All Desire is a Complex

I initially wrote this for Thought Catalog and while the comments were more or less what you'd expect, some of them did make me think and re-work this piece. 

I had a friend who would always disparage young women who dated older guys. She'd say what you'd expect her to say with the tone of scorn you can imagine: These girls just have a daddy complex. 

Now, let's put aside how condescending that is, so swiftly to brush aside someone else's will and desire, to reduce it to a symptom of some sort of so-called malady. What's actually absurd about her claim is that, well, all desires are a complex. How else do we learn to want, to desire, than by the experiences we've had? And what experience of desire is more intense than that of a parent? Freud was absolutely right in one sense: all desire is at some point Oedipal (or Electric). I mean, wouldn't it be weird if my desire was not shaped by the fact that I emerged from a woman's vagina, suckled on her breasts for sustenance, was tucked in every night by her and told everything would be all right (a lie, but still)? Where else is desire supposed to come from?

Of course, erotic desire cannot be reduced to Oedipus. After all, we are inundated with stimuli, with provocation, coming at us from all angles — TV, magazines, internet, bus stops, other people on the street. And then there are all the objects — those shiny, plastic come hither packages tempting and beckoning with an odd, ahuman allure. I watch my son's eyes light up as we pass the toy section at Walgreen's. When he looks closer, he sees that there's nothing there he actually wants, not really. But this doesn't stop him from desiring, from being tempted, by all the goo and color and sheen of cheap ass shite. When I was a kid, my grandmother would take me to the gift shop at Lennox Hill Hospital on 77th Street in Manhattan. And, to this day, I remember my longing for the Aquaman action figure. I didn’t even know who Aquaman was. But something about his golden shirt and equally golden locks and his black boots and intimated intimacy with all things aqueous — a Nazi in the womb? — had my full attention. Go figure. 

These streams of temptation, these forces of desire, are multifarious, insidious, pervasive, and ideological. In the most obvious of examples, think about our desire for things such as a house and car that leaves us indebted for life.That is, we find ourselves desiring things that hurt us. No doubt, this is true of sexual desires, too, as they're informed and inflected by so many forces, some more explicitly ideological, controlling, and violent than others.  

Having been alive for over 44 years and having been intimately involved with women for over 30 of those years, it'd be hard not to notice the multitude of factors that feed into the madness of sexual desire. There is, of course, all that guilt. I know women who are outrageously, beautifully, voraciously sexual who disparage sex — even while they're coming on to you. Is this not a complex of some sort? Have women not been trained in all sorts of ways to feel both sexual and guilty for being sexual?

It's not just women, of course, who experience that awful congruence of sex and guilt. For me, so much of my sex life has been defined by hypochondria which is itself an expression of my guilt: I'm afraid I'll do something in the moment for which I'll pay horribly unto eternity. Rather than eternal damnation, I have feared AIDS and herpes. Sure, I came up (as it were) with the rise of AIDS and saw young men dying everywhere around me. These images, this experience, fed my guilt that I'd somehow fuck up (again, as it were) and disappoint everyone, mostly my mother, by dying because I was horny.

So what is a so-called healthy desire? If this person I knew could reduce another's desire to Oedipus, then she must feel there is some sort of desire that is not tainted (ahem) by...what? What is this desire that is not a complex but that is pure and unadulterated? 

The fact is it doesn't exist. All desire is a complex, a taking in, a processing, a putting out. The apparatus that would have us — that would let us — reduce someone else's desire to a perversion is an apparatus of judgment and control (pace Foucault). 

This is not to say that certain sexual actions should not be criminalized and discouraged. That would be absurd. It's to say that the judgement of desire is incredibly tricky. To tell someone what they feel is not right, that it comes from a dark place, that it's informed by capitalism or patriarchy, to tell them that their desire is a sickness, a "complex," is to reduce that person to a symptom. It's to deny his or her will, his or her voice. This is what turned me off from Marxist critique when I was younger, these self-righteous claims to false consciousness: You think you want that but you really don't. Who has the privilege to state that? Where is that person standing? 

