volleyball court. In the same week (and for those without several acres) CBS’s Early Show featured the editor of behindthebuy.com, a company that specialises in informing the “time starved consumer” about new commodities. The lifestyle consultant previewed the newest and most necessary items “so you could get away without leaving home.” Key essentials included a “family-sized” tent replete with an air conditioning unit, a projector TV screen amenable to the outdoors, a high-end snow-cone maker, a small beer keg, a mini-golf kit, and a fast-setting swimming pool that attaches to any garden hose. The segment also extolled the virtues of the Staycation even when gas prices might not be so high, “you have this stuff forever, if you go on vacation all you have are the pictures.” Here, the value of the consumer products outweighs the value of erstwhile experiences that would have to be left to mere recollection.
Throughout the summer ABC News’ homepage included links to specific products and profiled hotels, such as Hiltons and Holiday Inns, where families could at least get a few miles away from home (Leamy). USA Today, in an article about retailers and the Staycation, reported that Wal-Mart would be “rolling back prices on everything from mosquito repellent to portable DVD players to baked beans and barbecue sauce”. Target and Kohl’s were celebrated for offering discounts on patio furniture, grills, scented candles, air fresheners and other products to make middle class homes ‘staycationable’. A Lexis Nexis count revealed over 200 news stories in various North American sources, including the New York Times, Financial Times, Investors Guide, the Christian Science Monitor, and various local Consumer Credit Counselling Guides.
Staying home was not necessarily an inexpensive option. USA Today reported brand new grills, grilling meats, patio furniture and other accoutrements were still going to cost six percent more than the previous year (24 May 2008). While it was suggested that the Staycation was a cost-saving option, it is clear Staycations were for the well-enough off and would likely cost more or as much as an actual vacation. To put this in context with US vacation policies and practices, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research called No-Vacation Nation found that the US is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation (Ray and Schmidt 3). Subsequently, without government standards 25% of Americans have neither paid vacation nor paid holidays. The Staycation was not for the working poor who were having difficulty even getting to work in the first place, nor were they for the unemployed, recently job-less, or the foreclosed. No, the Staycationers were middle class suburbanites who had backyards and enough acreage for swimming pools and tents. These were people who were going to be ‘stuck’ at home for the first time and a new grill could make that palatable. The Staycation would be exciting enough to include in their vacation history repertoire.
All of the families profiled on the major networks were white Americans and in most cases nuclear families. For them, unattainable motion is an affront to the privilege of their white middle class mobility which is usually easy and unencumbered, in comparison to raced mobilities. Doreen Massey’s theory of “power geometry” which argues that different people have differential and inequitable relationships to mobility is relevant here. The lack of racial representation in Staycation stories reinforces the reality that has already been well documented in the works of bell hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation, Lynn Spigel in Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, and Jeremy Packer in Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars and Citizenship. All of these critical works suggest that taking easily to the great open road is not the experience of all Americans. Freedom of mobility is in fact a great American fiction.
The proprietors for the Great American Staycation were finding all sorts of dark corners in the American psyche to extol the virtues of staying at home. The Staycation capitalised on latent xenophobic tendencies of the insular family. Encountering cultural difference along the way could become taxing and an impediment to the fully deserved relaxation that is the stuff of dream vacations. CNN.com ran an article soon after their Weekend Report mentioned above quoting a life coach who argued Staycations were more fitting for many Americans because the “strangeness of different cultures or languages, figuring out foreign currencies or worrying about lost luggage can take a toll” (12 June 2008). The Staycation sustains a culture of insularity, consumption, distraction, and fear, but in doing so serves the national economic interests quite well. Stay at home, shop, grill, watch TV and movies, these were the economic directives programmed by mass media and retail giants. As such it was a cultural phenomenon commensurable to the mundane everyday life of the suburbs.
The popular version of the Staycation is a highly managed and purified event that reflects the resort style/compound tourism of ‘Club Meds’ and cruise ships. The Staycation as a new form of domestication bears a significant resemblance to the contemporary spatial formations that Marc Augé refers to as non-places – contemporary forms of homogeneous architecture that are scattered across disparate locales. The nuclear family home becomes another point of transfer in the global circulation of capital, information, and goods. The chain hotels and big box stores that are invested in the Staycation are touted as part of the local economy but instead devalue the local by making it harder for independent restaurants, grocers, farmers’ markets and bed and breakfasts to thrive. In this regard the Staycation excludes the local economy and the community. It includes backyards not balconies, hot-dogs not ‘other’ types of food, and Wal-Mart rather than then a local café or deli.
Playing on the American democratic ideals of freedom of mobility and activating one’s identity as a consumer left little room to re-think how life in constant motion (moving capital, moving people, moving information, and moving goods) was partially responsible for the energy crisis in the first place. Instead, staying at home became a way for the American citizen to support the floundering economy while waiting for gas prices to go back down. And, one wouldn’t have to look that much further to see that the Staycation slips discursively into a renewed mission for a just cause – the environment. For example, ABC launched at the end of the summer a ruse of a national holiday, “National Stay at Home Week” with the tag line: “With gas prices so high, the economy taking a nosedive and global warming, it's just better to stay in and enjoy great ABC TV.” It comes as no shock that none of the major networks covered this as an environmental issue or an important moment for transformation. In fact, the air conditioning units in backyard tents attest to quite the opposite. Instead, the overwhelming sense was of a nation waiting at home for it all to be over. Soon real life would resume and everyone could get moving again.
