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Guilty pleasures - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 11:29 am
Guilty pleasures

The Westerner's first reaction to Japan is that it's a bloody odd place with some strange attitudes to life. But the more time you spend here, the more that impression is replaced by its opposite: it's the West that's a bloody odd place with some strange attitudes to life.

Do you want an example? Okay, let's take guilty pleasures. Now, I've never seen food, books or sex advertised in Japan as a 'guilty pleasure'. A pleasure, yes. Guilty, no. But in the UK and the US (the "USUK zone", as I prefer to call it, when I'm not calling it "Angrael") it's an extremely common meme. I'll let MSNBC (a part of the empire of the puritan USUK billionaire Gates) define the concept:

Fashion and food can be guilty pleasures

"Ah, lifestyle guilty pleasures, a true catch-all for everything and anything we're just a wee bit embarrassed by. Shopping indulgences. Favorite junk-food treats. The cheap paperbacks we hide behind our college textbooks, pretending we're just saving them for that next airplane ride. Even the most straitlaced, politically correct vegan among us gives in to temptation from time to time. Guilty pleasures put color in life, and who are we to deny ourselves?"

There we have it. A consumer society needs us to consume. But a puritan culture demands that we feel guilty about sensual indulgence. Hence the centrality of the 'guilty pleasure' in the USUK zone, which is that unhappy and conflicted beast, a puritan consumer society. What I notice in the MSNBC definition is that it presents an entirely puritan continuum between the 'straitlaced, politically correct vegan' and the guilty embarrassed self-pleasurer, revelling momentarily in a lapse into self-indulgence. They're both puritans, but the vegan is a left wing self-denying puritan, the guilty self-pleasurer a right wing self-indulging puritan. At no point is it suggested that either the principled lefty or the selfish righty might indulge their pleasures freely in the manner of the Marquis de Sade, or a poor but happy Cuban musician. No, guilt is a constant.

Let us pass for our next example to Sainsburys Taste the Difference Quadruple Chocolate Cookies (thanks to Rhodri for this one. Oh, and thanks to puritan USUK billionaire Baron Sainsbury of Turville, gentech enthusiast, New Labour donor and Under-Secretary for Science in the House of Lords). The copy on this box of Sainsbury's "cookies" (it's odd, we used to call these biscuits, but USUK is all converged and amalgamated these days) reads:

"Decadently rich chocolate cookies, bulging with milk, white and dark chocolate chunks and finished with a base of smooth milk chocolate."

Rhodri was disturbed by the phrase "bulging with milk", but I found myself much more intrigued by "decadently rich", and commented: "It's a little odd when products are actually sold to us as something 'sinful" or "decadent", isn't it? What does it say about the Western psyche that pleasure has to be corrupt, unfair, destructive? Will this get worse over time, or will it look like a silly puritan anachronism soon? Will the biscuits of the future be labelled "murderous crispy shells filled with selfishly fondant racist chocolate"?"

You'd think consumer societies would at the very least be about sensual delight. You'd think that Epicureanism would have stolen a march on Christianity as a result of capitalism's emphasis on consumption, wouldn't you? That we'd have left behind the puritan belief that indulgence and gratification of the senses is unworthy, too earthly, sinful? That there could be adult, responsible, constructive pleasures that benefit not just our society, but other societies, rather than harming us and harming others in stupid, self-hating, adolescent ways? Well, apparently not. Apparently we cannot escape the clutches of guilt and the vicious circles it brings.

Far from abandoning guilt's shackles as we abandon Christianity, we in the USUK zone are getting more and more guilty, more and more convinced of our own sin. We have invented new, secular forms of sin and added them to the religious forms which are the legacy of our Protestantism. These new forms of guilt are based on a series of separations we know are wrong. We've increased the gap between rich and poor, the gap between slim and fat, the gap between public and private. This has made us harder and yet softer, but above all more deeply guilty. Our pleasures now come, visibly, at the expense of others; the excluded, the angry, those we have attacked with wars, those whose world we are in the process of polluting, depriving not just of their natural resources, but of basic essentials like soil, water and ozone. This is the way our world increasingly works, and our psychology has adapted to it. We know we are selfish and vile, and we consume in that knowledge. We squirm and flagellate ourselves as we consume. We don the hair shirt of guilt. We make token amends by adopting the chastened lingo of political correctness, itself nothing more than a codification of new sins. Sexism, mea maxima culpa. Racism, mea maxima culpa. Weightism, mea maxima culpa and pass the chocolate, father.

