Adorno and the Erotic

To extol Adorno to a degree worthy of his philosophical genius would be an impossible task.  From Negative Dialectics to The Jargon of Authenticity to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (and many others), Adorno’s works all display his characteristically penetrating insights into and critiques of modern life under late capitalism. 

Of none of Adorno’s books is this truer than Minima Moralia, which consists in a collection of aphoristic “reflections on a damaged life.”  Although much of the work is concerned with broader social themes, Adorno manages to say quite a bit about marriage and sexuality in this philosophico-literary tour de force.  One passage in particular stands out, which is now presented for your intellectual edification:

Inter pares. – In the realm of erotic qualities, a revaluation seems to be occurring. Under liberalism, well into our day, married men from high society who were unsatisfied with their strictly brought up and correct spouses absolved themselves in the company of female artists, bohemians, sugar babies, and cocottes. With the rationalization of society this possibility of unregimented happiness has disappeared. The cocottes are extinct, the sugar babies probably never existed in Anglo-Saxon countries and other lands of technical civilization, while the female artists and those bohemians who exist parasitically in the mass culture are so thoroughly permeated with the latter’s reason, that those who flee in longing to their anarchy, to the free accessibility of their own use-value, are in danger of waking up to the obligation of engaging them as assistants, if not at least recommending them to a film-executive or scriptwriter they know. The only ones who are still capable of something like irrational love are precisely those ladies who the spouses once fled on excursions to Maxim’s. While they are as tiresome to their own husbands, due to the latter’s fault, as their own mothers, they are at least capable of granting to others, what all others have withheld from them. The long since frigid libertine represents business, while the proper and well brought up lady represents yearning and unromantic sexuality. In the end, the ladies of society garner the honor of their dishonor, in the moment when there is no more society and no more ladies.

(The full text of Minima Moralia can be found here: )
Continue reading Adorno and the Erotic

Of Rabbits and Sex: Anscombe’s Valentine’s Day Poster Campaign


By now most of you will have
noticed the leporine figures gracing lampposts all around campus, and many of
you may be thinking to yourselves, “What on earth are these posters for?”  Such is the state of puzzlement that
these loveable lagomorphs may induce.

Once one reads the text of the
posters, however, the matter clears up forthwith.  “Not everyone is doing it,” the poster proclaims.  But not doing what?  The answer: “3 out of 4 Princetonians
had 0-1 sexual partners last year.” 
Yes, since Valentine’s Day is once more upon us, the Anscombe Society
is yet again embarking on its annual, campus-wide poster campaign to spread the
good news: being chaste or abstinent isn’t a weird thing.  Far from it!

But what have rabbits got to do
with sex?  Well, rightly or
wrongly, the rabbit has a reputation for promiscuity in our society, a kind of
infamy that has sedimented into various English idioms (“breeding like rabbits,”
e.g.).  But something like this
view of copious copulation also holds of college students.  By each other, as well as by the outside culture (Hollywood doesn’t help
here), college students are often seen as promiscuous, hyper-sexualized beings,
and college is likewise taken to be – rather hyperbolically – one giant

Of course, this is plainly false – and, indeed, rather absurd.  As our
posters boldly announce, “not everyone is doing it.”  But what this wildly misguided idea of college life produces
is a condition of what Deborah Prentice, a Princeton psychology professor, has
termed “pluralistic ignorance.” 
Professor Prentice’s groundbreaking work has examined the logic of
pluralistic ignorance in relation to alcohol consumption at college.  In short: If I think that everyone else
drinks on campus, and everyone else thinks that everyone else drinks on campus,
then what results is a situation in which everyone takes drinking to be the
norm, while few people in fact are drinking.  Commonsensical stuff, really.

