In Defense of Postmodernism

Words, as they are used, often do not make sense.  This does not, however, make those words’ uses nonsense.  If I say, for instance, that “we are in deep water, so we had better get a shovel,” this does not make sense, but it is not nonsense.  The mixing of metaphors confuses a meaning, but it does not deprive the sentence of meaning altogether.

In light of this very simple premise, I am going to make two points about postmodernism:

  1. Most of what is called postmodernism, including a great deal of gender studies, does not really make sense, but neither is it nonsense.
  2. Most uses of the word “postmodern” are themselves nonsensical.

Our first story begins with a wide chasm: on one side, there stand the “ordinary” people, including the empirically-minded, scientifically-grounded.  On the other side, we find so-called postmodern academics, residing predominantly in the humanities, especially literature, and the social sciences.  Each has studied increasingly complex and semantically-sophisticated texts for at least a decade, and every new conceptually-laden term, of which there is an ever-growing dictionary, widens the chasm.  This canyon of divide was started quite a few hundred years ago, by men of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau–even though these men would likely find the present-day beliefs of the so-called postmoderns to be unintelligible–for they held as a premise that nature (or fact) and culture (and value) were essentially different and unrelated spheres of human activity, knowledge, and existence.

But empiricist Enlightenment writing, even at its most abstruse, seldom strayed far from the vernacular.  It held to a belief in human nature, and in the existence and importance of nature generally, even if it thought this nature was not essentially connected with culture.  Their concern in this separation was a practical one: which of the two separate spheres will control the other.  Contrariwise, the postmodernists, though still concerned with control, have wandered quite far from common language and nature both.  The linguistic obscurity can quite probably be laid at the feet of Martin Heidegger, who should be considered one of the fathers of a genuine postmodernism.  The denial of nature is a more complex thread, but one which develops out of Darwinian evolutionary theories, positivism, and the radical events of the twentieth century through which culture rapidly complexified, distancing itself even farther from the natural in ever more-oppositional ways.

I won’t both with nature, here–too complex.  But language…

Heidegger was a controversial figure from the first day he came into the public eye (or perhaps even before).  His first major work which was published, Being and Time (1927), quickly became famous and quickly confused a lot of people.  It speaks, as you might expect, of being and of time, but with a radical new presentation which sparked no small amount of debate, including whether his work was nonsense.  Such accusations were not rare.  After all, the man wrote sentences like this: “World-time is ‘more Objective’ than any possible Object because, with the disclosedness of the world, it already becomes ‘Objectified’ in an ecstatico-horizonal manner as the condition for the possibility of entities within-the-world” (Sein und Zeit 419/471).  To most people, I imagine, that sounds like gibberish.  To someone who has made an extensive study of Heidegger’s other writing–especially his courses and lectures from 1925-1930–it makes more sense.  But even with such study, that sentence poses interpretative challenges.

Nevertheless, Heidegger captured the attention of countless thinkers in the twentieth century.  His thought was new and exciting.  He had an aura of mystery that was not squelched even by a postwar suppression of his ability to teach, on account of his affiliation with the Nazi party.  Thinkers still flocked to his work and often strove to meet him when they had the opportunity; even Frenchmen who had suffered at the hands of the Germans, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who considered himself Heidegger’s ally in thought.  But many others, even those who rejected his ideas, adopted his manner: especially the school of Critical Theory, founded by Max Horkheimer–a contemporary of Heidegger’s, who attended some of his lectures in the 1920s.  Though Horkheimer fundamentally disagreed with Heidegger, he and his school–comprising such members as Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse–nevertheless took lessons from Heidegger’s treatment of language.  For much of Heidegger’s philosophy revolved around his re-interpretation of common words, his (oftentimes disputable) interpretation of their etymologies, and the easy possibility to construct new, multi-dimensional, compound words in the German language.  His was a search for words that would make sense, of difficult and abstract concepts that did indeed deal with multiple dimensions.

But those who followed his style, if not his thought (and many who followed aberrant interpretations of his thought), did so often from the perspective that culture is entirely a social construct, and has no relation to what is natural; from the presupposition that human persons are primarily what exists in the cultural realm, and what they are as biological ought to be forced to adapt to the cultural.  Add in a heavy dash of Marxism–keeping in mind that the school of Critical Theory grew up in Nazi Germany, against which one of the cultural forces was Marxist Socialism–as well as the linguistic semiology of Ferdinand Saussure, and the postmodernist “Theorists”, capital T, are born; or, rather, socially-constructed out of intellectual artifice.

The resulting jargon-laden books and articles are immensely difficult to understand, and when understood, often lack clarity or precision.  They frequently do not make sense because the objects of their reference have no genuine grounds, like a continual mixing of highly abstract metaphors.  But they are not nonsense.  The word “performative” sounds silly, because it is, particularly when applied outside the context of artistic performance.  But it is not nonsense.  Nor is talking about “performative masculinity”; all this means is acting in a way which corresponds to a concept of what it means to be masculine.  That actually makes sense.  What does not is the presupposition that masculinity is a purely social, artificial construct, and that therefore masculinity is itself constituted through such performance.  But even that is not nonsense.  It is the result of a theory which, while wrong, is not unintelligible.  Presupposing the truth of its foundations, it is quite coherent, and would make sense to someone well-studied in its concepts and terminology.

Consequently, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, in denominating their attempt at a Sokal-style hoax, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, as nonsense (a word they use 17 times in their post-hoc report) is counterproductive hyperbole.  The Sokal hoax and its follow-up in Fashionable Nonsense likewise failed to aim at the correct target: for while Sokal more poignantly needled the terminological ambiguities of Theory, and particularly exhibited its readiness to accept whatever means promoted its agenda, especially support from science, the problem with Theory is not the conclusions that it reaches (and there are plenty of serious Theorists who do not promote the absurdities you will see from New Peer Review), but the foundations on which it rests.

And so this brings us to our second story: for the foundations on which so-called postmodern Theory rests are not really postmodern at all, in any meaningful sense.  To be post-modern would mean to be after what is modern; and from an intellectual, philosophical, academic point of view, modernity is defined by its first and crucial presupposition: namely, that what we know are our own ideas.  In other words, the direct object of my knowledge is the idea that I alone possess.  Knowledge is therefore essentially private, subjective, and only incidentally and occasionally capable of being shared with others.  This premise is equally true of Cartesian rationalists and Lockean empiricists, Humean sceptics and believers in Berkeley, and it is true of the vast majority of so-called postmodernism, as well.  Mathematical representations or organizations of empirical observations alone consistently avoid the subjectivization of experiential knowledge which characterizes modern and pseudo-postmodern philosophy alike.

Thus I said that Heidegger could be considered a father of a genuine postmodernism because he patently denies this idealism (even though many, in following him, unconsciously seem to adopt it).  His philosophy of Being-in-the-World, of Dasein, denies the initial presupposition of subjective-objective opposition upon which modernity was founded.  This includes the denial that the human being’s context-driven development of personhood is independent of (or should be independent of) the biological and the natural, which idea he criticizes implicitly in his lecture on Aristotle’s Physics, his lecture on the “Age of Ideology”, and at length in his Letter on Humanism.

peirce
C.S. Peirce (1839-1914)

Ironically, the more important father of postmodernity died before Heidegger had written a single word of those texts: namely, Charles Sanders Peirce.  The full story of how his semiotics transcends the subject-object divide with more clarity and success than Heidegger achieved is a lengthy one.  In short, his theory of signs shows the possibility of an essential continuity of the universe, from the most fundamental particles to the most abstract concepts.  As a result, he repudiates idealism: specifically, its nominalistic denial that the mind is capable of knowing extramental relations.

