LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX, BABY
By Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2012
“Our youth love luxury! They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders, contradict their parents, gobble up their food, and tyrannise their teachers!”
First, a disclosure! This note is about sex – the use of the word in the title is not a ruse to get you to read it. It is also about postmodern philosophy, and about making sense, for relics of my generation, of contemporary society. Most of us have relatives, friends and colleagues from subsequent generations, and most of us struggle to understand them; the sense of entitlement, the priority of the immediate, the importance of image over substance, the trivialization of relationships, and the lack of a sense of future consequences for today’s actions. This note covers sex, eroticism and love and relates them to changing times, attitudes and behaviour. It is based upon the paper ‘On Postmodern Uses of Sex’ found, of all places, in the reference material for the course on ‘Philosophy of Science’ at IRMA’s PhD programme.
So, let’s first talk about sex! This is a natural, and not a cultural, product that we share with most non-human species, and in its natural form it is always the same. To quote another author that struck a chord on this matter, ‘there has been more progress in cooking than in sex’. Its basic function is reproduction, and since this function is critical to the perpetuation of the species, nature has taken no chances – it has erred on the side of wastefulness by providing reproducing species with sexual energy and a capacity for sexual encounters far in excess of what the reproduction function would require.
Eroticism is about recycling that waste – filling the sexual act with surplus value over and above its reproductive function. It begins from reproduction and then transcends it, and reproduction turns into a constraint, simultaneously an indispensable condition and a thorn in the flesh of eroticism. There is a constant tension between the two. And the history of sex, according to the paper, is that of strategies to manage this tension.
In the modern era, two strategies vied with each other for domination. The first was of imposing the limits of the reproductive function of sex upon the freedom of erotic imagination, and relegating surplus sexual energy to the culturally suppressed and socially degraded spheres of pornography, prostitution and illicit liaisons. The second was the romantic strategy of linking eroticism to love and cutting its ties to sex, with love legitimising eroticism. Both strategies saw eroticism as needing a functional justification, and sought to anchor it in something other than itself – reproductive sex or love.
And now we come to the contemporary postmodern era, where eroticism becomes its own reason and purpose – it has lost its links with reproduction and love, and acquired lightness, volatility and the freedom to enter and leave any association of convenience. This emancipation of eroticism from sexual reproduction and love has been termed as ‘the erotic revolution’.
Now, your cynical minds at this stage would be telling you that all this is probably a marketing stunt concocted by some MBA-types to sell sex toys. Join the club! The paper, however, begs to differ with this view and says that it takes more than market forces, slick advertising, and a greed for profit to bring about a cultural revolution of this scale and depth.
So, how did this revolution come about? The author cites two causes, both relating to changes that came about with the advent of postmodern culture.
The first is that the earlier modern era had institutions charged with the responsibility of instilling discipline into and obtaining socially desirable conduct from people, institutions such as industrial factories and conscript armies. Most males passed through them and acquired habits that guaranteed obedience to social rules and societal order (and enforced them on females and children via the home and school). Contemporary society has no such institutional disciplining treadmills – it needs neither mass industrial labour nor conscript armies. The loss of these institutions led to a generational gap in the understanding of and adherence to traditional social mores, and therefore to the development and establishment of new mores.
The second relates to one of the features of postmodern culture; the condensed perception of the flow of time into ‘a series of self sustaining episodes, each to be lived in the fleeting moment, cut off from its past and its future consequences, with immortality to be lived instantly and enjoyed now, not hostage to the uncontrollable flow of objective time’. This tendency to cut the present from both the past and the future is paralleled by the tearing of eroticism from reproductive sex and love. Erotic imagination and practise, like all postmodern life practices, has acquired the freedom to experiment – to sail freely under the banner of pleasure seeking, and to negotiate its own rules.
The effects of the erotic revolution are many, and the author describes two of these. The first relates to the construction of postmodern identity. In traditional societies, identity was a given – it was based upon ethnicity, class, caste, race, etc. – you were born with one, and you were stuck with it. In the modern era, identity was a life project – you built up and worked towards a desired one, and stuck to it. Postmodern identities, however, are flexible, light, and rearrange-able at short notice. Solidity, permanence and commitment are seen as dangerous maladjustments to an unpredictable world, to the opportunities it offers, and to the speed with which it transforms yesterday’s assets into today’s liabilities. And eroticism, free from amorous and reproductive constraints, fits this well; it is made to measure for the multiple, flexible and evanescent identities of postmodern men and women. Sex can be framed into an episode, gender and other aspects of identity can be chosen and discarded, and sexuality need bear no relation to its reproductive role.
The second is the way all human relations are being vigilantly re-assessed for sex. In the home, with children, one has to be careful of overt and tangible expressions of parental love – children are now seen as sexual objects, and potential victims of parents and other adults who are sexual subjects. In the office, a casual remark can be construed as sexual provocation, and an offer of coffee sexual harassment. Sexual undertones are sniffed out in every emotion, and a threat suspected in every smile, gaze, and form of address. Every act can be seen as an act of sex, and every act of sex as a form of rape. This leads to human relations sans intimacy and emotionality, and the wilting of the desire to enter into them and keep them alive.
So, what do I think about all this? Well, though this paper pertains to western societies, and though the postmodern society in India coexists with traditional and modern ones, the points made do strike a chord. Young people are different in the ways described, and it is heartening to know that they are merely products of their times. The changes in homes, educational institutions and offices have taken place – speaking for myself, I am a regular recipient of dirty looks for holding doors open for ladies (and I promise you I had no intention of sex with any of them), and my wife recently fired me up for waking up the children (who were late for school) with a threat to pinch
But, how does one develop as a sexual subject without committing the sin of treating another as a sexual object? In a sexual encounter, are participants not simultaneously required to be subjects and objects of desire?
And, what about love? Is it an outdated human construction, dreamed up as a way to absorb excess sexual energy and to give eroticism space and respectability in an era gone by, as the paper suggests? Or does it have a role in human relations, irrespective of the era? As one who has experience of its pleasures and pain, I personally have difficulty subscribing to the former view. And those of you who have read ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ would remember the confusion the protagonist Lisbeth Salander, that poster girl for postmodernism, underwent when she experienced an emotion that she was unable to recognize or categorize – an emotion called love. It still exists! Yippee!!