Demand (minus – ) Need (equals = ) Desire

 Babies and cats are spoiled and selfish creatures. That is why, whenever I am faced with my cat’s selfish narcissistic tendencies, I ask myself – “can these creatures even have the capacity to love?” Faced with this predicament, while taking into account that babies and cats are also quite silly creatures, I find myself truly doubting that they are able to comprehend such a complex concept (a concept that for some of us is even incomprehensible) like love.

This makes me a little paranoid, and so I wonder – “if these silly creatures don’t really ‘love’ me, what kind of relationship do we have? Taking into account the fact that in their limited developmental stage babies and cats have no capacity to comprehend the concept of love, what do they feel towards me?” Thinking of my cat, I come to one conclusion – what she feels is the need to be fed.

And indeed, humans (we’ll put cats in parenthesis for now) are born with a variety of organic needs which are necessary for their survival. Furthermore, because we are born way before we are developed enough (physically and mentally) to fulfil these needs on our own, we are dependent on our adult caretakers to fulfil them. This physiological fact – rooted in the baby’s helpless undeveloped (but cute) starting point – entails something very real about us humans – the fact that we are originally and necessarily dependent on the care of others.

babycat

These others, or more precisely, these adult caretakers, are the ones who surround the child from birth and take care of his or her needs whenever they randomly spring out of somewhere. Nevertheless, as some of us know too well, it is hard to understand what exactly the baby truly needs and when. And indeed, after a terrific time in mommy’s womb – a place where all needs are immediately satisfied – in the first days in the outside world, the baby is faced with a bunch of unfulfilled needs and a group of naive humans that can’t telepathically understand what he or she whats when he or she wants it. Accordingly, in order for their needs to be satisfied, young humans must be quite resourceful in taking on themselves a new relationship with signifiers, with the language of the adult world in which they are engrossed, and to articulate – in one way or another – a demand.

And indeed, just like that, through trial and error, we see babies starting to adopt the ways of the others and communicate with them using signs, movements, and sounds. In this way the baby’s needs are transformed into a demands, as they are symbolically articulated by the child in order to be satisfied in a timely and efficient manner (“blink once if you are hungry”). It is through this early relationship with language that the organic body composed of the child’s primal instinctual needs is re-appropriated by the signifier, and is utilised in the creation of demands which are framed by signs or language.

todler

Jon Beinart, Toddlerpedes, 2006

Nevertheless, when the child’s need is transformed into a demand – mediated by language – a new set of worries and repercussions which are alien and external to the domain of the original physiological need arises. For when needs are directed towards the others as demands, they are not only composed of the basic physiological need, but (as some of us know too well) also come to satisfy the desire for the attention and love of the caretakers to which the demand is directed to.

Parents find very quickly that when they wake up at night to the cries of their baby (or cat) and run quickly to their room, they find them – quite timidly – just lying there not physically needing anything. But do they not need anything? Well, yes, they do not need anything speaking in a strict physiological sense – they desire something beyond need. And indeed, according to psychoanalysis, when a demand is articulated in language it always entails an additional dimension which is not included in the domain of the original need. This is the domain of the desire of the others – their affection and love; a domain which, undisputedly, reaches beyond the limited sphere of the satisfaction of the particular physiological need.

catlove

Accordingly, Lacan insists that every demand – when it is subtracted from the original need – is in fact a demand for love.* More precisely, he claims that whenever an original need is articulated in language as a demand, we are faced with a uniquely human side effect – the formation of the demand for the attention and affection of the other to which the demand is directed.

Listen to your children and cats! Whenever a young child calls out to his mother, “I’m thirsty!”, it is possible he in fact means that he would like her to bring him his water bottle, but beyond that, it is quite possible that he also actually wants her to bring it to him – that she will give him her attention and affection by doing so. In other words, that she will see him as her object of desire.

