A Praxis of Pleasure

by Eric J. Weiner

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. —Audre Lorde

As I write this introduction, I struggle against becoming overwhelmed by too many things: The mass shootings that occur on a regular basis; the daily gun-related murder and maiming that occur throughout the country everyday; the normalization of white supremacy/nationalism; the poverty you can see in the eyes of children in shelters and on the street; a twittering billionaire president who mugs for the cameras of “the enemy of the people” as children are concentrated in “camps” at the southern border; the increase in crimes against immigrants, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, women, and gay people; the gouging prices of life saving drugs like insulin; and the smugness of those in congress who summer far from the death and chaos, muttering to the press about mental illness, second amendment rights, the “free” market, cultural deficits, and anything else that might distract from the callousness and cynicism that drives what poses for public policy these days. And I could go on.

But I know that if I am overwhelmed then I will not have the energy to resist, talk back, confront, fight, struggle, reflect, transform, teach, and renew.  In this essay, I will discuss what it means to develop what I am calling a praxis of pleasure as both a strategy and tactic of resistance. As a tactic, a la Michel de Certeau, it is a practice of reclaiming a modicum of power within an established geography of inequitable power relationships. As a strategy, it is a guide toward living well so that we may rise to fight another day.

I awake just before dawn but lay with my eyes closed listening to my wife’s light breathing and feel our pup’s tiny paws pushing against my back. I slip out of the bedroom to watch the morning sunrise over Three Mile Harbor. The sky morphs from orangey-pink into pale magenta and shadowy purples. White wisps of clouds drift east like great egrets on light summer winds. I stare into the deep purplish-blue of the emerging August sky and sense the earth’s rotation in my soul. I brew a cup of coffee, all black plum, smoking earth, and dark chocolate, steaming hot in the mug my daughter gave me for father’s day. I leave my home to walk along the edge of the ocean, cool sand muffling the waves crashing into white hazy foam. I smell salt in the air as the ocean releases its mist into the light of the morning. I dive into the bracing waves; currents push and pull me through the churning surf. I am humbled and grateful. There is neither yesterday nor tomorrow, only now.

This is a simple hedonistic moment, an example of soulcraft punctuated by a sensual experience of love, introspection, and beauty. When we focus our energies on having experiences of pleasure while working to find pleasure in all kinds of experiences, we are actively resisting the soul-sucking ideology of “neoliberal fascism” taking hold of our bodies and minds in the United States, Europe, and South America. Henry Giroux explains:

Neoliberalism’s hatred of democracy, the common good, and the social contract has unleashed generic elements of a fascist past in which white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, rabid misogyny and immigrant fervor come together in a toxic mix of militarism, state violence, and a politics of disposability. Modes of fascist expression adapt variously to different political historical contexts assuring racial apartheid-like forms in the post-bellum U.S. and overt encampments and extermination in Nazi Germany. Fascism with its unquestioning belief in obedience to a powerful strongman, violence as a form of political purification, hatred as an act of patriotism, racial and ethnic cleansing, and the superiority of a select ethnic or national group has resurfaced in the United States. In this mix of economic barbarism, political nihilism, racial purity, economic orthodoxy, and ethical somnambulance a distinctive economic-political formation has been produced that I term neoliberal fascism (https://www.tikkun.org/the-politics-of-neoliberal-fascism).

A praxis of pleasure, as a form of resistance to neoliberal fascism, is not an abdication of social responsibility or civic action wrapped in a hoary rationalization, but rather an acknowledgment that one powerful tool in the struggle against fascistic power is to inoculate oneself against the temptation to love that which can destroy us.

A student once asked me to what ideological system do I subscribe. Was I a Marxist, socialist, capitalist, nihilist, communist? Maybe an anarchist? After a long pause, a deep breath, and a slight shift from one foot to the other, “I’m a hedonist,” I told him, smiling as I walked out of the classroom at what I inferred (his arched eyebrows and slack-jaw gave him away) was his expression of surprise and confusion. I’ve been asked this question at academic conferences as well and given the same quizzical look. I believe most think I’m being evasive, but this is not the case. Those that actually believe me are nevertheless unimpressed, slightly amused, or mildly frustrated for various reasons. At the risk of offending just about everyone, critics stereotypically break down like this: Marxists are offended by the idea as they can’t understand pleasure outside of class struggle. Socialists and communists are suspicious of an individuated notion of pleasure in which inequities and “social justice” are glossed over in the service of less serious pursuits. Capitalists typically see it as an excuse to be lazy, unproductive, and a rebuke of progress and modernity. Nihilists are utterly confused by such pretense as their group-think pessimism doesn’t allow for experiences of pleasure that are derived from meaningful engagement. The anarchists seem most sympathetic, yet not quite sure it totally squares with their sense of rage and rebellion toward prevailing ideological structures. For the anarchists, pleasure and its gratifications are certainly vital aspects of anarchistic thought and practices, but freedom from politically repressive regimes is the central concern, not the pleasures one can achieve from within those repressive formations and certainly not pleasure as a praxis of resistance in and of itself. But I’m only half kidding about my association with hedonistic ideology.

