:: Article

Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism by Alfie Bown reviewed

By Stephen Lee Naish.

Alfie Bown, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism
(Zero Books, 2015).

To put into context a book that deals with the concept of ‘enjoyment’, and how enjoyment is interpreted, I thought it relevant to share some of the things I’m enjoying at the time of writing this. After what seems like a prolonged hiatus from liking popular music, I’m currently enjoying the dream pop of Canadian artist ‘Grimes’, and American songsmith Ryan Adams’ rock interpretation of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, which subsequently has led me to enjoy Taylor Swift’s original record. I’m also enjoying my tablet, laptop, and Android phone, conduits to further enjoyment of online content, film and music streaming, games, and hilarious memes. My tablet (which resembles something out of Star Trek: The Next Generation, something I also greatly enjoy) has been my gym companion, my motivational tool for an act I actually get very little enjoyment from, apart from when I see the psychical – though rare- improvements by body is undertaking. While the weather has been pleasurable I’ve been enjoying epic cycle adventures, a much more enjoyable way to stay fit. My bike, a mid range hybrid, was recently kitted out with saddle bags, new tires, new chain, and had an overhaul of the break and gear systems. An expensive endeavour that serves to prolong my enjoyment of this mode of transportation for a further year or so. There are many more facets of modern society that I enjoy and those that I don’t. From the short description of activities above it is rational to suggest that I ultimately enjoy the march of progress. In some areas of my life I have brought into the capitalist ideal that to live and enjoy life I must own shiny new things, experience popular activities, and look relatively fit and healthy whilst partaking in them. Alfie Bown’s concise debut book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) is the culmination of the modern experience of enjoyment, and a primer towards how enjoyment can be understood and interpreted in the fields of everyday life and academia. Bown takes us through the various steps of enjoyment via the means of ideological critiques of popular culture and psychoanalytic perspectives on how enjoyment affects us.

The first chapter, ‘Productive Enjoyment: Capitalism and Critical Theory’ as described by Bown in the book’s introduction, “discusses the ways in which seemingly radical moments of enjoyment are often coded within capitalist discourse and can be a form of conformation and adherence to the very structures that they see themselves as resisting.” And indeed here lies almost the whole premise of the book’s discussion. This part of the book also discusses the critical theory of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Zizek. Readers fearing the use of these names (or perhaps their overuse in modern critical theory) need not be concerned. Bown unpacks these theorists’ sometimes indigestible ramblings and takes from their work only what is required to move the study of enjoyment forward. Bown also includes an in-depth case study on the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, one that Bown claims as “to have suffered from a connection to postmodernism and a sense that he invests too heavily in the postmodern world he writes about, which has meant his work has gone out of fashion.” Whilst this first chapter is certainly the most theory heavy within the book, the conversational tone involves and enlightens the reader and sets up the premise for what is to come.

The book’s second chapter, ‘Unproductive Enjoyment: ‘A Culture of Distraction’ and the two case studies of the games Candy Crush Saga and Football Manager is where the book becomes devilishly enjoyable, as it begins to connect with activities of our everyday lives. This chapter also illuminates Bown’s own thesis. Here he expands on the contributions and editorial oversight he has given to the online philosophy/culture website Everyday Analysis, and the subsequent books Are Animals Funny? and Twerking to Turking (Zero Books), in which objects, events, and features of everyday life are placed under short and sharp philosophical scrutiny. Whilst the first chapter may appear theory heavy to the non-academic, the author insures that his analysis of enjoyment is placed in activities that we can all relate to. Whilst these endeavours might be perceived as a waste of time in society’s eyes, it is the act of playing games such as Candy Crush and Football Manager that become extra-circular to our everyday lives, and represent a quiet defiance to the capitalist model of endless productivity. As Bown argues “As soon as no compulsion to work exists, it is ‘shunned like the plague’ in favor of Buzzfeed, Candy Crush and Football Manager…‘distracting’ enjoyment works to hide alienation and prevent organized rejection of working conditions.” Yet in fact the logic of Candy Crush offers a satisfactory sense of attainting order and a pleasurable experience when the game goes well.

Bown’s use of the Lacanian-Žižekian idea of ‘the big Other’, introduced in the text as an imaginary “god-like figure who appears to watch over us and has the power to ensure our conformation to the order of things,” is a brilliant distillation of the way in which our society functions on praise and affirmation of our opinions and tastes, as well as how our society is obsessed with putting ideas and experiences out into the world via social media. Bown sums this up as:

In some cases, what we send out to be seen by the other on social media may not be noticed, or even seen, by any individual (on Twitter especially) but we nonetheless feel it has been seen by the imaginary big Other and affirmed. We feel as though something has been publicly displayed and we imagine public approval. The ‘big Other’ may be imaginary, but it forms a fusion of countless individuals we desire to impress.

The book then moves on to ‘Irrational Enjoyment: Jouissance and Enjoyment Studies’. Jouissance, meaning physical or intellectual pleasure, is interpreted in the text via Jacques Lacan as,

an enjoyment that has no apparent purpose. In English translations of his work the word is usually kept untranslated because whilst it does mean ‘enjoyment,’ it also suggests a specifically self-destructive kind of sexual enjoyment or compulsion and should be thought of as separate from general ideas of pleasure.

Certainly the case studies that Bown draws focus on, the worldwide smash hit ‘Gangam Style’, the act of twerking, and the bloody violent television series Game of Thrones embody the meaning of Jouissance. Whilst finding any real productive pleasure in the annoying ‘Gangham Style’ is a futile task for most, it didn’t stop millions of people partaking in endless recreations of the song’s music video and the weird ‘horse riding’ dance style that accompanied it. Twerking entered the pop culture lexicon with Miley Cyrus’ infamous crotch grind of singer Robert Thicke at the 2013 MTV VMA’s, again an example of Jouissance ‘self-destructive kind of sexual enjoyment’. A car crash we can barely look away from. And this also applies to Game of Thrones, but doubles back on ‘Gangam Style’ and the act of twerking:

The violence of the show can be thought of in terms of sadistic voyeurism and likened to a whole history of gory television and film. The overt sexual imagery (more pronounced on television than in the novels) can be thought of as a reflection of carnal desire and a whole history of sexuality and the desire to speak increasingly about sex.

The case studies included can be thought of as visually grotesque and a kind of ‘sadistic voyeurism’, yet our participation in them is in an act of defiant Jouissance. Enjoyment without a means to an end.

What Bown offers is a complex, yet fully engaging study of enjoyment in modern society, and of modern society. Whilst the book itself is slim, there is enough meat on the bones, and use of cultural theorists to further expand on university based discourse. However, the book functions better, as proven by the work done in Everyday Analysis, in opening up a public discussion on our enjoyment of items, activities, and events coterminous to popular culture and the virtues of our existence within a capitalist society. Does playing mobile computer games, enacting a viral craze, or watching Miley Cyrus twerk her way to stardom hinder or enhance us? To enjoy or not to enjoy, that is the question.


Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, originally from the UK, but now living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books), and two forthcoming books, one on Dennis Hopper, and the other on Dirty Dancing. He has had essays and articles published in numerous magazines and journals. Follow him on twitter @steleenaish

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015.