Brittany


There is a weird connection in the human imagination between intelligence and sex. On the one hand, a constant in traditional Western thinking seems to be that the smarter someone is—the more intellectually capable and sophisticated—the less use, desire and/or need he or she has for sex. It’s an idea that seems very natural to me if only because I am a product of Westernized thinking; for that reason I imagine it’s a thought common to most people in the world, since Western philosophy has through the millennia literally colonized and hijacked indigenous philosophies that may not have originally thought this. It's also significant that this philosophy is in part based on Abrahamic religion, which is the religion of the majority of peoples in the world (be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian.) This kind of thinking—more brains equals less libido—are probably best represented by values found in England and the U.S. during the Victorian era.

But there is an opposite line of thinking that has relatively recently become popular: that intelligence and libido are not mutually exclusive—that, in fact, they may be inextricably linked, at least when it comes to human beings, the most intelligent creatures on earth who also probably rank among the most libidinous. When you think about it, it probably isn’t coincidence that human beings are both really smart and really horny: dolphins and monkeys, two of the other smartest animals on the planet, are also one of the few species that have sex just for fun and not just to procreate. Freud thought there was a connection too. In Civilization and Its Discontents, which I read in its entirety for a theory class last term, he says human society is just like the human libido in three ways: character is formed, base desires are sublimated for the good of the collective, and so these base desires go unsatisfied. Equating sex to civilization, Freud views sex as symbolic of the war between love and aggression that is constantly playing out in society—of the fact that people want to get along with and love each other for practical reasons (as well as sentimental ones), but that a natural aggression or "death instinct" constantly puts civilization on the brink of destruction.

What does this have to do with post-humanity? Well, I remembered that I stumbled across these pictures some time ago:

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Contemporary imaginings of hyper-evolved human beings of the future—of post-humans—imagine them as being all brain, all genitals, and not much else. Further Google Imaging returned similar results. These types of images arise from the fact that evolution—for a wide range of complex and interconnected reasons—gave humans increasingly bigger brains and increasingly bigger (and smoother) penises. (I remember hearing in many different scientific contexts that the human penis is in fact proportionally huge compared to the endowment of other male animals.) In contradiction to longstanding lines of thought that said intelligence and sex couldn’t coexist, nature has demonstrated that the brain and the body evolve together. This ties into the argument Hayles makes that there is no separating information from materiality: while the post-human cyborg represents the “dream” of cybernetics to erase the difference between body and consciousness, information must “always” be in a medium (Hayles).

For a long time we've thought that the ideal brain wouldn't need a body, but this really isn't possible: the ideal brain would simply emphasize those physical aspects that are most important. This is well represented by the below image, which seems to suggest that no matter how "post-" we try to imagine ourselves, all conceptions are ultimately grounded in a fundamental corporeal understanding of humanness, which is the ethos of da Vinci's timeless "Vitruvian Man."

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Jasmine Wee

Collective Guilt: Love, Sex and Taboo in “Low-brow” Magazines

Freud pointed out that, in modern human civilization, the carnal desires of humans are suppressed for the “greater good” of mankind and society; in order to achieve beauty, hygiene and order, humans exert control on every aspect of their own lives and bodies, including the topic of sex. Therefore, any open admittance to liking/enjoying sex or the open action of sex in public is discouraged, frowned upon, and for the latter, illegal. Therefore, any discussion and thought about sex is seen by society as a guilty emotion, as if their human instincts are actually a transgression; therefore, Freud argues, people develop mental illnesses due to the suppression of these normal animal instincts; “guilt and neurotic repression of instinct are simply the price we pay in order to live together in families and communities.” However, in the 21st century, when media and the suppressed desire for sex means that sex is almost present in, or underlies, virtually everything we create and consume—from fashion to music to fitness and beauty—it is ironic to me that sex continues to be a somewhat taboo subject to think and do about, despite everyone being bombarded by it and (hence indirectly, and subconsciously), talking and thinking about it constantly.

