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The Erotic Condition of Humility

by Vania Baldi

A dear friend had just finished reading a book by the Italian writer Adriano Sofri, a collection of stories about fellow inmates he had met during the time he spent in prison. Browsing through the book, I found it interesting that it was underlined and had notes on the margins of the text. They were short stories, but inspired by people faced with the forced deprivation of freedom, who every day tried, with greater or lesser success, to hold back their own hopes, disillusions and wants.

Some characters stood out for the quiet lucidity on their own condition, as if destiny were being fulfilled. However, the behaviors and confessions described reflected the search for a vital anchor, the need for a compensation for loneliness, the lack of a bridge to the outside. The writer's gaze recovered these psychological states through those details that most revealed the search for substitutes for presence. One of these stories, highlighted in pencil in the book and indicated on the margin with the word “hairs”, drew my attention as if it were a hypertext link. It was the story of a couple that cultivated their intimacy through letters that kept pubic hairs glued on the back of stamps. It was a sad but powerful image, the sharing of a secret code, the hidden hairs, to fulfill the desire for proximity between forcefully separated lovers. Prisoners’ right to sexuality still did not exist. My friend viewed this as something romantic, I felt it more as the need for a symbol of union, a resource that would sustain life in isolation and suspended in time, the salvific confirmation of a real bond with someone outside – translated, in this case, in a trace of corporeality.

Thinking about this story, I realize – now that confinement is a condition shared by many – the tenderness present in this exchange of encrypted messages, the wound and the fragility that moved this form of intimacy, but also the creativity that sustained it and the lightness it was meant to provide. In that context of confinement and insurmountable distance, to feel a living connection with someone outside was to feel the warmth of a promise, something that was meant to make the thoughts and projects about tomorrow more vital. The sense of this relief was materialized in an erotic symbol. Here there is no point in disturbing the various facets of the fetishistic potential, but only in highlighting the vital force represented by a sublimated eroticism. What is interesting is the moving (in Portuguese: comovedor) effect of this story, since what in it moves and creates a resonance (commovēre, to set emotions in motion) is the process of searching for reciprocity and, then, the recognition of that reciprocity, which confirms it and mends it.

This text – in fact, the story brought by the literary text – came to my mind after I came across an article about marketing strategies in the SARS-CoV-2 era. While I was surveying new trends in consumption and commercial practices during the phase of quarantine globalization, I found a case of success. In a few weeks, a sex toy production and distribution company had increased its sales of a particular erotic gadget by 40%, something that represents a new stage in the way the experience of sex is imagined: teledildonic devices. Couples who are separated but sexually connected. Dildos manipulated remotely, drones, remote intercourse, wireless copulation, the Internet of the thing... I find out that these post-organic sex solutions have existed for some time, that this is not a quick response to the isolation caused by the virus, that this smart... (intimacy?) already existed. However, it is now that they are becoming more widely known and are gaining prominence in the media.

Interconnected apps, Bluetooth, WiFi, smartphones and sex toys thus shape new landscapes to promote the potential of contactless physical contact, without any sensory quality or symbols that can evoke a feeling of exclusiveness (contactless delivery, contactless payment, contactless thermometer and, finally, contactless sex). The range of technological functions and convergences associated with these sex toys is surprising (just as the promotional vocabulary employed). They were designed to also respond to the constraints of time zones, providing an asynchronous sex experience, carried out in phases and even less shared. This is made possible by recording and archiving the sexual act, which starts with one of the partners using the interconnected object in the shared cloud and is then finished off in another moment by the other partner, who uses his/her own object, coupled to the first. New forms of streamed beata solitudo.

Although I mentioned two diversely hyperbolic experiences of how some individuals react to forced loneliness, these extreme situations can reflect the extent to which we need others, while revealing at the same time alternative cultural models for signifying relationships in general, not only intimate and interpersonal ones. Now, while in the first case – of imprisonment – the scarcity of means and the poverty of the context determine an inclination towards a symbol of gregariousness that creates hope, in the second case – of contingent distance – we find the utilization of a ready-to-use external resource. The first experience is based on a symbolic dimension, the second on functionalism. Both, before the anguish of the unknown, reveal a human side: the first emerges through a lack that creates desires and horizons of expectations; the second through the market offer of hyperactive and apparently self-sufficient responses. They are two narratives whose semantics mirror and involve more or less emotions, more or less lucidity, a more or less direct experience with autonomy and the ability to search for and originate meaning. Paradoxically, within this polarity we can find more or less promising attitudes for a renewed post-quarantine experience.

