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Erotic MoralityReview - Erotic Morality
The Role of Touch in Moral Agency
by Linda Holler
Rutgers University Press, 2002
Review by Brent Dean Robbins, Ph.D.
Aug 25th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 35)

Contrary to appearances, Holler's Erotic Morality is not a book about the ethics of carnal love. The use of the term "erotic" in the title refers not merely to sexual intimacy, but to embodied, sensual engagement in the world. To be "erotic" in this sense is to be fully present to one's sensual engagement with whatever happens to be "there" for us in our lives at the moment. It is to derive a moral stance in the world based not upon a disengaged intellect, but upon the felt meanings of the world as they are disclosed to a living body.

Holler is a theologian, an associate professor and chair of the department of religious studies at San Diego State University. Yet her "erotic morality" thesis is based much more upon psychology than theology. Holler's handling of the psychological literature does however resemble an "outsider" more than an "insider." She doesn't bother to address the thornier issues about embodiment, cognition and emotion that psychologists are currently debating, and psychologists who are interested in reading an addition to this debate should look elsewhere. What Holler does contribute, however, is precisely her "outsider" status -- her ability to take psychological research and synthesize it as perhaps only a theologian could do, in order to specifically address the issue of an embodied moral philosophy. Holler's weakness, perhaps to due her "outsider" status, is her tendency to over-generalize from the literature in ways that tend to support her argument. I say this despite the fact that Holler's argument is very close to my heart and I wholeheartedly endorse her ethical philosophy. Holler's strength does not come from the discerning eye of a social scientist but in the synthesizing vision of a theologian.

Holler is a great synthesizer. She pulls from a wide variety of sources -- feminist spirituality, deep ecology, empirical psychology of emotion and psychopathology, phenomenological psychology, post-structuralist philosophy, French psychoanalysis, neo-Marxist social theory, hagiography, and Christian and Buddhist theology in order to frame her thesis. Again, this is both her strength and weakness. By drawing from such a large well of influences, she accomplishes a number of aims. First, she is able to support her thesis from a number of different epistemological and ontological perspectives. Second, she is liable to gain adherents to her thesis from a number of different, and often competing, camps in the social sciences. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists will enjoy and appreciate her book as much or even more than postmodern psychologists. On the other hand, a deeper inspection of her sources reveals contradictory and, at times, antagonistic epistemological paradigms. There is, after all, a deep philosophical divide between, say, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Damasio's neuroscientific approach to emotion, or Goleman's notion of "emotional intelligence" and Bob Kugelmann's phenomenological reading of "stress." Not that these rifts can't be overcome through careful analysis and synthesis, a project that Holler has begun here. But more work needs to be done to analyze these epistemological differences in the literature inspiring this piece of work.

Holler's book, in any case, is not primarily a philosophical analysis. It is a piece of good rhetoric meant to inspire the reader to take up a moral life founded upon sensual, emotional and compassionate engagement in the world with others, creatures and things. For this reason, her book will appeal especially to smart readers looking for inspiration to live a more deeply fulfilling life. In this sense, Holler is engaged in what Robert Romanyshyn has called a "cultural therapeutics." It aims to transform a dangerous and destructive way of living (a culture) by inspiring individuals within that culture to change that manner of living one person at a time (whether or not this is possible is another argument altogether). On this level, Holler's work is an undeniable success.

Holler's cultural therapeutics begins with the basic premise that, historically, morality has been body-denying rather than body-affirming. Such an ethic is based on logos rather than eros; that is, it is based "on rules, authorities, and duties" rather than "a somatic, intuitive form of agency in which empathy, compassion, and care are the central moral qualities" (p. 1). An erotic morality would, on the contrary, be based on embodied awareness, and its central metaphor would be the sensation of touch, in contrast to the cultural hegemony of vision. Whereas vision is paradigmatic of distance and detached analysis -- the favored sensation of denial, solopsism and idealism -- touch is the sensation of intimacy and contact.

