The Social Construction Gap

If you are reading this, it’s fair to assume you are familiar with the term “social construct”.  You are, after all, alive post-2016 and on the internet (unless this has been compiled into Krampus’ Greatest Hits: A Book of Wonderful Sagacity and published to worldwide acclaim, which I’m sure will happen any day now).  Though society has evidently been constructing things for as long as society has existed, the term “social construct” did not come into vogue until the last half of the 20th century.  I won’t bother with the history of it; rather, I just want to point out that, as a formal concept, it is rather young.  It should therefore be little surprise that the meaning of “social construct” is pretty poorly understood–especially since the concept is intrinsically incoherent.

At the heart of this poor understanding is a radical divide: that is, a divide between nature and culture, or between biology and society, if you prefer.  The former pairing–nature (a broader term) and biology (a narrower one)–is recognized as important and, in a certain sense, “infallible”, but also considered stupid and clumsy.  That is, biology is what it is and actively seeking to change it carries a taboo (and for good reason–but more on that some other time).  Meanwhile, society appears sophisticated, “rational”, but often cruel, oppressive, and evil.  Biology is often believed an unconscious influence or even determinant on the structuring of society–sometimes to the point that it is responsible for the evil and cruelty of those social constructs.  At other times, society is believed to have “corrected for”–or at least to be capable–the “mistakes” or “clumsiness” of the biological.

Among the oddities surrounding this divide is that it appeared before anyone successfully made sense of it, and, point of fact, no one really has made sense of it yet.  Some intellectuals noticed that nature and biology form one kind of thing, and culture and society (or perhaps, even more ambiguously, “psychology”) form another kind of thing, and the two were pushed apart until we could figure out what to do with them.  We still haven’t figured much out, however, and I’m afraid we’re actually getting farther away from figuring it out, too: mostly because they should not have been pushed apart in the first place, and now people are carrying on as though this is the normal, proper state of things.

The idea of the “social construct”, as commonly understood today, has followed from the forced separation of nature and culture: that is, social constructs are understood to be concepts or institutions (i.e., patterns of practice and organization) which exist solely on the basis of human mental activity and formed discursively through social interactions.  Often, these constructs are imbued with moral normativity.  In other words, the construct establishes a standard or acceptable set of behaviors; anything outside of them is considered bad.  This seems quite sensible, given the premises–after all, biology and nature present no moral codes, but we have such codes, and if they don’t come from nature, then they must come from society.

Practices such as marriage and its traditionally attendant attributes–monogamous, heterosexual, child-bearing and rearing oriented–are often considered as examples of social constructs, and as ones having morally normative weight.  Within that, in particular, we can focus on monogamy, a normative concept currently under some scrutiny and facing opposition from certain quarters, which will be used throughout this essay as a particular example.

Disclaimers

First, I’ll be quite honest: I am a man and I am wholeheartedly pro-monogamy.  It is a practice I consider a part of the highest ideal of a loving relationship.  In recent opposition to monogamy, I do feel threatened–as would anyone, I think, who finds his or her ideal being argued against; it is something in which I believe, and in which I would like others to believe.

Second, the impetus for this article is the work of Carrie Jenkins.  In particular, I have in mind her article “Modal Monogamy” (I know she has written a lengthier book, and I intend to address it more fully and thus more fairly at some point).  Carrie is a clear, persuasive writer.  I follow her on Twitter and from what I’ve seen, I quite like her candor, her thoughts on mental health and academia, and on academia in general.  But I think she’s wrong in her work, and I think it a fruitful exercise (if nothing else) for me to explain why.  For starters, she tries to bridge the gap between the biological and the social–but as we’ll see, that gap is an abyss, and no bridge is strong enough to span it.

The arbitrary hypothesis

Typically attending the claim that a traditional or conventional position of moral normativity is nothing other than the product of social construction is the implication that this normative construction is oppressive, and therefore bad, and, since it is moreover arbitrary, it is also legitimate to supplant.  The first claim, that the norm oppresses, requires a view of human nature that centers around negative freedom as essential: namely, that radical autonomous independence from external constraints forms the core of what makes someone human, and any activity contrary to this–except in service of the preservation of another’s autonomy–constitutes oppression.  Good actions are actions that promote the ability of individuals to exercise their autonomy; oppressive actions are, by contrast, evil.  Because all but the most basic of norms entail some degree or another of constraint, sooner or later, they all come to be seen as oppressive.  I will challenge the validity of the oppressive-claim in the next section.