Much of this 'guilty pleasure' advertising is aimed at women, for whom excess weight has become a venal new form of sin. Western feminism has sold the idea of the 'superwoman' who's able to be both feminine and masculine, to raise kids as well as kick ass in the careers market, to both be and not be a sexual object; for those who fail to live up to these titanic and contradictory ideals, "guilty pleasure" is a codeword for recidivism, for some small sugary compensation for one's almost-inevitable failure; a reversion to type, a collapse back into a simple sensuality which has been declared small, weak, feminine.

Guilty pleasures are not just things like cookies and candies, junk food, cheap exploitative pop music, cigarettes, glossy Prozac-like magazines, airport novels, luxury goods snatched duty free on the way to a cheap holiday in some poor developing nation... they're also, of course, sexual. The Enjoying Guilty Pleasures DVD is, according to the Amazon blurb, "a delightfully erotic sampler of "kinky" sex acts that are actually healthy, imaginative and fun. Renowned experts Dr. Herb Samuels and Louise Andre-Saulnier address myths about S&M, "taboo" subjects like anal eroticism, and the guilt often associated with some "forbidden" fantasies. Learn firsthand how expanding the limits of lovemaking can be a hot and wholesome way to enhance trust within a committed relationship. In explicit sexual encounters, real couples demonstrate a variety of taboo treats that add spice to their sexual lives.. Indulge your pleasures and feel guilty no more! With sex, just as with food, some cravings are simply irresistible."

I'm slightly confused by that blurb, because it seems to be suggesting that we banish guilt, while at the same time saying that taboo "adds spice to sexual lives". Do Drs. Herb and Louise intend to drop the word "kinky" from future editions of their DVD? Or do they perhaps intend to drop the inverted commas they've placed around it? Will sex get more or less "kinky", more or less "taboo", more or less "guilty" in the future? And what if, taking away the guilt, we found we'd taken away the sex too? Well, I suppose there'd always be Viagra for sex, and gentech for babies. Billionaire puritan Baron Sainsbury of Turville would get richer, even if our lives would all be poorer.

(There are no pictures in today's entry because you simply don't deserve them. But I can sell you some if you promise to look at them with a strong sense of guilt.)

100CommentReply

senorquesa
daniel vs. the internet
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC)

Thought provoking. Well done.


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nickink
Nick Ink
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:13 am (UTC)

Yes, fascinating entry ! I'm going to think it over more fullt whilst guiltlessly pleasuring myself with some Ferrero Rocher I picked up at Inchon airport.


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w_e_quimby
w_e_quimby
hobbes
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:20 am (UTC)

Wow. You're so right, Momus. This is where my hitherto unexplained nausea, vomiting, and bimonthly religious fanaticism stems from.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:20 am (UTC)

Epicurus had the perfect counter-argument to this 'guilty pleasure' nonsense when he said:

"It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently, and honorably, and justly; nor to live prudently, and honorably, and justly, without living pleasantly. But to whom it does not happen to live prudently, honorably, and justly cannot possibly live pleasantly."

They should print that on every cookie packet like the health warning on cigarettes.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 08:00 am (UTC)

I think what Epicurus must have meant was that a pleasant life was a result or concommitant of living prudently, honourably and justly, rather than that being prudent, honourable and just was the result of pleasure. Drug addicts, for example, are in sole pursuit of pleasure, but remove themselves far away from prudence, honour and justice (court appearances apart).

