|Index de l'article|
|For a World Without a Moral Order|
|2009 editor's note:|
|Toutes les pages|
According to Marx's 1844 Manuscripts, "The most natural relationship between man and man is the relationship between man and woman." This formula is comprehensible and can be of use as long as we keep in mind that humanity's history is the history of its emancipation from nature through the creation of the economic sphere. The concept that humans are anti-nature, that they are completely external to nature, is clearly an aberration. Humanity's nature is at the same time a purely biological given (we are primates) and the activity, within and outside of themselves, of people modifying what is a purely natural given.
People are not external to natural conditions because they themselves are one of them. But they wish to understand these conditions and have begun to play with them. There is room for discussion about the mechanisms which have brought this about (the extent to which it resulted from difficulties of survival, especially in the temperate regions, etc). But what is certain is that, by transforming their environment, and being transformed in turn by it, people find themselves in a situation which radically distinguishes them from other known states of matter. Stripped of all metaphysical presuppositions, this capacity to play to a certain extent with the rules of matter is in effect human freedom. This freedom, from which people have been dispossessed in the process of creating it (since it is what has nourished the economy), is the freedom that must be reconquered. But without entertaining any illusions about what it is: neither the freedom of expansive desires which do not run into obstacles, nor the freedom to submit to the commands of Mother Nature (who could decipher them?). It also means giving full rein to our freedom to play with the laws of nature, a freedom which is as much one of re-routing the course of a body of water as it is one of making sexual use of an orifice which was not naturally "intended" for this use. It is a question of finally realizing that only risk guarantees freedom.
Because it must give human freedom full rein, the critique of human customs cannot single out one practice as opposed to another as a symbol of their misery. It is sometimes said that in today's world, the freedom to be found in people's lifestyles is simply a masturbatory activity (alone, two people, or more). To limit oneself to this given is to misapprehend the essence of sexual misery. Must the self-evident be belaboured? There are solitary jerk-offs which are infinitely less miserable than many embraces. Reading a good adventure novel can be a lot more lively than organised excursions. What is miserable is to live in a world where the only adventures are in books. It is not the daydreams eventually followed by results which someone makes us experience that are disgusting. The disgusting part is the conditions which must be fulfilled in order to make it possible to meet the person. When we read a want ad in which a man with a beard invites the old woman and her dog who live upstairs over to have some fun, it is neither his beard, her age nor the zoophilia which disgust us. What is repugnant is that, by putting an ad in the "lonely hearts" page of a leftist daily, his desire becomes a means to market a particularly nauseating ideological commodity.
When someone is alone in a room writing a theoretical text, to the extent that the text provides insight into social reality, he or she is less isolated from people than at work or in the subway. Although the predominance of one of them may be symptomatic, it is not in one activity as opposed to another that the essence of sexual misery is to be found; it resides in the fact that, whether there are ten people, two, or if you are alone, individuals are irremediably separated from each other through relations of competition, exhaustion and boredom. Exhaustion from working; boredom with roles; the boredom of sexuality as a separate activity.
Sexual misery, in the first place, signifies social constraint (the constraints of wage-labour, and its cortege of psychological and physiological miseries; the constraints of social codes). These social constraints exert influence in a domain which is presented by the dominant culture and its dissident version as one of the last regions in the world where adventure remains possible. To the extent that capitalist Judeo-Christian civilization has been imposed upon people, sexual misery also signifies their profound disarray with respect to how the West has handled sexuality.
From Stoicism, the dominant outlook during the Roman Empire, Christianity adopted the double concept that:
1) sex is the basis of pleasure;
2) therefore it can and should be controlled
The Orient, for its part, through an open affirmation of sexuality (and not just the art of making love), tends towards a pan-sexualism where sexuality must of course be mastered but in the same sense as everything else; it is not given a privileged position. The West does not control sexuality by ignoring it but by thinking of nothing else. Everything is sexualised. The worst aspect is not that sex is repressed by Judeo-Christianity, but that Judeo-Christianity was dazzled by it. And not that Judeo-Christianity kept a lid on sexuality, but that it organised it. The West has made sexuality the hidden truth of the normal conscience. But of madness (hysteria) as well. Just as a crisis of morality was getting underway, Freud discovered that sexuality was the big secret of the world and of civilization as a whole.