One example of sex in our daily lives are the so-called “lowbrow” magazines. The most obvious choices are women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Lucky, but many lifestyle magazines nowadays feature sections or columns that are focused on relationships and love (indirectly related to sex), or directly on sex. One just has to look at the cover of Cosmopolitan every month to see the words “SEX” or “LOVE” screaming out to you on the cover, right next to an airbrushed celebrity who more or less confines to the ideals of beauty (and of course, if you’re not beautiful and if you don’t have a smoking body, you’re not going to attract any men and hence, no sex). Glamor magazine will tell you, every month, “The steamy sex moves that you HAVE to try” and answer questions “you’re too embarrassed to ask your gyno!” This supports Freud’s observation as well as Foucault’s theory on the regime of “power-knowledge-pleasure”, in which since the 19th century people have only talked about sex a lot and “set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex.” Sex became something to be feared, and from this originally carnal biological pleasure emerged “the pleasure of analysis” – and the rest is history.


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In opposition to women’s magazines about sex, men’s magazines are also guilty of over-thinking and writing about sex (as opposed to, as Foucault posits, actually having it); I have checked the websites of Men’s Health, GQ and Maxim, and all feature sections on love, sex, and relationships, despite each having a slightly different slant—Men’s Health and Maxim have an explicit focus on sexual positions and satisfaction, while GQ has articles about “getting your woman in the mood”. By now it is obvious to me that sex, like virtually everything else in our society, has become a system of codes and rituals, something to understand and read about in a Baudrillardean simulacra before we even have it; we have to read about how to do it properly as opposed to following our instincts; and worst of all, society expects us to suppress our sexual desires while being increasingly inundated with messages about sex in all forms of media. Perhaps the more bloggers and journalists and columnists have to write about sex, the more it is a reflection of society’s general state of sexual frustration and sense of guilt.


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Skin

Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

Skin. The description for the Whitney Museum exhibit Skin as a Language, describes the intersecting symbolic roles of skin: “an index of identity… a permeable boundary… a tactile surface… a sensorial perception.”

Culturally, skin is a conflicted part of our identity. Our culture wishes it could get past judgments based on skin-color, but making these judgments has been so deeply historically engrained that we cannot. Skin is such an instant visual sign; we read skin, in a reaction too instantaneous to stop, whenever we see a new person. Skin is also one of the most intimate sites of contact between two humans. Skin is erotic. This is clearly demonstrated in Pillow Book, the film by Peter Greenaway, where we experience the story of Nagiko as she searches for a perfect lover, one on whose body she can write words. The movement of brush and ink over skin, forming words whose meanings are instantly more intimate than they would be written on paper, is for Nagiko, the ultimate sensual act. Even if Nagiko’s particular words-on-skin fetish is unique, we can recognize the intimacy of touching skin, and of skin being touched. Our skin is so sensitive; it can feel tickling, prickling and itching, pressing and petting, burning and cutting, blowing wind, dripping water, hot and cold.
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Yet maybe Nagiko’s fetish for words on skin is not so unique. Tattoos too are an intimate way of interacting with our skin. I do not have a tattoo myself but I accompanied a friend to a tattoo parlor a few years ago, when she got some stars tattooed onto her collarbone. It was her second, or third tattoo; I cannot quite remember, because she got a whole collection of tattoos in this period –a wing on her arm, a poem down her spine. She became rather addicted to them. I can’t go inside her head, but I believe that she liked them because they felt strong to her. They were transgressive and assertive of her individuality. They were highly sensual but not in a bat-your-eyelashes feminine way. Her tattoos overturned the boundaries, as she understood them, of her gender and of her position as a student studying political science and wearing suits to internships.
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Tattoos are uncanny: strange signs on familiar skin. The combinatory power of attraction and repulsion that they hold over us is what makes them so gripping. The power comes across viscerally when we look at an image like this Self-Portrait by Lee Wagstaff. Blood drips from the fresh tattoo on his scalp, forcing us to confront the masochism inherent in tattoos. Masochism is one of those types of sensualities that our culture firmly categorizes as perverse, something to be discussed, categorized, isolated and if possible, cured. And although we may accept getting a tattoo as a common and acceptable individual choice in today’s culture, the element of masochism is still present. Our internal, perhaps sub-conscious conflict between seeing this masochism as perverse or acceptable is what gives the tattoo its power.

