Discipline and Pleasure

Sharon June 26th, 2007

What a fun title for an essay, don’t you think? Nicely evocative of Foucault, and equally of S&M, it sounds like we’re on entirely different sort of blog, doesn’t it ? Unfortunately for all of you (and my chances of getting rich writing this stuff), I’m not speaking of anything quite so sexy, but of the pleasures of self-discipline.

And that’s a tough sell in America. We tend to associate pleasure with the release of discipline - sex is all about letting go, and so are our personal pleasures - we get our fun from exceeding limits, refusing to be constrained. Fun is blowing too much money shopping or eating a quart of Ben and Jerry’s alone. And trust me, I’ve done my share of that sort of fun.

But there are other categories of pleasure that depend on self discipline. Consider sports, for example. If you run the bases backwards, you’ve ruined the baseball game. We make all sorts of limiting rules to make sports fun to play, fun to watch - and the delight is in seeing how one can produce the best results within the disciplinary structure of the rules. If we blow them off, we’re entitled to shout (if we’re being extremely polite) “but that’s not sporting.” And the notion of sportingness - the idea that some kind of structured fairness is required to get the best possible results is a deep one.

Or art, for that matter. Sonnets without form aren’t sonnets. Even the freest art forms begin with limiting structures - the frame around the canvas, the first positions of ballet, the language of poetry. The limits get pushed all the time, but before you push the limits, you understand them, you work within them, so that you know what you are extending.

How about childhood? It isn’t just to keep Mom and Dad from going crazy that parents establish discipline. Research has shown that children are most comfortable within firm, and known boundaries. It is scary to have no limits, to run wild in the world without constraint. ‘No” and “we do this, but not this” help children understand and adapt to their world. Chances are, most of us have fond memories of the structures created by discipline - if they were part of our lives, we usually remember sit down family dinners, coming in when the street lights go on and homework time with a mix of irritation and fondness - but more fondness, often, than irritation. We take pleasure in childhood in part because of its boundaries.

Courtesy and manners are another kind of self-discipline that can come with enormous pleasures. Who doesn’t like to receive a thank-you note, or doesn’t prefer a stiff “let’s agree to disagree” to a punch in the face. When important events occur, the structure of how we birth and wed, welcome and mourn become a means of comfort.

The simple fact is that discipline is part of culture. The way we limit ourselves is also the way we indicate our membership, and our love.

Several people have reminded me that in order to be compelling, the Riot for Austerity has to convince people that they will have fun doing it. And they are right. But in order to call this optimization exercise fun, we have to think hard about what fun is.

Fun is both blowing all the limits occasionally, and living gracefully within them. I’m all for feasting, celebration, riot (that’s why we’re doing this, after all), dancing in the streets, mocking power, getting drunk, welcoming guests - occasionally. This is fun stuff, and we need it in our lives. But we can’t spend every day drunk, or spending too much, or overeating. The simple fact is that we’ve lost our sense of balance, and we often do these things too frequently.

Everyday pleasures are different. They come from self-discipline. The discipline that creates ritual, routine, self-comfort. They come from culture and limitation. Within these limits - within the straits of “what we customarily eat, do, say, don’t say” is where our comfort lies. This is, perhaps, the art of daily life, the creation of beauty and artistry, craft and delight from the simple boundaries set around you - your time, the people, the way you treat each other. This is the pleasure of storytime, chicken soup and bread for dinner, singing together, playing your game or climbing your tree or reading your book. It is what we do, and it is constrained because without constraint, it wouldn’t be ours.

And that’s where the pleasure of the Riot for Austerity lies for me. It increases my taste for the festival moments, makes the day of special foods or wild dancing a deeper pleasure, and at the same time, it reinforces the delight of ritual. Self-discipline requires that I think, be mindful and aware of what I am doing, what choices I’m making. It requires I extract the maximum pleasure and comfort from each use of energy, instead of heedlessly simply taking.

In the Riot model, the food is better, fresher, tastier, and cooked at home. It is more nutritious and offers more sensory delight. The shower I take is more deeply appreciated, because I can’t use water heedlessly. There is less waste, and less burden of managing waste. There is more reason to be in the moment, less reason to run from place to place, a slower pace, more quiet, more reason to watch and listen and learn. There is a greater intimacy with the world around me - an awareness of my watershed, my foodshed, the sources of my energy. It turns out, that for me, I can easily derive the same amount of pleasure or more from less - so what was my past usage for?

