Just to be perfectly clear, I love Ebony. Call it what you will (loud, sweaty, time-consuming, whatever), I’ll always be happy that at least one of our concessions to debauchery is at least a creative outlet. The cliché is that Carleton students “work hard and play hard,” that we spend all our time during the week on our workload and so we need to move just as far in the other direction during the weekend – we need to play beer pong or go to a Sayles Dance after a week of reading Adorno and pipetting lizard blood, as if that will reset us.
I think for the most part we take advantage of this attitude. It might be that we need some kind of carnival every once in a while to give structure to our lives – fall term we have screw dates to look forward to, winter term we have midwinter ball, spring term we have Spring Concert – but that doesn’t account for the kind of excess that Sayles dances create. The idea that Carleton students therapeutically require some kind of school-sponsored clubbing has always basically seemed like a way of justifying the money we spend on PA systems and liquor.
Ebony is different, though. In a lot of ways, Ebony seems like a real labor of love – I’m sure just about everybody on campus has at least one friend in Ebony who’s been spending all their time in the Weitz Center lately, and what it lacks in technical achievement it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. There’s a real sense of community at an Ebony performance, a real interface between the audience and the performers, that I think is important and that you can’t get from something like a Sayles Dance or a play or a film screening. As far as campus-wide events go, Ebony does a phenomenal job of balancing a lot of genuine dedication and hard work and a spirit of fun.
So insofar as Ebony is a reaction to the “work hard, play hard” idea, it’s about the best one that I can imagine. Everybody gets a catharsis, a lot of really great pictures go up on Facebook, and the crowd goes home presumably feeling happy and refreshed. I don’t take issue with any of that. My problem is the fact that we feel we need Ebony.
I think that in a lot of ways, “work hard, play hard” is a self-fulfilling prophecy – that as long as Carleton students see themselves as living in a state of stress and fear, they will require Ebony, along with its less-productive counterparts, Sayles dances, cramped parties in E column, and a lurking dread of Sunday afternoon. Which is not to say that Ebony would vanish if we didn’t have this mentality, simply to say that student don’t need to be stressed beforehand to enjoy themselves after. I worry that the kind of Manichean stress vs. fun dichotomy we’ve invented for ourselves has gotten so entrenched in our social system that we can’t imagine a week or a term that isn’t stressful, or a weekend that doesn’t involve purging the week.
Workload issues aside – I’ve been writing about those a lot lately – the mentality that relaxing should have the purpose of cutting back on our stress is toxic. It teaches us to conceive of leisure as something with a goal, something that will make us better able to cope with school and better able to be productive once the weekend is over – and by this line of reasoning the whole point of mental health is to keep us productive. Turning leisure into an instrument – and I think more Carleton students do this than will admit – is very dangerous. If it doesn’t work – if for whatever reason you get the community and enthusiasm out of Ebony but can’t stop thinking about your econ midterm – then where does that leave you? Stress is one thing. Stress compounded by stress over activities that are supposed to relieve stress is quite another.