The guilt that binds itself with certain purported pleasures must therefore have a physiological purpose of protection. I'm sure even the Japanese - as human beings - have this faculty, too. Or perhaps the men there are happy to take prostitutes home to meet their mother and father?

Personally, I have tried very hard to live life through selfish pleasure alone, but the results were extremely unpleasant. Strangely, my weak attempts at self-denial have brought me my only memorable moments of enjoyment.

I really would like to think this was a world where we could let hang royally out, but then again thank goodness it is not. Imagine if the sun decided to have some guilty pleasures and just have a long lie-in at the weekend, or if the sea were to allow its glass to overflow. Doesn't bear thinking about.


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jennvix
Jenn Vix
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:24 am (UTC)

Momus, have you ever read anything by Dr. Robert Linder? I am rather fond of his work. I suspect that you might enjoy it.



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:47 am (UTC)

Nope. I googled him and he seems to be a music prof at a Baptist university. Can that be the one?


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 03:50 am (UTC)

Western feminism has sold the idea of the 'superwoman' who's able to be both feminine and masculine, to raise kids as well as kick ass in the careers market, to both be and not be a sexual object.

I naively thought they wished for a broad spectrum of gender roles, rather than the anachronistic, narrow-minded(, am I to take it "Eastern"?), antipodean system that you appear to laud so liberally.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 04:07 am (UTC)

Unfortunately a lot of western feminism seems to have institutionalised misogyny and eroded the true difference represented by radical femininity, arguing for the female adoption of masculine values rather than the male adoption of female values. It's a legacy of feminism that as soon as I talk about 'feminine values' people will immediately demand what I think those are, whereas they won't demand what 'masculine values' are. That's because feminism was keen to deconstruct femininity and say that women could be anything (the 'superwoman' ideal), whereas it did the opposite with masculinity, saying it could only be "patriarchy".

I believe consumer societies tend towards the feminisation of all consumers, though. And I believe societies organised around sensual pleasure also have to evolve in the direction of the feminine, as do societies organised around services rather than manufacturing, and social connectedness rather than isolated individualism. So there's a good chance that the future really will be more feminine for all of us. Unless we descend into a wretched era of war, starvation and struggle for resources.


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w_e_quimby
w_e_quimby
hobbes
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 04:16 am (UTC)

A funny thing is that I've always associated Puritan self-restraint with right-wing conservatism. However also on the right-wing is the aggressive pursuit of self-gain. And conversely, for the lefties, hedonistic liberalism and socialistic denial. So...both parties are guilty of guilt and immoderation. Anyway, it's weird how you associate "left-wing" with moderation and "right-wing" with selfishness.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 04:24 am (UTC)

There are right wing self-restraining puritans, you're right. John Ashcroft springs to mind, a real Mayflower puritan and the last person we can imagine curling up with a big box of chocolates. But the stereotype being painted by MSNBC was of a vegan puritan. Now that's clearly a stereotype of a left wing, principled, No-Logo radical who's against consumerism. The left has its own puritanism, an Utne Reader, recycling, post-hippy puritanism. And political correctness is the guilt system of this puritanism. The right doesn't really need to invent a new guilt system, it can still use the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins. Although clearly there are huge contradictions in that when you're killing people all the time and endorsing untrammelled consumerism. Thank god for Orwellian doublethink!


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seanthesean
Mr. Sean
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 04:22 am (UTC)
tabooboo

"murderous crispy shells filled with selfishly fondant racist chocolate"
sounds delicious! i think the spanish came up with some packaging for this particular treat!

the foie gras debacle is a perfect example, here's their website http://www.gourmetcruelty.org/
i would add that a large deal of why there is so much moralizing in USUK, is that there is a general culture of true stupidity, which requires alot of hand holding.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 04:38 am (UTC)
Re: tabooboo

The Foie Gras Duck Liberation Front has titled their exposé video "Delicacy of Despair", but I can all too easily imagine a commercial for foie gras with the same title, with the copy line: "Our ducks suffered agonies so that a guilty thrill could pass through your body along with the great taste of foie gras. Suffering for your pleasure? Of course! At the end of a hard day cooped up at the office, you deserve it. Let your teeth melt through the delicacy of despair tonight!"


