THE POSTMODERNIZATION OF SEX
There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is going to go on looking and reflecting at all.
(Michel Foucault 1985)
The very use of the term postmodern in application to so many aspects of the contemporary experience and life, as well as the ease with which we have come to accept as blandly descriptive a term that initially sounds oxymoronic, suggests that we are at a point in cultural development that can only be viewed as a major watershed. Across the arts, humanities, and human sciences, one detects a sense of intellectual crisis: in particular, a crisis of paradigms (Lyotard 1984). Indeed, the very term postmodern appears to be descriptive of broad ranging recapitulation, refurbishment, and reordering of our cultural past; collage and pastiche become the basis for the appearance of novelty. Disciplines and sciences alike seem incapable of either consensus, discovery, or consolidation; it is not that there is little that is new, but that there is little suggestive of the freshly innovative.
Despite the advertisement of future shocks and multiple revolutions of little more than a decade ago, of which a sexual revolution had to be among the most widely advertised, the future seems to have turned in upon itself. Modernism, which was for most the promise of an ever-expanding (for some, an ever – threatening) emergence of the new, seems to have ground to a halt; it is as if we had exhausted the possibilities of the new. Not since the Renaissance has the concept of progress been viewed with such suspicion.
In more general terms, the optimism—a broad-ranging optimism that touched virtually all aspects of social life—of two decades ago seems to have given way to the most profound pessimism. For the first time in centuries the Western world appears to be without a vision of tomorrow that is brighter than today; our idealizations almost all seem to derive from images of the past, with none of
these attracting wide endorsement. A social world that little more than a decade ago promised the wisdom and technologies to enrich our sexualities, sexualities that would, in turn, enrich our lives, now appears to be of fering far less than that. The liberation of the sexual, at the time, was viewed as the abandonment of its bondage to the traditional accompaniments of danger and damnation, and of the requirement that it be allowed only when preconditionally harnessed to very specific uses, most of which had little direct relevance to sexual pleasure.
The 1960s and 1970s, which can be seen as the apotheosis of modernism, were the culmination of a period of change, of optimism and innocence. If we recall, those of us who were present, what predictions were made then about what today’s world would look like, it would be the rarest among us who could escape embarrassment: how little those mid-1970s projections of today anticipated the current, massively less encouraging sexual landscape. Indeed, the horizon that once offered competing images of sexual health and joy is now completely dominated by competing images of impending sexual disaster. If anything is to be learned from this dismal failure of our collective prophetic powers, it is that there is little reason to assume that today’s pessimism provides any clearer vision; pessimism has its own claims to innocence, its own history of embarrassments.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this brief retrospection. First, the hopeful have as much right as the despairing to distrust the pronouncements of “sexologists”. The sexual future in whatever form it is conceived may in fact be brighter than life today encourages us to expect. Second, the future of the sexual is only in the most minimal sense in the control of what presently constitutes the sexual, and possibly still less in the application of what relatively little we already seem to know or are likely to learn in the next few years.
I hope that this current situation might encourage us to broaden our concerns for the sexual, to deny it its traditional position of privileged isolation, and to try to understand how the sexual helps to shape the totality of experience and how the larger context of social life may shape the sexual experience at its most fundamental level.