30 December 2008

Sexual arousal: towards a truly useful theory of sex

One of my larger projects is to try to develop what I call a theory of sex that is useful for anthropology. This would involve a theory of sex that is truly social and that can lead towards and understanding of sex AS culture, sex AS social, and sex AS social action. The alternative, what we have now, is various social constructionist approaches (Foucault, Lacquer, etc.), psychological (Freud, Maslow, all psychologists), or biological-essentialists (the 'evolutionary' theorists and their just-so stories, the real biologists, etc.)

One of the issues that concerns me now in this effort is the issue of sexual arousal, or what I call (here) Long term sexual arousal (LTSA). It seems to me that this is distinctively human and importantly, even centrally, social.

The existence of LTSA may be responsible for the difficulty in talking about sex. But it is more than this. I want to address a few topics here, and ask a question for anyone who might read this.

In my writing and thinking about sex, ‘the material realities of sexual relations’, as you say, the stuff that gets lost in the ‘discourse’, I have been thinking lately about something that seems to me to be distinctive: long term sexual arousal. This seems to be a human characteristic, and one that is distinctly human and therefore critical to understanding sex. It is largely neglected, however, as a significant feature of sexuality. Clearly it is the ‘condition for the possibility’ of sex, or at least arousal is *for males*, but is still a problematic category for thinking-about.

It seems to me that arousal has some of the characteristics of that other evolutionary mystery, or set of mysteries, loss of oestrus, and concealed ovulation. Also of menopause, and the social role of ‘grandmother’ (caring for grandchildren that this is supposed to have enabled).

In brief, I have been thinking about the social consequences of arousal. According to the theoretical perspective that I am developing, we have to account for the pair-relationship in social ways, and as a consequence and context for sex. This clearly does not mean monogamy in humans, but it does mean that there is a close intimacy established, generally between two and only two people, during sex. I call this ‘the space of the dual’. My current problem is to explain how this ‘space’ of intensive pair-wise focus (the sexual couple) comes about.

Obviously (?), this has to do with arousal. Or that is what I have been thinking. Humans are capable of long-term (hours, or even days ?) of ‘arousal’, that is, an ‘alternative’ or ‘altered’ consciousness of another person that is—or is intensely perceived as—sexual. This long-term arousal is, it seems to me, unique to humans, and is coordinated with loss of oestrus and concealed ovulation since the dynamics of arousal replace the dynamics of oestrus signals (red bottoms on female baboons, oestrus odours, etc.) and effectively make up for the ‘concealment’ of ovulation. In other words, for an aroused, ‘horny’ couple, it does not matter whether their bottoms are red or if their smell signals fertility: they are aroused by each other, and this is a profoundly social bond.

So, one of the lynchpins of a truly social theory of sex that is useful for anthropology is a focus on the notion of arousal, especially long term sexual arousal (LTSA). Clearly arousal is not the same thing as ‘pleasure’ or ‘desire’ but has a more direct effect on social action. In trying to develop such a theory, it may be important to leave ‘gender’ entirely or relatively out of it. That is, to not make sex the reflex of abstract categories, but rather a social act that is predicated on meanings and motives. It would be useful to develop a theory of sex that does not collapse in the presence of “homosexuality” (sex that is seen as wrong, with wrong ‘object’, non-fertile, etc.) but which can account for sex-as-sex, sex in general social terms, rather than moral terms, or in terms of its effect on fertility and populations (evolutionist and bio essentialists views).

The problem, however, is to what extent is arousal ‘gendered’? When I first presented some of these view at the beginning of December 2008 at a seminar at University of North Carolina in the Anthropology department, one of the female members of the seminar said to me afterwards, ‘But its not like that for women; your perspective is entirely masculine’. Of course, and male these days is used to hearing that almost any view they express is nothing but a ‘male perspective’, ‘gendered’ and so on. But there is also some merit to her suggestion that men and women do not experience arousal in the same way. My interlocutor, a woman, suggested that “Of course, women don’t necessarily become aroused at all. You are just talking from a male perspective.” Ouch. But so be it. From a ‘male perspective’. She is certainly right in some cases, but not all.

In thinking about this, it occurs to me that it may be rather the case that no two people experience arousal in the same way, but that some men and women do experience it is very similar or the same ways, while others irrespective of ‘gender’ experience it in other ways. In other words, it seems to me that arousal may be a very social experience, but is also high variable. Indeed, its variability points to a social and cultural dimension since features that are simply determined by biology, or by evolution, are generally much more stable and determined.

