The Creation, Intensification, and Multiplication of Pleasures

Resistance. Rather than being a repressive struggle against some other person or institution, one can think of resistance in terms of pleasure.

The brief Foucauldian sketch of power in the History of Sexuality Vol. 1 explains that power is not only restrictive but also productive. Power produces things in our material world–classrooms, hospitals, and even people. The environments and subjects within are shaped and structured in particular ways to bring about particular ends. For instance, based on certain structural designs, people can be watched more closely, or students can be more authoritatively monitored in the classroom. The result is social control, or in other words, mechanisms are put in place to influence the conduct and behavior of the subjects in question.

Discipline takes on the form of punishment to shape people’s behavior. A child is reprimanded, a criminal is incarcerated, others are deterred from misbehaving in light of the known consequences–pain! But more than just physical pain like a spanking or capital punishment, one can be punished in other ways because we, as developmental subjects who are open to change, have also developed the capacity for other kinds of pain. For example, shame. In addition to feeling physical pain, we can also feel guilt, humiliation, and we can feel like we are miserable pieces of crap. That is, only once we have learned the particular expectations of us and what it means to disappoint them. In other words, we have to learn new pains in order for them to be effective. So, we have learned shame, and since everyone can watch everyone now, we are deterred from acting in a particularly shameful way…..

Such is the story for how punishment, pain, and the creation of new capacities for pain have been used to control the behavior of subjects like us.

Since so much behavior control is directed toward deviants who may not be all that bad, like for example, sexual deviants who participate in same sex relationships, there is reason to want to resist such mechanisms of power. We call for: Resistance!

But how?

In the same way that disciplining individuals and their bodies has the ability to cause pain, there are other forms of discipline that create pleasure. It takes great amounts of discipline to learn to throw a spiral. You have to train your arm to have the right timing and follow through. And it takes great amounts of discipline to learn a new language or make sure that you are not late for all of your various appointments. You have to train yourself to practice everyday, to multitask, and to organize your days in a particular way. Discipline, then, is not just the practice of a negative repression or restriction; discipline can mean something more like an intentional, concerted effort do something. And in the same way that our bodies feel pain and there can be the creation of new pain, we are also subject to feeling pleasure and can develop new capacities for feeling pleasure. We can derive pleasure from lots of things–food, sex, talking with friends, riding a roller coaster. But we can also learn to find new things pleasurable–new music, new foods, new cities, new styles, new hobbies. It may take awhile for some to “learn to like” something new, but it may even be that the process of doing so becomes pleasurable in its own right. For instance, learning to play the guitar can be enjoyable, one can find pleasure in the challenge of getting into shape, and it may be a pleasurable process of discovery that one enjoys while traveling. As Ladelle McWhorter explained in Bodies and Pleasures, she learned to line dance. And in learning that her body could move in new ways in space, she found it immensely pleasurable.

Pursuing pleasure for the sake of pleasure is key. Not to become the next great guitar player, but simply for the sake of playing the guitar because it is pleasurable to do so. Disciplining oneself to do yoga stretches everyday, not to be the next yogi to take down the Bikram franchise, but simple for the sake of stretching one’s body because it is pleasurable to do so (even if it is also sometimes painful!). The idea is that we are subjects who can undergo disciplines to develop new pleasures. We can learn to find new things pleasurable, and we can pursue those projects for the pleasure that they bring, and nothing more.

The “nothing more” is crucial because it defends against the normalizing of some end goal. If you are not trying to be the best guitar player, than no one can criticize you for not being so. If you are not working towards becoming the next big yogi, then there is nothing wrong with not being so. And if you reject the idea that one should live up to the standard of straightness, then you would have no need to punish yourself for not being straight. Neither would others. And if you reject the idea that there is some requirement for “gayness” then you can live and play as you like without regulating your own identity as such. The point: If there is no teleological end point, if there is no goal, then there is no risk of normalizing those who are good and those who are bad or deviant.

Instead, the “goal” should be the creation, intensification, and multiplication of pleasures.

I have been motivated to write this summary of McWhorter’s reading of Foucault because I have been thinking for a while about my own practices. What am I doing for the sake of pleasure? What am I even doing that is “pleasurable?” As a grad student earning a PhD in a pretty well-known philosophy program, I often succumb to the attitudes of others that surround me, those who say, “This is so miserable.” Well, lots of people say that grad school sucks. And lots of people say that the small little town in which I live leaves lots to be desired. And both of those can be true. BUT! even as a grad student in this little town, I can cultivate and develop pleasurable practices. Some avenues for pursuing pleasure are obvious enough, but there are less obvious ones that I want to keep in mind, too.

Every week, I try to go dancing on Sunday nights. It has always been the case for me that I experience great amounts of pleasure from dancing! I love the movement, the demands for stamina, the rhythms. I love feeling my body move. I have thought about classes and learning new ways to dance…And I love food. Food has been a saving grace for me and it is oh so pleasurable! I cook, I eat, I try new foods. Learning new ways to do both has been wonderful. In the meantime, I am hoping to think of other ways to discipline myself to undergo new pleasurable practices. For now, though, I am trying to focus on two (which are closely related) in particular.

Philosophy has always been a practice to me. I can only understand it as a practice and I know of its transformative effects. I’ve been changed by philosophy as a student, as a teacher, and as one who reads philosophy all the time, even for fun! In light of my many months of thinking, “What is this for? Is it worth it? Why should I do philosophy as a profession?” I am trying to refocus my attention to the inherent value of philosophy. It may ask questions that even I find boring and irrelevant, but philosophy also provides the platform for new and interesting ways of thinking that are life-changing. Writing, too, has been an obvious practice for me to take on and discipline myself to continuously attempt. This blog, and this entry, are evidence of that. But the main point is that there is a pleasure in writing. In thinking through ideas, working them out word for word so that their connections are forced to be made explicit, and expressing myself, I am learning to enjoy the practice of writing. I am trying to stay in touch with the fact that I find writing and philosophy to be pleasurable practices that are worthy of my energy and dedication. Doing so is worth it for me. And it may even be worth it when couched in terms of resistance.

One thought on “The Creation, Intensification, and Multiplication of Pleasures

  1. oh my goodness! I needed this. I am in the pleasure and the discipline of my thesis– and resisting telling adding in ("still"), or some other way of saying I should be beyond this phase, that I should have found more time and creativity to pour into it. … And so, thanks for this reminder that right now it is as pleasurable to be passionately analyzing my data as it would have been a year ago. Now, I just need to get enough work done to go dancing on Saturday night!

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