Fecundity and the Social Body

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I have argued that sex is a means of social reproduction, and in the dominant "economy of desire," the social reproduction of desire must be concealed. Sexual desire appears as natural and a self-validating end-in-itself, so that the economy of desire is justified, it seems, by the needs of the unencumbered self. Sex offers liminal moments of pleasure, but it can never be satisfied as a matter of course, in the everyday world. Everyday we want to want more. This is a basic principle of life in the restless growth economy of late capitalism. Desire is enlivened by dissatisfaction, and sex is known to be gratifying when it reproduces more unsatisfied desire. The needs and mandates of reproductive desire present a critical challenge to any discussion of marriage and family, and particularly theological accounts of sex. As reproduced within the dominant social economy, sexual desire is undomesticated, that is, both natural and wild, pre-social and nomadic. The theology of marriage attempts to relocate sex and sexual desire, giving them a stable home, but the predominant theological personalism begins with a modern naturalism that continues, first, to conceal the social reproduction of desire, and second, to position fulfillment in liminal moments of otherworldly space.

My comments, in the introduction, about procreation and bodily agency offer a contrast to the reigning sexual subjectivity, but they have no necessary implications for conceptions of marriage and family. A starting point in procreative givens imposes no clear conclusions. Highly reproductive polygamy is probably the most logical next step. Theological proposals about marriage and family ought to be grounded in some account of our nature, but they hardly can be defended or secured by appeals to pre-social desire or nature as such. The best that can be said (not second to naturalism but better) is that Christian practices of marriage fit with wider practices of the Christian life, and when in good working order, they reproduce social practices that also define the church. Steadfast faithfulness in marriage, for instance, points to a grammar of bodily presence formed through the practices of the body of Christ.

When an argument is made from nature or the "givens" of sexual desire, it should take its route, not from the body to marriage, but through the practices of the social body to claims about human nature, family, and marriage. A natural defense of marriage, it seems to me, would begin with basic practices of the church as they represent and offer possibilities for human flourishing, and then would turn to how certain conceptions of marriage follow naturally from those basic practices. Fortunately for me, this is not my task. I need only indicate, first, how fecundity fits with a particular kind of social reproduction and, second, how procreation presents the social agency of the body.

First, the production of children locates sexual activity in the household. Household, in this regard, is not a synonym for the contemporary family or for filial relationships. While family is often defined by its affection, the household is a social and economic unit. It is constituted by people who share living space and meals, pool resources, and cooperate for mutual benefit. Not all households include children, but children make housekeeping unavoidable. While family is a relation, the household is a place. Householders without children are likely to (and ought to) occupy that same socially reproductive space. Through their commitments to home, they are taken out of the "economy of desire" and taken into a network of households in neighborhood and community The household, set within the formative practices of the church, is an economy that is directed toward reproducing the social body and shaping the social self in imitation of Christ.

Quite different than the market economy, good housekeeping and household networks generate a subsistence economy that operates through gift-giving (1 Corinthians 11-13): through reciprocal, asymmetrical, and delayed systems of exchange. Children, for instance, return little of what they receive, and the social bond is extended by the disproportion and difference of giving without contractual return. The gift binds (Gouldner 1973: 241-2; Bourdieu 1977: 4-6: Milbank 1995). Equilibrium is achieved, not through immediate exchange or by compensation between individuals, but only over time, through generations perhaps and between households. Household activities encourage routine and entrenchment, but they are also characterized by a regular course of change. The young grow old, and the old grow older. Desire rises, diminishes, rises and diminishes again. In contrast to the static, adolescent character of the "economy of desire," sexual desire within the household is subsumed by the character of the life cycle.

Within the household, sexual desire is domesticated; that is, it follows the lead of common life. Couples will have their days or years of indomitable passion, mixed together with frequent times of minimal or subsistence-level desire. Childbearing and housekeeping show Hildebrand's romantic I-Thou to be an infrequent delight that is hardly a basis for love or community. The desires of the household are less directed to mutual self-absorption than to common, outwardly purposeful work. It is through the outward movement of shared activity where friendship and affection grow. In the "economy of desire," passion is work, and sexual desire is the end of social regeneration. In contrast, passion in the household, for its own sake, is only modestly regenerative. It is simply play, and because play, it is free to be nothing at all, that is, to be spontaneous. In good Pauline tradition, the practices of the household settle desire, and ironically, sexual practices are expected to exceed mutual desiring (1 Corinthians 7). Pauline access takes sex beyond desire and into mutual belonging.

Second, sexual reproduction is a basic activity of social belonging and possessiveness. Possessiveness carries negative connotations of control and domination, but when we refer, positively, to mothers and daughters, husbands and brothers, we use the possessive pronouns "my" and "our." We belong. Childbearing is the concrete "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" from which nuptial unity and social "brotherhood" gain their meaning as analogies. Marriage is a derivative social relation. When making reference to fecundity, theological personalism reverses the primacy of procreation and moves toward abstraction, toward making children a symbol of a married couple's prior unity and vocation in community (see, for example, Hanigan 1988: 89-112). Here, fecundity bypasses procreation in favor of more abstract social productivity. As a result, the personalist strategy considers the body a symbol as well. In Hildebrand, Greeley-Durkin, and others, the body symbolizes a psychological/personal relationship, so that a single sexual act (the heterosexual act) is conceived as a sign, trope, and ritual display of "total" human communion and the social body as such. The meaning of the body's continuing agency, in this sense, is merely a repetition of the initial unifying act. It is a liminal return to original, psychological unity

Childbearing, in comparison, sets bodily agency within the protracted setting of the household. In this regard, we can say that gestation and childbirth do not mark a difference between men and women, as much as they reveal the common character of sexual desire in the context of housekeeping and the irregular reciprocity that children require of community. Procreation gets us into something that extends over a lifetime and puts a common venture upon us. In contrast to the abstract unity of personalism, fecundity gives common life an open-ended and fluid character. Sexual practices are unified, not by a single ideal meaning, but by their context in the course of common life. Some nuptial acts might be uninteresting, while others might be exhilarating; some might express a deep sense of unity, while others might simply relieve sexual tension; some acts and relationships are pro-creative, while others are not. Some couples might hardly have sex at all. Sex may have no consistent psychological or personalist symbolism, but it is a binding of the body. A procrea-tive social economy cultivates a bodily desire for belonging, a desire to be "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh." Sexual practices take on the grammar of shared life (for richer and for poorer), sleeping in the same bed, breaking bread, and carrying on bodily presence in sickness and in health.

Sex, within practices of the church, is analogous to the body-language of adoption. Adoption is not symbolic of childbirth, but the day-to-day bodily presence that makes us who we are. Monogamy and practices of fidelity and lifelong endurance are a way of the body, a cultivation of intimacy and mutual possession through the everyday agency of our embodiment. We bear each other's presence. Through our bodily agency, we belong over time such that our presence cannot be exchanged for another. Through this binding, our bodies are made and made known. In this way, sexual practices are intrinsically fecund.

Part III

Queer Origins

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