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Book review: Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. Plus: seminar guest bios.
A timely, well wrought book. I dive pretty deeply in jam, which can be sticky.
Read time: about 16 minutes. First, a welcome to a batch of new subscribers, including students taking part in my upcoming fall seminar. Then a book review. Once a quarter, I review a book, alternating between current publications and old ones (greater than five years old). And after that, introduction of this fall’s seminar guests — six scholars, industry- and thought-leaders.
Future issues of Technocomplex will go out on Fridays (like this one), unless of course some other event throws a wrench in my schedule. I’m taking much of August off, so the next post to hit your email will be after the fall semester begins.
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In addition to new Technocomplex subscribers who signed themselves up, some new subscribers have come to the fold because they’re enrolled in a fall seminar at Duke University called “From Siri to SkyNet: Our Complex Relationships with Technology.” I lead that seminar, and I pressed the students into service, so to speak, since Technocomplex is a “text” for their course.
To my students: Welcome! And, yes, you’re supposed to get this newsletter, cuz it’s on the syllabus. When the semester ends, I hope you’ll stick around like scores of other students!
To everyone else: I’m glad you’re with us, too!
Liming, Sheila. Hanging out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2023. xxi, 232 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-68589-005-6 $27.99
Back in May, I offered some thoughts that came from “hanging out with artists” one evening at the beginning of summer. I noted the happy coincidence of the event in the historic old Duke basketball gymnasium and two books I was reading at the time. One of them was Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out, which I echoed in the title of my post; the other was Patrick Bringley’s All the Beauty in the World. Both new this year, and praiseworthy.
I closed that essay with these words: “Bringley and Liming touch strings that accord with ones plucked by the circle of artists in The Ark back in April. The strings play familiar notes: a desire to reclaim time, to counteract the corrosive influence of busy-ness, to open new opportunities for creativity and joy — in short, to become more human.”
“Reclaiming time” of course feels quite different from what Liming’s title conveys: “The Radical Power of Killing Time.” Liming really is seeking to reclaim time for the sake of somehow killing it. She says as much in her final chapter, a sort of how-to about hanging out. It turns out that time — the thing that hanging out figuratively “kills” — is the most important element of hanging out. It’s first on her list of ingredients. “Hanging out cannot happen without time,” she writes and adds the important proviso, “that is, without the strategic confiscation of it.”
Who or what confiscates time? Today, everyone with a nagging email notification or an online calendar knows the answer to that. Everyone whose life is regimented by work demands, social pressures, a perfectionist impulse, or imposter syndrome — which is to say really everyone, I guess. “We must wrest time away from the places where it has been sequestered and kept from us against our will,” Liming preaches. “We must work to seize and redistribute the wealth that is time and, when we have done that, we must commit to the work of giving it all back to each other.”
There, in the seizing, is the reclamation. There, in the redistribution, is the “so-called killing of time,” where hanging out builds beyond the grid-like rigidity of compartmentalized, employed, or “production-obsessed” time. “Killing time” by hanging out builds human society in a most basic form and lays a foundation of creativity, which Liming says can be coaxed from “the creative nature of indolence”:
What I’m arguing for here, then, is the reclaiming of time, which is both the essence of hanging out and its main ingredient, along with the reclaiming of the basic material components that are required for the so-called killing of time, by which I mean space. When we set aside time and space for hanging out, we assert our right to be non-productive, in the economic sense, and likewise our right to produce differently, by focusing on the work that is required for strengthening social ties.
Maybe it’s not hard even hard to do, either. The fact is, hanging out comes naturally to us; we’ve just larded it up and obscured it behind the (often technological) trappings of modern life.
THERE, IN THE SEIZING, IS THE RECLAMATION. THERE, IN THE REDISTRIBUTION, IS THE “SO-CALLED KILLING OF TIME,” WHERE HANGING OUT BUILDS BEYOND THE GRID-LIKE RIGIDITY OF COMPARTMENTALIZED, EMPLOYED, OR “PRODUCTION-OBSESSED” TIME.
I said that Liming preaches. I could have used urges or implores just as well, but with the effect of dialing back the real urgency and “exigency” that Liming conveys. As she points out, Hanging Out is a manifesto — a genre that can be shrill and breathless and insistent and, well, even obnoxious. She knows the dangers of writing a manifesto, too. She cites Zadie Smith who “warns against investing such writing with too much urgency.” Quoting Smith: such writers end up “echoing and mimicking the urgency of the guerilla’s demands, or the activist’s protests, rather than truly enacting it.”
