My Speech to the Graduates, v2

I want to talk to you today about pleasure.

Pleasure demands a certain slowness, a lingering, a languoring. You have to savor the complex palate of the tequila, let the emphatic umph of the Uni play across your tongue, lay in bed and nibble your sweetie's nape—slowly, very, very slowly. You need to take the time when you write to find the proper phrase, rhythm, figure. You have to let your mind and prose meander through and around and with an idea. You have to watch the great films once, twice, three times, a dozen times to truly appreciate them. You have to chew your food slowly, lay in the daytime sun, and enjoy your evening cocktail. You have to stroll, not run.

These are the things that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The America you inherit is an uncivil beast that moves at an ever more rapid clip, consuming dignity with spite. Take travel, one of the great luxuries of contemporary life. Travel has been stripped of its humanity as lines of people disrobe before disgruntled strangers. And when you question this degradation, this humiliation, you are told it's all for your own good. And, at times, you may actually believe that.

Do you understand what I just said? You actually believe that it is in your own best interest to be humiliated and degraded. This is how far we've come, how degraded we are, how terribly awry we've gone. Our fear has become such that we abandon the very things that make us human, the very things that bring us joy, the very things that make life livable: pleasure, civility, dignity.

Now take this thing we call work, this thing that causes you such great anxiety. And it should—but for different reasons. In today's America, a job demands you be at the office at a given place and time, usually quite early, and 5 days a week, regardless of how well you slept. You go to your inevitably gray cubicle beneath fluorescent lights and situate yourselves in front of a blue screen. This is exactly how I'd describe a prison—a fucking prison! None of this is healthy, physically or mentally. You talk to a variety of people, many of whom are boring, stupid, and incompetent if not cruel, stupid, and resentful. You spend time in meetings ill run at best, hate filled at worst. You grab some overly salted food for lunch, eat it at your computer, and spend the rest of the day dehydrated and bloated with gas. Perhaps you seek the restroom as a respite, a place to pass gas in peace or at least have some solitude. No such luck. The bathrooms are public and so you piss and shit and fart next to your office mates before you head back to your now stinky cubicle, bloated and thirsty.

Work is an elaborate holocaust of dignity.

This used to be a 40 hour a week assignment—40 of your best hours spent uncomfortably gaseous, helping make some moron you'll never meet richer than he already is. This 40 hour exercise in humiliation has become 50, 60, 70 hours long. I'm not making this up. The dot com revolution broke down the line separating work from play—so now you work all day long. You can wear jeans, have your nose pierced, and listen to Black Metal music. Work doesn't care—as long as you work.

You've been co-opted, children.
The machine of work realized that it doesn't care if your tongue is pierced or tattoos line your flesh. They don't give a shit; they just want your warm body working. They even give you ping pong and foosball and let you have a beer now and again. And you think you're the one who came out ahead! You're working 60 hours a week and you think you won! The Google campus is hailed as liberation because they serve you lunch! Even prisoners on death row get fucking lunch. We are dead men walking, Starbucks infused zombies.

This is today's America. There's no room for rebellion as every effort to resist gets folded into the machine. All the avenues of resistance have been co-opted—poetry, fashion, music, even drugs as the pharmaceuticals replace the acid labs as the suppliers of your high. Look what's happened to the green movement: Clorox runs ads claiming to be green. We drive so-called green cars. Green cars! That's an oxymoron. You want to be green? Stop driving, you morons!

America is an ugly, cruel beast. Dropping bombs on Arabs is not the disease, it's the symptom. It's time to get creative in our revolts.

But as big and stupid and mean as America is, it's also big. And this gives us some room to operate. Maybe not for long as robotic drones fill the skies, leaving nothing unseen. But, for now, there is room. You don't have to walk mindlessly into this mire. There are options. Consider Alexander Supertramp, who burned his money and his i.d. and headed into the wilderness. Or Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a onetime physician who in the 1950s quit his practice, dropped out of the mainstream and raised a family while living a nomadic surfing lifestyle. All 11 people in the family—the parents and nine children—lived in a trailer, ate organic food, roamed the country, and surfed. The kids were home-schooled; they celebrated the Jewish sabbath every Friday night.

That's right, you heard me: these are Jews. And if a nice Jewish boy can do it, you certainly can.

Or take Mike Reynolds, an architect before the Feds stripped him of his license. He builds houses off the grid, that generate their own electricity, have their own sewage, and live off of the water that falls from the sky. He's been harassed and sued and arrested. But he's still going, making it possible to live free of the mayhem. And it's not just that these houses are actually environmentally sustainable, which they are, it's that they make life—your life—sustainable.

You have to get creative in your tactics. You have to demand your pleasure. Because the world you're inheriting is hell bent on disallowing you your life. You have to create the time to savor this life, to deflect the time-soul-life suck of what we call the real world. But it isn't the real world; it's the cruel world. You can make a more palatable real world, a world worth living in, living for, a world capable of sustaining life.

Demand your pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Oh come on Dan. Surely as a history major you know that the workweek for factory workers during the Gilded Age was 12 hour days, six days a week. Corporate America was somewhat tamed by Roosevelt's New Deal, but has slowly been regaining its grip on American workers ever since. In other words, the struggle between those who control the means of production and those who actually produce is a central theme in American history and is not new to the 21st century. In that way, this could be a very exciting time to live as well as a very difficult one, as it does seem that a majority of Americans are waking up to the brutality of our current leadership. I have kids, so I must think of it this way - otherwise I can't find the energy to slug back my Starbucks and tell them that they really do have adulthood to look forward to. I can also tell you that no woman in her right mind would want to raise nine children in a trailer or settle down with somebody constantly running from the law. A man may find pleasure in that, but a woman raising kids is going to find this is most likely not. I agree that our current insane American lifestyle is unsustainable, but I don't think that the solution is to adopt an anti-government and defiantly individualistic lifestyle. The reality for the kids in families this far out of the mainstream here is unpleasurable and sometimes even dangerous. The European way of life over which you seem to salivate is sustained largely by a solid government-based social safety net, healthy workers unions and an infrastructure that supports mass transit. I think that these are reasonable, worthy goals for this country, and ones that may be largely attainable. It would bring mutual pleasure- male and female, as well.

