Sex as Civilization
Our ancestors’ sexual attempts to make sense of fruitfulness and multiplicity resulted in their ‘giving up’ the view that reproduction is a divine gift or natural process—a giving up which, I am suggesting, gave rise to a new shared self-conception: namely, that human life is sexually reproducing. The extent to which this view of ourselves as sexually reproducing has determined our possibilities over broad swaths of human history is difficult to overestimate. Indeed, so powerful is this self-conception that we can be tempted to view sexual reproduction as an external, biological fact of human life, rather than as a revisable historical self-conception.
In a sense, it can be difficult to see how we could have come to see ourselves as agents in the world unless we came to understand ourselves as sexually reproducing.42 For, the enduring authority of sexual reproduction also led to our apprehension of a distinct, regulatable domain of sexual practices—in virtue of which, I now want to say, gender roles, sexual identities and erotic possibilities have been articulated and developed.
To avoid confusion, this is not at all to say that sex was originarily procreative—much less that sex was originally heterosexual (we have not yet addressed questions of gender difference; more on that shortly). It is only to say that the intelligibility of certain human acts as distinctly sexual, hence as cultivatable and regulatable, took root in efforts to make sense of reproduction and procreation. If reproduction—fruitfulness and multiplicity, temporal change in individual bodies—could not be explained, then no regulatable social sphere, no intergenerational form of life, could come into view as such.
This initial explanation required, minimally, grasping certain practices or sex acts as potentially consequential—profoundly so, since the known consequences touched upon individual propagation, bodily transformation, procreation and the multiplying of our life-form. To repeat, this grasping was accomplished not just through feats of disembodied intellection, but through sexual self-education over time, by getting pregnant, through certain concrete experiences or practices, by being held accountable. In time, those acts and experiences were seen as expressive of agents, not of impersonal causes, reflective deliberations or divine forces, and in this way came to be distinguished as sexual acts—inextricably tied to webs of practical responsibility (in the non-Miltonian sense discussed above), social regulation and a reckoning with consequences.43
The first step in the regulation of sexual practices must have been practiced attempts to determine those sex acts that might lead to pregnancy and birth, and to distinguish these from those sex acts that—although they feel akin to potentially procreative sex acts (penetration, genital contact and stimulation, certain forms of bodily arousal and contact)—cannot lead to pregnancy and birth. In other words, the first step must have been a practical bid to make further sense of the connection between certain sexual experiences and reproduction.
Here, only self-conscious exertion—the collective, self-aware practicing of sex as a distinct activity—could have yielded to our ancestors’ reliable knowledge of links between certain kinds of sex acts and reproduction. Sexual experience is not just guided by bodily sensation, then, not merely reflective of what we know about the world; it is a kind of ‘grasping’ of the world, as well as an embodied expression of what we think we know. Equally, sexual experiences and acts are what is (coming to be) known. Sexual activity has been both the practice under investigation, as well as a practical mode of investigation; the objective act under collective scrutiny, and the shared subjective act of scrutinizing; the phenomenon to be made sense of, and a way of making sense of it.
Indeed, one reason for sexual activity—one reason for having sex—must have been its explanatory power, the expanded self-understanding (individual and collective) that the activity itself yielded. This self-understanding was both ‘objective’—it amounted to richer comprehensions of concrete social-material conditions, such as the demographic composition of a society and its potential for increase—and ‘subjective,’ because it helped individuals to see how to take up their particular place or role within those concrete social-material conditions, self-expressively as well as dutifully. Sexual acts could now be practiced, in other words, in ways that led to fuller understandings of how ‘human life’ and societies might be governed and regulated, and to fuller understandings of how individuals—particular sexual agents—belong to a social realm of rule-governed interactions.