It is therefore not surprising that one Lacanian definition of desire is: the remainder of the subtraction of the need from the demand articulating it in language. According to Lacan, desire gains it consistency from the fact that when a child articulates his need in a demand, something is left out. Something in language is not able to grasp the full scope of the child’s original need. That part of need is what, according to Lacan, is primally repressed, and in turn engenders the place of Desire.

But what is exactly the love of the other which the child desires? Lacan gives us the following answer – the desire for the love of the other is in fact the demand for the others desire (read that again). Meaning, the other’s capacity to desire – the part in the other which desires. In other words, we can say that when the child demands something from the other he also desires the part in the other which is desiring.

This initial form of desire is also manifest in our adult life, in our relationships with the ones that we love or that love us. It appears in the demand for love, not as the satisfaction of a need, but as a satisfaction of the desire for the desire of the loved one.

If we are lucky enough (and this is a discussion for another time), we find out quite early in our lives that this demand is impossible to fulfil. That is because human beings, like you and me, don’t really have a specific part in our bodies or minds which is desiring, and can be cut out and given to another person as a present. Non of us are really the practical owners of our capacity to desire. Accordingly, in the face of our lovers demand, we are left helpless – for there is no way we can truly satisfy it. There is no pleasure, nor promise, we can bestow on our lovers that can be equivalent to the thing they demand in the first place. All we can do as lovers is in actuality – lie. Providing our lovers with these accepted artificial signs that signal we really do love them; repetitively giving out indicators which simulate or even falsify our giving them what we cannot give them in the first place.

planelove

If we are truly truthful in to our lovers we should tell them – “my heart is not really mine to give”, or “I do not want to give you promises which I know I cannot fulfil”. That is why Lacan claims that only liars can truly answer the demand of their lovers with a straight face – “my love is yours!”.

Let us briefly conclude that the very familiar indicators of love that we so gladly enjoy in our romantic comedies and novels, are exactly the ones that make us forget or ignore what makes love so singular. These indicators are beautiful lies which stimulate our desire; unattainable fantasies which aspire to fill in an ‘un-fillable’ void. We must remember that, quite on the contrary, love is exactly the acceptance of this void, the forfeit of the words that will explain and promise what is to come; it is the movement from the desire-of-a-‘thing’, to the love-of-the-‘subject’.

tristan-and-isolde-jpglarge

Salvador Dali, Tristan and Isolde, 1944

 

* Please see Lacan, Jacques. Écrits, “The Signification of the Phallus”.

“There is no sexual relationship”

Wherever we look around us – especially while in a morose and misanthropic mood – we see “relationships”. Now, strictly philosophically speaking, a “relationship” is a concept designating an element which mediates between two things.  Accordingly, we can propose, for example, that there is a “relation of proximity” between me and my cat right at this moment, or a “relation of friendship” between me and my neighbour, etc. The question at the forefront of our discussion today will revolve an especially interesting relationship – the “sexual relationship” – and more particularly Jacques Lacan’s assertion that “There is no sexual relationship”.

Lets start with a first definition: a sexual relationship mediates between two individuals and involves sexual enjoyment. 

[The polyamorous readers might take into account that a ternary relationship (a threesome) actually consists of three binary relationships]

sexual-fantasy2

Thomas Ruff, Nudes, 2000

But what exactly is sexual enjoyment? Well, we can approach the question of sexual enjoyment (without discriminating any of its forms) on two levels: the physiological level – I.E. of the real bodies – and the psychological level – I.E. the one that takes place entirely in our minds. Sexuality, as it is manifest in the physiological level, has to do with a strange form of friction, setting a variety of mucous membranes and several types of sponges into action, which sometimes leads to procreation, but mostly just to an original form of biological expenditure. This dimension of sexuality completely lacks social and symbolic context; in it sexuality is a senseless, chaotic, grotesque collision between different masses of tissue. It is quite obvious that, as human-beings, we do not enjoy sex in a strictly physiological manner; that in order to ‘get off’ we require some’thing’ to assist us in painting this whole picture in a different light. This intervention takes place on the psychological level – through the meaning each and every one of us attributes to this senseless act which we all are so curiously attracted to.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Vagina

So, how does one enjoy? The answer to this question is found in the cultural domain, in language, at childhood. It is a question which does not have a single right answer, but has a multiplicity of answers – for we are, according to Freud, at our root “polymorphously perverse”. Soon enough you learn that some ‘get off’ the voice of their partner, while some can ‘get off’ only in the presence of high-heals. It is not the physiological sexual act which defines our enjoyment, but the way in which we interpret it on the basis of the symbolic and imaginary domain of our accumulated social existence.