From manifesto to enactment through storytelling
Readers can be assured that Liming doesn’t preach for 232 pages. The sermonic urgency amounts to seasoning, not an entire meal. How you hang out and why it’s a good thing to do come forth in the book’s seven numbered chapters that bear titles like “Hanging Out at Parties,” “Jamming as Hanging Out,” and “Hanging Out on the Job.”1 Liming likens this framework of stories to a “little gallery” — a very effective device for the book. “I don’t want to lecture,” she assures us; “rather, I want to take readers through this little gallery I’ve arranged containing portraits of accidents in modern living; I want to walk and talk with them; I want us all to hang out.”
As we stroll through them, the “portraits” and the conversation with them amount to an enactment of sorts. (I bet that professors of homiletics would tell us that stories make the best sermons, too!) The portraits depict hanging out in different situations — many that we’re accustomed to passing through, but that it’s tempting to overlook or discount as time-wasters and digressions. The situations Liming recounts are quite different, too, not close variations on a theme, which would become tedious. The chapters recount a range of success and failure, varied pathways toward hanging out with their own pitfalls and easy parts.
My favorite was the “jamming” chapter.2 I’ll go into that chapter more deeply, but you should know that the range of chapters, all of which pull from Liming’s personal history, depicts both the variety and even the unruliness of the experiences of hanging out. Each of the chapters is a delight, sometimes even a challenge, reflecting the kind of lives we live if we live them well.
I gravitated to the jamming chapter not because I’m much of a musician. Unfortunately, I am not. It appealed to me because I knew one of the stomping grounds that Liming haunted as a musician. She plays the accordion and “jammed” in Asheville, North Carolina, for a while when she was part of a band. It also struck me because her account of “jamming as hanging out” harmonized with’s exploration of jazz musicians is his book Range.3 Epstein tells of the pathways that jazz greats took to learn their craft — the structure and boundaries of jazz improvization. The learning mainly comes from interaction and imitation, “call and response” like what we experience in conversation while “hanging out.” He closes the chapter with wisdom from Jack Cecchini, who is almost alone in excelling in both classical and jazz music — a rarity among musicians.
“I think when you’re self-taught you experiment more, trying to find the same sound in different places, you learn to solve problems,” Cecchini told Epstein.
Cecchini stopped speaking for a moment, reclined in his chair, and stared at the ceiling. A few moments passed. “I could show somebody in two minutes what would take them years of screwing around on the fingerboard like I did to find it. You don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong. You don’t have that in your head. You’re just trying to find a solution to problems, and after fifty lifetimes, it starts to come together for you. It’s slow,” he told me, “but at the same time, there’s something to learning that way.”
Cecchini picked up his skill haphazardly. A free lesson here, a chance pointer from his landlord, background gigs at establishments he wasn’t old enough to be at, legally at least.
Like Cecchini, Liming no doubt knows the struggle of messing around on her accordion to solve “problems.” What she uncovers in the hanging-out of jamming is a repertoire and other musicians who can teach “in two minutes what would take … years of screwing around.” That’s a benefit, surely, but it is probably not the most profound one that Liming discovers.
Jam exceeds conventional learning/teaching by far, and Liming says that she doesn’t even like the word, but finds “no worthy substitute for it.” It is a unique container for a particular way of hanging out. Central to the jam “is a collaborative space — both literal and figurative — in which music is given the chance to unfurl in loose, rambling, and unceremonious ways…. To jam is to explore, improvise, swap, share, and relate.” It’s “messy.” She adds a sonorous detail to her definition: “It’s a little, three-letter wreck of a word, containing the sounds of twisted metal and broken glass.”
That is, a jamming session is no simple tutorial. Jam dwells “outside of consecrated performance spaces”; and, as Liming shows, it can easily raise hackles of the poor souls who live in adjacent apartments. Jam, “through its noise, has the power to gather together and assemble but also the power to offend and alienate.” The problem of jam is often “the guy downstairs” who storms up the stairs to hurl insults, YELLS FOR QUIET, or calls the cops. Liming has stories.