In the meanwhile, I want to note an inconsistency between the first claim, that normative constructions are oppressive, and the second, that they are arbitrary.  That is, if a social construct is entirely arbitrary, it seems absurd to claim that it is oppressive.  If whatever is being oppressed has a claim not to be oppressed, then the social construct must be something bad; which is to say that in whatever realm the social construct is operating, it cannot truly be arbitrary because it is itself in conflict with something normative, unless, of course, the claim not to be oppressed is itself equally arbitrary.

Bosch_bigButtStuff
Shit gets real weird.

In order for something to be arbitrary, or to be performed arbitrarily, it must have no inherent relativity to anything else.  That something could exist in an arbitrary fashion is a very dubious proposition–for everything, insofar as it is, seems also to be in relation to other things.  For an action to be performed in an arbitrary fashion, the act must be severed from its ordinary context; for actions, too, insofar as they exist, exist in relation.  But human beings do have the ability to artificially, within extreme limitations, impose barriers between an act and its relatives: as when a dictator arbitrarily decides to burn down the impoverished parts of his city to expand the beautiful and wealthy–this is not entirely arbitrary, but is arbitrary in the sense that it severs its relations to the proper ordination of ruling.

So let us take the supposed social construct with normative ruling highlighted earlier, monogamy, and consider what it would mean to say that this is arbitrary: that, against the proper ordination of sexual relationships, some group or force–likely the ubiquitous bogeyman, patriarchy–has imposed on the social order this rule or law.  One could argue that this imposition stems ultimately from a biological male drive to protect its progeny, or from a kind of “selfish instinct”.  Conversely, one could argue–as some have–that females possess a biological drive to polyamory, to increase their chances of reproduction and to always choose the best mate possible.  [Point of fact: anisogamic reproduction has typically fostered, in mammal species, male promiscuity and female selectivity.]

That the terms “biological drive” and “instinct” are virtual nonsense–to the point that even when clearly defined, which is rare, they possess no actual significance to real forces in nature–seems not to bother many who employ them.  Rather, they serve as “explanatory principles”, said in the pejorative sense, by which I mean unknowns presumed as unquestionable “first principles” invoked to bring an end to a discussion.

At any rate, the supposed arbitrariness of the monogamous norm is based on the premise that the male biological urge is, for no good reason, given formalized preference over the female.  Although, if we turned this around the other way, it would be equally arbitrary.  If an arbitrary patriarchal imposition is oppressive to the biological impulse of the female, the converse “matriarchal” imposition would be oppressive to the biological impulse of the male.

Of course, those who are arguing against monogamy are not actually arguing for anything matriarchal–polyamorists are not specifically interested, as near as I can tell, in procreating with a multitude of partners (and it would not be great for the gene pool, in the long run, if they did).  The real interest is in sex with a multitude of partners, and sex which is severed from any reproductive associations–which desire seems not to be related to this supposed biological impulse, which, in evolutionary terms, serves the continuation of the species.

This is a common sleight of hand for social constructionists: claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and point to some biological basis as justification for an alternative social construction–which it turns out is equally arbitrary and oppressive–which biological basis has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm.

Foundations and morality

So what is a social construct?  Let’s start with what it isn’t: an arbitrary concept or institution on which a group of old white men sat around a table and developed as a tool for oppressing women and non-whites.  Nor is it a habituated thought or idea which human brains have co-incidentally evolved to create for themselves to make sense of otherwise irrational experience–the “survival mechanism” thesis (in fact, I would say very few human concepts are of this sort; it would be extremely inefficient, evolutionarily speaking–nor is efficiency the sole criteria of “good” or “better”, in this case).

Okay: so why is it a social construct?  That is, what exactly is being “built” or “constructed”?  The immediate implication in the term is that the result is something artificial, which is something that would not come to be in the way that it is on its own; intervention is required, and specifically intervention which reorganizes things other than how they would normally be.  Implicit is a notion of violence–not physical damage, necessarily, but forcing things against their nature.  A skyscraper does not organically grow, but its materials must be forced, re-shaped, welded, altered again and again, and balanced against one another, in order to stand: this process is construction.

