SEX AND SOCIALISM
Blog Hero Tim Dunlop
reckons bloggers have to talk dirty occasionally if they're to keep their readership. I reckon that's hard to do because my wide reading tells me many like to do sex in the company of others (which HAS to be unhygienic, but far be it from me to judge others) and it strikes me as the height of rudeness to tell the world about what others might look like when their knickers bedeck the clock-radio or what sounds might escape their parted lips as that little vein in their foreheads starts to bulge.
I told you I read a lot.
Anyway - as a nomad I have noted some cultural variations in aspects of life the less-journeyed among us take to be natural and universal. I have discovered, for instance, that Australians think themselves sophisticated liberals, and consequently deem their sexual escapades to be no-one else's business. You'd think this exacting doctrine would remove the topic of sexual escapades from the menu of conversation, but Australians, who resent all manner of quieting tyranny, have found an answer to the conundrum. 'Tis often remarked (albeit not entirely convincingly to those of us who stand up to pee) that the decisive sex organ is that which resides between our ears. Well, Australian chaps have taken this pragmatically to heart, and we're consequently allowed to go on about our sexual escapades as much as we like - which is a lot - as long as the invoked sexual escapade occurred entirely between the narrator's ears.
The public/private divide, upon which liberalism depends, is duly respected, and real sex remains discreetly in the latter domain.
Well - not really.
A clever American called Peirce once insisted that what goes on between our ears is not strictly private at all. Indeed it's definitively social. How come? Coz our knowledge and fantasies are expressed in signs, even when we express them to ourselves. And those signs have been socially acquired. Our capacity for knowledge and fantasy is a function of our peculiar social essence - of our capacity to communicate in the way only humans do. Indeed, in the way only humans who share our symbolic order do.
Every thought we have must then be thought in social categories, terms and associations. Our naughtier fantasies might feel like they're bubbling up from our very core, but the only bit that comes from within is the generic drive to physical gratification - and that's not very private because 'generic' means it can't be. We give that drive an object (eg a yummy other) and a particular mode of expression (eg something we'd like to do or would like the yummy other to do), but even these constituents aren't really private, because the yumminess and the idealised activities are made up of signs, so they're socially derived, too.
So that's not you fancying Brad Pitt or Sharon Stone. It's a passing socio-cultural phase doing the fancying. It's just doing it through your neurons, that's all. It's not you who focuses on their rippling square shoulders or plunging neckline. It's heaps of people being dirty through you. It's not you who likes 'em coz they're skinny-yet-well-shouldered-or-boobed, it's every bastard around you. It's not you who wants to salve Sharon's naked buttocks with strawberry jam and watch them quiver voluptuously as you stroke them with blanched celery, it's, well, whatever.
Anyway - this explains why Titian painted voluptuous lassies the like of which would today be pictured only as a 'before' shot in a Jenny Craig ad. That's the sort of lass Italian gents had in mind whilst daubing their sheets with maps of the Philippines circa 1570. I doubt a snap of a Kate Moss lewdly disporting herself would have taken a single wrinkle out of a single todger in the Venice of 1570. Society just wasn't ready for heroin-chic in the sixteenth century. Similarly, when I was an ankle-biter, women would need to sit down and fan themselves when Hollywood served its leading men up two-hundredweight at a time. John Wayne or Robert Mitchum are now of merely historical interest (except for John Wayne's politics, which are evincing worrying longevity). Today the gals get hot under the frock for shorter, thinner, prettier, less obviously masculine types. This worries me, as I always thought it was one of the boyfriend's gentlemanly duties to be less pretty than the girlfriend (I mean, how must Posh FEEL?). But then, I am over forty, and no longer of this world. That makes me no more the autonomous individual, mind you. I am obliged to come over all squirmy every time Emma Peel's on the telly just as my Mum needs a good lie down every time Efrem Zimbalest Junior makes an appearance.
Our constituting cultures speak through our bodies. The talk varies. But it's usually dirty.
So next time you feel inclined to indulge your nasty little urges, just remember you'll be doing other people's dirty work for them. Hegel reminds us that the only institution that represents us all is the state.
Ergo, the state should pay us for having sex.
SHAMELESSLY AMATEUR PHILOSOPHARRHOEA:
A COMPLETELY UNRECONSTRUCTED LEFTY HUMANIST
WAXES POLEMICAL ON THE GREAT POST-STRUCTURALISTS
I'm thankfully never called upon to get very deep about post-structuralism. Sometimes I'm required to mention it in passing, and this I do with impeccable equanimity and exactly the degree of apologetic superficiality my confusions and doubts warrant.
