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.

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