Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?
The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.
Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.
The Revelation of Sex
The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh.
This lack of public familiarity is a precondition for assigning breasts an intimate status such that their public exposure might be judged indecent. Men or lesbians in industrialized societies long to spy or to feel women’s breasts only if those sensations remind us that reality can be hidden. Presumably, lesbians are less aroused by the opportunity to gawk at another woman’s breasts, because they’re familiar with their own, and the same should be true for gay men regarding their degree of pleasure taken from an experience with another man’s genitals. Token newness must suffice, because unfamiliarity with the type of flesh is out of the question for homosexual individuals. In any event, the limit case of sexual lust is felt by one who has no direct knowledge of the other’s body parts but whose fantasies have been inspired by enticing indirect knowledge, such as pornographic representations, tall tales in the schoolyard, or partial revelations in the form of sexy clothing.
Like people, animals have mating competitions so that the fulfillment of climax for them lies at the end of some rituals they must complete, but unlike domesticated people’s, animal bodies aren’t selectively hidden from the world. Animals don’t know or care that they’re naked, whereas we don our fig leafs to recover our dignity in light of our self-awareness and our greater understanding. The experience of being a person is that of having our virtually supernatural (anomalous) mind confined to a natural, animal body. When we understand that absurdity, we fear what calamities might be visited upon us in such a godless universe, and so we sweep the evidence under the carpet, as it were, concealing our nakedness so that we can pretend to be the disembodied gods we worship. Our sex instinct remains as an animal calling, at least for most of us, but that instinct is bound up with our understanding and our imagination, because our minds are godlike. Thus, mating between people isn’t just a degrading competition, as it is for the animals that are puppets driven by their genes rather than by egoistic interests to understand their place in the world and to rectify their position by altering that world. In addition to the foolish, ethically dubious dances we perform to attract a mate, we set up an existentially symbolic dynamic in which the heaven of sexual ecstasy, the ego’s dissolution in intimacy with a partner, and thus the paradoxical experience of disembodiment achieved in a bout of unreserved objectification happen only when we unmask ourselves by removing our clothing and the accompanying pretenses of civility.
The Anticlimax of Enlightenment
Reality, too, is hidden from us, not just because we’re small creatures that aren’t in direct contact with the whole of time or space, but because our cognitive tools humanize the world, putting comforting metaphors and preoccupations between us and what Eugene Thacker calls the horror of the world-without-us. In Thacker’s analysis, the world-for-us is how it appears to us at the height of our naiveté, when we don’t appreciate that our anthropomorphisms are self-serving projections as well as practically-necessary lies. The world-in-itself is the world in its essence without anything extraneous left behind by the process of coming to know the world’s nature. This is the Kantian noumenon which isn’t entirely conceivable, since every act of knowing, including the scientific or mathematical kind, leaves behind artifacts on that which is known. The world-without-us is perceived by the cognitive trick of imagining the objective world-in-itself as though it were inhabited by someone else who is suitably indifferent to or ignorant of us. For example, we can follow H.P. Lovecraft and imagine that our planet is really a playground for monstrous, slumbering deities who will eventually awaken and annihilate us and everything we stand for as so many extraneous growths. The world-without-us is how the world-in-itself would seem without the presence of humanity, if that world could nevertheless be experienced by someone else. After we’re extinct like any other species and all traces of our civilizations are lost, only the world-without-us will remain, the world as it’s always really been despite the lies we presently tell ourselves to avoid confronting the fact that we’re all fundamentally homeless. The last person standing after the zombie apocalypse, for example, would behold the party that continues after most of us have left the club, the cycles that proceed having always had nothing essentially to do with any of us.
The horror of the world-without-us, which is really just a debilitating glimpse of the impersonality of the world-in-itself, is obscured by the fig leaf of the world-for-us. In our religious fictions which we call myths, we imagine heroic mortals ascending to the abode of the gods. Moses climbed remote Mount Sinai where the world-in-itself was revealed to him in the form of a supernatural bush that burns without being consumed by the flame. The world’s essence which transcends our feeble, often parochial conceptions can present itself in miracles, according to old stories which are exoterically read as being about divine breakthroughs into nature by the personified Beyond; of course, that theistic interpretation is the mere conservative one that reinforces our vanity which we need to function in the unheroic, animal fashion. We’d like to think that we’re one with the world’s essence and that nature is fundamentally alive and even knowing and moral like us; that way, we wouldn’t be existentially homeless, after all, and horror wouldn’t be our most authentic experience, the deepest appreciation of reality. So Jews imagined not just the paradoxical burning bush, but a voice that spoke to Moses from the transcendent world-in-itself. Likewise, after Jesus’s baptism, “heaven was opened,” a dove descended, and Jesus heard a voice telling him that God loves him. Esoterically, all religious myths are horror stories, as cosmicism must replace theism for those who love knowledge more than themselves and the convenience of their station. We can have an intimation of the world-in-itself, but only with the accompanying dread that that world was, will be, and is fundamentally now the world-without-us. Stripped of our reassuring delusions, the burning bush is voiceless or if it speaks, it speaks in a language we can’t translate so that we’re frustrated eavesdroppers or fifth wheels. The dove that descends from the clouds only vacates its bowels on Jesus’s head and the skies are silent when he’s executed as a result of a hideous, Kafkaesque mistake about his identity.