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saikoutron
saikoutron
Teikasaurus Howl
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 05:14 am (UTC)

I would think some parts of the east are very much like that. In third world countries, indulging in anything that is not related to your so called 'road to success' is seen by many as bad judgement and should be tied to an overwhelming sense of guilt. The word 'sin' is perhaps too related in context to christianity, though for sure we have our own sets of 'sins' in the Muslim law(in Malaysia). Mass media that is primarily driven by the west has created a similar sense of guilt that's far from any true religious ideal, and instead we have the 'idealized woman' type of mindset that has given birth to and perpetuated a new set guilt cycle.


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 05:16 am (UTC)

Epicurus is thought to have lived on a diet of bread and cheese. His highest goal was ataraxia, or the trouble-free life.

If you have any empathy for living things, it's difficult not to feel some pain yourself as you watch an animal suffer. The ikezukuri or odorizushi is an interesting and exotic cultural practice - a kind of gourmand's luxurious mix of pleasure and pain. This it shares with the crass "guilty pleasures" of consumerism, where a temporary pleasant stimulus of the senses is mixed with painful anticipation of future negative consequences. A form of sadism/masochism if you want to think of it that way.
It's all about giving the limbic system a double whammy. Epicurus would most likely not be impressed.


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thetemplekeeper
thetemplekeeper
thetemplekeeper
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)

Thank you for your excellent post, which summed up Epicureanism far more succinctly than my rambling effort below! However, I wonder whether "guilty pleasures" really can be analysed in terms of behaviourist stimulus-response: isn't the guilt moral rather than an anticipation of negative future physical consequences? When I as consumer feel guilty, it is usually more a case of feeling like I'm wasting money or pointlessly indulging myself rather than expecting bad future consequences.

I'd be interested to hear your reply; and thanks again for your interesting post!


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darthhellokitty
darthhellokitty
DarthHelloKitty
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 05:33 am (UTC)

The whole food/guilt thing is popular in my family, but I refuse to participate. If I stab my husband, if I kick my dog, then I'll feel guilty. If I eat some chocolate, I'll just feel pleased.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)

But mightn't refusing to feel guilt just be guilt in warrior garb? And is it possible to be a non-participant in guilt mechanisms when everyone around you is re-inforcing them? Assuming you do feel somewhat guilty when you munch the chocolate, where does that guilt go when you refuse it? And what happens when the sugar rush from the digested chocolate combines with the 'guilt rush' from the sublimated guilt?


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kennithholloway
kennithholloway
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 07:01 am (UTC)



I'm deeply intrigued by a movie they're showing at the biennale called Kinesy

Plot Outline: A look at the life of Alfred Kinsey (Neeson), a pioneer in the area of human sexuality research, whose 1948 publication "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" was one of the first recorded works that saw science address sexual behavior. (more) (view trailer)

User Comments: Kinsey enlightens a controversial subject

i would be more intriged if it was a blockbuster, though. It's still a hollywood flick anyway. in the official website ( http://www2.foxsearchlight.com/kinsey/site/ ) you can value yourself in the Kinsey Scale which rates the gradation of homosexuality in 7 points. 40% of the people who visited the site consider themselves exclusively heterosexual. Many people fooling themselves all over the place...


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verlaine
verlaine
Cityish Alt-ish Fortyish
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 09:15 am (UTC)

I just voted "exclusively heterosexual", I have to say. It's not better or worse than any other point on the scale, but how can you not define yourself as 100% hetero if your every conscious sexual thought and desire has been directed towards the opposite sex since your awareness began? It's all well and good to have high-minded theories about sexuality being complex and protean, but this just isn't borne out in my experience. Why do I have to be "fooling myself"?


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kennithholloway
kennithholloway
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 07:04 am (UTC)



good lord, this one's even better:
http://www.dralfredkinsey.com/


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 07:37 am (UTC)
Come back to Quebec....