So one reason I blog (albeit not very regularly just now) is that a chap sickens quickly of polite equanimity and diplomatic elision. Especially on a subject that assails the blogorrhoeaic soul with tides of frustration and dark suspicion. If vent I must, then let it be into the blogosphere, where the harsh judgement burns brightly for but a moment, quickly to pass into a thankfully unremarked history. And not a nose broken.
Being rude is also a good way to engender (occasionally edifying) responses. So here I go ...
BEING RUDE ABOUT MICHEL FOUCAULT
On balance, and certainly in terms of how his contributions have been deployed in the academy, Michel Foucault adds up to nothing of use and much of damage.
Why? Because he was a strident anti-humanist. That's why.
Where does Foucault's anti-humanism go? His definitive sentence on this is 'the subject is a plurality of possible positions and functions'. Agency can not lie with a flexible amorphousness like this, rather it lies with an oft-seeming everythingness called 'discourse', a salient product of which is this 'subject' of his.
The rules of the intermeshed/contending discourses du jour are to be elaborated, and, lo, we have described the subjects it spawns. [Never mind that the process of identifying anything is itself but a discursive enactment of social power - that's too cheap a shot.]
There is no human activity in the Foucauldian notion of knowledge. Statements are fictions based on the myths that define the discourse, which represents power relations, that construct the subject. I soften a little when the big F tells us that, of course, 'I have never written anything other than fictions'.
But that won't do, will it? Not really. What this really is, is crap.
And when we talk about knowledge, statements, and discourse, we have to talk about meaning. But meaning is not a thing-in-itself. It's gotta be what a subject allocates to signs. Subjects make meaning. Them, and nothing else. So, on a generous reading, we'd at least have to accuse Foucault of not being dialectical. If discourse produces subjects, the subjects produce the discourse (The often equally bemusing Giddens wrote of 'structuration' to describe this bleedin' obvious relation).
And when we talk about power and discourse, we have to talk about what these categories exclude. If they exclude nothing, they can mean nothing, can they? Now, Foucault implies a categorical difference between the two - they are, again on a generous reading, mutually constitutive. So I take it they can not be synonymous. There is discourse that is not power and/or there is power that is not discourse. Power, we are regularly told, is what constructs/legitimates discourse. Obviously, power must be communicated. Communication is what discourse is, no? So discourse, I
conclude, constructs/legitimates power. Which means the subject is agentic in the construction of power relations! Allow me to go another step, power does not 'mean' to me but that it relates to interests - INTERESTS is the category outside power that power needs if it is to mean. Well, WHOSE interests?
A subject's interests ...
Now, I know I'm a rampantly unapologetic humanist, but if this is the best that antihumanism can do, then you'd have to be a humanist, wouldn't you?
I think Foucault's an incoherent mess on history, too (I think the above hints at why), and I haven't a clue what his 'autonomous historical bloc' gets at unless it's a most ill-advised rejection of the proposition that every moment in history is conditioned by earlier moments.
But on to to ...
BEING RUDE ABOUT JACQUES DERRIDA
Derrida makes much of his notion of 'logocentrism', the set of metaphysical assumptions in which enlightenment thought grounds itself. These assumptions comprise the oppositional placement of eg. matter and form, essence and accident, mind and body
etc etc. Furthermore, one pole is always politically privileged at the expense
of the other. Crucially, all this is predicated on the claim that a reality exists which can and should be explained.
Lyotard made a lot of this, too. If you remember, his word for this modernist tyrrany was 'metanarrative'. It brought us Auschwitz, he reckoned ... but enough of him.
Anyway, to exacerbate our logocentrism, we (for I duly oppose and privilege myself re. Derrida, just as the master said I must) are also guilty of 'phonocentrism'. By this outrage do we at once privilege speaking over writing and tie ourselves to the proposition that language is transparent, representational and separable from its implicit opposite, non-linguistic reality.
Derrida seeks to flesh out a discursive mode capable of disclosing and dismantling all this tyranny. This he calls 'deconstruction'.
But is Derrida right to sum up the enlightenment tradition as he does? Hegel was an idealist and an enlightenment figure - he privileged 'mind'. Feuerbach was a materialist and an enlightenment figure. He privileged 'body'. Marx, I reckon, is most convincing to me as one who rids us of the distinction all together - the activity of the thinking subject being ever complicit in objective being. For Marx, the antinomies of which Derrida makes so much are historical, not essential. For him, the oppositions we stress are at once the manifestation of the alienation produced by capitalist relations and the very contradictions that make thinkable the passing of that order. Marx represents the enlightenment working itself out by way of its own time-honoured constitutive premises.
