Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Individualism and the Sexual Attraction of Opposites

In Plato’s dialogue “Symposium,” Aristophanes delivers a humorous speech that provides a mythical origin of sexual attraction. Aristophanes explains the romantic seeking for our complement in someone else, for our so-called soul mate, by imagining that humans were once physically very different: each member of an earlier form of our species had two heads, four arms, and four legs. As in the biblical Tower of Babel story, these creatures tried to storm heaven, and so the gods punished them, not by fragmenting their language, but by splitting each prehuman in two, condemning each of us now to long for reunion with our other half.

Indeed, human sexual attraction is ripe for such satire, partly because of sexuality’s conflict with the modern ideology of individualism. On the one hand, there’s a natural heterosexual instinct, which causes most men and women to bond hormonally with a member of the opposite sex. The differences between the sexes are psychological as well as biological: notoriously, men and women think differently, thanks to our different hormones and evolutionary social roles; moreover, these gendered thought pattern are often opposed to each other. For example, while some female politicians, such as Margaret Thatcher, are just as capable of masculine vices as male ones, women are often noted for their disinclination to fall into the same traps as men when exercising political power. While testosterone-filled, often sociopathic men aggressively compete for selfish advantage in a power hierarchy, estrogen-filled, baby-bonded women use their greater capacity for empathy to cooperate with their opponents to reach political compromises. The point, though, is that most men and women, who are psychologically at odds with each other, are naturally compelled to be yoked with such opponents, to live together as we fulfill our biological “function” of raising a family and preserving our genes after our death.

On the other hand, modern men and women are beholden to the values of individualism, believing we’re each sovereign agents with rights of ownership over our private property, including our own bodies. This ideology is a secularized form of Western monotheism, substituting the rational, technoscientifically creative human for the divine Creator of the universe. Modernists believe that our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness dignify us, giving us intrinsic value and inalienable rights. This atomistic view of human nature glorifies the ego, the self-conscious, logical, and pragmatic side of ourselves that was so instrumental in the Scientific Revolution and that’s celebrated in capitalistic democracies. According to the commonplace selective reading of Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, for example, social Darwinian capitalism is supposed to unleash the unintended altruistic consequences of the practically necessary vice of egoism (selfishness). The legitimacy of this ideology has come into question in our so-called postmodern period, due to hyper-skepticism, feminism, the hollowness of utopian rationalism, and the familiar oligarchic reality of individualistic societies. Nevertheless, the myths of secular individualism are the most influential replacements for those of anachronistic theism. (See Modernism and Postmodernism.)

Again, the clash between our natural embodiment and our cultural self-identification is embarrassing and worthy of ridicule. The film Pulp Fiction makes light of just this aspect of sexual attraction. The Bruce Willis character, Butch, is a tough, antiheroic boxer who we learn lives with his girlishly feminine girlfriend, Fabienne, rendering that title of hers literally true. Although she’s an adult, psychologically she’s an insecure child, preoccupied with adolescent fantasies and affecting infantile mannerisms. When they’re together, Butch is forced to engage in her baby-talk, concealing his macho impulses. Meanwhile, Fabienne’s girlish innocence is made hypocritical by her submission to Butch, that is, by the fact that she’s attracted to the masculine ideal which is so opposite to her feminine one. Although this device serves several discernable roles in Pulp Fiction, which are irrelevant to my point, we can see the movie’s treatment of that duo as a caricature of most heterosexual relationships, as an exaggeration of the gender-based conflicts between most hapless life partners. (I leave aside here the complicated question of whether the foregoing analysis applies to homosexual couples.)

The incongruity between sexual attraction and the ideal of individualism comes into view when we consider how the former deprives us of our intellectual integrity. After all, the emptiness of masculine and feminine ideals is revealed by their instrumentality: the instinct to be macho or submissive is thrown up by natural forces as a mere device, as a set of signifiers to attract a member of the opposite sex, and when we hold our gender role to be essential to our character, we’re duped by those forces. Moreover, we’re punished for that obliviousness, with the loss of our authentic character, as the union of opposites nullifies both extremes. Butch demonstrates his bravery and killer instinct by defeating evil foes, but the film deconstructs those antiheroic virtues, revealing them as mere pretenses, given Butch’s underlying attraction to the opposite qualities of girlishness. A callous antihero can’t simultaneously lay claim to the prerogatives of manliness and fulfill the naïve expectations of a sissy. Thus, Butch must hide from Fabienne the depravities he’s forced to commit when surviving in the hellish, sadomasochistic man’s worlds of the boxing ring and the gun store’s basement, just as she’s forced to feign ignorance of Butch’s beastliness even while she’s hypocritically attracted to that very quality which is foreign to her.

