8.29.2020

Nietzsche, Socrates, Foucault, Larry David: On the Philosophy of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"


"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a philosophical show. It deploys a certain vision of how the individual stands towards the world — towards its written and unwritten rules, towards other people, towards friends, towards romance. It's a show of ethics.

No doubt, one could argue that every show does this. "Friends," for instance, deploys a vision of the world — what a friend is, what romance is, what work is and how to stand towards it. But unlike "Curb," "Friends" never explicitly addresses its stance, never goes out of the way to question other stances, never offers any alternative ways of going. "Friends" offers us the ideology of what we might call a heteronormative, achingly dull way of life — which may involve a philosophy but the show is not philosophical per se.

"Curb," on the other hand, focuses on one character who stands towards the world in a clearly different way  — and that difference is precisely what drives the show. If "Friends" gives us characters acting on a stage of accepted terms, "Curb" moves those terms to the foreground. "Friends" is propaganda, offering its ideology as the norm; "Curb" is philosophical, opening up fissures within the normative ethical while proffering a different ethical stance. (And, yes, I am conflating "Curb" and Larry David just as I'm conflating Plato's dialogues with Socrates; more on this below.)

Like Plato's Socrates, "Curb" gives us Larry, a character who interacts with the world in a fundamentally different way. And, like Socrates, Larry refuses inherited terms, questioning them at every turn and even more adamantly when he confronts someone who is so sure of themselves. But whereas Socrates is really only concerned with big ideas about truth, morality, language, politics, Larry takes on the micro interactions of the social.

This is a dramatic break from Socrates. David is not concerned with big questions. On the contrary, he solely focuses on the stuff of the everyday. When he's in front of Nancy Pelosi, the big issue for him is dry cleaners — who get away with all kinds of things! For David, "philosophy" is no different than anything else — it's a way of standing in the world driven by desire, stupidity, appetite. In this sense, David channels Nietzsche who also rejects big questions for the matters of everyday life such as diet, weather, and recreation. It's this world that matters, David and Nietzsche tell us, not the philosophical life or after life.

Like Nietzsche, David is a radical individualist. Which is to say, he avoids what Nietzsche calls the herd or mob mentality. The show skewers those who take stands, who take sides, whether they're the Ayatollah or zionists. He is not on anyone's side — which is often the source of conflict with a world that tends towards mobs, tends towards fixed belief systems. I think of Kramer in the AIDS walk, refusing to wear a ribbon — and being beaten up by this mob of "do-gooders." That's the David position (even though he didn't write that episode).

Or this scene from "Curb" in which Larry, not knowing what a baptism is, tries to save a man he believes is being drowned — and triggers a war of sides. Note the particularly vile portrayal of both sides, Jews and Christians. And then look at his face at the end: it's a look that implicates himself: What have I done? But if that were all it expressed, this would be a sit com about a buffoon. As it's a philosophical show, his look says: What's wrong with these people? And then: I don't care either way. Can I just go home? This is ugly. In this one scene, we are given an entire ethical philosophy.



This episode, in what is seemingly a small moment, reveals the depths of Larry's individuality and, finally, his social isolation. He and Cheryl, his wife, are packing for the wedding — he's yet to disrupt the pre-wedding baptism. Larry is trying to understand the Christian will to proselytize the world, comparing it to demanding others eat lobster. Eat lobster! Eat lobster! You should eat lobster! Cheryl, in a devastating look of dismissal I know all too well from my own life, utters, "Lobster and religion. I really don't see the similarities."


But that's Larry's whole point! They are the same!!! This life is nothing but things we do, driven by desire and will, not truth or holiness. Eating lobster and believing in Jesus: for David, they are not different in kind. They share a fundamentally common fabric of existence — namely, an all too human will and action. Life, he tells us, is what we do not what we believe. What seems to be a casual, even heretical, conflation of lobster and religion is in fact a profound philosophical reordering of the world. And Cheryl's absolute lack of understanding leaves Larry out on a ledge, utterly alone.