Alright: so why is it a social construct?  In order for something to be social, it requires the co-operative interaction of a plurality of individuals.  Even war requires some co-operation (slaughter is not a social activity), albeit a very hostile kind.  The plurality has to be engaged in something common.

Well then: what is the social construct?  An artificial concept or institution co-operatively forced into existence by a plurality of individuals.  We can only accept the existence of social constructs if we already accept that society exists as something separate from biology; that is, social constructs appear valid only if we allow as normal the divide between nature and culture.  Why should this be the case?  Why should the separation of the two be the default position?  As aforementioned, there are different results from the two–but, here’s the counter-hypothesis: society is natural.

That is, society may deviate from nature, it may oppose nature, or it may cohere with nature, enhance nature; but its root is nature itself.  Human beings are naturally social–it is an inexorable ordination of our biological, physical, corporeal being that we exist in relation to other humans.  That things produced socially would all be constructs and therefore artificial presupposes that there are no natural ways of conceptual or institutional social production.

For this reason, I prefer the term “social constitution”, as “constitution” is a broader term than “construction”–it can mean either natural or artificial.  Moreover, social constitution, as a process of developing concepts or institutions within society, has a continuity with the individual process of ideation whereby we develop our individual conceptual frameworks, the key difference being the making-public of these concepts by species-specifically human linguistic communication; but I think, there, I am wandering a bit outside of the pre-defined boundaries of this essay.

Following from the separation of biology and society, and the relegation of all norms to social constructs, is that morality falls in the gap–or, as it really appears here, the abyss.  If moral norms are entirely the product of human intervention, then they really are arbitrary, whether they are based on biological facts or not–after all, the biological facts instill no preference in us, except, perhaps, to favor the ones that favor us.  If, on the other hand, moral norms at the very least can revolve around an understanding of the natural, then we can find a non-arbitrary basis for judging our practices right or wrong.  That is, normativity cannot reduce to the strictly biological, but it can develop in coherence with the natural.

Love and monogamy

In her book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, Jenkins defines “romantic love” as “ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role” (p.82)–and here it is, specifically, that I think she tries to bridge the abysmal gap between the mistakenly-separated nature and culture–suggesting that we have an evolutionarily-instigated impulse to pursue sexual intimacy (as a reward system to promote procreation) which has been transmogrified through societal structures into something else.  It is this “something else” which is at issue, being a supposed social construct.

In her article, “Modal Monogamy”, Jenkins argues against the concept that “dyadic exclusivity” (i.e., two and only two people exclusively involved with one another) is essential to a romantic love relationship (“modal monogamy”–that the only possible love relationship is metaphysically constituted by such a dyadic exclusive romantic love).  Central to her thesis is the concept of “romantic love” as “(at least in part) a socially constructed kind”.

In short: Jenkins’ argument against normative monogamy depends upon her concept of romantic love, and her concept of romantic love depends upon the divide between society/culture and the biological/natural.  Consequently, given my position that there exists no such divide (except by an artificial separation of the kind the scholastics called a distinctio rationis, subsequently and mistakenly presumed to be a distinctio realis), I have to oppose her definition of “romantic love.”

To describe this phenomenon, with which we are all familiar as a feeling, as a social construct fulfilling a primordial biological impulse is, to be frank, silly.  It rests upon some notion of the “natural human”, a pre-societal, pre-cultural being of which we have nothing but the scarcest knowledge (since such a being is, by its very definition, pre-historical, and of which therefore we have only forensic and no semantic indications) as well as a notion of culture and society as things which are artificial and wholly separate from whatever is natural.

Rather than try to deconstruct the feeling of romantic love into separate and mechanistic biological and societal causes, let’s examine the phenomenon itself: that is, what is the feeling itself?  Succinctly described, all “love” has as its core a desire for union with the beloved.  We are pained when that feeling is frustrated and pleased when the feeling is satisfied (unless, of course, the expectation was exaggerated beyond the reality, in which case we are disappointed).  This is true of the love we have for a piece of pecan pie (attended by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course) as it is for a pet, as it is for a human being.