She was in two bands, one fluid and devoted to jam (her “old man jam band”) and the other show-conscious and polished-to-performance, called “The Armadillos.” Both bands rehearsed by jamming; the “old man jam band” also seemed just to jam when it performed, apparently. Of her time with The Armadillos, Liming recalls, “There was an organic quality to the way we made music together onstage, but all of that ease had to be forged through the mess of the jam. We had to get good and be good with each other in order to get good at being good in front of others. This was true on a social level as much as it was on a musical level.”
“TO JAM IS TO EXPLORE, IMPROVISE, SWAP, SHARE, AND RELATE.” IT’S “MESSY.” SHE ADDS A SONOROUS DETAIL TO HER DEFINITION: “IT’S A LITTLE, THREE-LETTER WRECK OF A WORD, CONTAINING THE SOUNDS OF TWISTED METAL AND BROKEN GLASS.”
The Armadillos’ favorite place was Asheville, where they had friends who could almost manage being full-time musicians. Liming recalls one evening when The Armadillos were staying with them. Their friends had gone off to the beer bottling plant for part-time work, and Liming’s band mates stayed behind and built a fire in a fire pit outside.
We got the fire going, took out our instruments, and started trading songs and jamming…. As we played there around the fire, the dark descended upon us, wiping out the surrounding scenery and replacing it with deep blue shadows. Out of these shadows emerged a guy with a guitar, his face barely visible in the firelight. He wasn’t one of the neighbors and we’d never seen him before. Without a word of greeting, he sat down and just started playing along, inserting himself within whatever song we already had going. A few minutes later, a woman with a fiddle followed, then another guy with another guitar. They a djembe. Then a banjo.
On it went. We’d seen no cars approach and had no idea where they came from, these improvisatory ghosts. They sprang up out of the night, armed with a knowledge of our chords and our songs or, at least, enough skill to quickly piece it all together and join right in…. It was hanging out — delighting in a shared project, a shared language, with no guys downstairs and no one listening in from the outside, badgering us with requests or demanding a sculpted, polished performance.
Now, I have to say that when I read that, I felt a certain hope for humanity, and I, too, felt the warmth of the fire and musical exchanges. Hanging-out touched me even in the reading.
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Liming correctly points out that improvization finds structure with keys and tempos, which might be wandered from. But it isn’t all just aimless meandering or loose. Great jams make sense even though they end up fleeting and irretrievable. Liming writes at one point that “we are all just making it up as we go along and improvization is something that certain musical and social situations do not invent but, rather, help to make explicit. In jamming, as in hanging out, there are few, if any, real rules.”
“Jamming as Hanging Out” offers one portrait in the gallery. Like the other chapters, this one calls upon writers and poets and thinkers, though Hanging Out is grounded in Liming experience as a person. That closeness to her life and memory makes the portraits of hanging out powerful and moving. Of course, the poets, the philosophers do have something to offer, and that Liming includes their voices brings “mere hanging out” to a different level — to a playful, wry, and unruly seriousness, perhaps, that many people yearn for today as a form of liberation.
Besides, Liming notes that “the work of study is located right next door to that of hanging out.” She cites Stefano Harney:
It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal — being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory — there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.
In short, “study” is also — is really — nearby a jam in real life, a life hung-out in. Seriously. (And that is my first message I send to my students this fall and a reminder to all the others who have kept up with me through this little newsletter.)
Who we’re hanging out with this fall
I’ve written before about the importance and delight of hosting invited guests to the fall seminar. In part, I want to capture something of the vibrancy of a salon. In part, I want to indulge my own interest in learning what my friends are up to and what they think about matters we confront in the seminar.
“Our class guests are the philosophes who qualify by being practitioners of an area we study or are themselves studying a topic that intersects with the focus of the class,” I wrote in May last year. “The idea is simple: we want to have an informed conversation with someone who is an authority or who has an interesting viewpoint.”
This fall, we’ll have six guests, all exceptional. Short biographies are below the mugshots.
Brinnae Bent is a data scientist who uses digital approaches to improve health care. Brinnae is currently managing partner and a senior data scientist at Edge Analytics, where she consults with companies on everything AI - from LLMs (think ChatGPT) to computer vision to building algorithms to help people walk She completed her doctoral studies in the Big Ideas Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University where she worked to develop digital biomarkers of glycemic health from noninvasive wearables. She has led projects establishing best practices for wearable sensor validation, investigating wearable sensor device inaccuracy, optimizing sampling rate and data compression of wearable sensors, and using wearable sensors for human activity recognition. Prior to graduate studies, she worked with the NSF ASSIST Center to develop the next generation of wearable sensors for sleep disorders and asthma. Outside of work, she is a new mom and an avid ultramarathoner.