If I may offer a personal aside, this is an experience I know all too well from my own life and failed romances and fundamental social isolation. Parrying the dominant discourse which masks itself as self-evident truth is exhausting and, finally, isolating. But David, unlike myself or Nietzsche or Zarathustra, insists on social participation. He does not offer or seek a line of flight, no mountain top where the air is too cold for others. No, he remains within the social fold despite never fitting in. And while Buddhist detachment might offer him a way to exist within the social with greater peace, that fails him too as we are run through with the social, all the way down. There is no outside.



And so, as there is no outside, Larry operates at the limits of inherited social discourse, finding his freedom, as it were, in the rupturing of assumption. All rules are up for grabs. When he and Cheryl are told there might be a terrorist attack in LA and she says they have to stay in the city anyway for the NRDC fundraiser, he suggests maybe he can leave — and, from the look on her face, we know he's broken some rule about romance and eternal love, as well as about political commitment, a double faux pas. This comes up again when they renew their vows and Larry wants exemption from the eternity clause. Many no doubt feel he's just being an unromantic lout; I am sure no one blames Cheryl. But Larry is in fact making a radical move, breaking the terms of inherited romantic discourse even at great risk to his emotional well being.


In many ways, David takes up the mantle of Michel Foucault, revealing the terms of discourse that dictate our lives. For that is where power exercises itself: in the everyday, the ways in which we are coerced by custom and assumption. There is no free exchange of ideas, say Foucault and David: we are always already enmeshed within the micro-mechanics of power. Indeed, that's where we feel power most intimately — in the ways we unknowingly conduct ourselves, assuming that's just the way things are, what Foucault calls being "in the true." David refuses such inherited rules of social behavior, offering other modes, other logics, different ways of standing towards each other. He is a freedom fighter, refusing to acquiesce to the terms of the social majority! He is the social assassin.



Rather than situating himself as a member of the herd blindly following the rules, David, like Zarathustra or Neo seeing the code, operates at the level of rule making itself. He sees that the social is dictated by rules that are more or less arbitrary and driven by some combination of idiocy, greed, and desire. When he walks in a room, he doesn't assume what everyone else assumes. Rather, he assumes that because rules are arbitrary, he can call them into question and even rewrite them. Needless to say, this makes him anathema — whether to Gil's wife or to the Ayatollah (in Season 9, the Ayatollah puts out a fatwa on Larry).



From one angle, Larry is a kind of ethics police. He considers a rule, assesses it, then decides if it's a rule worth following or not. As such, he runs the risk of being an ethical enforcer himself — a bit like Socrates who roams the city looking for people who think they know things then argues with them until they no longer think they know things. Both David and Socrates are kinds of cops, policing the world for transgressions. They are certainly both what my mother would call a nudge.

But, like Socrates, David is an ironist. Sure, he takes positions, but he's not a zealot, even if his behavior often becomes zealous. This is where the role of "Curb" comes in: it renders even his most zealous moments not serious. At his most adamant, the clown music kicks in. Larry's position in the show, like Socrates' in Plato's dialogues, renders him fundamentally ironic — making claims and undoing them in the same gesture. (The greatest irony of Plato's Socrates: he says not to write — in words you're reading; hence Socrates writes and doesn't write at the same time. And, let me say, George Costanza is a poor interpretation of Larry as George lacks irony. George has Larry's refusal to follow inherited rules, yes, but unlike Larry, George is never ironic; his face and expression remains univocal whereas Larry's is always double — saying it and not saying it.) 

The David philosophy is fundamentally an ethics — a posture of standing in, with, and towards the world. We live in a social, he tells us, that is inevitably defined by the micro mechanics of power driven by all too human idiocy and herd mentality. But David tempers that Nietzschean-Foucauldian position with echoes of Socratic irony. Where Nietzsche proffers the strength and health of the individual as a remedy to the herd, Larry offers a relentless contestation and rewriting of social rules. And yet rather than those rules being the birth of a new order, they are ironic as they, too, are inevitably idiotic. 