What I don’t typically get to explain is how hedonism lived out as a praxis of pleasure can act as a tool of resistance against neoliberal fascism’s sadism. Hedonistic praxis places intrinsic and extrinsic pleasure and gratification at the center of one’s private and public experiences; it becomes an index by which to evaluate the social, political and cultural formations that condition human experience at the level of everyday life. It is also a way to account for the corporeal and psychic pain of ideological systems that cage people in what Erich Fromm called negative freedom, (i.e., freedom from oppression and pain via consumption and the reproduction of manufactured needs; freedom from external and internal constraints). Embracing the pleasures of experience and experiences of pleasure are one way to combat the numbing dehumanization of our current times. My struggle to live out forms and practices of positive freedom that are not defined only in the negative, but are embodied and practiced in the positive as well (i.e., freedom towards beauty, love, engagement, compassion, and joy; towards creativity, inquiry, community, and possibility) is, I believe, a shared goal by many people on the left and right. But the realization of positive freedom through a praxis of pleasure is made increasingly difficult by the architects of neoliberal fascism.

These are the people in positions of official institutional and ideological power that elevate and practice, as a strategy of domination, a pedagogy of dehumanization that rationalizes and normalizes fascistic ideas about governance and culture and their role in policing media, schools, language, and, dare I say it, thoughts themselves. Across a range of intersecting discourses—Political, Educational, Cultural, Economic—the architects of neoliberal fascism engage in a war that is waged on the hearts, minds, and bodies of a public transfixed by the promises of negative freedom. These discourses are fueled by dehumanizing pedagogies that teach us to see the “stranger”—the “other”—as an existential threat to a social order constructed on fear and savagery (material and symbolic), reproduced through formal and informal mechanisms of socialization, and maintained by a military-corporatist-governmental complex.

In the political realm, we see the President of the United States repeatedly spew racist and xenophobic language and inciting violence via “twitter”. To call his violent provocations “tweets” (which always reminds me of a bird making beautiful sounds) is not only an affront to the birds, but reframes the noxious power of his sentiments in a way that for too many makes it easy to rationalize or simply dismiss them as innocuous mumblings of a mad king. For those that are consciously and unapologetically racist and xenophobic, his toxic twittering arouses like an act of degraded sexual foreplay. They scream, convulse and sweat as they raise their fists in victory, chanting “Lock her up!” or “Send her back!” The mad king, for his followers, is not at all insane, vicious or sadistic. He is a truth seeker, freedom-fighter, a strongman confronting the oppressive feminists, multiculturalists, socialists, and communists who devalue the history, upon which this great nation was built, of white supremacy, exploited labor, homophobia, and misogyny. He and his “silenced majority”, without shame or remorse, concentrate children in makeshift camps–filthy, violent, disease-ridden, dank spaces in the borderland between here and there, them and us. This in-between space is a form of hell posing as purgatory. The language of human rights and the rule of law are meaningless in this place. Power, ruthless and absolute, rules with a savagery that recalls a pre-modern time but one enhanced by new technologies. It reminds me of some of the old Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise would “discover” a civilization that enjoyed certain kinds of advanced technologies, yet were savages, lacking a moral compass and engaged in a form of rationalization that supported various practices of “dehumanization”.

Ripped from their parents, the children concentrated in these camps are not seen as children when and if they are seen at all. Indeed, concentrating children in these camps far from international oversight and away from mainstream media has to be read as a conscious strategy of invisibility and erasure. According to the president and his followers, they are “illegal aliens”, part of an invading hoard and therefore are not protected by an assumption of human rights; they and their parents according to Trump and his supporters are not human, therefore have no human rights. And his supporters rejoice and scream, convulse in ecstatic support, threaten critics as enemies of the state, and imagine the development of a pre-modern world overseen by a supreme leader who will protect their political interests and return them to a mythical time when “white was right” and “real” men controlled the major formations of power and control. The obvious pleasure the president and his supporters get is not hedonistic, but rather sadistic, hedonism’s opposite and fascism’s currency. The more fear and despair they sow, the more pain they cause, the more turned on they appear to be.

