Archive for June 26th, 2007

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.