Using a range of ‘case studies’ from Critical Theory to Candy Crush, ‘Gangnam Style’ to Game of Thrones and Football Manager to Hieronymus Bosch, this book argues that we need to rethink our enjoyment.
Inspired by psychoanalysis, the book offers a new way of thinking about how we talk about what we enjoy and how we enjoy what we talk about.
"Will Candy Crush set you free?"
Watch this summary of Enjoying It and its philosophy: https://youtu.be/UW9oF3OPzqQ
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
A year or so ago, in an old university teaching job, one of my students submitted a thought-provoking essay which used Freud’s ideas about the relationship between the id, the ego and the superego to discuss the Grand Theft Auto games. The piece argued that, while we have traditionally conceived of the superego –in a societal sense – as a limiting, disciplinary agency, GTA emblematises how the role performed by such an agency in the 21st century is quite different. Now, the cultural imperative, the law of the superego, is to live by the whims of the unschoolable, insatiable id. Whether we apprehend this message through the gruelling-seeming hedonism advertised by most contemporary music videos, the demands from the Smart Thinking shelves in WH Smiths that we break all extant intellectual moulds, or in video games whose narrative literally forces its characters to live outside the law, it is clear: we are restrained only by the command that we must not be restrained.
Alfie Bown’s Enjoying It – Candy Crush and Capitalism is the latest in a growing line of speculations regarding this inversion of a tradition of an ethics based on limitation. Slavoj Žižek has, for some time, been pointing out that the sole command issued by the postmodern superego is to ‘enjoy’, while Mark Fisher’s increasingly influential 2009 work Capitalist Realism floated the concept of ‘depressive hedonia’, in which the neoliberal subject is paralysed by the constant pressure placed upon them to indulge in short-termist pleasures. Enjoying It both develops upon and (implicitly) contests some of these discussions, and stakes out its arguments with Žižekian excursions through the ephemera of popular culture. Bown, a contributor to Everyday Analysis, an online project to psychoanalyse the 21st century – and, more specifically, post-2008 – quotidian, is no stranger to what is often taken to be detritus, and steers us through considerations of Miley Cyrus, ‘Gangnam Style’, mobile phone gaming and Football Manager.
The book opens, however, with an important deconstruction of the distinction between ‘unproductive’ and ‘productive’ pleasures. Implicit in Fisher’s framing of ‘depressive hedonia’ is the idea that the instant gratification offered by grazing through YouTube, Instagram or Facebook distracts from the more substantial pleasures offered by aesthetic consideration or political activism. Impulsively, I’d tend to agree with Fisher on that point: I might find it easier to spend my evenings meandering the byways of Wikipedia or TV Tropes, but I fall asleep feeling better in myself, and specifically far less guilt-wracked, if I’ve been reading David Harvey or watching one of those Artificial Eye DVDs I never seem to get round to opening. Nevertheless, Bown counsels that we approach the idea of ‘productive’ pleasure with caution, illustrating his point by thinking through what it means when a person says they ‘enjoy’ engaging with philosophy or critical theory.
Reading Theodor Adorno or Michel Foucault is, Bown suggests, an activity which superficially positions one as critical of existing systems and ideologies. Many people have likely met individuals who stylise themselves as arch-theorists, ultra-sceptics pouting and smoking over Anti-Oedipus or Écrits and tweeting insistently to remind us – and them - of their radicality. For me, there’s something laudable about this straw-figure – the more I see tedious ‘deconstructions’ of ‘hipsters’ in the press, the more inclined I am to view pretentiousness as heroism pure and simple – but it’s typically true that they suffer from the blind spot Enjoying It points towards. This, Bown suggests, can be understood as follows: ‘Our ideas surrounding the enjoyment of critical theory and political resistance lead to the celebrated identity of the radical, which is another way of being a subject that suits capitalism’. In other words, the inclusive, absorptive nature of capitalism, which needs to bring everything within the scope of its mechanics of commodification, means that the radical is yet one more demographic to be sold to, another identity which can only find its expression through consumer preference. If this seems far-fetched, follow the twitter account of left-leaning London publishers Verso, who frequently retweet photographs sent in by satisfied customers of the piles of Marx (and assorted modern Marxist thinkers) which have just landed on their doormats. This is to take nothing away from the utopian desires potentially involved in reading, or buying, these texts, but it does remind us that our relationship with them is very often, if not exclusively, a reified one.
