Reviewed by Sheena Culley
At last it has been recognised that to think comfort without its relationship to discomfort is an almost impossible task. Jacques Pezeu-Massabuau’s A Philosophy of Discomfort recognises a dynamic relationship between comfort and discomfort and is therefore an important development in the study of (dis)comfort. Pezeu-Massabuau is clear that comfort and discomfort are to be understood as ‘comparative’ (13). Instead of dwelling on certain discomforts that are distressing to humanity, such as overpopulation or illness, A Philosophy of Discomfort instead seeks to interrogate the ‘quotidian ill-being’ and ‘well-being’ in the attempt to embrace discomfort. How could discomfort be grasped and utilised to our advantage? Could it be desired, or could we even develop a ‘new hedonism’ out of it? (14).These are the questions that this imaginative book poses.
Discomfort is such a broad term that can be understood as psychological, material and corporeal, that a study of such a subject runs the risk of being one of anything and everything. ‘Everything that causes friction or conflict with the material and human environment essentially fits the term ‘discomfort’’ (15). However, Pezeu-Massabuau sharply observes that comfort’s etymology relating to consolation, encouragement and fortification can be associated with the idea of ‘well-being’ and thus discomfort can be seen as a form of ‘ill-being’ (17). This reminds us of the connection between discomfort and disease, whereby disease is quite literally a dis-ease, referring to disorder and disruption in general terms. The focus on discomfort as ill-being provides a fresh perspective to the field of scholarship.
Although the title suggests that the book might present the reader with a theory of discomfort, the style is more akin to a poetics, overtly referencing the work of Gaston Bachelard, and drawing on a variety of sources from literature, architecture and contemporary culture. It is not the intention of this study to boast the ‘rustic charms of an antiquated thatched cottage’, nor to question ‘the pleasures of luxury’ (13). Nor is it the case that the home is viewed as a historical object. Due to the Bachelardian influence, home remains a central theme, but the house is to be understood as a metaphorical or imaginary space rather than a material manifestation of comfort or discomfort. Discomfort can thus be understood as a ‘topological disorder’ in terms of physical, psychological or cyber space (38, 118). As a model of discomfort, we are presented with a selection of unheimlich houses. The silent house has all the material comforts we can imagine, but prevents a connection between the inhabitant and the space; the inefficient house cannot shelter us; the half open house prevents intimacy; and the unhealthy house allows for a slow deterioration of the inhabitant’s health over time (40-41). The topology of discomfort is traced by examining the relationship of the body to the home, and both comfort and discomfort are cast as aesthetic concepts in the broadest sense of the term.
One of the most original aspects of A Philosophy of Discomfort comes from the idea of discomfort as a practice, termed ‘anti-comfort’. In one example the potential of discomfort is interrogated in the context of contemporary health and fitness practices. Pezeu-Massabuau describes his personal example of ‘anti-comfort’, setting his alarm clock early in the morning and abandoning the warmth and security of his bed for a fifteen-minute run in the cold. As a result of the discomfort experienced from the run, the comfort of the warm shower with which he is compensated is felt intensely, and is transformed from a mundane occurrence to a form of hedonistic enjoyment (58).
How much freedom can be associated with such practices? Pezeu-Massabuau recognises the influence of the media and industry in setting health and fitness ideals. Conforming to certain standards can be seen as a form of ‘pseudo-morality’ (60), and depriving ourselves of comfort for a greater reward a form of asceticism (92-3). In this example we see a tension between comfort as a form of cultural control and one of individual pleasure or satisfaction that runs throughout the book. Comfort is later posed as an ‘illusion of freedom’ (82) and is subjected to a Debordian critique, whereby it is linked to leisure time and consumption: comfort has become ‘a mirage of happiness’ (86).
The idea of using the home in an eternal rather than a historical fashion to talk about (dis)comfort is not without its problems. To see the home as an extension of the human subject is a distinctly modern phenomenon. We see a struggle to overcome this problem: ‘Comfort is reduced to a uniform representation of the home’ (84). Despite the author recognising that comfort has a hard time breaking free from Victorian ideals, a bourgeois ghost fleetingly haunts this text. At one point, ‘the contemplation or practice of art’, and ‘the leisure of travel’ are referred to as ‘the most basic pleasures’ (31). Is comfort always linked to pleasure? What is the role of class in such a discussion? The privileging of domestic space in studies of discomfort and comfort raises many questions.
The dynamic transition between states of discomfort and comfort is illuminated via a selection of literary examples. No study of comfort is complete without a discussion of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, who in this case is recalled as an example of the role of memory in anticipating comfort. Whilst stranded on the island, Crusoe’s past gives him a sense of moral well-being in a present devoid of material comforts (76). In another vivid example, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov is stuck in a ‘euphoria in total passivity’ where he cannot tolerate discomfort, stopping him from experiencing the anticipation of comfort (73). Discomfort can lead to revelation, whereas a permanent state of comfort cannot. The temporality of comfort and discomfort examined here is another strength of this book and could be much more explicitly drawn out.
Whether discomfort can really be harnessed to our advantage remains open to question. Where hope of comfort exists, such as for Crusoe, or in the practice of anti-comfort, there is no doubt that it can. On the other hand we are also told that corporal discomforts such as ‘physical misery, hunger or illness leave us passive and discouraged, neutralize our initiative and creativity and leave us defenceless against the seductions of the world and of soothing and protective ideologies’ (33). Uncontrollable discomfort is worryingly seen as a pacifying force. This leaves the theory of anti-comfort in a somewhat limited position: it seems that discomfort is only useful when we have agency over our well-being and can choose discomfort in the knowledge that comfort will follow. The democratisation of anti-comfort does not seem possible. Discomfort may potentially lead to revelation under some circumstances, but it is far from being revolutionary.
3 June 2013