Friday, February 18, 2011


Revision of False Needs

Perversion is like a river: a river flowing straight to the ocean satisfies its major goal; if this river is blocked, or perversed, and cannot flow to the ocean, then it cannot satisfy its main function.

Throughout the books we have read in class, there has been an underlying theme of unusual uses of sexuality—whether it be in the literal sense or through figurative writing; the authors twist and skew the conservative meaning of sex that is sure to make any reader uncomfortable. The act of perversing something is to twist its definition in ways that are abnormal to its actual function. Perversion, on this view, consists precisely in a diverting of the sexual impulse from its interpersonal goal, or towards some act that is intrinsically destructive of personal relations and of the values that we find in them (Webber 238). In society, irregular acts of perversion are critically frowned upon; however, many of the authors we have studied leave a message of embracing one’s inner sexuality. This bears the question: if society is so sexually perversed, is it worth it to acknowledge it and is it a positive or negative of humanity? To find this, one can look at the correlation between eroticism versus desire in the sexual situation. Arousal and desire both involve inherently individualizing intentionality and naturally progress through sexual intimacy, and the point to which desire naturally leads, by its own devices, ultimately reaching the commitment founded in the mutuality of desire’ that is exclusive erotic love (Webber 238). In other words, desire is not perversed as it leads to the main point of sex—reproduction—while eroticism is something that is sexually stimulating.

In Song of Myself, Whitman uses figurative language to eroticize everything. The passage that stuck out to me was a simple scene in which he rides a horse briefly; this scene, however, is described in a very erotic and almost disturbing way.

His nostrils dilate… my heels embrace him… his well-built limbs
Tremble with pleasure… we speed around and return. (Whitman 28)

As discussed in class, this is a prime example of Whitman sexualizing everything around him. I believe this is his way of satirizing the image of sex as taboo, which is still how it is viewed in today’s culture as well. This in no way implies that many humans have any sexual interests in other animals, but it does bring up a good point. I believe Whitman tries to eroticize mundane objects in order to celebrate life in all its forms. He holds a lot of respect for these animals, not for what they have, but for what they do not have:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. (Whitman 28)

These so-called inferior beings are able to survive and thrive without many of the things we think we need. The ironic portion of this is that animals lack the very fiber that Whitman tries to bestow upon them—they do not perverse. They use sex for procreation, not pleasure. Whitman eroticizes the animals but the animals do not eroticize Whitman. In this context, it is hard to know whether Whitman thinks the ability to perverse is good or bad. Marcuse makes an interesting point about this when he writes, “liberation of sexuality (and of aggressiveness) frees the instinctual drives from much of the unhappiness and discontent that elucidate the repressive power of the established universe of satisfaction (Marcuse 76). I would imagine Marcuse being a strong advocate against perversion, as he understands it as an unnecessary tool for the progression of civilization. He states that sex integrates itself into the workplace and public relations that cause bias and controlled satisfaction. He states that the mobilization and administration of sexual desire accounts for voluntary compliance, absence of terror, and the harmony of socially-required desires, goals, and aspirations (Marcuse 75). This shows that he does not necessarily view eroticism as a malicious part of society, but one that, through satisfaction, reduces pleasure. “Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission” (Marcuse 75), which in a sense denatures the progress of humanity.

Marcuse’s argument is backed up by Webber’s article, where it is stated, “sexual activity involves an essentially expressive body language with its own phonetics of touch and movement, though its content is limited to interpersonal attitudes–shyness, domination, fear, submissiveness and dependence, love or hatred or indifference, lack of confidence and embarrassment, shame, jealousy, possessiveness” (Webber 237). So would society really be a more productive place without these sensations? I would have to say it would absolutely not. These are precisely the types of emotions that make us so ferociously human—the very same emotions that Whitman writes in his epic poems. I also believe that these emotions do not necessarily hinder the progress of civilization, but act more like hurdles for individuals to overcome, rather than an impassable wall. “Humans are the artefact of their society” (Webber 238).

