In yesterday’s post, I offered a couple of critical remarks in response to Stanley Fish‘s review of Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution. Those remarks were directed at a pair of passages excerpted from Eagleton. Today’s post features Eagleton too, but cast as reviewer, not reviewee, on everyone’s favorite topic: sex (and the considerably more serious business of sexuality).
In reviewing Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (‘Grub Street Snob‘, Londong Review of Books, 13 September 2012), Eagleton writes:
Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality can be serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people can be sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practice what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between’s one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis.
The contrast between sex and sexuality, between the doing and the writing about it, is of course quite acute, rather as there is one between jokes and humor and their academic analysis. In the case of sex and sexuality the problem is compounded by the fact that sex is a pretty undignified business. Rarely, if ever, as we have found out for ourselves, do its physical expressions ever match the highly stylized, graceful, in slow-motion, couplings of the screen–whether large or small-or the novel. Academic writing about sexuality has thus had to put a wrap on these rough edges and cloak itself in stately (or incomprehensible) prose. This leads to the scarcely believable situation of academic talks on sex that do not elicit as much as a single giggle from their audience. The titles of talks and papers on sexuality attempt to make up for this–Eagleton helpfully provides ‘Putting the Anus back in Coriolanus‘ as an example and I can point to ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines’–but they might be fighting a losing battle given the overwhelming likelihood that the prose on display will be turgid and uninspired. In part, this is just because this is academic writing, but here, I suspect the subject matter induces reticence even in those bold enough to venture into its precincts.
A smart academic would find a way to write racily about sexuality. I’m not about to start, but I wish someone would.