Obviously, however, the kind of union differs for each object.  I do not want to eat my pet, and I do not want to have sex with pecan pie (and anyone who does is not really seeking sex, but masturbation, which is a different thing altogether).  Identifying the kind of union that we want in romantic love will go a long way to helping us understand what romantic love really is–and why and how monogamy is a legitimate moral norm.

[Incidentally, there is a weird inversion which occurs in Jenkins’ “Modal Monogamy” article, in which she points out–correctly–that many people base their modal monogamous belief on (or conflate it with) a moral monogamous belief.  It seems quite clear to me that whatever one’s moral position on monogamy, it ought to stem from its ontological status, not vice versa.  But I’ll spare you all the digression into an Aristotelian/Thomistic investigation of act and potency… sorta…]

Two kinds of union are patently desired in romantic love: sexual and emotional.  To some extent, the emotional often seems more important: sexual union tends to result in relatively short-lived pleasure, whereas the emotional pleasure of an intimate relationship tends to last much longer, and to be more pervasive in one’s life.  But there is also a third kind of union, which we tend to do a poor job of recognizing, which is union in thought.  It is uncomfortable when we discover that our romantic partners–intended or actual–have beliefs which oppose our own, or want things in life which we do not.  While we do not want to be of literally one mind, we do want to be headed in the same direction.  Our beliefs and our desires orient the trajectory of our lives (to at least some extent), and having different trajectories means that, sooner or later, the union will dissolve.  A failure to attain union in thought results quite often in a separation at both the emotional and the physical levels.

None of this, of course, proves that monogamy is a metaphysical necessity to the feelings of romantic love.  It is unquestionable that someone can simultaneously desire unity with a plurality of individuals at all three levels.  What is questionable, however, is whether someone can successfully accomplish such unity with a plurality of individuals.

I think the answer is “no”.  You can certainly have strong emotional attachments, sexual attraction, and even conceptual unity, with a plurality of individuals.  But the conceptual unity has to be broad, and therefore is generic; the emotional and the sexual unity, if with a plurality of individuals, is inescapably fragmentary.  That is, if I am sexually and emotionally involved with more than one person, none of those people are receiving the fullness of my sexual or emotional self.  The unity is only partial, and being incomplete is metaphysically inferior to being complete.

In other words, to take a phrase from Karol Wojtyla, I think that romantic love requires a “total gift of self.”  If someone I love is having or acting on desires for someone other than myself, then a part of her is not being given, and the union is incomplete; and vice versa.

So while it is absolutely true that there is no metaphysical necessity behind monogamy, and that the normativity of monogamy is a socially-constituted institution, it deserves to be a norm because it directs us towards a better fulfillment of our natural desire for complete union.  And before anyone objects, “Ah, but my desires cannot be fulfilled by sexual/emotional/intellectual union with just any one person”, that is absolutely true–but they also cannot be fulfilled by a thousand sexual, emotional, or intellectual partners.  Desire is by its nature indeterminate, general, and open to always more and other.  You can always want something more or something other than what you have–especially if your desires are not subordinated to the belief that you can have a more perfect union through monogamy.

Shitting Bull

I said above that social constructionists commonly claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and subsequently point to some biological basis, as justification for an alternative social construction, that has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm.  A problem with this is that the social constructionist thereby provides a false but seemingly legitimating claim, which then becomes adopted and part of the conceptual framework for individuals and social groups.  Because it is presumed as normal that culture is one thing and biology another, and that there are no real or essential connections between the two–such that we can establish non-arbitrary norms–we start to believe some real bullshit.

And if we’re going to stop believing in the bullshit, that means we need to understand that culture comes from nature, and can either cohere with it or contradict it–and if we want our culture to be coherent with our nature (presuming that being coherent is superior to being incoherent), we need to understand what human nature really is.  Which ultimately entails understanding how we understand–not an easy task and something really difficult to communicate.  But at any rate, until this monumental undertaking can be accomplished, we can probably help ourselves in the meanwhile by closing the mental gap between the biological and the social, rather than trying, with great but foolhardy earnest intentions, to bridge it; for all our social constructions ultimately crumble into the abyss.

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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.

 

Conventional Happiness, brought to you by Hallmark. And Satan (Part II).

