Monday, November 30, 2015

The pleasure our society refuses to countenance

Last week, just after finishing my 4th set of squats (8 reps each, with 105 kg, slowly inching towards 110, nothing earth shattering, but demanding a lot of focus at my current shape), legs still trembling and heart pounding like an out of whack sledgehammer within my chest, I pondered for a while on how unusual what I had just done was in our age. Think about it for a moment: I had just put me through a lot of discomfort (specially in the last reps, when lactic acid has accumulated so moving the legs against the resistance of the barbell on the back causes pangs of pain to shoot through the quads, and the lack of enough air in the lungs makes you feel like a fish out of water), and would have to live with the dire consequences (for the following two to three days I would be so sore as to make simple things as standing up, or walking from my office to the coffee machine, a real chore), and for what reason? So the next week I could stand to put me through still a bit more (107,5, here I come!), and the next one even a bit more, and so on, with no discernible end in sight. Knowing that I won’t be getting any kind of reward or recognition for it, as I’m far enough from competitive numbers (and at an old enough age) as to not going to win any accolade or trophy for doing this. I guess I do it for the internal satisfaction of knowing I’m doing truly my best, I’m consistently putting the effort to be the best lifter I can be, irrespective of how that compares with all the other lifters in the world that strive after a similar pursuit. For the internal recognition that comes from having set for myself a goal that is difficult to achieve, and completing all the intermediate steps I’ve carefully defined as necessary to achieve that goal.

But it gets worse (much worse, actually!). After showering and changing clothes I got home, put the kids to sleep and settled in bed with the book I was in the midst of: Empirisme et Subjectivité, by Gilles Deleuze. I was reading it not because I found it enjoyable (it most definitely is not! Although at times dazzling in a highly refined, highly abstract sense it is also annoyingly abstruse, and somewhat pedantic, and overgeneralizing, but what would you expect from a French philosopher of the 70s…) or because I got a kick out of it, or to unwind, or to relax, or to amuse myself. And I’m not sharing it because I’m a snob (which by the way I am) and want to impress my two or three readers with how cultured and sophisticated I am. I read it because it deals with Hume’s philosophy, and Hume being one of the subjects of my dissertation I have made it incumbent upon me to become one of the most knowledgeable guys about his life and his thought on planet Earth. Even if that requires reading Deleuze, and to better understand him, some of his ilk so I’m more familiar with his impact in French philosophy in the 60s and 70s in general (the other books I’ve been reading this month, just in French: L’anti-oedipe by the same Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Surveiller et Punir by Foucault, and L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Tocqueville, which is from a different era but I found relevant all the same). Why I’m writing a dissertation in the first place would take us too far away from the subject of this post, I’ll declare that it is not definitely to be more successful with the ladies or to improve my standing at work and earn more money...

Now you may wonder, what does reading Deleuze (in French, I feel the need to punctiliously add) and going through an excruciating training program that requires repeating hundreds of times the same basic movements with a loaded barbell have in common? Well, they both may be considered to be pure instances of a kind of “pleasure” that our distinctly pleasure-seeking epoch doesn’t seem to be able to countenance, or even understand: that derived from doing difficult things, achieving challenging goals, or attaining distinctive skills. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, because economically we can all see that society honors inordinately people that do clearly difficult things: to play basketball at Michael Jordan’s level, or golf at Tiger Woods’ (before he messed up his life and, arguably, his game); to drive an F1 car like Lewis Hamilton; to sing like Adele, or Rhianna or Taylor Swift (hhmmm… maybe wrong examples, we’ll get to famous performers again in a minute); to lead a company like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg…  they are all socially recognized high, difficult achievements, and the few that can perform them are celebrated and thus set a positive example for the rest of the citizenry.

However, before we discard as false my contention that current society (you probably have by now an inkling of where I intend to lead the argument) looks at the performance of difficult feats with scorns, and actively discourages people from pursuing complex, challenging endeavors, let’s look under the hood of the phenomena I’ve mentioned, and see how those outliers are pictured, and where the vast sums of money they receive come from. All the examples of successful individuals I’ve given (the ones society seems to bestow most rewords on) can be grouped under three categories: pure performers (actors and singers), sport performers (athletes) and businessmen. What are the key factors that ultimately determine success in each category? I propose the following, in order of importance:

·         Pure performers: luck + stunningly good looks + talent (which in turn is, on average, roughly 80% genetics and 20% learned)

·         Sport performers: genetics + discipline + luck (finding the right coach, being in the right environment to express one’s genetic potential)

·         Businessmen: luck + psychopathic personality traits + discipline (which could also be construed as one of the most salient psychopathic personality traits, hence “train like a psycho”, or “devote yourself to the company like a psycho”)

Now you may disagree with my portrayal of success in each category as being first and foremost due to luck, and other traits being both secondary and similarly unearned (you do not “earn” your genetics or most of your looks in any meaningful sense, as much as some people whose only merit is “choosing the right parents” would like you to think otherwise), but I don’t think it’s really up for debate. For every talented, dedicated, disciplined performer/ athlete/ entrepreneur you can present as an example I could point to hundreds (thousands?) of similarly talented, dedicated and disciplined ones that nobody has ever heard about, that are either struggling or broke just because they were less… lucky, not being in the right place at the right time to be noticed by a big team scout, a big manager, a big market surge. And if you think that all those that keep at it long enough and just keep trying end up “making it” and reaching similar levels of success… well, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you may be interested in.