Skin is interesting too because materially, it is constantly changing. According to the Wikipedia article for epidermis, referencing a scientific paper from 1994, “the entire epidermis is replaced by new cell growth over a period of about 48 days”. Our skin dies and is replaced hundreds of times over our lives. Thus it is not the material of skin itself –that material with which we directly experience so much sensation and onto which we read so much meaning, which has our essence. Transtopia.net, a website illucidating the principles of the transtopian (post-human) movement, proclaims that the human body is something to be overcome; that the mind is where the real self is, and that eternal life is possible through a combination of truth-seeking and technology. The skin is a model for overcoming the human body. If we recognize that the essence of our skin is not in its material cells, which have been completely replaced every 48 days, but in some sort of non-material essence, then perhaps we can accept that our material body can be “overcome” while remaining our true selves in some sort of a post-human, transtopian future.

Roald Dahl as a macabre short story called Skin. (Full story available online here.) It combines the elements of gender and sexual transgression of tattoos, skin fetish, the perverse and uncanny, and eternal life in a tale of an Russian beggar/petty thief named Drioli who finds himself outside an art gallery one cold winter afternoon. He is thrown into a memory when he sees a painting in the window by the artist Soutine. It turns out, that he knew Soutine, back before the war, when he used to be a tattoo artist. Soutine, then a struggling, unknown painter, had been his friend and in love with his wife, Josie. On one happy drunken night Drioli comes up with the brilliant idea that Josie should pose for a painting that Soutine will paint, and then tattoo on his back. And this sexually transgressive, homoerotic scene occurs. But after many hard years, loosing his wife and his tattoo parlor, loosing track of his friend Soutine, Drioli has forgotten about the tattoo on his back. Catalyzed by the cold, and his hunger he enters into the art gallery and proclaims that he too has a painting by this artist; he takes of his shirt to show it. The art gallery visitors, excited, eagerly give him various offers to buy the tattoo/painting –an operation and a skin graft perhaps? Drioli accepts the offer of a man who says he owns the Hotel Bristol in Cannes and he will pay Drioli to live there until he dies, spending a lot of time in bathing trunks so that his hotel customers can enjoy the painting. Then the story ends with this paragraph:

"It wasn’t more than a few weeks later that a picture by Soutine, of a woman’s head, painted in an unusual manner, nicely framed and heavily varnished, turned up for sale in Buenos Aires. That –and the fact that there is no hotel in Cannes called Bristol –causes me to wonder a little, and to pray for the old man’s health, and to hope strongly that wherever he may be at this moment, there is a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of his fingers, and a maid to bring him his breakfast in bed in the mornings."

Jen Lennon
I find it interesting that Freud talks about how humans have tamed nature and that those with superior civilizations, meaning those with more science and technology, have attained such comfort that at times it makes them more neurotic and unhappy. Those with superior civilizations look back with envy at the uncivilized societies, wishing for a simpler time, but upon further investigation, those societies have their own problems and disparities. But Freud’s posits an idea that with more science and technology, men have become godlike in their ability to do things that their natural bodies do not allow: using a camera to take a photograph, using a microscope to see things the human eye can’t see on its own, ships and aircraft can take humans where they can’t go on their own. You can see how this has only increased with medical discoveries like pacemakers and prosthetic limbs where humans can surpass natural injuries that could cause handicap or even death. By increasing this power, humans have become above mere survival and strive for happiness from intellectual and physical, sexual pursuits. However, Freud tempers this all by outlining the basic human desire for aggression and subjugation. So we put restrictions on things. There are laws put in place to keep people in order, and sexuality has become more taboo as time has gone on, as explained by Focault.

