[Melville House; 2023]
Sheila Liming’s 2023 book, Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, is a roving deliberation on how Western culture became so starved of social interaction, and what its revival has to offer us. Written after the lockdowns of COVID-19—but pointing to cultural trends that persisted long before, her book is styled as a “conversation, a tour of the many ways in which hanging out happens in contemporary culture.” A “little gallery,” the book is saturated with frame narratives, references to film and novels, anecdotes, and memory. Liming’s prose is meditative: She conducts her tour like a lazy river, meandering through the perks and pitfalls of communal gatherings.
In Chapter One, “Hanging Out at Parties,” Liming argues that parties are “containers for the preservation of hope” just as much as they are opportunities for exclusion. Interactions with strangers, the second chapter contends, provide a “thrill of incongruity, of chance” as much as they should be approached with caution. Musical jams are “sobriquet[s] for anti-preparation,” a radical break from professional life, just as much as they have “the power to offend and alienate.” In this fashion, Liming outlines the trade-offs of hanging out on TV, on the job, at dinner parties, and online–dominant forms of engagement in each of the book’s seven chapters. In general, Liming champions the revitalizing promise of spending time with others.
One of the great achievements of Liming’s book is her cunning appreciation of scope, accounting for all of the factors that make hanging out so difficult. She details the victory of rugged neoliberal individualism, the disappearance of third spaces, the popularization of physical infrastructure (like suburbs) that atomize and divide us, and the alienation of capitalism. In addition, Liming does an excellent job of championing the subtle, intimate benefits of hanging out. Speaking of what’s lost in easy digital communication, Liming points to “the other person’s breath . . . the fluctuations in their vocal register . . . the way that emotions tug at the edges [of the face].” She fights for “the realities of place,” the stubborn, chemistry-altering particularities of physical space that hanging out online has usurped. Liming laments the magic trick of collapsed distance provided by digital technologies, like texting and FaceTime, artificially replicating closeness without truly securing it. Another success is Liming’s nuanced dissection of what prevents us from hanging out; what can make it so difficult, and, at its worst, dangerous. Hanging out, Liming reminds us, is not risk-free. Strangers and colleagues can make inappropriate sexual advances. Following a crowd carelessly can leave you stranded in a foreign city. Drugs and alcohol can flow, masquerading as intimate, easy connections that stymie true relationships. “This is not,” Liming correctly warns, “a make hanging out great again manifesto.”
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Liming’s discussion of hanging out comes in the third chapter, the investigation of “Jamming as Hanging Out.” She reflects on one of her band’s feelings that “[they were] living in a sort of generational ditch that no amount of talent or success could break us out of, so we concentrated on having fun together, instead.” This notion—of checking the clock and finding oneself out of time, of peeking at the horizon and seeing the future is doomed, yet prioritizing joy anyway—is deeply resonant. For a Manhattan that, just a few months ago, was bleached orange with clouds of wildfire smoke, a Lāhainā where survivors jumped into the sea to escape raging flames, the prospect of clinging to what is sustaining—radically sustaining: life, culture, friends, one more jam session, one more late-night escapade—is rebellion. For a world currently crossing the threshold into climate apocalypse, hanging out as anti-despair, as an assertion of human dignity and value, feels revolutionary. However, Liming does not directly address any of these concerns in her book. In fact, the reader is forced to make this “radical” connection themselves. A major flaw of Liming’s text is just that: The book fails to live up to its revolutionary subtitle. She, after all, meant to display “the radical power” of killing time.
While Liming does specify, at several points, the ways in which hanging out resists the constrictive time pressures of capitalism, she fails to push her argument much further. Instead of expanding on the radical potential of hanging out, Liming roots her meditations on her own personal life and a broader concern for the social. It is true that hanging out—idling, taking time, socializing without a discrete or material end—does run contrary to capitalist doctrine. But resistance is not, in and of itself, radical. Being non-capitalist does not mean being anti-capitalist. To be merely against the grain is not equivalent to generating new patterns of thought, organizing moving parts for social change, or exploding the status quo. Liming’s failure to analyze the ways in which so many activist and radical subcultures—from ACT UP and Food Not Bombs to the ballroom scene and skater culture—have used hanging out as the fodder for radical action, feels like a misstep. Instead, Liming offers memories of hiking trips with her father. However beautifully written, these anecdotes are far more personal than they are political.
