February 19th, 2005

operesque

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.)