detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, March 29, 2004

: . Solo in the New Order

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt brilliantly distills into 11 readable printed pages the 500 or so page long Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by Thomas Laqueur. From Ancient times up until the Renaissance (Lacqueur's book is for the most part a Western cultural history hence the periodization), masturbation was nothing more than a mildly sinful act, a guilty pleasure freighted with little social, let alone political, meaning. That it was solitary and pleasurable meant little to those who had the authority and the inclination to forbid it.  What mattered was that it was a sexual act, and, if the masturbator came, as he -- female masturbation was hardly discussed -- must surely have, that it wasted precious reproductive fluids, each drop of which a miniature man. For Talmudic scholars as with the Protestants during the Reformation, masturbation was a violation of the divine command to be fruitful and multiply; unprocreative, it left one's oats wildly unsown, multiplying one by one.  For Catholic theologians, masturbation upset the privileged place of celibacy and abstinence over and above sexual reproduction in the Church of Christ, which was also Christ's body.  Succumbing to the urges of the flesh rather than to the demands of the spirit, the masturbator might stimulate other carnal desires.  It was only during the Enlightenment that masturbation was pathologized, cast as the root cause of a whole host of social ills.  Though done privately and often in secret, it now had public repercussions. Once meriting divine dismay in heaven, masturbation now exacted both a personal and social price on earth:
    There were, Laqueur suggests, three reasons why the Enlightenment concluded that masturbation was perverse and unnatural. First, while all other forms of sexuality were reassuringly social, masturbation -- even when it was done in a group or taught by wicked servants to children -- seemed in its climactic moments deeply, irremediably private. Second, the masturbatory sexual encounter was not with a real, flesh-and-blood person but with a phantasm. And third, unlike other appetites, the addictive urge to masturbate could not be sated or moderated. "Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors."

Gratifying the self alone the masturbator took desire outside the circuits of social and economic exchange and thus beyond the regulatory mechanisms of civil society and beyond the reach of the market's hidden hand. The anxieties over masturbation therefore reflected the anxieties over individualism and the marketplace -- over modernity itself. Order and chaos, reason and unreason, reality and representation, might not be polar opposites they were thought to be and the market's hidden hand (Greenblatt with admirable restraint does not toy with this metaphor) as the guarantee of the good society might go astray, might be prone to (self) abuse:
    The dangers of solitary sex were linked to one of the most telling modern innovations. "It was not an accident," Laqueur writes, in the careful phrase of a historian eager at once to establish a link and to sidestep the issue of causality, that Onania was published in the age of the first stock market crashes, the foundation of the Bank of England, and the eruption of tulip-mania. Masturbation is the vice of civil society, the culture of the marketplace, the world in which traditional barriers against luxury give way to philosophical justifications of excess. Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville all found ways to celebrate the marvelous self-regulating quality of the market, by which individual acts of self-indulgence and greed were transformed into the general good. Masturbation might at first glance seem to be the logical emblem of the market: after all, the potentially limitless impulse to gratify desire is the motor that fuels the whole enormous enterprise. But in fact it was the only form of pleasure-seeking that escaped the self-regulating mechanism: it was, Mandeville saw with a shudder, unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and absolutely free of charge. Far better, Mandeville wrote in his Defense of Public Stews (1724), that boys visit brothels than that they commit "rapes upon their own bodies."
    There is a second modern innovation that similarly focused the anxieties attached to solitary sex: solitary reading. "It was not an accident" (Laqueur again) that Onania was published in the same decade as Defoe's first novels. For it was reading -- and not just any reading, but reading the flood of books churned out by the literary marketplace -- that seemed from the eighteenth century onward at once to reflect and to inspire the secret vice. The enabling mechanism here was the invention of domestic spaces in which people could be alone, coupled with a marked increase in private, solitary, silent reading. The great literary form that was crafted to fit these spaces and the reading practices they enabled was the novel. Certain novels were, of course, specifically written, as Rousseau put it, to be read with one hand. But it was not only through pornography that masturbation and the novel were closely linked. Reading novels -- even high-minded, morally uplifting novels -- generated a certain kind of absorption, a deep engagement of the imagination, a bodily intensity that could, it was feared, veer with terrifying ease toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure.

It is here that I hoped Greenblatt and Lacqueur had further complicated their shared arguments.  Like the relationship of masturbation to the Enlightenment, the relationship of solitude (and solitary reading) to society is equally fraught with contradictions. For novel-reading could not only arouse an excess of asocial self-pleasure, it could also arouse intimations of society.  As Oprah would say, novel reading could also allow us to imagine something "larger than ourselves" -- in more ways than one.  Instrument of discipline as well as invitation to license -- one cannot determine in advance the uses that the novel, like the market that produces it, could be deployed. Nor could one fully predict the meanings that they will disseminate. And there are other reading practices, equally solitary but much less pleasurable, tied to the rise of universities -- reading for social advancement requiring the delayed gratification of desire, its goal, like other investments, subject to speculation.
Laqueur and Greenblat employ what should be by now a familiar strategy for demystifying concepts and practices for vaguely political ends. As with masturbation so with sex/gender and sexuality, race and the nation -- by showing how they've changed over time perhaps the critic can break the spell they cast in the present. But showing that "something we take for granted, something that goes without saying, something that simply seems part of being human has in fact a history, and a fascinating, conflicted, momentous history at that" may have unintended consequences. Rationales are remarkably various and malleable and individual investments in actually "historical" concepts and practices could withstand the most compelling rational assault.  Like Zizek's fetishist, one could always respond "but still" and "even so" in the face of historical evidence. This is not to discount historicism, new or old. While watching The Blue Lagoon -- for the first time! -- weeks ago, I remember being both amused and irritated when, in a pivotal scene, Richard (Christopher Atkins) banishes Emmeline (Brooke Shields) from their multilevel tropical hut because she admitted to having seen him "playing with it." The shame over masturbation is therefore natural, hardwired even into barely socialized innocents.  If only Thomas Lacqueur had washed ashore then and there! If only, but without guarantees. For Richard (but still!), like the instructors in the Harvard History and Literature program to which Greenblatt had assigned Lacqueur's work (even so!), will do with Solitary Sex, despite Lacqueur's best intentions, what (within limits) they will and as they please.


Chapter 1 (A Poet's Fable) of Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt

Studying 'Solitary Sex': A Discussion With Thomas W. Laqueur
The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 5, 2004

Interview with Thomas W. Laqueur by Nader Vossoughian, April 15, 2003

Spaces of the Dead by Thomas W. Laqueur
Ideas Vol. 8, No. 2, 2001

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