We might easily scorn the crudity, immorality and sheer absurdity of the University of Chicago’s first official “Sex Week” that occurred this February, which hosted 36 events ranging from porn showings to “history of sex” workshops, knot-tying demonstrations and, to be radically inclusive, “Augustine and Luther on Sexual Ethics.”
Chicago is not the first — and will not be the last — university to join the salacious trend. Yale’s Sex Week, initiated in 2002, begot, along with a documentary film, much due criticism from the right. What’s interesting is that Sex Week is so antithetical to everything profoundly University of Chicago.
The university, kindled by Rockefeller’s genius, is the place of the Manhattan Project, the place of Hayekian economics and cutting-edge neuroscience. This is the university “where Fun goes to die,” the institution that had in its history once outlawed varsity football because the sport kept resident (but apparently easily distracted) geniuses from academic prowess.
Chicago prides itself on its intellectual culture contra even the likes of Yale or Harvard. Ask anyone who has visited Hyde Park: This is not your average ivy tower. Chicagoans skip showering to study and routinely forget supper. We watch foreign films. We gossip about the Akkadians rather than the Kardashians. Yet the vogue of Sex Week, the glitz and exoticism, has won the day. At any other campus, this is a sad tale of contemporary, debased culture; at Chicago, the phenomenon is especially ironic.
Sex Week, the victor, is emblematic of the University of Chicago’s conflict between postmodern values-clarification and good solid Marxism, both of which dominate the academic cult. What my Chicagoan Marxist friends forget is that Marx, Lukacs, Horkheimer and Adorno, and other progenitors of modern neo-Marxism, lambasted the instrumental use of humans. That’s precisely what Sex Week at Chicago is all about — refining techniques, systematizing sex and even perfecting psychological manipulation. “How to Have Sex on Purpose” is one such workshop that standardizes relationships and highlights our culture’s bleak understanding of humans.
For neo-Marxists, as well as for conservative intellectual thinkers like Russell Kirk and even the literary genius Dostoyevsky, the crisis of modernity is that men view each other, and themselves, as objects that can be calculated and quantified. For Marxists, this permeates not only work life in capitalist production; it defines and distresses social relationships. Instrumental thinking alienates individual life and precludes true freedom and flourishing.
Marx himself, though a proponent of liberation from class strife, voiced a serious concern for human relationships. In his early manuscripts, he wrote, regarding love, “Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.” One would expect Marxists to critique Sex Week as a hollow bourgeois creation that lacks immediacy, value and individuality. In this way, Marxists and intellectual conservatives enjoy a curious concurrence in cultural criticism.
We University of Chicagoans might not be known for our savoir faire. Yet our intellectual culture, the culture of a deep inquisitiveness, is something valuable. Preserving a culture requires that we jettison that which is inimical to the culture, and Sex Week — viewed from the perspectives of both neo-Marxism and intellectual conservatism, not to mention feminism — does not bolster a culture that values individual worth and intellectual robustness. At some point, the postmodern pack, advocating “values-neutral” ideology, must contend not only with moral conservatism, but also with those on the left who are disenchanted by modernity.
The University of Chicago — and universities generally — certainly ought not embrace this degrading and commercialized bacchanal that is as dehumanizing as it is unoriginal.
Marion Gabl is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.