The economic slowdown and the energy crisis are examples of the breakdown and failure of capitalism. In a sense, a potential opened up in this breakdown for Stillness to become an alternative to life in constant and unrequited motion. That is, for the practice of non-movement and non-circulation to take on new political and cultural forms especially in the sprawling suburbs where the car moves individuals between the trifecta of home, box store, and work. The economic crisis is also a temporary stoppage of the flows. If the individual couldn’t move, global corporate capital would find a way to set the house in motion, to reinsert it back into the machinery that is now almost fully equated with freedom.
The reinvention of the home into a campground or drive-in theatre makes the house a moving entity, an inverted mobile home that is both sedentary and in motion. Paul Virilio’s concept of “polar inertia” is important here. He argues, since the advent of transportation individuals live in a state of “resident polar inertia” wherein “people don’t move, even when they’re in a high speed train. They don’t move when they travel in their jet. They are residents in absolute motion” (Crepuscular 71). Lynn Spigel has written extensively about these dynamics, including the home as mobile home, in Make Room for TV and Welcome to the Dreamhouse. She examines how the introduction of the television into domestic space is worked through the tension between the private space of the home and the public world outside. Spigel refers to the dual emergence of portable television and mobile homes. Her work shows how domestic space is constantly imagined and longed for “as a vehicle of transport through which they (families) could imaginatively travel to an illicit place of passion while remaining in the safe space of the family home” (Welcome 60-61). But similarly to what Virilio has inferred Spigel points out that these mobile homes stayed parked and the portable TVs were often stationary as well.
The Staycation exists as an addendum to what Spigel captures about the relationship between domestic space and the television set. It provides another example of advertisers’ attempts to play off the suburban tension between domestic space and the world “out there.” The Staycation exacerbates the role of the domestic space as a site of production, distribution, and consumption. The gendered dynamics of the Staycation include redecorating possibilities targeted at women and the backyard beer and grill culture aimed at men. In fact, ‘Mom’ might suffer the most during a Staycation, but that is another topic. The point is the whole family can get involved in a way that sustains the configurations of power but with an element of novelty.
The Staycation is both a cultural phenomenon that feeds off the cultural anxieties of the middle class and an economic directive. It has been constructed to maintain movement at a time when the crisis of capital contains seeds for an alternative, for Stillness to become politically and culturally transformative. But life feels dull when the passenger is stuck and the virtues of Stillness are quite difficult to locate in this cultural context. As Illich argues, “the passenger who agrees to live in a world monopolised by transport becomes a harassed, overburdened consumer of distances whose shape and length he can no longer control” (45). When the passenger is the mode of identification, immobility becomes unbearable. In this context a form of “still mobility” such as the Staycation might be satisfying enough.
The still citizen is a threatening figure for capital. In Politics of the Very Worst Virilio argues at the heart of capitalism is a state of permanent mobility, a condition to which polar inertia attests. The Staycation fits completely within this context of this form of mobile immobility. The flow needs to keep flowing. When people are stationary, still, and calm the market suffers. It has often been argued that the advertising industries construct dissatisfaction while also marginally eliminating it through the promises of various products, yet ultimately leaving the individual in a constant state of almost satisfied but never really. The fact that the Staycation is a mode of waiting attests to this complacent dissatisfaction.
The subjective and experiential dimensions of living in a capitalist society are experienced through one’s relationship to time and staying on the right path. The economic slowdown and the energy crisis are also crises in pace, energy, and time. The mobility and tempo, the pace and path that capital relies on, has become unhinged and vulnerable to a resistant re-shaping. The Staycation re-sets the tempo of suburbia to meet the new needs of an economic slowdown and financial crisis. Following the directive to staycate is not necessarily a new form of false consciousness, but an intensified technological and economic mode of subjection that depends on already established cultural anxieties.
But what makes the Staycation unique and worthy of consideration is that capitalists and other disciplinary institutions of power, in this case big media, construct new and innovative ways to control people’s time and regulate their movement in space. The Staycation is a particular re-territorialisation of the temporal and spatial dimensions of home, work, and leisure. In sum, Staycation and the staging of National Stay at Home Week reveals a systemic mobilising and control of a population’s pace and path. As Bernard Stiegler writes in Technics and Time: “Deceleration remains a figure of speed, just as immobility is a figure of movement” (133). These processes are inexorably tied to one another.
Thinking back to the opening quote from Illich, we could ask how we might stop imagining ourselves as passengers – ushered along, falling in line, or complacently floating past. To be still in the flows could be a form of ultimate resistance. In fact, Stillness has the possibility of becoming an autonomous practice of refusal. It is after all this threatening potentiality that created the frenzied invention of the Staycation in the first place. To end where I began, Illich states that “the habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world” (25-26). The horizon of political possibility is uniformly limited for the passenger. Whether people actually did follow these directives during the summer of 2008 is hard to determine. The point is that the energy crisis and economic slowdown offered a potential to vacate capital’s premises, both its pace and path. But corporate capital is doing its best to make sure that people wait, staycate, and see it through. The Staycation is not just about staying at home for vacation. It is about staying within reach, being accounted for, at a time when departing global corporate capital seems to be the best option.
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