Our Better Angels

So the other day, the wife and I watched the original Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within.” In this one, a transporter accident splits our Captain Kirk into two halves, one good, one evil. The good half possesses the captain’s intelligence and compassion but has a damned difficult time making decisions, while the evil half is largely filled with lust and rage. In a similar vein, the Red Dwarf episode “Demons & Angels” also features an accident in which the crew—and, in this case, the ship, too—are split into good and evil halves. On the good Red Dwarf ship, the corridors gleam with white light, and the crew wear monkish robes and apparently spend the days reciting haikus in dulcet tones and meditating. On the nasty Red Dwarf ship, everything exists in a state of decay, and the unwashed crew have no thoughts outside the sphere of sex and violence.

But why?

Specifically, why is the sex drive always linked to evil and violence? I don’t know about other people, but my post-coital mental states are rather free of violent impulses. Indeed, as David Wilcox sings: “After your orgasm / the world is a different place / after your orgasm when we slide out of bed / we stay slippery, we stay slippery / so the worries in our head / slide away, slide away.” After your orgasm, you’re not thinking about killing your boss anymore, or fantasizing about what countries you would bomb if president, or seething about the guy who cut you off in traffic that afternoon. In other words, after your orgasm, you’re more like the kinder, gentler Kirk, the sainted incarnations of the Red Dwarf crew, feeling at peace with the universe. 

Besides, if you’re looking for saints, you’ll find them in the bedroom. Is not oral sex one of the true selfless acts that’s part of the repertoire of human behavior?

Of course, here in the West, we have our Christian heritage to thank for the linkage of sex with evil, which is why even our stories of ostensibly enlightened sci-fi utopias resort to tired dichotomies of good and evil, with damp snuggling dumped on the side of the demons. But I wonder if there is something more to this framework than the legacy of Augustine and Tertullian. After all, we human beings like escaping from our consciousness on occasion. Hell, there has even been advanced the theory that the emergence of settled agriculture may rely upon brewing, that human beings, desirous of fermented beverages, planted themselves that they might plant barley and wheat and all those things that make delicious beer. The “War on Drugs” is such a failure, in part, because it is a war on human behavior, just as was Prohibition. We like to step outside our lives sometimes—we need to. It’s no accident that the owners of the mills and mines also set up saloons, because they were working their employees in such brutal conditions that the impulse to obliterate the pain and the feeling of helplessness was so powerful that they were sure to rake in the dough on that. Pay your man his measly wages, and then make it back selling him booze.

Which brings me to my point. Alcohol is a commodity. Anything you can snort or smoke or inject is, also, a commodity, despite its legal status. As Marx wrote at the beginning of Capital, Volume 1: “The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference.” Now, the air we breathe satisfies a human need, but it is not a commodity, which is typified by both use-value and exchange-value; that is, while air is very useful to us all, it is, at least not yet, exchangeable for something else in the marketplace, being freely available to all. There is no labor involved in bringing air to folks dwelling on most parts of the earth. Now, many years ago, I was hiking up Mount Fuji and saw for sale air canisters. In that case, labor was expended to create a product that could be exchanged for money. Air became a commodity in that environment, but most of us have no need for canned air.

Alcohol makes you feel okay. Certain drugs make you feel okay. But you have to buy them. They are called the “poor man’s vacation”—the trip you can have for a few dollars. I’ve worked a county line liquor store in the Delta, where folks line up at 8:00 in the morning with their crumpled bills to wipe the hopelessness from their minds, and you don’t need a whole lot of money to get your drunk on if you don’t mind what you’re drinking. But what about sex? It’s not a commodity. Oh, it’s been commodified. We have prostitution, and we have any number of industries devotes to promising us better sex through the purchase of select oils or toys or books. Really, though, it’s not that hard to find a willing partner, if only because sex is something a lot of people really want to do. And even if you are partner-challenged, chances are that you’ve still got a hand attached to your body, and a hand is an endless stream of orgasms in potentia. The real poor man’s vacation, the delights of the flesh, costs nothing at all, contributes nothing to the economy, makes nobody rich.

And that, my friends, is why anti-sex attitudes failed to dissipate once the Enlightenment took off. Indeed, we can perhaps see a correlation between capitalism and prudery—the Victorian era, with all its conquests and trading signifying the growth of global capitalism into various hearts of darkness around the world, also entailed the sheathing of table legs so that ladies and gentlemen would not be aroused by bare, polished wood. Oh, sure, we live in a sex-saturated time, but how much of our modern media is actually devoted to making you comfortable with your sexuality? We have Photoshopped models and impossibly proportioned porn stars, all making us think that the sex we have doesn’t live up to standards. But that’s okay, because if you buy this workout set and this book set and this massage oil set and subscribe to this women’s magazine known for its sex advice, you, too, might stand a chance of performing well in bed one day. Because it’s all about performance in the capitalist system. Pleasure—well, that might occur, but it’s not the point of the sales pitch. 

Besides, our sex-saturated world helps us to reinforce those old Christian dichotomies, the ones which keep popping up in beloved sci-fi shows, for part of the commodification of sex is the placement of all things coital on one side of that good/evil line; indeed, much of the use-value of it is the psychological satisfaction of transgression, of violating certain societal taboos. And the question rarely enters our heads as to whether or not this all makes us happy. As Amy E. Wendling observes in The Ruling Ideas: Bourgeois Political Concepts: “The ancient moralists, and Aristotle, in particular, spoke of happiness and character but rarely, if ever, of value. When he did so, it was to emphasize that the economic realm as a whole unfolded on a developmentally lower level than the ethical.” But we have lost the idea of happiness as a worthwhile pursuit; in fact, our strange accidents which split people into their “good” and “evil” selves put one thing which makes us happy, sex, on the side of the demons, while our supposed better angels do things which we are made to feel as being more valuable, such as playing the lute. In the modern capitalist system, goodness is sterile, neutered, lacking desire. In the capitalist system, free pleasure is made a moral fault. No wonder the popes have always lined up against communism. 

So when your wannabe revolutionary yells “Fuck the system!”—well, there’s a bigger truth there than he or she might realize. 

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