The Never-Ending Conversation: Two Interviews1

At the 21st Annual Meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research Meetings in Sermione, Italy in 1995 and at the 25th Annual Meeting of the same organization in Stony Brook, New York in 1999, German social psychologist and sex researcher Gunter Schmidt interviewed John Gagnon and William Simon, respectively. These two interviews were published in German in the Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung in 1998 and 2002.

Desire is a Fuzzy Matrix: An Interview with William Simon2

Schmidt: A few days ago I happened to read a review you wrote on Alan Bell’s book. This review has the title “In search of the deeper truth.” This sounds a little bit sarcastic, I have to say. Is there no deeper truth to sexuality (see Simon, 1997)?

Simon: That may be, I think, the deeper truth about sexuality. After all these years, the one conclusion I have come to is that there are no permanent significant truths about sexuality. That which is permanent is rarely significant and that which appears to be most significant rarely turns out to be permanent.

Schmidt: What then is the task of the sex researcher if there are no greater truths to be found?

Simon: I think our task is what it’s always been. Not unlike poets and dramatists, our task is to give voice to those who have no voice; to hold up mirrors through which people can recognize themselves. For me, the offense that we who engage in public talk regarding sexuality commit is to hold up images of the self and of the “normal” that alienate people from their experience of themselves. For example, there is the prevalent view that mature and healthy sex, in addition to heterosexual, must be deeply imbued with sentiments of love. That may sound very attractive, but I don’t think that describes very many people’s experience. Montaigne, in his essay on experience, describes a critical interplay between knowledge and experience. With the rapid growth in recent years in research and scholarship focused on sexuality, we have become proficient in producing impressive quantities of “knowledge.” However, too often in our enthusiasm for the persuasive generalization or the “validated” hypothesis, we’ve banished from visibility the full range of current experiences.


Schmidt: In the absence of greater truths, do you have visions or utopian ideals with regard to sexuality?

Simon: No, but I have fantasies. For many of us, the present appears bereft of attractive utopian visions. Not since the Renaissance have we been as lacking in a vision of a more attractive tomorrow than we are currently. However, one of the things I have learned is that as a species our capacity for prediction is not very great. Alfred Schutz, the great phenomenologist, was absolutely convinced in 1939 that the National Socialists would ultimately rule the world. And I am amazed that somebody as bright as Schutz could not have seen beyond, that there’d be an alternative world after Hitler. One of my favorite quotes comes from Schutz: “Nevertheless,” he said, “we will die as we have lived, trying to find order in ‘our’world that we find lacking in our ‘world.’”And I think that’s true for many of us almost all of the time. Namely that we are out there scrambling to find order in our world that is frequently lacking it, which is what makes a social scientist in the first place. Theorizing, however primitive, is inseparable from autobiography. The danger, I think, is not to recognize this and to impose our image of the future on our children by describing the local and temporarily significant as if they constitute a universal imperative. That’s the great source of conflict between generations. Such intergenerational conflict perhaps is inevitable in a social context with a pervasive sense of liminality. Which is why my own children are semi-Martians to me.

Schmidt: You place a great deal of focus on changes in sexuality. Can you discuss such changes without having an idea—maybe a less than scientific idea—about how you would like things to be?

Simon: At the end of his lectures on biology at MIT the Nobel laureate Salvador Luria observed that any one mode of perception or digestion—or mode of organizing sexual behavior, we might add—is only one of an infinite number of ways in which that could have been organized. Whatever occurs in nature or social life is really something of a miracle and ought to be treated with all the respect and curiosity that miracles deserve. Yes, I remain enormously optimistic. I think these are very, very exciting times. They will be different. For example we have a generation, at least in North America’s uppermiddleclass— and I suspect Western Europe and Germany is not vastly different—-that’ll now have many more years of premarital sexual experience—in many cases cohabitation—than any prior generation we know. Moreover, this generation comes of age in the context of a more explicit erotic landscape than any of us could have predicted less than a third of a century ago and in the context of widely held beliefs regarding the virtual universality of the sexual as a compelling human interest.

Schmidt: What is exciting for you with regard to these developments?

Simon: I don’t mean to romanticize; much of this change can be terribly disordering and self-alienating. But I have the feeling something new is being born every day, including new visions of the future.

Schmidt: You are a bit envious?

Simon: Of course, the swiftness with which technology transforms itself creates the near permanent illusion of some dazzling new experience waiting just beyond today’s horizon line. As Buckminster Fuller used to remind us, it took humanity millennia to invent the vacuum tube and anything you might want to use the vacuum tube for. From the vacuum tube to the transistor it took approximately half a century. To go from the transistor to microminiaturization to the chip took less than ten years. With these shifts of technology have come pervasive changes that alter our very sense of time and space. Persons whose age differences are relatively small, sharing the same culture, may in fact represent a different response to the world. As the layers of cultural stratigraphy become increasingly narrow, the pluralization of the world increases. The very possibility of learning to live with a tolerance for ambiguity and differences strikes me as being extremely exciting.

Schmidt: You are quite enthusiastic!

Simon: Yes. Though current ethnic strife around the world does little to encourage optimism. Such instances, however, may represent a symptom of change rather than a resolute obstacle. “Globalization” inevitably brings with it largely unmeasured amounts of cultural globalization.

Schmidt: Is this part of what you have termed the “postmodemization of sex?”

Simon: Yes. I think the critical element is increasing pluralization within what previously appeared to be homogeneous defining and constraining identities, mainly involving gender. Initially I was very hostile to the emergence of queer theory. I now take the queer theorists much more seriously. The conceptual deconstruction of both sexuality and gender tends to follow the disassembly of both in experience. Both gender and sexual orientation come to lose the illusion of a homogeneous unity, fragmenting into a mosaic of meanings and gestures that the self struggles to coordinate. Sexual identity, sexual preference, and sexual behavior are more loosely correlated than ever before and will become more so in the near future.

Let me put it this way: I think each generation seems to have its characteristic or signature mental disorder. The early part of this past century could property be called an “age of anxiety.” And our most commonly recognized neuroses were anxiety neuroses. By midcentury, with the beginnings of affluence, the signature disorder became narcissistic disorders. And now it’s the multiple personality that seems to be very fashionable. Or the borderline case, typically individuals with so little structure that therapies designed to repair damaged psychic structures will not help. This shift points to what might be termed a shift in the politics of the self.

Schmidt: Do you think this development of disorders is a mere construction or does it reflect real personality changes over time?

Simon: It’s a real change in the architecture of personality or, perhaps more accurately, there has been a dramatic shift in the distribution of configurations of personality and, of critical significance, the goodness of fit between specific types of personality and the surrounding social world. Those who become clinical cases are often not as different from everybody else as most of us would like to think.

Schmidt: So all of us are borderline, but only a few realize it?

Simon: Many of our inherited theories of personality tended to privilege characterological stability as preparation for life in a stable social order. Flexibility, a kind of characterological opportunism, might be seen as more suitable where change becomes a continuing aspect of social life. The borderline phenomenon as it was initially described in the psychoanalytic or psychiatric literature was largely a disorder of successful people. People that previously managed well who then began experiencing significant psychic distress. People with many of the same symptoms who more effectively struggle to manage the pervasive liminality of persistent change without visibly failing apart remain invisible, so they never become part of the clinical statistic.