No one, not even the viewer, thinks Larry is ever the one who is "right." Such is how thorough this show is: it's never serious even as it proffers a radical ethical philosophy. No one believes he is the ethical one, a social freedom fighter, or a philosopher. The show ensures that he is never taken seriously. It's irony and idiocy all the way down.

8.20.2020

Life's Too Short: In Memoriam of Felipe Gutterriez & in Honor of Mentors


I wasn't going to share this as it seems so personal. But two things occurred to me: One, many of my former students were also students of his. And two, and perhaps more importantly, I want to introduce the figure of the mentor into our vocabulary, our discourse, our thinking. For it is an all too rare yet profound experience.

The fact is as we've privileged "democracy" so much, the whiff of hierarchy seems distasteful. And with this shift, the very possibility of the mentor has been moved to the shadows — if not all together eliminated.

I had good, even great, teachers in high school and college. I learned to write solid, lucid expository, critical essays in high school from the great Chuck Aschman. In college, I learned Foucault from the brilliant Peter Stallybrass and his TA, Gerry O; and Gadamer from the generous brilliance of Stephen Dunning. But none were mentors; none heeded me and considered me and lead me this way or that. They gave me the goods — great goods, mind you — and were done.

When I first met Felipe at Cal, he did not imagine himself as anyone's mentor. It was his first year as a professor having just finished his doctorate in that very program. So I imagine he saw himself as a friend, a cohort. But I didn't give up as I knew he had things to offer me — his calm yet wry disposition; his quick, hyper articulate mind; his breadth of knowledge all enticed me.

And, eventually, he'd become my mentor — offering me advice and suggestions without my asking, steering me actively towards texts, ideas, and opportunities. As we both got older, he became more paternal towards me. After not having talked to him in ages, I was fortunate to reconnect with him over a series of decadent dinners where I was sure to nestle up beside him to bask in his wisdom, insight, and generosity — and to eek out more from my mentor — more consideration, more attention, more love. I was, and remain, hungry for it.

Mind you: it's not that he'd tell me what to do, like a stern parent. It's that he'd participate in my thinking, seeing where it might lead, how it might go. He'd not command me so as to shut me down. On the contrary, he leaned into my thinking to open it up.

The fact is: I was reborn via Felipe. I came to grad school so cocky, so sure of myself. And, for years, I sailed by like that. Slowly but surely, though, he led me to understand that I in fact did not understand, that my thinking was too closed — and my certainty too self-oppressive. He introduced me to autopoiesis and Deleuze and my life changed so radically. Meanwhile, for others, he introduced Stanley Cavell. But not me. Sure, I like Cavell. But Felipe knew what I needed and it was Deleuze. And by the time I was done with my formal education with him, I was no longer the same person. I was better — less cocky, more open, more generous, more playful. I am the thinker, reader, writer, and person I am today thanks to Felipe.

I know many of my former students and I wrestle this. They can't decide if I'm their friend or teacher; we both act like both. And I am surely to blame as I've always bled that line, acting chummy and intimate in a way one would not imagine a mentor to act. But as I've gotten older, I've become more comfortable with offering my two sense (yes, I know it's cents) without qualifying it with, "Well, in my opinion...."

But I fear I'm not very good at it. I like to imagine I'm a great teacher. I can get people excited about ideas and texts and explain them well. But as a mentor, I've fallen short. I too easily lean into friendship as, frankly, I don't see myself as wise, as insightful, as being worthy of the mentor status. But I'm trying. And I have Felipe to thank for it for he was everything a mentor can be.

I love him dearly; I miss him intensley; and I am so very grateful to him, in perpetuity.

