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Pleasure in the age of panic

The 2023 Met Gala was another display of glamour and excess. The world’s A-listers raided Karl Lagerfeld’s closest and modelled the spoils of the fashion world. However, in my post-Met morning trawl through Instagram I found something more striking than Dua Lipa’s stunningly simple Chanel gown or Doja Cat’s furry take on her own title.

I was mesmerised by a video of the actress and singer Janelle Monae declaring that “this is the age of pleasure” at the Met Gala After Party. Recorded on fashion blogger @evanrosskatz’s Instagram, the Afrofuturist artist proclaimed she had “been in the age of struggle. I’ve been in the age of uncertainty. But tonight, this year, we are in the age of motherfucking pleasure. We’re actively doing the things that make us feel good, unapologetically.”

So, what does pleasure mean in 2023? I’m sure that for Janelle Monae, a Black, queer woman it means something very different to those who have never experienced oppression. It is perhaps an act of self-care reacting to centuries of historic and institutionalised injustice. Acknowledging this, I consider what a hedonist philosophy is on a more universal level, against the backdrop of the Met Gala, a cost of living crisis, and raging climate injustice. 

Pleasure is closely linked to hedonism, derived from the Greek hedone [pleasure]. Hedonists in the Ancient Greek Cyrenaic school advocate that life should be based around sentient pleasure – squeezing as much enjoyment out of life as possible. Epicurians have a different take on hedonism. They argue that pleasure is the absence of pain. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is incorporated into utilitarian philosophy developed in the industrial revolution. Utilitarianism forms the basis of our capitalist society. Through utilitarianism, pleasure becomes inextricably linked to capitalism.

It seems easy to say that the Met Gala signals a night of capitalist excess and hedonistic pleasure; after paying $50,000 for a ticket you would surely hope so. It marks the culmination of the icons and gods of Western society. They pose, clad in designer dresses and posited on the top of the Metropolitan Museum’s gilded steps, a veritable Mount Olympus for the modern age. It seems obvious that this is the age of pleasure: it has always been the age of pleasure in celebrity circles. Considering the exorbitant amounts of wealth bandied about on one evening, was this declaration from the dizzying heights of fame tone deaf to the cries of mortals below? Or is Monelle’s assertion a deeply considered insight into global futurity?

For those forced to choose between eating a hot meal or living in a warm home this winter the answer is clear. There is little pleasure when you are warm yet still hungry, or full but cold. Similarly, for those concerned with the world’s future which seems increasingly jeopardised by war and rising temperatures, this year has more closely resembled Auden’s The Age of Anxiety than Monae’s ‘Age of Pleasure’. For most, pleasure involves the sacrifice of something else. Opting for pleasure tends to stand for taking the easy way out through the avoidance of discomfort. However, personal sacrifices and lifestyle changes are needed to avoid ecological and climate crises. We have entered an age where the most useful thing we can be doing is buying less and flying less. Pleasure ought to be sacrificed for long term planetary goals: as Lord Byron puts in Don Juan “O Pleasure! you’re indeed a pleasant thing, / Although one must be damn’d for you, no doubt.”

The idea that we must be damned for our enjoyment marks pleasure, and its opponent, sacrifice, as part of utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism constructs the idea that to gain pleasure we must lose. Within capitalism, this loss is usually our money. Achievement of pleasure has become a capitalist construct. Pleasure has become marked by an instant dopamine hit of a card against a reader, a confirmation email, or the exchange of notes and coins. The search for pleasure is marked by fast fashion, where ‘stuff’ becomes disposable, rather than built for longevity. Stuff is thrown away so more can be bought. 

The creation of unenduring items which suit rapid and regular doses of dopamine marks an ecological nightmare. Pleasure-seeking, whether it be materialistic or travel, tends to conflict with climate planning. We need our goods to be fewer, and last longer, rather than have more which last less. In sum, we need to make decisions which decrease our pleasure for the sake of the planet. The afforded 1.5C of warming agreed in the Paris Agreement is forecast to be exceeded and achieving Net 0 by 2050 cannot roll around fast enough. For many, this is an age of panic.

So is there room for pleasure in the age of panic? What must we sacrifice to feel ephemeral joy in a time of crisis? Can we feel joy without sacrifice?

In order to answer these questions we have to ask ourselves, what is pleasure? Adrienne Maree Brown posits that our notion of pleasure has been constructed by white capitalist networks to suit its own ends in her book Pleasure Activism. Pleasure has come to be defined on material terms – it is the opening of a parcel or the buzz of ‘likes’ on a picture. Yet, if we remove constructed notions created by oppressive institutions and strip our notion of pleasure down to its roots it centres around primitive senses: love, good sex, art, natural beauty, good food, standing up for what is right. These primitive feelings, when carried out ethically and sustainably constitute a kind of ecological hedonism which need not revolve around sacrifice. They are both essential and adjunctive to our lives.

Adrienne Maree Brown argues that pleasure can be used to the advantage of activism in Pleasure Activism, but this only works if we re-evaluate what pleasure is. She posits that activism itself can be a form of pleasure rather than self-flagellating sacrifice. After all, how can we keep going if we live in a constant state of self-denial? Both pleasure and panic are ephemeral feelings. They are not sustainable feelings. Activism, commonly associated with uphill struggle and tireless effort, often leads to burnout. Maree Brown contends that activism can incorporate pleasure into it, as well as act alongside it. We can feel joy from being activists and encourage others to act rather than cultivate cultures of climate anxiety, depression and shame. 

Pleasure should no longer be defined by backward-looking oppressive institutions. Pleasure can be gained from, and alongside, activism. Pleasure can be seeing the colour of the sky, fighting for futurity, Black liberation. Pleasure need not sacrifice the safety of the planet or oppress others. By utilising pleasure and incorporating it into activism, perhaps we can combat nihilistic climate depression brought about by activist burnout. For Maree Brown and perhaps Monae herself, pleasure is derived by liberation from the capitalist establishment. Pleasure is freedom and justice. 

Image Credit: oatsy40/ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr 

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