December 15th, 2002

A Nightmare

My nightmares are usually ephemeral: either I wake from them disoriented, disturbed and forgetful, or they are quite contingent upon what I've just lived through and too tied to these contingencies to make much sense. There's one exception, though; its horror still resonates with me. Perhaps it was because it is a recurring nightmare, perhaps because it was so intense the first time I experienced it, perhaps because it began not as a nightmare but as a flu-induced hallucination.

I am lying in bed, and I am looking at the ceiling. There is a bowl-shaped object on the ceiling, the rim facing down. (I don't know how it got there, but it is present.) It is made of a porcelain-like substance that lacks, however, porcelain's translucent nature. It is simply and solidly white. It is also flawless--there are no surface irregularities visible, no places where the finish wore thin or where handling produced a vanishingly small crack or where the lip is short of a perfect curve. The bowl, in short, is inhumanly perfect.

When I experienced the nightmare for the first time in its hallucinatory state, I began screaming. I don't react nearly as badly now, when that hallucination revisits me in a nightmare, but I still find it terrifying.
  • Current Music
    U2, "One"

Meditations on Male Desire (A Necessary Digression into History and Theory--Part 4)

I don't believe in the Marxist-derived theory that economic structures predetermine culture, the "superstructure" thesis. Or, at least, I don't believe that there is necessarily a particularly tight connection between economic structure and cultural superstructure. Let's leave aside the question of what culture is--whether one should aim for the broad anthropological definition which would include economic organization as a component, or whether one should aim for a more traditional and narrow definition and if so whose definition (British, French, German) should we use. (For the record, in this post I'll use a generic narrow definition).

The connection between (narrowly-defined) culture and economics can go both ways: it would be exceptionally difficult for a tribal nomadic society to sustain a modern industrial economy without extensive external subsidies (for instance, Mongolia during Communism), and it was difficult and in the end impossible for the old Celtic tribal/clan culture of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands to exist in the face of a determined and prosperous capitalist English-based British state. Cultural attitudes could strongly determine the form of capitalism, too, even when these attitudes if overly rigid could produce relative stagnation--examine the different capitalisms of the developed world (the US, Japan, the different European models) and then the different ways in which developing economies have tried to narrow the gap (South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, Turkey).

Why is this important? Simply because my economic model of sexual attraction is based on the assumption that it's always possible for a person to act as his (or her) innate desires would push them, without regards as to how said individual's culture (or cultures) inform those innate desires in the first place, or limit their manifestation.

There have been, in past centuries in Europe at least, decided fluctuations in sexual mores. Compare England under James I, for instance, with the Commonwealth under the Puritans; and then, compare Commonwealth England with England under James II (he of the 13 illegitimate children). Ben Jonson could suggest (if jokingly) in the 1590's that Jesus had a sexual relationship with the Apostles; in the 1650's, he'd have ended up dead at best. The major birfurcation, though, lies in Foucault's distinction in Discipline and Punishmentbetween pre-modern and early modern states, between those regimes which sought to maintain their authority over the masses through showy spectacles of vengeance and those regimes which sought to maintain their authority through a carefully-regulated and egalitarian regime of punishment.

Pre-modern regimes could be spectacularly authoritarian and destructive when they chose to be, particularly in colonial settings which demanded modern levels of control. Their attention spans, though, were strictly limited in time and space. Public morality did concern them; public scandals--including sexual scandals--did precipitate massive retaliatory responses. Whatever occurred outside of the realm of the public, though, whether in the ill-supervised communities of the peasants or the urban poor with their own distinctive moralities, or in the intimate circles of the wealthy bourgeois and jaded aristocrats, could be--if not accepted--then tolerated.

The birth of the modern was characterized by the development of the modern bureaucratic state (an entity which, by virtue of its size and its professional procedures, could exert--if not more force--then more regular evenly-distributed force upon society). The state, for the first time, was able to impose codes of sexual behaviour on the entire population, consistently applying a morality which until that point was usually more honoured in the breach than otherwise. A new sexual order, characterized at least theoretically by heterosexual monogamy stripped of desire and passion and confined by duty within marriage and by celibacy outside of marriage, was imposed on the genral population. In fact, this morality was not accepted, even by those who were its supposed paragons. Hypocrisy was key to this new social order.