In contrast, what is most often today called postmodernism–authors such as Barthes, Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and so on–is in fact nothing other than ultramodernism.  It takes the Enlightenment division of nature and culture, and in consequence of the Darwinian destruction of the concept of fixed natures, runs unimpeded into nominalistic idealism.

Yes: it is absurd.  It is far removed from common experience.  But so is advanced mathematics, and quantum physics, and neuroscience.  The truth is, there are cracks in the foundations of the physical sciences as well.  The kind of scientism advocated for by the “New Sceptics” stands on the ground, as opposed to the cloud of abstraction in which we find Theory; were this scientism to look down, though, instead of screaming at the clouds, it would see that its ground is a melting ice floe.

Motes, planks, and eyeballs: you get the idea.

Tone Deaf and the Impotent Sadness

The End of Semester, End of Year Post that Indicates the Continued and Likely-to-Continue Awfulness of Everything

or

I Spilled My Thoughts on This Page and This Horror is the Result

By now, an awful lot has been written about the election and why it is that Trump won.  Much of it is horribly reactionary (like Trump himself), much of it inane, and much of it written in the very spirit that persuaded enough of the country (most of it, by landmass) to vote against the various ideals which Hillary represented.  Other pieces have been quite good and insightful, critiquing that very hyperbolic tendency which has been the chief failing of the regressive left.

None of this writing, of course, changes the fact that the United States of America elected a man who is a notorious liar, a braggart, someone who readily flip-flops on any position to his advantage, and who, in the course of this unprincipled behavior, may have shackled himself irrevocably to white ethnonationalists who share deeply disturbing commonalities with the German Nazi party.  I would not be surprised if Richard B. Spencer saw himself as in the mold of Adolf Hitler, and hoping to follow in his path to positions of leadership.

But this essay is not about the election, nor about white supremacists, or nationalism, or the deplorable state of our political system, its parties, or any such temporal and (it is to be hoped) changeable phenomena.  Rather, this essay is about habit.

Something about Perspective

Most of us, upon hearing the word “habit”, think of some mundane daily routine or action.  I have a habit of going to bed late.  I have a habit of scratching at my beard while I am thinking.  I habitually drink two cups of coffee in the morning.  Habits may range from the most trivial–cracking one’s knuckles, say–to the most important routines of a life: prayer, saying “I love you” to a spouse, charitable giving, or how one goes about working.

perspective2Like many of our English words, habit comes from Latin: proximately habitus, meaning a thing’s condition, and more remotely, habere, the verb meaning “to have, to hold”.  The Latin habitus was often used to translate the Greek ethos–connected to ēthos (character) and ethikē (ethics)–meaning something much more like our English habit, although narrower in focus.  Many of our habits begin and persist without conscious decision.  For the Greeks, especially Aristotle, habit was principally and primarily the result of consistent and deliberately-chosen action, to the point where it became automatic.  But much like the modern appropriation of the word ethos, habit also means having a kind of worldview: for the kind of person you are, the individually developed persona of the common human nature, determines the way in which you view the world.

So when I say that ours is a society of really bad habits, I do not mean that we chew our nails or smoke cigarettes.  Rather I mean that we have formed ourselves poorly in regards to how we both view and hold ourselves in relation to the world.

These poor habits appear as emergent from what I can only describe as an insipid attitude towards pleasure and pain: namely, that the former is the end goal of all our actions and the latter an evil to be avoided at nearly any cost.  But press the average person in conversation about what he or she means by the term “pleasure”, and you are likely to hear little more than some vague description of a “good feeling”; conversely, “pain” receives little more verbiage than “a bad feeling”.  Despite this amorphous understanding, we spend a great deal of time pursuing pleasure and striving to avoid pain, or its lesser cousin, discomfort.

I may be in the minority in this, but I think directing our lives by principles we do not really understand is a bad way to live.

Pleasure and Pain

What is pleasure?  Some may say a good feeling; more advanced sophists may say it is the result of dopamine’s activity in the brain.  The latter explanation actually tells us less of importance than does the former.  “Feeling” is a deeper and richer concept than a neurochemical reaction.  The feeling typically called pleasure undoubtedly incorporates such a reaction–but it is a part, and to take it for the whole is simply asinine.

Pleasure is, rather, the immediate subjective occurrence consequent to something experienced as good.

What is pain?  Some will likely say a bad feeling–or perhaps, the result of a “chemical imbalance”, the body’s notification of a wound, or the feeling of loss.  This lattermost is the best, as it comprises all the rest: for pain is the immediate subjective occurrence consequent to something experienced as bad.

Academic Pain

At a certain point in the hunt for an academic job, it becomes difficult, for many (like myself), to maintain the belief that you do not suck at what you do.  Since late 2014, I have been turned down or ignored for over 30 professor or instructor positions and fellowships.  In the past year, I looked outside academia, applying to roughly 35 companies for positions roughly suitable to my skillset and experience.  One of them offered me a job–sort of–but wanted me to start at an impossible date.  I recently put in 2 non-academic applications (they take so much less time) and have 5 academic openings on my “to-do” list.

Between both academic and non-academic, I have had fewer than 10 interviews.  Those 5 openings will sit on my list till the last minute, partially because they’re tedious, but also, I must admit, because I’m a bit afraid of another 5 rejections.  After all, maybe I suck.

At the same time, I am a published author, with 1 and likely 2 books soon under contract with reputable academic publishers, as well as a sprinkling of articles and recently a book review.  I wrote the majority of my highly regarded, well-praised, 187,000 word dissertation in less than a year.  Maybe I’m actually amazing.

The truth is likely somewhere in-between.  More importantly, even if I am amazing, I am also unwanted.  My dissertation was on a medieval thinker’s metaphysics and epistemology.  I’m currently working in phenomenology and semiotics.  I don’t play with the hot topics: feminism, ecology, social and political theory, bioethics, non-Western thought, or any other such.  They are not interesting topics.  They are movements.  I am fixated on the fixed, looking at the currents only insofar as they help us to see the regular patterns.

But still I wonder–am I maybe not that good at what I do?  So bad, in fact, that I cannot even be trusted to do competently things vaguely related to what I do?

The Slippery Slope to Self-Importance

For those of you unaware, academia currently produces roughly 400-500% more job-seeking PhDs than there are full-time jobs open every year.  We are the architects of our own demise.

“Don’t tell me the U.S.A. went down the drain because of Leftism, Knotheadism, apostasy, pornography, polarization, etcetera etcetera.  All those things may have happened, but what finally tore it was that things stopped working and nobody wanted to be a repairman.” – Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins.

Every academic I know hates grading.  It is a popular time for academics to get on Twitter (or write a blog post) and spend hours complaining about how much they hate grading, especially how long it takes.  A professor with whom I used to live would often remark that students have always known less than they ought, but that nowadays they know nothing.  They consistently provide ample proof of this, especially in their essays.