8.14.2020

All These Images of Time: On "Mad Men"


I could begin anywhere. For instance, with the persistent theme of the "return of the repressed" — the way Don's and America's pasts make themselves known as they disrupt the shiny glean of a consumerist now. Think of Don's "meltdown" in the Hershey pitch: he just can't tell that narrative of the happy childhood they need so badly to sell their chocolate. Instead, they get Don talking about a darker America, born in violence and neglect. The return of the repressed is a fold in time, a past rearing its head in the now, often indirectly and always according to the ways of this or that person.

But I choose this one scene — Megan singing Zou Bisou for Don's surprise birthday party — precisely because it's so well known and yet the drive of its drama is complex, exceeding the casual thumbs up and down, the offhand, "She looks so great...." And so I ask you this: What is the drama of this scene?

We could say it's Megan's lack of propriety, that she's so socially oblivious and self-absorbed that she can't read the room and becomes a clown — a kind of Michael Scott (from the American version of "The Office"). But that doesn't seem right at all; Megan has none of Michael Scott's pandering insecurities fueled by a sense of propriety gleaned from mass discourse, making him oblivious to his immediate situation. The comedy in "The Office," which is dark, is someone so desperate to belong but the only way he knows is from watching movies, making for so many mishaps. That's not Megan.

Nor is it the architecture of this scene — or show. There is no fixed ground here, no Jim mugging for the camera with that unbearable, knowing smirk. "Mad Men" is fundamentally decentered, free of a ground that knows once and for all. So while the drama of this scene does indeed turn on modes of propriety, it is not a matter of her obliviously breaking rules while the rest of us look on in horror. Rather, the drama these temporal trajectories refusing to coalesce, these modes of becoming moving along lines of different speed, rhythm, and intensity. In this scene, we are witness to all these different times at once expressed in faces around the room, each a different image of time lived through — Bert Cooper, the British Pryces, the gay black emcee. These modes of going inevitably intermingle as they do and will every day in this living — coalescing, clashing, folding, and sometimes just passing each other, each oblivious to the travels of the other. What makes this scene so poignant is not that one character is acting without propriety; it's that we see all these different ways of going that don't as much clash per se as yield shimmering dissonances.

Megan is not oblivious. She simply, or not so simply, inhabits a mode of becoming that is different. Of course, that's possible in any social setting. I spend much of my life inhabiting a different mode of becoming than those around me, making for tragic-comic events all the time. But what this scene, and "Mad Men" in general, gives us are these disjunctures of, in, and as time. It's not just a case of different propriety, a spatial matter of two different modes occupying the same space. No, it's the dissonance of rapid change among these varied modes of becoming, each with their own distribution of sense and propriety, all under conditions of rapid change now known as "the 60s."

We know this experience personally from dealing with our families — parents but also grandparents and sometimes great grandparents, although, as we spawn later and later in life, fewer and fewer of us get to enjoy great grandparents. My great grandmother died at 101, in Co-Op city in Bronx, NY. My mother had her three children by the time she was 27;  I was the last. We'd go to great grandma's little apartment in this housing development where she inevitably made kreplach which my mother always described as delicious but such a potsch!

My point is not that we all live with different customs because, well, duh. I'm saying we live in different times, different temporal trajectories that distribute time as they distribute bodies and mores. There's a Jerry Seinfeld joke that whatever parents were wearing at their last great moment becomes what they wear all the time as time slows to a near halt. I felt that that in that little, kasha scented apartment in Co-Op city: of all the places in the world this Jewish woman from Poland had been, time dragged to a halt here. And so of course she made kreplach for everyone.




Now, more often than not, time is presented to us as spatial, something people live on rather than as. Think of "All in the Family." Archie is from one univocal time; Meathead from another; and so they fight, like warring nations. In that show, time is a place one inhabits. Conflict is the most common mode but there's nostalgia, too, à la "The Wonder Years." In both cases, time is a place we visit, not something we are.

