Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Against relaxation

One of the typical justifications for mind-numbing entertainment is that it helps people relax; indeed, I offered that defense of entertainment yesterday, suggesting it works as a placebo for removing stress, empty in and of itself but constituting a ritual that induces a relaxed state. But the pursuit of relaxation as an end in and of itself, as if relaxing could be a goal, an activity, seems just plain crazy, a living death, an admission that the actual business of living is too much trouble, always a hassle, always annoying. Part of the reason relaxing has become an activity, perhaps, is because capitalist society (or modern life generally) makes everyday life that unpleasant, removing the communal aspects that make it tolerable and replacing them with prefab entertainment, so as not to leave something that gives joy uncommmodified and unexploited. No pleasure without profit, this is the core ethos of capitalism.

The pursuit of relaxation is purely a reaction to the unjustifiable stressfulness of maintaining one's life, of earning a living and keeping up with the shopping and gossip and spectatorship and so on one's expected to keep up with. There's no reason for the stress, so it generates a counteractivity defined by its having no reason as well, relaxing. Relaxing tries to salvage a purpose for all the pointless stress by making pointlessness itself a pleasure, a goal. But relaxation only refreshes you to take on more pointless stress. It doesn't habituate us to having a purpose, to seizing upon and demanding more autonomy for our lives. It instead accepts the cycles dictated to us, to the stress of being directed and the relief of being able to do nothing. Built into relaxation is the assumption that activity in life is always being told to act by someone else, that activity is always a kind of slavery.

The exhoration to relax -- often delivered by friends who mean well ("hey, you should just relax, man"), a most subtle and effecctive way for ideology to be delivered -- is society's effective means of reinforcing quietism and negating rebellion. When you get upset about something, you typically have a good reason, and when you are told to relax, you're being told, hey, you can't make a difference anyway, you should learn to accept what's given to you and deal with it. Being told to relax is another way of being told to "be realistic," that other deeply ideological dictum, which makes the status quo into the eternally given.

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