By reclaiming touch and embodied sensuality for morality, Holler is attempting to turn back the clock of Western ethics since the Greeks. The shame and guilt associated with the body in Judaic-Christian morality are exchanged for a joyful celebration of our contingent and finite carnal being-in-the-world. Such a celebration, argues Holler, opens the way for gratitude and, in turn, care and compassion. Moreover, Holler's ethic is not merely in the service of psychological transformation -- her philosophy is not individualist -- but deeply political. "Societies that fear eros," she writes, "cannot create morally adaptive somatic conditions because they care more about constructing impermeable boundaries than they do about the suffering created by those boundaries" (p. 9). An erotic morality founded on embodiment would, instead, be based upon our physiological and also intuitive awareness of the permeability of our boundaries as a source of health: a softening of rigid bodily structures as a gateway to loosening rigid ideologies, an openness to otherness and difference that mimics the give and take of our bodies when we eat and excrete, breath in and breathe out, speak and listen.

Holler argues her thesis by examining five different kinds of touch: autistic, disembodied, sadistic and pornographic, masochistic and ascetic, and mindful types of touch. To spell out her lessons on autistic touch, Holler draws predominantly from the autobiographies of two well-known figures struggling with autistic disorder, Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This is understandable. Since the disease is defined in part by a severe deprivation in verbal skills, the accounts of Grandin and Williams are some of the very few first-person accounts of autistic disorder in the literature. This is interesting in light of the fact that 95% of persons with autistic disorder are male, which simply highlights how atypical these two cases are. Nevertheless, even if these cases are not very representative of disorders in the autistic spectrum, they do serve the purpose of helping Holler to articulate her point -- namely, that any kind of autistic disorder is characterized by major dysfunction in tactile sensitivity and emotion. By using autistic disorder as an extreme case, and by exploring how two women with autism have successfully coped with the disorder, Holler is able to highlight some therapeutic means for dealing with similar deprivations that run rampant in our 'out of touch' culture.

In order to explain her thesis that logos has historically trumped eros -- that "the obedience to law and duty" has predominated at the expense of moral agency and compassion -- Holler makes the case that, traditionally, ethics has been "deontologized," that is, it operates as a "flight from the body" which is formalized as "moral discourse around absolute rules, rights and duties" (p. 62). Holler blames the usual parties, Descartes and Kant (among others), for the mind-body dualism that founds this deontologization of ethics. Drawing largely from Antonio Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis in Descartes' Error, and with a little help from Foucault, she elaborates how practical reason is impossible in the absence of feelings and emotions -- and thus, clarifies how deontologized ethics are founded upon a fundamental falsehood, a denial of our embodied being-in-the-world and a turn away from the lived body that is the condition of possibility for thought. A mind disengaged from the body is an ill body, a broken body, a diseased body, as in the hyper-reflective world of the schizophrenic, as described by Louis A. Sass.

But what, after all, is at stake? What is at stake for Holler (in the vein of neo-Freudian French feminism, not to mention Herbert Marcuse) is that the repression of eros, which leads inevitably toward a projection of eros upon a disowned other: the feminine, nature, the body, etc., all of which become objectified and ensconced within a rigid system of moral rules at the expense of our more organic ethical response to the other in the concrete circumstances of our everyday lives.

Holler's next task is to develop an argument for how morality came to be disembodied and out of touch to begin with. She argues that deontologized ethics has the same roots as the dissociation that results from trauma and victimization. Faced with a world too painful to bear, the mind retreats and dissociates; the body becomes alien and "Other." In the wake of trauma, and the consequential association of feelings with pain, eros becomes a dangerous force to be mastered rather than a basis for moral agency. The orientation of mastery, in turn, tends to ride roughshod over our otherwise natural predilection to empathize with others and therefore cuts us off from our felt basis for ethical action. For Holler, the sadist -- represented by the figure of Hitler -- is emblematic of the disengaged touch that results from violence and trauma. Pornography represents the detached, objectifying style of the sadist's comportment towards others and the world.