This semester, as usual, I tried to leave some of the best final essays for last.  It is nice when your grading can end on a good note.  To my disappointment, the final two fell below expectations.  This was actually true of nearly every essay I graded in the past week.  One exceeded what I anticipated, marginally, but the expectations were pretty low to begin with, so little cause for celebration there.

ernst-europeafterrainIn fact, looking back at the whole semester, the disappointment was consistent.  It is not my students’ fault–they have been poorly educated in the kind of thinking necessary to doing well in the humanities, likely, their whole lives–but it is certainly their problem.  And yet, if I grade them justly, I will undoubtedly suffer blowback, either directly from the department or indirectly from student evaluations and online reviews.

It is frustrating to me.  Here, I see the problems so clearly.  For instance, it is evident that if my students were ever taught grammar, it was long ago, and the lessons were not taught in a way that stuck.  I do not expect explicit knowledge of grammatical terms–say, a dangling modifier, or to be able to understand me if I say, “the appositive construction”–but it would be nice if they had, at least, the habit of not writing with ubiquitous and poorly-used comma splices.  But what can I do?

“Seeing problems clearly” may be the universal curse of the academic.  We all do really know things, and more often than not, this leads us to believe that we know a great deal more than we do.  I say to myself, quietly, in my head, all the time: “Ah, but you are a philosopher.  You are not like those other ‘experts’ out there, overly-specialized, attempting to reduce all things to the narrow paradigms of their own specialty.  You study wisdom!” and so on.  All true, really; but just because I maintain the openness innate to true philosophical inquiry and I study wisdom (whatever that means) does not mean that I have attained it, or that the solutions I envision to our complicated problems will actually produce results truly good.  I like to think they would.  But we will never know until someone puts me in charge.  So we will never know.

So even now, I sulk, like Achilles in his tent (Read a book!), frowning over the injustice of lesser academics having been awarded higher places.

Bad Professor Club

While in grad school (oh hey, I can say that now…), my fellow students and I referred to ourselves as the “Bad Grad Students Club”–largely because of an overpreening peer who insisted that unless you were reading a bare minimum of three scholarly articles every day, you were not really being a good student.  As most of us transitioned to being ABD adjuncts, we became a Bad Professors Club–mostly because we would decide to more-or-less wing our classes, rather than prep, so that we could go drink at the bar up the street, instead.  What can I say?  They had a terrific happy hour.

Nowadays, I find myself a bad professor of another sort.  For one thing, having relocated, I no longer have the familiar cadre of fellow delinquency and booze enthusiasts.  This has much improved the lot of my liver, I imagine.  For another, I formerly taught at a school that, though moving in the STEM direction, was still predominately a liberal arts institution.  Though most of the students I had in my classes were not majoring in the humanities, a strong-enough core curriculum meant that they were suffused with enough education and atmosphere of the humanities to attain (at least on occasion) a deeper-than-superficial grasp of the issues discussed.

Meanwhile, I spend my non-teaching-duty days consumed in the writing of a book likely to end on a handful of shelves and cracked open only half as many times, a book dealing with the sophisticated topics of semiotics and phenomenology, slipping through Latin and German technical terminology, exploring the  esoteric writings of a never-fully-repentant Nazi and a manic depressive (both of them with notorious adulterous affairs) as an antidote to both the materialistic neuroreductionistic and the angelistic deus ex machina explanations of human knowledge.

I am a bad professor.  Not because I do not know my material, not even because I am not interested in it; but I am a bad professor for these students.  They need a disciplinarian.  They need someone to break their bad habits, habits grown in an insular and truthless (not “post-truth”) world.  Instead, I ignore their bad habits, and continue to pass them along (albeit begrudgingly, and with a low grade), because I am convinced that some day, I can become the “successful” academic I have long awaited myself to be.

A bad habit.

The Intoxication of Mild Pleasure

I am no stranger to indulgence.  I have gone too far with alcohol, tobacco, even some of the gentler illegal substances–and more, besides.  But these pleasures are typically laden with a context that gives them purpose.  For a time, I drank not to feel; but mostly, I drank (and smoked, though that takes on a life of its own) to enjoy better the company of others.  Even sex can–and I think ought to be–a means for mutual betterment.

Where I lapse mostly into the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake is in those pleasures more mild.  I may swallow my fire, but I take my poison slow.  By this I mean: the feeling of a girl’s thigh under my hand, a marathon of mindless TV, an engrossing video game, hot showers, the incessant music by which I block out the noise of the world, and always the ability to control the objects to which I am exposed.

This, I think, is common.  I am no exception to the rule.  These mild pleasures, in themselves–really, they are comforts–do no grave ill to us, in moderation.  But we are drunk on them, all the time, and find the sobriety of discomfort horrifying.

We find a prominent example of this discomfort and its attendant horror in the vocal Left’s reaction to the Trump presidency.  No pleasure has yet been deprived yet the mere thought of its possibility is enough to discomfit to near the level of garment-rending and hair-tearing.  Infantile wailing and gnashing of teeth remains a perfected and oft-practiced art.

I think that so much can be made of the presidential election shows a deep problem: a nation of 300+ million cannot reasonably agree on the wide bevy of issues we have placed in the hands of Washington and a return to governmental decentralization is necessary.  But that is another issue altogether; indeed, interruptions to our comfort seldom take so dramatic a form.  Typically, they may be assuaged, smoothed over, and our comfort restored in a day, an hour, a minute, a few seconds.  Woke up on the wrong side of the bed; just get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow usually improves.  Internet service is out; use your phone’s 4G service until restoration.  Noisy neighbors?  Use your headphones (okay, sometimes that doesn’t work).  Need a new coat?  You can get it for 50% less than anywhere else, from Amazord dot netweb, delivered to your door in two days–or less!

“But why not?” you interject, borderline indignant at the perceived slight, “Why, Mr. Dr. Prof. Krampus, should we not enjoy these things, should we not be comfortable?  Aren’t you writing this from your Macrohard Expanse III, while pumping Amazord Muzak into your ears to block out noisy neighbors and city business and such?”

Indeed I am–as stated, I am no exception.  For I am soft and fragile like the rest of you, wrapped in my cocoon of comforts; if I am in any way an exception, it is that I have taken to hanging mirrors on its interior walls.  Self-absorption does not mean becoming lost in some introspection; rather, it means becoming ultraselective about the boundaries put upon one’s own “world”.  I am self-absorbed, and the boundaries, the walls, of my world, are mortared by bad habit.

Locating the Source

Where do these bad habits come from?  Are we victims of circumstance, of nature?  Genes, family?  Upbringing, destiny?

There are certain unverified stories said to be so good that, if they aren’t true, ought to be.  One such story concerns the Catholic writer and apologist, G.K. Chesterton, an Englishman who wrote in the early part of the 20th century.  When asked by the Times of London, among other authors, to write an essay on the topic of “What’s wrong with the world?”, his response was:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Respectfully yours,
G.K. Chesterton.

leda_swanPut less civilly, we could also quote an inexplicably insightful madman in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: “You want to know your trouble?  You don’t love God, you love pussy.”

