Productive Pleasure: Alfie Bown’s Enjoying It Reviewed

Looking at psychological and social power structures and stark capitalist reality through the lens of Candy Crush and YouTube wormholes, Joe Kennedy considers the ideas of productive and unproductive pleasures and sympathy with pretentiousness via Alfie Bown's Enjoying It

A year or so ago, in an old university teaching job, one of my students submitted a thought-provoking essay which used Freud’s ideas about the relationship between the id, the ego and the superego to discuss the Grand Theft Auto games. The piece argued that, while we have traditionally conceived of the superego –in a societal sense – as a limiting, disciplinary agency, GTA emblematises how the role performed by such an agency in the 21st century is quite different. Now, the cultural imperative, the law of the superego, is to live by the whims of the unschoolable, insatiable id. Whether we apprehend this message through the gruelling-seeming hedonism advertised by most contemporary music videos, the demands from the Smart Thinking shelves in WH Smiths that we break all extant intellectual moulds, or in video games whose narrative literally forces its characters to live outside the law, it is clear: we are restrained only by the command that we must not be restrained.

Alfie Bown’s Enjoying It – Candy Crush and Capitalism is the latest in a growing line of speculations regarding this inversion of a tradition of an ethics based on limitation. Slavoj Žižek has, for some time, been pointing out that the sole command issued by the postmodern superego is to ‘enjoy’, while Mark Fisher’s increasingly influential 2009 work Capitalist Realism floated the concept of ‘depressive hedonia’, in which the neoliberal subject is paralysed by the constant pressure placed upon them to indulge in short-termist pleasures. Enjoying It both develops upon and (implicitly) contests some of these discussions, and stakes out its arguments with Žižekian excursions through the ephemera of popular culture. Bown, a contributor to Everyday Analysis, an online project to psychoanalyse the 21st century – and, more specifically, post-2008 – quotidian, is no stranger to what is often taken to be detritus, and steers us through considerations of Miley Cyrus, ‘Gangnam Style’, mobile phone gaming and Football Manager.

The book opens, however, with an important deconstruction of the distinction between ‘unproductive’ and ‘productive’ pleasures. Implicit in Fisher’s framing of ‘depressive hedonia’ is the idea that the instant gratification offered by grazing through YouTube, Instagram or Facebook distracts from the more substantial pleasures offered by aesthetic consideration or political activism. Impulsively, I’d tend to agree with Fisher on that point: I might find it easier to spend my evenings meandering the byways of Wikipedia or TV Tropes, but I fall asleep feeling better in myself, and specifically far less guilt-wracked, if I’ve been reading David Harvey or watching one of those Artificial Eye DVDs I never seem to get round to opening. Nevertheless, Bown counsels that we approach the idea of ‘productive’ pleasure with caution, illustrating his point by thinking through what it means when a person says they ‘enjoy’ engaging with philosophy or critical theory.

Reading Theodor Adorno or Michel Foucault is, Bown suggests, an activity which superficially positions one as critical of existing systems and ideologies. Many people have likely met individuals who stylise themselves as arch-theorists, ultra-sceptics pouting and smoking over Anti-Oedipus or Écrits and tweeting insistently to remind us – and them – of their radicality. For me, there’s something laudable about this straw-figure – the more I see tedious ‘deconstructions’ of ‘hipsters’ in the press, the more inclined I am to view pretentiousness as heroism pure and simple – but it’s typically true that they suffer from the blind spot Enjoying It points towards. This, Bown suggests, can be understood as follows: ‘Our ideas surrounding the enjoyment of critical theory and political resistance lead to the celebrated identity of the radical, which is another way of being a subject that suits capitalism’. In other words, the inclusive, absorptive nature of capitalism, which needs to bring everything within the scope of its mechanics of commodification, means that the radical is yet one more demographic to be sold to, another identity which can only find its expression through consumer preference. If this seems far-fetched, follow the twitter account of left-leaning London publishers Verso, who frequently retweet photographs sent in by satisfied customers of the piles of Marx (and assorted modern Marxist thinkers) which have just landed on their doormats. This is to take nothing away from the utopian desires potentially involved in reading, or buying, these texts, but it does remind us that our relationship with them is very often, if not exclusively, a reified one.

The main drive of the argument in Enjoying It, however, is a study of less ‘productive’ forms of enjoyment (which must, predictably, be accounted for in the terms of the ‘productive’ enjoyments of theory). His reading of Candy Crush, and its many, many commuter-friendly analogues, is perhaps the most instructive of these. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Bown discusses the dominant narrative which considers such activities to be a ‘distraction’ from a serious, ordered reality, a frippery which constitutes time out of life. This, he states, is a misunderstanding: it is actually the case that the palpable irrelevance of ‘distractions’ serves to make their outside seem serious and meaningful. Any guilt we feel while playing Candy Crush while at the office is ideological inasmuch as it lends work an appearance of existential profundity it does not deserve. Consequently, the political function of distraction is not to make us forget what is ‘really’ happening, but to draw boundaries for the real, a ‘stable working life and identity to which we can and should return’.

Bown is most pointed when he’s pulling off dialectical jack-knives such as those described above: his discussions of the ‘irrational enjoyment’ of ‘Gangnam Style’ works in a slightly more slippery conceptual register which must deal with the problematically fuzzy shapes of stupidity and inexplicability. Nevertheless, there are some useful ideas here. Pleasure which stupefies our attempts at analysis, which can’t be drawn back into some cosily politicised narrative about how and why we enjoy, points to the ‘gaps in ideology’ which denote our incompletion as subjects. If we don’t know why we enjoy what we enjoy, we might be doing more than simply functioning as capitalism’s duped drones. In fact, it might be the very ‘mindlessness’ of some pleasures, our capacity to enjoy what is not and cannot be fully instrumentalised by power, which points in the direction of utopian possibility.

Perhaps I’d have liked to have seen a little more by way of distinction between those ‘irrational’ enjoyments which might operate as sites of resistance and Candy Crush-alike ‘distractions’, but this is a punchy and provocative piece of writing. Bown’s style is, somehow, simultaneously limpid and irony-laden, absolutely accessible but also teasing and suggestive in a way which is, like the pleasures offered by Psy, never fully explicable. In a time when pleasure is a central political question – if we are to simply enjoy, who is served by our enjoyment? – this is a necessary, and commensurably fun, work.

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