Focault talks about how over time society has become more repressed when talking about sex and in defining it. Humans have the natural predilection for confession and for analyzing and intellectualizing sex. From the 17th century to the 20th century, sex became more and more repressed, beginning in the Victorian era. But the ways in which we defined specific repression also changed. In the 18th century, breaking marital vows and something like homosexuality were considered equal. It was more about going outside of the marriage, not particularly about whom or what you were doing once outside of it. But over time, adultery and sodomy or other “perversions” of the time were considered separately and assigned different moral consequences. Focault explained that Western society had a fascination with talking about sex and a desire to form a knowledge-power paradigm on the subject. Because of the constant talking, sex became something to be suspicious and almost taboo. And from this come Focault’s ideas of sexual power, and he enumerated four specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centered on sex:
1) a hysterization of women’s bodies
2) a pedagoziation of children’s sex
3) a socialization of procreative behavior
4) a psychiatrization of perverse behavior.

The hysterization of women’s bodies is what stuck out to me, being a woman and having grown up with these kinds of ideas, but also evident in the ongoing political debate over contraception and abortion. But if hysteria means overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess, and not the 17th century disease called hysteria that surrounded women, it’s interesting to note that in today’s culture it’s been more about the objectification of women that Jasmine wrote about. If you watch any modern movie with any type of sex scene, I’m willing to bet that you’re seeing naked female bodies, but not fully naked male bodies. Images of half naked women are all over media today, and yes, usually with a certain kind of body type, race, or facial feature.

But this idea of sexual power that Freud and Focault both talked about is still such a big question. Freud mentioned that in primitive society, while it may have looked freer to the advanced society, the only people enjoying happiness were the heads of each household, presumably the patriarch. Everyone else was basically a slave to his needs. And while there’s plenty of that still going on, television shows like Sex and the City introduced the idea of female sexual empowerment by showing modern women who enjoyed sex and talked about it with their friends. These were women who were not married for a majority of the franchise, and were choosing their own sexual partners and trying sexually adventurous things. Contrast that to the new HBO show Girls, which is supposed to be basically the realistic version of Sex and the City: what it looks like for average twenty-something women living in New York City, trying to find their careers, hanging out with their friends, and dating guys that probably aren’t right for them. Girls is realistic in the sense that the budgetary constraints of the women is more accurate to the salary a twenty something woman would be making, and also in the types of friendships these women have with each other. In the premiere episode the protagonist has sex with a man who had been ignoring her calls and who she mainly communicates with via text message. She pops over to his apartment and after talking for about five minutes, they have sex. Their sexual experience is incredibly awkward; he asks her to do things she’s not comfortable doing, and in the end criticizes her body and brushes her off. Yet she still wants to hear from him later. While she got to choose having sex with him, it wasn’t exactly the picture of female sexual empowerment that we’ve become accustomed to in certain television shows. So maybe Girls is showing how awkward real sex can be compared with glossed over scenes in movies with the just-right lighting and “perfect” bodies. And it is true that dating in your twenties can be fraught with awkwardness, uncertainty, and demoralization. But what does it mean that a show about twenty somethings, for twenty somethings about life as an early adult means showing sex in a way that, while chosen, is still pretty much degradation?


Lin Lu

What is sexuality? Philosophy has several interpretations. Personally, I agree Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of sexist. Freud named his theory as Oedipus complex. In his books, the Interpretation of Dreams and Psychosexual development, Sigmund Freud pointed out a progression into adult sexual maturity was complex and the progression included multiple stages. For instance, Freud interpreted these stages as Id, Ego, Super-Ego, and Oedipus complex. As Freud mentioned, Oedipus complex was bisexual. From a psychosexual perspective, Freud argued that humans are born "polymorphously perverse", meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. Freud distinguished the difference between psychosexual and adult sexual maturity. Psychosexual is related to the psychological pleasure mainly happened in childhood period. On the contrary, adult sexual maturity is developed and satisfied when achieves the goal of physical sexual behaviors with the function of reproduction.

I would say Freud’s psychosexual theory could be used to explained cultural phenomenon. First of all, the instinct of sex is to finding sources of pleasure. As we can notice that, cultural products can be explained by Freud’s interpretation. For instance, elegant and sexy ladies can be seen in cover pages of magazines and movie’s posts because these ladies satisfy needs of some people. On the other hand, handsome boys also have the same function as those elegant and sexy ladies. With more and more people that tend to become bisexual or have both feminine and melamine characteristics, I am starting to think about its influence on the cultural products and the whole society. Would cultural products accept the phenomenon of feminine trend?