It is a philosophical claim the defense of which stands outside this article’s rambling ken, but the self and the source of one’s love are about as closely identifiable as any two elements in a human person can be.  What is my problem?  I don’t love God.  I love pussy.

God or Pussy?

First of all, “pussy” isn’t always sex.  It may be a video game.  It may be art.  It may be the cause of racial equality.  It may be the warmth of comfortable surroundings.  “Pussy” is that which distracts us, diverts us from a fuller, better way of being human.  “Pussy” is that out of which we build our cocoons.  In contrast, “God” isn’t always God, though one might argue that it ought to be.  God is, to paraphrase Christ, the Light, the Truth, and the Way.

How are we to walk that Way?  How can we see by that Light?  How might we grasp that Truth?  The first step, I think, is to muster the courage to poke a hole ourselves in the fragile walls of our cocoons and make ourselves look out.

And keep looking.

Why Everyone Needs to Calm Down

First, I’m going to call shame.  I saw innumerable tweets last night calling over 59 million Americans racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, horrible deplorables and so on.  I’m sure there are many Trump voters who are those things.  But I am also certain that there are many more who are not.  Some of my own family voted for Trump, and they are certainly not any of those things.

If anything, those harsh accusations help explain why Trump won.  Middle class jobs are and have been disappearing for years, and that trend seems likely to continue.  For people without a college (or higher) education, this means a path to nowhere.  Low-income jobs typically do not result in any career advancement or significant raises.  As college becomes more expensive (and grad school even more so, not only financially, but chronologically), this turns into a vicious cycle from generation to generation.  It is a problem which has, historically, disproportionately affected minorities–but it has also affected whites as well, and whites (non-Latino/Hispanic) make up the majority of the population.  80% of 13.2% (African American population) is less than 20% of 62.6% (white population).

Add to this that many white people who do succeed are told that they succeed primarily because they are white, and it’s not hard to see why they might become resentful.  They’re told that they need to support and accept people who are different, less privileged, who come from cultures they don’t understand, against whom they do have some reason to be suspicious–not a good one, but still a reason–and that if they don’t put their needs after the needs of foreigners, they’re racist and xenophobic bigots.

I’m not saying they’re right.  I’m not saying that they have the proper perspective.  But, my God, for all those who preach tolerance and universal acceptance, you might want to start in your own backyard.  Are they ignorant regarding other cultures?  Definitely.  Are you ignorant of theirs?  I think this election shows that you quite probably are.  Flyover country–and that includes rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin–has long felt ignored, neglected, and abused.  To be honest, I don’t really blame them.

Second, I’m going to exhort you to take a very deep breath.  Donald Trump may soon be the most powerful man in the world; but he’s still just one man.  It is regrettable that the power of the president has been exponentially increased in the past 16 years–for which we can blame both Bush and Obama–but it is still the power of one man.

Additionally, that man is a notorious liar.  Bush promised smaller government for everyone.  It mushroomed into a revolting behemoth during his 8 years.  Obama promised affordable healthcare for everyone and a withdrawal of military interventions, while many people’s rates went up 100% or more and he ordered 10 times as many drone strikes as Bush.

Trump made outlandish, vague, poorly-defined campaign promises.  Do we really think he’s going to keep any of them–when he has switched political parties 5 times since the late 1980’s?  He was for abortion before he was against abortion.  He donated to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign.

So read his acceptance speech and tell me if you think he’s going to stay hard-line with his promises, or if he, like nearly every other successful politician in the history of the world, made his promises to win votes.  The cynic in me–which is all of me–thinks that we’re really just in store for more political words coming up empty.  And today, that’s a good thing.

I could be wrong.  Let’s hope I’m not.

The Tortured Rhetoric of Postgenderism

Or, What’s Wrong with Social Constructionism

The theory of social constructionism appears in two primary forms: weak and strong.  Weak theories include both nominalist, anti-normative theories–those that are more or less in continuity with David Hume–as well as many varieties of emergentism, in which social realities are founded upon but can develop independently of cognition-independent realities.  Nominalist weak constructionism denies any natural organization possible between the cognition-independent (and essentially unknowable) realities and the cognition-dependent constructs formed through cognitive acts, especially those agreed upon socially.  Emergentist theories recognize a possible continuity between the cognition-dependent and cognition-independent.  Strong forms, in contrast, propose societies or social interactions themselves constitute the behaviors, identities, and traits that belong to individuals; whatever is considered reality depends entirely on the society.

Each form of social constructionism places the onus of reality on the communal psychological subjectivity of individual persons.  This places it in contrast to so-called “realist” theories, which do the inverse.

Many arguments of social constructionists stand in opposition what has been purportedly constructed.  Frequently, the claims militate against traditional norms concerning gender and sexuality.  Thus, both a trait or property (gender) and a behavior or disposition (sexual desires and action) are both considered, to varying degrees by varying theories, to be the products of a social construction, rather than an ordinance grounded by action or states of being independent of human cognition or consideration.

It follows from adopting or acquiescing to such a viewpoint that the conceptual products of social construction bear, when opposed to personal, individualized lived experience, a mark of inauthenticity and therefore relative invalidity.  The socially-constructed, so the argument goes, forms an edifice merely arbitrary and artificial, albeit deeply-ingrained in our behaviors and ways of thinking, and therefore constitutes a framework inapplicable to the authentic, real, and “natural” feelings of the individual when found to be in opposition.  Normative categories therefore operate as engines of oppression.  A struggle ensues to develop non-normative terminological designations for majority genders and sexual orientations.

Historically, social constructionism fits within the broader category of ultramodernism (or post-structuralism)–that is, what today often goes about falsely guised in a self-professed postmodern cloak, but which really does no more than carry a hidden modernism (as a philosophical identity) to further conclusions.  Derrida and Deleuze, Foucault and Fromm, Lacan and Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, Marcuse and Badiou: each influences, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, the present-day social constructionism; further back, they themselves are rooted in Sartre, in (a bad reading of) Heidegger and Husserl.  To truly understand the development of social constructionism requires understanding each of these thinkers–a claim few of us can really make in earnest (certainly not myself).

Social influence and natural entities weave a complex web in human experience.  Attaining a genuine comprehensive perspective on the whole of our lives requires intelligently and coherently accounting for both–the task of a true postmodernism (a topic for another day).  Many traditional naturalist theories are justly criticized for invalidating human experiences irreducible to natural, cognition-independent principles.  The traditionalist ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Lacan and Adorno and Habermas, Heidegger, and Husserl, among others, for they possess valuable insight.

Conversely, social constructionism, especially of the strong variety, is to be faulted for attempting to invalidate human experiences dependent upon, developed from, or grounded in those cognition-independent principles.  The ultramodernists ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, among others, for they too possess real truths about human nature and action.

However, both sides continue to minimize, ignore, or outright deny an element essential to the wholeness of every human person.  This mutual deprecation serves ideological advancement, rather than the pursuit of truth.  If I am being honest, of the two, I find social constructionism the less-excusable.  Often, it devolves into outright contradictory nonsense.

Gender, Feeling, and Reason

To demonstrate this, let us pretend we have a young individual experiencing body dysphoria, whom we will call Marktha.  Marktha is born into a biologically-male body, having an XY chromosome pairing and male genitalia.  Reaching adolescence, Marktha’s body will undergo a dramatic increase in testosterone production.  Yet Marktha does not “feel” like a boy, like a male.  Marktha’s personal, internal, subjective sense is that Marktha is a girl, a female.  Therefore, Marktha is designated transgender: born with male biology, but possessing a female identity.

