Of the unnecessary


     To engage or spend any time with the unnecessary demands explanation, if not apology. One’s concern with unnecessary objects and activities seems unfailingly to invite the skeptical question: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time? Perhaps the best thing that can be said about time spent with the unnecessary is that, being time spent inconsequentially, it has at least not caused harm. Even then, however, hours spent with the unnecessary might have been more profitably and productively spent pursuing other, more necessary tasks.  

     It is in this sense that deviations from the necessary demand explanation and justification, an accounting for one’s time and interest. Things considered unnecessary, because they are not required or compulsory, are also typically regarded as less deserving of attention. (Our synonyms for the unnecessary suggest its diminished status: superfluous, gratuitous, redundant, pointless, supplemental, extraneous, trivial, wasteful, indulgent.) The most frequent counsel is to eschew the unnecessary wherever possible. Common sense urges a reduction to that which is strictly necessary — whether in language, in business, in consumption of food or retail goods. There is something unseemly about excessive attachment to the unnecessary. In small doses, perhaps, it is permissible; but taken to excess its superfluity becomes evident, maybe even to the point of intolerability. Dwelling on or with the unnecessary is somewhat perverse.       

     For the category of the unnecessary to exist, there must of course have been a designation of the necessary, to which the unnecessary stands in a negative relation. The category of the necessary is most likely to be defined in relation to need or inevitability. The necessary is that which is deemed essential to survival or to the functions of life; these things must exist, or we die. Objects and activities basic to the propagation of life are called “bread and butter” concerns because they are staples and essential to survival. Things and activities considered unnecessary, by contrast, are generally those that do not provide for biological and/or economic survival. Such things are not likely to be called on in case of emergency, and they do not serve the purposes of capital accumulation either. Not bearing directly on either health or material livelihood, the unnecessary occupies a subordinate place with respect to objects and activities that do cater directly to these needs. As with goods conceived as luxuries, or more broadly with what Rousseau called besoins factices, artificial needs, the unnecessary didn’t have to exist, or could have existed in another form altogether, without perhaps making a great difference one way or the other. 

     The category of unnecessariness applies to individuals as well as to inanimate things — in the elimination of corporate or other workplace “redundancies,” for instance. During the U.S. government shutdown this autumn, only “essential” federal employees were instructed to report for work; “nonessential” employees stayed home. How are these designations made between essential and nonessential employment — between individuals conceived as necessary in their occupations and those considered unnecessary? Of course, every seemingly unnecessary person or thing might be necessary to someone in reality; indeed from a certain perspective we may be justified to ask whether any thing or person or activity can be conceived as unnecessary at all. But the designation of unnecessariness is generally a matter of social norms that operate in excess of individual choice or liking. With respect to the social category of the necessary, in other words, individuals are structurally and not just incidentally unnecessary.   

     The unnecessary occupies a different place in time than the necessary, if only because attention to the unnecessary is typically designated as a leisure- or surplus-time activity. The necessary has its place — it is never out of place; that is the source and substance of its necessariness. But time spent with the unnecessary is “stolen” in some essential respect, fetched from between busier and more productive hours. Does the unnecessary have a history? Was there ever a historical epoch that had no notion of unnecessariness? Is there a time when unnecessary things become necessary, or vice versa? To inquire into the temporal status of the unnecessary is as good an example as any of an unnecessary intellectual pursuit, of course. Further inquiries in this direction would risk descent into self-parody, the charge of esotericism or of idle speculation; in any event we would need to proceed cautiously.


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