Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Tag: sex

Doggy-style; or, why sex is civilized

‘It’s not fifty-fifty like a business transaction. It’s the chaos of eros, we’re talking about, the radical destabilization that is its excitement. You’re back in the woods with sex. You’re back in the bog. What it is is trading dominance, perpetual imbalance.’
– Philip Roth, The Dying Animal


‘You’re back in the woods with sex’. We talk about wild sex, animal sex, doggy-style, shagging like rabbits and so on and so on. All of these are images of some supposedly brute animality, some primitive urge that rages inside us: our evolutionary inheritance from the cavemen. The images suggest pure, material drives, unadulterated and undiluted.

What this suggestive picture ignores is the role that language plays in sex. Non-sophisticated sketches of the nature of man always seem to think of humans as basically animals but with language added on as a sort of extra. But this misses the point. Language is not just one activity of man among others, such as eating, drinking, producing etc.; it fundamentally transforms the very nature of all the other activities. Eating is no longer just eating: food becomes a world of signs, rituals, habits, and meanings. How else could diseases like anorexia or bulimia arise if signification were not a fundamental component in the process of consumption?

"Two Figures and a Cat" - Picasso

Physically, on the surface, sex appears as the most animalistic activity in which humans still engage. ‘Doggy-style’ is so-called because of obvious physical resemblances to the animal world. But these superficial similarities hide the truth: as Freud well knew, it is during sex that humans are at their most human, their least animal. Why is this? Again, because of language and meaning. The body and its accessories are captured in a network of signs, all of which play a crucial role in sex. A mouse might seek shelter in a high-heeled shoe, but it is only a human who can be aroused at the sight or the sound of one. We humans are all, to some extent, ‘natural fetishists,’ and we are so precisely because of language.

So, if this is the case, then, is it true that ‘you are back in the woods with sex’? Well, yes and no. You are back in the woods with sex to the extent that humans have conjured up a whole symbolic world centred on the woods and the primitive. We have imbued the natural world with human, linguistically-mediated desires, ones which animals themselves could never experience. Just take the great ‘doggy-style’, for example: when two dogs engage in sex it is natural and non-linguistic. It does not have a ‘meaning’ for them in the sense in which a human could experience ‘meaning’. But when two humans have sex ‘doggy-style’ it is an act rampant with signs; they have transformed themselves into what they (wrongly) think of as a bestial state of pure desire. But eros is not pure – it is always mediated by a network of symbols.

The most outrageously barbarous of sexual acts are, in fact, simultaneously the most deeply civilised.

On Flirting

Althussers Ideological State Apparatuses? Dont even get me started, love!

"Ideological State Apparatuses? Don't even get me started, love!"

If reality really is only a series of immediate, empirically measurable phenomena, then how do we account for that most perilous and complex of human activities: flirting? Flirting is a process of reading another person and interpreting reality. It’s a whole series of shunting and shifting, toe-dipping and testing of waters, advances and retreats (most of which are invisible). It is plagued by questions of hermeneutics: ‘Why is she touching her hair like that – what does it mean?’, ‘Why is he looking at me and smirking slightly – what does it signify?’, ‘Did he look at me for one second too long on purpose, or is he just slightly autistic?’. Flirting is one of the supreme arenas of empirical, factual incertitude.

What is flirting, anyway? How do we know when an act of flirtation has taken place? What appears to one person as a completely neutral act – the shaking of a bracelet, or the licking of a lip – might seem to another to be a clear signal that the game is on! In terms of the second example, a bio-chemist could reel off myriad facts about the chemical constitution of saliva, or the digestive capacities of enzymes; an industrial cosmetics manufacturer could explicate the molecular nature of the lip gloss; and a speech therapist could explain the oral muscles involved in the action of lip-licking; none of them, however, could tell you definitively whether the lady in question happened to be feeling particularly parched, or whether she was insinuating that if I continued to regale her with the minutiae of Althusser’s theory of ideology then my reward would be an act of fellatio.

And this is serious stuff. I’m sure we’ve all experienced – especially as teenagers – the pre-first kiss abyss. My lover and I, standing beneath the midnight stars in a run-down park, with empty bottles of White Lightning scattered at our feet: who dares to make the move, who has the audacity to make the leap of faith? Scientific rationalism breaks down here. This is the moment where the objective laws of material reality cease to matter – literally. It is the moment of sheer potentiality, one which threatens to explode in a million directions all at once. If I try to kiss her, will she kiss me back, pounce on me, scream for help, or slap me? Will I be celebrated as a bold and virile Casanova, or will I be decried as an attempted rapist? There is nothing certain about the act of flirting.