Liming’s tone is also a consistent weak point. At times, it is pitch-perfect: immediate and immersive, without being too abrupt. This is especially true during Liming’s memoiristic tales about working a bar shift in rural Washington, wandering drunk on the streets of Aberdeen, or plucking blackberries at the top of the Pacific Crest Trail. Each of these stories scaffolds a moral on how hanging out can be done well or wrongly. At other times, Liming struggles to break free from the academic register and settle into the informal. This makes for a tough read in certain moments, hampering the text’s accessibility. Particularly when discussing “digital technologies,” Liming comes off as unnecessarily clinical. Take, for example, her assessment that “parties are more likely than not to be facilitated via sites like Facebook . . . even, maybe, via livestream technology?” For a reader who has spent an afternoon scrolling through lnstagram lives, or perhaps tunes in to TikTok broadcasts of the Eras Tour, Liming’s use of Facebook—already a relic in terms of online hang-outs—as well as overly formal, outdated language, feels strange. Younger readers—or those who are simply more tech-savvy—may cringe at Liming’s description of a pre-Facebook America. In other places, Liming flexes her muscles as an English professor a bit too strongly, reaching for top-shelf vocabulary where standard narration would’ve worked just fine. Rather than describing her long, wintery walks around Aberdeen, Scotland as such, Liming recounts her “aimless perambulations.”
The ultimate flaw of Hanging Out, however, is also its greatest strength. The book fails to persuade its reader not due to the writing itself, but the simple fact that Sheila Liming is an essayist. She is a writer, musing on contemporary social life. Her gaze trips from bright star to bright star, much like a wandering guest at a house party. This makes for an inviting, narrative-grounded read. However, it also leaves the reader with the distinct feeling that something important is being left out—that elsewhere, more important conversations may be happening. For example, Liming does not investigate how millions of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds supplanted physical social connection during the lockdown years; she relates conversations with her grad students. She does not trace the history of socializing on the clock or break-time chit-chat; she recounts memories of academic conferences. Liming is certainly a proficient academic, and her intellectual scaffolding is there: She skillfully quotes Rebecca Solnit, Theodor Adorno, and Immanuel Kant, among others, to support her call for the intimate, unstructured communal setting. However, this scaffolding could have been more rigorous. Her anecdotes are not bracketed by larger investigations into what hanging out has historically offered us and what its future holds.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. As Liming herself allows: on hanging out, she is no expert. Her goal is not to provide definitive, sociological conclusions, but to ruminate on what is and what could be. And yet, the reader is left to wonder: Why? Why write a book about the intricacies of social life, if not to interrogate the big contemporary questions? Not all readers want an “informed volunteer,” as Liming describes herself. Many want a torch-bearing guide, dusting away misconceptions and reaching for the truth. At its worst, Hanging Out feels like a subjection to Liming’s wandering thoughts, her own musings on sociality. But we are not Liming’s friends or loved ones—we are not clustered around her proverbial dining table—we are readers, seeking to be illuminated by dint of another’s knowledge. Associative musings have a real, even expansive place in critical literature, but perhaps not on sociological topics. If one wants to read satellite reflections on the nature of parties, social media, TV, and jamming, why not do so online, where threads, subreddits, and chat rooms provide the perfect infrastructure for yes-and-ing? Ultimately, Liming’s own structure undercuts her defense of the offline, the time-bound, the spatially constricted. If hanging out is a way of slowing down, of reclaiming time from the breakneck pace of late-stage capitalism, so, too, is reading.
Author’s Note: This review mentions the ongoing environmental and humanitarian crisis in Lāhainā, Maui. To help wildfire survivors, please consult the resources listed here.
Hannah Siegel is a writer and poet based in New York City. Her work has been featured in NYU’s peer-reviewed departmental magazine Esferas, Outrageous Fortune, and brio. She earned her B.A. in sociology from NYU.
This post may contain affiliate links.