Desire, as Historical Category

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Desire, as Historical Category

Over the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, European and American intellectuals posited desire as a sign of the cultural modernity of those regions. Followers of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), for instance, believe that the psychoanalytic subject—the modern subject extraordinaire—arrived with the European Enlightenment. The philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) argued that the modern subject of desire superseded a premodern one as the emerging disciplinary technologies of the prison, school, clinic, and army conflated desire with identity. These models of modern desire thus spatialized time and mapped desire onto an imaginary Western European and North American world. Spatial images of maps, topographies, territories, Möbius strips, and knots served as heuristic media for describing the circulation of such desire. Philosopher Elizabeth Grosz provides an excellent overview of these models in Volatile Bodies (1994).

Such supersessionary thinking (modern desire trumps premodern desire) at work in these models of desire anxiously defends against temporality and the gaps it generates in-between becoming past, becoming present, becoming future. They confuse contingency with the organization of cause and effect and thus produce timeless law, such as the Oedipus complex, to guarantee the perpetual circulation of desire. What follows is an outline of three common versions of desire as a sign of the modern and then a consideration of the early twenty-first century critique that attempts to problematize the very claim of desire to periodize history.

A conventional psychoanalytic model of desire imagines a vessel. A self inhabits its interior; the Other, a not-self, is located outside of the container. The contact of the inside with the outside, self and Other, generates a current or force. Not unlike the electrical current of the voltaic cell first proclaimed to the Royal Society of London in 1800, desire links the self to the Other in imaginary circuits. Desire is thus social. The energy supply is continuous and the subject can never exhaust it through speech. When these human batteries are joined in a series, desire surges through the group. The desiring group constructs social ways of being in the world. The charge of the battery, its positive or negative valence, is organized by the law conventionally understood as the law of Oedipus. This law posits the timeless prohibition of heterosexual kinship whereby the mother becomes sexually unavailable to her offspring under pain of their castration because she belongs to the father through exchange.

Alternatively Foucault's version of desire and disciplinarity used the projection of the sky in a planetarium (a scenic attraction that proliferated across Europe and North America in the 1930s) as the heuristic device to model desire based on the archive, or the law of what can be said. In the archive statements are "grouped together in distinct figures … but shine, as it were, like stars, some that seem close to us shining brightly from afar off, while others that are in fact close to us are already growing pale" (Foucault 1972, p. 129). The subject is produced as the effect of such statements. By folding these statements inward, the subject is able to produce itself as the subject of desire. Desire always realizes itself; it is an effect that retroactively is imagined as a cause. The set of statements is historically constructed and can change over time; thus Foucault's model of desire offers rich temporal potential. However, he spatialized time in The History of Sexuality (1980) by arguing that the homosexual as a historical category crafted in the late-nineteenth century superseded the notion of sodomitical acts, thus marking a temporal rupture between the premodern and the modern.

In an effort to clear the field of self and other, the philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992), inspired by the work of Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), rejected the binarism of self and Other, male and female, and, instead, imagined desire as a continuum of embodied subjectivities or desiring machines. Desire is not a lack, nor is it a pedagogy; rather desire is productive. Their model is based on a rigorous notion of immanence, a kind of non-organic vitalism, in which life exceeds the possibility of death and transcendence. What Deleuze and Guattari cannot explain is why "men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation" (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 29). They cannot see that repression itself is productive too and that desiring machines are inflected by the uneven durations of repression and its repetitions. Without that temporal insight, their desiring machines collapse into what Gayatri Spivak has called the Subject of Europe and into the instantaneous moments of a mechanical deterritorialization.

These conventional models of desire are incapable of imagining the normative Eurocentric violence that grounds them. Their critics have called for a problematization of temporality as a way of rethinking desire. Rather than use desire to periodize history, feminist, queer, and antirascist scholars are asking what structures such supersessionary thinking has forced and enforced by disavowing the temporal coexistence of different forms of desire. These critics of desire as a sign of the modern urge people to consider how desire is never contemporaneous with itself, it is thus always already spectral. Desire does not produce temporality; it is haunted by it. In other words, "the relations by which we are defined are not dyadic, but always refer to a historical legacy and futural horizon that is not contained by the Other, but which constitutes something like the Other of the Other, then it seems to follow that who we are fundamentally is a subject in a temporal chain of desire that only occasionally and provisionally assumes the form of a dyad." (Butler 2004, p. 151).

see also Castration; Foucault, Michel; Freud, Sigmund; Gender, Theories of; Queering, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Culture.


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Cheah, Pheng. 2003. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Crary, Jonathan 1999. Suspension of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2005. "Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography." Social Text 23 (3/4): 57-68.

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Iragaray, Luce. 1993. An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1978. Seminar Eleven: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

                                           Kathleen Biddick