Clearly, too, sexual arousal for the male is necessary for sex (penetrative sex) to occur at all and this is not (necessarily) the case for females or for anal-receptive males. This also makes female prostitution possible and profitable (while it is much more difficult for a male prostitute to have as many clients in a night, say, that for a female), but does not make is ‘necessary’—that is, it is a condition for the possibility of female prostitution, but not a cause of (female) prostitution. There are many others issues like this that arise as well.

This difference between the sexes in arousal also, I think, has implications for the question of female ‘subordination’ and for male claims to power (I don’t always agree with the feminists that men have as much social power as they are attributed by feminists, but that is another matter).

The claim I wish to make, then, is that long-term sexual arousal is a fundamental human characteristic that is partly biological and partly social and cultural, and therefore a significant dimension that must be investigated in order to develop a theory of sexual action that is useful to anthropology. Arousal cannot simply be assimilated to the discourse on desire, pleasure (Foucault), impulse or libido (Freud), and is highly social, but in a restricted sense: it involves the pair, the one-to-one relation, rather than the social (Many-to-many, or many-to-one relations), and is not restricted to the psychological (the one, the self).

The problem is that it appears to be so variable in the way it is experienced, and also both necessary AND contingent.

This has become too long.

My question, then, is how to examine this variability in the experience of arousal?

09 December 2008

I have rarely read an article more wrong and dangerously amoral than Mahmood Mamdani's recent article in the London Review of Books (4 December 2008) on 'The Lessons of Zimbabwe' (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23/mamd01_.html ). What we might most profitably learn from the the man is how wrongly African politics can be conceived by those isolated from its realities, as this Columbia University professor surely is.

The article is insulting to Africans, and to Zimbabweans who have suffered mightily at the hands of Mugabe and his cronies. Mamdani's claims are predicated on what might be called a 'romantic' vision of this part of the world in which leaders like Mugabe could be said to have some moral standing and good intention. This is not the case. Mamdani's mistakes are many. Indeed, it is all but impossible to recognise the real Zimbabwe in what Mamdani has to say about it. The most charitalbe thing that can be said about Mamdani's "Lesson from Zimbabwe" is he has apparently learned very little from his previous life among the elites of Africa. In this article, he repeasts some of the worst mistakes made by these elites who despite long residence in AFrica, understand almost nothing about it. In this, Mamdani resemble much more the colonial masters that he claims to excoriate than he does any person of the African soil.

First, Mamdani labours under the misconception that Mugabe has somehow 'reformed' land holding in Zimbabwe. This is nonsense. There has been no land reform in Zimbabwe if by this term we mean, as we should, a productive redistribution of land resources that offer some benefit to society, the country's economy, or to some category of beneficiaries. This has not happened in Zimbabwe. He has indeed given 'ownership' to two categories of people. The first category is constituted by his cronies and janusaries, those who protect him and who live off his largesse. The second category is the so-called 'war veterans', many of whom are much too young to have actually fought in the Rhodesian war, or Chimurenga. Whatever they age, they are 'beneficiaries' not of land or largesse but of the bush. The land that has been 'returned' to them has been of little or no profit to them because they have had no resources to farm it, for the most part, and certainly no economy in which to participate as farmers. It means nothing to have land if the product of the land cannot be marketed, where and if a product can be produced at all. Even his cronies have, for the most part, simply allowed the land to lapse into bush fallow again.

In this part of Africa, that does not take long. Agricultural land will return to bush in a matter of a few years. The effort to reclaim it for agriculture increases exponentially with eahc passing year. This has happened all over Zimbabwe. The result has not only been increasing poverty on a vast scale, but the removal of most of this land from any productive use for many years, even decades to come.
This is one of the things that Mamdani's romantic notions does not allow for. Productive agricultural land has little to do with the land itself. The land is simply the physical site and substrate of huge and accumulated effort over many decades, and in most cases, many generations. It is not too much to say that the agricultural product of land has much more to do with knowledge--even culture--than it does have to do with the simple 'material' substances in and on which it is based. Agriculture is a social and cultural system, usually of great historical depth and cultural complexity. Its results--what we see as 'fertile land'--is the result of complex social orders, marketing networks, with carefully maintained institutions of knowledge production and application, and with social hierarchies and organisations.

This social and cultural basis for agriculture has been lost in Zimbabwe. It is at risk of being lost in South Africa, too. But it is not land that is at issue. This is merely 'redistributed' as a kind of political trick. Without the support of all of the other complex social and cultural structures, having land is a recipe for destitution and failure. This is clearly the case in Zimbabwe.