A world that increasingly trains us to bargain with it for what we want to be must first train us to bargain with ourselves, it’s the flexibility and uncertainty of alternatives that are enormously frightening or unnerving for many. During much of the modern age virtually everyone negotiated with themselves for their destinies, but we learned to do it behind our own back. For many, that process of self-negotiation ceases to be hidden. Some call it the emergence of an executive self.

Schmidt: Does that mean that the intrapsychic scripts become more and more relevant?

Simon: Yes. And this has several dimensions. one, that the varied and sometimes incompatible components that enter intrapsychic life now will become much more manifest. And we may move from a kind of monosexuality toward a more polysexuality and not necessarily in the sense of bisexuality, but rather in different ways of experiencing yourself and others as being sexual. Gender identity, sexual identity, and sexual behavior are less commonly experienced as being cut from a single cloth.

Schmidt: Which means for one and the same person there are many ways to be heterosexual or homosexual.

Simon: Yes, or bisexual. There are times I may desperately want to possess the desired object. There are times I want to be the desired object. Now what happens conventionally is that we assign these two roles: You’ll be the object of desire, I’ll be the subject of desire, to use those cliches. And we end up sort of performing. But which one of these I am in my head cannot be determined from observation. I am currently beginning some research on sadomasochism—consensual sadomasochism. And one of the things that becomes increasingly clear to me is that for many people their manifest role in this form of sex play is the price for entry into the behavior. For example, one characteristic of being a masochist or the submissive, presumably, is that you don’t appear to have to take responsibility for what’s going to happen. For men to enter that role is often exceedingly difficult. So they may enter the role being the dominant. But that may not tell us a great deal about who they are in their heads during the performance. The difference between that which gets you into the scene and that which triggers excitement may not be the same as that which you experience yourself as being in the performance or even that which sustains excitement.

Schmidt: How do the intrapsychic scripts develop? And when do they develop?

Simon: Individually, really sort of accidentally.

Schmidt: Accidentally?

Simon: Yes. I don’t think there will be a general theory. I think there are some general principles that we ought to learn to observe, but the specifics of desire invariably involve an ultimate mystery. The word that postmodernists perhaps have overused is terribly valid here: that term is contingency. And when my students ask: “What do you mean when you say contingency?” I say what it means is: Any particular behavioral outcome just as easily could have been something else, something seemingly quite different. So the moment at which something becomes eroticized is really something magical about the human experience. One of the major deceptive palliatives that social science provides is obscuring what is essentially the accidental nature of our personal and social destinies. Or, as Norbert Elias cautioned us, it may be an error to think of a process as if it were a system.

Schmidt: That is, we don’t know for certain what it is.

Simon: Yes. And I think we at least begin to open a lid and take a look at some of the variability. Where it comes from, how it comes about. We may look at it, we may try to explain it, but it would be a mistake to anticipate reducing it to a formula, even a complex formula. in current work on the sexual scripts of gay men I’m currently doing with David Whittier (Whittier and Simon, 2001) we found ourselves describing sexual desire as a fuzzy matrix.

Schmidt: Does that mean that intrapsychic scripts can develop and redevelop over the whole lifespan? Or do you think childhood and adolescence are especially important?

Simon: For the vast majority, I think adolescence is the time in which we learn to eroticize desire. We never come to sexual desire innocently. It is not the desire that is new, but the attachment of that desire to sexual possibilities. Desire is like Velcro; it attaches very easily. And like Velcro, it invariably carries residues of earlier attachments. Freud observes in an early essay—unfortunately describing himself as well—that we’ll make little progress in understanding our sexuality until we have a generation of doctors who can remember their own youths. It is significant that even for those of us who spent our lives studying adolescence as a subject, it remains among the most abstract yet most obsessively preoccupied with the sexual of all lifecycle studies. All of us went through it. Why are we so silent? You have the notion of finding links so that the really satisfying sexual act somehow manages to touch many of the layers of change and adaptation that ultimately connect to early constructions of desire. I think that’s what my friend the late Robert Stoller meant with his wonderful concept of microdots: The current partner doesn’t have to be a teenager as it were, but there ought to be a lot about her or him, as it were, that allows me to recognize desires formulated during earlier ages.

Schmidt: Stoller’s microdots, however, are mostly formed in early childhood.

Simon: That’s because of Stoller’s training as a psychoanalyst. In my view we are born desiring organisms and, as a result, we come to sexuality with an existing history of desire. That, however, does not mean, that any desire is inherently sexual.

Schmidt: Is the microdot for you a synonym for intrapsychic script?

Simon: No, microdots might be defined as the raw material out of which intrapsychic scripts and interpersonal scripts are fashioned—they are complex metaphors that condense histories of meanings and uses. They are what I call the desire of the dream that is hidden by the dreamer in the dream of desire.

Schmidt: Microdots in Stoller’s thinking are mainly developed unconsciously. When I listen to you I get the impression that the intrapsychic scripts are actively constructed by the individual, they don’t just happen.

Simon: We certainly may be more authorial than earlier generations, if only because we have more alternatives. Thus traditional societies only require that we learn to be actors in scripts that the world has prepared for us. And there is a middle stage, the age of anxiety, where we learned to be critics; we are constantly watching the performance with fully social idealizations in mind. And now increasingly we have to add taking responsibility as the authors of our own scripts. And if not authors of our own scripts in terms of what our bodies are doing in engagement with other bodies, then at least as authors of the scripts of what’s going through our heads.

Schmidt: We have been socialized in a quite different period of social history. How do men and women of our age adapt to all the sudden change we are experiencing? Do we reconstruct our intrapsychic scripts, too?

Simon: Many manage it by becoming gradually deeroticized. Roland Barthes made a useful distinction between what he called the “text of bliss” versus the “text of comfort.” I would translate this in sexual terms as the “orgasm of excitement” versus the “orgasm of reassurance.” Individual and interpersonal viability is affirmed by sex, and that too is a source of pleasure, a form of gratification. Orgasm becomes an articulate witness; it affirms: “Yes, I am still potent; yes, you are still attractive.” For others, a crisis of aging—particularly in a youthobsessed culture—often occasions previously unexpected experiments.

Schmidt: So sexuality acquires quite a different meaning.

Simon: Yes. So we remain sexual, but it becomes problematic, less urgent, and the memory of the historically cumulated idealizations attached to the sexual continue to resonate. I have a niece who is about forty; two of her female friends recently unnerved her by leaving what appeared to be very successful marriages. And when asked why did they leave, they replied almost identically: “This may be the last time I will ever know being in love again.” The sexual, that once was scripted almost entirely as rituals of social solidarity, must increasingly be scripted as rituals of self-solidarity that allow the actor to reconfigure identity themes that often differ from the less intimate, more public of our presentations of self.

Schmidt: In the paper you gave this morning you raised a very interesting issue: What are the resources of desire? Perhaps you could summarize here what they are.

Simon: In terms of the significance of the experience, the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries may have created the most overeroticized worlds that humanity has ever known. I think for most of humanity the sexual really wasn’t a measure of central preoccupation or a measure of moral worth. The modern world conflated the sexual with so many forms of significance that many experience it as an intimidating hyperreality. The generation that now is coming of age, those who initiated sex experience at relatively early ages, may in fact be much more pragmatic about their uses of the sexual.

Schmidt: A sort of “dedramatizing” sex?

Simon: Yes, and not seeing it as quite as important or compelling. For my generation, to find somebody to have sex with, if you were heterosexual, you frequently had to marry. And for the honeymoon you allegedly went away and spent four days having sex. Today’s young people seem to drift into cohabitation. In many cases their peers and parents are aware of it. And they move in with each other. I have the feeling, that if somebody said, “Let’s go to the movies tonight,” they would just as soon go to the movies as stay home and have sex.

