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Googletopia’s Therapeutic Rite

I see that Noah Millman and Alan Jacobs have both responded to my Slouching Towards Googletopia post. I will be quoting from both of them in my response below, but I encourage you to read all three posts in their entirety, in order. Noah’s first post here, Alan’s response to that one here, then Noah’s […]

I see that Noah Millman and Alan Jacobs have both responded to my Slouching Towards Googletopia post. I will be quoting from both of them in my response below, but I encourage you to read all three posts in their entirety, in order. Noah’s first post here, Alan’s response to that one here, then Noah’s response to Alan.

My post came from my instant reaction to an extremely graphic (no images, but descriptively graphic) essay about the pornographic sex scene in San Francisco, written by a morally blank young woman who compelled herself to watch such things and recorded her reaction, or lack thereof, to them. The title of the essay, “What Do You Desire?”, gets to its philosophical heart, which (as I see it) is about what can happen to a person and a culture that defines itself only by its desires and their satisfaction.

The essay is full of descriptions of public sadomasochistic rituals involving willing participants and crowds. It is difficult for me to imagine anything more degrading than what is recorded in this essay, though it is important to note that the women who submit to being spat on, humiliated, beaten, tortured, and sexually violated consented to the experience, and later speak about how great it was. The horror on display here is not only that people will do that to others for sexual pleasure, but that others will take pleasure in being so humiliated. This, as we know from the Marquis de Sade at least, is nothing new. What is new about it, I think — and this is why the essay got to me — is that it is becoming more acceptable in a world in which there is no strong moral framework to push back against this stuff. You can have whatever you desire. If you choose hell, then we will call it good, because it is freely chosen, and brings you pleasure.

Is this Google’s fault? No, and I think only a superficial reading of the essay would make that claim. Rather, essayist Emily Witt links it to Google, it seems to me, because the Internet makes the distribution of perversity like this universal, and because the material sophistication and technocentric innocence of the Bay Area culture (“Don’t be evil”) masks an underlying savagery that expresses itself in those public sex rituals. Note well that the writer coolly discerns that she is a nihilist who feels not much of anything watching the degrading spectacle, as distinct from the utopians (her word) of the culture, who believe that the liberation of animal desire and the destruction of traditional family and sexual norms leads to paradise.

Noah is troubled by the harsh moralistic reaction I had to the scene depicted in the essay:

And yet, [Rod] had a visceral reaction to a bunch of freaky Friscans flying their freak flag. Why? What’s his stake?

The answer, I think, lies in the earlier portions of Witt’s two paragraph peroration. The truly suspect position is not that of participant in this kind of event – indeed, if you read Witt’s essay, you’ll see that the participants, including those in the audience, all appear to be behaving in pretty civilized ways. The suspect position is our position, viewing safely from a distance, watching the pornographic video whose existence of makes this activity financially possible.

Alan writes:

Is “flying their freak flag” an adequate description of what Princess Donna does to other women, and what people pay for the privilege of watching? I wonder if Noah isn’t benefiting here — and also when he refers to Princess Donna and her audience “behaving in pretty civilized ways” — from his polite declining to specify any of the acts that Witt describes. It’s at least worth noting that when the Marquis de Sade narrated similar acts he did so with the express intention of repudiating civilization. It seems to me that when you call such behavior — I include the acts and the observation of them in this — “civilized” you have reduced the content of civilization to a single element: consent.

Yes. This. I have gone back and forth over whether or not to include even the slightest description of these rituals in this blog post, but I can’t bring myself to do it, not even with warnings. I can tell you, though, that they involve prolonged torture sessions, including beating, violating all the orifices of the woman’s body, a crowd screaming at her calling her a “worthless c–t,” electric shocks delivered with a cattle prod, and more. All in public, for sexual pleasure, and filmed and sold by a company over the Internet to people who take pleasure in watching sexual torture. At the end of the event, Donna, the mistress of ceremonies, interviewed Penny, the willing victim:


So, Penny, how did you enjoy the shoot this evening?


