Friday, 10 December 2010

In what way is it "all about sex"?

I was going to give this post a more pretentious title alluding to Luhmann's theory of intimacy, but I think it's better to be frank! My music professor once remarked that music is "all about sex really". It's easy to agree with him him when I'm listening to something like the 'liebestod' at the end of Tristan and Isolde (this performance with Isolde apparently bleeding to death!), or Scriabin's 'Prometheus'
or Debussy's Jeux (I could go on).  But I am tempted to agree with him more generally, and to say that it being "all being about sex" relates to more than just music. Learning and sex are no strangers. Radicalisation too has a strong hormonal content, which is worth bearing in mind in the light of the passion of yesterday's protests. If education is about politics, politics has got a lot to do with hormones!

I don't think we should be coy or embarrassed if we really want to know what it is that propels our curiosity about things - particularly when we are young. Is the drive to learn something a sexual drive? Perhaps more importantly, is the difference between those who are educationally successful and those who are not the difference between those who can sublimate their desire and focus it on learning activity and those who can't?

A lot has to do with interest and curiosity. The visceral bodily effects of knowledge performances are a key part of educational engagement which excite our interest. How much of interest derives from the educational content? How much from sexual chemistry with fellow students or teachers? Surely its all in the mix: and sex is the common denominator in the interests of everyone. I wonder if online it is perhaps harder to talk about this than it is face-to-face. So much trust and confidence has to be gained before the long journey of making connections between our biological condition and our intellectual potential can be embarked upon.

So, in online learning, where are those connections made? Or is online learning inevitably going to skirt around the issue without making any deep connections to the biological condition of learners? I think we risk this, not just in education, but in our approach to technology generally: that technology drives a wedge between the intellect and those aspects of the body and perception which are simply too embarrassing to mention.

For Georges Bataille, such embarrassment is an expression of the fear of death. For to acknowledge sex and eroticism is to "assent to life even in death".

As an example of what Bataille means, we can look at Rodin's erotic sketches. The skilled performances of their execution have a visceral effect, complex, rich in double-description (all those lines!). What is communicated is not only the 'content' - a body - but the artist too, and at so many levels. But there is also something deathly about it: an objectification of a body. My interest lives through this deathly image, excited not just through what is represented, but through exploring the questions of its existence and my own. I know that the sexual feelings I feel on looking at it are at least comparable to those of the artist who created it - who himself is now dead, but who once looked upon this woman as I now do.

Such things are the baseline of the human goods of learning where the intellect connects to the body. Right now, the risks of a disconnected education are very great. But those students who are discovering their radical voice are also rediscovering these biological connections (although some risk forgetting their minds!). I'm tempted to think that the economic woes of education are a bit of a sideshow. The real challenge is to reconnect bodies and minds of everyone in what is going to be a rather cold, marketised, servitised educational environment.

1 comment:

Astrid Johnson said...

You are giving a wonderful description of how much sex and knowledge are connected and the process of looking at art.
I just wanted to clarify one distinction. I think those young (and older people) who are educationally successful are those who are able to sublimate their desire, but I would want to make to clear that they are not doing so at the exclusion of acting on their physical desires. Mostly successful people fire on all cylinders.