Our Lapsed Catholic(tm) culture needs more of this thinking. Thankfully, most of us still laugh at Puritan(tm) concepts that try to sell us stuff we don't need based on feelings we don't have. At another level, i realized tonight, Quebec culture is shockingly liberal in its post-1960 institutions, but also shockingly conservative in so many other ways. Yes, like everywhere else on the planet, they still sell yogurt to women as a "tee hee, i'm cheating on my diet" indulgence. But on the other side, we have a chapter of Slow Food and Carlo Petrini is here for our High Lights Festival (i.e. a way to drink through February) --

so it's not all bad!

AJ (westexpressway.typepad.com)


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sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 07:54 am (UTC)

Well, my immediate thought is that you don't read Japanese so how on earth can you be expected to track the minutiae and nuance of domestic advertising? Nevertheless, although I can't recall any products that have tag lines like "Naughty but nice" (cream cakes), any number of products are sold on the basis of their indulgence (food, holiday destinations, beauty products...). Luxury is certainly on offer.

From my previous experience, as a seller of luxury chocolate, I find that the use of guilt, at least in terms like sinful/naughty and so on, is generally used to make inferior products appear more attractive than they are. Give people the idea that a crap experience is actually more luxurious than it is. We never used any such terminology in our advertising or selling approach (we didn't need to!) and I'd reproach customers who saw chocolate as a guilty pleasure. It would only lead them to gobble rather than savour. It's in the middle ground between excellence and the economy range that you have to tart up your product. I suspect that Guilty Pleasures DVD is regular vanilla under another wrapper.

We've always called that type cookies. Maybe not in Tunnock's Teacakes Scotland! They are a biscuit that came into being as American pretenders. Our domestic biscuits were skimpy and stingy, but faux-American cookies were the Ford Capri of the biscuit world. They suggested Maryland but gave you Essex. Only the Americans in their excess would dare to put more than one chocolate chip in a biscuit. These Sainsbury's ones just up the ante, like four blade razors.

I'd also question the nature of guilt at the squid dinner. I generally don't recoil from such food, quite possibly because of having lived and eaten in Japan over the years. Often some of these dishes appear deliberately constructed to upset Western sensibilities, but then I've had Japanese friends who variously recoiled from black pudding and refused to stuff a chicken. Just get your hand up there, madame! It won't bite. I lived in Mie Prefecture for a while where one method of cooking Ise shrimp is known as 残酷焼き (zankoku yaki) or cruel roasting So, perhaps not guilty but certainly an acknowledgement of cruelty. Which is better? Neither.

An abiding memory of my first stay in Japan is watching an NHK documentary on the Anomalocaris. As I watched a computer simulation swim around the screen with its fearful circular mouth, the family I lived with sat there and said "Hmm, I wonder what it tastes like." Personally, I thought it the most disgusting creature I'd ever seen and wondered about escape strategies.

Without guilt, what pleasure would I find in Bataille? No, it's sunk in too deep already. I'll stick with it for my pleasures rather than Japan's ijime culture of poking and roasting.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Feb. 19th, 2005 08:07 am (UTC)

Ah, it's very interesting that you raise Bataille there. I thought of that when writing this entry. I would now consider 'transgression' nothing more than a stage I went through in the process of liberating myself from Western taboos. (I mean, that process is by no means complete, but a successful sort of confusion has replaced simple guilt.) I remember when I was at the height of my Bataille phase, in the summer of 1989, my girlfriend said "Momus" (she called me Momus), "you don't like sex, you like nooky." Meaning, I suppose, that for me sex and transgression had got so mixed up that if you took away the sin you'd take away the sex too. The same thought I ended today's entry with. But now I think there's some genuine enjoyment of sex there, rather than mere enjoyment of 'guilty pleasures'. Perhaps, as you say, the sex is now high quality, and only "the middle range between excellence and the economy range" needs to be hyped up with guilt-glamour.


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