Granted, there would be a vicarious satisfaction in completing yourself by living through someone else’s strengths, but this would reduce sexual love to an egoistic game, which in turn would spoil each lover’s mood to maintain the modern fiction that he or she is loved as an individual and not as a means to a selfish end. Instead of being a method of vicarious self-completion, the sexual attraction of opposites typically thrives on delusion, which maintains the charade. The attraction becomes a repulsion as soon as we’re forced to confront the contradiction between the ideals cherished by different sides of ourselves. Butch loves both his macho violence and Fabienne’s naïve innocence, and that requires mental partitions. When taking up his sword against demonic villains, he must surely banish the fear that only a sissy could care for a sissy, and that he therefore lacks the killer instinct to vanquish them. Again, a feminine woman tends to resort to similar self-mesmerism to maintain the illusion of her identity’s coherence, pretending that her tough guy boyfriend is actually a “baby,” repeatedly calling him that as though she were chanting a mantra. With no loss of personal integrity, a girlish woman can, of course, love babies--along with unicorns, stuffed animals, and fairy tale ideals of romance. But just such a woman is infamous for being sexually attracted to her opposite, to the powerful, arrogant, sadistic alpha male. She retains the illusion of her dignity by hypnotizing herself into believing that her thug of a sexual partner is a helpless little baby who wuvs his wittle sweetums, calling him “baby” at every opportunity.

The Elements of our Sexual Comedy

As standup comedians know, there’s no end to the wealth of ridiculous absurdities that can be mined from the material of human sexual attraction. But the main reason why that attraction is laughable is less appreciated. At its root, this comedy depends on the thrill of witnessing an arrogant person’s comeuppance. Modernity delivers the pretense that we’re Lords of the Earth and thus that we needn’t project that desire for godhood onto any nonhuman Creator. But that same source of our divinity, our technoscience, ironically delivers the news that we’re biochemical machines and playthings of cosmic evolutionary forces. We pride ourselves on our value as individual persons, as dignified, self-aware sovereigns, but we’re actually pets on Mother Nature’s leash. We pretend that we’re autonomous and responsible for our actions, but we now know we’re exploited by genes as vehicles for their replication. Thus, we value personal integrity and coherence of character, but those values are dragged through the mud by the true, horrifyingly mindless but still divinely creative forces, which compel us to betray our cultural ideals by playing the roles assigned us by our headless directors.

So why is most human sexual attraction now so laughable? Because the spectacle of that attraction affords us a view of modernity’s implosion, leaving behind the postmodern wasteland. Sexual attraction reveals the secular hero’s tragic flaw: the noble, self-determining human Master of the Elements is compelled by instincts, hormones, and cultural signifiers to betray the ideals of modern myths and perform a degrading role. Most sexual attraction is between persons with more or less opposite characters and thought patterns (as well as sex organs). The gender differences are now largely vestigial, having originated in the prehistoric environment that selected a protohuman mammalian species for neurological adaptation, an environment that no longer obtains thanks to our selection of preferred habitats within the higher dimension of cultural possibilities. In any event, psychological as well as biological gender differences are byproducts of sexual reproduction, which is itself an evolutionary mechanism for preserving the genes from microscopic parasites.

Again, in that higher, cultural dimension that highly intelligent animals inhabit, we invent myths to mitigate the alienation and horror which are curses of Reason. Theistic myths reigned for millennia until the Scientific Revolution replaced them with modern ideologies of rationalism and individualism. Ironically, these modern myths celebrate human achievements and glorify our nature while simultaneously sowing the poisonous seed of postmodern decline, castigating Faith and thus clearing a path for hyper-skepticism. The modern individual, rationally sovereign over inner as well as outer nature, responsible for her mental states and exploiting universal physical processes; democratically empowered, capitalistically enriched, and humanistically virtuous: not gullible and submissive, but enlightened and courageously, freely pursuing personal happiness--this hero is brought to heel every day, yanked by the leash on which is found the tag with our natural identity scrawled across its face: Homo sapiens, clever mammal, inhabitant of the cosmic wilderness, with no owner; thus homeless, desperate, and properly horrified.

Masculinity and femininity are leashes that make fools of most modern men and women, proving our mammalian continuity with the other doomed species on Earth in spite of our fantasies of transcendence. We long to escape from our animal nature: even we progressive modern heroes, with a world of scientific knowledge and an army of machines at our fingertips, require delusions to rationalize the effects of that knowledge and power. But the modern myth of the heroic secular individual is openly mocked by our sexuality.The masculine man is forced to concede that the macho ideal holds no profound meaning of life, since this man is sexually driven to his opposite, like a child who pretends to prefer vegetables even as his hand reflexively reaches for candy. The feminine woman is also humbled by the farce of how she must act to attract what she most wants: she must be internally divided, playing submissive games to live with an aggressor.

