I wrote this last year, as the final paper for Postmodern Critical Theory with Chris Latiolais. Lately, the concepts have been haunting me, and they seem far too important not to share.
An Erotic Campus
Recently, Kalamazoo College has engaged in discussions regarding sexual practices on campus. The panel has dubbed their goal a “sex-positive” campus, focusing on issues of consent. Though this pursuit is, perhaps, the single most important improvement the campus could undergo, the discussions have not yet been moving in the right direction. Rather than focus on what could happen in the courtroom, we should be focusing on what is happening right in front of us. The simple use of the words “yes” or “no” can never cover the whole story. What our campus needs is a complete reworking of our conceptualization of sexuality, a re-eroticization of the libido, which is currently confined in our minds only to the genitals. In order to provide a framework for this kind of thinking, we may turn to philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Zizek. Merleau-Ponty’s work illustrates the bond our bodies share with the world, how this bond can be deepened through sexuality, and the devastating effects of the sexual violence that closes off that bond. Lacan and Zizek illuminate the structures that have been allowing the kind of violence that can make its way into sexuality, and why we have been getting it wrong.
For Merleau-Ponty, it is by means of the body that the world can show itself to us. Neither of the polar ends of Cartesian Dualism explains the way in which we are open to the world. That is, we are not simply intellectual beings imposing concepts upon the world, nor are we causally determined, purely biological beings. Rather than any combination of these two models, Merleau-Ponty instead presents us with the body “in-the-world” (Merleau-Ponty “Basic Writings” 101). As human beings, we are not merely intellectual beings nor are we objects in the world. We are, instead, an openness upon the world. The way in which the world can show itself to us is through the body, as we engage in “the motor grasping of a motor significance” (143). Through his work, Merleau-Ponty claims “we bring into existence, for ourselves, or take a hold upon, space, and the object or the instrument, and to describe the body as the place where this appropriation occurs” (154). The world shows itself to us by means of the way in which we are attuned to it, through an “incarnate significance” that Merleau-Ponty explains as “a primary process of signification in which the thing expressed does not exist apart from the expression” (Merleau-Ponty “Perception” 166). In simple terms, we cannot understand “rough” or “smooth” without running our hands over the surface. A road will show itself differently to a runner than to a non-runner, who is attuned to how her body could interact with that road.
In the chapter “The Body in its Sexual Being” from The Body, Merleau-Ponty explains human sexuality in terms of this openness upon the world. Gaining a greater understanding of Merleau-Ponty’s account of sexuality highlights the pitfalls of our current conception of sexuality. We tend to think of sexuality in terms of genital stimulation, but Merleau-Ponty points out that “the libido is not an instinct, that is an activity naturally directed towards definite ends, it is the general power, which the psychosomatic subject enjoys, of taking root in different settings” (158). What Merleau-Ponty is calling for is an opening up of our understanding of what sexuality is, from our narrowly-defined, somewhat biological account of it to that of libido, and Eros. One of the problems with sex on campuses today is that “perception has lost its erotic structure” (156). What we need is to “expand [our] notion of sexuality to the extent of absorbing into it the whole of existence” (159). When we understand that our bodies act as pivot points in our bonds with the world, the concept of a playful, erotic sexuality that allows us to “[establish ourselves] through different experiences, [and] gaining structures of conduct” (158). To bring comfort and health to sexual relationships on campus, “there must be an Eros or a Libido which breathes life into an original world, gives sexual value or meaning to external stimuli and outlines for each subject the use he shall make of his objective body” (156). We must differentiate between sexuality as it is generally understood by society and the media, and instead come to view it as a means by which we can further our bond with the world, with ourselves, and with others, through mutual exploration of our modes of attunement.
Along with Merleau-Ponty’s beautiful account of what human sexuality rests upon and can be, comes an explanation behind the devastation following sexual violence. What is threatened by sexual violence is a human being’s basic bond with the world, the way in which he or she is open and attuned to what surrounds him or her. For the victim of sexual violence, “what collapses is the whole field of possibilities” (162). Merleau-Ponty allows that, “the subject, in so far as [he or she] has a body, retains every moment the power to withdraw from it” (165). As discussed earlier, however, this withdrawal comes at a high price, for it is through the body that the world can show up for us. According to Merleau-Ponty, the process of recovering from sexual violence requires a self-attunement, a re-attunement in which “the body once more opens itself to others or to the past, when it opens the way to co-existence and once more (in the active sense) acquires significance beyond itself” (165). Merleau-Ponty’s depiction of human sexuality not only explains the utter destruction brought about by sexual violence, but also suggests a re-eroticized community that can act as a safe zone for the re-opening of those of us who have been closed off to the world. This is the kind of community that the college campus should become.
