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Incels & Houellebecq

The joylessness of materialist sex

Greetings from the Joyce Kilmer rest area in New Jersey. No time for a long post, but I want to say this.

Everybody has been talking about Ross Douthat’s recent column about sex and egalitarianism; a few of them have actually been talking sense about it. Excerpts from Ross’s piece:

Hanson offered this provocation: If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?

… While “no one has a right to be desired,” at the same time “who is desired and who isn’t is a political question,” which left-wing and feminist politics might help society answer differently someday. This wouldn’t instantiate a formal right to sex, exactly, but if the new order worked as its revolutionary architects intended, sex would be more justly distributed than it is today.

By this I mean that as offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life, and its pursuit would be entirely characteristic of a recurring pattern in liberal societies.

First, because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.

Second, because in this new landscape, and amid other economic and technological transformation, the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to one another, with social and political chasms Opening between them and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.


But I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing. The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and relegated “sex work” will have this end implicitly in mind, the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-relaity porn and sex robots will increase as those technologies improve – and at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.

Whether sex workers and sex robots can actually deliver real fulfillment is another matter. But that they will eventually be asked to do it, in service to a redistributive goal that for now still seems creepy or misogynist or radical, feels pretty much inevitable.

I strongly urge you to read the whole thing to understand his point. Many, many people who have mouthed off about it did not understand it.

The man who understands this stuff better than just about anybody is the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. Here’s an excerpt from a terrific book about Houellebecq: Without God: Michel Houllebecq and Materialist Horror. The author is Louis Betty, a professor of French literature, but the book absolutely does not read like academic jargon. Excerpt:

However, the causality I propose, which does justice to the totality of the Houllebecquian worldview, is one in which materialism – conceived of as a generalized belief in matter, which in its political manifestations contributes to the rise of ideologies as diverse as communism, fascism, and liberalism – represents the true menace to human relationships and sexuality in Houellebecq’s novels. From this point of view, the gradual erosion of the theological conception of the human being, which began with the scientific revolution and reached its apex in the twentieth century, has given rise to a social order in which the value of human life is restricted to the parameters of economic exchange – that is, the human being is understood in essentially economic terms. One’s attractiveness and even lovability are determined by indisputable criteria of market value, as if the human being were no different, in principle, from any other consumer product. The economic reduction of human value is fed by the materialism of modern science, which dismisses the possibility of free will and reduces the human being to a haphazard, fleeting collection of elementary particles. Humanism, which attempts to assign people rights in the absence of a deity capable of legitimating the moral order, does not stand a chance in these conditions.

Discuss. I’m about to get back on the road with Patrick Deneen, Tyler Blanski, and Johnny Burtka. We’re heading to a kind of writer’s retreat this weekend at the Bruderhof. More on this later.



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