‘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?
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.