What harms us hedonism

Pfaller: "Let's not let the good life be stolen from us before death!"

In "What is worth living for", the Viennese philosopher Robert Pfaller makes a fiery plea for the art of enjoyment. In an interview with the "Presse", Pfaller speaks about sex, politics, smoking and culture.

Die Presse: You advocate the thesis that we are excessively moderate. Have we forgotten how to enjoy?

Robert Pfaller: The ability to enjoy is a social resource just like education. And we lost it. People are obsessed with health and safety. But how healthy do we want to be? There is nothing in this ascetic current of culture to moderate the tendencies towards moderation. Today there is beer without alcohol, whipped cream without fat, sex without physical contact.


It means that we live in a hedonistic fun culture.

It is characteristic of an ascetic cultural epoch that it paints the other, that which it loses, very brightly. And one longs for this other one too.


Can you give an example?

The less sex there is in the film, the more there is in the talk show - but as a private quirk. The caricature of pleasure is the addict, the caricature of sexuality is the pop star in a prostitute-like outfit, or the talk show guest who reports on S&M practices with his mother. Such bright images are deliberately designed in such a way that the audience only looks greedily, but cannot do anything with them for themselves - and then turns away again with relief. Even otherwise we are constantly bombarded with luxury foods, but we do not have the skills to process them with relish.


What is pleasure?

Enjoyment doesn't have to be particularly excessive, but it is always built around something ambivalent: there is alcohol in beer and if you catch too much, you are unable to work. There are pollutants in the cigarette. There are elements in sex that are unsavory or indecent. So that you don't want to have all the time. The difficult cultural achievement now is to create situations in which these things become pleasurable.


An example is that at a graduation party you don't spoil the fun and drink a glass of champagne - not just orange juice.

Exactly. Just like the beer tastes good in the evening with friends. Seeing the same beer glass the next morning might make you feel disgusted. To celebrate means to interrupt a mundane everyday life. Celebration imperatives have tremendous power. Take ski races: In Austria, a country where there are hardly any work stoppages or strikes, every boss would risk head and neck if he wanted to forbid the workforce from watching a World Cup race.


They claim that we are actively committed to the abolition of pleasure resources. How so?

In view of the conflicting pleasures, we have become perplexed. As if we were the first to realize that smoking is harmful. Our grandparents warned us about this! And in a culture that is excessively moderating, this means that it produces surrogates like coffee without caffeine.


Do these substitute forms make us happier?

No. That we feel great when we drink beer on Saturday and see the deprivation of the week in a different light while celebrating: the products that have had their teeth pulled cannot do that.


You locate biopolitical calculation in the current smoking laws.

The motto today is: do what you want, it doesn't matter to us! But if you exceed certain limits, we will pat you on the fingers. 20 years ago the signal from the state was still: We will help you to acquire everything so that you can develop. A policy that neglects the task of promotion replaces this with measures of repression. If we can't do anything for you, then at least we forbid what harms you. This is pseudopolitics!

Doesn't the state care about people's health?

The apparent protection of individuals serves to hold people responsible. Now we have banned you from smoking: If you get lung disease, you have to pay for it yourself. But this also applies to other areas. During job interviews, individuals are asked about certain leisure activities. Anyone who has to make risky investments should also practice risk sports. Nothing is left to chance anymore. Soon you won't be allowed to be fat anymore. This is heading towards a society in which it is really very uncomfortable.


One could perhaps say: economically, there is currently deregulation, socially regulation ...

Exactly. It should not be forgotten that the mad cow disease was due to deregulation - feed controls in cattle breeding were relaxed. That would be the task of the state: to protect individuals where they cannot protect themselves. I really don't have the expertise to retrace my steak's path. At this point the state leaves out and does pseudopolitics elsewhere. He sticks black rims on my cigarette packs like on condolence advertisements.


Do you actually smoke yourself?

Only very rarely, but then with pleasure. But my aim is to see the social significance of such rituals and to work towards them. In society one smoked not only because of attachment to a toxic substance. But also because that was part of being able to present yourself to others in a more relaxed manner. That has a social dimension.


Smoking also had an erotic quality for a long time.

Yes, when you see Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart about fire, it also belongs to a very specific emancipated initiation behavior between the sexes. That has also fallen into disrepute. This is a real decline. I just don't think that all cultural epochs are equally good or efficient.


They say that our culture is not about living well, but about living particularly long.

Even with Epicurus it is said: The wise man would rather take the sweetest bread than the largest. That's how you should deal with life. Today's security apostles and health fanatics, on the other hand, have lost their critical distance from themselves. It is important to call to mind what is alive. Not to let the good life be stolen from you before you die! Being sensible means not letting reason rule where it has no business - and sometimes taking time out from reason.


Do you have a hedonistic feel-good philosophy yourself?

If that's a feel-good philosophy, then there is nothing appeasing about it. I advise dissatisfaction. Something was taken away from us. That is surely the bad news. The good one is: A materialistic philosophy that tries to wriggle out of the stranglehold of compulsive ideas is pleasurable and reveals itself to the mark of laughter.

Author and book

Robert Pfaller, born 1962 in Vienna, has been professor of philosophy at the Vienna University of Applied Arts since 2009. His works (e.g. “The Dirty Holy and Pure Reason”, 2008) often carry on ideas from Slavoj Žižek.

“What is worth living for. Elements of materialistic philosophy ”has been published by S. Fischer Verlag.

("Die Presse", print edition, March 12, 2011)