Pleasure: Theory, Aesthetics, and Philosophy
Why do we hear so much about desire and so little about pleasure? When Roland Barthes asked the question, he concluded that while desire has dignity for contemporary philosophers and theorists, pleasure does not. If desire gets its prestige from what we lack, pleasure is often, for better and worse, about what we have—and what we can’t help having. Its immediacy throws into relief the ambient conditions of our lives: social arrangements; embodied experience; and the possibilities and limit conditions for urgent problems of aesthetics, politics, ethics, and collective flourishing. How can we think about hedonism, anhedonia, and the social systems that mediate pleasure, pain, and numbness? Do we have our pleasures or do our pleasures have us? What would it mean to have a theory and politics of pleasure?
This course takes up the long history of pleasure and its problems, drawing on a body of thought that moves from Aristotle and Epicurus to contemporary hedonism, anhedonia, aesthetic theory, and critiques of capital. Our questions will include the following: What does pleasure have to do with visions of the good life? How do concepts of pleasure shift over time? How did the Enlightenment understand pleasure and its relationship to aesthetics? Is there such a thing as aesthetic or intellectual pleasure? What is sensuous pleasure and does it relate to other kinds of pleasure? What’s the relationship between pleasure and desire? What’s the relationship between pleasure and displeasure or pleasure and pain? What is sexual pleasure? How does pleasure get stitched to questions of ethics and morality, deviance and normativity? Why does pleasure often invoke quandaries of austerity, abundance, and labor? What should we make of idle pleasures or frivolous pleasures or guilty pleasures? What does pleasure look like under capitalism and why? Is pleasure always complicit with power? Can pleasure be subversive? What are the politics of pleasure? Readings are likely to include some or all of the following figures: Lucretius, Aristotle, Barthes, Karl Marx, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Lauren Berlant, Bertolt Brecht, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Saidiya Hartman, Immanuel Kant, Fred Moten, Benedict Spinoza, and Kate Soper.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 13 — October 04, 2021