I had a great time, it was amazing. There was so much going on.

Emily Witt, the essayist, doesn’t really endorse or condemn this, but seems almost indifferent to it. Almost. At some level, it grieves her; she speaks of going home at one point after participating in some group discussion with these free spirits, drinking a bottle of wine, and crying.

Here is the philosophical heart of the essay; highlights in bold are mine:

In the past twenty years, in San Francisco especially, the celebration of choice over systems has coincided with the advent of new technology and an influx of money and entrepreneurs. One result has been the healthy, humane workplaces presented by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other Bay Area companies and their acceptance of individual expression in the corporate workplace and of families in all their forms. These changes made for a better working experience, but they also made it easier to complacently watch the flourishing of unfamiliar digital monopolies, to partake in the consumer delights produced by unprecedented inequality with a mistaken sense of political agency, and to pay to watch a woman get gangbanged on the internet with a clean conscience, because the producers used the rhetoric of the fair and just. The ghosts of the formerly ostracized, including the untimely dead, haunted the city. The general consensus was that we honored the dead and the formerly oppressed by enacting the present utopia.

The wealth and the corporate culture that produced it defied the old models of good and bad. Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” had been adopted across a range of industries. Evil, unfortunately, remained loosely defined: we would know it when we saw it. But all we saw on our computers were our photographs, our friends, our broken hearts, our writing, our search terms, our sexual fetishes. 

Unless I’m misreading Witt, she’s pointing out that wealth and technology are producing a culture that is beyond good and evil, one that has no measure of good and evil except consent. The result is chaos and nihilism, and giving oneself over to the idea that the only way to find transcendence is to yield to one’s desires as far as one’s desires will take one. There is nothing there but sensation.

Alan writes:

But this would mean, among other things, either than self-degradation isn’t uncivilized or that there is no such thing as self-degradation. I strongly disagree with both of those points. I think the people who act as Princess Donna does and as Penny and Ramon and the others do are pursuing, consciously or not, absolute degradation, and are publicly debasing sexuality in the process. They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made. I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways.

I agree, of course, and I think that Emily Witt would affirm that there is, in this world, no concept of self-degradation. I think affirming human dignity, and walling off the most destructive impulses within individual and collective human beings, requires condemning this pornography and perversity in extremely strong terms. But on what grounds is the modern person supposed to condemn it? This is what I’m getting at in my much-read Sex After Christianity essay. Note this passage:

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires acultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

If you do not desire the God of the Jewish and Christian Bible, what do you desire? Gotta serve somebody. This, I think, is what Emily Witt’s essay is getting at, though I doubt she would put it that way: in a world in which the therapeutic has triumphed, a thoroughly horrifying event like the S&M spectacle is celebrated as a kind of divine rite, because it worships pleasure and the individual will. Whatever feels good, do it. If the therapeutic is the basis of our (anti) culture, then there is no firm ground on which to stand to condemn this barbarism. Indeed, there is no basis to call it barbarism at all.

When Noah asks, “What’s our stake?”, I respond by saying that I have to live in a world  — and, more to the point, raise children in a world — in which perversity like this is available, via the Internet, to more and more people. I have to raise children in a world in which human sexuality and the general idea of human dignity is degraded by pornography. I have to live in a world in which utopians are working very hard to tear down the structures of thought and practice that harnessed humankind’s sexual instincts and directed them in socially upbuilding ways. I have to raise my kids in a world that says when it comes to sex, there is no right and no wrong, except as defined by consent.

Noah has an aesthetically sophisticated response to the essay, but I can’t get past the fact that he’s aestheticizing the fact that a woman chose to be tortured for sexual pleasure, in a ritual directed by another woman, who concluded the rite by shoving her fist up the woman’s rectum. I see that sort of thing, and think a lot of things, but nothing more urgent than: Run for your life, these are crazy, evil people, and they invite their own doom.