"Mad Men" gives us a show about the 60s that takes a whole other tack, proffering a fundamentally different conception of time. It doesn't give us a show about conflicting modes of going but of changing modes of going. It's focus is not inter-generational conflict, even if that arises here and there, mostly between Peggy and her mother. No, the show is this experience of rapid change in which said change happens at different paces in different ways for different people. The ensuing swirl is the very stuff of the show, its drama and pathos.

In "Mad Men," time is not external to living. On the contrary, time is all these lives happening at once, each in its own duration, rhythm, and intensity. If in "All in the Family," characters are either then or now — here or there — in "Mad Men," they are distinct temporal trajectories playing out this change according to their circumstances and metabolism — what Henri Bergson would call their duration.

Take Roger. He drops acid and has orgies with young hippies. But it's clearly not that Roger has left his own land and moved into this new territory. After all, Roger refuses to work with Honda because it's a Japanese company — and his friends died in the Pacific theater, dammit!  Look at the scene below: he's an acid in the roaring 60s but what does he see? The 1919 World Series. Time, here, is a fold.


Change, "Mad Men" argues, is not a uniform progression or march forward (or backward). Most of Roger's cohorts do not drop acid. Change, the show argues, is a process of different strata moving at different speeds, folding temporal trajectories at odd angles. These strata, these different layers and streams, flow through us; we are this assemblage of these flows, each of us multiple times just as we are time. Roger is not old or new; he is this time, Roger-becoming.

To wit, Roger's old school decadence folds neatly with the 60s drug infused free love, even if an abyss yawns between them as they get it on. It's not that Roger now lives in the new world of swinging hippies, saying yes as Meathead does in "All in the Family." Rather, Roger's particular mode of entitled decadence meshes with these aspects of hippy play, forming local harmonies while never quite merging per se. He is multiple; time is multiple. One stream of his multiplicity — his landed wealthy decadence — flows well, to a point, with newfound hippy decadence (which is itself a going backward as it goes forward, a return to Eden and even further back for, as Joni Mitchell tells us, we are billion year old carbon and we've got to get ourselves back to the Garden).

History, the show tells us, is lived through. It's not something that happens outside us; it happens as us. Each of us bears history in our own way, in our own time. Picture Pete's old money, his inherited entitlement, and his father's disdain for the new world of advertising just as Pete falls in love with LA and sideburns. Or Betsy's adamant clinging to a way things were — even as she begins taking psychology classes. Take the Heinz ad from Megan: beans spanning back to the Stone Age and on to the moon. And the moon, again, where Hilton wants to be — capitalism as spatializing time, all the better to occupy it. Betsy's father dies and returns, in the eyes of Sally, as her little brother, Gene. Joan wants nothing but a husband and, in the end, chooses business over a would-be marriage. It's not that she's liberated; it's that the possibility of this way of going finds expression in her, with her, as her. And, of course, Don — a man so thoroughly haunted by his past that he's never really present but as a symptom.

Such is history. It's not continental drifts and tectonic shifts — from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond! No, it's these different speeds and modes, all these rhythms and trajectories, at once.

The brilliance of "Mad Men" is that it breaks with the all-too-familiar narrative of the 60s in which we're all supposed to be catching up with this newfound enlightenment, even as some cling to their Dark Ages mentality (and even if Manson is a warning). I've been watching "The Great" on Hulu, a show about Catherine the Great, and while it is beautifully produced, the show has a position it doesn't question: the Enlightenment is good while the brutish, sexist, violent ways of the past are not. "The Great" is grounded by and with its assumption of Enlightened liberal good will which is a uniform march, a new land you either live in or don't. "Mad Men" offers no such thing.

The show doesn't have a position. It's not arguing for or against newfound sexuality, the 50s mode of child neglect, or racial integration. It is simply, or not so simply, following these different temporal flows as they play out. The show doesn't offer a fixed perspective; this is not a tale of humanity's progress or regress. Like the "Sopranos" on which he worked, Matthew Weiner assumes complexity as the basis of character and story.

