Þráin og þráin eftir þránni

Zygmunt Bauman

It has become the folklore of social science to lay the responsibility for the `erotic revolution’ at the door of the `market forces’ (an address all the more convenient for the mystery surrounding its notoriously elusive resident). Eager to fill the void left by the Divine Providence and laws of progress, scientifically oriented study of changing human behaviour seeks a candidate for the vacant position of `main determinant’ – and `market forces’ are no worse, and in many respects better, than the others. I for once am not particularly worried by the void staying empty and the position remaining unfilled. `Market forces’ can be blamed, at the utmost, for exploiting without scruples the resources already at hand, and for exploiting them while being guided solely by their commercial potential and oblivious to all other, including the culturally devastating or morally iniquitous, aspects of the matter. Charging them with the powers to conjure up the resources themselves would be like accepting the alchemist’s authorship of the gold found in the test-tube: an exercise in magical rather than scienti®c reasoning (though, frankly, the difference between the two within social studies is far from unambiguous). It takes more than the greed for profit, free competition and the refinement of the advertising media to accomplish a cultural revolution of a scale and depth equal to that of the emancipation of eroticism from sexual reproduction and love. To be redeployed as an economic factor, eroticism must have been first culturally processed and given a form fit for a would-be commodity.

So let me leave aside the `commercial’ uses of eroticism, not really surprising in a society in which the care for whatever is seen as a human need is increasingly mediatized by the commodity market – and concentrate instead on the somewhat less obvious, and certainly less fully described and much too little discussed links between the erotic revolution and other aspects of the emergent postmodern culture. Among such aspects, two in particular seem to be directly relevant to our topic. The first is the collapse of the `panoptic’ model of securing and perpetuating social order. That model, as you know, has been described in detail by Michel Foucault, in reference to Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the universal solution to all tasks requiring the instilling of discipline and so obtaining the desirable sort of conduct from a great number of people. That solution, according to Bentham, was seeing without being seen, a surreptitious surveillance with its objects made aware that they might be closely scrutinized at every moment yet having no way of knowing when they are indeed under observation. Foucault used Bentham’s idea as a paradigm of the order-making activity of modern powers. Factories, workhouses, prisons, schools, hospitals, asylums or barracks, whatever their manifest functions, were also throughout the modern era manufacturers of order; in this lay their latent, yet arguably their paramount social function. Among all the panoptical institutions two were decisive for the performance of that latter function due to their vast catchment area. The two panoptical institutions in question were industrial factories and conscript armies. Most male members of society could reasonably be expected to pass through their disciplining treadmill and acquire the habits that would guarantee their obedience to the order-constituting rules (and later to enforce those habits on the female members in their capacity of the `heads of families’). Yet in order to perform their role such panoptical institutions needed men capable of undertaking industrial work and army duties – able to endure the hardships of industrial work and army life. Industrial invalidity and disqualification from army service meant exclusion from panoptical control and drill. Ability to work and to fight became therefore the measure of the `norm’, while inability was tantamount to social abnormality, deviation from the norm, alternatively subjected to medical or penological treatment. Modern medicine gave that norm the name of `health’. A `healthy man’ was a person capable of a certain amount of physical exertion, required by productive work and/or military exploits; the norm guiding the assessment of the state of health and the infinite variety of possible abnormalities was therefore `objectively measurable’. It could be easily set as a target; hitting or missing the target could be defined with considerable precision. 

Contemporary society needs neither mass industrial labour nor mass (conscript) armies. The era when factories and troops were the decisive order-sustaining institution is (at least in our part of the world) over. But so is, as well, panoptical power as the main vehicle of social integration, and normative regulation as the major strategy of order-maintenance. The great majority of people – men as well as women – are today integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrinating, needcreation rather than normative regulation. Most of us are socially and culturally trained and shaped as sensation-seekers and gatherers, rather than producers and soldiers. Constant openness to new sensations and greed for ever new experience, always stronger and deeper than before, is a condition sine qua non of being amenable to seduction. It is not `health’, with its connotation of a steady state, of an immobile target on which all properly trained bodies converge – but `fitness’, implying being always on the move or ready to move, capacity for imbibing and digesting ever greater volumes of stimuli, flexibility and resistance to all closure, that grasps the quality expected from the experience-collector, the quality she or he must indeed possess to seek and absorb sensations. And if the mark of `disease’ was incapacity for factory or army life, the mark of `unfitness’ is the lack of élan vital, ennui, acedia, inability to feel strongly, lack of energy, stamina, interest in what the colourful life has to offer, desire and desire to desire ….

Zygmunt Bauman – On the Postmodern Use of Sex
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