In a society based on the separation and isolation of atomised individuals who are precariously chained together on the basis of a set of neurotic projections (nation, religion, family, etc.) and the practices and institutions that undergird them, it seems unsurprising that Tweedledee will occasionally, perhaps increasingly, have sex without the involvement of Tweedledum, or even of another Tweedledee. This has made society’s defenders vilify masturbation as an antisocial form of subject-object identity that bypasses heterosexuality and the holy cow of sexual dimorphism. Apparently it threatens the healthy measure of neurosis that goes by the name of social cohesion.
The debate over masturbation that raged from the eighteenth century on might therefore be understood as part of the more general debate about the unleashing of desire in a commercial economy and about the possibilities of human community in these circumstances.
Thomas Laqueur refers to this as a ‘sexual version’ of what he calls the Adam Smith problem: how can I make sure that the degree of community necessary for society’s functioning reproduces itself spontaneously and continuously without challenging the principles of bourgeois, liberal, capitalist production, which produces the egoistic, calculating, monadic individuals who make community precarious, but also without an overtly Hobbesian, Leviathan-type state? This question which haunted Adam Smith has never lost anything of its near-universal grip on liberal thought. Like masturbation, prostitution was also vehemently attacked as a core antisocial evil for the first time in the 19th century. The modern obsession with campaigning against prostitution is grounded in seeing it as ‘a confusion between the dangerously asocial world of commercial exchange and the healthy social world of married love’.
Laqueur draws a parallel between the 19th century discourse on prostitution and the 12th century papal campaign against usury (which subsequently re-emerged in the various forms of modern antisemitism), arguably the earliest and in this sense the original moral response to a (then) nascent market economy. The church hierarchy denounced the ‘usurious’ charging of interest because ‘nothing real is gained by it’. In Thomist Catholicism, the usurer’s capital is illegitimate because it is generated in the sphere of circulation only: it does not come from productive labour. The same pattern of argument is directed in the 19th century against prostitution: money earned from prostitution is illegitimate money since ‘nothing is produced.’ Like usury, prostitution is ‘pure exchange’; like homosexuality and masturbation, it is unproductive and purposeless.
excerpt of a text by Marcel Stoetzler, published in Mute, Vol.2, No.13, 2009. Continue reading here