The movement from a discussion on Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to the problem of sexual violence on campus to Lacan’s views on sexuality is a jarring one. Whereas Merleau-Ponty believes sexuality can be a deeper way of exploring our openness to the world, Lacan is famously quoted as saying “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship” (Fink “Lacanian Subject” 104). Lacan defines male and female in a structural manner, beyond the biological or cultural definitions that we tend to conceptualize, and “there is, according to Lacan, no direct relationship between men and women insofar as they are men and women” (104). The two structures differ in their orientations toward desire. This desire, however, does not relate directly to an Other but “with respect to a third term” (105). The structures that Lacan denotes as male and female, and the neurotic structures of obsessive and hysteric that map onto these structures as the more exaggerated forms, tell a compelling story about why and how we may be getting sexuality wrong. In order to grasp how these orientations toward desire “are neither symmetrical nor overlapping,” a deeper understanding of what makes these structures so different is necessary (105).
The obsessive, the neurotic exacerbation of the male structure, is oriented in terms of desiring fantasy toward an object, and “refuses to recognize that this object is related to the Other” (Fink “Clinical Intro” 118). A famous example of the origin of the neurotic structure centers around the mother’s breast, “the infant’s primary source of satisfaction” (118). The mother’s breast gives the child its sense of well-being and wholeness, as “the infant considers the breast not as separate from itself but rather as part and parcel of ‘itself’” (119). When the child is separated from the mother, this object, rather than the mother herself, is what is lost. The obsessive desires only objects, such as breasts, legs, a certain way of moving, a certain way of speaking. It is due to the obsessive structure that the objectification of human beings has become so rampant, reducing men and women to nothing more than sexual objects. In the pursuit of desire, “the obsessive takes the object for [himself or herself] and refuses to recognize the Other’s existence” (119). In this movement is contained the greatest danger of the obsessive structure. The obsessive sees only him or herself, and cannot relate to the Other as a human being. The object of desire is desired because it symbolizes a sense of wholeness and subjective well-being. Should the Other draw away from the obsessive for any reason, removing along with himself or herself the object of desire, the obsessive’s sense of well-being will be compromised. The obsessive wants only to hold onto the object of desire, and does not see it as attached to a human being. Feeling that his or her very subjectivity is compromised, and the Other dehumanized, the obsessive may become enraged and resort to violence.
The hysteric structure, as it correlates to the female structure, relates to the Other “not in relation to the erotic object she herself has ‘lost,’ but as the object the Other is missing” (120). The hysteric recognizes the lack in the Other that makes him or her desire, relating to the mother’s loss of the child in separation, and “constitutes [himself or herself] as the object necessary to make the mOther whole or complete” (120). Rather than act upon his or her own desires, “the hysteric seeks to divine the Other’s desire and to become the particular object that, when missing, makes the Other desire” (120). In doing so, the hysteric essentially denies himself or herself subjectivity. His or her goal is not to make him or herself whole, but to make the Other whole as a subject by becoming what he or she lacks. The violence of the hysteric structure of desire is self-inflicted—he or she disappears as a subject against the Other, and his or her own desire is never a part of the equation.
Though Lacan’s ideas can seem somewhat abrasive and depressing, these structures provide new ways of viewing the pivotal problems affecting our campus. These structures will never be able to truly relate to one another by means of these orientations toward desire—whether the relationship involves a hysteric and an obsessive, two hysterics, or two obsessives. It is hard to deny these structures of desire, considering the objectification and dehumanization that seems to be the fixation of our society. From the earliest stages of sexuality, children show a propensity toward possessiveness and inability to relate to Others as human beings, or toward adopting the goal of becoming what Others want. These orientations toward desire also highlight the shortcomings of the question of consent. Though it is absolutely essential that both parties be in agreement to sexual activity, the words “yes” or “no” seem too simple to cover a person’s reasoning behind engaging in sexual activity. Is the reason for “yes” that the person feels he or she can grasp that partial object that represents, for him or her, the lost object? Or, perhaps, because he or she feels that agreement is what the Other wants? Both are problematic. In both cases, the word “yes” is not based on a mutual agreement to explore desire through a reciprocal, erotic encounter.
Although Merleau-Ponty and Lacan seem to be diametrically opposed in their views on sexuality, both philosophers are useful to the creation of an erotic campus. We may view Lacan as offering an account of the problem, and Merleau-Ponty as offering a solution to that problem. Dehumanization is the root of some of the most horrible acts of violence, and Lacan tells us that objectification is at the very root of fantasy. It is apparent that the obsessive and neurotic structures of desire are running rampant on college campuses today, bringing with them oppression and acts of violence that can absolutely close a victim off from the world. The idea of “consent” relates to our struggle only as it pertains to a truly open mutual agreement to explore erotic modes of being, not simply as an affirmative signifier. It is important, however, not to take Lacan’s idea of a structure of desire based upon the primary drama of the infant as a fatalistic proclamation that two people will never be able to relate to one another on a sexual level. Merleau-Ponty’s work on sexuality relates to Lacan in that it proposes that we can move toward a re-eroticization of the human body, before it was overwritten by signifiers. This, too, is the basis of traversing the fantasy for Lacan—breaking the grip of the structures of desire that have come to rule us in favor of understanding that desire can attach itself to any and all “objects.” Through traversing the fantasy, and pursuing libido as Merleau-Ponty describes it, we can create a campus community that no longer so narrowly defines sexuality. The sexual relationship can then become a trusting encounter through which people can deepen and broaden their attunement with the world around them.
