Comfort, discomfort, and how one begets the other.

This week I’m at the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference – Cultures of Capitalism, held at Massey Univeristy in Wellington. Yesterday I had the privilage of listening to Andrew Hickey from the University of Southern Queensland. His talk was “Finding Comfort: Comfort as a Condition of Late Capitalist Lifestyle”.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cultural Studies, it can be largely theoretical and have less empirical research. So, as a biomechanist turned sociologist, I’m continually grappling with theory and trying my darndest to understand theoritical treatises.  Even Andrew’s talk, that I found very compelling, was difficult for me to follow at times, so my very brief overview certainly won’t do it and Andrew’s thoughts justice. Nonethless, it covered many elements, including the etymology of the word comfort, the atrocities in the Congo Free State by Leopold II of Belgium – i.e. capitalist use of slaves, and their discomfort, to create increased comfort for a select group of Belgians, the commodification of comfort via the marketing of things like furniture and plane seats – where comfort is esteemed and marketers try and get us to hunger for it and hunt after it.

My first thought was that in this capitalist culture, we have to have comfort (read as: Money) in order to experience other comforts or more comforts. My parkour brain quickly took over however. As a practitioner of parkour, an embodied practice, I often think about how concepts could be explained via the experiences of the body. Or perhaps rather, due to my inexpeience within this space, how can I explore the ideas in the way I know how – the body. Departing from where Andrew was going with his unpacking of comfort within capitalist culture, I found myself asking, how do our bodies understand and experience comfort and discomfort? Is one bad and one good? How does one come to experience them and how can get there on purpose?

My experience with parkour is a very tangible and personal example of how the – varying degress of – discomfort involved in physical training has resulted in greater feelings of comfort – i.e. quality of life.  If someone feels clumsy or disconnected from their bodies and/or clostrophobic or trapped within the city, then sustained parkour practice – a form of discomfort, at least initially – may enable and empower them and their bodies when in a city space (I realise parkour is not only an urban practice – don’t hear what I’m not saying). They now know how to move and how to navigate their world with greater degress of confidence. This is not only present in parkour or other physical exercise, but also in mental exercises, spirtual observances, and social challenges (e.g. social media fasts). It is my experience and therefore belief that in these such situations, the experience of discomfort – particularly when it is actioned on purpose – allows one to attain higher levels of comfort.

Converserly, the more comfort one seeks out and attains, the greater the opportunity for discomfort. If I continually seek after the comfort of the couch, I begin embracing inactivity. The negative health effects associated with low levels of physical activity are well documented, but there’s also the potential that seeking comfort will result in one discovering laziness, apathy, only willing to experience “optimal” conditions e.g. only this time, this texture, this temperature, this taste, will do.

This is still a half baked idea that I’ve thrown together in one night but I wanted to preserve it and thought I may as well share it. I’m also not suggesting that’s entirely new as it smells of things of read and heard and discussed before – it definitely ties into my feelings on risk and the attainment of safety.


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