The Evolution and Globalization of Pleasure

I am currently reading The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. I don’t read much nowadays, since I’m always writing; in fact, I haven’t read a book in almost a year. I’m not done with this one yet either, but I’m impressed. It’s an interesting combination of memoir, travel writing, anecdote and nonfiction, narrated (though much of the book is handed over, in direct quotes, or excerpts from original texts, to the personalities he is discussing) by a man walking the coastline of England, telling stories about the places and things he sees on route, stripping each down into its historical, social and economical nuts and bolts. He recounts its origin and initial purpose, often following the timeline back for centuries, getting into the tiny details that have been lost to the general public about an event, object, organization, institution, or time period.

As an example, from chapter to chapter, we move effortlessly between the opium wars in China in the 1800’s, the Croatian death camps at Jasenovac in the 1940’s,and King Leopold’s unprecedented exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century, with an account of the natural history of the herring added somewhere in-between.

Though the narrator walks the coast of England, the subject matter is very much global, as a painting hanging here today will have been painted there years ago, and an enormous exotic tree in a city park speaks to the colonization of its native country, having been brought from its distant shores as a seedling. As Sebald digs, broadens and links, we are invited to witness a compelling interrelation between all things human, and each thread is, in its way, a precursor to the rapid globalization we are witnessing today.

The book is a collection of tangential tales, based on thorough research, about the world as it was, and is; what has been lost, destroyed, taken and built; the wars that have been fought over its resources, the riches made and atrocities enacted to claim them, all delivered with a personal touch, often with the addition a reserved opinion or other postulation. Sebald has a definite bent for curiosity and coincidence, and a talent to uncover the fascinating trivia each (often apparently benign) thing in the world will reveal if probed into, and the web of occurrences it is linked to. In fact, much of what he describes is no longer visible, for example: the sparsely inhabited beach town of Dunwich, which used to be one of Middle Age Europe’s biggest trading ports, but now lies underwater, literally taken by the sea.

Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about the book; I want to talk about the idea it put in my head. Since the narrator often hazards an educated guess about what the historical characters he is describing might have experienced and felt, disliked and liked (for instance: a twenty-one year old, seafaring Joseph Conrad, spending time in Lowestoft, England, who Sebald imagines walking back home one evening from a pier while a brass band plays and a sea breeze blows), I started thinking about the aesthetics, tastes, and gratifications of the past, compared to those of the present. What humans found and find pleasure in; what satisfies and excites them, and the constant drive to evolve these elements as time passes. Yes, I know it’s a tangent, but I feel it is apt, as Sebald relies so heavily on this technique in his book: following a thread to arrive at further questions, eventually reaching somewhere new.

So, here’s the thought: how do today’s experiences, its aesthetic and sensory pleasures relate to those of the past? How do they stack up? As we have evolved, has our capacity to enjoy done so too? What have modernity, accumulated knowledge and cutting-edge technology afforded us, and what does it say about us as a species? (I know: I just cracked it right open.) What is our real motivation? Is it to improve the product, act or pastime, or are we merely trying to stay busy? Are we just following an invisible wave, the push of a trend, the silent shove of evolution, whether truly useful or not?

Let me get to examples. There is no doubt there have been incredible advances in technology, for example, in sound delivery, with ever better headphones, speakers, amps, and mixers etc. And, sure, they will deliver a better quality of sound, overall (though some argue vinyl still sounds better than a anything since, much as many will tell you that images captured on film remain better than those captured digitally). Anyway, that’s not the point, or question I am asking; this is: do you really get more from this evolved mechanism of sound delivery than you did from, say, your walkman and shitty headphones, or small tape player, back in the day?

I don’t want to focus on what is better in a head to head comparison, but on a comparing our appreciation in different time periods, what technology has made available at different times, and then, look into what that might tell us about our habits and expectations, motivations and the trends we subscribe to.

When are we satisfied (or happy? Have those two words become synonymous? Is relief the same as pleasure?) Is it about what is sufficient/good enough, about whether you are getting a good deal based on what’s available, or about the actual product or experience? Can things exist irrelevant to others, and the past? Is there any concrete value to anything? Are we just primed to want and expect more, to exchange what was good enough for what has just become so – to expect a result in relation to a certain advanced set of priorities and systems – or is the experience, now, really better?

Let me present an example from my past. When I was a wee lad, I used to catch critters for fun. I caught bumblebees in jars (jarring the flower too, to the horror of my mother), crabs on the rocks at the beach, storing them in buckets, and lizards in the grass. In each case, I always let them go unharmed, though lizards would sometimes sacrifice their tails (we all know they grow back, right!). I just liked catching and interacting with them. Anyway, I did it in my garden too. We had a large fish pond and I’d catch the goldfish, keep them in bowls and then release them again, and here we get back to advances in technology and how we perceive them. I started with a bowl alone, trying to scoop them up, then quickly moved on to a plastic colander, then a bigger, better sieve with a handle, and finally, a net. I’d store my catch in a bucket till I poured its contents back into the pond at the end of the day. The point is, once an improved tool came about, the prior one became obsolete. Now, there’s no doubt the net was more efficient than the bowl, but was the pastime: the act of catching the goldfish, seeing them swimming in the bowl, and letting them go more enjoyable? I don’t think so. Perhaps, even less so, since it took less time and presented less of a challenge. Still, once I’d progressed to the net, I couldn’t go back.