What did the modern state do to sexual desire? It regulated all public manifestations, extending the public to include what had once been considered the private, whether because of its marginality to the main public or because of its authentically private nature. This forced many people who didn't want to incur criminal penalties from the state (now coupled with social penalties from their peers) to become celibate, at least outside of the context of the norm of passionless heterosexual marriage; others, either braver or less thoroughly socialized in the norms of modernity, continued but in secret. The apex of the modern state in the early 20th century coincided with new attention paid to sexual attraction, to attraction without manifestation, to that which was only thought, medicalizing those manifestations of sexuality which fell outside of the norm.

And now, we find ourselves in a post-modern era. The modern state has declined, from without in the face of supranational confederations like the European Union and commoner manifestations of globalization (public- and private-sector alike), from within by the discrediting of traditional elites in the face of the welfare state and a broad-based social liberalization. The masses have triumphed; and, despite Ortega y Gasset's fears, their presence on the world-historical stage hasn't plunged the world into a nightmare of simplistic slogans and perpetual war, but--at least in the more prosperous democracies--a rather pleasant existence. We live in post-modern societies which frown on hypocrisy, and dislike repression--including sexual repression. With remarkable ease, most of the old codes of sexual conduct have stopped being enforced in the general rush towards a rather spectacularly different universe of sexual attraction uncharacterized by repression. This new universe will probably be dominated by serial monogamy, whether heterosexual or non-heterosexual, though I don't think I can quite categorically exclude other unlikelier possibilities

But still, there can never be a clean break with the past; its legacies always remain. There are still segments of society (fundamentalists of all religions, please stand up) which are adamantly opposed to the post-modern sexual morality; older sexual moralities, whether the discreet pre-modern or the more repressive modern, persist. And so long as an individual is part of society, he (or she) will be influenced by these legacies. The definitions of what an individual determines to be attractive, or the limits of what an individual perceives to be even theoretically attractive, will be influenced by these legacies.
  • Current Music
    U2, "Numb" (New Mix)

Meditations on Male Desire (The Permeable Self--Part 5)

I concluded the last posting in this series by mentioning that there can never be a clean break with the past, and that this is true in the loaded area of sexual attraction and romance. You can't separate culture from a person and produce his (or her) true sexuality, simply because human beings are social creatures who generally define themselves in connection with the culture or cultures in which they live. You can't sandblast culture away, simply because if you do you'll end up with someone whose identity has been completely effaced.

Earlier this weekend, I was reading Bert Archer's The End of Gay again. In it, he refers to the research of one Dr. Dean Hamer, a medical researcher who has been trying to demonstrate a genetic cause for homosexuality. Hamer concluded, on the basis of his research, that there was a simple and stark divuision between heterosexuals and homosexuals, with no We can take it for granted that Dr. Hamer's questionable assertion is false. There are--I can safely attest, and not only from personal experience--plenty of people who legitimately identify themselves as bisexual. It's silly for him to equate sexuality (a very fluid area, influenced by personal experience and wider culture) with such an easily-measurable and delimited phenomenon as electricty. Besides, his methodology is hopelessly flawed anyway--his sample isn't broad enough, his evidence for the dissectees' pre-mortem sexuality is vague, and, well, it's just silly.

Let's say, purely for the sake of argument, that Hamer is right, that people who identify themselves neither as strictly heterosexual nor as strictly homosexual are--to be charitable--confused about their true nature, encoded in their genes. So what? Nature hardly has all that much to recommend it, given as how until the development o modern medical technologies you were lucky if you lived to the age of 50 and didn't die in childbirth or from tetanus caught from a rusty nail. Who cares if you're interested in people of the same gender (or opposite gender) because of your genes or because you think it'd be a cool idea? Some articles (the one and the other) from the British magazine Body Politic go on to make my point better than I can.

Hmm. I guess that this puts an end to this occasional series.