Friday, November 24, 2006

Permission to promise

The moral question, 'how are you going to live your life?', invariably in my experience elicits a conversation based around how best to achieve happiness. It seems we are a bunch of Happiness Harrys, or at least Pleasure Petes. What interests me about this is not that happiness (in the sense of living a comfortable, pleasurable life) is immediately and unproblematically placed at the centre of the discussion, but that it often will not shift no matter how the conversation seems to progress.

Take, for example, a conversation where we are granted an agreement that happiness doesn't consist in feeling comfortable but in being active and useful in the right way. It is my experience that in moving from this agreement to considering whether it can therefore be right to devote your life to difficult, painful causes, several unfortunate responses tend to be brought forth. Now, because we know that society actively promotes happiness as pleasure to the extent that it almost constitutes a religion, we can group together the 'I'm powerless and alienated' reflections that tend to issue from the more honest. Of course we should note that such arguments aren't seen as undesirable states of affairs, but offered as explanations of the reasonableness of settling for hedonism, which means that the honesty they are displaying is simply the honesty of stating their actual beliefs, and not the honesty of real regret. This is the first typical kind of negative response.

The second most typical response, and to my mind the most despicable, is the wry smile or the uncomfortable 'maybe', issued with the subtext that 'we both know that I want to enjoy my life and won't do anything like that ever'. It is this subtext that shows the dishonesty of the original agreement, and the inability to have the argument. Similarly to responses of the first kind, the identification of the subject with capitalism is highlighted. The argument doesn’t proceed to a genuine agreement over ‘what happiness is’ because of the overriding relationship the person has with consumer capitalism and the culture industry; because the level of investment is too large to throw away on some singular, unimportant conversation. If someone invested in consumer society legitimately challenges the basis of their consumption (that happiness is the pleasure they get from consuming), they would to that extent no longer function as consumers.

The relationship between the consumer and the productive forces of consumer society is one of social contract, and all (for want of a specific analysis) of the rewards and punishments of society are geared towards making these transactions work out. A la Nietzsche, the person is permitted to promise only insofar as he is conditioned to accept the consequences.

To sum up, in the first kind of negative response to the question whether we owe our allegiance to painful causes, the rewards and punishments of society are laid bare in language. We can do something with this. But the second kind of response – the kind that demonstrates consumer allegiance through the behaviour of the person – this is disgusting and slimy. While both responses are deletory, belying the confidence of the agreement about the nature of happiness, it is the second that refuses to come to the fore and display its sad trajectory.

The point of this post is to attempt to demonstrate a real difficulty that regulative discourses can ease. I tend more and more these days to press the question further, to demand to know why happiness must be what they think it is. But if the person will not follow me in conversation the real issues will not be discovered, and their non-compliance will mean much less to them than it should.


Blogger News is Good said...

"My happiness is not for other people; they have no right to it, so I need only please myself". I think this is one of the many ideas that lie behind the widespread dismissal of the concept that to live well, to live happily, is to live with and for others as well as oneself.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Krys said...

Indeed I would - incidentally: - you're comment about the well made me think of it.

1:46 AM  

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