Sex, I want to say, belongs to a subset of human practices that do not just descend from the values and rules of a specific society, but that also express and work out why those rules get established in the first place, and how individuals might ‘live within’ those rules. Sexual practices are not just normative like all other cultural practices, therefore. In speaking of the “history” of sexual practice, then, I do not just mean to say that sex acts merely express the values or mores of a particular society—those rules which take hold just by being collectively recognized as binding. No doubt, specific sexual practices are culturally shaped in this way. But I mean, further, that sexual activity is one way we historically achieve moral regimes as such, and reckon with the implications of that achievement. And I am suggesting that this reckoning with unavoidable collective and individual issues—such as how to regulate the reproduction of life, or how to behave as subjects in a regimented social world—was not just philosophical, religious, juridical or artistic. It must also have taken the form of self-induced transformations within our sexual practices, at the sensuous-experiential level, not just at the level of regulation.44
Moreover, if a necessary part of this reckoning amounted to drawing distinctions, through repeated trials and errors, between potentially procreative sexual acts and nonprocreative sex acts, then the drawing of that distinction was also how sexual activity as such—its distinctiveness as an activity—was first brought to consciousness. The first basis for the social regulation of sexual activity—hence the first reason for sex acts, in virtue of which other reasons can get traction as reasons—was this ‘learned distinction’ between procreative and nonprocreative sex, between those sexual experiences that were taken to be potentially procreative and those that were not. This distinction, in other words, must have given rise to both objective rules governing sexual interaction and subjective ways of adhering to, bending, or transgressing those rules.45
That said, not all sex needed to have been seen as socially consequential in the same way. For instance, the Greek perception of a difference between comedy and tragedy in human affairs might have been an attempt to make sense of how sex sometimes leads to tragic outcomes; whereas in comic experiences, sex can appear as the happy outcome. However, if certain sexual experiences were known to be potentially consequential—minimally, because potentially procreative, and in this sense socially significant and authoritative—then the whole field of human sexual activity and sexual possibilities must henceforth have been determined and articulated by this shared knowledge, this shared self-conception: namely, that our propagation as a species is connected to sexual acts that we can, and do, regulate. Only in light of this socially authoritative self-conception of human life as sexually reproducing could sex itself have come to be regarded as a distinct practice, as something for which we can be held responsible, not just something we suffer as a species-level instinct or natural ‘event.’ The whole fraught sphere of erotic life—the civilizing and regulating of sex as a distinctive practice, its “repression” as Freud would say—has its beginning and first stage in the explanatory force of sexual reproduction.
42. That he does not “gaze,” is I think, evidenced by the fact that Orpheus is “permitted” to turn and look only once, fatefully. This is a good point at which to distinguish my sense of Orpheus’ turn from that provided by Maurice Blanchot in The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (Boston: Station Hill, 1981). Blanchot focuses on Orpheus’ gaze (le regard d’Orphée)—which he understands as Orpheus’ “desire” to see Eurydice shrouded in “night,” in death. For Blanchot, Orpheus’ gaze—his regard—shows him to be in the grip of a desire or “fascination,” powerless to resist it. “Fascination is the gaze,” writes Blanchot, “in which blindness is still vision, vision that is no longer the possibility of seeing, but the impossibility of not seeing” (75). For more on the purportedly fetishistic character of Orpheus’ desire, see the discussion of Blanchot in Simon Critchley, Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (New York: Routledge, 1997), 48–51. In contrast, I understand Orpheus’ “look” not, as in Blanchot’s book or Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, as a fetishistic-compulsory desire in the face of which Orpheus himself is powerless, but as an action taken by him (a turn, a look backward) for which he holds himself responsible, and for which Eurydice holds him responsible. Regard, or “gaze,” is thus not even the right characterization for the moment in question. Orpheus looks backward, yes—but in the sense that he actively turns or directs his eyes (flexit amans oculos, in Ovid’s wording).
43. The answer lies in a deeply engrained—albeit, I think, mistaken—way of understanding of Orpheus’ turn as the effect of some other causative force over which he is powerless: his anxiety about Eurydice, or his “desire,” or his forgetfulness of the gods’ command, or his fear. Indeed, Ovid’s phrase ne deficeret is typically read as expressing the fear that Eurydice might “fail,” grow weak and fall back. However, as some careful readers of have observed, ne deficeret “might refer to . . . Orpheus” as well as to Eurydice. Although her overall interpretation of the passage does not coincide with mine, see Victoria Rimell’s reading of this Latin phrase, in Ovid’s Lovers: Desire, Difference and the Poetic Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 110.
44. To mention only two of the well-known poems: Rilke’s “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,” depicts Eurydice in botanical terms (“fruit,” “flower,” “root”) following her death, but nevertheless allows her the question—uttered in response to Hermes’ declaration, “he turned.” “Who?” she asks. As if the question why? were not properly formulable unless one first asked who? The American poet H.D., in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions Books, 1988), 36–40, goes much further, imagining Eurydice holding Orpheus answerable, indefinitely: “why did you turn back, / that hell should be reinhabited / of myself thus / swept into nothingness?”
45. A related point, by way of clarification: in Aristotle’s Poetics, the meaning of an action is revealed only in its unintended consequences (as in tragic plots). That is one kind of ‘retroactive’ reason-giving in human actions. But I am talking here about a different kind of retroactive revelation of an action’s meaning or reason: namely, those acts which ask to be taken as reason-giving in situations where no authorizing or grounding reason is yet available.