Our sickly-sweet ob­ses­sion with com­fort will end up killing us

The Guardian Australia - - World News / Opinion - Brigid De­laney

The leaves are turn­ing red, and it is peak cruise ship sea­son on the wa­ter­ways of Canada. In Que­bec City, the main at­trac­tion, the thing the dis­gorged pas­sen­gers all lined up for, was not the mu­se­ums or churches but a pop­corn shop.

You could smell it for miles away, sickly sweet and but­tery. At the counter you or­dered your pop­corn with a top­ping: choco­late, salted caramel, vanilla syrup, pe­can syrup. Gi­ant tubs of choco­late or syrup cov­ered pop­corn is for kids, right? But the av­er­age age of the peo­ple in the queues was 60 plus.

The el­derly chil­dren ate their buck­ets of com­fort food wear­ing com­fort cloth­ing – baggy shorts, bright-coloured po­los and train­ers for men, ath­leisure leg­gings for women and those func­tional vest parkas. There were thou­sands of Ben­jamin But­tons walk­ing around town with their gi­ant tubs of pop­corn, sub­vert­ing the usual, old ways of age­ing – the scratchy tweed clothes and the palate for sharp things: whiskey, blue cheese, an­chovies on toast.

The cruise ships are all about com­fort, too. Ev­ery­thing is done for you. You’re fed and wa­tered and when on land, moved around the place in coaches with guides. You by­pass the dis­com­fort of the post-9/11 air­ports with their nasty queues and TSA full-body scans, re­mov­ing your shoes and hav­ing your mois­turiser con­fis­cated.

Last week, mar­vel­ling about the queues at the pop­corn shop, I thought about another type of sailor, from Tai­wan. In the late 1970s, Te­hch­ing Hsieh jumped ship in Philadel­phia and made his way to New York to make his name as an artist.

In the 1980s Hsieh made a se­ries of per­for­mance art pieces that are now be­ing cel­e­brated in this year’s Venice Bi­en­nale. Last year I met the now 66-year-old in Taipei to dis­cuss these works. The pieces all took a year to per­form and the each of them in­volved sig­nif­i­cant dis­com­fort to the artist.

There was the year he lived out­side, not en­ter­ing a build­ing for a year (ex­cept for a court­house when he was ar­rested), in New York dur­ing the cold­est win­ter on record.

There was the year he tied him­self to another artist, Linda Mon­tano, by a length of rope, and they had to spend 12 months in close prox­im­ity. And the year he spent in a cage mark­ing off the days. And the year he spent ev­ery hour clock­ing on to a time clock, break­ing up his sleep and ac­tiv­i­ties into hourly in­ter­vals.

In the 30 years af­ter mak­ing these works the in­ten­tional dis­com­fort he en­dured seems per­verse and shock­ing. In that time, the rich of the rich west have engi­neered our lives so that we rarely have to ex­pe­ri­ence even a twinge of dis­com­fort.

It’s not just the cruise ships and pop­corn. Com­fort is the or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple of modern life. So great is our need for com­fort – to be com­fort­able – that the most pop­u­lar prod­ucts are based around things ful­fill­ing this need and have in­ter­nalised within their very en­gi­neer­ing the ful­fil­ment of our need for com­fort.

What is Net­flix and on-de­mand TV, choco­late-cov­ered pop­corn, busi­ness class and pre­mium econ­omy, cruise ships, ath­leisure wear, our so­cial me­dia echo cham­bers, our on­line shop­ping and UberEats – other than things that sate our de­sire to be com­fort­able?

The New York Times colum­nist David Brooks has writ­ten about the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion weaned on praise and con­stant booster shots of self es­teem – ev­ery par­tic­i­pant gets a prize! But our de­sire for com­fort to be phys­i­cally and psy­chi­cally com­fort­able – to live within an inar­tic­u­lat­able but deeply felt and pre­cise band­width of ease that in­cludes ev­ery­thing from how a food feels in your mouth, to how socks rub on your feet, to how a phone sits in your hand, to how a drink or a movie or a com­puter game calms you – can be traced back to baby boomers. The chil­dren of those who lived with­out com­fort through ra­tioning, wars and de­pres­sion came of age in a time of un­prece­dented pros­per­ity. Their birthright was the quar­ter-acre block, mass pro­duc­tion of house­hold ap­pli­ances and time­sav­ing de­vices, tele­vi­sion, fast food, break­fast ce­re­als and af­ford­able air­line travel.

We are taught as con­sumers that if we are not com­fort­able, if the tem­per­a­ture is too hot or cold, or if the mu­sic is too loud or if the meal is not right, we can com­plain and things will be ad­justed for us.

We seek com­forts in con­trol­ling our in­side cli­mate through air­con and heat­ing – de­spite the fact that our short-term com­fort comes at a long-term cost to the cli­mate. Yes­ter­day, ABC ra­dio took calls about the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s new scheme to get peo­ple to turn off ap-

pli­ances – in­clud­ing air con­di­tion­ers dur­ing what’s termed peak times – ie dur­ing heat­waves – to pre­vent wide­spread power out­ages.

One com­plaint from a woman who used her air con­di­tioner was typ­i­cal and went along the lines of: “I’m not switch­ing my air con­di­tioner off on a hot day, I don’t want to be un­com­fort­able.” Of course you don’t.

But in­creas­ingly we are liv­ing in un­com­fort­able times. The sug­ary com­fort food is killing us. The com­fort­able tem­per­a­tures are killing the planet. Te­hch­ing Hsieh – an out­sider, a sailor who jumped ship, with lit­tle English – sought dis­com­fort and turned it into art. This dis­com­fort now seems pre­scient. A warn­ing of a time to come, where dis­com­fort is no longer about choice, but about sur­vival.

‘The main at­trac­tion was not the mu­se­ums or churches but a pop­corn shop.’ Com­pos­ite: Getty Im­ages/Jon Hel­ga­son for Alamy

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.