Sexual misery comes from an interaction between two moral orders, the traditional and modern ones which cohabit, to a greater or lesser extent, in the minds and glands of our contemporaries. On the one hand we suffer from constraints of morality and work, which keep us from attaining the historical ideal of a sexual blossoming and of a blossoming of love. On the other, the more we free ourselves from these constraints (in our imaginations in any case), the more this ideal appears unsatisfactory and empty.
A tendency and its transformation into a spectacle should not be taken as a totality. If a relative liberalisation has occurred during our era, the traditional order has far from disappeared Just try being openly "paedophile." The traditional order functions and will long continue to function for a lot of people living in the industrialised countries. In many parts of the world it is still dominant and on the offensive (in the Islamic countries and in the Eastern Bloc). Its representatives, priests from Rome or Moscow, are far from inactive in France itself. The suffering caused by their misdeeds is still weighty enough that we should hardly be prevented from denouncing them with the claim that the underpinnings of traditional morality are being undermined by capital. Not every revolt against this order necessarily tends toward neo-reformism. Just as easily revolt can be the oppressed person's cry, a cry which contains the kernel of the infinite variety of possible sexual and sensual practices which have been repressed for millennia.
We are not, it should be clear, against "perversions." We do not even oppose lifelong heterosexual monogamy. But when littérateurs or artists (the surrealists for example) wish to impose l'amour fou ("mad love") as what is most desirable, it must be stated that this is a recycled version of the great modern Western reductionist myth. The object of this myth is to provide a spiritual bonus for couples -those isolated atoms which constitute the capitalist economy's best basis. Among the riches of a world free of capital will be the infinite variations of a perverse and polymorphous sexuality and sensuality. Only with the blossoming of these practices will the love praised by André Breton and cheap sentimental novels appear for what it really is -a transitory cultural construction.
The traditional moral order is oppressive and merits being criticised and combatted as such. But if it finds itself in a state of crisis it is not because our contemporaries prize freedom more than our ancestors. It is because bourgeois morality has been unable to adapt to modern conditions of producing and circulating commodities.
The bourgeois morality conceived in its full scope during the 19th century and transmitted through religious channels and secular schools arose from a need for ideological conduits towards the domination of industrial capitalism at a time when capital was not yet entirely dominant. Sexual morality and the morality of work and of the family went hand in hand. Capital was based on bourgeois and petit bourgeois values: property as the fruit of work and saving; hard but necessary work; family life. In the first half of the 20th century capital reached a point where it occupied the entire social space, making itself indispensable and inevitable. Because there is nothing else, working for a salary becomes the only possible activity. Thus, even as it imposes itself on everyone, wage labour is able to present itself as a non-constraint and guarantee of freedom. Since everything becomes a commodity, each aspect of morality becomes outmoded. Through credit people gain access to property before saving. They work because it is practical, not out of a sense of duty. The extended family gives way to the nuclear family, which is itself thrown into disarray by the constraints of money and work. Schools and the media challenge parents with respect to authority, influence and education. Everything announced in the Communist Manifesto has been accomplished by capitalism. With the disappearance of community places to get together (cafés, local pubs) and their replacement by places to consume which lack feeling (discos, malls), too much is asked of the family at a time when it has less than ever to offer.
More profoundly, beneath the crisis of bourgeois morality lies a crisis of what is known as capitalist morality. It becomes difficult to make "customs" permanent, to find ways of relating and behaviour which go beyond the bankruptcy of bourgeois morality. What morality, then, does modern capitalism offer? The submission of everyone and everything, since capital's omnipresence theoretically makes previous relay systems superfluous. Fortunately this doesn't work. There is no purely, wholly, uniquely capitalist society, and never will be. Capitalism, for one thing, does not create something from nothing; it transforms people and relationships which come into being outside it (rural people who come to the city, petits bourgeois going down the social ladder, immigrants...). And something from the old sociability, at least in the form of nostalgia, always remains. As well, capital's functioning itself is not harmonious. The promises of the dreamworld of commercials are not kept, causing a reaction, a falling back upon traditional values like the family which on the whole are outmoded. Which results in the phenomenon of people continuing to marry although three out of four marriages end in a divorce. Because it is obliged to order about, push around and constrain wage workers, capital has to permanently re-introduce relay values of authority and obedience even though its present stage has made them obsolete. This is why the old ideology is constantly used in conjunction with the new one (participation, etc.).