Schmidt: And the movies would be as much fun as going to bed with each other.

Simon: Yes. There may be a deflation of the sexual. Deflation may not be the correct word. Perhaps, pedestrianization might be more apt. A shift over a relatively few generations from a sexual anomie of deprivation to a sexual anomie of affluence.

Schmidt: Does that make sex more serene?

Simon: Perhaps duller for some, but also less painful and perhaps less costly. We’ve mischaracterized the cohorts that followed the sexual revolution. There has been much public talk about unintended pregnancies, we talk about epidemics of STDs, but we forget that millions more shared that postrevolutionary history than experienced either of these unfortunate outcomes. I think they may have been better equipped to handle their own lives, as well as handle the lives of their parents. Recently, for example. Arthur Miller wrote a play about a woman who so thoroughly loathed her husband that she couldn’t stand being touched by him. However, she can only express her feelings by a hysteria that leaves her partially paralyzed. And in the aftermath of televising the play the host turned to Miller and asked why such a women would have continued to endure such a marriage. Miller replied, “You know, I was twenty-seven years old before I met my first divorced person.” There are very few who grow up in your country and my country who by age fifteen haven’t experienced divorce in their own family or one fairly close to them. Many of the young occasionally engage in shocking behavior and social critics are prone to say: “See what loosening of moral standards has done.” We don’t see that the vast majority of them may have been liberated, in part, by watching their parents’ generation go through a second adolescence.

Schmidt: So it’s not just an evil that happens to them when their parents are separating. There is an opportunity for them in the process, as well.

Simon: Freud again—with age I think I have learned to respect him more and more—noted at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents that we commit two sins against our children: The first one, that we wait too long to tell them about sex, is surely irrelevant for much of today’s world. The second one is still very relevant. He said we wait too long to let them know that people’s emotions are complex—that you can love and hate at the same time—leaving the young children feeling that they are the only ones who are weird or strange because sometimes they love us and sometimes they hate us. Today early sophistication in regard to the complexity of human relationships may be a better training school than any form of formal sex education. It’s obviously better if parents learn to continue to talk to each other and not use their children as a battleground. But overall I am not sure that children have been really hurt by divorce as much as those who grow up in households that remained intact where people didn’t speak to each other, where the anger was felt but never expressed. Hopefully this may be a generation that is kinder in expecting less of their parents and may learn to be as kind in what they expect of themselves.

Schmidt: Let’s stick to the topic “sex as drama.” Many Western intellectuals—sex researchers included—have been very attracted to this notion. Susan Sontag explored this idea in an exemplary way in her famous essay on the pornographic imagination, saying that sex will forever be something beyond good and evil, beyond rationality, beyond love, beyond everything. Do you think this idea makes sense?

Simon: Unfortunately no. I actually lived in a commune during the sixties. Schmidt: You did?

Simon: Oh yes. And it was a very complex relationship with eleven or twelve of us. It was also among the happiest and most productive periods of my life. By the way, we saw these communes naively in the late sixties and early seventies as what the future was going to be like. But, at best, it really was a resocializing setting, affording new sexual capacities, values and styles. I learned, for example, to be much more casual about my own body. But I also realized how quickly conventionalized this seemingly exotic situation became. This is one of the major implications of Stoller’s later nonclinical work on S&M clubs and on the porn industry. Part of what he was then saying is that any reality, as exotic it appears, when translated into a seven-day-week, twenty-four-hours-aday setting, ultimately becomes pedestrian. What we have done, of course, is unrealistically create pornographic phantasmagoric worlds which inspire as they frustrate. The future indeed may have less need for these elements of fantasy; it may balance out in the sense that the emotion may be less intense but the experience more frequent and less commonly requiring a fragile balance of conflicted emotions, particularly the conflict between personal desire and social expectations.

Schmidt: Let’s come back to adolescence. You mentioned before that this time in life is so important because we then learn to eroticize desire. Can you explain this more?

Simon: Yes. We can talk about two distinct but overlapping dimensions. One is the experience of the desire for sex and the other is experiencing sexual desire. They are not really the same. For many boys of my generation, at least in North America, sex was an obsession. You could describe most of our early experiences as experiences where having done “it” was significantly more pleasuring than the actual doing. The same may have been true for many women, as a matter of fact, who having done it…

Schmidt: Having done “it” for other reasons?

Simon: Yes. As a confirmation of gender competence, to approximate a romantic relationship, other things like that. That’s what I would call the desire forsex. But it’s not sexual desire or that which is associated with the beginnings of sexual excitement.

Schmidt: This term “eroticizing of desire” sounds like it has been taken from the French. What is your relationship to the French philosophers, for example Foucault or Baudrillard?

Simon: I think I was to varying degrees influenced by both. It may be irrelevant for this, but again it’s speaking of contingency. In the late seventies, early eighties as a sex researcher I could truly describe myself as being thoroughly burned out, really bored. And at the time two of my three children were in college. One was at Berkeley, who as an undergraduate was allowed into Foucault’s seminar. And the other, who is a filmmaker, did his junior year at the Sorbonne, where he attended lectures by Christian Metz, Kristeva, and others. And they began talking with me about these people—and these were people I had never heard of And so for the next few years I partially retired from the field; it was like going back to graduate school. I think we all ought to do that several times in our lives. It was the pure pleasure. I think many of us forget that we had much more fun being students than we have being teachers. Foucault, despite substantial differences, hit me like a case of diarrhea. His social-constructionist view of sexuality was not unlike the view that Gagnon and I had developed somewhat earlier (Gagnon and Simon, 1973). However, he placed the conceptions in a much richer intellectual context. It was his influence that moved me from a fairly conventional social learning position to that of a radical social constructionist.

Schmidt: Did you meet him?

Simon: No, but I did meet Baudrillard, who I found wonderfully unpretentious and thoroughly likable—despite his somewhat hyperbolic prose. In general, I was influenced by the French rediscovery of the Germans, which is really what we are talking about: a Heideggerian return to Nietzsche. As a graduate student I attended a seminar led by Max Horkheimer who came to visit one quarter at the University of Chicago. And there were about sixty of us attendant at the first meeting of the seminar. It was called “Society and Values” and he announced that there would be only one text for the quarter’s work; it would be Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The next time the seminar met there were nine of us. I fortunately was one of them. However, even with Horkheimer’s guidance, the Genealogy of Morals wasn’t the same book I read twenty-five years later. The French texts had prepared me. And so in that sense I think at least I personally owe the French at this point an enormous debt. Roland Barthes obviously has played a great influence on my thinking. Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Castoriades would be the four most important.

Schmidt: Among French thinkers.

Simon: French, yes. And I must confess I have found less among contemporary German social theory. Luhmann had become the resurrected Talcott Parsons. I already suffered that as a graduate student; I don’t need to do it again. Habermas bores. He persists in creating grand theory with very little by a way of direct contact with ongoing social life. I noticed that in recent years he rediscovered George Herbert Mead and the importance of the exchange of symbols in social interaction. Mead assumes that there is a community of consensus, what I call a paradigmatic society, a world with a predominance of shared meaning that allows the regulatory “generalized other” to emerge so easily because training in each household sufficiently approximated training and meaning in all other households. So that consensus produces civility. Unfortunately the need for civility does not by itself produce consensus. In highly individuated social orders, where individuals living virtually identical lives have difficulty recognizing each other or experiencing a common bond, this becomes a critical question. One not easily resolved by any theoretical formulation.