The main drive of the argument in Enjoying It, however, is a study of less ‘productive’ forms of enjoyment (which must, predictably, be accounted for in the terms of the ‘productive’ enjoyments of theory). His reading of Candy Crush, and its many, many commuter-friendly analogues, is perhaps the most instructive of these. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Bown discusses the dominant narrative which considers such activities to be a ‘distraction’ from a serious, ordered reality, a frippery which constitutes time out of life. This, he states, is a misunderstanding: it is actually the case that the palpable irrelevance of ‘distractions’ serves to make their outside seem serious and meaningful. Any guilt we feel while playing Candy Crush while at the office is ideological inasmuch as it lends work an appearance of existential profundity it does not deserve. Consequently, the political function of distraction is not to make us forget what is ‘really’ happening, but to draw boundaries for the real, a ‘stable working life and identity to which we can and should return’.
Bown is most pointed when he’s pulling off dialectical jack-knives such as those described above: his discussions of the ‘irrational enjoyment’ of ‘Gangnam Style’ works in a slightly more slippery conceptual register which must deal with the problematically fuzzy shapes of stupidity and inexplicability. Nevertheless, there are some useful ideas here. Pleasure which stupefies our attempts at analysis, which can’t be drawn back into some cosily politicised narrative about how and why we enjoy, points to the ‘gaps in ideology’ which denote our incompletion as subjects. If we don’t know why we enjoy what we enjoy, we might be doing more than simply functioning as capitalism’s duped drones. In fact, it might be the very ‘mindlessness’ of some pleasures, our capacity to enjoy what is not and cannot be fully instrumentalised by power, which points in the direction of utopian possibility.
Perhaps I’d have liked to have seen a little more by way of distinction between those ‘irrational’ enjoyments which might operate as sites of resistance and Candy Crush-alike ‘distractions’, but this is a punchy and provocative piece of writing. Bown’s style is, somehow, simultaneously limpid and irony-laden, absolutely accessible but also teasing and suggestive in a way which is, like the pleasures offered by Psy, never fully explicable. In a time when pleasure is a central political question – if we are to simply enjoy, who is served by our enjoyment? – this is a necessary, and commensurably fun, work. ~ Joe Kennedy, The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/19394-alfie-bown-enjoying-it-candy-crush-capitalism-review-grand-theft-auto-zizek-mark-fisher-adorno
To put into context a book that deals with the concept of ‘enjoyment’, and how enjoyment is interpreted, I thought it relevant to share some of the things I’m enjoying at the time of writing this. After what seems like a prolonged hiatus from liking popular music, I’m currently enjoying the dream pop of Canadian artist ‘Grimes’, and American songsmith Ryan Adams’ rock interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, which subsequently has led me to enjoy Taylor Swift’s original record. I’m also enjoying my tablet, laptop, and Android phone, conduits to further enjoyment of online content, film and music streaming, games, and hilarious memes. My tablet (which resembles something out of Star Trek: The Next Generation, something I also greatly enjoy) has been my gym companion, my motivational tool for an act I actually get very little enjoyment from, apart from when I see the psychical – though rare- improvements by body is undertaking. While the weather has been pleasurable I’ve been enjoying epic cycle adventures, a much more enjoyable way to stay fit. My bike, a mid range hybrid, was recently kitted out with saddle bags, new tires, new chain, and had an overhaul of the break and gear systems. An expensive endeavour that serves to prolong my enjoyment of this mode of transportation for a further year or so. There are many more facets of modern society that I enjoy and those that I don’t. From the short description of activities above it is rational to suggest that I ultimately enjoy the march of progress. In some areas of my life I have brought into the capitalist ideal that to live and enjoy life I must own shiny new things, experience popular activities, and look relatively fit and healthy whilst partaking in them. Alfie Bown’s concise debut book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) is the culmination of the modern experience of enjoyment, and a primer towards how enjoyment can be understood and interpreted in the fields of everyday life and academia. Bown takes us through the various steps of enjoyment via the means of ideological critiques of popular culture and psychoanalytic perspectives on how enjoyment affects us.
The first chapter, ‘Productive Enjoyment: Capitalism and Critical Theory’ as described by Bown in the book’s introduction, “discusses the ways in which seemingly radical moments of enjoyment are often coded within capitalist discourse and can be a form of conformation and adherence to the very structures that they see themselves as resisting.” And indeed here lies almost the whole premise of the book’s discussion. This part of the book also discusses the critical theory of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Zizek. Readers fearing the use of these names (or perhaps their overuse in modern critical theory) need not be concerned. Bown unpacks these theorists’ sometimes indigestible ramblings and takes from their work only what is required to move the study of enjoyment forward. Bown also includes an in-depth case study on the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, one that Bown claims as “to have suffered from a connection to postmodernism and a sense that he invests too heavily in the postmodern world he writes about, which has meant his work has gone out of fashion.” Whilst this first chapter is certainly the most theory heavy within the book, the conversational tone involves and enlightens the reader and sets up the premise for what is to come.