"Mad Men," however, is much more complex in its relationship to time. "Mad Men" takes on Tony's return of the repressed — via Don but also via America — and offers so many other streams and trajectories, so many other temporal distributions and folds. For "The Sopranos," morality is lived through, local and complex, as fits its explicit subject: the mafia. "Mad Men," meanwhile, is nominally about advertising — and what is advertising but narratives, organizations of time, of cause and effect, stories of the past, present, future, and how this product and your desires fit into that tale, that temporal organization?

"Mad Men," with seeming ease, presents the complexity of time as ever multiple and lived through. It doesn't just give us a changing "culture" to which characters react. Rather, it present us characters as individuals becoming as a certain speed, rhythm, and intensity of time, of change. Culture, it argues, doesn't happen to us; we are as much agents as constituents. We are time, each of us, in our own time.

The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that time is not exterior to matter. Which is to say, there is not first the world of three dimensions to which time is added. Matter is four dimensional (at least) to begin with: it occupies space and time in such and such a way — length, width, height, duration (which includes rhythm). Clock time is spatial, the movement from this notch to that. But Bergson's time is all these durations at once, enduring as they do and will. All these images of time.

This is the great brilliance of the show: time is not an external term that characters react to. Time is their various and shifting modes of behavior, their embodiment of time and time as their embodiment. "Mad Men" revels in the complexity of time, the shifting speeds of change that each character embodies and performs.



This all makes me think of the achingly brilliant "Deadwood." Like "Mad Men," the series presents us a time of great change, namely, the imminent statehood of the Dakotas. But, like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" focuses on the ethical strata and complexity of its situation — frontier America — and all the ways people can and do interact when there is no clear top down order, when accepted propriety holds little water.

But then, 13 years after its third and final season aired, we watch "Deadwood: the Movie" and see that David Milch has changed the terms of the image from ethical to temporal complexity. To watch that film is to endure so many times at once, dripping with all the attending pathos (I, for one, cried throughout, time all so much to bear). I'd call it all unspeakable were it not for Milch's demand and gift for the effable. The film is something to behold — all these times lived through by characters we've come to know and now see again, time passed in such and such a way for each. As Jonathan Englander writes, "with the few scenes he could spare for each character and storyline, [Milch] delivered a pointillist meditation on time — all the great, yawping changes it brings, all the things that stand immutable, and pretty much whatever lies in between."

The time image is not a flashback. All too often, the flashback is linear, univocal time: I am here but remember that over there. It's a spatial pointing to. No, the time image is duration itself writ on screen, as screen, a living through of each element in its own time, even within the same image. The time image is an assemblage of time, all these durations at once.

Look at pretty much any scene in "Mad Men" and you'll see all these times in their own speeds and rhythms. It's bewildering, a temporal kaleidoscope. Such is time, history, change: always multiple, always lived through. We are, all, images of time.

8.06.2020

The Ethics & Architecture of Pleasure (& the Dying Art of Enjoyment)


Pleasure marks a complex juncture in the world: it's intensely private and yet to experience pleasure is precisely to be occupied by something else — in this case, chocolate ice cream.

When we experience pleasure, what's our posture towards the world? How are we standing in and among the things, people, and forces of this life?

Imagine someone in a state of pleasure. Their eyes may be closed; they're unto themselves. But what's so incredible about this self-satisfaction is that it stems from being open, from feeling that nudge, the push and pull, of something else — the sun's warmth, horizon's expanse, lovers' lips, a song, image, thought, meal. To experience pleasure is, in some sense, to be occupied by something else.

Pleasure's a funny thing. It's an intensely private experience. It speaks to who I am, fundamentally: I am he who likes this; often these; sometimes those; never that.  In many ways, the discernment of my pleasure carves out my very space and trajectory through this life — these roads to these places with these people eating these foods with this soundtrack.