Contrariwise, we have Mary: born with female biology and possessing female identity.  She is designated cisgender.  Mary will further be labelled “advantaged”, because she has this coherence of biology and identity.  Poor Marktha, on the other hand, who really does suffer, has an incoherence which renders her life one of confusion and angst.

Marktha and Mary end up going to the same university, where they take a class in gender studies.  Their professor, Dr. Amorfia, tells them that gender is a purely social construct, developed along gender roles, wherein male-bodied individuals perform certain tasks, including the oppression of both female-bodied and female-identifying but non-bodied individuals (broadly, effeminate male-bodied individuals).  Because of this oppression, gender remains entrenched in its socially-determined categorizations for millennia.  But now we know better: there is no such thing as “gender”, there are only “gender-identities”.  Marktha feels a sense of relief.  Mary feels nothing, partially because she’s a cold bitch, but also because she has no distinct sense of “gender identity” in opposition to biological gender.  She nods in agreement nonetheless, because everyone else is nodding in agreement.

Marktha now identifies openly as female, despite continued male biology.  Surgical options and hormone treatments are explored; hope is held out that, one day, Marktha and others will be able to have full transformation possibilities, so as to experience every biological aspect of being female.

Mary, meanwhile, takes a class in philosophy where she learns about Rene Descartes and the idea of body-spirit dualism, wherein the person is split into a body, less properly identifiable with the self, and a spirit or mind, which is the person proper.  She does not see the connection, and the professor, Dr. Krampus, spends his evenings sighing for humanity into a large glass of good Irish whiskey.

One day, Mary and Marktha are walking together towards a lecture to be given by Dr. Amorfia.  Marktha has started transformation, started “presenting as female.”  So far this entails wearing make-up and more feminine-styled clothing, along with a more feminine hair-style.  Marktha is nervous about some of the looks received, but nevertheless happy to be living outwardly, bodily, in accord with a felt female identity, and expresses this to Mary.  Mary takes a long, silent pause, and says, “I’m glad you feel that way… but isn’t everything you’re doing just a conformity to socially-constructed standards of femininity?”

“I guess so,” Marktha replies after an equally long silence, “but soon I’ll start physically transitioning.  I can’t imagine anything making me happier.”

Mary smiled at her friend and changed the topic.  What she was really thinking, though, was “I thought the body didn’t matter for gender.  I thought ‘feeling’ like a woman made someone a woman.  Maybe I should have paid more attention in class.”  By a curious coincidence, Dr. Krampus, walking about twenty feet behind, was thinking just the same thing about Mary.  What grade did he give her again?  A begrudging, pity C+?

All three entered the lecture.  Dr. Amorfia was at her very sharpest.  She eviscerated the patriarchy and its continued oppression of all non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual persons.  Normativity was metaphorically bashed with every blunt object she could find.  Her audience was rapt by her passion, her articulate attacks, needling every weak point of traditions and conservatism she could identify.  She cited studies.  She discussed the variety of presentations in secondary biological sex characteristics as evidence of emerging biological gender fluidity.  She pointed to no one in the crowd, she told them that their identities could not be defined by social convention or biological impositions.  She didn’t even use visual aids.  She didn’t need to.  PowerPoint is a phallogocentric symbol of supposed male-superiority anyway.

Marktha’s face exuded joy, listening to Dr. Amorfia’s verbal Blitzkrieg on the norms of oppression.  Every feeling that had nestled deep in Marktha’s heart, for years and years, was affirmed.  Mary’s face, meanwhile, was contorted with the strain of listening while simultaneously trying to figure something out, to figure out, perhaps, what she had missed in class.  Dr. Krampus face was a mix of bored amusement and cynicism, but he usually looks like that.

The lecture ended.  A crowd gathered around Dr. Amorfia, congratulating her.  Marktha fawned.  Mary stood by, a tortured look on her face.  Seeing this, Dr. Amorfia, passing by on her way to a dinner given on the university’s dime, and who remembered Mary’s final paper as exemplary, asked if her former student had a question.

“Yeah… well, I guess… I mean… if gender is just a social construct, then what does it really mean to be a woman?”

Dr. Amorfia took a quick breath and unleashed her prepared response: “No one can tell you what it ‘means’ to be anything, to have any identity, but you yourself.  You are what you feel yourself to be.  What it means to be a ‘woman’ for you is not necessarily what it means for me to be a ‘woman’, or Marktha, or anyone.  We each define our own ‘womanhood’.  See chapter four in my latest book.”  Smiling benevolently, she twinkled her fingers in a difficult-to-decipher show of something or other (solidarity? condescension? Parkinson’s?) and continued on to her accolades.  Marktha followed.  Mary stood still, her face contorted even further.

Slowly, she walked back towards her dorm, confused.  Did she “feel” like a woman?  What does it mean to feel like a woman?  Had she ever felt like a man?  Had she ever defined her own ‘womanhood’?  She liked to be thought of as pretty, and to wear things that made her feel pretty.  She liked it when guys would flirt with her, and act protective over her.  But those all fell within the aspects of a gender role Dr. Amorfia had identified as socially constructed.  They were arbitrary, and, moreover, results of the patriarchical, oppressive norms.  What is an identity?  What constitutes an identity?  What does it mean to “feel” one’s identity?

Continuing her slow walk, deep in thought, she suddenly noticed voices coming from around the corner.  Dr. Krampus was talking with a couple male students.  “Boy’s club”, she thought, instinctively.  Then she listened more closely.

“No, I can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman,” Dr. Krampus said, half laughing.  “But that doesn’t restrict me from telling you what I think it means.  If you want to find the poisonous seed of intellectual rot, there it is: thinking that meaning is wholly dependent upon lived experience, upon feeling.  If that’s the case, we can’t talk about anything with anyone, at all, because every lived experience, every feeling, is irreducibly subjective, personal.  ‘Meaning’ has to be public; it has to be something that we can articulate, or else it isn’t what we mean by ‘meaning’.”

“But,” one of the students interjected, “how can you tell me what something means to me?”

vitruvian_man“I can’t,” Dr. Krampus replied.  “But I can tell you that what something means to you is not what something means in itself.  That’s what we call ‘being wrong.’  You could say that ‘being a man’ means, to you, ‘nothing other than feeling like a man’.  That feeling might be a real part of what it means to be a man, though the intelligible articulation of what belongs to that feeling is a much harder statement to make.  I would argue, however, that simply feeling like a man no more makes you a man than feeling like a rhinoceros gives you a horn.  Defining identities in terms of feelings is the absolute worst kind of unintelligent dualism.  Feelings are a subrational category, while definition is a rational process.”

Mary scowled as words from Dr. Amorfia’s class reverberated in her mind: “Reason, reason, reason!  That’s all the patriarchy wants to reduce everything to.  It is a tyranny of reason.  The patriarchy’s reasons will tell you that you have to have their children, cook their meals, clean their homes; that you have to look pretty while they go out and do the real work.  Do not listen to their reason; listen to your feelings!”

“What do you mean, professor?” another student asked, “I mean, by a ‘rational process.'”