The book’s second chapter, ‘Unproductive Enjoyment: ‘A Culture of Distraction’ and the two case studies of the games Candy Crush Saga and Football Manager is where the book becomes devilishly enjoyable, as it begins to connect with activities of our everyday lives. This chapter also illuminates Bown’s own thesis. Here he expands on the contributions and editorial oversight he has given to the online philosophy/culture website Everyday Analysis, and the subsequent books Are Animals Funny? and Twerking to Turking (Zero Books), in which objects, events, and features of everyday life are placed under short and sharp philosophical scrutiny. Whilst the first chapter may appear theory heavy to the non-academic, the author insures that his analysis of enjoyment is placed in activities that we can all relate to. Whilst these endeavours might be perceived as a waste of time in society’s eyes, it is the act of playing games such as Candy Crush and Football Manager that become extra-circular to our everyday lives, and represent a quiet defiance to the capitalist model of endless productivity. As Bown argues “As soon as no compulsion to work exists, it is ‘shunned like the plague’ in favor of Buzzfeed, Candy Crush and Football Manager…‘distracting’ enjoyment works to hide alienation and prevent organized rejection of working conditions.” Yet in fact the logic of Candy Crush offers a satisfactory sense of attainting order and a pleasurable experience when the game goes well.
Bown’s use of the Lacanian-Žižekian idea of ‘the big Other’, introduced in the text as an imaginary “god-like figure who appears to watch over us and has the power to ensure our conformation to the order of things,” is a brilliant distillation of the way in which our society functions on praise and affirmation of our opinions and tastes, as well as how our society is obsessed with putting ideas and experiences out into the world via social media. Bown sums this up as:
In some cases, what we send out to be seen by the other on social media may not be noticed, or even seen, by any individual (on Twitter especially) but we nonetheless feel it has been seen by the imaginary big Other and affirmed. We feel as though something has been publicly displayed and we imagine public approval. The ‘big Other’ may be imaginary, but it forms a fusion of countless individuals we desire to impress.
The book then moves on to ‘Irrational Enjoyment: Jouissance and Enjoyment Studies’. Jouissance, meaning physical or intellectual pleasure, is interpreted in the text via Jacques Lacan as,
an enjoyment that has no apparent purpose. In English translations of his work the word is usually kept untranslated because whilst it does mean ‘enjoyment,’ it also suggests a specifically self-destructive kind of sexual enjoyment or compulsion and should be thought of as separate from general ideas of pleasure.
Certainly the case studies that Bown draws focus on, the worldwide smash hit ‘Gangam Style’, the act of twerking, and the bloody violent television series Game of Thrones embody the meaning of Jouissance. Whilst finding any real productive pleasure in the annoying ‘Gangham Style’ is a futile task for most, it didn’t stop millions of people partaking in endless recreations of the song’s music video and the weird ‘horse riding’ dance style that accompanied it. Twerking entered the pop culture lexicon with Miley Cyrus’ infamous crotch grind of singer Robert Thicke at the 2013 MTV VMA’s, again an example of Jouissance ‘self-destructive kind of sexual enjoyment’. A car crash we can barely look away from. And this also applies to Game of Thrones, but doubles back on ‘Gangam Style’ and the act of twerking:
The violence of the show can be thought of in terms of sadistic voyeurism and likened to a whole history of gory television and film. The overt sexual imagery (more pronounced on television than in the novels) can be thought of as a reflection of carnal desire and a whole history of sexuality and the desire to speak increasingly about sex.
The case studies included can be thought of as visually grotesque and a kind of ‘sadistic voyeurism’, yet our participation in them is in an act of defiant Jouissance. Enjoyment without a means to an end.
What Bown offers is a complex, yet fully engaging study of enjoyment in modern society, and of modern society. Whilst the book itself is slim, there is enough meat on the bones, and use of cultural theorists to further expand on university based discourse. However, the book functions better, as proven by the work done in Everyday Analysis, in opening up a public discussion on our enjoyment of items, activities, and events coterminous to popular culture and the virtues of our existence within a capitalist society. Does playing mobile computer games, enacting a viral craze, or watching Miley Cyrus twerk her way to stardom hinder or enhance us? To enjoy or not to enjoy, that is the question. ~ 3AM Magazine, http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/enjoying-it-candy-crush-and-capitalism-by-alfie-bown-reviewed/
After reading this book, it became impossible to play Football Manager again without questioning my identity. A phenomenal read.
~ Simon Anderson
By saying that this book is highly enjoyable one puts oneself on the line of ambiguity that the book reflects upon. Alfie Bown offers a complex tapestry of various kinds of enjoyment and proposes conceptual tools to understand them.
~ Prof Mladen Dolar
With a good portion of self-irony, Alfie Bown lays open a fundamental paradox of today: the more somebody behaves as a conforming useful idiot, the more he needs to regard himself as a critical consumer. An alluring enjoyment to read. ~ Prof Robert Pfaller