Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ain't Nothing But Mammals

Before I got lost in tangent-ville, talking about YA, cannibalism, and embarrassment, I was talking about the vicarious pleasure that a person can get from reading Twilight. I want to return to that briefly today to wrap it up before I move on to my next big topic.

In my last post I compared the pleasure we get from a Big Mac to the pleasure we get from filet mignon.We know that Big Macs are bad for us. We know they are cheaply made, mass-produced, and lower-quality than filet mignon. But when we put a Big Mac in our mouth, we cannot deny that it provides us pleasure.

We have an elitism about what types of pleasure "count." Roland Barthes wrote an entire book trying to pin down the essence of this elusive idea of what is "real" pleasure. However, Barthes is only really thinking about the pleasure of high-brow things: going to the opera, reading James Joyce, listening to a symphony. These are the filet mignons of pleasure. But Big Macs also provide us pleasure, often extreme, addictive pleasure, and yet we do not think of these types of pleasures as "real."But why do we have this elitism?

Because we're humans! We're better than the neanderthals that derived extreme pleasure from fat and sugar. We are evolved enough to ignore the cheap pleasures of the Big Mac, and sometimes even convince ourselves that we don't derive pleasure from it at all.

But let’s face it, we are still animals. We evolved from apes and we often act like them. Why do we like the Big Mac? Because it tastes good. And it tastes good because we need the sugar, fat, and protein to survive. Yes, the quantities of sugar, fat, and protein in a Big Mac are excessive, but our animal instincts don’t recognize that. Of course now our cultured sensibilities tell us “Don’t! A moment on the lips a lifetime on the hips!” But we all do it. We all eat ice cream and hamburgers and fried chicken and whatever else. If we were as cultured and evolved as we like to think we are, we would only eat filet mignon and grilled chicken breast on a beds of lettuce.

But cheap, greasy food is not the only thing that satisfies our animal cravings. We watch Jersey Shore and Days Of Our Lives, we listen to Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. And then there’s sex. Sex is about as animal as it gets. There is no high-class equivalent to sex, and sex gives people tremendous pleasure. In fact, sex is probably the thing that brings the most pleasure to the most people, yet we don't discount that pleasure due to its animal nature. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So why is it that Twilight is not thought to provide "real" pleasure. Why do we hang our heads in shame at having enjoyed it? Why do we chastise its YA status, and mock the cannibalistic intentions of Edward Cullen? Why do we think that Ulysses provides “real” pleasure but Twilight is pulp at best?

I don't believe that it is pulp. Or rather, I believe that its pulp status does not discount the pleasure we get from reading it. The vicarious pleasure we derive from Twlight is as real as it gets, in the same vein as the very real, animalistic pleasure we get from sex.

Humans are social creatures. We require various types of communities to facilitate our happiness: the family unit, friend circles, etc. A normal human is unhappy when he or she is alone for too long. 

What is more is that a person is only considered normal if he or she is able to interact with other people. We think there is something wrong with us if we can't make friends. Many mental disorders include the inability to relate to people, for example, a sociopath is a type of person that cannot feel basic empathetic emotions like guilt or compassion or love. Sociopaths are not the norm, and very often they are unsuccessful socially. 

Classifying as a normal, social human being requires the ability to relate to other people on an emotional level. So, evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that humans derive pleasure from sharing someone’s emotions. We feel extreme happiness when our sports team wins a game, we feel sick or cringe when someone else bleeds, our mouths drool when we watch other people eat, and we feel horny when we read about people having sex.

And what is this but vicariousness!

What is more is that in order to enjoy this vicariousness, you have to consider yourself similar to the person that you are empathizing with. According to this study and this study, it is important to relate to the person in order to feel his or her emotions. This makes sense evolutionarily, again, because you want your family to survive, even if that has to happen at the expense of another family. You empathize with the people you relate to and do not empathize with the people you cannot relate to.

And this gives us extreme, very real pleasure. According to Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works, humans spend more time daydreaming or imagining than doing any other activity. They are not actually having sex or eating or hanging out with friends, they are only watching it happen on television or thinking about it happening while sitting in the middle of biology class. If imagining weren’t a real pleasure, why would we spend so much time doing it?

Perhaps Ulysses is higher-brow than Twilight. Perhaps we feel more evolved when we read it. But Twilight caters to primitive, animalistic pleasures like our sense of vicariousness and our desire to imagine. Maybe we feel less evolved when we feel this animalistic pleasure, but that does not make the pleasure any less real.

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