sharp cacti


Okay I’m back to posting after a few-week break; the start of summer (and, more precisely, of summer camps) became a busy time: a time for action and reflection but not for writing. But it’s time to pick things up again, blog-wise. Let’s start, then, with an article about masturbation, shall we?

From “A Handy History“, or “The Body as Amusement Park”:

In more pleasure-conscious modern times, the balance has tipped towards personal gratification. The acceptance of personal autonomy, sexual liberation and sexual consumerism, together with a widespread focus on addiction, and the ubiquity of the internet, now seem to demand their own demon. Fears of unrestrained fantasy and endless indulging of the self remain. Onania’s 18th-century complaints about the lack of restraint of solitary sex are not, in the end, all that far away from today’s fear of boundless, ungovernable, unquenchable pleasure in the self.

There’s so much going on in this paragraph that it’s difficult to unpack with any kind of brevity. The main point, though, is that in our culture of endless and immediate pleasure, we are less and less able to appreciate—and then apply—skills like contemplation, patience, and humility: all virtues (for lack of better word) that will be increasingly important in the face of ongoing global ecological crises. And when the culture itself is an addiction (we can’t live without air conditioning, just as the drug addict cannot live without her substance of choice—which in America is heroin, increasingly), there’s little chance that we will be able to abstain from its excesses in time to stop a complete societal overdose. People would actually rather die for their iphones (while allowing countless human and nonhuman lives to be sacrificed for their production) than even imagine a world without them—let alone live in that world, let alone build such a world.

One glaring omission in the essay, which recounts some mentions of masturbation in popular culture (Seinfeld’s “The Contest” being a personal favorite), is of course David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which Canada, the USA, and Mexico have all been forcibly joined into ONAN, the Organization of North American Nations. That actions, governments, and societies are described as being ONANite, or that celebrations like the ONANtiad are described in detail, should point one to one of the major themes (if not the major theme) of the book: addiction, and the danger of endless pleasure-seeking, and the corrosive affect such addiction has when an entire culture is based on immediate gratification at the expense of connection, honesty, and sentiment.

Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with masturbation, and I should hope that my lack of moral objection to such an activity would come as no surprise. But there is something wrong with a masturbatory culture.

My earlier thoughts on finishing Infinite Jest:

One of the main themes of I.J. is addition: to drugs, to entertainment, to success, to identity, to meta-identity. The possible silliness of critiquing media and entertainment, especially the world-wide web, on my very own little corner of the internet is not lost on me here, when thinking about all these aforementioned things as really ways to complete circuits; drugs are just a way to have an endless conversation with one’s self, after all—and so what is a blog?

But David Foster Wallace shows through I.J. that even seemingly fully-connected loops can be broken, or should be. In this case all the severing work is done by the reader, since by looking at the existing text alone, i.e. sans mental extrapolation, it’s true that not one character ever really changes. Even substance abusers who kick their substances of choice ultimately replace them with other “substances”: drugs for AA, freedom for ideology, perceived happiness for perceived success. Even after major geo-political reconfigurations/cataclysms, people are still just thinking about scholarships and tennis and more drugs. What is broken, then, is the reader’s muddling through this daily existence (see “This Is Water”, the joke of which is also found in I.J.) thinking that media (in our case mostly TV and the internet) is ultimately right about us: that we—especially Americans—are cynical, pleasure-seeking automatons, and that consequently our political-economic arrangements are simply the best we can do.

I don’t think we can do anything about climate change, but the point is we can’t do anything about anything if we don’t ever stop and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing—day in and day out. If we don’t break the loop.