Sunday, October 25, 2009

THE JOY OF LESS By Wendy Steiner

This article is amazing, just read it in the new Adbusters and had to share it:

“Waste not, want not.” Chipper, smug, old, this green adage has all the appeal of a thrice-used teabag. More-over, hidden behind its virtue is the dirty truth about sustainability: If we don’t waste, it’s probably because we don’t really “want.” Desire, pleasure, what we want, is a function of freedom, not prudence and constraint. We who want revel in waste.

Listen to one such reveler, Jack Gladney, hero of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), as he shops with his family in the mall:

When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki…. They were my guides to endless well-being…. I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake…. I began to grow in value and self-regard. […] Brightness settled around me…. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums…. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit.1

What hope is there for sustainability when conspicuous consumption holds all the cards for pleasure: self-realization, aesthetic transport, spiritual transcendence?

Parodic as this waste artist might appear, Jack Gladney demonstrates the philosophical entanglement of pleasure in the idea of limitless freedom. The consti-tutional rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happi-ness” are in fact one single right, its elements inextricably inter-implicated. The aesthetic equivalent is the “dis-interested interest” of Kantian beauty, a taste of virtual possibility without the limiting condition of actual consequences. “Negative capability,” the gift of the Keatsian poet, is the imaginative flexibility to entertain uncertainty, to be “open-minded” rather than confined to the sharp contours of determinate identity. No gesture so blatantly asserts this freedom as imprudent, heedless waste. Runa Islam’s 2004 film Be The First To See What You See as You See It presents a woman ever so slowly pushing china cups and teapots off their pedestals.

We watch them shattering into starburst shards in a strange state of fascination, joy, release that approaches the sublime.2 Pipilotti Rist evokes a similar euphoria in her video installation Ever Is Over All (1997), as a woman ecstatically walks down a street while smashing car windows with an exotic flower stock in full view of a smiling police officer. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the pleasure-waste relation is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), which junks nothing less than Western morality in the name of sheer “aesthetic bliss.”3

For Nabokov, of course, this ultimate pleasure is precisely the opposite of the prepackaged gratifications arising from mass consumerism, and herein lies the comedy of DeLillo’s shopper-aesthete. But the line between Jack Gladney and Humbert Humbert is paper-thin. They are both sensualists, sensationalists, participants in the “pleasure economy” of an “age of surplus.” Nancy Bentley has traced this consumerist aesthetics to the pragmatist philosopher William James, who was much influenced in turn by the theories of Penn economist Simon Patten’s 1907 book The New Basis of Civilization. According to Bentley, “pleasure” for James and Patten is shorthand for “the new range of experiences … that multiply under the aegis of a consumer-driven economy…. What if we were to recognize value, James asks, in terms of enjoyment rather than productive work? What if doing and thinking were both different extensions of the same motive force of eagerness? If meaning were redefined by ‘feelings of excited significance’ … [and] sensory experience and pleasure [were] an index of pragmatic truth?”4

The prophet of this “value as pleasure,” in James’s eyes, was Walt Whitman. Significantly for our purposes, Whitman’s aesthetics turned on the experience of excess. His poetic lines run on and on, defying meter and measure to accommodate immoderate lists of phenomena and hosannas to the inexhaustible possibility he identified as “America.” It was from city life, Bentley claims, that he took his inspiration: “Whitman looks to the phenomeno-logical topography of a pleasure economy in which urban crowds, transport systems like ferryboats and omni-buses, strolling laborers, women’s and men’s fashions, shops with ‘great windows’—in short, any and all sites that afford ‘gayety and motion on every side’—are sources of the pragmatic truths of ‘excitement’ and thus carry a potential for public significance. For James, Whitman is carrying out the new pleasure economy work, an ‘occup-ation’ in which seeking corporeal feeling and immersion in human crowds count as ‘business sufficient and worthy to fill the days of a serious man.’”5

This equation of pleasure with the endless variety of city life is also central to the sensibility of European modernists, as we see in Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, Gertrude Stein’s Parisian window shopper, André Breton’s surrealist vagrant, and André Gide’s “disponible” immoralist, all glutting themselves on the heterogeneity and intensity of urban sensation. A century of techno-logical advances has only increased the scope for open-ness and excess, until today we may experience a “global sublime,” a delirious expansion of self into Internet infinity. The 21st-century pleasure economy permits us to exceed ourselves—ecstatically, extravagantly, waste-fully—until, like Whitman, we are “multitudes.”


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