I am quite confident that the world, and especially the Western world, would be a much better place if we put less stock in feelings and more in thinking.  Feelings, and appeals to feeling, bombard us constantly—and, yes, as the section title suggests, I do lay (some of) the blame on Hallmark.  (They are an easy target; ever seen the Hallmark Channel?  Someone has to throw a few punches their way; they have had it coming for a loooong time.)  Greeting cards are fine.  It is fine to greet someone with a card.  What is not fine is to push sappy, emotional, sentimental drivel, for the sake of making a profit, especially not at the expense of making people dumber when they’re already too dumb to order their emotional responses with reason in the first place.

While the Hallmark card itself may not be the proximate and current bringer of sentimental, emotional doom, it was an early catalyst.  Consider the totality of emotionally manipulative media which Westerners have crammed down their throats daily: television shows, music, movies, popular fiction, the internet, and even a great deal of the material used in so-called educational institutions are filled with appeals to emotion at the expense of reason.  In many cases, this manipulation is aimed, at the very least indirectly, at procuring a profit for the companies which employ it; but the evil of emotional manipulation does not end there.  Human beings are not wholly determined by their cultural and personal surroundings, but the environment of education and entertainment does exercise a crucial influence.  When companies realize that they can tap into whatever currently prevailing emotional winds causing the populace to sway in this or that direction, they do.  Much of this appeal to emotion is quite on the nose, much is subtler.

Romance movies are an obvious jab to our noses: man meets woman, they fight, squabble, learn about one another, overcome a difficulty, and fall in love happily ever until their world comes to an abrupt halt right before the credits!  Woman meets man, they have passionate feelings, overcome a difficulty, fall in love, someone dies, and tears flow!  It is not that the narrative structure of such stories is fundamentally flawed—though it may at times be tiresomely repetitive, and the nuances which make real relationships interesting are almost universally absent—but rather that romance movies are made with such frequency, without much variation, that there is a natural intensification in the drama needed to procure the emotional response.  There is a pornography of feelings as well as of the flesh, and just like the internet’s favorite hobby, movies tend to escalate in their source of drama, typically by lessening the meaning, and the virtue, contained in the story.

And just as pornography isolates an aspect of the relationship between persons to the performance of an act without context—often so as to exploit the intensification of feeling coextensive with taboo—so too romantic movies either do not show the diminution of virtue often consequent upon the actions of their characters, or if they do, they portray such moral decay in a light which is itself romanticized, stylized, and appealing in a way inconsonant with the reality.  Because a romance film in which virtue is actually portrayed in a positive light has a narrower audience, few films make such an effort.  And most of the ones that do are just plain terrible.  I am completely convinced that a “Christian” movie is doomed to be awful.  I will talk a little bit more about pornography of both flesh and feelings in the second chapter.

A less obvious though no less deceitful element to the machinery of emotional manipulation is the pervasive accessibility and use of music, an element which helps to engineer the romanticizing of realities in themselves utterly without romance.  Imagine those sappy movies, or dramatic TV shows, lacking soundtracks: for the most part, they just are not so moving, are they?  If the scene is not that profound, layer it with a good track, and while the track may do very little to integrate with so as to improve the scene itself (by adding to the meaning of the scene), it will deepen the emotional resonance.

As a prime instance, consider any of the countless “reality talent” shows: while there are indeed truly talented people who deliver amazing performances, these performances are artificially amplified by tales of hardship and dedication, underscored by sad, hopeful music; and when their performances impress the judges, and everyone cheers, there is triumphant, upswelling music.  Take that music away and heartstrings remain unplucked, or at most, lightly strummed.

Thanks to coffee shops, restaurants, cars, in our homes and apartments (if you are reading this book, probably a smelly, leaky, poorly air-conditioned apartment, like the kind where you might find me), and with the presence of the endless music repository of cloud-connected smartphones, we can and do listen to music anywhere, at almost any time.  Many Westerners I have seen, students especially, walk everywhere with headphones plugged in, creating their own soundtracks, treating their daily lives like the shows and movies they watch, to give an emotional flavoring to a reality from which they are otherwise disconnected.  Reality, they seem to think, should feel like the movies and television they watch, and without a score, something is missing.  It seems as though they have difficulty feeling anything—let alone thinking about anything—without looking at the world through the coloration of emotionally-enhanced lenses.