Now, if our enjoyment is mediated through a symbolic or imaginary interpretation of the sexual act, then we have to assume that it necessarily entails a relationship to an image or an object in our psychic reality. Moreover, if interpretation is unavoidably lacking – especially when it has to do with a human being – then we cannot assume that this object can truly encompass the metaphysical girth of a subject. In other words, there is no way to take a subject, a human being, and reduce her or him into an image or an object (outside of our own mind that is). A subject is always more than the object we make of him or her – there is always more to my sexual partners than what I make of them during sex. That is what makes sex with people so much more enjoyable then sex with inanimate objects (although there are those very unique forms of fetishism). Therefore, it is clear why it is not the other subject which is included in our sexual enjoyment, but an object that we make of him or her, or assume that he or her has. It is something in them – most of the time something that they do not actually posses – that we ‘get off’ on. That something is the object of our desire, carefully assembled through our traumatic encounters with sexuality at a young age and our admirable attempts to make some ‘symbolic’ or ‘imaginary’ sense out of them. It is an object which is ours, rooted in an original (object) cause that is ours, through which we can gain access to our own enjoyment. This form of enjoyment is a narcissistic enjoyment – it takes place in my body, under my interpretation, and in relation to an object which gains its reality strictly in relation to my fundamental fantasy.

That is why, if we assume that a sexual relationship is necessarily conditioned on sexual enjoyment, we cannot assume that it entails a relationship to a subject. And indeed, Lacan reminds us again and again that, while having sex, the individual is in actuality alone. That the beautiful image of a naked body pressed on another is an ‘image’ – an ‘imag’inary representation; that sexual enjoyment is always narcissistic, and takes us far away from the subject with us to the domain of fantasy – of the object of desire.

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Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1594

Now we can better understand one facet (amongst many others) of Lacan’s famous aphorism – “there is no sexual relationship”; an argument which was especially shocking in an era where everybody was constantly talking about sexuality. Lacan claims that in the sexual act the subject forms a relationship with an object, that desire is fetishistically set on the other – his or her ass, breast, cock, voice, gaze… This is a desire which is confined by its cause, and thus cannot be truly incorporated in the other subject, but can only be projected as an object that his or her body carries for us; an object singularly concocted in the framework of our own fantasy. Interestingly enough, Lacan sometimes calls this form of enjoyment ‘hommo-sexual’ – a play on the french word ‘homme‘ (meaning man), designating an enjoyment which includes only one and the same person (or masculine enjoyment – more on that later on…).

Nevertheless, the fact that “there is no sexual relationship” does not necessarily imply that there are no other subjects in the world! On the contrary, it is exactly the objectification of our partners –  meaning, the assumption that they carry this object of our desire – which implies their subjective reality. It is only a subject that can carry this object, or what Plato and Lacan call “agalma”. It is the insistence on the apprehension of the ‘non-relation’ of sex, the ‘void’ of the sexual relationship, and axiomatically validate the existence of a second subject, that we can call ‘love’. Through love, which first has to go through desire, we bestow being on the subject. Yet, we should not get confused, this is not a “subject-on-subject” relationship, it is not a relationship at all, but a supposition of the existence of “the scene of the Two” (see: Alain Badiou); a place in the world, constructed through the experience of love, and under the axiomatic fidelity to the idea of living as-Two. But love is for another time, we first must meddle a bit more in the domain of desire. All of this and a little more will be tackled in the upcoming posts.

Ilona on Top arch.tif

Jeff Koons, Ilona on Top, 1990