make warcraft, not love (what’s wrong with the new yorker, part two)
I want to do some weird sex stuff but don’t have enough money for a hooker. Any grad students follow me?
If you’re not trying to make something better
than as far as I’m concerned
you are just in the way
There’s no reason it had to be this way, but perhaps to create the strongest possible effect, the New Yorker chose to publish Ariel Levy’s article “Novelty Acts: Wilhelm Reich, Victorians, and Sexual Revolutions” immediately after Louis Menand’s article on T. S. Eliot. The humanities aren’t all bad, I guess — sometimes they do important work debunking sexual revolutions.
Levy can barely wait 100 words before dropping into the arch, sarcastic pseudo-objectivity that so many people identify with Michel Foucault: “[Wilhelm] Reich offered the ‘tantalizing suggestion that sexual emancipation would lead to positive social change.’ Good sex was the path to the good society. George Boyce would certainly have agreed. On warm spring evenings, he and a companion would roam around town looking for anonymous action with amenable young women.” Of course, unbeknownst to the charmingly innocent readers of Levy’s article, and to anyone else not interested in the affairs of minor Continental libertines, George Boyce was dead when Wilhelm Reich was publishing, because his heyday was the 60s…THE 1860s! GOTCHA! Thus Levy writes that “these people complicate the usual story of our sexual revolution only because of an awkward bit of timing: their libidinal awakening arrived in the heyday of Victorian England.”
It’s not worth devoting too many words to this subject, because, as the actual Michel Foucault reminds us, talking about sex isn’t necessarily a liberated pursuit. However, I do admit to hoping that one day, maybe many years from now, we will stop publishing and hiring academics simply because they can prove, using the most up-to-date historicist methods, that the sexual revolution was a bunch of hippie crap. When Levy refers to “the usual story of our sexual revolution,” she implies, as she must for the sake of her article, that the story of the sexual revolution is an extremely important one in 2011, a story that shapes our social mores, our identities, and our politics. She does what she can to rouse our admiration for two books, one about Wilhelm Reich’s goofy sexual theories, and another about sex among the Victorian bourgeoisie.
This creates the extreme irony of Levy writing that “we seem to have a peculiar urge to believe that the way we have sex, the thing that got us all here, is unprecedented,” which it is not, while at the same time she apparently believes that the way she criticizes the sexual revolution is somehow different and new, putting her at the front of a lucid vanguard along with the authors of these new histories.
So here’s my best shot at Five Reasons Why This Nonsense Must Stop:
1. It’s voyeuristic.
In order to tell the story of the endless cycle of liberationist sexology, these authors have to descend into the depths of the “Hell-fire Club,” describing everything that took place there (that’s where Boyce and people like him met to compare notes, since they didn’t have the Internet). By the time we get around to criticizing the Hell-fire Club for being undemocratic or something, we’ve already spent a while imagining, in the words of Weird Science, “chips and dips, chains and whips.” It hardly manages to free us from anything, given that it’s so busy securing admission to the secret rituals.
2. One swallow does not make a summer.
Even during the height of the Sexual Revolution, I don’t think anyone was unclear on the fact that the Marquis de Sade was not a contemporary author, but rather had been dead for hundreds of years. The fact that occasionally people did, and wrote about, unusual or scandalous things doesn’t prove much about the state of their society or ours.
3. Theorists of sexuality are not more likely to be paragons or liberals than anyone else.
Levy seems genuinely appalled that Wilhelm Reich turned to conservatism toward the end of his life, as though this must bear significantly on how we read him. Actually, it has no relevance whatsoever. If Reich had been hit by a bus at age 50, his writings would not be more or less truthful; I am still a big fan of William Wordsworth’s poetry, despite the way his politics changed. I also don’t care that Boyce failed to support rioting among the proletariat; I wouldn’t expect that from a British aristocrat, and I probably wouldn’t support disorganized rioting in England either (I certainly didn’t support the recent flare-up of violence).
4. Not everything that counts as sexual is also liberatory or even intended to be.
A womanizer like Boyce may have given lip service to some kind of sexual revolution, but his actions, as Levy describes them anyway, are utterly banal, familiar, and patriarchal. He was out on the prowl; I’m sure that has something to do with Alex Comfort publishing The Joy of Sex, but I don’t know what it is.
5. Most of the West, including most intellectuals, have no patience with the rhetoric of the “sexual revolution.”
Not once, in my entire life, have I heard the phrase “free love” used seriously by anyone, and I grew up in a counterculture community in Northern California. Even as the Internet has helped make my generation more aware of various non-traditional ways of having romantic relationships, the actual lived experience of my generation has been extremely conventional, particularly for straight people who have the option of legal marriage. Sure, people are “hooking up” with a greater degree of physical intimacy than perhaps they had a hundred years ago, but they don’t necessarily experience this blissfully. It often leaves them guilty and sad, and the basic message of the society is that they *should* feel guilty and sad, unless they can claim to be “getting their groove back.” So I guess, if I had to pick a sexual revolutionary for the 21st Century, it would be Terry McMillan.
This constant stream of academic treatises debunking “free love” are tearing down idols that nobody worships.
This kind of work may actually be preventing us from more useful forms of critique. For example, we are still waiting for a first good book on the psychological reaction of Generation Y to the fact of AIDS, a reaction that went far beyond the actual reach of the disease in the industrialized West. Or take all this renewed interest in Wilhelm Reich…it’s certainly easy to make fun of his orgone boxes, special containers that were supposed to contain and amplify supercharged sexual feelings, but in doing so we miss the persistence our own, modern orgone boxes, which cost a lot of money and are known colloquially as “clubs.” Instead of laughing at Reich for taking the sexual metaphors of late capitalism so seriously, we should see him as an extreme case of a common madness.
Somewhere in the background of all this critique lurks the enormous assumption that politics is basically an abstraction, even good politics. Nothing we do to “make the world better” actually comes back to making ourselves feel better, or to providing us with greater opportunities for happiness. Not only is this is a gloomy and dispiriting message, it is also simply wrong. The best way to jump start a new sexual revolution would be shortening the average work week, and if that means reverting to how things were for our parents or grandparents, during the pinnacle of flower power, that’s alright with me.