I'm not saying that we can't critique desire. At times, we have to interrogate our most assumed beliefs, including our desires. I'm just saying the critique of desire is awfully tricky as it's situated in a place where you can't separate the function of ideology from the will of the individual. We are all always already enmeshed in flows of desire and ideology. We are all situated within — while situating — a complex of some sort.  

When I was first in San Francisco, I found myself in an apartment that had been the home to a bunch of blood-sex folks. I'm not really sure what that means. But I know that there were bloodstains on the walls and that, presumably, people who lived there got the rocks off doing some kind of something with blood. While it's not my cup of tea (see my hypochondria), why would I possibly care if they enjoy it? Because it's weird?

What is weird desire, anyway? To me, the will to judge others for their perversions (whatever those are) is itself perverse. It demands a certain relish in the power of condemnation that wields psychiatric dogma like a club. If you look at the comments on Thought Catalog, the first instinct of critique was to dub me a creepy pervert (not to mention old and bald: how did they know?) — which is precisely that perverse will to judgement in action. 

It seems to me that if there's such a thing as healthy desire, it's the desire that fuels your health and vitality, brings you peace, calm, love, satiation. If you keep dating people who make you miserable as you find yourself fighting ad nauseam and angry and anxious too much of the time, well, that seems unhealthy regardless of how old they are or what kind of panties they wear. If you drink someone else's blood while wearing lederhosen and a wig and feel so beautifully alive and everyone involved is enjoying themselves — which may take the form of pain, mind you — well, that sure sounds like a healthy desire to me. 


We Begin in the Middle, Always

Despite what I imagine to be my considerable rhetorical acumen — not only do I have the institutional pedigree of a freakin' PhD in rhetoric, not only did I teach rhetoric for 17 years, I have been paid well for the last 16 years to help large companies present themselves to the world — anyway, despite all this I find myself stymied through and through by the online dating profile. Where do I begin? What do I say? And in what tone? Should it be funny (at least try to be)? Informative? Show offy? I truly have no idea and so I opt for freewheeling, innuendo laden, name dropping screeds — no doubt, a poor strategy.  

But the fact is it's always strange to begin. We are always entering a world in progress. This struck me so conspicuously the other day as I walked down the fetid, world famous Haight Street. I passed bar after bar, store after store, and was amazed by the appeals each made to me as I sauntered by. Their attempts at beckoning were as varied and insane as online dating profiles. This bar cranked low-fi punk while a stench wafted through the front doors. That store covered its windows in tie dyed blankets and beads as smoke tinged, perfumed air wound its way into my considerable nostrils. That restaurant boldly presents its white tablecloths, red carpet, and douchebaggy looking bartender. 

Now, these might all be fine establishments — once inside. But, from the outside, I was so put off by each. To whom are they speaking? Certainly not me. Is this how they choose to introduce themselves? Is this what they feel is putting their best foot forward? 

The answer, of course, is yes. Or at least perhaps. And, no, they are not speaking to me. They couldn't care about me, rightly so. They are looking for a particular audience, literally sending smoke signals to their kith and kin. Smell that dirty sweaty beer! Hear that too-loud punk rock! Don't you wanna come in and get your whatever on? Sure, I shake my head emphatically no. But there are plenty to whom that sounds like bliss and, well, god bless 'em.

We always begin in the middle — in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of a life, in the middle of the stream and flow of desires. There is no clean slate, no pure beginning. All beginning, says Foucault, is the dissension of other things. There is no origin, just a beginning which is in fact beginnings and which in fact has always already begun.  

This is something I tell my clients all the time. No doubt, I say, you're company is innovative and offers high quality products at a fair price with impeccable customer service. Sure. But you still have to say something first. You can't say it all at once. Such is the nature of language, at least English and the all the languages I know. Something comes first, always and necessarily. So, I continue, what is that thing you want to say first to the world?  