And of course “society” knows it too. It “knows” that trying hard enough is not (by far) “enough” to guarantee any kind of success. And that’s why it doesn’t try to convince anybody to really spend that much effort in the first place. Let’s now turn our attention to how those “successful” individuals make their money: performers convince enough people to pay a little bit to look at them (it used to be to hear them, but these days “hearing” is just an excuse to just watch them twerk, or dance, or strut their stuff, or cavort, or canoodle, or act, or act out…); athletes are mostly paid by sport apparel brands in the belief that a lot of people will want to wear what their idols wear (also, in some sports, spectators are willing to pay to see them more or less live, and a tiny fraction of that money actually reaches them); superstar businessmen are just good in taking lots of money from “investors” (that’s almost everybody else, from you and me through 401 (K) and similar instruments to Warren Buffett) convincing them that they can do what they can’t (coordinate vast legions of employees to generate more profits than similar legions employed by their competitors, something an orangutan chosen at random in any given zoo has as much chances of achieving as Wall Street most celebrated tycoon). So what is society really telling every young person when it celebrates these “top performers” and showers them with money and recognition? Is it telling them to be more like those “role models”, when being so means mainly having more luck, or better genetics, something no human being is able to effect? Of course not, as pointing people towards something at which they could not but fail is a sure recipe for disaster and commercial oblivion. What is telling them is to partake of their glow without putting the effort, to obtain part of the gratification without the discipline, to bask in the warm feeling of achievement without the hassle and the sacrifice demanded by it. So what it really recommends is to download the YouTube video of the performer (that has to be accessible enough and “easy” enough not to require much previous training to enjoy), to buy the same shirt, or sneakers as the star athlete, and to buy the self-congratulatory books of the businessman (or just to buy the products manufactured by his company).

We can find a superb example of such social tendency towards easy satisfaction and mediocre pleasures in the demise of Playboy, as recounted by the always interesting AntiDem: Playboy after dark. A couple decades ago you needed a certain education to participate in the charade of buying certain erotic (probably it would be more accurate to describe it, regarding the mores of the times, as pornographic) magazine “for the articles”. It was the centerfold babe who made you disburse your hard earned money, but at least you had not to be put off by the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut or Jack Kerouac. Today there is no risk of any difficult art form interfering with your more or less instant gratification, as you can go to pornhub and dally with nothing but unadulterated porn, neatly arranged by categories so you can select the one that better caters to your peculiar tastes, wholly instinctual, as uneducated as you may wish.

Told in a language any regular reader of this blog will recognize, the dominant reason of our age (desiderative reason, for those too lazy or too distracted to recall) trains everybody, from the most tender ages, to seek for the most instant, less costly (in terms of requiring a previous continued effort) gratifications. It has perfected such training to the extent that we are witnessing the most protected, most spoiled generation in recorded history continuously complaining that they have not “enough”: not enough security and safety, when crime, aggression and even war (with the well publicized exceptions we all know about) are at historic lows; not enough labor opportunity when economic regulations are also at historic lows, and a case can be made that most companies find it difficult to add skilled workers for lack of supply (I do recognize that the situation for unskilled workers is pretty dire, thanks to that very same deregulation); not enough partners to enter in a committed relationship when ubiquitous communication networks make It easier than ever to meet and know people with similar interests and similar outlooks; not enough meaning when the digitization of most of our past has enabled untold amounts of information to be attainable at almost no cost (ah! But turning information into knowledge, and even more knowledge into wisdom, which is required for it to have meaning, is not something that can be done easily or without devoting vast amounts of time to it). They have enough, however, to keep the rat race operating at full speed. To keep producing immense quantities of mostly useless gewgaws that are rendered obsolete in ever shorter periods. To keep going daily to the same soulless work, and even to the same commercial gym where they spin their wheels in the vain hope that without really exerting themselves they will somewhat magically acquire the body of their dreams (which are as secondhand as the “house of their dreams” or the “car of their dreams” they were sold, and which had the ability to make them happy for exactly three seconds after their acquisition, and miserable for the three decades required to paid the corresponding dues).

So I’ll rather keep doing my squats, and reading my boring philosophers. If not for other reason, because they keep me from watching TV and babbling about last Sunday’s match and secretly assaying my colleagues’ suits, or cars or homes and comparing them with mine. I’d rather compare the pounds I lift, or the ideas I’ve thought (and written) or the miles I’ve run or the sceneries I’ve enjoyed in the wild. The tough things I’ve done to prove myself better, that have not detracted a iota of the ability of anybody else to lift or think or run or watch similarly, that can not be converted in positional goods because they are a) absolutely good, regardless of what everybody else does and b) non fungible, so what I read and lift and run and see can be equally read, lifted and run and seen by whoever takes the time to prepare himself for doing so. And I’ll teach to my kids about the old, worn out Greek concept of Areté, which can be loosely translated as excellence, of becoming who you are through struggle and effort end yes, sometimes even pain, and not to give a damn about suits and cars and homes. I just hope that prepares them to better resist the barrage of conformist, commercialist messages society daily throws their way… 

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