It is a romantic fantasy, then, to claim as Mamdani does that there has been 'land reform' in Zimbabwe. This however is the first premise of his mistaken belief that Mugabe can be redeemed in any way by means of his supposed land reform. He and his regime are unredeemable.

Mamdani's other bizarre claims pale somewhat in the light of this primary mistake. He is not alone in making this mistake, but he is certainly in the moral minority for believing that Mugabe is praised or revered in southern Africa for his land reform. That is, he is not revered among honest people. There is however a large and increasing category of criminals, politcal opportunists, and those who are involved in the illegal and often largely criminal economies of southern Africa. For them Mugabe is indeed a god send. Apart from his deliberate ruination of his own country, Mugabe has facilitated a criminal economy that now spans most of the southern part of the continent. By providing vast areas of ungoverned bush land, Mugabe's land reform has created the conditions under which an ungoverned exploitatio ofAfrican resources can take place without oversight or control. Much of this is indirectly managed by Chinese middle men, although middle men from many of the world's undergrounds are involved. These include European mafia(s), Lebanese gun and diamond merchants, Israeli gem buyers, Malaysian timber merchants, among others. The natural resources of Zimbabwe are being carried off for nothing by agents from around the world. Mugabe's palace was not built by the Chinese, with Chinese materials, for nothing. It came at a cost, and that cost is the rape of Zimbabwe's wild flora and fauna for Chinese "medicine" and aphrodesiacs, the exploitation of its gold and other high-value minerals by Libyan and other Arab business intereststs, among others. But it is not only Zimbabwe that is being plundered. By providing access to all of the southern Congo through the ungovered and literally 'unknown' parts of this darkest of African regions, Mugabe and his military oversee, and profit from the exploitation of Congolese forests. Trainloads of huge and ancient teak and other first-growth African timber are shipped out of this area daily. Most of this 'trade' is unregistered, and unrecorded. Most of its ends up in Arab or Chinese hands.

Thus, Mugabe's land reform is not reform in any real sense, but rather the covert creation of a context in which this illegal, ungoverned, unregistered, unsustainable, and brutally exploitative economy can operate. That is its first and greatest achievement.

Mamdani's comparison of the situation in Zimbabwe to Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" in Uganda is one of the most bizarre of his efforts. He claims that 'many people' have indeed offered this comparision, and this may be true, but it does not make the comparison valid nor fruitful of any insight. It is true that Mugabe's regime and Idi Amin's regime both deliberately destroyed the countries over which they ruled. Both did this with what at first seemed to be "good intentions" (broadly and charitably conceived), and both quickly descended to a level of criminality and brutality that was unmatched in the countries that surrounded them. Idi Amin, however, was wiley but stupid; Mugabe is a undeniable genius. The principle difference between them is that Idi Amin ultimately appeared so foolish and so brutal that even "socialist" Tanzania under Nyerere eventually felt compelled to attack this hated distator and to unseat him. They sent him to exile in Saudi Arabia (where he was still hated but was cosseted and sequestered where he could do no more harm). Mugabe has been brilliant, by contrast. He has deflected every move to push him aside or even to mitigate his damages. He has increased his police force and military, and has handsomely rewarded those who have stood by him in his chicanery and deceit. (This probably includes the ex President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who is clearly also owned by Mugabe.)

Mugabe has been so clever, in fact, that he has deceived even the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology, Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University. Somewhat to his credit, Mamdani is scarcely alone in this ignoble company. Maintaing this deceit in a publication such as the London Review of Books does no service to anyone, however.

As Mamdani knows very well, Uganda was not a colony. It remained a Protectorate under British rule. This meant that little or no land was 'alienated' to 'settlers'. All of it remained in Ugandan hands. Thus Idi Amin was not able to use land as a token in his demogoguery. Instead, realising that the Indians controlled almost all of the economy, including the sale of agricultural products, he expropriated the Indian traders and businessmen (called "Asians" in Uganda). But of course, while he was able to take their shops, factories, homes and stock (and even some of their daughters), he was not able to expropriate the knowledte and networks that made these mere things into an economic system. The economic system did not 'collapse'; it simply ceased to exist. This is a remote point of similarity gbetween Uganda and Zimbabwe. Mugabe, like Idi Amin, destroyed the social system and the knowledge on which it depended. While the old Indian shops still remain in Uganda, they are now merely historical architecture. The same could be said of the soil or earth of Zimbabwe: it is now no longer 'agricultural land' although it continues to be geologically what it always was. By 'returning' land, Mugabe has done far more damage than even a complete scortching of the entire earth of Zimbabwe. He has removed the possibility for recovery for a very long time to come.

The errors and misconceptions abound. But let's leave it here for now...
9 December 2008