This is the basis of what we call branding: leading with some proposition. And this proposition is always entering a conversation already in session as people are already doing what they're doing, using what they're using, other products and brands saying what they're saying. So it's not: What do you want to say? But: What's the best way to enter this conversation?

For my clients, I create a more or less elaborate strategy for them that considers the entire rhetorical milieu (some clients appreciate my wonky way of speaking; others do not)— the market, customers, the future, other brands, the product itself. 

So why don't I do that when it comes to writing a dating profile? Why don't I figure out whom I want to attract to do what with me and then craft my profile accordingly? 

Well, because I'm not a freakin' product or brand or they aren’t “consumers” (that word makes me shiver, and not in the good way). I have multiple desires and needs and mood, just as they do; I have multiple facets and dreams, just as they do. I can see myself with any number of "types" of women, whatever that even means. If I say this, I'll attract the snarky ones; that, the self-proclaimed smarty ones; that, the arty hipster ones; this, the square working ones. All of these individual women may or may not be excellent. Their social niche doesn't really interest me —smart, interesting, cool women come in all shapes and forms just as idiotic, manipulative freaks do. Like, the storefronts on Haight Street, it takes time — and bravery or indifference — to penetrate through that initial haze, walk in, and actually order a drink, as it were. 

I suppose this is one reason online dating profiles are, for the most part, so uniformly dry. Well, there are no doubt many reasons including the fact that people are uncomfortable writing. But I believe it's also because they're afraid of committing to any one position. Which is, in fact, the problem people have with writing: Where do I begin? Which conversation do I enter? There are so many ways to come at art, life, experience, literature. Which is the best one? What makes it the best one? How do I frame my argument? How do I begin my essay? How do I present myself to the world? Or, rather, to which world do I want to present which self?

That punk bar on Haight Street knows what it wants and goes for it. But people who are infinitely complex and seek the infinite complexity of another human being? They're not sure which conversation they want to enter; each seems too limiting. And so they go dry and broad and vacuous. Sometimes, you just have to put your stake in the ground and trust others will have the wherewithal to come in, sit down, and order themselves a cocktail. 


Becoming Language Here & Now

I love the word here. It has this great double sense. On the on hand, it's so insistent: Where? Here! On the other hand, it's so generous: Here, I baked you some tasty cookies! This play of insistence and generosity runs through all of language. In fact, I want to say that it is this play that allows, facilitates, and creates meaning, producing the spectacular event of linguistic sense, all those things words do. 

Language is weird. It's a kind of system that includes all these different elements — words, punctuation, meanings — and the way the elements combine, that is, grammar. From one angle, language is a self-contained system. It seems to come more or less complete, ready to be used, a sense pret-à-porter. Or one of those robust tool boxes I'd see at Sears when I was a kid with these fold out drawers filled with tools of different sizes, shapes, sharpness, and function.

And yet language never exists outside of its use. Never. Which is to say, our every encounter with language is an encounter with something — a person, book, song, film, dog. It's always an event, a reckoning, an occurrence, a happening, an encounter. There's always a speaker or writer. Dictionaries try to be the Word on high, devoid of body, the delivery of pure meaning. But that's absurd. Dictionaries have a voice, tone, and style. They have a body. 

The structuralists tried separating these two aspects of language — the system, or what they in the French manner, called langue; and the instantiation of language, its use, which they called parole. But of course langue and parole, system and use, were never distinct. There was not first language and then people using language. The beginning of language is the beginning of humans. Or, better, the beginning of both is an existence which has always already begun and which, like humanity, is always evolving, changing, transforming. (This drives my kid crazy. He imagines, like many, that there must be a first — a first person, a first universe. To which I always say: Nope. The universe has always existed. So has language.) Anyway, for those who care, showing how the use (of language) is co-existent with the structure (of language) is what we call deconstruction (see Derrida's Of Grammatology).

But I don't want to talk about that here. Not really. Well, I take that back. I do want to talk about that as well as about this, here, now. And about you and I, among other things. (Does it drive you crazy that I don't use quotation marks to mark the difference between the use of the word and the word as an object? Are you sure there's always a clear difference between them?)