I would take China as an example. Back to Chinese ancient times, bisexual figures are prevalent in paintings and religious products. For instance, Nu Wa, who created the world in Chinese tales, was a bisexual figure and ancient China was a matrilineal society. For instance, paintings from Mogao Caves exhibited that female figures had male characteristics such as big size feet. With the development of paternal line society in China, cultural products became to emphasize only size of sexuality, either feminine or melamine. As a paternal line society, males dominated society, which resulted in stereotypes of female figures in paintings, music, and performance. Recently, China emerges a trend of bisexual and bisexual arouse in society.


Traced back to Chinese traditional cultural products, Beijing Opera, I found a qingyi role, a type of dan roles, normally mature and sometimes married women. However, in Chinese modern history, males became leading players of Qingyi roles. Mei Lanfang was known for his Qingyi role in modern China. His most famous roles were those of female characters; skillful portrayal of women won him international acclaim, and his smooth, perfectly timed, poised style has come to be known in opera circles as the “Méi School.”


Yvonne Junya Yuan

Sex x Technology = Future?

Ballard’s famous equation is written with black oil on white canvas in Loris Gréaud’s painting “The Future”. Perhaps it is the similarity between the names that makes me link up Ballard with Baudrillard spontaneously. In his key work Simulacra and Simulations (1981), Jean Baudrillard lauded the British science-fiction writer J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) as ‘the first great novel of the universe of simulation’. In a certain way, the science fiction is no longer within the scope of imaginary future universes but falls into the category of hyper-real. The situation has been to that the simulacra theory becomes science fiction and science fiction becomes theory. I could perceive the point of convergence between the two great minds for the reason that both of them were trying to clarify the precise mutation of this new universe of simulation.
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As bio-hacking, sexually enhanced bodies, genetic utopias and a plethora of genders have long been the focus of literature, science fiction and, increasingly, pornography, I feel it is extremely important to explore the possibilities that fictional and authentic bodies have to offer. Since we mankind is a sexual and tool using species, whoever has no such necessities will not subsist. Here I wanna bring up two examples which I think could best represent the introspection towards the interlace of sex and technology in our life. The first one is Crash by J.G.Ballard. In the novel, after knowing a specialist in international computerized traffic systems Vaughan, he stepped into the world where people learn how to reshape the definition of people's experience with the aid of modern technology as well as how to change the stability of the body by changing the speed of driving. The high-speed collision brought about the deconstruction and reconstruction of the human body, the combination of man and machine and the relationship with other people. Thus, the mutilated and prosthetic tools become the triggering object of desire.
crash.jpgAnother one is the controversial but well-written drama-Nip/Tuck. The whole story follows two plastic surgeons, Sean McNamara and Christian Troy, in their practice together as they deal with issues in their personal lives and the often unusual procedures requested by their patients. Over the course of its run, the consistently shocking series has presented a wide variety of unusual and uncomfortable situations, raising difficult ethical questions and serving as a good exploration of how society may react to issues relating to morphological freedom. Although it is known that a large number of the surgeries McNamara/Troy performs are typical breast enhancements, the patients that are the focus of each episode are almost never as simple. For instance, one couple this season came in because they wanted to be the perfect Ken and Barbie couple. However, the woman didn’t want breast implants or even liposuction; she wanted to have her nipples removed so she could be just like Barbie and live a celibate life. Desperate individuals such as this are powerful illustrations of why working towards a society where it is easier for people to alter their appearances and morphology is a good thing. While of course providing citizens with the capability and freedom to alter their bodies as they see fit is generally a lower priority than providing universal health care and the tools needed to be healthy, the easier and cheaper it is for individuals to alter their appearance and be who they want to be, the better. Even with today’s relatively primitive technologies, though, very difficult questions arise about how to balance giving people control over their own bodies and keeping them from harming themselves. Anyway, Nip/Tuck’s popularity has done something to make people just a bit more comfortable with the ideas of morphological freedom, just how unique some people are, what they can modify their bodies to become, and what they could be in the future.
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