There is a well-known ad campaign that goes something like: tickets to the Beijing Olympics--several thousand dollars. Smile on the face of your loved one to whom you give the tickets---priceless.
Credit card companies fit a description formulated by Oscar Wilde: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." The ad campaign however, makes it appear that one particular credit card company understands the difference between values and prices.
Except that it doesn't. The ad is yet another example of how capitalism manages to coopt our needs for human connection. The ad campaign is trying to convince us that priceless experiences nevertheless come with a price, a price with an interest rate.
Perhaps we had better look to other wisdom. It is very common nowadays to read in blogs, self-help books and those inspirational things we get in the email about pleasures that require little or no expenditure. You know the lists: listening to the cry of a newborn baby, the smell of newly cut grass, watching the ocean. As the song says, "the best things in life are free."
Except that they are not. Women risk their lives, especially poor women, to give birth. And hearing the cry of a newborn is only a simple pleasure if you are not the one who will need to feed clean and cuddle the babe. As for newly cut grass--someone has to mow the lawn first, usually for minimum wage. I also find that men have more time to enjoy simple pleasures like watching the ocean, because they work less hours at home.
For me, the next best thing to enjoying myself, is seeing other people enjoy themselves. Unlike the moralists I have no real objection to shopping or lazing about. I am not guilty of doing these things, because I just do them without guilt. Indeed my innocent enjoyments range from the simple, to the complicated, to the unclassifiable. After all, how does one classify the joys of long-standing friendships or the ecstasy that comes with realizing you are sexually attracted to someone? How does one classify the jubilation my friends feel at making life difficult for the the World Bank, The IMF the G8 or the WTO? Simple, complicated? Both? I wish for myself and others a plethora of polymorphous passions.
I problematize pleasures not because I am a moralist who is afraid of the effects of unbridled sexuality. I problematize pleasure because I would rather drink the wine without the hangover. It is also better to have sex without getting the sexually transmitted infection or the unwanted pregnancy. Also, the pleasure of the occasional shopping spree lasts longer if one is confident of being able to pay the credit card company later. I say occasional by the way, not because I am middle class and can only afford occasional shopping sprees. I say occasional because consumerism is an addiction, just as much as alcoholism, just as much as those egotistical power plays that many mistake for sex. I also find that lazing around is best enjoyed when one isn't resentful about unfair workloads or guilty about unshared work. I find that life is best enjoyed when it is well-examined and dedicated.
The moralists, the fascists and the capitalists are afraid that we might think our pleasures through and pleasure our thinking too much. If we did, we might realize that the latte they are serving at ridiculous prices at the multinational chain doesn't really taste that good; the designer bag that we must have, looks like a gaudy collage of leather scraps. If we did we would realize the Osama Bin Laden and George Bush are believers in the same sexual and political economy upheld by the Vatican. If we did, we might realize that free pleasures (guilt free and priceless) are more likely to be found in human cooperation and sharing rather than individualism and competition. If we did we would realize that under systems of injustice and alienation, creativity demands transgression and subversion demands pleasure.
Does that sound like I am howling at the moon? So be it. Excuse me please while I go a-howling. Howling at the moon with my girlfriends: priceless.
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