Robert Buerglener is a Research Associate in Information Science + Studies (ISS) at Duke University. His current projects examine the social, cultural, and political influences that together shape technological systems and built environments. He leads an ISS Research Lab called North Carolina Lives and Legacies. This project uses digital storytelling tools and other innovative forms of research to create academic and public histories that capture the diversity of the state’s peoples and pasts. He is also a project lead in World Building at Duke in an Emerging Durham, 1924-1932, a Duke Bass Connections program. His research and teaching interests include technology, material culture, and public history in the US from the Early Republic through the twentieth century. He has published on the history of technology and automobility, architecture and urban environments, and critical overviews of transportation-related scholarship. He earned his PhD in US History at the University of Chicago with a study on the creation of the American automobile driver in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to Duke University, he has taught at the University of Chicago, the Illinois Humanities Council, and Northwestern University, and he has also worked in various positions at historic sites and historic house museums.
Erich Huang is Chief Science and Innovation Officer at Onduo (https://onduo.com/) and Head of Clinical Informatics at Verily (https://verily.com/). He continues to serve on the surgery and the bioinformatics and biostatistics faculty at Duke School of Medicine, where he also served as Assistant Dean of Biomedical Informatics and as Chief Data Officer for Duke Health. He co-founded and directed Duke Forge, the university’s health data science initiative. In addition to his academic roles, he is a “serial founder,” having started and advised several health and technology-related companies. He was director for cancer research at Sage Bionetworks. He is particularly interested in the intersection of emerging technologies that can transform healthcare, including medical devices and AI. He earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and MD and PhD degrees at Duke, where he also did his general surgery residency.
Paul Jaskot is Professor of Art History, Chair of Duke’s Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies (AAHVS), and Co-Director of the Digital Art History & Visual Culture Research Lab. As a leader in digital art history, he has been part of the Holocaust Geography Collaborative, an international team of scholars that has been exploring the use of GIS and other digital methods to analyze central problems in the spatial history of the Holocaust, including issues rising from the built environment. He specializes in the history of modern German architecture and art, with a particular interest in the political history of architecture before, during, and after the Nazi era. He has also published on Holocaust Studies topics more broadly, modern architecture including the history of Chicago architecture, and methodological essays on Marxist art history.is Vice President of Product at Osso (https://ossovr.com/). His career has consistently engaged art, music, and technology, exploring the ways that artistic expression of all kinds can be deepened or limited by technology tools. He has pursued his interests in large multi-national corporations and in start-ups. At Sony Network Entertainment, he was Director of Music Services, where he led Playstation Music (formerly Music Unlimited); at PlayStation, he was Director and GM of Virtual Reality Products. Work with MOG led to award-winning Android and Apple apps that were acquired by Beats Music and later formed the core of Apple Music. He and his teams won a Webby Award (2013) and “Best VR Headset” award for PlayStation VR (2017). He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in economics. He is an active musician and writer and was awarded a patent (“Interactive delivery of media using dynamic playlist generation subject to restrictive criteria”) with a co-inventor who is a good friend and colleague. You can thank them in part for your streaming music queue.
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Tags: book review, sheila liming, hanging-out, jamming, achievement, laziness, indolence, wellness, society, social life, music, sanity, health, happiness, meaningful life, study, salon, class guests
Here’s a list of the chapters: “Hanging Out at Parties,” “Hanging Out with Strangers,” Jamming as Hanging Out,” “Hanging Out on TV,” “Hanging Out on the Job,” Dinner Parties as Hanging Out,” “Hanging Out on the Internet,” “Conclusion: How to Hang Out.”
Uh, actually, I really liked the chapter called “Hanging Out on the Internet,” too, but I’m trying to limit the length of this post so it doesn’t get truncated. I might return to it in a different post and a different context. I nearly chose to use it as a text in my seminar this fall.
Epstein’s Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York, London: Macmillan, 2019) is a good book. His discussion of jazz talents starts on page 68 to the end of the chapter, “When Less of the Same is More.”