Although Lacan and Merleau-Ponty provide us with a solid basis from which to understand sexuality on campus, it is also important to discuss the source of the kind of hatred that can drive people to violence. We all understand that love can bathe another person in a subjective light that goes beyond hiding flaws. In fact, it renders them even more loveable. Slavoj Zizek describes this phenomenon by saying “a choice is an act which retroactively grounds its own reasons” (Zizek 125). Zizek ultimately maps this on to Kant’s transcendental objects and the transcendental unity of apperception, in the sense that “reasons ultimately count only insofar as I ‘incorporate’ them” (126). We can never perceive a totality, and therefore must posit a unifying factor that we can apply to each experience of this person or object. In the case of a loved-one, we will write “love” into the narrative of that person, which will change our perceptive interactions with that person not because of any discernible given reason, but simply because we have decided to assign that narrative. Zizek makes it clear that “such narratives are always retroactive reconstructions for which we are in a way responsible; they are never simple given facts” (127). Our reasons do not give meaning to our narratives, but, rather, our narratives give meaning to our reasons.
The way we retroactively incorporate aspects of a person into a narrative of love is the exact same basis of hate. When Zizek emphasizes that there “are never simple given facts” that lead us to construct these narratives, he is leading us to think about stereotypes. We often view stereotyping as the source of violent hatred, and attempt to dispel stereotypes as a means of solving the problem. By recognizing that this hatred is based on a narrative of retroactively chosen reasons, however, it becomes clear that convincing those who are full of hatred that the hated people do not possess those qualities will accomplish nothing. The hatred does not lie in the reasons, it lies in the way in which a person has chosen to narrate. Both love and hatred are based on the same principle of something in the Other that is more than the Other. Dispelling hatred, therefore, will not work at the level of attempting to show people the ways in which stereotypes are “wrong.” A friend may numerate the faults of the person you love, but you will only assimilate these faults into your narrative and say “ ‘for this very reason I love this person even more!’” (126). In a similar manner, a person who has come to narrate another person or group in a certain way will assimilate negative and positive attributes—any attribute at all—into his or her hateful narrative. Until a person becomes aware that this hatred is the result of something arbitrary that he or she has chosen as a lens through which to view a person or a group, he or she will harbor a hatred that holds the potential to become extremely violent and enduring.
When we understand how the narrative structure of love is the same as hatred, the source of intimate partner violence may become illuminated. The application of violence may find its cause in a glitch in a person’s love-narrative. He or she may believe that his or her violence is justified, because the victim deserves such violence, according to the way in which this person has come to narrate the victim. Hatred can masquerade as love, so long as we have decided to attach the label of “love” to it. Taken to an extreme, this phenomena can explain why a victim will stay in an abusive relationship, despite its devastating effects. If the victim has constructed a strong love narrative, he or she will assimilate the violence, and the grip of “love” will prevent him or her from leaving the violent situation.
The re-eroticization of the campus is perhaps one of the most pressing goals we need to accomplish, because it deals with our very means of being open to and navigating the world. The structures that hold us back from accomplishing this, unfortunately, run deep. They are built into the drama of coming into the world as a being of language, and our relationships to fantasy and desire. The narrative structure of our lives may lead us down a path of violence, or lead us to remain in a violent situation. We are defined by a relationship to language, our lives are gripped by conceptualizations that rest only on the signifiers we ourselves have chosen. The first step toward an erotic campus is that of breaking down what has stood as a signifier for sexuality, and the rigid idea of genital stimulation that has eclipsed all other concepts that might have once been allowed to stand behind that signifier. Only then can we come to know sexuality as a playful and trusting unearthing of deeper and deeper attunement with the world, between bodies who have not been compartmentalized into zones that act as the only surfaces that allow sexual satisfaction. We must come to recognize sexuality as libido, and not as “an activity naturally directed towards definite ends” (Merleau-Ponty “The Body” 158).
Kalamazoo College is a community of thinkers. In some ways we are gripped and devastated by language, but, in this case, we must use it to our advantage. By spreading the words of these philosophers, students at Kalamazoo College may come to a deeper understanding of the horrors of sexual violence, the pitfalls of our conventional conceptions of sexuality, and the grip of our own modes of narrating. “Community” is a word that is commonly thrown around at a Kalamazoo College freshman’s orientation, but do we truly understand what it means? What is being proposed here is community at its finest—a network of trust and reciprocity where every encounter reflects back upon us a deeper and deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The discussion needs to open up beyond the question of consent. There is much more at stake in this than court proceedings. What is on the line is nothing short of our bonds with the world around us, the very way in which we know we are alive.