Anyway, so there is a hole in Derrida. Neither oppositions nor privileges are necessarily or demonstrably constitutive of the tradition he feels it is so important to dismantle.
To dismantle our uncritical phonocentrism, Derrida goes into Rousseau and de Suassure at length in *Of Grammatology*. But what's so representative about these blokes in the great enlightened scheme of things? Are there not a legion of enlightenment thinkers who do not privilege the individual's intention and performance? Does Hegel? Does Marx?
So that leaves us with the apparently definitive enlightenment claim that language is representational, transparent and other than non-linguistic reality. Here Derrida really bases his critique on framing de Suassure's scientific linguistics as definitively representative of enlightenment thinking. Oops, he can't be doing that; for language does not represent, does it?
Whatever. Derrida proceeds to make himself famous. Not content with de Suassure's thesis that no utterance can have meaning in itself, that meaning is a function of what other terms mean (what means 'dog' without 'cat', 'mammal', 'pet' etc?), D goes the extra mile. Meaning is deferred, too. 'Tis not just the complex of meanings du jour that mediate, complicate and diffuse the meaning of an utterance, but also all other complexes of meanings in all other settings. No stable meaning can pertain, because neither intention nor context can constrain it. Meaning is therefore indeterminate.
I reckon this is trivial and obvious at best (polysemy is an old idea, and we all know it to be the case that thought and utterance are not synonymous, and that utterance and interpretation are not synonymous) and outrageous nonsense if taken to its logical conclusion. We can not know of the infinite complexes/structures of meaning that could be. Consequently any utterance could mean anything. Therefore no utterance can mean.
Therefore we can not do what we are doing at this precise second: communicating. This isn't just demonstrable nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. Social being, intersubjectivity, solidarity and co-ordinated action are just some of the categories excised by the post-structuralist fad that picked up on this weird idea and uncritically chucked it into their own metanarrative, as a priori 'differance'.
Derrida also informs us that all language is metaphorical, or at least that we can not identify what is literal and what is not.
Hands up if you think that sentence did not constitute a literal claim.
I quite clearly just made a claim concerning what I took Derrida to be saying and I am absolutely confident none of you thought different. What's more, the sentence in question was, if you know the parlance, a constative utterance - one lending itself to an argument over its truth. The exhortation that followed constituted a performative speech act, in that I was making no explicit proposition. Derrida says we can't differentiate between them. I say we can. And just did.
'Ah,' the Derrideans among you reply (by way of two constative speech acts), 'but the exhortation was employed as a rhetorical device. You were in fact making the proposition that the designated literal claim could not possibly be interpreted as anything but such!'
Quite tenably so. In its context, it might well be so. But the sentence on its own would clearly not be so. Intention, while not decisive, is integral. I chose the two sentences such that the first could not be read as a performative speech act, that the second could be read as a constative speech act, and that it wouldn't matter whether the reader read it that way or not. I did that deliberately. Me, myself, I.
I'm following this line to reintroduce a dash of agency into the latent anti-humanism on show, but also to allow that there can be occasions of misunderstanding. Derrida's argument doesn't allow for misunderstanding, because all interpretations must be equally tenable if any possible meaning system may be deployed in the act of interpretation. Me, I reckon interpretation is definitively problematic only if we join Derrida in rejecting agentic authors and distinctions like those proffered by the speech act theorists. Habermas reckons that, too, else his historical work on the political potential of the 'public sphere' and his critical notion of the 'ideal speech situation' would make no sense (which matters, because with the passing of those notions disappear the guts of 'democracy', 'citizenship' and 'emancipation', which'd kinda leave 'liberalism' and 'socialism' coughing up blood - which might be okay IF POST-STRUCTURALISTS OFFERED EVEN A SKERRICK OF AN ALTERNATIVE MODE OF SOCIETY ... which they don't.)
Anyone got a more generous and uplifting take on this stuff? (Yes, I'm talking to you, Gary)
Oh, yeah. A quick word on deconstruction itself (if I may be allowed to employ language to refer to something). Logically (if I may indulge this tyrranically privileged category), deconstruction must be a discursive mode rising from within the discourse it seeks to outline and dismantle. Nothing new about that, is there? Didn't many Marxists (the Frankfurters, for a start) do this? Didn't they claim that's what Marx had been doing? Didn't they call it 'immanent criticism'? Didn't they voice their concerns about representation, expressly noting the slip between words and their concepts?
I'm reminded of something Samuel Johnson said about a book he'd been reading. Something like: "What is good in it is not new, and what is new in it is not good."
* Freadman and Miller's *Re-thinking Theory* does this sort of critique an awful lot better than I do.