Now my point is not to lambast the increasing obsession with the media through which emotionalistic tendencies are allowed to pervade our daily lives—that would be somewhat tedious and others have done it more thoroughly in other writings—but to show that Westerners have become so consumed with indulging their emotions that everything in their lives is sucked up into a narrative structure, a structure which promises the emotional satisfaction of a dramatic conclusion.  Even the obsession with being sad, being somehow injured, being somehow towards a tragic end which arises in some Western individuals (I believe the kids called this, at some time, “being emo”; but now I’m old and out of touch with trends) tends to be sucked into this narrative which is ordered towards an emotional culmination, a sense of the “perfect” moment; even the “unconventional” happiness, the maudlin or macabre, still falls into the pattern which has been determined for the conventional happiness.  After all, to be rescued, you need first to be in trouble.

There are, as I see it, two principles which underlie this pattern:

  1. The belief in and pursuit of a storybook happiness in this life;
  2. An obstinate overestimation of the goodness and importance of oneself.

While characteristic of the Western mind as a whole, both of these principles exert their dominance over the Westerner most prevalently in the pursuit of romantic relationships; in the idealized and often superficial version of love which has been portrayed on lit screens for a century now, and, though typically with greater depth, in novels for several hundred years.  Many Westerners have been led to believe that they cannot be happy unless they have the “right” loved one; and that the “right” loved one is someone who fits him- or herself perfectly, who causes the perfect peak of emotional satisfaction.

Well, they’re partly right: they cannot be happy.  The rest is, well… not entirely wrong… just mostly.  Almost entirely.  That is, there can be someone who is perfect for you, who does, in fact, fit you perfectly; but this perfect fitting together is not pure magic that will solve everything wrong with your life, or with you.  And, in fact, to love completely the perfect someone for you, you should probably not be relying on that person to make you better, nor, for that matter, to give you constant feelings of happiness.  They should be the person with whom you want to be happy; not the person on whom you rely to feel good.

Sadly, a lot of people have not only bought into the gibberish of the happiness-inducing relationship, they’ve grown up believing this gibberish is the normal, natural, human attitude towards love.  If you’re reading this, and you were born in the 20th or 21st century, there’s a pretty good chance you’re one of those people.

But it’s okay; I’m here to help.  And by help, I mean I’m going to tell you what’s wrong with you, and give you some ideas on how you might start to go about getting around to eventually coming close to doing something like fixing it.  Don’t get me wrong… you will definitely not be happy by the end of this book.  This is not a quick-fix, feel good, make my heart feel warm and fuzzy kind of book.  By reading it, you might even be less happy (it’s unlikely, but you might even be as miserable as I am, even though I am in a committed, lifelong, happy relationship) as my sole intent here is to destroy without mercy or reservation the pathetic and deceitful illusions which are and have been destroying you, illusions which you love to hold because you’ve been blinded into stupidity by how nice and pretty they look.

Conventional Happiness, brought to you by Hallmark.  And Satan (Part I).

Most people living today in the warm and emotionally effusive embrace of Western culture—eponymously referenced throughout as Westerners—seem to accept, at some level, that popular culture portrays a false vision of happiness.  Only the really obstinately ignorant (whom I do not count, since they are probably too stupid to read this book anyway, or to understand it if they did) would believe that the snippets of purportedly joyful life which they see in television and movies or any of the portrayals of popular culture are in any way exhibitions of real happiness.

There is, moreover, a sense among Westerners, albeit vaguely conceived and ill-defined, that material possessions are not what will really make people happy; that we should instead pursue meaningful relationships, fulfilling careers, healthy living, and a generally well-ordered life; that if we can just find the things that “work” for us, we will all be happy, shiny, smiling people.  This wishy-washy attitude is the further-watered down version of the already-watered down version of what some German existentialist once termed “authenticity”, the watering-down of which we can first lay at the feet of a very unattractive (by all conventional standards of good, decent, aesthetically-right-minded taste) French existentialist.  You might adequately summarize this watered-down authenticity by the popular maxim of “being true to yourself.”[1]