So if perversion has been established as a necessary portion of what it means to be human, the next question would be to find the appropriate range of what is considered “normal” amounts of perversion. By the technical definition, sex’s main function is to procreate—anything that stirs away from this is perverse. For example, masochism (sexual pleasure through pain) and bestiality (sexual pleasure through animals) perverse sex’s true goal. By this definition, pedophilia (sexual pleasure through pre-pubescent individuals) and homosexuality (sexual pleasure with the same sex) are also types of perversions, which are two topics we dealt substantially with in class.

The prior is seen in Parable of the Sower, in the scene after Lauren and Bankole make love. He finds out that she is merely 18 (three times his age), and goes into a state of shock and disdain, “My god.” He said, “You’re a baby! I’m a child molester” (Butler 267)! The ironic portion of this scene is that perversion is not a factor in this situation—both are reproductively-capable people. This is an example of society creating its own perversion for situations out of the social norm. Even though I, probably like most people reading through Parable the first time, was mildly revolted by this plot-twist, I believe both Marcuse and Whitman would not have a problem with this affair—in fact, they would even support it. Of course, this is only a viable scenario because Lauren is sexually mature, so the 36 year difference in age is not completely immoral, unlike the sex between a 12 year old and 48 year old. This is one of many boundaries that perversion should not cross.

Perversion is a normal part of society—everybody at one point has thought of obtaining sexual pleasure for reasons beside reproduction. However, with this definition, it is instrumental to establish boundaries, in order for it to be safe to say that it’s a positive human feature. There is Marcuse’s retort that the loss of these perversion would lead to a more productive society, and even though that may truly be the case, without it, some of the true beauty of living will go with it.

The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself…. The latter I translate into a new tongue (Whitman 18)

Webber, Jonathan. "Sex." Cambridge Journals (2009): 233-50. Print.


  1. This is a fascinating revision - it's fascinating because it's such a serious attempt to reconsider your previous excellent work from the foundations.

    The concept of investigating Marcuse and Whitman through the keyword of perversity is an excellent one, although it's more obviously applicable to Whitman than it is to Marcuse. While the approach is fascinating, you're in danger of over-generalizing. "They use sex for procreation, not pleasure. Whitman eroticizes the animals but the animals do not eroticize Whitman." It's a great, insightful line - but is the first line literally true? I've read a good deal about Chimpanzee behavior, for instance, among whom non-reproductive behavior is routine, as it is among many domesticated animals. I'm not sure it matters very much to your actual argument - but there has been lots of work on animal sexuality, and I'd be wary about just making big claims.

    Your reading of Whitman is good; your reading of Parable is really quite good, especially the way you fit Lauren + Bankole into your "perversity" framework. I still think you're struggling with the Marcuse, though - at the end of the the distinction between sexuality and the erotic which is so important for him really flies past you. Think "genitals vs. whole-body sensuality" if you reread the relevant parts.

    I won't comment in detail re: your claims about Marcuse, because I think you're struggling a little with the fundaments.

    Maybe because you struggle with Marcuse, or maybe because the introduction isn't well integrated yet, your conclusion is too ambiguous:'

    "Perversion is a normal part of society—everybody at one point has thought of obtaining sexual pleasure for reasons beside reproduction. However, with this definition, it is instrumental to establish boundaries, in order for it to be safe to say that it’s a positive human feature."

    Implicit in all of this is that something here is, or ought to be, non-obvious. Presumably you're not simply asserting that sex is for something more than reproduction - that's a little too easy and a little too obvious. My working assumption is that you want to use Whitman and Butler, but push against Marcuse (maybe wrong-headedly) to assert the positive value of perversity. But you're not quite doing that - maybe because you haven't worked up the nerve to use an example of what you mean in our world. That is, can you apply your research and the readings, and try to clarify and channel what Whitman would say about our world? The essay that would do this is the outstanding essay which is somewhere inside this interesting but incomplete second draft.

  2. I like the twist you put on your previous essay! When revising, I recommend pay particular attention to this argument: "these emotions do not necessarily hinder the progress of civilization, but act more like hurdles for individuals to overcome, rather than an impassable wall". I think you should elaborate on this argument with the use of research. Providing more extensive research to support this claim will make it much stronger in the face of counter-arguments.