Wednesday, May 21, 2008
(12:54 PM) | John Emerson:
Wednesday SexMy internet schtick over at Unfogged is the "no relationship policy". What I have proposed is that instead of moping around about being single, or beating your brains out going out on "dates" and so on in the hope of de-singling yourselves, and instead of grumbling about your unsatisfactory relationships, you should just declare victory and remain single. Any problem can be solved merely by declaring it to be a goal, and I've been suggesting that people should use this method.
When I say this, people invariably ask themselves "Is John really serious about this?" And as Lacanians, you all know the answer already: "How the hell would John know if he's really serious about this?" It is true, however, that I've been single for about 30 years and that for the last 20+ years that's mostly been by choice. At one point I just looked at what I wanted (too much) and at what I was willing and able to offer (not enough), and I realized that the odds of a happy match were not good.
I came to this understanding after I had broken up with a woman who was devoted to me but who, I became convinced, had no real idea who I was or what life with me would be like. I could have easily done a successful bait and switch, but I suspected that it would all turn bad in the end, so I decided that, given my situation and nature, singleness was my best actual option. And I really do think that people should consider this option, though it's not for everyone and I don't think that is the best of all options.
In the present conjuncture, singleness represents failure and abnormality, and success and normality are the crux of American life (along with home ownership and remodeling). Domestic partnerships (and now gay marriage) will soon allow almost everyone to be normal and successful, and to devote themselves to home ownership and remodeling; but if normality and success are themselves the problem, as I believe, all that means is that it is now up to nominally heterosexual males to provide America with the weirdo failures it so badly needs.
Certainly Luther was to blame for this. Before Luther, sex was not an obligation, but a guilty pleasure for weak people incapable of celibacy; but after Luther you had conjugal duties and fear of homosexuality. And as Arendt pointed out, before a certain point (probably around 1750 or 1800) people were worried that they'd be overwhelmed by desire and that it would ruin their lives, but after that point people worried that they'd dry up and run out of desire entirely.
And why not? Sex had become an obligation.
This is one of Nietzsche's themes, more or less, but I think that his etiology was all wrong. Priestly celibacy didn't reach laymen, and most of them didn't really feel guilty either. There were two different normality-options, hierarchally-arranged. Nietzsche's heroes were all lay Christians: Polish noblemen, Renaissance swashbucklers, etc. Nietzsche wrote about the world he knew, and his real villains should have been Luther, Kant, the German scientific university, utilitarianism and economics, and Prussian (and maybe Roman) law.
As we see in Foucault, sexual repression and asceticism were not necessarily Christian, and their goal was not necessarily repressive. It was often voluntary, and the goals were self-control and liberation from the whipsaw compulsions of desire -- and from the infinite obligations that came from marriage, parenthood, and community membership.
Next came the human sciences. Matter is the substance of physics. Life is the substance of biology. What is the human substance? Rationalists and empiricists said Mind, but there were many problems with that. Race, the economy, physiology, culture, nation and sexuality / desire were other suggested candidates. The reduction of humanness to desire led to an enormous output of sexuality literature, as Foucault documented. (There was a huge production of digestion-literature too, from Nietzsche through Bertand Russell and Kellogg Bran Flakes to Whole Foods and You Are What You Eat.)
Sexuality writers differed about what sexuality really was and what should be done about it, but they all agreed that it was very very important. There was a proliferation of discourse mandating sexual repression or expression and developing analyses and ideologies. Psychoanalysts claimed to be able to know you by knowing your sexuality, and they claimed to be able to cure you by tweaking your sexuality. Or you could know yourself by knowing your own sexuality, or free yourself by freeing your sexuality.
Except that you couldn't. Sexuality was never all that. And by now the marriage obligation of sexuality has been overlaid by the liberation obligation, the feminist obligation, the upper middle class obligation, the global warming obligation, the various rainbow obligations, and so on. Yet it's still supposed to be wild and crazy and fun, a world of freedom where you can escape the limitations and impediments of everyday reality. Random and free and completely unimpeded, but a source of security too. You will be loved for your own imaginary true best self and rewarded for your hidden wonderfulness -- with the love of a supermodel who can afford you.
But most lottery tickets are losers.