This is not a book for anyone who would sincerely say that to themselves, or to anyone else for that matter—except inasmuch as the sort of people who would say such a sort of thing are precisely the sort of people who ought to read this sort of book.  The irony is that anyone who takes such a maxim (to “be true to yourself”) seriously is unquestionably living according to what said German existentialist termed “inauthenticity”, precisely the sort of Western person who will not be reading this book, or will have read up til about this sentence and put it back on the shelf.  Rather, this is really a book for those who say such things, but taste something sour as the words pass their tongues, for those who have realized that something just isn’t quite right with this whole set-up, for those who sense that being true to themselves is being really damn disingenuous in some other way.  Or in other words, for those smart enough to know that they are deeply unhappy.

That is not to say that there isn’t something genuinely attractive about the picture of the loving and attractive girlfriend or boyfriend, the marriage full of pleasant days, intimate nights, and perhaps exotic vacations together; the job that you actually want to go into most days; the fit, toned, healthy body; or even the admittedly-less-important niceties: the comfortable house, the big television, smartphones, high-speed internet, iThings, many leather-bound books and rich mahogany.  And scotch.  The attractiveness of these things is not simply conventional or societally-validated.  They have a genuine goodness in themselves, and can be appropriately appraised.

But we can, and very often do, easily overvalue things.  We can easily convince ourselves that if “I just have this one thing, then I will be happy”; which is, of course, wrong, and is something that we often even acknowledge as wrong, or perhaps we acknowledge that such happiness will be fleeting.  The real mistake, however, is not simply in thinking that this or that thing will make us happy, or that this or that loving relationship, this or that job, is the key to a happy life.  No, it is in thinking that any of these things have any causal relation to our happiness.  Rather, they have a relation to pleasure, which has a relationship to happiness, but a relationship which is not in any way actually responsible for causing it.

The lie includes the truth, but it twists and distorts that truth just enough to send us down the wrong path.

Even when it is recognized, that these particular goods of pleasure are not, individually, the causes of our happiness, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the right admixture or ordering of these goods is the cause of happiness; that having a place for everything we want and everything we want in its right place will do the trick.

This construct of goods usually results in something little more than a fragile web which collapses in on itself the moment a single thread is snipped.  But even if it stays intact for long periods at a time, there are inevitable gaps, lacunae (an unnecesarily pretentious word which means exactly the same thing as “gaps”) in the armor of our pretend happiness, holes through which exudes, from time to time, a misery festering beneath the surface of our lives.  And so we try to fill those periods of emptiness with more relationships, more pleasures, more of anything, so that we might ignore the subcutaneous rot.

Worst of all is when we no longer take notice of those gaps in which we can encounter the interstitial misery of really, deeply, profoundly lacking something.  This gap-blindness occurs for two reasons: first, because not all of those things or activities with which we fill up our lives will always be there, and so we will search with increasing desperation for more things to hold the web together (the phenomenon of escalation); second, and more importantly, because we become so entirely, myopically focused on the ordering of these external things that we fail to realize we have completely encompassed ourselves with them, and thereby lost touch with the deeper reality of our humanity; that by maintaining this Well-Ordered Lie (or Lie of the Well-Ordered Life) for the sake of avoiding the Interstitial Misery, we have entombed ourselves.

Or if you’d like a more colorful image, slapping band-aids on necrotizing fasciitis.

As aforesaid, most Westerners recognize that external, material goods are not the key to happiness; many even recognize that fleeting goods—sex, food, alcohol, whatever—are temporary pleasures at best; and some may even notice that the bigger things in life, such as those others with whom we form intimate relationships, sexual or otherwise, are not the key.[2]

Of course, this doesn’t stop people from trying, to some degree or another, to use these things for their own drug-addict-like needs.  After all, critical reflection on how it is that one pursues happiness—that so-called inalienable right to which all denizens of the United States of America make a claim, without understanding what it really means in the slightest—is not something most people do very often.  Most people have their lives so filled up with threads of the Well-Ordered Lie that they do not have the time, space, or quiet which are requisite for such reflection.  This is why that folder of important things “To think about when I find time” remains unopened.  Time cannot be found; it must be made.