Schmidt: In your lecture today you mentioned two metaphors: postmodern “pulp” and “skin.” I think these are very central to your concept of the postmodern. Can you explain?

Simon: Yes, sure. “Pulp” is literally the interior of a piece of fruit. One of the things that the postmodern world does is make us very pulpy. While we incorporate many inconsistent and changing elements we increasingly find ourselves lacking a kind of coherent, comfortably constraining “skin.” That’s what traditional society really provided. Now increasingly we have to self-consciously fashion our skin. We have to tailor it, we have to suture it, or find some basis for integrating the multiple roles into a single, coherent identity. Sometimes there are master identities that are so powerful that, failing all else, make you plausible to yourself by giving you a way of explaining your current existence. This is why I believe—though I have no evidence for it, it’s an intuition—that “coming out” in the gay world all at once seemed to be progressively easier and easier during the seventies until the eighties. As problematic as being gay was—and it was and is in a homophobic society—it allowed to you to understand yourself, you became plausible to yourself. Now casually people tell me at cocktail parties: “You know, I am a child of alcoholic parents” or “I was victim of child sex abuse.” And I must wonder why are these people are telling me these things?

Schmidt: And this is “skin”?

Simon: This is skin, the interface between the interpersonal and the intrapsychic, the basis for maintaining or refashioning a coherent identity; one that somehow accounts for and makes plausible the narratives of the self. For some, it appears seamless, as if derived from a single cloth, For others, it may take the form of a patchwork garment that is manifestly the object of continuing revision. There is so much of this in the resurrection of ethnicity’s and religious fundamentalism’s that we previously thought would quietly fade away. We can see it in Yugoslavia today. We can see it in most Western countries, with the appearance of passionate religious fundamentalists, individuals who manage the pulp, the confusions of the inner self, by making some social code an absolute imperative. The politics of the self are changing and in their resolution may rest the future of the politics of society.

Schmidt: This is quite a superficial form of identity, isn’t it?

Simon: Yes, it is superficial in the sense of describing our appearance in the world. But something more than that is social context where identity frequently must adapt to changing contexts, changing audiences, and changing opportunities. That is what the passionate religious fundamentalist can do that the rest of us find increasingly problematic: Find expressions of their fundamentalist belief and place every faith over the totality of their life. Patriarchy didn’t merely describe the household; it described the relation between the king and the subject, the teacher and the student, the healer and the patient, the employer and the employee. Wherever you went, patriarchy gave you a sense of all was right with the world and you were right in the world. Now one is so uncertain. That’s what I mean by a postparadigmatic society: That the shared master identities of the world, one that fashioned a sense of who you were, has diminished.

One of the things that define the postmodern condition, again, is the increasingly temporary quality of our lives. The changes surround us. And not only is there change, but also pervasive pluralization; almost everything comes in multiple forms. Charles H. Cooley put it in a wonderful phrase: “Choice broadens as it moves through history, like a river.” To which he adds, by the way: “Requiring much stronger swimmers, because otherwise more will drown.” And what he is really talking about is having to pick and choose without the world picking and choosing for you. And again, many learn to do it easily—many more than we think, I hope. And for others, the ambiguities of the temporary, the fact that again we may all be temporary—our employment, our relationships, our expectations—learning to live with the provisional for many of us who are conditioned to worlds of stability can be enormously painful and unnerving. But I think there are others for whom the absence of such conditions would simply be boring.

Schmidt: Today you talked about “Sexuality: The Future of an Illusion.” Why is sex an illusion and what is its future?

Simon: It’s an illusion, again, very much in the same way Freud meant religion is an illusion. Namely, that its meaning and significance is metaphysical and is produced by the variable world of human uses, rather than being a natural continent dark in mysterious ways waiting for heroic biologists to fully explore and return having captured its absolute essence. I think we are going to find that humanity, down to some very fundamental levels, is beginning to exhibit the capacity to change and to adapt to change much more quickly than our history up until now has prepared us for. At this point, again, history becomes far less of a guide. We really are reinventing the world consistently. So sex as illusions, as concepts, both personal and shared, becomes the more important truth than the actual organs. So I really mean it as being an illusion, in that sense. We have to begin to respect it as such. These metaphysical beliefs are not to be taken lightly because they are not rooted in some organ or somehow encoded in our DNA.

Schmidt: And the future of sex?

Simon: Otis Dudley Duncan, a very wise person, once described social forecasting as logically impossible, morally dubious and esthetically unattractive. The only aspect I can affirm with any confidence is that the human uses of the sexual will surely continue to frustrate any simple or overarching generalizations.

Schmidt: That’s a good ending. Thanks a lot, Bill Simon. Simon: Thank you.

Revisiting the Text: An Interview with John Gagnon3

Schmidt: Twenty-five years ago you and William Simon published Sexual Conduct, a “path-breaking study,” as Ken Plummer put it recently, “constituting the approach which now is commonly known as the ‘social-constructionist approach.’” Do you share this evaluation?

Gagnon: My answer has two parts. The first part is to agree that the book that we wrote offered an original alternative to prior ways of thinking about sexuality. So in that sense it can be described as path-breaking. I am not sure that’s exactly the right word, perhaps we only remapped what was thought to be a well-understood terrain. The second part is to say I don’t think we have viewed ourselves as social constructionists. We have never had any sense of ourselves being directly influenced by the German constructionist tradition exemplified by Alfred Schutz, Peter Berger or Thomas Luckman. That tradition had no direct connection to us. Our thinking was much more rooted in the tradition of pragmatism in the United States, an intellectual orientation that is very, very American, especially in terms of its attempt to declare independence from its European origins.

Schmidt: What persons are you thinking of?

Gagnon: Simon and I had been trained in sociology at the University of Chicago, but the Chicago department was changing dramatically when we there in the 1950s. George Herbert Mead, Robert Park and Herbert Blumer were no longer heroes of Chicago sociology. Young people, who were influenced by the Chicago school, primarily in the person of Everett Hughes, students like Erving Goffman and Howard Becker and others who would continue some aspects of the Chicago tradition had all left. The old faculty had been replaced by a new generation trained at Columbia University. The Chicago tradition was replaced by the middle-range sociology of Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, a perspective which dominated the intellectual climate at the end of our careers at the University of Chicago. Actually there are two other intellectual threads which connected the two of us. First is the work of a man named Kenneth Burke who was a profound influence on Bill and me. Burke is not widely known either internationally or even in the American sociology anymore, though there has been a revival of interest since his death two years ago.

Schmidt: He was a sociologist?

Gagnon: No, he was a music critic, a book reviewer, a literary critic and scholar, an intellectual. He belongs to the tradition of American eccentrics, people who are outside the mainstream, who are not academics, but who are public intellectuals. Bill and I were influenced independently by Burke. He began reading Burke when he was in literary studies at the University of Michigan. Before that Bill was an activist in the far left of the American labor movement. I started reading Burke in college because I was interested in his ideas about interpretation. We actually used fragments of Burke’s work, but these were critical elements in our shared perspective.

Schmidt: We will come back to Burke. But which was the second thread of connection between Gagnon and Simon?