But the hook-up culture is a
perfect analogue to this.  I think
that everyone else is having sex; everyone else thinks that everyone else is
having sex; so what results from this is that sex becomes normative, and anyone
who dissents from this cultural orthodoxy is just a religious fanatic, plain
weird, or worse.  This is why the
hook-up culture is primarily a culture,
a climate of thought rather than a set of actions.  It’s not that everyone is hooking up all the time (though
many do), but rather that (a) it’s perceived
that this is so, and that (b) this perception produces a scenario in which
students can feel obliged to conform to the putative campus norm.

This situation is extremely
unhealthy.  At the most, it
promotes an ethic that runs athwart human flourishing; at the very least, it
stifles students’ sexual agency.  With the weight of the hook-up culture bearing down upon them,
students with “traditional” sexual values and lifestyles are either forced to
be silent about their beliefs, marginalized, or pressured into sexual choices
that, free of the campus culture, they would not otherwise make.  So it’s not only the human good that’s
at stake, but also the very freedom that students have to shape the course of
their own lives.  Extremely
unhealthy indeed.

Self-determining creatures that we are, before us always stands open a
plurality of sexual paths.  And
while it’s no secret which path Anscombe would suggest leads to the greatest
human delight and fulfillment, we believe that students should at least not be
forced to adhere to such a procrustean and promiscuous cultural code of
conduct.  We’re not rabbits, after

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.

Continue reading Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Pornography at Princeton

The undergraduate organization Let’s Talk Sex (LeTS) has presented itself as a group devoted to promoting “sex-positive” dialogue on campus. Through its discussion groups and various events, it attempts to provide a forum for free conversation regarding sexuality. But, as today’s article in the Daily Princetonian shows clearly, an upcoming event sponsored by LeTS goes well beyond the relatively harmless domain of mere dialogue: LeTS will be screening pornography on campus.

The pornography in question comes from the work of porn director, actress, and self-described “anal sexpert” Tristan Taormino, whom LeTS is bringing to Princeton to discuss her work at the screening. Far from being mere pieces of erotic art, her films depict highly explicit and hardcore sexual activities, designed for the visual gratification of the viewer. In other words, it is not as though a respected scholar will be coming to campus to discuss pornography in a reasonable way. Rather, a self-identified pornographer will be coming to show her pornographic works. And it is this that is deeply offensive and disturbing.
Now, that LeTS is holding such an event on campus is reason enough for an outcry – not only from Anscombe students and feminists, but from all of those concerned with the dignity of the human person. For pornography is not a matter of a woman using her sexual agency freely, in a liberating way. On the contrary, as the well-known feminist and anti-porn advocate Andrea Dworkin puts it, in pornography, the so-called “[f]ree sexuality for the woman [consists] in being massively consumed, denied an individual nature, denied any sexual sensibility other than that which serves the male.” Pornography, in other words, reduces women to the status of mere objects – bare pieces of flesh upon which predatory pleasure may prey.
The simple fact, then, that pornography is inherently degrading to women surely warrants unified student condemnation of LeTS’s decision to screen porn at Princeton. But what is even worse is that university funds will be used to support the event. This means that, inter alia, the student fees that all undergraduates must pay are being employed to fund the showing of pornography. So, not only is the university offending students by showing the porn; it is also using student resources to do so. This, too, deserves an outcry from the student body at Princeton. 


Sex: Meaningless or Meaningful?

When any discussion of sexual ethics arises, many people will inevitably argue that there is no inherent meaning or “purpose” to sex: it is just an act like any other and is controlled by bundles of physical drives and chemical processes. Since, on this objective and scientific account, there is no meaning to nature, the body, or sex, then anything in the domain of the sexual is perfectly reasonable and moral – provided, of course, that there is consent and free-choice.

This argument from the objective meaninglessness of the world (and hence of the body) is often employed as a conversation-stopper, discrediting any appeal to an inherent meaning or purpose to sex as invoking quasi-religious metaphysical categories that have no basis in fact. But even if this meaningless and reductive view of nature is correct, does it follow that we cannot or should not reason about sex in a meaningful way? I argue that it does not.

Continue reading Sex: Meaningless or Meaningful?