But more importantly, there’s a sense of life as art. It requires a greater creativity and imagination than my daily life before the riot. What I do is now a dance of balance, a poetic form they didn’t teach me about in graduate school, in which economy and discipline combine to create something a little more than what I had before.

Sharon

8 Responses to “Discipline and Pleasure”

  1. Beamon 27 Jun 2007 at 12:42 am

    Hi Sharon,

    What have you done differently than before the Riot for Austerity? I ask in all sincerity, not at all meaning to contradict, as one who reads your blog daily. It’s just with all you’ve done before, it’s difficult for me to pick up on what has changed.

    What helps me are examples from others involving the simple things to measure. Examples such as how much power you use per month, how much fuel, etc., etc. These are things that are readily understood. Use of the Kill-a-Watt meter which I learned of a few months ago, for instance, helped me to reduce from 1100 kwh/month (obviously excessive, even with 2 adults and 2 teens) down to 900 or so, and still working on cutting further. (Please wish me luck!)

    Your writing, as always, is eloquent, and for that, as always, my thanks.

    cheers,
    Beam

  2. Davidon 27 Jun 2007 at 4:43 am

    So true. Limits are equated with oppression in our culture, more’s the pity.

  3. ByTheBayon 27 Jun 2007 at 5:05 am

    Well said! And I think we can’t emphasize enough the way that class plays into this. People who struggle economically have always known how to have self-discipline, out of necessity… However, I think that even folks with less means are bombarded by this culture of consumption so that the desire (masquerading as a “need”) for *stuff* is pervasive at every economic level. I think country living helps me have more self-discipline than I had in the city. My garden simply will not grow, weed, water or harvest itself (let alone get rid of those horrible little insects that are eating my collards!). I have to get out and do that even when I don’t want. I can’t just walk down the block to buy coffee at Starbucks, I have to either drive 3 miles into town or make my own (and clearly making my own is the better and easier option here). But still, I struggle with self-discipline and saying no to unnecessary things and structuring my time and tasks.

  4. Marnieon 27 Jun 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    One of your best - the discipline shows in your writing as well, which makes it a pleasure to read. Thank you.

    Marnie

  5. jewishfarmeron 27 Jun 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Beam - I honestly haven’t done anything really big yet. That is, we’re whittling things down the slow way at this point. We had already picked most of our low hanging fruit, so we’ve been making fairly little changes and preparation for some big ones. We’ve been eating cheese-and-chutney sandwiches, for example, in the “get-all-the-condiments-out-of-the-fridge-before-turning-it-off” but mostly so far, and trying to put together a regular minyan (Jewish prayer group) here so that we’ll have to drive to synagogue less often.

    But otherwise, so far nothing spectacular - fewer showers, extending out our trips even to the local store (I’m hoping to go a whole month now that the garden is in full swing), and resisting the temptation to buy stuff ;-).

    We’ll know a little more when the electric bill comes in, and we tabulate the month’s gas usage. But we were already below 50% in most categories, so we’re at the slow and incremental stage. I’ll post more about the details at some point soon.

    Sharon

  6. rhonda jeanon 27 Jun 2007 at 8:40 pm

    This is such an eloquent and thoughtful post, I had to comment. It is true - less is more.

    Lately I often think about how things balance out and how one thing accentuates another. It’s a beautiful thing really. Who’d have thought that by consuming less we would appreciate what we do consume even more.

    Thank you for your blog. I appreciate and enjoy it.

  7. Anonymouson 28 Jun 2007 at 1:11 pm

    I wouldn’t generalize about poor people, too much. I know some who are very careful with their money, and some who’ll spend what they have like fools. Comes to mind, the young woman who took the $100, cash, a nurse gave her out of her pocket becuase she’d exhaused all the other resources so she could buy meds and came back a couple of days later, the baby still very sick, to show off the fake fur coat and hat she’d brought for the child with the money.

    Of course, there are people across all income levels who do daft things. I just think its not a good idea to idolize one group as have self-dicipline.

    MEA

  8. Lizon 23 Jul 2007 at 1:36 pm

    That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. My husband has often said that a big part of what he loves about learning new computer languages is that delicate balance of creating form within constraint. It’s also why he is a songwriter rather than a blank verse poet. I’ll have to think about my own responses to this idea; they are much less clear.

    I’ve certainly found that looking at austerity as a challenge to live within boundaries rather than as a deprivation makes it much easier to adjust to, given that we started making these changes due to financial pressure. I like the motivations of the Riot for Austerity much better…

    Liz in Australia

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