Gagnon: The second connection was and is that tradition in the Chicago school of thinking about nonoccupational aspects of social life metaphorically as a “career.” The career model offered a processual and contingent perspective on how people assimilated new ways of living, how they enacted them, and how life choices changed the self. This perspective goes back into the roots of Chicago criminology when Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay began to write about criminal careers in the same way that others wrote about conventional occupational careers. The metaphor could then be extended to marijuana smoking, pregnancies out of wedlock, homosexuality. Also thinking about alternate life paths as careers allowed a certain moral neutrality while thinking about deviance. The careers of a banker and a gangster could be analyzed in exactly the same way: learning how to do a job, acquiring skills and insider knowledge, learning how to deal with all of the other social actors in a particular social milieu. By emphasizing the common features of learning and performing the usual moral differences between occupational and life style categories could disappear. The concept of social careers was an important idea in conceiving of certain parts of Sexual Conduct.

Schmidt: Let’s come back to Kenneth Burke and read a few sentences from your book. “Part of the legacy of Freud is that we had all become adept at seeking out the sexual ingredient in many forms of nonsexual behavior and symbolism. We are suggesting what is in essence the insight of Kenneth Burke (1935/1984): it is just as plausible to examine sexual behavior for its capacity to express and serve nonsexual motives as the reverse.” Is this tone of the central messages of Sexual Conduct?

Gagnon: Yes, absolutely. Following Burke we began to think about the way in which sex (both symbolically and physically) could be expressive of other interests (work, politics, religion) and that the sexual did not have a priority in causal explanation. If there is a network of different influencing factors, Freud always chose the sexual to explain all the others. By this simplification you often eliminate what is most interesting, which is that the sexual is one element in a dynamic network of forces, including gender, class, race/ethnicity, nationality. You may do something sexually dramatic for quite mundane other reasons. That came directly out of the Burkean texts.

Schmidt: What makes the difference between sexual behavior and sexual conduct?

Gagnon: The sexual conduct phrase actually came from Ernest W. Burgess who worked with Robert Park. Park and Burgess were two of the great figures of the second Chicago school. What Burgess was arguing—this was in a critique of Kinsey—was that behavior is always morally evaluated. There is no human behavior without moral, hence social, evaluation. So you don’t have biologically naked sex behavior, you have socially clothed sexual conduct. And so we took the phrase “conduct,” because we wanted to say we are not talking about socially unevaluated behavior. The crucial issue is, sexual behavior is socially constituted so that it becomes sexual conduct. Actually this formulation is backwards and wrong. It probably should be said that thinking about sex as behavior is one aspect of the way we conduct ourselves sexually. Sex becomes behavior when we decide to take off the cultural clothing of sexuality which is its socially “natural” condition to reveal the unnatural condition of sex as naked behavior.

Schmidt: Three years after the publication of Sexual Conduct the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller developed similar thoughts in his theory of perversion and in his theory of sexual excitement stressing the sexualizing effect of meanings. Did you know something about Stoller, when you were writing Sexual Conduct?

Gagnon: No. And I don’t think Bill did either. Bill and Stoller developed a very close relationship later on. And I recall that an interesting correspondence then resulted, in which Stoller indicated the importance of the ideas of Sexual Conduct for his own work. He had read the book and he had used some of the ideas in it. I am less persuaded by Stoller’s notion of the microdot. Stoller’s microdots have their origins too early in childhood for me and remain influential far later in life than I give them credit for. We did however take a critical microdot-like example from the novelist Jerzy Kosinski in a discussion of the independent role of the intrapsychic in arousal.

Schmidt: I remember this story, where a man is attracted by his female colleague and it doesn’t work if she was accessible?

Gagnon: Yes. So he fantasizes about a airline stewardess raising her arms above her head to put away a bag in an overhead bin. Her breasts are pulled up by her brassiere and this becomes an erotic provocation in a way that is similar to the microdot. However, we preferred a less restrictive source of erotic symbols, a more general menu of arousing symbols than Stoller.

Schmidt: However similar ideas developed in quite different places, in quite different disciplines, in quite different schools of thinking in those years. You and Stoller get rid of traditional approaches of sexuality—the naturalization of sex and the concept of sex drive.

Gagnon: Stoller began in the context of psychoanalysis as a practitioner and theorist. Consequently, he has had a more difficult intellectual task in revising Freud given the centrality of libido theory to psychoanalytic practice than we did. We resisted Freud in general.

Schmidt: And admired him at the same time.

Gagnon: Freud was one of the great men we had to push aside in order to establish our own point of view. And so we may have simplified him more than we should have. But we were young and he was in the way. I don’t think we were as generous as we should have been, or even as thoughtful about what he could have given us. Stoller’s position was much more complicated than ours because he had to keep Freud, and had to selectively retain and honor those elements that still worked for him as a practicing psychoanalyst. And so his reading of Freud is much more nuanced than ours was, at least in that first version. I think that Bill in his own work has reconstituted his relationship to Freud in important ways. I think I have done that less than he has.

Schmidt: So one hero you tried to put aside as a young man was Freud, the second was Kinsey. Is there a connection of Freud and Kinsey?

Gagnon: Well, I think that I resist the label “sexology” because it has at its core the theory of sexual naturalization; that idea that stretches from KrafftEbing to Masters and Johnson that sex is a natural phenomenon. Kinsey’s naturalism is very different than Freud’s. Freud’s notion is that nature must be resisted to create civilization. Kinsey’s view of nature is much more beneficent. In his view nature produces a variety of opportunities to be sexual. For Kinsey the problem of civilized sexual culture is that it’s like agriculture. It produces only one sexual product, one sexual crop. The only approved crop is heterosexuality.

Schmidt: Destroying variability…

Gagnon: That’s right. Kinsey—and I think this is why he is so badly misunderstood—really was a taxonomist of evolution. He believed in the beauty of diversity in nature. Nature provided you with all these variations. And what culture did, was to place limits on nature. This turns Freud upside down. However, nature remains for Kinsey the origin of desire. And so we had to get rid of both of them in order to get a completely socially determined sexuality. We had to eliminate nature.

Schmidt: And you did it by creating what you call the script theory?

Gagnon: We created script theory in an attempt to have a device to describe how people go about doing sex socially, and to demonstrate the importance of social elements in the doing of the sexual.

Schmidt: What would you say, what is script theory in your sense today?

Gagnon: Where did it go? I think we lost control of it. You know, one loses control of every idea. When I hear people say the word “script” at a meeting, I often don’t recognize what they are talking about. But that’s inevitable. I think that at this moment neither Bill nor I have made a fully coherent argument about scripts.

Schmidt: In your recent book The Social Organization of Sexuality there is a small and very comprehensive description of script theory. In its shortness it’s quite informing. Can you respond to this?

Gagnon: I am actually quite labile in my intellectual relationship to people I respect intellectually. When I talk to them I am always actively influenced or resistant to what they are saying and I often revise my own ideas as they talk. In a way there is sort of a Gagnon-Laumann script theory in the book you mentioned, and there is a Gagnon-Simon script theory and there is a Gagnon script theory and there is a Simon script theory without Gagnon. As I listened to Ed Laumann talking about social networks and the importance of networks, scripting linked into those ideas. One can think about a sequence of events (such as all the separable events that make up a wedding) as a sequence of scripts and then think about who is present or absent at various moments in the unfolding of the larger set of events. The key ideas are the copresence or absence of actors and the ordering of the scripts. And so you get a matrix which is “scripted events” on one axis and “actors” on the other and the social arrangement then becomes the matrix of actors and events. In the work which I did with Bill there was a much greater concern with what went on inside people’s heads—with the intrapsychic and the social origins of mental life.

