In Defense of Sloth

An eclectic & entertaining series of presentations about that most philosophical of vices


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Politics / Economics

Organizing Institutions

Cabinet magazine, Slought

Contributing Institutions

Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


Aaron Levy, Sina Najafi


Undergraduate students in the 2007-2008 RBSL Bergman Foundation Curatorial Seminar in the University of Pennsylvania Departments of English and Art History


Helena Rubenstein Foundation, New York Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Opens to public



The Great Hall
Cooper Union
7th St, btw 3rd and 4th Ave
New York, NY 10003


50% Formal - 50% Informal

  • Sloth
  • Slought in transit

"Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good."
-- Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), Either/Or, Vol. 1

"To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual."
-- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), The Critic as Artist

Cabinet magazine and Slought are pleased to invite you to In Defense of Sloth: An Eclectic and Entertaining Series of Presentations About that Most Philosophical of Vices, on Friday, December 7th and Saturday, December 8th, 2007 in New York City. This event is co-sponsored by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union, and ZONE:Chelsea Center for the Arts, two centers of cultural activity in a city renowned for its economic productivity. The project explores histories and metaphors of sloth through a primer and a symposium.

Theories and polemics about sloth have figured widely in Western thought in the work of artists, philosophers, and cultural critics as diverse as Aquinas, Nietzsche, and Malevich, as well as Marx, Kierkegaard, and Wilde. In Dante's Purgatorio, for example, sloth is described as being the "failure to love God with all one's heart, all one's mind, and all one's soul." A more secular viewpoint on sloth is provided by Paul LaFargue, Karl Marx's son-in-law, who authored the influential The Right to be Lazy (1883) and tirelessly campaigned for a three-hour workday. Likewise, in his manifesto in praise of laziness (1993), Zagreb-based artist Mladen Stilinovic suggests that Western artists are too preoccupied with promotion and production, and are thus less artists than producers.

Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the symposium do not necessarily represent those of the New York Council for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Humanities.

Download the visual presentations

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Friday, December 7th, 2007; 6:30-8:30pm
at ZONE:Chelsea Center for the Arts

Featuring songs about laziness, performed by the ingenious Brian Dewan and his auto-harp and accordian, a filmed introduction to two two-toed sloths, Rachel (Mommy) and Sid (Baby), by Jungle Joe - Pet Detective, as well as short films from the Prelinger Archive and pop-cultural flow charts tracing the contemporary lineage of sloth.

Saturday, December 8th; 11:00am to 5:30pm
The Great Hall at The Cooper Union

The program will begin with an introduction by Aaron Levy and Sina Najafi.

Marina van Zuylen's presentation, "I work, therefore I'm not: Paul Lafargue's Philosophy of Laziness," will address Paul Lafargue's nineteenth-century treatise "The Right to be Lazy."

Pierre Saint-Amand's presentation, "Rousseau's Extreme Idleness," will examine the figure of idleness as it appears in Rousseau's autobiographical writings, especially in the Reveries, as the condition for obtaining freedom. "To do nothing" becomes the positive formula of liberty, dis-engagement, and disinteredness.

Daniel Rosenberg's presentation, "The Doings of One Who Had Nothing to Do," will address the way in which nineteenth-century children's books attempt to indoctrinate youth with a spirit of industriousness and productivity.

Christopher Turner's presentation, "Vasectomania, and Other Medical Cures for Sloth," addresses Eugen Steinach, the Viennese physician who thought that a vasectomy could reactivate men who were unable to work because of exhaustion or old age by flooding the blood stream with hormones, along with monkey or goat gland transplants. The Steinach Operation was one of the more curious and popular medical cures for sloth in the 1920s and early 30s. Tens of thousands of these procedures were performed in America; Yeats and Freud were also among those who went under the knife.

Films from the Prelinger Archive, Ant City, 9 min, and The Dodder, 4 min will be screened.

Brian Dillon's presentation, "The English Malady," will examine the historical relationship between hypochandria, sloth, and general lassitude, showing that, paradoxically, sloth can also serve as a form of time-management: a way of clearing one's schedule for real work, as the cases of James Boswell, Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale attest.

Jean-Michel Rabaté's presentation, "In Praise of Indolence: Beckett and Belacqua," examines Beckett's early identification with Belacqua, a character in Dante's Purgatorio. His famous indolence leads him to question the very machinery of purgatory, hence salvation. His name echoes in Beckett's texts as a reminder that, at times, illumination comes to those who know how to "sit and remain quiet."

Felicity Scott's presentation, "Episodes in the Refusal of Work," will address three brief episodes in the "refusal of work" by the American counterculture: Drop City, Pacific High School, and Ant Farm. It will ask whether we can recognize within these practices a historically specific form of sloth, a form of apathy or ennui emerging as a mode of resistance to the post-war military-industrial-educational complex.

Katherine Carl's presentation, "Mladen Stilinovic's Slogans and Cakes: Ideology, Contemplation and the Perfection of Laziness," will examine the Zagreb-based artist's manifesto in praise of laziness (1993), as well as his ongoing critique of Western cultural productivity.

Emily Apter will moderate a discussion with symposium participants.

The program will conclude with a presentation by Thomas Zummer.


Emily Apter is a Professor of Comparative Literature and French at New York University.

Katherine Carl specializes in conceptual artists of the former Yugoslavia from the 1960s and 1970s. She was most recently Curator of Contemporary Art at The Drawing Center and has also worked at Dia Art Foundation, taught at New York University, and was a museum specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Brian Dillon is at present working on Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, The Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman, Frieze, Art Review, and Sight & Sound, in addition to being the UK editor of Cabinet magazine.

Jean-Michel Rabaté is a Senior Curator at Slought Foundation and Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.

Daniel Rosenberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oregon. His current project is entitled The Graphic Invention of Modern Time. He has translated work by Michel de Certeau and co-edited Histories of the Future (Duke University Press, 2005) and is also an editor-at-large of Cabinet.

Pierre Saint-Amand holds appointments with French Studies and Comparative Literature at Brown University. He is the author among other books of The Laws of Hostility (1996). He is preparing a book tentatively titled The Pursuit of Laziness: Idleness and the Philosophes.

Felicity Scott is assistant professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, and a founding co-editor of Grey Room, a quarterly journal of architecture, art, media, and politics. Her book, entitled Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism, is forthcoming from MIT Press, and another book, entitled Allegorical Time Warp: The Media Fallout of July 21, 1969, will be published by ACTAR in association with Ant Farm Timeline as Living Archive 7: Ant Farm.

Christopher Turner completed a Ph.D. on the cultural history of disgust at the University of London. He was the Director and Founder of the Central Cities Institute and on the faculty at the London Consortium, and has written articles on psychoanalysis and art for the London Review of Books, The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, and Tate Magazine. His Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is an editor of Cabinet.

Marina van Zuylen is Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Chair of the French Program at Bard College. Author of Difficulty as an Aesthetic Principle, she is currently writing a book titled All Work and No Play: The Uses and Misuses of Leisure in the Franco-American Imagination about the relationship between conversation, idleness, and the work ethic in Franco-American culture wars.


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