But, simultaneously, my pleasure is precisely the thing that undoes me as I am drawn first here, then there, seduced by these friends, these books, these ideas, these dumplings. My pleasure comes from my desire for, of, and with something — a something that pulls me, draws me to it, coerces me, seduces me, assaults me, beckons me. I am in the orbit of those things that bring me pleasure, that attract me. (Sometimes, the orbit can't keep and I crash into the things that bring me pleasure, swallowed by their metabolism. I believe this is what we call addiction, our subsumption by the forces that attract us. Sunburn, too.)

We are made and unmade in our pleasures. We are these machines of selection and delectation, these appetites being pulled this way and that as we eat our way through it all. Pleasure is not after-the-fact. It is of the fabric of existence. (It is not the only thing, of course; many things and forces make and unmake the world.)

Meanwhile, my pleasures are themselves made by bodies and forces other than me. Such is the basis of the Frankfurt School and other modes of ideology critique. Our desire, and ensuing pleasure, are created by often nefarious, or at least interested, and usually greedy forces. We don't come by our pleasures honestly, as it were; they're slipped to us by ideology's institutions such as the media. For instance, we may feel pleasure when we're skinny; but that pleasure, we're told, was sold to us by a patriarchy.

What an odd mode of criticism! Someone tells you that the pleasure you're experiencing isn't really your pleasure. You think you like Disney movies but you're just a foil of patriarchical ideology! Or: You think you like McDonald's but you're just a foil of the cow industry! 

This architecture of ideology critique mimics the Church and it's moral condemnation of sin. You think you like this or that but that desire comes from a nefarious place — for the Frankfurt school, it's capitalism; for the Church, it's the devil. In both instances, someone claims to know more about your pleasure than you do — and seeks, rather rudely, to disrupt it (which is truly a perversion — to get off stopping other people from getting off). Who are you, Adorno or Pope, to tell me my pleasures are false?

What's so poignant, so loaded, about pleasure is that the experience is private and thorough. I take pleasure from, in, and with the things I take pleasure from, in, and with. These may or may not overlap with everyone's, or anyone's, pleasure. But my pleasure remains my pleasure. It's not a choice I make; it's an experience that emerges from my body going with other bodies — Nietzsche, dumplings, gin, the ocean. As such, my pleasure is constitutive of me.

Pleasure marks this complex juncture, this ornate architecture of historical, libidinal, cultural, and metabolic forces and operations coalescing into a moment: this pleasure in me, of me, here and now (this ignores, for the moment, Freudian displacement in which the now is a performance of the past). And yet I am attracted to other bodies just as planets and other space stuffs are. We are pulled into the way of other things with varying degrees of intensity. We don't choose the things that bring us pleasure.  This is why we invented the unseemly figure of guilty pleasure.

The very notion of the guilty pleasure stems from this disjuncture between what we deem our choice and what we experience as our pleasure, a force that belies our presumed free will. We are drawn to things despite ourselves. We feel guilty because our pleasure doesn't coincide with our proclaimed moral tendencies or, more likely, our conceptions of ourselves. I am this kind of person so how and why am I so turned on by that?!? It may be a cinephile delighting in Bridget Jones, an indie music aficionado who gets jiggy with Britney, a Master of the Universe who likes to dress as a little girl, or a feminist who yearns to be tied up and spit on. 

While as a culture we tend to denigrate pleasure, feeling guilty about it, we love those with drive — Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, CEOs of all sorts. We consider them strong, dominant forces, those masters of the universe as Tom Wolfe might say. But what is drive other than a strong pull to something, an utter domination of that thing over us? Basketball occupied Michael Jordan so thoroughly that we can't even think them apart; he is occupied by the game.