“There’s no short and simple answer to that question,” Krampus answered.  “But the easiest way to describe reason is through language.  Think about the moments of most intense feeling, as a way of contrast.  Someone in intense agony does not say, ‘By Jove, I have lost a limb and the pain is really quite intense, like having every nerve ending dipped into the fires of hell.’  He screams, inarticulate, animal, wordless pain.  Similarly, when a guy has an orgasm, he doesn’t say, ‘Wow, this bodily sensation is most pleasurable; I sure am enjoying this sexual activity.’  He goes, ‘Uuuuuunnnnnggggghhhhaaaaaahhhhh.’  Later on, when the feelings are not so intense, rational articulation enters back into the picture, and he can describe his sensations–but not in the moment.  Reason is the means by which we provide an intelligible, public, accessible account of our experiences; the means by which we transcend our subjectivity.  Which entails that the things about which we reason have a meaning which is not purely and irreducibly subjective, but which can be shared, talked about, understood by others.  Meaning encompasses feeling; but it doesn’t work the other way around.”

Mary was torn: she hadn’t enjoyed Dr. Krampus’ class, certainly not like she had Dr. Amorfia’s.  Also the jerk gave her a C.  But she found herself thinking, days afterward, about what she had overheard.  Dr. Krampus had made sense.

Marktha, incidentally, had been arrested for violently assaulting a teenage boy who disparaged Marktha’s appearance.  The teenage boy should have been more attentive to the fact that, despite the skirt, Marktha was 6’3″ and quite muscular.

Postscript

Treating gender and sexuality as purely social constructs produces incoherent nonsense.  There are undoubtedly, inevitably, unarguably aspects which arise through social constitution.  Much of what belongs to traditional gender roles does indeed have a degree of arbitrariness; but much, while dependent upon social agreement (conscious or not), nevertheless has a basis in biology, in what exists independently of society.  The biologically male are stronger, faster, and larger.  This makes them superior at many physical tasks.  Watch American Ninja Warrior, or its Japanese originator, Sasuke, if you doubt me.

Can we acknowledge physical, bodily realities, through a system of reasoning, while abdicating the psychological, the subjective, the personal, to a tyrannical congeries of feeling?  Can we really claim true logical coherence when we speak in such tortured, contradictory tones?

Why Chance Depends Upon Continuity

In his later writings, Charles Sanders Peirce often incorporated chance as an essential part of his theory of the universe.  Chance, as the “absence of cause”, he says (mistaking this to be the definition of Aristotle), is what allows for the evolutionary development of law and of habit-taking.  This necessity of “spontaneity, chance, play”, is what he calls tychism.  I do not see how chance can in any way be primary, except as a consequence of the principle of potency, and specifically in our experience and experimental/observational capacities, of the potency coextensive with the materiality of something.

Chance is not a something in its own right, but a derivative following upon the variability of material eliminations.  I.e., as the potency of matter is determined through this or that act, different chances arise.  Determination of potency is a prerequisite to the occurrence of chance, inasmuch as what we mean by any chance event is not the absence of a causal event, but the interruption of one usual chain of causality following predetermined ordination by an intersection of some usually unrelated chain of causation, following its own predetermined ordination.

This both allows for the variation evident in evolutionary process–inasmuch as the abnormality occasioned in the intersection need not be an abnormal occurrence, but only abnormal to the object(s) involved–as well as “free will”, since the freedom of the will consists in the ability to choose lesser known-goods over higher known-goods.  If by “chance” Peirce intends the inclusion of what is simply non-deterministic and therefore “spontaneous”, this non-determined and spontaneous event occurs in the election of a lesser over a higher; for it is characteristic of the determinate that it always follows from a kind of brute actuality, the kind of brute actuality which follows from feeling (as opposed to “reason” or the species-specifically human semiotic process).

Therefore, chance can be in fact an essential element to the cosmological progress of the universe, but in the same way as relation is equiprimordial with substance, so too chance (as the consequence of matter or potency) is equiprimordial with determinacy (the consequence of form or act).  The degree to which a being is determined in actuality diminishes the degree to which it is open to chance interactions; just as the degree to which a being is in act substantially diminishes the degree to which it can be really related to other beings.  How does this relate to the theory of entropy?  Does the entropic finality precludes further action because of homogeneity of act, or because of homogeneity of potency?  If the preclusion is based in the homogeneity of act, then it is faulty; for pervasive actuality does not prevent further act, it only prevents changing in act.  We view change as a mechanism of good, because we become bored with this or that good; this or that good being unfulfilling on account of its finitude.  Would not perfect act be perfect good, and therefore perfectly satisfactory?  If entropy, contrariwise, brings an end to action because nothing is in act enough to change something from a state of potency to one of act, then it coheres with the equiprimordiality of chance and determinacy.

Chance being an equiprimordial albeit dependent element in the evolutionary development introduces a difficulty, however; for inasmuch as everything is undetermined and thereby subject to chance alterations, likewise, therefore, those things contain an unintelligible element, and, through that unintelligible element, the possibility of unpredictable change.  Such changes, once occasioned, can indicate the development of a new nature, as well as alter the proprietal consequences proper to a certain nature; or they may illumine for us the inessential quality of attributes previously considered essential.  The pervasive unintelligible possibilities of change makes sure prediction, especially long-term prediction, nearly impossible.

peirce
Peirce: hipster before it was cool.

Simultaneously with his theory of tychism, Peirce develops a theory of synechism, that is, that all things are continuous; that neither the objects of experience nor the realities unexperienced are divisible into absolutely separate spheres.  As a part of this synechist theory, he notes that consciousness can be considered as individual, social, spiritual.  His discussion of consciousness is, however, unhelpful, inasmuch as he approaches it from an aggregationist perspective, thinking about it the continuity of “moments”: if we are conscious of a before, a now, and an after, we realize that the second becomes the third, following from the first; the afterwards is continuous with the now, adjacent to.  There is something often Humean about Peirce’s conceptions of the connection of ideas (contiguity, association, “relation” broadened in a Kantian sense).  This Kantian-Humean influenced is unfortunate.

Despite its flaws, Peirce’s notion of synechism is of great use in “understanding the riddle”, indeed, even for reconciling tychism into an intelligible framework.  As aforementioned, chance is equiprimordial but dependent, the continuity of the objects of experience, the continuity of the things themselves, allows for a unification of the evolutionary, indeterminate, unpredictable future.  That is, the break with the past introduced by a tychic event is not a true break with things themselves, but only with the objectivizing structure–the structure of consciousness whereby a human being makes of a thing an object of consideration; and since the objectivizing structure is dependent on, derivative from, the things themselves, the continuity can be re-established also in the objectivizing structure, in the objective presence to a knower.

Consequently, it becomes a question as to what we really mean by “chance”. That is: is chance really, truly, honestly something random, spontaneous?  Or is it not, rather, that it appears to us as random, because we do not know the antecedent principles, the antecedent actualities, which have not yet occurred in our experience, so as that we could devise the nature of the forms operating as causes?  To admit chance as anything else is to make the universe fundamentally unintelligible; for to be utterly random is to be, in fact, without a cause; which is to say, without a reason, which is, without intelligibility.