Schmidt: Do you still stick to the three levels of scripting, the cultural scripts, the interpersonal scripts or the just mentioned intrapsychic scripts?

Gagnon: The reason that we invented the three levels of scripting was to deal with the quasi-independent relation between the agentive individual, the interactional situation and the surrounding sociocultural order. This was always the weakness of traditional culture-personality theory in anthropology. The individual often appeared to be a simple replicate of the sociocultural order. The same simplification appeared in robust sociological theories which emphasized the dominance of the social order in the production of social life. The problem for such theories is that they could not account for variations in individual conduct in what appeared to be the same socially structured situation.

We formulated the concept of cultural scenarios somewhat later than the intrapsychic and the interpersonal levels of scripting, though this idea was implicit in Sexual Conduct. Cultural scenarios was the name we gave to the instructional semiotic system that is the intersubjective space of the sociocultural. All social institutions have instructions of how to behave built into them and these instructions are not internal properties of individuals, they are the property of the organized collection of individuals who were enacting that institution or situation. In between these two levels was the interpersonal, social conduct in the presence of other individuals. I think that Sexual Conduct was good on dyads (perhaps guided by the dyadic nature of much of sexuality), but less good on complex social situations or complex sequences of events. This is what Ed Laumann was good at, understanding the contribution of audiences to ongoing social action. My work with Laumann made me more sensitive to the role of “stake holders”, both individual and institutional, in what appear to be purely interpersonal interactions.

Finally to preserve the independently acting individual (this has some connection to Mead’s “I”) we needed intrapsychic scripting, a socially based form of mental life. What went on in people’s heads was critically important since it embodied planning, remembering, fantasy. I actually think at the time we wrote Sexual Conduct, Bill was better at theorizing about mental life than I was, better at thinking about the intrapsychic.

Schmidt: More interested I think. Is that the connection to Stoller?

Gagnon: That’s the connection to Stoller. It is also the connection to poetry. Schmidt: To poetry?

Gagnon: Yes, he had read a lot of poetry and in our discussion of the intrapsychic he was always arguing that thought processes are not always linear, but there are always masses of unrelated associations. So creating the poem, particularly the modern poem, means disrupting conventional prose/speech, calling on private images and experiences. Essentially everyday thought is noisy, messy, chaotic. I think it was this conception of the symbolic that brought him back to Freud.

And from my point of view it is abnormal to think scientifically. Most thought processes, as you go through the world, are impressions and fragments and pieces. You have to create an environment in which linear and highly coherent thought can go forward: you find a quiet room, you close the doors, you turn on the computer, you look at the screen, you type, you pretend like there is nothing else going on in the world or in your head. But that describes a specialized environment for a very specialized form of thinking.

Schmidt: Is the differentiation of cultural scripts, interpersonal scripts and intrapsychic scripts still reasonable for you?

Gagnon: It remains an analytic device for me. In my new thinking the critical tension in the individual is managing the relationship between the public and the private. The private is the domain of the intrapsychic. Both cultural scenarios and interpersonal scripts are enacted in the public domain. It’s not that the intrapsychic does not depend on these other two domains. It’s that you can manipulate mental life more freely than you can manipulate either other people or the culture at large.

Schmidt: It gives way to more variance?

Gagnon: That’s right. You can allow fantasy to flourish. And the flourishing of fantasy is not only sexual. Political and social fantasies abound. For instance in order to make a better world we must first fantasy “how can we make this a better world?” Marxist communalism was first of all a fantasy in a burgeoning capitalist world about how to create a post-capitalist world. Certain social orders create a need for this more complicated mental world. And as modern social orders get more complicated, there is actually an increase in the density and significance of intrapsychic life. As concrete situations get more various, psychic life has to get even more various. Dealing with a concrete social situation requires a concomitant mental effort. And as we come in contact with an increasingly sexually complex world, we have to bring more mental resources to bear to understand that the person you are going to deal with is not only a man, but a man of a certain culture and history and biography. We can deal with that by narrowing and simplifying the other to their body or their organs. However if we want to have a shared social relationship we have to take account of the variousness of this sexual situation from all the other sexual situations we have been in. And that requires a great deal of mental agility in private matters. Schmidt: Is that what other sociologists call “reflexivity”?

Gagnon: I think so, it’s a version of reflexivity, but hopefully a more highly elaborated version than the usual version. Again it is closer to Burke and perhaps Freud. Sometimes when social scientists talk about reflexivity, it’s too automatic, too simple. It is as if reflexivity did not cost anything. Being reflexive is enormously complex because the actor has to think of many possibilities and many consequences not only for others, but for the constitution of the self. The pressure to select, to choose one of many lines of action, increases the more you get into the public world, but at the same time the integrity of the fantasy must be maintained. This relationship between mental life and other levels of scripting is the aspect of scripting about which I have been thinking. The other part is the ways in which the cultural and interpersonal order are connected in mental life. Culture has no direct relationship to interpersonal relations. It must go through the heads of the actors. The task of the actor is to continually link and adjust and transform and stabilize the interpersonal and the cultural while maintaining the plausibility of the self. At the same time the interpersonal and cultural worlds the actor inhabits are not passive, for other individuals and social institutions are always trying to either constrain or change the individual. The levels now become interactive. I think in our first version it was a bit more static. There was culture, the interpersonal, the intrapsychic, sort of freestanding.

Schmidt: In Sexual Conduct your first version of script theory you don’t have the cultural scripts.

Gagnon: It’s largely implicit and it’s actually more visible in the chapter on pornography than in other places. Sexual Conduct as a book is enormously uneven. It’s trying out a lot of different ideas.

Schmidt: It convenes a number of essays on quite different areas.

Gagnon: Yes, I think that’s a real difficulty. But on the other hand approaching each topic separately allowed us to try out our theoretical perspectives deductively. When we wrote about homosexuality among men, we emphasized the concept of careers. It is in this essay where the idea of career is very visible. When we wrote about lesbianism our concern was the relationship between gender differences and sexuality. In both of those essays we also addressed what we called the specious problem of etiology. When we wrote about pornography, we were interested in how culture offered people sexual stories which they then bring into their own lives. Pornography was also a textual testing ground for the script concept.

Schmidt: And then you were talking about childhood and adolescence, a very broad chapter in this book.

Gagnon: Yes, it’s a rich chapter full of underdeveloped ideas. For instance it’s where we invent the concept “homosocial.” As a concept it is now absolutely ubiquitous, and nobody knows where it came from. But it’s first used there, though perhaps in a different spirit. We were looking for a word to substitute for “homosexual.” At the time, when thinking of the affiliative behavior of boys in adolescence, the available language of psychoanalysis was “these are homosexual groups” or “this is a homosexual period.” We invented the word “homosocial” exactly to get rid of the idea of the casual centrality of sexuality, first the social, we argued, then the sexual, second.

Schmidt: It could include sexual acts, too?

Gagnon: Yes, but it subordinated the sexual acts to social processes. These are groups of boys in whose social practices the sexual is embedded, but it is performed for other social purposes. It doesn’t give priority to the sexual. The sex is interesting to the boys, but not nearly as important as the approval of other young men. And once again this was the concrete version of the Burkean notion, that you do sexual things for other social purposes.

Schmidt: Let’s come back to the intrapsychic scripts. Was Stoller a specialist in this?