Daniel Coffeen said...

What I want to suggest is, to borrow a friend's phrase, that regime change is not the answer: we need species change.

Our heads are too big! We come out to early! We are a mutation gone horribly awry.

I don't think the rich understand pleasure any better than the rest of us. The rich consume; they don't enjoy. Enjoyment is a lost art, to so-called liberals and conservatives alike.

I finally understand Burroughs.

Cuyler Ballenger said...

please dC -- 12 volumes on the pleasures the graduate can feel. I love the train of thought, indulge your indulgences.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I echo çb, dc: rk wants more. I LOL'd a lot.

K said...

And, graduates, let's not forget Theodore Kaczynski. A brilliant mathematician who said "fuck academia and while you're at it fuck your computers" and walked out on a promising career at UC Berkeley to live the simple life in a small cabin he built on his own.

On second thought, perhaps he's not the best example.

Anonymous said...

These are harrowing times indeed.

Anonymous said...

I will be literal minded and unphilosophical and suggest that Burroughs views on our species and language as virus were at least partially shaped by the thoroughly rotten childhood and difficult adulthood that he experienced. For one thing, he was gay at a time when being gay was considered to be both insane and criminal. He may have had more insight and poetry than the average drug addict, but I still think that a lot of the paranoia and anger in his writing is a reflection of himself rather than humanity as a whole. I am not saying you can't learn something from his writings, but I think you have to place his writings in the context of history.

K said...

To above:

Why place Burroughs in historical context? Why would anyone want to put a ball and chain on any text? For me the mark of great writing is its very ability to float through space and time - resisting the gravitational forces of academia or any other body that would try to ground it. If anything Burroughs writing sucks us into it, rather than the other way around. Besides, if I read Burroughs historically it would mean I'd have to like his "cutups". I'd have to appreciate them as part of a historical movement. The truth is, I don't like his cutups because they literally tire me out - I don't need to look into the past as a way to make sense of them.

Daniel Coffeen said...

History Shmistory. I have to say: to reduce Burroughs to some product of bourgeois angst is, well, kinda condescending. Here is a man who delved so fully into his medium and reinvented it from within; a man who lived so thoroughly; a man who wrestled life and death and everything in between and it all comes across in every exquisite sentence. To dismiss this man's thinking as the product of such a banal vision of history makes me rather uncomfortable.

And so I will give his texts the respect they ask for with their downright lit up, dead pan, vaudevillian glimmering beauty and brilliance. Yes, thank you.

K said...

I'm no expert, but I wonder if you are both falling into the same trap: you may both be too caught up with Burroughs the man. Reducing Burroughs the man/writer does not equate with reducing THE texts. I could easily put forth the argument that Burroughs' was so fucked up on drugs and guilt that his actions can't be portrayed as deliberate acts as they have been in the above post, but what does that say about the texts?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this post. It was wonderfully real -- a refreshing change.

V said...

So many points:

(1) Work as pleasure: Conflating work with pleasure may be a capitalist strategy but it needn't be. In Thailand, it operates the other way: work is not worth doing UNLESS it is fun (much to the chronic annoyance of the resident expatriate community). Work must conform to fun's demands, not vice versa.

(2) Noble savage/happy hobo: Isn't it a sense of entitlement that condemns as surrender, co-optation, or what-have-you any life that falls short of the particular brand of joyous participation that you are implicitly advocating? Even Burroughs needed a trust fund, and it's false if not dangerous (physically and morally) to imbue an off-the-grid lifestyle with pure romance: either you are doing the grueling work of farming, hunting, etc., you are sponsored a la Burroughs (in which case you are enjoying second-order the fruits of someone else's co-optation), or you are dumpster diving with its attendant risk of disease. There's an unarticulated, and I believe suspect, Rousseau-meets-the-trust-fund spirit animating these musings (I know, I know, you don't have a trust fund, but you get the idea).

(3) Triumph of the individual: Read "Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs" by John Bowe, et al. A compelling series of 2-5 page interviews with everyone from the UPS guy to a Hollywood film producer to a man who makes a fortune literally cleaning up the mess of suicides and murders. What emerges is that ecstatic engagement is in fact inevitable, that there is no job so numbing -- not even seasonal hedge-trimming -- that per se squelches humanity. Engagement is a matter of orientation, not situation.

I'll save my thoughts on Burroughs for another post.

V said...

Re: Burroughs...

I for one do care about the man vis a vis the text, as well as vice versa (hey, I am not called "V" for nothing). Well, maybe "care" is a strong word, but for me provenance matters. I don't, as Daniel does, see "glory" in the "death of the author and the birth of language." For me, the author's experience infuses the language, tints it if not fills it with its distinct species of gravitas, gives the articulate an unarticulated dimension that can make the difference between a compelling read and unwilling/unwitting participation in someone else's masturbatory exercise.

In that light, I draw on the elements in Burroughs work and life that delight/intrigue/compel/repel me and have them talk to each other, inform each other, spin synergies of great delight, intrigue, etc. When dealing with Burroughs in particular, I in fact can't distinguish meaningfully between life and art because (brilliantly and tragically) he lived so artfully.

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