The linguist Roman Jakobson called these words indexicals. Other people might also have called them indexicals but I discovered the term reading Jakobson so Jakobson it is. All knowledge, all claims, all arguments are bound by the circumstance of those involved, in this case me. I read Jakobson nearly 20 years ago. I have not reread it. I am so glad I'm not an academic who has to cite his sources. I have the great luxury of writing immersed in myself.

Indexicals are very cool. They are words that have no set referents, no fixed meaning. They only take on a referent in their use. Dog has a referent outside of any particular dog; it conjures the concept, image, and idea dog. But the word here — as well as now, here, this, that, I — have no referent other than within a particular circumstance.

This can make things complicated. One of my favorite moments which I used to teach is being in a public bathroom and reading the words, I wuz here. Who? Me? Huh? Aren't I here now? How can I even say the phrase, I wuz here? The I is present; so is here; but the wuz folds this I and here into another dimension so that, in some sense, I am here and not here. As are you. Or, rather, as is your I.

Of course, we can talk about the now and the I, turn them into nouns and concepts and images we can discuss and bandy about. But that's something else. As indexicals, they refer to this or that I, this or that location, this or that now. What Jakobson was getting at, amongst other things, is that language is structurally circumstantial. Which is odd. It's an open system, a moving system, a temporal system. It's kind of like our civil law. Yes, there's a code of rules but there's always — always — the particular negotiation of that code, of those laws.

Through their insistence on circumstance, by only having meaning in a particular time and place, indexicals introduce a kind of play into the structure of language.  Which is what I always really liked about all this and that. For Jakobson, indexicals are generous, a portal into the system of language. They are these moving spaces into which the user — writer or speaker — slips and becomes an agent of language. When I say I, for Jakobson, I enter the matrix as all of language surrounds me and I become at once animator and animated, user and used, operator and operated. Like Neo, when we utter I, we become part of the code.


The Architecture of Everything

I always liked writing books — not that I published any of them as seeking publication is a whole other job that doesn't interest me at all. I just like writing. And, with the book as distinct from the essay, I enjoyed building this elaborate edifice, this convoluted structure of rooms and hallways, verandas and vistas, gardens, atria, and arcades.

It began with my dissertation (oh, my, that 1997). Many grad students endlessly kvetch about their dissertations but not me. I loved it. It was like building my dream house from the inside out. I'd hint at a foundation, sure, but then I'd go and build this incredible (to me!) space in which I roamed about Paul Ricoeur. Then, I'd construct this fancy little passageway that lead to Paul de Man; around the corner, to Harold Bloom; and then this small rumpus room that I named Derrida. Oh, but that was just the beginning, the foyer. Next came the great rooms: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, adjoining, Gilles Deleuze. What a building! It had vistas here onto ancient rhetoric and windows there that gazed upon structuralism. Whatever I wanted to see, where ever I wanted to dwell, I simply built it. It was magnificent.

At the time, I was not so aware that writing was indeed architectural. Sure, I bandied about architectural figures but I was yet to realize the extent to which everything was indeed architectural.

I play the guitar, poorly. But every time I play (too often for those around me) I am struck by the shapes and interplay of shapes — the way the Orion of C can move or not move and be supplanted by the dash of A. Often, rather than hearing a tune or melody, I see and play with shapes — I'll move that C, shift that dash, bend it into an arch. Just as writing a book entails linking these different spaces together, I found playing music to be a matter of the same: shapes linked to shapes.

After many, many years of reading philosophy, I finally began to see it as architectural. It began with studying for my oral exams and in particular, the part on Hegel with Judith Butler (of all people). I kept returning to the strange shape of The Phenomenology of Spirit — the way it offered structures that gave way to new structures, this slipping and sliding and giving to but each scene, as it were, embedded within another, a kind of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, the repetition of the same gesture on smaller and bigger scales, like a slurred fugue. 

