For many months now, I have been suffering a mysterious digestive ailment that defies ready diagnosis or treatment. (Am a celiac? Should I quit caffeine? Should I go macrobiotic? How many Tums a day is too many? How much barium do I have to drink before I am offcially radioactive? [Cue Page lick here.]) One of the fall back explanations in the absence of anything detectable and verifiable is to blame it on stress. It doesn’t matter if you are conscious of the stress or not, the presence of symptoms can be seen as proof of some underlying stress that has cleverly masked itself as a physiological symptom (a la Freudian depth psychology). And never mind that the stress may come from being ill itself and dealing with distracted, supercilious doctors; that could just be an unfortunate positive feedback loop. The key thing is to reduce stress; it’s society’s all-purpose panacea for every species of discontent.
But I don’t want to relax. Constant worrying over how relaxed I am is the kind of biofeedback monitoring process that would make me even more narcissistic and would remove me even more from the business of life. Stress is the sign that something is worth doing, that it matters to more people than yourself. Things that aren’t stressful are variants on navel-gazing.
One of the typical justifications for mind-numbing entertainment is that it helps people relax. 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, a core ethos of capitalism.
The pursuit of relaxation is purely a reaction to the unjustifiable strenuousness 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.
Added 12/11/2005: Peter Watson, interviewed in today’s NYT Magazine takes antirelaxation to the next level. “I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world—reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.” (He also rejects fiction as “fugitive, evanescent truths. They don’t stay with you very long or help you do much.”)
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