Another response to stress, trauma, and social isolation is masochism, which Holler associates with "self-destructive behaviors, addictions, and obsessions, such as eating disorders, drug use, compulsive exercise, and self-mutilation" (p. 129). It is the obsessiveness of masochism and ecscetic self-denial that constitutes their failure to respond to violence and trauma. However, masochism and escetism can at times be transformed into a revolutionary, transformative and hence ethical action, and Holler finds examples in cases of hysteria and the escetic lives of some Christian saints, particularly female mystics. In such cases, pleasure and pain provide an opening to intimacy and moral agency. Masochism as such becomes "transubstantiation," a "redemption of the flesh" that can participate in "the transformation of culture" (p. 163).

But, for Holler, erotic morality is best rooted in what she calls "mindful touch," a concept developed mainly from Buddhist thought and practice, especially Vipassana meditation, commonly referred to as "mindfulness" meditation. In this style of meditation, the practitioner typically sits with eyes closed, keeping his or her spine straight. The person then focuses attention on the breath. Inevitably, the person in meditation finds his or her mind wandering. The task is to notice and acknowledge that one's mind has wandered, take note of the content of one's thoughts at that moment, and then return to concentrating on one's breath. This type of meditation is thought to have many benefits, not the least of which is a reduction of the stress response. But for Holler, Vipissana meditation is most notable as a practice for getting in touch with one's sensual, embodied existence, as well as the interdependence (or "emptiness") of all things.

For Holler, mindfulness meditation is emblematic of the kind of embodied practice necessary to cultivate erotic morality. Such practices are a matter of "reclaiming the sentient awareness to promote the circlings of the flesh necessary to our physical, psychological, and moral well-being" (p. 182). The purpose of this reclaiming is to mend our broken touch, where we have become numb or hypersensitive as the result of violence, neglect and trauma. In turn, we become once again 'in touch' with our inclination to respond as moral agents to the ethical call of the felt meanings of the world.

Holler's thesis is one, perhaps, we should reflect upon carefully as a potential route to a "cultural therapeutics." But there is much more work to be done. Holler's work here still lacks the scientific and theoretical rigor that could persuade those who may be less sympathetic to her message. I would like to see her engage in a future work that more systematically and rigorously addresses the epistemological quandaries her thesis raises, particularly among the many different social scientific and philosophical theories she cites. On the other hand, I would also like to see Holler take a different tactic and more clearly spell out how her "erotic morality" would function concretely in our everyday lives. Given a morality founded on eros, how would this function to change the way we interpret law in the courts, for example? How would it alter the way we practice business or educate our children? What, indeed, are the concrete implications of this kind of morality for the functioning of communities?

Finally, I find myself concerned that Holler spends much of her time exploring psychopathology and then generalizing her conclusions to the general population. The great majority of her analysis in the book explores psychological disorders, including autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, hysteria, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia, schizophrenia, and so on. But I question the fruitfulness of this method, even if it is a method quite popular, particularly in the postmodern literature. I do agree that we can learn much from psychopathology, but perhaps not in the way Holler learns from it. Holler takes psychological disorders and tries to understand something about the human condition. Yet as a clinical psychologist, I understand psychopathology to be a largely moral and political act. By defining what is "abnormal," we must of course implicate in that choice what is "normal," and so by definition psychopathology is an implicit act of creating a normalizing ethic. Yet this is a point that Holler seems to ignore, to the detriment of her argument. Holler seems to succumb too easily to the normalizing ethic implied in the labels of psychopathology. In turn, this approach runs the risk of unwittingly affirming the status quo she is attempting to critique. Even if one were to disagree with this argument (e.g. if one were to hold a medical model perspective on psychological disorder), Holler could still be faulted for drawing conclusions about the general population based on research largely carried out on people who, by definition, are quite unlike the typical person. Despite these gripes, I must say that there are places where Holler wonderfully proves me wrong here, such as in her discussion of anorexia. But, unfortunately, these digressions do not centrally frame her argument in a way that saves her thesis from these criticisms.

I have other minor points of contention with Holler's thesis, but rather than elaborate upon them, I'd much prefer to end on a positive note, because I think, when all is said and done, Erotic Morality is an important book that should be widely read. And readers will find, thankfully, that Holler's lucid and clear writing is a breath of fresh air. I highly recommend the read.


2003 Brent Dean Robbins


Brent Dean Robbins, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Allegheny College, PA


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