Suddenly,  I saw all philosophy as sculptural, as these elaborate shapes in motion. But they were more than sculptures, more than these things to be looked at. They were to be inhabited. One could dwell, and indeed frolic, inside Nietzsche. I could hop, skip, and jump around the thousand plateaus of Deleuze and Guattari. I could slowly climb the rigid edifice of Kant's critiques which had a propensity to become rope swings and carousels — a fantastic playground set.

What is language — and particularly grammar — if not an architecture of sense? And what is rhetoric — what are tropes — but shapes? Metaphor: a bridge between two sites. Metonymy: a site continuous with the rest. Synecdoche: a condensation of the whole, like a model. Irony: a facade. All of language is a collection of structures. The media of communication are architectural, nudging and distributing words, ideas, experiences, and sense itself into a structure we can inhabit. Change the shape and you change experience. We of new media know this well as the rhythm and shape of knowledge and ideas, their creation as well as consumption, change with each new widget.

This understanding of language and philosophy began to shape how I viewed movies. I remember first seeing this as I watched Luc Besson's The Professional a dozen times in a row after finishing those same said oral exams on Hegel. I kept seeing the construction of the film. Look how the scene is constructed: a boot, a metonymy, of her precocity. Léon's milk and gait, a metaphor for his childishness. The film is constructed of all these shapes, a 4D Lego set. The screen was not a looking glass onto a place; the screen was a place to be designed, defined, shaped. Look how Mathilde (Natalie Portman) leaves the screen one side only to appear on the other side. 

Wes Anderson is an architectural filmmaker. But I don't mean this as most mean it —  in the sense that he builds his movies around spaces — a home, school, boat, train, island, hotel. Here's what the "Architect's Journal" writes: "Anderson is easily the most architectural film-maker out there. Virtually all his films revolve around a single, hermetic, highly detailed, often custom-built location" (article >).

I want to argue that it is not that Anderson's films operate in the scene of these distinctive spaces. It's that the very construction of the film, of the story and its characters, of how events proceed, is architectural. His narratives are shapes. The elaborate sets he builds are his stories. You can't separate the mad escapade up and down the mountain top — the emotions, the actions, the motivations, the obstacles — from the place itself. He doesn't build the set to house his film. On the contrary, the shape of the story creates the set.

But what am I saying? That things exist in space? Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying: things — all things, including song and story and concept — are spatial. But they are not just spatial just as architecture is not just a definition of space. What makes architecture so beguiling, so grand, is that it is the hedging of events, steering the great tumultuous flux of time this way and that, more or less gently, more or less ardently.

Architecture is a setting of a scene that has infinite permutations all within these limits. Architecture is not the stage upon which we act but is the very stuff of time-space. Consider the New York Guggenheim for just a moment and you see, you experience, a narrative, a song, an idea all at once. It tells a different story, sings a different song, constructs a different idea than the Met or Bilbao, for that matter. There is no non-architecture; there is no nothing. When I see the world, when I see all things, I see shapes — shapes everywhere, shapes everything.


Grief, Affirmation, Melancholy

Six Feet Under, as its best, affirms death and its attending pathos.

In Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Nietzsche declares, My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it. There are many versions of this argument — from Buddha, Leibniz, Spinoza and many more, all with a different spin. 

But the basic argument (whatever that is) looks something like this: There is no other life; all there is is all this. To wish it any other way — backwards as regret or forwards as hope — is nihilistic. It is to wish nothing. After all, life is what happens. To wish it otherwise is to go against life. Which is why Nietzsche calls it nihilism — a will to nothing — rather than a death wish. To hate death is to go against life, too. And is an all too common recipe for misery. How can you not be miserable if you want life to be other than it is?  

This is why Nietzsche talks about Yes-saying, about affirmation. One popular version of this is his often mis-used line, That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Everything serves our life; everything is our life — even sickness, even death. This is not to say that we should smile as the world kicks our teeth in. But it is to say that the challenge is to go with life in all its forms — sickness, pain, misery, death.  