In that respect, it is not a million miles from the act of faith.

Night Couple

Night Couple

Contra the Atheists: In Defence of Joy and Losers

Painting by Blake

'Sconfitta' by Blake

Common perceptions of Christians may well include the following: they are gullible, scarily amicable,  sexually unadventurous, irrational, zealous, happy-clappy, generally very boring, teetotal, cheesy, disconnected from reality, hypocritical, and in need of a heart-warming fable that they can believe in in order to feel better about their pathetic selves and less afraid of death. Now, if we’re honest, much of that is often true. After all, the Church is not meant to be a gathering-place of perfect human beings, but rather a communion of losers and failures – or, to put it as Eagleton once did, the shit of the earth. Jesus was, of course, contrary to what right-wing American zealots might argue, history’s all-time greatest loser.

What I want to focus on in this post is the last of these stereotypes: that Christians seek refuge from the real world in a cosy, cockle-warming tale. Those who think like this (and I was once a most vociferous proponent) generally tend to view themselves as enlightened, rational beings who have the fortitude to see reality for what it really is, not through any rose-tinted spectacles. Their world is one guided by ‘science’, by which I mean their faith in the capacity of practising scientists to solve the mysteries of human existence and to explain presently inexplicable phenomena. History, in general, is perceived to be an endless march of linear progress which is roughly in line with scientific and technological advancements, and the transcendent never much exceeds a hazy agnosticism. As for death, that’s the end: the great abyss.

With such a gloomy and unimaginative horizon, is it any wonder that certain people turn to Christianity? Atheists get Darwin. Not bad, all things considered, but Christians get Darwin and flame-engulfed angels! Atheists get an abyss, but Christians get – more terrifyingly – a bodily resurrection of all humans who must then give an account of themselves before the source of all being…who died for them! You couldn’t even write this shit! So, whilst it is, of course, true that many people take shelter in the Church so as to feel better about their lives, we might well want to stop to ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s rather like the whole ‘altruism versus egoism’ debate: did I help this little old lady with her shopping because I really wanted to help her, or did I do so because really I wanted to feel good about myself? Why couldn’t it be both?! Helping an old lady is good and doing good makes one feel good. Our popular conceptions of morality have been corrupted by the sadistic Kantian concept of duty: doing good must make us feel bad. Absurd!

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

No, Christianity is not for fools (well, it is but it isn’t, if you catch my drift). It is all very well for atheists to spout on about ‘proof’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but when it comes to the crunch it is secularists who are often (not always) the most gullible and least critical thinkers. It is totally acceptable for an atheist to invoke the dominant ideology of scientific rationalism – the great ‘opium of the people’ of our age – without having any specialist scientific knowledge whatsoever, whereas a Christian is forced to fight her intellectual corner in terms of science, history, theology, philosophy, etc. An atheist is under no obligation (other than worldly law) to accept responsibility for the state of the world or for the wrong of a particular situation; all they have to do is bemoan it, and go on reproducing the status quo which gave rise to it. A Christian, on the other hand, must accept that for all wrong that exists in the world, she is personally responsible; moreover, as if that weren’t enough already, she must do all in her power to ‘make God possible’ in no matter how dire a context. That Christians often don’t (à la moi) is not always a sign of their hypocrisy (although with me it sometimes is), but rather of their humanity.

Of course, many atheists are wonderful people who do wonderful things (the socialists the greatest amongst them), and they’re often a damn sight better than most Christians: give me Dawkins the Banal over Bush the Destroyer any day. But at the heart of Christianity is a political prisoner who was mutilated and then crucified by an imperial regime. It doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. Now, many atheists appreciate the horror and evil of the world – they are absolute realists – and for that I applaud them, but Christians know the darkness too. The difference for them is that they know a second, more potent, darkness – darker than the most infernal obscurity. So dark, in fact, that it is known to them as light. For them, death and evil have been conquered: to remind them that, despite this fact, we must still do all we can here on earth to stay true to that message is absolutely legitimate and necessary; but to deny them joy by claiming that it is only happy-clappy claptrap is nothing but the purest bourgeois ideology.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

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