Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Before Michael Novak turned political and began to plump in
earnest for democratic capitalism, his work focused upon more properly
philosophical themes.  Hence, early
on in his career, he wrote a book called The
Experience of Nothingness
, which I was glancing through the other day.  The book is rather breezy and
conversational and not especially dense, but sprinkled throughout it are some
excellent passages.  One in
particular struck me: 

“The enormous weight, meanwhile,
put upon sexual fulfillment [in modern society] is insupportable; intercourse
is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in.  Among young people, the weakening of
cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual
intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit.  It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is
mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced to the huddling warmth of kittens in
the darkness – not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of
nothingness.  Close your eyes and
plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.”

Modern culture, for Novak, is marked deeply by the “experience
of nothingness,” the absence of any ground of meaning, be it divine or
not.  The infelicitous alliance (though
this not for Novak) of individualism,
liberalism, and capitalism has conspired to wrench the human person from his
naturally “thick” social milieu, like a limb from its body – and with all the
attendant pain and anguish and self-mutilation.  Through the rampant mechanization and atomization of modern
life, the individual is now cut off from the vital source from which his
identity once flowed and must navigate a desiccated, commodified, disenchanted
world.  It is no surprise, then,
that ours is a culture of wounded psyches.  Modern life, especially in its more extreme modes, is an
abattoir from which few escape unscathed. 

In the midst of all this, the question arises: How is one to
find meaning?  In a world whose
metaphysical horizons have been swept clear and in which “all that is solid
melts into air” (to use Marx’s phrase), one cannot but search for something
that can provide meaning and stability in one’s life.  As Novak suggests above, one such putative source of meaning
is, for many people, sex.  It
claims to offer euphoria, release, ecstasy, liberation, and an escape from the
dull and harsh conditions of modern society.  By means of the body, it claims to supply a flight from the
body, proposing as its glorious goal a spiritual unity with one’s partner.  In order to cope with the realities of
life, then, sex has become mechanical in its means and spiritual in its ends, a
split of subject and object.  To
put a twist on Walter Benjamin, we are now living in the age of mechanical

We are trying to find ghosts of meaning in the machines of
our bodies.  But this meaning
cannot be found.  Divorced from the
(mechanized) body, such meaning becomes only formal, lacking in substance or
content that could give it real depth. 
And so, to that extent, this kind of sought-after unity cannot be
realized.  With the body viewed as
just a simplistic mechanism – not as the lived
body – no true inter-subjective integration is possible; a person is just a
monad, an atom isolated from all other atoms.  Fulfilled only for a fleeting moment by one’s sexual
partner, desire cannot rest, but moves on searching for fulfillment elsewhere,
in other sexual encounters and in other expressions of sexuality – if only to
satisfy the heart’s longing for unity. 
But the dialectic repeats itself: at once mechanized and spiritualized,
sex of this sort cannot adequately attain its end.  Neither ghosts nor machines can provide us with
meaning.  But if not in casual
sexual encounters, then how else is one to find meaning in a meaningless
world?  In marriage. 

It is in marriage, in the actual, organic, psychosomatic
unity of man and woman committing and sacrificing their lives and their very
selves to each other, naturally ordered towards the incomprehensibly wonderful
ends of procreation and spousal companionship that connect the couple to all of
society and to generations past and future – it is in all of this that true
meaning lies.  The antidote to the
rationalization and technologization of society is to be found not in so-called
“liberated” sex, but, paradoxically, in marriage.  For marriage, though one of the most ancient and venerable
institutions, is at the same time the most subversive and radical, standing
obliquely to the currents of the age and to all the passing orthodoxies.

This is why, today, it is necessary more than ever to hold up
marriage as an ideal.  But this is,
of course, not easy to do: the ideology, the false consciousness forced upon
us by the debacle that was the “sexual revolution” still holds powerful
sway.  The rapid explosion of “freedom”
in the sexual sphere has drowned out the firm but soft voice of marriage in our
culture.  But the whole revolution
was based upon an illusion, a massive one, holding out a promise of ghostly
meaning in our mechanical bodies. 
Yet these are promises that have gone – and must go – wholly
unfulfilled.  It is time we stopped
believing in ghosts.