Pleasure is Revolutionary



The other day, I'm in the great Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street in San Francisco. As I was browsing about, I was struck by a prominently displayed title—Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Wow, I thought to myself, perhaps I'm less out of touch with the world, with the so-called zeitgeist, than I thought! Perhaps, in the decades during my avoidance of general social discourse, things have changed! After all, I've been insisting for decades that pleasure—or, better, enjoyment—resists almost every demand of the world today, of capitalism's insistence on productivity and transaction. Perhaps, I briefly and naively imagined, people are coming around to my view of things. 

And then I picked up the book, read the back, and realized things were worse than I'd possibly imagined: How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? it read. My whole constitution, from bald head to soul, crumpled as I exclaimed a plaintive and most emphatic Oy vey ist mir!

To be fair, I didn't read anymore of the book. I just couldn't. Rather than pleasure being activism, she seemed to reverse the whole equation, infusing what we call activism with pleasure. This wreaks of modern tech capitalism in which work, once thought of as a pain, is now supposed to be pleasurable. We have ping pong! And lunch! And our app is changing the world!

Of course, I'm not averse to activism being pleasurable—at least, I don't think I am as I'm not sure what activism is. But it's not because I believe activism needs to be pleasurable but because pleasure—or,  better, enjoyment—is revolutionary in and of itself (albeit once liberated from capitalism's co-option of the pleasure principle which is why I prefer the word enjoyment—but more on that soon).

We tend to believe that pleasure is selfish, all about ourselves rather than being about the world. Or it's ornament, something nice to have but certainly not essential. In either case, pleasure isn't revolutionary. We even casually talk about "guilty pleasures." How odd is that? Why should anyone ever feel guilt for experiencing pleasure? The very idea of a guilty pleasure comes from a world in which morality is an assumed good, in which being principled—that is, beholden to codes and ideas—is paramount. And so if we take pleasure in something outside our delineated field of principles—such as some seemingly silly rather than "serious" TV show—we feel guilty. Once again: Oy!

I want to suggest, however, that nothing is more revolutionary than privileging pleasure. Few people even know how to receive pleasure, how to enjoy their pleasure. It's a skill—one that is never taught and rarely discussed. Give a friend or even your lover a massage and you'll see what I mean. They will uncomfortably squirm as the guilt of relaxing into unreciprocated pleasure is simply too much to bear. And they'll probably keep trying to rub you back or do some other service for you. To lay there and unabashedly receive—experience—pleasure is difficult for most people.

Now, the consumer world we live in is no doubt seemingly ripe with pleasures of all sort—spas, manicures, Teslas, avocado toast brunches, fancy pants cocktails, Esalen, living walls, an absurd amount of entertainment media at our fingertips. It's true: our culture does not squelch on pleasure.

And yet what we've come to think of as pleasure is really just commodities and consumption. We privilege consumption of things, not the experience of pleasure, that internal movement of glowing with the affirmative vitality of the universe. This is why I prefer the word enjoyment; it turns the focus from the commodity to the experience. The pleasure I'm advocating is a thorough enjoyment, an internal flooding of good feeling—not a full body massage but the full body glow inside, permeating your very constitution, an experience that may or may not come from the sensations of that massage.

Pleasure, then, is not the massage. Pleasure is the experience, private and thorough, that may come with that massage—or a walk in the woods, cooking a tasty meal, writing an essay, or sitting on the couch doing nothing at all.

And this experience of pleasure, what I'm calling enjoyment, is revolutionary in that it resists the demands of any fascist, external or internal. If, as a culture, we cultivated pleasure; if we taught teens how to give and receive pleasure; if we understood this pleasure as the experience of an internal saturation of good feeling—a seething, a surging—then none of this nonsense that invades our everyday could survive. What person who believes pleasure is paramount would wake up five mornings a week, fight traffic only to sit in a cubicle or, worse, some desk out on an open floor writing PowerPoint presentations and attending meetings with vague agendas all in the service of someone else's accumulation of wealth?

That weird Puritan ethic still thrives today—as much today as it ever did. The youths of this world want to work more than ever. It's troubling. And they vie for righteousness more ardently than they vie for pleasure. Pleasure remains this extra thing we feel a little guilty about, as if we don't deserve it.

I truly believe that if we changed how we think about pleasure—saw it as an experience rather than a commodity, as a private event that is slow and thorough, beyond any measure of productivity, a qualitative, affective state of becoming, as something that needs no justification because it justifies itself—all of our priorities as a culture would change. We'd be fomenting revolution as the very edifice of capitalism—relentless labor—would come crumbling down.

Yes, of course some people experience pleasure from working. I'm neither dismissing nor belittling that. On the contrary, I want to celebrate it—those people are privileging pleasure as a thorough, private experience. It just happens to coincide with the profit motive (this makes me think of James Bond whose private pleasures and the interests of the State happen to coincide at every turn). Lucky for them! Long may they work—as long as they experience pleasure doing so.

And, yes, I understand that not everything in this life is pleasurable. There are worthwhile and necessary experiences other than pleasure. Of course there are. But we can still privilege pleasure and, more importantly, not relegate it to a source of guilt or as something extraneous to what really matters.

Workers of the world, experience pleasure! Thoroughly and deeply! Don't feel guilty about it. Revel in it! Seek it! Demand it! And soon the world will change at its most fundamental level. Now that's activism!

Pleasure is a private experience, an internal movement of vitality seething and surging throughout one's very way of going.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Felicity. Synchronicity. Call it what you will. I was just re-looking at Barthes's S/Z (topic of my MA Phil thesis) and his notion of pleasure (and yes the pleasure of the text) as being the recapitulation of the FIRST pleasure, the jouisance of sexuality. All pleasure is the human effort to recapture that initial sensation: Memory, Repetition, Ritual. It consists of proximity to the desired object, the condition (madness) of wanting acting out and the tension of holding oneself back, the secrecy or internality or isolation of the sensation, the embrace of the other, of being penetrated by an alien feeling (meaning?), the ejaculation or elation of surprise at losing one's self, the subsequent emptiness and then (post coital) sadness, and, finally, the recuperation of the self.

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