Our era is one of a coexistence of moralities, of a proliferation of codes, not their disappearance. Guilt (being afraid of violating a taboo) is juxtaposed with anguish (a sense of a lack of guideposts with respect to "choices" to be made). Narcissism and schizophrenia, the maladies characteristic of our period, replace the neuroses and hysteria of the previous era.
What guides people's behaviour today is less and less an unquestionable ensemble of dictates which is transmitted by a father or a priest than a sort of utilitarian morality of personal improvement that utilises a fetishization of the body and a frenzied psychologization of human relations. An obsession with interpretation replaces confessional rites and the "self-examination" which forced the Catholic believer to personally review his deeds and misdeeds before being admitted to confession..
Ahead of his time, de Sade simply announced our own, one in which, until people become themselves, there is no moral guarantee. The intolerable boredom the reader of the Marquis' monotonous catalogue sooner or later experiences is recaptured when you read the want ads, where the traits of a communicationless pleasure are infinitely repeated. Sadeian desire aims to reify other people completely, to make them a soft dough which can be moulded by one's fantasies. This is a deadly attitude: to annihilate otherness, to refuse to be dependent on the desire of someone else, means repeating the same thing, and death. But whereas the Sadeian hero smashes social impediments, modern people, with their logic of individual self-improvement, have become their own fantasy dough-to-be-kneaded. They are not overcome by desires; they "achieve their fantasies." Or rather they attempt to, like they jog instead of running for the sake of it or because they have to get somewhere quickly. Today people do not lose themselves in other people; they activate and develop their capacity for pleasure, their ability to have orgasms. Insipid trainers of their own bodies, they tell them: "Come!", "Better than that!", "Run"', "Dance!", etc.
For people today, the need for work is replaced by the need to make leisure time a success. Sexual constraints are replaced by a difficulty in affirming a sexual identity. This narcissistic culture goes hand in hand with a change in the function of religion. Instead of invoking a transcendence, religion becomes a means of making it easier to handle life-crisis periods (adolescence, marriage, death). Also, not only religion is helping to keep people up-to-date: the family is invoked as well! "Not a family which is omnipresent, as in the previous century, but one that is omni-absent. A family no longer defined by the work ethic or by sexual constraints, but by an ethic of survival and by sexual promiscuity," according to psychologist Christopher Lasch. (LeMonde, April 12, 1981).
In the midst of the crisis of morality that dominates Western society, people are more poorly equipped than ever to resolve the "question of sexuality." And it is precisely when this question is posed most directly that the chances of noticing that it is not a "question" are best.
People today are panicking. They are all the more lost, as everything alive turns into a commodity, when this commodification concerns a sexuality which has been repressed for 2000 years, only to resurface as a commodity. It then becomes apparent that relentless sensuality (e.g. the film La Grande Bouffe), in a world of commodities, isolates individuals even more from humanity, one's partners and oneself. Since they end up with the impression that the idea of sexuality is deadly and alienating, people ultimately readopt a Christian outlook.
For example, the work of someone like Georges Bataille reveals a lot about Western evolution since the beginning of the century. Going against the grain of the history of civilisation, Bataille starts with sexuality and ends up with religion. From the fiction piece L'Oeil until the end of his life, Bataille searched for what was implicit in L'Oeil. On the way his trajectory crossed that of the revolutionary movement, only to veer away all the more quickly and easily when the movement almost completely disappeared. Nevertheless, during the last years before World War Two, he defended positions with respect to anti-fascism and the threat of war which lucidly cut through the verbiage of the vast majority of the extreme left. This is why his work remains ambiguous. It can be used to illustrate the religious impasses where the experience of the limits of unleashed sexuality ends up:
"A brothel is my true church, the only one that leaves me unquenched."
But if, in the above, as in most of his work, he limits himself to going against the grain of accepted values, to refining a new version of Satanism, he has also written sentences which reveal a profound intuition about essential aspects of communism: "taking perversion and crime not as values which exclude, but as things to be integrated into the totality of humanity."