Updated in real time.
America’s Sexual Crackup
Of all parts of life, the internet has singled out sex and sexuality for especially staggering transformation. Until recently much of the change has taken place under the social surface.
But it was inevitable people would start talking, and as we know online erotics and the erotic sensibilities unleashed online now suffuse everyday life and ordinary conversation alike, so much so that sometimes it feels as if people need to shut up a bit or there is nothing new worth saying about it.
Nevertheless, only very recently has moral backlash penetrated the conversation. We suddenly hear a lot about maybe banning porn outright and, in the key of Epstein, the internet itself has fueled a mass confrontation with the decadence and depravity of at least one influential corner of the elite.
These criticisms, however, come at a time when the internet has become totally indispensable for people and communities dedicated to pushing out the frontier of not just tolerated or accepted but celebrated and honored forms of sex and sexuality.
Even without considering the role of the erotic, online life can plainly be seen to powerfully push people toward new extremes of the body on the one hand and the spirit on the other.
The old political divide between left and right is being eclipsed in this regard by a new polarity: spirit-obsessed gnosticism versus body-obsessed vitalism. Gnostics insist that special knowledge of one’s own true essence liberates the self from one’s given physical nature; vitalists teach that without proper strengthening and purification of the bodily fluids and the organs they nourish, will and spiritedness decay to repulsively less than fully human levels.
These moves appear to be fueled primarily by the collapse of the mainstream imaginative complex that powered and organized individual and social psychology in pre-digital contemporary life.
Seemingly shallow nostrums like those in John Lennon’s “Imagine” actually described a secular catechism of the rule of the imagination through the televisual technologies that promised to bring full harmony and humanity by equally emancipating the dreaming faculties of all. Under digital conditions, Lennonism has been suddenly and painfully disenchanted, its nostrum complex reduced to just one more piece of content in the commanding context of the vast digital archive. Machine memory alone, and no longer human imagination, encompasses the world.
The result of this overthrow of the magic kingdom of the imagination has been a refugee crisis, with ex-Lennonists scrambling to seek refuge in what they mistakenly believe to be fantasy complexes so extreme as to be hardened against the disenchanting maelstrom of digital life.
For those who were not Lennonists to begin with, the disenchantment effect has had to do instead with the collapse of traditional dreams of a nuclear family headed by an average dad conscripted into the conformist rat race of postindustrial “knowledge work.”
There is no denying that both these mechanisms have been exaggerated and whipped on by the erotics of internet life. Going beyond moralism, what we have to see sociologically and anthropologically is an unprecedented squandering of sexual potency and potentiality.
Already before the internet there was a lot of abortion and masturbation going on. But now, a massive storm cell of sexual fruitlessness regarding reproduction is blotting out the sun. The one thing uniting all the salient trends, from involuntary celibacy to transsexuality, from serial dating to serial monogamy, from the rise of pet culture to the rise of “I could never bring a child into this world,” and perhaps most of all from the tidal wave of orgasmic energy going down the drain every day through pornography, is a huge rechanneling of sexual energies into directions that show signs of serious limitation and instability.
This is a problem we do not need to traverse complex moral territory to confront. And it is not altogether clear that “moar moralizing” will be adequate to address it.
The contemporary sexual economy appears to be deeply caught up with a level of ill-being and reproductive decline that cannot be maintained over time without increasing costs and compounding consequences. The internet may have gathered together all erotic fantasies into an always-on-fire hose of “orgone” content. But in so doing it has also opened up to us the idea of the disenchantment of all erotic fantasies and the social exhaustion of biologically terminal sexual projects of identity. The seed of this idea is growing into an experience with profoundly political consequences.