This is joy. Which is different from happiness. Happiness is great, no doubt, but it's contingent and fleeting. You're happy because something happened. You got a new haircut! Your crush texted you! You took some awesome E! And that is awesome, no doubt. Wooohoooo! But when it's over, so goes your happiness.  

Joy is another matter all together. Joy is the affirmation of life regardless of what happens. It is the exuberance of life itself. It comes from the inside out, as it were, not the outside in. All kinds of things can be, and are, happening around you. They may make you happy; they may make you sad. But joy embraces it all. Joy says: Yes, this, too. I love this. I love having my heart broken. I love vomiting phlegm for three days (that's Nietzsche's experience). It's all life; it's all me; I'd have it no other way, wish it no other way, hope for it to be no other way. (I may will it to be different but that's a conversation for another time.)

But then what to do with grief? If I truly affirm everything, feel that everything that happens is as it's supposed to happen because it did in fact happen, what do I make of the intense grief I experience with the loss of a loved one? 

As I've written before, my sister died a few months ago — my incredible, beautiful, brilliant, sweet, loving sister. She died at 49, the mother of three young(ish) children. She died horribly and quickly — five months from diagnosis to death as the tumors eviscerated her brain and evacuated her being.

At first, I was devastated. I wished it otherwise. I didn't want her gone. I thought better me than her. I'm just some big nosed obnoxious fuck but she's this sweet, caring, loving, vital woman so take me and spare her — as if all this worldly bullshit matters at all, as if the infinite pays heed and passes judgment. Which is absurd as life just happens as it happens, beyond our social and moral schemas, regardless of how elaborate or heartfelt. 

Equally absurd, I found her suffering and then her absence more than I could bear. I wailed, long and hard. I punched myself until I was black and blue. I punched the walls, my hands now chaffed. I curled up in a ball and wept for hours, day after day. As if this might change the course of events.

And then, with the help of a wise guide, I let that go. Everyone dies; this was her time; so it goes. I was lucky enough to help her die, to be by her side as she began to vanish from this earth. I was lucky enough to talk to her, rub her head, lay next to her, hold her increasingly frail hand. I could feel the love — mine for her, hers for me. Rather than a lack of her being, there was an abundance of love.

For a few months after this revelation, I didn't cry. In fact, I felt a certain woosh of her presence, of her love. It was as if I could feed off it, be fueled by it. I'd smile every morning at her picture magnetically adhered to my fridge.

And then that smile gave way. I found myself encountering her in long, detailed dreams. And then, upon waking, greeting that same magnetically clung fridge picture with tears, not a smile. At first, I thought I'd lost sight of the affirmation of things. If everything is as it should be, necessarily and not morally, why am I crying?

And then I began to understand: Because that is life, too. Because loss and grief are as constitutive of this existence as anything and everything. Before, I wailed because I could not, would not, accept what had happened. Now, I was crying because this is the affirmation of death. This is the affect — productive and beautiful — of loss. This is melancholy.

If joy is the affirmative exuberance of life's happening, melancholy is the affirmative malaise of life's happening. Flowers bloom and then they die. Both are essential; both are beautiful. While I love a flower's bloom, am humbled in awe by its grandeur, I love its inevitable decay, as well. Joy witnesses the flower's fruition and jumps in the air: Yes! Melancholy witnesses the flower's decay and cries: Yes!

To feel regret, guilt, depression is to wish life other than it is. But to feel melancholy is to affirm the resonant pathos of life's passing — its coming in, yes, but its going out, as well. 

I have cried for my sister in at least two ways. In the first, I bemoan her loss, feel ripped off, feel denied, wishing life other than it is. In the second, I feel the fullness of her coming into being and passing into another kind of being — less immediate and sensual, of course, but no less palpable and powerful. And it makes me sad and this is beautiful and this is affirmative.

To grieve is not to deny life. Grief is not necessarily nihilistic. I can say: Yes, this happens and it hurts! I can affirm death, embrace death, and still cry. From the outside, it looks the same: me crying on the kitchen floor. But they couldn’t be more different.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...