Monday, June 20, 2016

Today's Sacred: Technology and Sex

In a most insightful book, The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975), Jacques Ellul first analyzes the functions and forms of the sacred common to all religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sacred functions include providing societies, cultures, and personalities with meaning, structure (of space, time, and action), solidarity, ethics, and justification. The sacred isn’t something that societies or individuals choose. It is something which imposes itself upon all of us as our greatest threat as well as best source of vitality. Sacred forms include ultimate values, rites of commitment, embodiment by people of exceptional virtue, and the organization of the sacred itself in opposing poles of control and chaos.
Having analyzed the general functions and forms of the sacred, Jacques then identifies the first axis of what constitutes the sacred in our world today: technology and sex (71).

At first, the idea that we moderns regard technology as sacred might seem strange. After all, particular technologies are all rationally developed to have the greatest possible efficiency. Nevertheless, we betray many signs that technology is sacred: so much of it remains mysterious to all of us humans, everything it involves strikes us as ultimately significant, and any questioning of it causes outrage and panic (71).
Today technology “has become the essential mystery…The television set presents an inexplicable mystery, an obvious miracle constantly repeated…[O]ne worships it as one might worship an idol, with the same simplicity and fear” (72).
As societies, cultures, and personalities, we all take the greatest possible pride in technology. We are all enthralled (spellbound!) by technological gadgets and covet the latest ones. People “take pride in the little god who is their slave, be it a motorcycle, television set, or electric appliance. It is a pride of condescension, an ideal of life which is incarnate in those things which serve. Still everyone has the sacral feeling that no experience is worth anything unless one has these powers in his home” (72).
We regard technology as the sole source of human progress. “Every advance in technology is an advance for [humankind]” (73).
Technology is our one hope of salvation from all the unprecedented challenges that now confront us—including those imposed by technology itself. “It is good in its essence” (73).
People especially enthralled by technology willingly devote their whole lives to its growth. Some, for example, spend all day either writing the programs for video games or playing them. “They smile when the word [‘sacred’] is spoken, but they fly into a mystic rage when one contests the validity of technology…” (73).
Technology: “This somewhat mysterious, yet completely scientific power, which covers the earth with its radio waves, wires, and paper, is to the technician an abstract idol which gives him a reason for living, and even joy” (73). Paradoxically, this joy is expressed by relating with familiarity, and not solely with seriousness, to technology because we do regard it as sacred. This is “why the first A-bomb was called ‘Gilda,’ that the giant cyclotron at Los Alamos was named ‘Clementine,’ that batteries are called ‘water pots’ and that radioactive contamination is called a ‘burn.’ The technicians at Los Alamos rigorously banned the word ‘atom’ from their vocabulary” (74).
We relate to technology as sacred because, in the end, it provides us with such great power. It strikes everyone spontaneously as a “marvelous instrument of power” or, better, as “the common expression of the power of man. Without it he would feel poor, alone, naked, deprived of his makeup, no longer a hero, a genius, an archangel, which a motor [or smartphone] allows him to be at little cost” (74).
Because we do regard it as sacred, we reconstruct our past and imagine our future primarily in terms of it. The only aspect of our past that really matters is our role as toolmakers as recounted in a story of progressively improving science and technology. The only future imaginable is one even more dominated by technology.
“Every sacred of respect implies its transgression” (75). If, on one axis of the sacred, technology is the pole of order, the corresponding pole of disorder on that same axis is sex.
That may seem strange. To begin with, technology and sex seem to have nothing in common to connect them as the two opposing poles of one axis of the sacred.
Secondly, there seems to be nothing sacred any longer about sex. In today’s societies, people seem “to have put an end to sexual taboos, have transgressed the prohibitions, have made sexual activity a physiological activity without mystery, one which is normal and free of complexes. People go to bed together…[as] a quick way to get acquainted” (75). “One makes use of every means for being casual as rapidly as possible, for being friends. One means is sex, taken as a point of departure rather than as a fulfillment” (76).
Jacques notices that, while all of this is accurate, our age nonetheless “has resacralized sex instantaneously, in the very act of desacralizing it” (76).
One indication we may be certain that sex is still sacred is the fact that, in our day, it is a “publicly flaunted frenzy” (76). “This is not just a need to satisfy bottled-up drives, nor an attempt to combat old, out-worn prejudices…” (76). No, “the furor aroused by any display of opposition, shows the depth of the problem” (77).
Another indication: unbounded sex is regarded as a fundamental act of freedom. It is a declaration that one is independent. It is a defiant act of “struggle against an order. It isn’t a question of desacralizing the sexual domain, but of desacralizing the [established] order by means of sexual transgression” (77).
“What we have here is a means, and a means raised to such a height and possessed of such powers and virtues that one is forced to see it as a sacred phenomenon…Anyone who performs a sexual act…, however banal or however deviant the act may be, is looked upon as having achieved something…of having shared in a great adventure” (78).
The order we endure, of course, is that imposed ever more rigorously by technology. Sex is our sacred way out. “It is in relation to technological order that the sexual explosion is taking place…If one…throws oneself into the sexual exaltation, it is in order to break the iron ring of technological organization associated with the vampirizing of man by technology” (78).
Sex and technology not only relate as the poles of order and disorder on the same sacred axis. We have the sexualization of technology. This happens, for example, when we attribute great manliness, encouraged by advertisers, to men who drive cars which are stylish and fast. We also see it in men who shower much more affection on their car than on their wife.
We also have the technologization of sex. This is sex-by-the-numbers. In the past several decades, too many books and videos have been produced to demonstrate how we might best stimulate our sexual partners. Worse, corporate media of communication, wholly technological in source and nature, daily saturate our culture and personalities with sex.
So the first sacred axis imposed on us “‘technological orderanderotic festival’” (79). Both poles of this sacred axis presuppose “adoration, communion, abandon, self-dedication, and a glorification of the sacralizing power” (79). We willingly devote ourselves to technology. When its demands become overwhelming, however, we just as willingly abandon ourselves to sex. Using their Roman names, today we happily devote ourselves to Vulcan, god of technology, and Venus, goddess of sex.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.