Gagnon: I don’t want to psychoanalyze Stoller. But I think that his situation was different, the kinds of people he saw were different. He sought out more dramatic instances of sexuality to analyze.

Schmidt: And around you?

Gagnon: We were working primarily in the world of the mundane, and Stoller remained, as a psychoanalyst must, in the world of the drama, of powerful emotions, of events filled with affective intensity. If there was a weakness in Stoller, it was his belief in the intensity of the sexual. He still believed that the sexual was powerful.

Schmidt: But only because it took over emotions and energy from nonsexual sources.

Gagnon: Right. But essentially it was still powerful. It was still a drama. And for Bill and I, at that time, we saw the sexual at a much lower level of emotional intensity. The script for us was not Faust. And I think that Stoller and psychoanalysis in general invites dramatic stories, important stories. We were interested in ordinary people and everyday tasks: How did people get home from work, have dinner, turn on the television, watch the television, have sex together, then go to sleep? And in a way we were the voice of the common man and woman, which is what sociology pretends to be. It’s the story of everyday life. We were in fact the enemies of the traditions that stressed the power of the sexual for purposes of social change or appealing to sexuality as a source of personal or political redemption, or as the primary terrain of social meaning. We said that sexuality was routine, and that it was produced by routine social causes.

Schmidt: Quite unromantic!

Gagnon: Quite unromantic. But I think both Bill and I are romantics as individuals! But being in this crazy discipline of the everyday and of the unremarkable and the nonmiraculous, we worked against our own personal interests. For many people sex remains the only place where there are miracles. Sex and love remain the world of the miracle. You cross a crowded room, you fall in love, you change your life—something transformative happens. And what we were saying was: the feeling of transformation is socially orchestrated, you feel transformed, but you are enacting the script of transformation. My work with Laumann went somewhat further, the argument is: Of course you can fall in love across a crowded room. The question to ask is how did the two of you get into the same crowded room? And the answer is everyone in the room has the appropriate social characteristics to be in the same crowded room. The emotions are real, but arranged by social structure and enacted through sexual scripts.

Schmidt: Coming back to the cultural scripts, do you think that Foucault is some expert on cultural scripts? Are discourses cultural script?

Gagnon: I have lots of ambivalence about Foucault. I think he was a poor historian, but I also think that he asked more general questions than we did. He tried to grasp other, perhaps larger issues. And I think he is wrong in a number of ways. For instance, I think that the impulse to reduce things to texts, discourses, is an error. Because what social life is really about is performances. It’s really people performing in social spaces. Scripts are closer to the performative than is discourse. I think what Foucault does is too texty, it’s too parochially French, with in its interest in discourse and the power of discourse.

Schmidt: You said ambivalence, so there must be something that you could take from Foucault?

Gagnon: I am not sure. In many cases I don’t understand his arguments and I don’t know where they take me intellectually—what these ideas do for my thinking. If we interpret what he says as meaning that people have power over other people and they use discourses to do so, well, I would suggest a reading of Marx. Often I think much of Foucault is not very new except to folks who are not well read in history and the other social sciences. Other people have made his arguments better, or at least more clearly and less infused with the local intellectual circumstances of Paris in the 1970s. Foucault is sort of an intellectual figure who I worry about and push against largely because of his importance to others, but I don’t think I actually have ever really been engaged by him.

Schmidt: Looking at American social constructionists, be they feminist or gay theoreticians, they much more refer to Foucault , as I see, than to Simon and Gagnon. Is that embarrassing for you, disappointing?

Gagnon: Well, disappointing. I think we were there first. And at least some people think that we said it better. Most of the non-social-science people who do gay and lesbian studies and cultural studies have not read very much in the relevant social sciences. What they have read is their business, but for instance they don’t know anything about the American pragmatist tradition. They don’t realize that the notion, that the meaning is in the response, which is at the core of Derrida, was said by George Herbert Mead and Kenneth Burke decades ago. Only Richard Rorty seems to have recognized the common roots of these ideas in Hegel. It’s the usual American provincialism, that if they say it in France—it must be so. There is a deference to French intellectual life by Americans, that in fact, I don’t think it always deserves. Being knowledgeable about France and French ideas is a way American intellectuals separate themselves from the common herd.

Schmidt: You say it as a person who really loves France.

Gagnon: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think the French probably more than anybody else in the Western world are resisting being Americanized. They value their language, they think that speaking French is better than speaking English. It is admirable, a way to avoid being Coca Cola-ed to death. But at the same time French intellectuals don’t read anybody else either. And they don’t read anybody who writes in Lyon either. If you don’t write from inside Paris, you aren’t anybody. The deference which contemporary Americans show to French intellectuals is similar to the deference Americans showed to European culture in general at the end of the nineteenth century. Members of a colonial society showing deference to its intellectual superiors. If you say “Foucault,” you don’t have to make any more arguments.

Schmidt: Your rejection of the naturalism in the Freudian and Kinseyan sense offered quite new perspective on social change in sexuality.

Gagnon: Well, I think what we were trying to do is actually in the last line of the book.

Schmidt: We have to cite it.

Gagnon: (Reads) “The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different.” This sentence was our attempt to say that the future of sexuality was not a matter of “progress” or moral improvement or utopia or dystopia. We are always involved in the human struggle to make the future. But the future that is being created is just going to be different than the present, not better or worse. This phrase also signaled our belief in the historical/cultural constitution of mental life, which we alluded to in the beginning of the book. When the future comes who and what we are now will be lost. Each generation is always the dinosaurs to the future. We have lost the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century will lose us. The past is always the worlds we have lost.

Schmidt: In contrast to some Freudians, for example Wilhelm Reich or Herbert Marcuse, or in contrast to Kinsey, you then cannot have a positive utopia of sexual change.

Gagnon: Yes, that’s the root theme that ran through all of this work: the antiutopian, the antidramatic, the antimagical, the antiromantic.

Schmidt: Dedramatizing sexuality?

Gagnon: That’s right. I think perhaps that was really the key idea. The fact that there was no magic in the world. We were really searching for disenchantment. The world is no longer enchanted, and it cannot be enchanted again. And the search for enchantment in sexuality must end in failure.

Schmidt: This means, too, that you have no sympathy for the cultural pessimistic attitude many social philosophers present?

Gagnon: The notion that culture is declining or so? No, it’s just going to be different. If you asked me how I would like the world to be, I could only repeat to you the standard democratic platitudes: equality, democracy, justice. I would repeat all those catchphrases, like everybody would. What else would you say?

But the world is not going to be like that.

Schmidt: What should it be sexually?

Gagnon: I think the only way that you can make the world sexually the way you want it to be is to have ambition for your ideals as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut put it. This is what Marx was: he was ambitious for his ideals. I don’t see anyone, or any movement, which has new ambitions for sexuality. And particularly given the posture I took, how can you have ambitions for the mundane? It doesn’t go together, to be ambitious for the commonplace. The desire to make orgasm better, to help men to have more erections, that is like improving cooking. You have to construct something interesting out of the sexual. That something has to be richer than the behavioral, sexuality has to be transformed. But then, into what? Into better communication, into Habermas’s just communication?

Schmidt: Sociological research shows that many people are looking for authentic emotions, passion, exciting thrills coming from sexuality. So they are ambitious.

