In Defense of Mental Masturbation

Mental masturbation is casually bandied about as a pejorative. But what, precisely, does it mean?

Well, presumably when you mentally masturbate, your thinking is not productive or practical. Just as certain prudish people would have us abstain from the unproductive ways of onanism, those who would censor "mental masturbation" believe thoughts should make something. Like semen, thoughts should be put to use.

To me, thinking is a practice in and of itself and hence is inherently practical. Thinking is a kind of doing such as, say, running. It's an activity. Unless we say that running is physical masturbation as it's not practical. After all, you're not running to get anywhere such as the book store.

The runner might retort that his running makes him more physically fit which, in turn, makes him happier and healthier.  In that sense, running is a practical activity.

But couldn't I say the same thing about thinking? Maybe I'm not trying to solve a problem but I'm making myself smarter and therefore healthier and happier.  Oh, and the endorphins! Good mental masturbation is a great natural high.

And then there's the fact that thinking makes connections between things and, in so doing, creates the world. So when people are sitting quietly thinking on their own and not trying to solve a problem per se — when they are mentally friggin' themselves — they are making novel connections in the universe, creating new possibilities of life. And what, I ask, is more productive than that?

So maybe that's not what people mean when they use mental masturbation pejoratively because that would just be silly and, alas, stupid. Maybe it's not the mental aspect at all that is the source of the insult. Maybe it's the articulation of the thinking.

For example, when I was teaching, I'd sometimes find myself following a peculiar line of thought that had occurred to me mid-lecture. I could tell at some point that my students were not following me. It's not because what I was thinking was so startlingly smart. It was usually because my thinking had turned rather idiosyncratic — it was a train of thinking of my own making, decipherable to no one else, more or less. But this line of thinking would have an odd kind of allure, seducing me, enticing me: Come hither, it'd whisper in a throaty whisper, and I would.

Now, this is often a supremely pleasurable thing to do: to follow an idea into strange territory, making bold — if,  at times, stupid — leaps of logic. But talking about it to others quickly becomes not just strange, annoying, and pedantic. It becomes obscene. Ergo, mental masturbation.

In this case, the crime of mental masturbation is akin to the crime of so-called TMI — divulging too much personal information in a social setting. It's a matter of etiquette. But continuing to call it mental masturbation is anti-intellectualism, the ploy of the dim witted. And it gives one of my favorite activities a bad name.

So I'm taking back mental masturbation from the anti-intellectuals. I think alone and for pleasure, dammit, and I'm proud!


Linz said...

An amusing paradigm of education you lay out here - the teacher up there, pleasuring himself, and the students, reluctant little voyeurs. I liked being one!

Jonny Croker said...

Pulling one's pud, as I'm lead to believe, is perfectly normal; everyone does it. Just as commuters sit on the train and play sudoku, so do most people find time in their week to sit back and indulge in a hand shandy, no problem- hell, newspapers that cater for all your mastabatory needs are ten a penny. But herein lies the rub, perhaps it's not the act of wanking, but an erect stance that defines a wanker.

When I think of the wanker in relation to physical exercise, I think of the body-builder, all vascular and swollen with themselves. Body-building requires that one be removed from the world to what is essentially a laboratory, and endlessly repeat simple movements whilst staring at their own reflection. The adaptations made are cosmetic, and offer no new skills, abilities or knowledge with which to make sense of the world. Muscle here is an advertisement- "See how much I love myself, well you should love me that much too". Narcissistic, nihilistic and wank.
Perhaps running too can take such a stance when performed in a particular fashion, but running is also an activity that can be done in and of the world. When I run on the beach I move with sand, wind, empty crisp packet, grass, dolphin, breath, stone, hang-glider, sun, car, tree, blue. I know energy and distance and time, consumption, production.
Parkour or 'free running'(a wanky name?) is a study of movement in the world. Movements are practised and refined to become skills. With skills form new eyes and completely new ways of making sense of things. It then becomes impossible to walk down the street without feeling the possibilities and the potential connections and interactions that can be made. Texture and temperature, bone and muscle and light and gravity are seen anew. You are reborn.

Mental masturbation is for me a term which describes an incarnation of the wanker and involves the overt and self-conscious display of a throbbing dick-head. I don't however think that's you, I believe you exercise to develop new skills, to form new modes of perception. I think you're a free runner.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Linz: Too. Many. Jokes.

@Jonny: What's funny about how mental masturbation is used as a phrase is that the crime, as you lay it out well, is public display of masturbation. Which the phrase "mental masturbation" doesn't quite capture.

Anyway, parkour is, indeed, the most exciting thing happening today in any realm. I am flattered by your putting my thinking in the same camp. It is my aspiration — even if my skills aren't always there.