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As I read, I encounter desire again and again. Yet I notice a tension. Desire is either promoted as a liberating force, or framed as the root of human dissatisfaction and unhappiness. A distinction must therefore be made between two very distinct concepts, both going by the name ‘desire’ (such is the slipperiness and limitation of language).
It might be helpful first of all to draw a distinction between desire that originates outside the self, and desire that originates within. The former we might call, as René Girard does, mimetic desire. Such desire is rooted in what others want. Girard posited that we don’t desire things independently; desire is socially rooted. We want what others want, or appear to want. Such desire makes social sense as part of wider notions of humans as social animals; the brain ‘is a cultural organ.’ Imitation of others builds a culture. Such a trait can have profoundly negative and positive consequences: cultures are as exclusive as they are inclusive. To define what one is, culturally speaking, is to define what one isn’t. This is why Toni Morrison, with reference to Orlando Patterson, notes that slavery was inevitable in the Enlightenment, a period whose whole preoccupation was liberty, the rights of man, and so on. If one wants to define oneself as free, one must have a point of opposing reference. The American knew he was free because he had slaves to compare himself to.
When I write of mimetic desire above, I write of a kind of desire that’s acquisitive — that is, it is desire towards ownership. Ownership is a necessary component of power; in fact, ownership is power. Ownership is an epistemology, inasmuch as there is a collective belief about who owns what, and because enough people believe it, it is so. Ownership, too, ties into rather ‘narrativist’1 or ‘accumulative’2 views of what a life is. Life viewed in this way, as a collection of events, is tantamount to a life of acquisition, as though a person is nothing more than the possessions left behind when they die. But modern lives are acquisitive, because modern lives work within a wider Capitalist framework3that’s driven by purchase power.
Let’s blame Freud.4 Freud believed that man was full of deep libidinal desires that couldn’t be trusted; this is why, as Susan Sontag reminds us, ‘Men make war […] the killing machine has a gender, and it is male.’5 But his nephew, Edward Bernays, known as ‘the father of public relations’, believed that Capitalist democracy could only survive if the dangerous and irrational masses were controlled. One way to do this is to manufacture consent via the manufacture of desire. There’s a shift, it seems, in the 1920s: rather than buying things because they needed them, people started to buy things because things were external signifiers of whom they believed to be internally. This era of the individual, of the self, had been a while in the making; Darwin’s theories had catalysed doubts about God and religion, but the fading of religion is also the fading of a wider sense of collective purpose. Buying things fulfils one’s acquisitive desires: ownership is power, and ownership is what Capitalism is all about. And yet these desires were invented: people wanted what they were told to want, what they saw that others wanted. All of this took — takes — place under the belief that one is free to shape one’s own destiny. The two ideas feed into each other. If one is free one can buy things; the ownership of things makes one feel powerful, and the powerful are free.
If the powerful are free, the disempowered are not. The disempowered are defined by their disempowerment because they allow the empowered to know they’re empowered. The manufacturing of desire keeps this division fixed, perpetual. The disempowered are the marginal, the subalterns. They are colonised or formerly-colonised peoples whose defining feature is their difference from the ‘normate’ to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s term. The desires of these peoples are ‘other’ like those who have them. These desires are policed, to the point of erasure. There is, Morrison notes, a close relationship between fear and desire, especially in terms of freedom. Morrison notes that colonising whites in the ‘New World’ were enraptured by freedom, but such desire is coupled with the fear of losing it — Morrison calls this ‘the terror of human freedom’6. Desire is not just about wanting: it’s about the fear of losing.
Let us now turn to the second ‘type’ of desire: I’ll call this mutual desire, internal desire, self-determined desire7 This is distinct, as far as I can see, from the aforementioned acquisitive, fear-coupled, Capitalistic desire by the following features:
It is not about things, but people
It is not engendered by external manipulation
It is not part of a power dynamic, and therefore does not tie into notions of inequality and such.
The writer who has spoken to me more than any other about this type of desire is Audre Lorde. There’s a kind of trinity at work in her conceptions of desire, an interlocking triangle of desire, the erotic and poetry. Poetry, she writes, ‘illuminates the dark places’8 deep within oneself, the ‘incredible reserves of creativity and power’. I take here not to universalise, for Lorde writes as a ‘black lesbian feminist’(her own self-designation), as one who has been marginalised, whose desire has been policed to the point of erasure. The ‘places of power’ within is ‘neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.’
Poetry illuminates these places, not so its light can civilise or dispel, but rather so it can reveal and celebrate what has been there all along. So, what has been there all along? Desire: the truth of how one thinks and feels, in communion with others. For Lorde, this feeds into her celebration of the erotic; her love for women (one woman in particular) is such a vital part of who she is that she wouldn’t be herself without it, nor would she be herself without that person. The desire is mutual and erotic. Lorde draws a firm distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, for which the erotic is often mistaken. The erotic is mutual, personal, a place of absolute emotional reality within oneself that one shares intimately with another. Pornography is simulation masquerading as desire. One could even draw an analogy between pornography and capitalism, in that both are manufactured desire, desire commodified.9
And so Lorde reclaims poetry, and with it she reclaims the erotic. And with this she reclaims freedom, freedom through real desire. Poetry, once a ‘civilising force’ according to such canon-makers as F R Leavis and T S Eliot10 tries to civilise nobody, change nobody, diminish nobody. It is a candle smouldering in the dark. Hold it in cupped hands, and hold your breath.
Rao, What is a life? ↩︎
This essay isn’t a critique of Capitalism; that’s beyond both the scope of the essay and my current knowledge. I’m starting to come around to the idea that Capitalism is a religion of sorts, or at least that it shares a lot of features with religions, but I haven’t done enough reading or thinking about that yet to make it worth anybody’s while. To be honest, I’m gripped with doubt right now about this essay, the one that you’ve been distracted from reading by this footnote, because every time I feel I’ve acquired some new insight or knowledge, for every tiny grain of new knowledge a whole peak of the unknown looms into distant view. It’s unscalable, but up I climb. This footnote has slipped away from its original purpose and become a disclaimer of sorts, but that’s better than me prefacing the essay with it, which I always want to do — you know, give some excuse so you, invisible reader, unknown to me, might not be able to castigate me for my profound stupidity. That I have tucked it here I will therefore take as a sign of real personal growth. If you’ve read this far, you can go back to the essay now. There’s nothing else to see down here but navel-gazing. ↩︎
Okay, so this is a real disclaimer. I haven’t done the primary reading on this. I’m going to, but for now I’m sketching this out to help me think about these concepts, not really to explain them. My knowledge of Freud and desire comes from pretty postmodern places, and postmodernists tend to dislike Freud as much as they like Marx. I’m aware of the bias, but there isn’t much I can do about it right now. ↩︎
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others ↩︎
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination ↩︎
Or something like that. ↩︎
‘Poetry is not a luxury’, from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House ↩︎
A good link that I’d like to chase but can’t really wedge into the essay proper is John Berger who, after Walter Benjamin and Laura Mulvey, probes the power dynamics within art, noting that ‘to be naked is to be oneself … to be nude is to be naked and yet not oneself.’ Pornography is all about being looked upon, with the looker firmly in a position of power, whereas the erotic is based in mutual looking, not acquisitive looking. ↩︎
Okay, this really is an essay for another time. ↩︎