Moreover, and more to the detriment of Westerners, many threads of the Well-Ordered Lie perpetuate the myth that it can produce some sort of happiness.  Pop culture subordinates almost every one of its aspects to this perpetuation: television shows, music, movies, novels, advertisements and the things they advertise, even the so-called higher education of colleges and universities.  Nevertheless, even those who claw their way to an awareness of the insufficiency of external goods almost inevitably fail penetrating the mysteries of their own misery, for even in turning their attention to something interior, even in grasping some thread leading to the realization that happiness has something to do with the subjective status of the individual human being itself,[3] they mistake their feelings and opinions as the sources of happiness, and so they become victims of what we could call “mere fleeting sentiment”.

In simpler terms: when you are not happy, chances are it is something wrong with you, and especially with the choices you have made; not with the things around you, nor with the way you feel.

I often tell my students (I teach college students—they are seemingly all believers of the Well-Ordered Lie) that I do not give a crap about their feelings.  And it is true.  You might even say that I regularly crap on their feelings, because their feelings have become dissociated from any reasoning whatsoever.  Sorry, Stacy, that you feel your paper was at least a C; but the multiple sentence fragments, disagreements in number, and fact that you called “Descartes” by the name “Socrates” no fewer than four times—not to mention that you clearly did not understand the reading assignment (if you read it all)—caused me to judge the paper an F.

[1] That is, if you can stomach saying those words without being ironic.  The pedant in me feels obliged to make mention of the fact that Martin Heidegger, aforesaid German existentialist, did not by “authenticity” mean the sentimentalized slop peddled today by self-help “gurus.”  Rather, he meant fulfilling the aspect of human nature as being towards the actual truth of things, rather than adopting a schema of things as given by others, i.e., being inauthentic.  Apparently, I’m just enough of an ass to, despite not including this in the main text and despite including an enormous parenthetically-split infinitive, tell you this in a footnote.

[2] Considering the divorce rate in Western civilization, it actually seems to be a prevailingly acted-upon, if not yet fully understood, truth.  Unfortunately, divorce itself is an action commonly furthering the problem, as it leads to the continuation of the desperate search for some thing/event/individual as solution.

[3] Something—but definitively, inarguably, unmistakably not everything.

Why You’re So Miserable

The following is the introduction to the introduction (yes, intro to intro) to the book I am working on while I wait to hear back about a dissertation defense date.  It’s my take on a relationship self-help book.  It is probably not very helpful.

******

Deep down, there is a troubling thought wedged in the filing cabinet of your mind: you probably took a brief look at it once, found it unsettling, and stuffed it in the folder marked: “To think about when I find the time”, which, of course, is the file you never open.  This folder is full of things you should have thought about at some point or another, and have done yourself great harm by ignoring.

Among these neglected thoughts, however, there is this one, this troubling notion, which you have probably, from time to time, had vague suspicions is true, but a stronger suspicion that ignorance of its veracity is preferable.  As They say, ignorance is bliss; what They do not say is that it is the bliss of something subhuman; the bliss of a pig is, as Someone Else says, inferior to the agony of a Socrates.  If you intend to stay subhuman, close this book; otherwise, read on.

This is the thought you have taken to ignoring: “Everything I have taken for granted is a lie.”

In a sense, this thought is false.  The existence of gravity is probably something you have taken for granted, and that gravity exists is most definitely true.

In another sense, however, this uncomfortable wedgie of a thought is painfully, perhaps even terrifyingly, true.  For while many of the particulars you have taken for granted are true—that is, many of the things contained in everything—these particulars are nestled in a pattern, a background, a sense of the whole which is indeed a lie.  Quite likely, the framework of your worldview, it is true, is based on the blueprint of deception.

We find that truth, that “it’s all a lie,” so unsettling because the lie is itself rather convincing, and, moreover, in many ways quite comfortable.  The lie persuades us therefore not because it appeals to our reason or to our sense of truth, or even to our innate-through-requiring-development desire for truth, but rather because it coddles our emotions and gives reassurance and temporary, quieting satisfaction to our poorly-formed habits of desire.  The lie does not make us uncomfortable because it includes enough partial truths—twisted, displaced, and incorporated into the whole only in obscure manner—that we do not find an immediate affront at being told that the deceptive whole is something true and good for our lives.