Gagnon: Well, I think that in the everyday world the belief in the romantic is still very powerful. And I think it’s not just the sexual, I think it’s about love. I think we underestimate the importance of the intensity of love. People are looking for intensity, spontaneity. Our argument was that spontaneity is scripted. We had already undermined ourselves. It wasn’t that life was not variable, it was only scripted variously. Spontaneity is always bounded, even in fantasy. You are always enacting a script, even when you are playing with it, trying to make it anew, you are making up a system of scripted action. And in a way there is only the social. It’s actually a much darker vision than the notion of decline. Because the notion is that at one time sexuality was something important and now there is decline. And our argument was: there never was anything wonderful. And it’s not going to get better or worse. We simply say: In 1940 they did it that way, in the year 2040 they’re going to do it this other way. That’s what the creature does. It’s a cultural animal. A gloomy perspective, I must say.

Schmidt: In what respect gloomy?

Gagnon: Because there was never anything special. Or if there was something special, it was only because we as cultural / historical creatures made it special in the ways the culture dictated. So many social theories begin with the notion that from out of nowhere we will eventually be blessed. Perhaps this is the source of the current alien craze. Or that there is some larger purpose to human life. I think that our book is a celebration of purposelessness. That the only purpose to sexuality is the one we create in a given time and place. God, evolution, the state, patriotism, progress, communism, capitalism, those are all collectivist notions which we have imposed on ourselves to avoid purposelessness.

Schmidt: You have made a lot of predictions in your book, or speculations about the future. Please imagine for a minute, that you are a sleeping beauty, falling asleep in 1973 and awake being kissed by a princess or a prince in these days. What would you be astonished about and what would you be not astonished about, seeing today’s sexual landscapes?

Gagnon: Starting now, I think I would have been struck by the transformation of gay and lesbian life and feminism in the West. The intellectual bravura of the gay and lesbian movements and feminism is deeply surprising, if you start in 1973. In Sexual Conduct we had a sentence that said, “the homosexual community…serves simply as a sexual marketplace.” And I don’t think that anyone can now make the claim today. The gay world is an immensely rich and complicated social world, a community created and creating an identity, it is a fascinating set of options. And the amount of original thought which is going on—it is really a very rich intellectual world. I am not sure I agree with all of it, but it’s clearly an interesting place.

We probably overestimated the sexual originality of American culture at the behavioral level. I don’t think that I would have been surprised by the amount of pornography. The erotic landscape seemed to me already on its way to current development in 1973.

Schmidt: What about the heterosexuals?

Gagnon: I don’t think they changed very much, that’s really been kind of remarkably stable. What does happen actually? Well, they have intercourse a little bit sooner. They have a few more partners.

Schmidt: Not only sex partners but love partners.

Gagnon: Love partners. Basically serial monogamy now begins at fifteen or sixteen and proceeds through life.

Schmidt: That’s a difference. If you look on their grandparents…

Gagnon: That is a difference. But in a sense even if it is not the same couple over the life course, but many couples, the Durkheimian effects may remain the same. The opposite-gender couple remains the primary way of organizing emotional and psychic life, children, houses, cars, ownership. Actually maybe the triumph of capitalism is its capacity to maintain at the individual level large numbers of satisfied consuming and reproducing couples. I think what’s most interesting is the remarkable disconnection between the cultural erotic life of the society—the amount of erotica—and the absolute conventionality of the people.

Schmidt: A discrepancy between…

Gagnon: …this level of the production of erotic cultural scenarios and this level of what people in fact do.

Schmidt: Do you have an explanation for it?

Gagnon: I do, but it will sound a little crazy.

Schmidt: That sounds interesting!

Gagnon: I think there are really two arenas of sexual action which don’t have anything to do with each other most of the time. There is the domain of the symbolic and the domain of the behavioral. People go to the domain of the symbolic not because it compensates for how dull things are, people in fact are perfectly happy with their dull sexual lives. It’s because what the symbolic domain offers you, and now this is a much more general argument about capitalism, is a world without social friction, a world without cost. You can play, you can have contact with beautiful bodies, you can look at lovely things without investment. That’s the difference between owning an automobile and looking at an advertisement for an automobile.

Schmidt: Different worlds, but both are important.

Gagnon: But they are independent in many ways. They come together every once in a while when there are in moments of cultural crises, you may have people saying: “My fantasies are not the same as my behavior.” But otherwise people do not compare the world of fantasy and the world of what they do everyday and neither has a natural priority. The most important thing is that it is very pleasant.

We have to move outside the sexual and we can see it everywhere, fantasy consumption, fantasy celebrity, If you want to know that you are watching a movie and you are not sure—you think you may be hallucinating, but you won’t know—you know it’s a movie when the car pulls up to park in New York City and there is no other car parked on the block. Well, fantasy copulation has the same quality. You don’t have to pull next to other cars, look and see how big the parking space is, block traffic and listen to the horns blowing, go through all the maneuvers of parking—there is always a space available in fantasy.

Why are you satisfied emotionally from an advertisement in which a beautiful person drives a fancy car up in front of a fancy building and stops? An advertisement that calls the BMW the ultimate driving machine. In reality everyone in New York knows that the ultimate driving machine will only go fifteen miles an hour in city traffic, if they are lucky. It’s the psychic independence that exists between real-world driving and the fantasy of driving. One does not criticize the other. Similarly there is real-world sexuality and the fantasy of sexuality. And they are simply separate. Fantasy is a world without friction. No one denies you, and you can turn it off. I think that’s how people live in the postmodern world.

Schmidt: In what respect?

Gagnon: There is an increase in the importance of intrapsychic life which is absolutely crucial. To survive the modern world requires more mental activity rather than less.

Schmidt: Are you going to reprint Sexual Conduct?

Gagnon: We have made an agreement with the original publisher. The new version, we think at this moment, will have an introduction about the origins of the key ideas, the circumstances of invention. What were the biographical, cultural, historical circumstances of writing the book, including the fact it was written during the sixties. It was written during a period of crisis, by two people who had a tangential relationship to that crisis. At the end of each chapter we will put a few comments trying to not destroy the original structure. And then at the end there will be a discussion of where the central ideas of the book have gone. We will leave the original text the same, only making it nonsexist in its language.

Schmidt: It is sexist?

Gagnon: Yes, it was the 1960s, so we were not yet aware of gender-neutral language.

Schmidt: More than twenty-five years ago, I met you and Bill Simon in a New York Hotel. And by chatting around you said, “We have just one problem: to know who is Marx and who is Engels.” Did you decide upon this question?

Gagnon: (Laughs) A revolutionary remark!

Schmidt: I was deeply impressed!

Gagnon: I think that I had the wrong people in mind. The better choice would have been “Who is Freud and who is Durkheim?” Schmidt: Thank you very much, John, for this talk.


  1. The title for this section comes from Kenneth Burke, who describes an individual’s experience of intellectual life in the following fashion:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him (sic); another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Burke, 1957, pp. 110-11)

Burke does not discuss power here, though he understands that getting (as opposed to putting) one’s oar “in” is always a matter of that. His foci are the social conversation in which one is only a temporary participant and a reflection on individual mortality.

  • In June 1999 William Simon (1930-2000) presented an invited lecture entitled“Human Sexuality: The Future of an Illusion.” On June 24, 1999 Gunter Schmidt conducted an interview with Simon concerning this lecture and the thesis of the “postmodernization of sexuality” as discussed in Simon’s last book (1996). An account of this interview, as authorized by Simon, appeared previously in German in the Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 12 (1999): 36273.
  • This interview was conducted in June 1995 in a hotel room on the shores of Lake Garda.
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