A speech by Daniel Cofeen: Professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley
Monday, May 19, 2008
My Speech to the Graduates, v2
I want to talk to you today about pleasure.
Pleasure demands a certain slowness, a lingering, a languoring. You have to savor the complex palate of the tequila, let the emphatic umph of the Uni play across your tongue, lay in bed and nibble your sweetie's nape—slowly, very, very slowly. You need to take the time when you write to find the proper phrase, rhythm, figure. You have to let your mind and prose meander through and around and with an idea. You have to watch the great films once, twice, three times, a dozen times to truly appreciate them. You have to chew your food slowly, lay in the daytime sun, and enjoy your evening cocktail. You have to stroll, not run.
These are the things that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The America you inherit is an uncivil beast that moves at an ever more rapid clip, consuming dignity with spite. Take travel, one of the great luxuries of contemporary life. Travel has been stripped of its humanity as lines of people disrobe before disgruntled strangers. And when you question this degradation, this humiliation, you are told it's all for your own good. And, at times, you may actually believe that.
Do you understand what I just said? You actually believe that it is in your own best interest to be humiliated and degraded. This is how far we've come, how degraded we are, how terribly awry we've gone. Our fear has become such that we abandon the very things that make us human, the very things that bring us joy, the very things that make life livable: pleasure, civility, dignity.
Now take this thing we call work, this thing that causes you such great anxiety. And it should—but for different reasons. In today's America, a job demands you be at the office at a given place and time, usually quite early, and 5 days a week, regardless of how well you slept. You go to your inevitably gray cubicle beneath fluorescent lights and situate yourselves in front of a blue screen. This is exactly how I'd describe a prison—a fucking prison! None of this is healthy, physically or mentally. You talk to a variety of people, many of whom are boring, stupid, and incompetent if not cruel, stupid, and resentful. You spend time in meetings ill run at best, hate filled at worst. You grab some overly salted food for lunch, eat it at your computer, and spend the rest of the day dehydrated and bloated with gas. Perhaps you seek the restroom as a respite, a place to pass gas in peace or at least have some solitude. No such luck. The bathrooms are public and so you piss and shit and fart next to your office mates before you head back to your now stinky cubicle, bloated and thirsty.
Work is an elaborate holocaust of dignity.
This used to be a 40 hour a week assignment—40 of your best hours spent uncomfortably gaseous, helping make some moron you'll never meet richer than he already is. This 40 hour exercise in humiliation has become 50, 60, 70 hours long. I'm not making this up. The dot com revolution broke down the line separating work from play—so now you work all day long. You can wear jeans, have your nose pierced, and listen to Black Metal music. Work doesn't care—as long as you work.
You've been co-opted, children. The machine of work realized that it doesn't care if your tongue is pierced or tattoos line your flesh. They don't give a shit; they just want your warm body working. They even give you ping pong and foosball and let you have a beer now and again. And you think you're the one who came out ahead! You're working 60 hours a week and you think you won! The Google campus is hailed as liberation because they serve you lunch! Even prisoners on death row get fucking lunch. We are dead men walking, Starbucks infused zombies.
This is today's America. There's no room for rebellion as every effort to resist gets folded into the machine. All the avenues of resistance have been co-opted—poetry, fashion, music, even drugs as the pharmaceuticals replace the acid labs as the suppliers of your high. Look what's happened to the green movement: Clorox runs ads claiming to be green. We drive so-called green cars. Green cars! That's an oxymoron. You want to be green? Stop driving, you morons!
America is an ugly, cruel beast. Dropping bombs on Arabs is not the disease, it's the symptom. It's time to get creative in our revolts.
But as big and stupid and mean as America is, it's also big. And this gives us some room to operate. Maybe not for long as robotic drones fill the skies, leaving nothing unseen. But, for now, there is room. You don't have to walk mindlessly into this mire. There are options. Consider Alexander Supertramp, who burned his money and his i.d. and headed into the wilderness. Or Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a onetime physician who in the 1950s quit his practice, dropped out of the mainstream and raised a family while living a nomadic surfing lifestyle. All 11 people in the family—the parents and nine children—lived in a trailer, ate organic food, roamed the country, and surfed. The kids were home-schooled; they celebrated the Jewish sabbath every Friday night.
That's right, you heard me: these are Jews. And if a nice Jewish boy can do it, you certainly can.
Or take Mike Reynolds, an architect before the Feds stripped him of his license. He builds houses off the grid, that generate their own electricity, have their own sewage, and live off of the water that falls from the sky. He's been harassed and sued and arrested. But he's still going, making it possible to live free of the mayhem. And it's not just that these houses are actually environmentally sustainable, which they are, it's that they make life—your life—sustainable.
You have to get creative in your tactics. You have to demand your pleasure. Because the world you're inheriting is hell bent on disallowing you your life. You have to create the time to savor this life, to deflect the time-soul-life suck of what we call the real world. But it isn't the real world; it's the cruel world. You can make a more palatable real world, a world worth living in, living for, a world capable of sustaining life.
Demand your pleasure.
Posted by Daniel Coffeen at 5:32 PM 10 comments