“That’s gross,” and other hedonic considerations
You may be familiar with Truffaut’s famous quote, “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” which captures the quandry of inadvertently glorifying war by giving it a cinematic representation. I think this is quote is better rendered the more general a “there is no such thing as an anti-hedonistic film.” Or at least it’s really hard. Cinema is an engaging sensory experience, and good and bad are most easily expressed through an engagement of appreciation or an engagement of revulsion. This convention obviously extends beyond movies and into media like books, and it was in fact a book that I read recently that got me thinking about this whole thing.
For anyone who thinks I don’t give feminism a fair shake, I will have you know that I’ve read the radical feminist sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time. On a related note, I have black friends. Anyway, the short of it is that in the novel there’s two potential futures presented to the 1970’s present-day heroine. The first is a Marxist pastoral “utopia” in which gender has been essentially been abolished through Brave New World-like biotechnology. Pretty creepy, but that’s a discussion for another article.
The second future is a hellish capitalist dystopia, where most people are part of a slave-like underclass that are little more than walking organ banks for the rich elite. Women are, of course, particularly oppressed, being kept as ignoramuses who are only valued for their appearance – they are surgically modified to have grotesquely exaggerated sexual characteristics. The grotesqueness is really driven home to let the reader feel just how bad this potential future really is.
Is sickening excess the logical consequence of our unchained material appetites? Of course it isn’t – actual hedonism, by definition, always finds the sweet spot. Excess is, by definition, anti-hedonic. Intentionally eating so much cake to become nauseous isn’t something that people do. Similarly, people find cartoonishly enhanced women revolting; if they didn’t, the author wouldn’t be able to use such a thing as a cautionary tale to scare the reader straight. Showing good or bad in terms of the hedonic calculus is easy, but you can’t have it as both terrifyingly revolting and believably alluring.
Perhaps it is, then, a cautionary tale against changing social norms of the grotesque? Even so, we would need to establish a moral standard outside of “appreciation vs. revulsion” to say that this change of taste is more than merely a value neutral disjunction between our revulsion and their appreciation. After all, the supposed utopia is just as radically different from our current cultural standards as the dystopia is.
The sorry state of (wo)man’s soul under dystopian excess is described here only in terms of visceral revulsion, but the moral state of society is on a different axis than material well-being. Hedonism isn’t bad because it makes us sick (it doesn’t), it’s bad because it is a selfish preoccupation.
Another variation of displaying hedonism as bad comes in the form of focusing on vapidness or repetitiveness, a la the mind-numbing entertainment we see in novels like Fareinheit 451. This is, yet again, an unsophisticated pseudo-critique that in its own ways dignifies the hedonic calculus. The truth is that hedonism isn’t boring, it’s exciting. It isn’t satisfied with the same mindless pap, it’s absolutely novelty-seeking. It is the exhilaration of climbing a mountain. It is the nuance of fine wine – and perhaps even nuance itself.
From a perspective that is savvy to this ultimate nuance, indulgence is much harder to attack in a book or a movie, because those mediums are themselves nuanced stimulation. This is the difference a good artist and a great artist – the ability to engage the audience with post-hedonic consideration. But Truffaut was right, meaning that you’ll have to look for them outside of Hollywood. We need a much more sophisticated value system to find something wrong with the optimal glass of wine rather than idiotic base pleasure-seekers.
Hedonism will never nauseate us and will never bore us. It’s always just right – that is why it’s scary.