Within the educational and cultural realms of policy and practice we see a similar sadism at work. In education, pain is delivered through the rationalization of racial and class segregation as poor children are simply not given what they need to thrive; the ongoing criminalization of poor students; the de-professionalization of teaching through a systematic program of deskilling; sanctioned pedagogies that create dependencies and celebrate docility and obedience; indoctrination through practices of surveillance and boots on the ground policing; and standardization of curriculum and assessment that reduces students to automatons. Urban public schools look and feel like prisons, while learning is disciplined through crude practices of reward and punishment. These schools police the mind/body instead of educating the child. The public schools that serve the poor are a direct threat to the promise and possibility that we, as a society, can ever be self-governing. Of course, it’s poor children, our most vulnerable population, that suffer the most from these sadistic practices of symbolic and material violence. In the long term, we are already seeing the impact of these educational practices and policies in the form of illiteracy that in part has people “reading” the world of neoliberal fascism as an expression of positive freedom, not its opposite.

In the cultural realm, the commodification of pleasure and leisure corrupts the liberatory possibilities intrinsic to the functioning of the imagination, making it increasingly difficult to escape the soul-sucking energy of neoliberal logic. Constantly connected to the soft machine of consumption, people are slowly asphyxiated from the relentless stream of social media, inane content, and buzzing texts. Drowning in information it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between “bullshit” and truth. But more pernicious is how difficult it has become for people to determine right from wrong. We have fact checkers who can account for lies and truths, but what we really need is to be able to evaluate the ethics of ideas and practices and then have the power to hold people accountable when they breach the code. The culture of neoliberal fascism—supported by a form of cultural positivism—has us focusing on facts as though they, in and of themselves, are all that matter in our evaluation of information.

The president seems to understand this better than most as his lying becomes a way to control the media and others who spend countless hours and resources checking facts and arguing over what is true, false, partially true, partially false, somewhat true, mostly true, hardly true, categorically false, etc. In his new book Say Nothing, author Patrick Keefe describes how Jerry Adams of Sinn Fein, while under interrogation, denied that he was actually Jerry Adams, even though his interrogators knew who he was. The lying was tactical as it allowed him to take some control over the direction of the interrogation. When they asked him his name, he would give them his alias. Over and over again they would ask him his name and he steadfastly would deny that he was Jerry Adams. Instead of spending time questioning him about his association with or knowledge of IRA activities, they kept trying to prove that he was not who he said he was. It’s almost comical to imagine.

Trump seems to be employing this tactic as well. As a consequence, what is true/false takes attention away from what is ethical or unethical, moral or immoral. Truth-telling may be virtuous as compared to lying, yet the truths that are told or discovered might reveal deeply unethical and immoral thoughts and practices. In other words, the lies that are told obfuscate not just the truth, but the unethical nature of these truths. In these cases, it’s not that the truth was told or not told that most matters; it’s whether the thing that was revealed to be true is ethical and/or legal. But within the logic of neoliberal fascism, right and wrong are relative concepts, while the rule of law strains under the weight of ideology. There is no moral compass because the landscape of right and wrong has been razed and we are rapidly becoming not a nation of laws, but a nation of ideologues intent on winning at any cost.

In the midst of this mind-bending and body deforming ideological landscape of discipline and punishment, and at the risk of overstating a false binary, we become masochists or hedonists; that is, we can reject the sadistic practices of neoliberal fascism in the name of hedonistic pursuits or we will start—if we haven’t already—to find pleasure in the very thing that degrades, demeans, and devalues our humanity. Developing a praxis of pleasure, I believe, can help disrupt the hegemony of neoliberal fascism by shifting our attention from:

1. competitiveness to convivial;

2. consumption to creation;

3. efficiency to meaningfulness;

4. negative freedom to positive freedom;

5. atomization to communalization;

6. winning/losing to passion/enjoyment;

7. equality to balance;

8. pornography to sensuality;

9. processed/manufactured to organic;

10. progression to reflection.

I don’t want to overstate the power of a praxis of pleasure to transform oppressive political, cultural and educational systems. Yet I do see it as both a disruptive as well as a transformative tool of soulcraft in a time when neoliberal fascism is becoming hegemonic. I also know that hedonistic practices fall into the category of “easier said than done,” and, indeed, I struggle like many people to realize these expressions of positive freedom in my own life. But this may be further evidence of its relevance and importance. In the most powerful and wealthiest country on the planet, should it really be so hard for so many to live out a praxis of pleasure in the service of positive freedom?