This is no doubt true for perception in general. My senses are not active, despite our grammar which insists that I see. It's not as much that I see the flowers as those flowers wind their way into my body despite me: I can close my eyes, sure, but then I'm still under their yoke. But pleasure per se is particularly poignant mode within the perceptive experience. The flowers are not just winding into my body: they are moving me in a most intimate way. Pleasure is intertwining with this aspect of the world at a cellular level in which I cannot separate myself from that thing.

We may come by pleasure despite ourselves but we can learn to enjoy the things that attract us. Enjoyment is an art, one that is neglected — a neglect which I'd argue is indeed ideological. Modern consumerist capitalism — I hesitate to use this word as it's so loaded and nebulous but I assume you understand what I'm talking about — proffers so much pleasure. Everywhere we look, tasty things abound— burgers, cappuccinos, lovely blouses, enticing AirBnBs, TV out the yin yang, porn, that new car smell, and so on and on and on to what seems like infinity. And all of these things are more or less disposable, affording immediate pleasure then passing. So we seek it again and again and again. We all know someone who calms themselves by online shopping. It's the lure of pleasure that happens behind our back. And it's over in the flash of an Amazon unboxing. This is what propels our economy. We even have a name for it: the consumer index.


Just consider that word consumer for a moment. That is what has come to define our culture's path to pleasure — the ingesting, purchasing, and using up of something else. By casting our pleasure in light of consumption, we reduce the ecology of pleasure, that sumptuous intertwining, that being taken up by something else to a violent blip. Our consumerist culture moves from attraction to pleasure as quickly as possible: see the shiny thing, get it, fast! Barbara Kruger's piece articulates this perfectly: our identity — this pleasure that is so deeply our own — comes from shopping, from consuming.

Consumption is an attempt to wrest control back from the lack of control attraction demands. And it serves the needs of capital by propelling us to buy and buy again. But this consumption-pleasure architecture quashes the complexity and ethics of pleasure by skipping over the intimacy of intertwining with things. For between attraction — which happens behind our backs — and pleasure, there is another beautiful possibility: enjoyment.

To consume is to cast us in the light of active body, the agent, taking in the stuffs of the world. Enjoyment, however, speaks our intertwining with said stuffs: in the very word itself, we can't separate our private experience, our pleasure, from our going with this other body. To enjoy is not just to consume but to take pleasure in and with something else. And, as such, enjoyment is an ethical act — an opening up to the other with supreme generosity, respecting its every gesture, its every inflection, its texture, tone, timbre, style. To delectate is to respect the way of something — and to respect this encounter, the experience, this exquisite wonder of bodies taking each other up in the cause of pleasure.

With consumption, we are actors on a world that is there for our taking. But with enjoyment, we are going with the world, constitutive of it. When we enjoy something, we are this moment of the world, taking in things as a plant takes in sun and water; enjoyment moves us from agents on the world to aspects of the world, going with it, taking it in as it takes us in and on we go, making the world together. Consumption uses the world up. Enjoyment produces the world.

At a fundamental level, I respect people's pleasures. You like McDonald's, eating popcorn during a movie, Steven Spielberg, getting spit on? Beautiful, truly. I would never deny someone their pleasure — even if I reserve the right to condemn and prevent certain actions which may bring them pleasure such as, say, mutilating cats. But I see pleasure as your own business, even if your actions are not necessarily. Which is why I loathe both the Church and the Frankfurt School as they seek to judge my pleasure, a vile and insidious act.

But I do want to condemn the way the art of enjoyment has been neglected. We don't teach our children to delectate, to savor, to open themselves up to the textures of the world. We don't privilege the slow speed of enjoyment, the time it takes for something to wash over, in, and around us as we resonate with pleasure. No, I don't want to get between you and your pleasure. In fact, I want to amplify your pleasure by encouraging you to enjoy things more.

On the Terrible Tryanny of School

This picture is horrific to me and says so much about school: line them up! Make them sit, like little prisoners, while we harass and haran...