Could it, in fact, be the case, as Peirce claims, that the laws which govern behavior the universe are developed, the products of chance, the results of tychic development?  Would not they need to occur on the basis of prior, more fundamental laws?  This is the point he seems to miss: in order for anything to move, it needs a relative unmoved.  Change requires the unchanging.  Even in Peirce’s own system, becoming law and taking habit, the second and third to the first of chance, are themselves kinds of law, kinds of regularity, which need to be present for the governance of the irregular.

Chance is not the random; it is the unanticipated.  It is not contrary to the things effected; it is contrary only to our presuppositions about how the things “should” have been effected.

Why Information Differs from Knowledge

You hear it all the time: the internet puts a world of knowledge at your fingertips (and you use it for cat videos and porn).  Parenthetical clause aside, this claim is false.  The internet puts a world of information at your fingertips; but information and knowledge, as we actually use these terms today, do not signify one and the same thing.  Some people consider “knowledge” to be a very highly evolved form of information; or information in action; or simply that “knowledge” and “information” are synonymous.  These supposed likenesses derive from a broadly computational theory of mind–that, as Steven Pinker (in)famously put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

Information is organized data.  When data are collated, sorted, and structured so as to present an intelligible object, they become information.  The light hitting our eyes is a stream of data; when the eyes, nerves, and brain sort it out into what we know, based on previous experience, as a lamp, we have information.  But the knowledge, “This is a lamp”, differs from the information by means of which we make the judgment.  A dog could have nearly the same data presented to it from the lamp, and yet despite this, despite even having a similar informational basis, it will never know a lamp as a lamp; just as the dog and the human, given the same informational basis, will both regard the roast beef as food, but only the human will know it as food.

Is this mere hair-splitting?  The difficulty stems largely from the English word “knowledge”; the origins of the word dwell in the murk of Middle English, but its history intertwines with its usage to translate two Latin words: scientia and cognitio.  The former word, evident in its transliteration to science, has the precise meaning of logical knowledge, knowledge achieved through explicitly conceptual consideration.  Cognitio, in contrast, covers the broad signification of any mental activity whatsoever.

The dog and the human alike cognize–as would any machines capable of emulating the neurological processing characteristic of higher animal life, machines truly capable of “learning”.  We could, therefore, speak of “artificial cognition”.  But the human alone possesses scientia.  The commonality to all beings, whereby information is processed and either evokes a response, or is deliberately responded to, is known as semiosis.  The term derives from the Greek semeion, meaning “sign”.  A sign, to steal a 17th century Portuguese philosopher’s definition, is that the whole being of which consists in bringing something else to mind.  Precisely as a sign, this is all a sign does.  The significative function of a stop sign, for instance, consists in the command which it brings to mind; the significative temperature of the thermometer is to tell us something’s temperature; the word “Jupiter”, though composed of phones and/or letters (whether spoken or written, though the written is notably, in this case, a sign of the spoken), signifies, depending upon context, either the head of the Roman pantheon or the local gas giant planet (or in a roundabout way, perhaps both).

Likewise, the odor of the roast beef signifies to dog and human alike the presence of food.  All information is semiosic; what we receive, as information, serves literally to inform, to give over a definite structure conveying something other than itself.  When we processes this information, i.e., interpret it, we arrive back at a consideration of what the information signifies (the cognitive reception of information, incidentally, does not entail an introspective interpretation, as a “looking inside the mind”, but [and this is most important], always has us looking back towards the source of the cognitively-received information).

Information, as the unit of semiosis, forms the fundamental basis of all knowledge.  But the distinguishing characteristic of knowledge is this: grasping the meaning of what the information signifies independently of context or environment.  Effective knowledge is always reincorporated into the context; but the de-contextualization provides crucial insight into the nature of the things considered.

What distinguishes the human being among the animals on earth is quite simple, yet was never fully grasped before modern times had reached the state of Latin times in the age of Galileo.  While every animal of necessity makes use of signs, yet because signs themselves consist in relations, and because every relation, real or unreal, is as relation – as a suprasubjective orientation toward something other than the one oriented, be that “other” purely objective or subjective as well – invisible to sense (and hence can be directly understood in its difference from related objects or things, but can never be directly perceived as such), what distinguishes the human being from the other animals is that only human animals come to realize that there are signs distinct from and superordinate to every particular thing that serves to constitute an individual (including the material structure of an individual sign-vehicle) in its distinctness from its surroundings.
-John Deely, The Semiotic Animal

For further reading about semiotics, I recommend the Routledge Companion to Semiotics, Thomas Sebeok’s Signs: an Introduction to Semiotics, and, why not, John Deely’s Basics of Semiotics; and, of course, for the deeply interested, the entire oeuvre of Charles S. Peirce.

Sex in a Vacuum

Offering thoughts concerning the nature of sex over the internet–other than “do whatever feels good”, “5 tips to make her scream”, “mastering the female orgasm”, or something along such lines–sometimes seems like standing on the street corner and telling people about the Hellfire and Eternal, Everlasting Damnation awaiting them if they fail to change their awful, sinful ways.  Whether or not we have actually ever listened to what things the street preacher might have to say, we are already tired of hearing them–without ever actually having heard them.  Being told what is “right” and what is “wrong” with regards to sexual behavior infringes upon the same supposed personal sovereignty at stake when someone tells us what beliefs we ought to hold concerning matters of religious conviction.  Sex and religion are personal matters of opinion and preference, and nobody’s business but our own–so anyone publicly preaching against what we hold comes across as a crazed, bigoted, ideologically imperialist ass.

So it is at the risk of being categorized with the crazy street preachers that I write and publish this commentary; though my focus falls not upon “right” and “wrong”, but rather “good” and “bad”, giving not a moral commentary based upon belief in revelation, but rather the provision of a philosophical perspective on something often philosophically neglected.

The Principle of Pleasure
What if We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” by Alice Dreger, 16 May 2014

Though over two years old, this article just recently attracted my attention.  The majority is constituted by anecdotes concerning Dreger’s unrelenting directness in discussing sex with her son.  She and her partner are uncompromisingly forthright in answering all of his questions, for the sake of educating him, with a seeming scientific detachment.  It occurs as a shock to her when, explaining the meaning of “accidental pregnancy”, she realizes that she had not yet conveyed to her son that sex is most often pursued for the sake of pleasure, and not procreation.

Consequently–given, at least, the limited exposure to the conversation with her son presented in the article–she goes on to muddy the waters: Dreger points out to her son that the pleasurable sensations which accompany sexual behavior are part of an evolutionary drive to procreate, and then posits that the primary reason people pursue sex is not for the sake of procreation, but for pleasure.  In other words, she divorces the conscious reason from the subconscious drive.

That is: procreation is the reason that sex has evolved into a pleasurable activity; but pleasure is the reason that sex is had.  On her analysis, pleasure is (from a biological standpoint) for the sake of procreation.  But most often people have sex for the sake of pleasure and not procreation.  A cultural development arises, artificial birth control, whereby the two can be easily separated.  Culture becomes systematically opposed to nature, to the biological.  The pursuit of sex remains grounded in a biological urge, but its practice becomes culturally detached from the reason for that urge.

