Every time I walk over a bridge, I want to throw something off the side – my phone, my wallet, my keys, anything of personal value will suffice. This being a compulsion, it is naturally difficult to say precisely what is behind it. My hunch is that a misguided repudiation of the finality of the act, of the likely irretrievability of the flung object made possible by a structure whose very essence it is to connect, is involved. It is a denial of distance, of consequence, of function, of normality, of contradiction.

For all of these reasons, I believe this to be a paradigmatic example of an act of pleasure (a particular act, I should admit, I have yet to accomplish). It is common today to think of pleasure as, well, pleasurable. With the ubiquitous model of sexual pleasure in mind, pleasure is understood as something we incessantly strive for, and, in our age of increasing awareness and acceptance, something we should be able to achieve. A number of modern philosophers have questioned this common view of pleasure as natural and liberating. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, for instance, Michel Foucault contends that sexuality is “deployed” in modern society toward the end of a normalizing control, and the theorists of the Frankfurt School call attention to the many ways in which pleasure is used to ameliorate the alienation of late capitalist society (Herbert Marcuse dubs this phenomenon “repressive desublimation”). I agree with Foucault and the Frankfurt School that pleasure is indeed elicited by power and put in the service of commodity production, but a crucial lesson about pleasure itself is lost with an exclusive focus on what modern social structures repress, make possible, or actively summon to the end of subjection.

I will define pleasure, in its most primordial form, as the kind of satisfaction involved in doing what one wants to do – to one’s body, to other people, to things in the world – regardless of the consequences or consonance of the wish with “reality,” however one wants to understand this last term. One might object right away that I have a poor conception of pleasure. Our particular realities, rather than being separate from and obstacles to our pleasure, delimit the range of pleasures available to us. The pleasure of drinking a good wine, for instance, is acquired, and one that is, for those who can afford it, perfectly sanctioned by reality. In fact, most pleasures that are ready-to-hand do not qualify both as the fruits of instinct-like impulses and as affronts to social or physical reality.

Where then do we find a real, non-fantasized example of the kind of pleasure I am describing? Luckily, I have a visual illustration on hand (warning: the content is graphic).

It is tempting to see in these equally hilarious and terrifying acts a drive to aggress or dominate, but there is a particular quality missing from this description. What is most disturbing about the videos is not that children are hurting each other but that they are doing so with such obvious relish. In other words, the small truth made temporarily acceptable in the form of laughter, but often difficult even for parents to fully admit, is that children take an active pleasure in hurting others; that they are, in other words, little sadists.

Though I do believe there is an intimate connection between enjoyment and domination, my point in drawing attention to these special, home video-recorded moments is not to demonstrate the inherent sadism of pleasure but simply to show that one type of pleasure that children feel free to pursue involves a spur-of-the-moment wish and little to no care about the consequences of the action. We might say that it is “society” – in the form of parents, teachers, counselors, etc. – that eventually represses or otherwise curbs their behavior, but the attribution of such power and importance to external factors misses the fact that the behavior itself is internally contradictory. What is on display here is a marked failure to have absorbed a basic but difficult lesson, one that most adults only ever get a partial handle on: that you cannot hurt people who you also like without imperiling the ability to continue liking them; that love and aggression, in other words, are incompatible.

For my present purposes, the important take-away message here is that a certain type of pleasure can endanger the possibility of another type of pleasure, and thus that the impetus for curbing pleasure comes not only from “society” but also from the pursuit of other pleasures. In addition to sadistic pleasure, I would include, as other examples of pleasure-inhibiting pleasures, vacant staring, non-consensual touching, playing with one’s genitals in public, urinating and defecating at whim, close talking, screaming, arbitrary insertion of objects into bodily orifices, and numbing repetition, just to name a few. No doubt the manner in which all of these activities are constrained – ranging from physical coercion to reasoned patience – is tremendously important to the development of minimally tolerable people, but it is not merely on account of external imposition that they are renounced. No matter how “permissive” our environments, everyone must one day reckon, for instance, with the sad fact that sphincter control is a precondition of human relatedness.

In short, my argument – but not mine alone – is that pleasure is, at the most basic level, self-subverting. I take this conclusion to be a solid point of departure for a cogent account of human desire, and I also believe it has great pragmatic import. We tend to relate to our own pleasure in a simple linear fashion, to be either doggedly in pursuit of it, blinded to what’s around us, or else resentful and filled with rage at its frustration. To view pleasure as fundamentally self-subverting is to understand its attainment as an always ambivalent endeavor, and thus as only ever partially possible. (It is also to view its renunciation as similarly ambivalent, but that is the subject of a different piece.). The lesson is not, however, only a humbling one. This alternate stance, when not occluded by stubbornness or anger, encourages us to see pleasure’s self-subversion as a good in itself, and furthermore as generative of new possibilities for pleasure, possibilities that entail self-understanding and an appreciation for conflict and complexity. Humor, for instance, is unthinkable without the self-subversion of pleasure, and it is for this reason that children, despite often being the sources of great humor, are typically humorless.

In sum, when it comes to pleasure, the best we can hope for is, in the infinitely applicable words of Samuel Beckett, to “fail better:” to find pleasure in the fact that pleasure is always about something other than pleasure. Like most, I am constantly failing to fail better and to acknowledge the secondary effects of both kinds of failure, blinded as I am by desire or narcissism, driving myself through and over the lives of others with reckless abandon. But every once in awhile, in moments of seeming transcendence, I can appreciate the self-subversions of pleasure, and thereby experience gratitude for otherwise trivial realities – for instance, that my keys are still in my pocket.