The polarity exposed between these two peculiar ways of reacting to the different types of isolation – of a punitive or preventive character – therefore serves as an excuse to compare them with our way of currently feeling the suspension of our routine and, by contrast, how we relate to it. As is known, social distancing caused by SARS-CoV-2 does not separate everyone in the same way. Some families, couples, colleagues are confined within the same living space, whereas other people do not have a home. However, the above-mentioned experiences can be seen as different angles on some ways of dealing with the internal and external world. In fact, in other contexts it is possible to react to the gaps in meaning and feelings of want to which we are exposed by linking and organically shaping the instances of compensation or by deflecting these onto substitute objects or processes aiming to erase or divert the impasse. Between a sublimation that allows to establish connections with the outside and a reactivity based on a delegation that isolates and disconnects.

In this sense, we can ask ourselves: what drives us in our day-to-day lives is an aspiration to be part of something bigger or the hypertension focused on perpetual immediacy? Life in common is guided by solidarity between stresses or between the opening of horizons?

In a condition of mandatory confinement, as the present one, we can feel that our attitudes swing between this polarity. On the one hand, we search for a new sociocultural path that awakens new ethical-aesthetic ambitions and promotes new political possibilities, on the other hand, we reaffirm (or hope to reaffirm) what we already know because it is already outlined, even though its purpose seems short-sighted or tautological. To carve the future in search of new purposes for our actions fosters an ethics through which it is considered wrong to want to repeat and continue the previous state of things (as a prisoner probably wishes for his/her future), thus going against that other ethics fed by the logic of efficiency of already pre-established goals and results, achieved through the repetition of guidelines whose reasons and origins are unquestioned as laws of nature and whose purposes are justified in an autotelic way.

We are here at a point of hesitation that proves to be at once ethical and political. Between the experience that some philosophers term “interpassivity”, which teledildonic devices fit into, and the experience of searching for an answer that is not known but motivates a more symbolic cognition and a more humble compensation (a hidden hair).

Interpassivity may mean, for example, that the object takes the place of the subject in the action. The subject stays in a passive position in relation to him/herself; instead of interacting with the environment, he/she lets the environment, the object, do it on his/her behalf. Many digital practices are based on this cultural frame, but in fact it can be stated that the latter represents a broader cultural condition in which the manifestation of subjectivity is delegated to substitutes in the form of signs, technical supplements or numerical indicators. To turn over the signification of a subjective quality to the “representatives” offered by the market, to allow them to speak for us – as in the case of erotic toys – for they would act and notify us on our behalf. In spite of the 40% increase in its sales during a period of social confinement, and the humorous occasions it can naturally bring about, the speed at which it spread and was socially incorporated is surprising. Of course fertile ground already existed, individual sensitivities and collective projects had probably already been outlined and shifted within the workings of apparatuses, they had already migrated into their intelligence that, in turn, allow us to believe in our own. As if the world, before confinement, were already characterized by many isolation bubbles.

These times of interruption of routines allow us to understand how uncomfortable it is to not be able to insist on the repetition of our daily activities, for we see how this inflates a sense of control over time. By falling into the formless time of uncertainty and suspension, it becomes necessary to symbolize it, give it a direction, and the responsibility for what we can act upon is more strongly felt. In this sense, the example of prison shows what is missing for those who appear to freely manage their destiny: to re-imagine time, give it a purpose, dilate it, rather than reduce it to movement for the sake of movement.

To wait, predict, foretell, are all verbs of passivity dating back to the Judeo-Christian fable of temporal optimism that permeates Western culture, science, psychoanalysis and Marxism. They all view the past as ignorance (trauma, injustice), the present as a remedy that mends through research (therapy, revolution) and the future as something that redeems and will save. The future, in fact, belongs to the contingent, the three forms of time are not linear at all, the wounds of negativity, precariousness and finiteness are meta-historical, which is why the symbols and practices of watching out should be constantly reinvented.

To give up hyperactivity rooted in the fear of emptiness, to understand the emancipatory potential brought by the experience of lack without mistaking it for inability or moralizing it as if it were guilt, brings us to a fertile impasse, challenges new questions, even utopias, which can trigger alternative ways of rethinking everyday life, of demanding and idealising new symbols for new landscapes through which narratives and projects based on rescuing proximity can be expressed, where proximity is understood as a terrestrial feeling, an awareness of finiteness and vulnerability. To be terrestrial rescues humility (double meaning of humus), making it voluptuous and making it possible to try out surprising cognitive and affective combinations that are tied to reciprocity. Proximity becomes the backdrop for a world that cannot exist by thinking it is possible to separate the interdependence between living species, between the organic and inorganic world. We may come out of forced isolation but it is important to keep in mind that we may remain locked up in the same bubbles of pseudo-comfort or that ensured freedom might be exercised as a presumptuous narcissistic rupture of interdependence.

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