There is, then, an analogy between human sexuality and philosophical revelation. First there are the tantalizing clues that something longed for is hidden; if only you could entice this other creature to shed its outerwear, you could have sex, build a partnership, and establish private grounds for intimacy. Sex feels rapturous as though we were swept off to a transcendent plane, even if that’s only because we must first degrade ourselves as we strip off our clothes, hide ourselves from public glare, and pretend that we deserve a private space that shouldn’t be regulated by ethical rules of conduct. We “transcend” civility, by acting as animals, going backward rather than forward, as it were, but we nevertheless experience bliss in that state of undress just as we feel love and contentment when we’re emotionally intimate in our private life with our partner. With regard to sex, we shrug off the yoke of civility and thus much of the world-for-us, and are rewarded with waves of pleasure followed by orgasm, by a fleeting moment of joy.
Similarly, with regard to cognition we lift the veil of ignorance as we learn the embarrassing epistemic status of our cherished metaphors and myths. We discover that our best knowledge of the world-in-itself succeeds only by its wholesale objectification and demythologization, leaving us disenchanted with nature. What bubbles up then is revelatory horror and giddiness at the suspicion that we’re satanically free—at least during those brief occasions when we take up Spinoza’s eternal perspective, or God’s-eye-view, and appreciate everything’s place in the world-without-us. Reality is revealed to us when we depersonalize it and ourselves, but instead of finding utilitarian pleasure, as in the case of the orgasm that binds a pair of mates together and encourages them to reproduce, the intrepid philosopher is rewarded with incendiary, satanic insight. Religious revelation ought to be apocalyptic indeed, since for the enlightened individual, that revelation of the world-in-itself destroys the world-for-us. In reality, we’re all horrifically free—free of gods that don’t exist, free of homes that are nullified by their transience, free of social codes that we negate whenever we revert to our animal fixations. We’re as free and as aimless as the void we represent when we grasp the world’s objectivity and its necessary indifference to us. Nature seems to unfold with much regularity and thus by way of restrictions rather than freedom, but that seems so only from our pathetically-limited perspective. In quantum reality or at the level of the megaverse, everything happens all at once and on a virtual whim, with no intermediate mechanisms or local transactions whatsoever, not to mention for no reason and with no plan in view. Particles pop into existence just because—like our entire universe, in a timeless state of being. And when we understand those sobering facts, however imperfectly that may be; when we learn that “humanity” in the normative, progressive and vain sense is a joke, we become as monstrous as the world that thereby “speaks” through our mystical or indirect representations of it. Terror, angst, sorrow, or madness is the fruit of those cognitive loins. The orgasm of philosophical insight is the glee of insanity or the queer relief of the omega outcast who is alienated from the grotesqueries of mass society; those existential pains are stages of mourning for the loss of the world-for-us. What mentality emerges from our oneness with the depersonalized world-in-itself, by means of our contemplating the horrors of the world-without-us can hardly be described in polite company.
Fathoming the Alienness of the World-Without-Us
But let’s investigate with the aid of a science fictional thought experiment. Imagine that you’ve gone where no one else has been. Moreover, you’re at where no one else will be because no one else can reach there. Suppose, for example, you’re Ant Man, as in the movie, who shrinks to the subatomic scale and is condemned to drift there for eternity unless he can puzzle his way out. Or perhaps you’re the scientists in the movie Sunshine, who penetrate the sun’s corona to its interior. Or you’re in a spaceship that’s travelled faster than light, leaving you alone on a planet in another galaxy. Astronauts are known to experience a deflating sense of life’s worthlessness when they return to Earth and when they’re permitted to leave aside the politically-correct blather they’re forced to emit to encourage society’s support of space exploration. The world must seem fragile and lost from orbit, but the astronaut is also largely alienated from that world; only the commitment to carry out the scheduled tasks provides a lifeline and prevents the astronaut from slipping into a miasmic depression due to such a confrontation with nature’s inhumanity. However, alone and in a vast and unchartered wilderness, say, the explorer would also feel childlike glee, the rebel’s freedom of being unburdened by social conventions. The Starship Voyager is sent to the other side of the galaxy and the crew wrestles with whether Starfleet’s code of conduct applies to their predicament. Of course, the Captain believes that that code is their lifeline, their one chance of retaining their humanity. The crew members must carry out their duties and struggle to return home; otherwise, horror would dawn upon them as they’d realize that in light of the fact that the galaxy is evidently so large to allow for such estrangement from the bulk of humanity, their jobs at Starfleet have always been farcically insignificant.
Imagine, though, you’re alone on an alien moon, the star around which Earth orbits nowhere in the night sky, your lightship a wreck on the moon’s surface. Before you fall and rise stone formations never glimpsed by anyone. Your scientific training equips you with concepts to objectify your surroundings, to quantify the mighty craters and mountains, and even to begin to use them to your benefit. But you have the nagging feeling that the moon’s existential significance surpasses such understanding and utility. With the trappings of culture and civility so far away, with your family, friends, and coworkers nowhere to comfort or to preoccupy you, and confronted by the alien vista, you muse that you must have been reborn because the world-for-us has vanished for you. There is no us on that moon, only you, and you haven’t the creativity or the fortitude to create a new web of conventions, a fresh host of fictions to obscure nature’s alienness. The horrifying implications of the objective world’s impersonality overpower you in your alienation, and you’re treated to a revelation of the world-without-us. What are you in that monstrous world that flexes its causality with no goal or remorse? What are you but part of it and nothing more, as the illusions and hypocrisies of civilized life fade to irrelevance? As on Mount Sinai, the remoteness of your location makes the ground on which you tread holy, but there's no reassuring voice from beyond, just the enveloping silence of the outer reaches. Now you realize that the heavenly bliss promised by the world’s religions was only ever a misleading metaphor; that as we’re united with the inhuman essence of reality, true liberation from our social roles is baneful; that God is a fiction we project onto nature to turn the wilderness into an encouraging mirror image of ourselves, and that the reality of Being is best captured in the experience of horror.