The comical discord between our natural role and our artificial modern ideal of self-determination extends even to the physical aspect of sexual attraction. The masculine man tends to have a firm, muscular body, so that his body type symbolizes his gender’s characteristics, yet this same man is usually attracted to a creature with the opposite body type, to a woman with a rounded, soft figure. Thus, the masculine man is forced into the ridiculous contortion of both prizing his muscles as symbolic of his mental toughness, and of sexually desiring to possess, by way of manhandling, a body type that bears the opposite significance. This striking contrast is displayed on the cover of most romance novels: the swooning female, a sample of her soft curves prominently unclothed, falls into the man’s muscular arms. Thus, she proves the incoherence of her sexual appetite and her egoistic self-identification, as she must preserve her feminine beauty not just as a means to attract a mate, but to safeguard the symbol of her feminine individuality, even while her commitment to feminine values is negated by her lust for the symbol of masculine ones.

I imagine the following response to this analysis of sexual comedy. Opposites sexually attract, to encourage humility and to challenge brave people who must test their wits in dealing with life partners with opposing personalities. Thus, for example, the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger married the Democrat Maria Shriver, and the Democratic consultant James Carville married the Republican consultant Mary Matalin. Birds of a feather may flock together, but individualistic humans prefer variety, the spice of life. This response makes a virtue out of necessity. Combative persons may well prefer to challenge themselves by associating with a variety of people, but this incidental reward of an adventurous social life doesn’t render the above conflict any less ridiculous. Moreover, differences mustn’t be mistaken for oppositions. Liberals and conservatives may have different political viewpoints, but if both types of people are politically active, as in the above two cases, they must also share a number of personal qualities. In the US, in particular, the marginal social differences between liberals and conservatives mask the economic consensus of the upper class, that they prefer a stealth oligarchy. Of course, most sexual relationships aren’t as ideally oppositional as the one between Pulp Fiction’s Butch and Fabienne, but each is more or less so and any irreconcilable, gender-based conflict between life partners threatens the credibility of modern individualism. If we’re supposed to be self-controlling, creative and powerful individuals, why must we belittle ourselves at evolution’s behest, fleeing from our personal values out of lust for our relative opposite?

Transhuman Coda

The upshot is that sexual attraction in modern societies provokes the sort of gallows humour I speak of elsewhere. (See Postmodern Religion.) However, I want to close on an optimistic note. Another reaction to this conflict is to praise modernists for attempting to engineer a transcendent posthuman from the materials provided by the naturally selected human animal. I’m not speaking of a biological transformation by genetic engineering or nanomachines, but of a psychological one, a global indoctrination that challenges not just stale theistic religions but nature’s leash around our necks. As hinted at above, this challenge wouldn’t operate yet on the level of our physical form, but in the cultural dimension. After all, modern people really do feel happy, free, powerful and virtually omniscient. Paradoxically, modern secularists keep sexuality both highly public and private, so despite the boon it provides the comedy industry, the clash I’ve been speaking of here doesn’t actually spoil many people’s illusions. (See Embarrassment by Sex.)

We can speculate that a posthuman mind is an emergent phenomenon, a way of thinking that requires not just highly advanced hardware but a radical transhuman ideology that prepares us for our more total apotheosis. Modern individualism was devised largely with this progressive end of view. Rather than overturning anthropocentrism, Copernicus set in motion a secular, scientistic form of self-centeredness. Descartes, for example, could doubt that everything but himself as a thinking thing is illusory; Kant contended that the all-important appearance of everything around us depends on our way of perceiving; and democratic and capitalistic thinkers counseled that we needn’t fear a vast sharing of power with the common person, since everyone is sufficiently rational to deserve to freely fulfill their own needs.

Comedy enters the stage when we observe the ironic contrast between that humanistic self-image and our baser reality as sexual animals. Nevertheless, that self-image may have its own emergent level of reality and causal power. As always, humour--along with angst--are found by stepping back and taking a wider perspective, temporarily detaching from our preoccupations and pondering how they fit into the bigger picture. I happen to doubt the nobility of any transhuman, or any modern autonomous person, who ignores the Leash and the cosmicism latent in free thinking. But perhaps rather than leading just to a postmodern dead end, modern individualism is a crutch that will enable us to live proudly alongside our evermore majestic technological creations. Maybe we must believe fervently in our individual worth to counteract the trend of cultural homogenization and the increasing psychological understanding of our universal cognitive processes. A myth that captures the imagination of huge populations is no arbitrary matter. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.

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