Look, some of the advances in technology are amazing and very useful. It’s pretty cool to go to the outdoor gear store and buy a six-inch rag with which you can dry your whole body, or tiny headlamp with a battery that lasts for 200 hours and can light up half the sky, and incredible to have the option of a kidney or heart transplant, but nobody even questions anymore whether they actually need the new version of the iPhone or iPad they already own, happily camping outside nights before its release, unable to wait a day when they were so into its predecessor the whole past year (how fast is that shift? Too fast?), and how many advances can there really be in sneaker, sunglass or pillow technology? I mean: there are literally teams of engineers working years to update razors, giving you an even closer shave, (seriously, – how much smoother can a shave get?) while I’m pretty sure they did it quite well with a straight razor back in the day. The new technology is instantly adopted so we can all see everything in high-definition and 3D, relieved to know there’s nothing better out yet.

And this is directly related to consumerism. We need things to buy, to build, to work on. Keeping busy drives the economy and the way we measure pleasure is ever more standardized by the accessibility of global brands and advertising’s relentless encouragement to base gratification on possessing them. And so, we approach a globalized aesthetic principle.

But things become distorted: we go to a shop to buy something and come back with ten times more, of a much higher grade, because we suddenly found out it was available and felt we had to then have it. I like to walk around the woods and look at birds and animals, and yes, I have binoculars, but I’ve noticed that nowadays, most people who walk around looking at birds are decked out in fifty shades of khaki (sorry, couldn’t resist), or camouflage, with special pants, shirts, hiking boots, hats, water bottles, backpacks and such, and special straps and adapters for them all: honestly, they look quite silly. Some of the stuff is useful and effective in certain climates and landscapes, but it seems pretty obvious that we have fallen past the point of practicality and that these outfits are based on plain consumerism. The hobby and gear are no longer separate; finding birds in the forest is just not possible anymore without looking like that. The focus is on stuff – getting stuff – even it doesn’t enhance the pastime. It’s about selling and buying stuff, and for both producer and consumer, having something to preoccupy oneself with and soon upgrade. How much is necessary and how much is better? Some of it, for sure, but how much, really?

Parenting goes back as far as we do, and just look at the baby industry of today with its clothes and toys and learning games and cots. How many types of strollers need to exist and how advanced can prams really get? Pulling a 180: have you been in a liquor store lately? There are a thousand brands of vodkas and scotches and every other liquor on the shelf but how necessary is such variety?We need to find new things, different ways to do things, and we never stop. We need to keep busy, but how much of the work has any value?

To be concluded in part 2 – let me know your thoughts so far. 

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About EM Vireo
flooding the world with fiction

6 Responses to The Evolution and Globalization of Pleasure

  1. KK says:

    Great reflection EM! definitely a subject many people don’t want to face these days, “quick fix” is an easy escape from reality. I think the solution is going “back to basics”; having a child now makes me realize it even more; and maybe that’s the main reason I started my site. The sad things is how we are born with so many natural reflexes and instincts and we voluntarily give them up for the comfort and convenience of “progress” and modern lifestyle. I often wonder how many people from our western world are really capable of dealing with disasters and possibly surviving on their own. Recent “Sandy event” was a good example of this, and it wasn’t even a major disaster, can you imagine hurricane 3 or 4?

  2. Ryan says:

    I think it’s nice living in a society where we have the choice of buying things – even if they are ephemeral.

    The very act of ‘buying’ can itself be the outcome. Think of those people who collect things, such as Anime figurines or women who collect different brands of shoes or handbags. It’s definitely not my sort of thing, but hey – if it makes them happy and doesn’t cause anyone any harm then…

    The same goes for birdwatching. I would also only need a good pair of hiking boots and a pair of binoculars to watch birds. But if someone wants to go out and buy the whole kit and caboodle, then I say ‘go for it’. At least they live in a time where they have that choice and perhaps it does enhance the overall birdwatching experience for them, even if not for you or I.

    • EM Vireo says:

      sure, we can all do what we want, and freedom of choice is a luxury to cherish, but the question I am asking is whether it really does enhance the experience or whether it is just habit, custom, trend? Open ended questions, these, and I’ll get back to the original question that compares the valuing of enjoyment through the ages in part 2. Thanks for your input.

  3. Pi says:

    vintage elluder

  4. Pi says:

    Sufficiency is a relative concept. Having sufficient is a prerequisite for happiness. The surplus can contribute much to comfort, security and psychologically, through status, but may or may not contribute to happiness. Lack of sufficiency has a negative effect on happiness but may stimulate rebellion, defiance, creativity, etc. besides despair.

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