In the final paragraph, Dreger writes: “How funny that we can’t bring ourselves to tell our children the most fundamental truth about sex, that most of the time we have sex, we have it for pleasure.”  She adds that the single act of sex  responsible for the birth of her son has brought her pleasure for years, touchingly sentimental but perhaps unintentionally implying that the sole or primary purpose of children is to provide oneself with pleasure.

A subtle chasm underlies the verbal veneer Dreger lays over her article: ostensibly united, the scientific detachment of an “objective” sexual education and the intimate psychological subjectivization of its purpose in the sensations of pleasure stand schismatically opposed.  Hers is not an uncommon opinion or position held–precariously held though it is.  It is a position which attempts subjugation of the so-called “objective” realities of biological constitution to the attainment of pleasure according to the psychological subjectivity of the individual person: a position characteristic of many having received a higher education; a position which finds its archetypal character in Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov.

The Meaninglessness of Sex’s Meaninglessness
The Meaning of Sex“, Marty Klein [Commentary on this article is very selective of necessity; the number of disputable claims is an analytical nightmare.  That said, the weakest points–basic faults of logical reasoning–are ignored, and the strongest arguments–weak though they are–taken up for consideration]

What is the meaning of sex?  Intrinsically, Klein asserts, it has none.  Whatever meaning it has been given stems from cultural or personal imposition; the natural, physical, corporeal action itself maintains no connection to the rationales proferred by speculative thought.  In consequence the only “meaning” which can be ascribed to sex is the purely contingent evaluation of the act which emerges post facto.

“Most people need sex to have [intrinsic] meaning because the alternative is too frightening: having sex in an existential vacuum. Sex without [intrinsic] meaning would require participants to float freely in sexual experience, rather than being snugly anchored in a cognitive framework, an explanation.”

Fear motivates ascription of an intrinsic and therefore universal, “objective”, rather than emergent, contingent, subjective, meaning to sex.  A “cognitive framework, an explanation” gives a snug anchoring, safety.  Could we not say, on just the opposite, that fear motivates the banishment of sex to the purely subjective?  That, dispensing with all standards for justifying one’s sexual behavior is itself an attempt at justification motivated by fear of being rejected, stigmatized?  What is  more fearful: the impossibility of being moral or the possibility of being morally wrong.

The accusation of fearfulness Klein levels at “sexually repressive institutions” rings of dime-store existentialism and the cheap trick of small-minded propagandists: when one cannot argue with the opposition, invent an underlying fear or weakness as their true motivation.  Seeking a “cognitive framework, an explanation” is not cowardice, but the inverse; to shrug and justify behavior “because I like it” is not an act of courage, but is to quit; not to live fully in accord with human inclination, but to repress its most distinctive characteristic, the ability (and desire) to have explanations at all.

Claiming that there no justification exists for sexual preference or behavior is claiming that all preference and behavior is (in principle) justified (and only circumstantially to be prevented or altered, such as in the case that one’s inclinations result in harm to another).  Disavowing the possibility of justification itself justifies.  Klein can only attempt to dispel with explanation by means of explanation.

“So is sex meaningless? Yes and no. It is meaningless in the objective or philosophic sense. But, for better or worse, it is meaningful on the personal, experiential level.”

The separation of “objective” and “personal”, of “philosophic” from “experiential”; the chasm hidden beneath the surface of Dreger’s piece Klein leaves naked.  Positing that something has personally, subjectively, experientially meaning and yet no meaning visible to an “objective” or “philosophic” perspective escapes any but the most vapid of analyses.  “Meaning” by its very nature is “objective” (i.e., accessible to intellectual consideration); the domain of meaning belongs to philosophical inquiry.  I may not have the insight to say what meaning someone else has found in sexual behavior, inasmuch as they have not shared it; but I can say that sexual behavior has this or that meaning.

Two threads weave through Klein’s article: one, the presumption that pleasure–reductively ascribed to the corporeal mechanism–is the central aspect of sexuality; two, the plurality of means whereby people find pleasure in sex disproves the existence of hierarchical “better” and “worse” ways to have sex.  These two threads stem from the common spool of sexual decontextualization.  In other words, sex does not ever occur in an existential vacuum, except in the abstraction of discussion.  To treat sex through such abstraction is not to treat of sex, but to treat, poorly, of one’s abstract conceptualization of sex.

What Is, What Was, What Will Be

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
-T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, first of the Four Quartets.

The two articles here considered, Dreger’s and Klein’s, present a common opposition of nature and culture, wherein the goal of culture is to overcome the obstacles nature objects into our pursuit of pleasure.  Martin Heidegger–especially in his later works, such as the 1947 “Letter on ‘Humanism'” and 1953 “Question Concerning Technology”, though elements appear as early as his 1925 lecture on Plato’s Sophist and again in the 1939 lecture on φύσις (nature) in Aristotle–described this attitude towards nature as “technological thinking”: a kind of thinking concerned not with understanding what things really are, with gaining true knowledge or insight, but discovering what things are only insofar as they may be used in accord with some predetermined plan of our own devising.

The opposition of nature and culture, and the attempt of culture to dominate nature, as well as the separation of the cultural from the natural as intrinsically opposed forces, are not only epistemically unjustifiable positions, but positions which undermine coherent understanding of the human being.  The end result is one of human fragmentation.

Dreger, admirably though misguidedly, appears to be seeking something like unity.  Her piece desires a coherent account of sex and its place in human life.  The difficulty is that, in saying sex is primarily about pleasure, she makes a teleological (ends-guided/oriented) claim.  To speak of the end of an act, or a kind of act, requires an account of the contextual whole.

Klein, by contrast, removes sex from the integral context of human life and displaces it into a meaningless void.  His pretense at postmodernism ultimately succeeds only in being ultramodernism.

letusgothenyouandi
“Let us go then, you and I…”

Is human life itself meaningless–is all meaning invented, fabricated; the product of experience re-shaped into whatever we decide we ought to give it?  Could one aspect–particularly one so integral, central, both biologically and personally as sex–be itself alone meaningless within a meaningful whole?  My answer to these questions is no; I have explained why in other posts (“Why We Struggle with Meaning”, “Why We Know reality”, “Why Belief Matters”, among others–in a sense, all of my posts strive to answer these questions).

Rather, meaning is discovered through experience and subsequently interpreted.  Those interpretations may be good or bad, accurate or inaccurate; but not “right” or “wrong” as “completely correct” or “completely incorrect”, as a black and white, yes or no, binary system.

We do not, for instance, create pleasure for ourselves.  Rather, pleasure becomes known through the experience of an activity found pleasurable; pleasure is a consequence of action.  The pleasure of sex–at its most intense, a pleasure which submerges our capacity for structured, rational thinking under waves of arousal and satisfaction–is experienced, to be sure; we discover its meaning through rational reflection.  If our sexual behavior habitually engaged makes us less capable of rational thinking, we should find that our pleasures are misguided in reflection, as does any activity which lessens our humanity.

Who and what we are does indeed derive from our experiences; but among those experiences is that of being human, with a human nature; an experience which does not consist in a given moment of given biological limitations, but which permeates the entirety of our existence.  We are bound by an intimate, inescapable connection between who we are, who we were, and who we will be.  If we want to understand sex, therefore, as when we want to understand anything within human life, it must be placed not within the vacuum of abstraction, but within the living context of the whole.