Desire, Drive & People's Lives
Stray Thoughts & Potshots
Caroline Polachek released her album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, last month. A certified Bop; an Avant Garde classic. The critics, the crowd and I - we all say so. But this ain’t about that. It’s about the concept. The moment I heard the name of her new project, I found myself thinking “Who doesn’t Caroline? Who doesn’t?”. The concept appeals to me. For I, like any other Sapien, have suffered at the hands of Desire; been consumed by Desire.
But what if I were to turn the table, and devour it instead?
Artistic and romantic notions aside - Desire gets a bad rep. The more authoritarian moralizing sections of society will hysterically condemn it; the clergy and crusty politicians denounce Desire, its temptations and consequences for the public. They would know since they routinely tempt themselves into some scandal or other. Desire will enslave the next generation. Sex. Money. Murder. Hyper Reality. And let’s not forget narcotics, good people. How they mislead the youth.
Throughout history we’ve had an uneasy relationship with Desire; it is both devilspawn and lifeblood. It can drive you to destruction, but if you keep Cool you could exit on the expressway to Providence - the toll to be paid is gargantuan effort and self-restraint.
So I’m told.
Is this the bleakest time in human history? Irrespective of your view, modern-day prophets and messiahs hawk their opinions and solutions in the market. Social media algorithms promote political polarization. There’s a lack of data privacy, and an addictive 21st-century digital reality. Big Tech successfully made the digital world the next crack cocaine.
Now: talks of Web 3.0 and metaverses.
There are murmurings that the glacially homogenizing global culture spearheaded on the final frontier of human communication – the internet – has led to a vapid, plastic and inauthentic reality for people. A cesspool for our worst impulses.
We’re losing ourselves in a simulacrum.
A YouTuber named Hamza claims to have found an antidote for young men today, to navigate a society out to emasculate them using the seduction of instant gratification, and subliminal psychosocial warfare. He, and others of his ilk, are concerned the worst desires of people are being exploited to keep them weak – men especially. They want men to rise above Desire, and become like the tough no-nonsense Stoic men of yore. “High Value” alpha males.
“At age 20, your great grandfather would have been fighting in World War II” - some young guy gazing intensely into the camera will say. He will also tell you not jerking off and saving your “seed” will make you make better eye contact with women.
Not to be outdone, the womenfolk celebrate Lori Harvey leaving Michael B. Jordan. Women are entering their “villain” era, they are going to stick it to the Man. Your internet big sister will teach you how to harness the energy of “Dark Femininity”.
Kids are growing up with notions of becoming social media influencers? Youtubers? Ofc society is doomed! How dare they? Succumb to superficial ideas of fame, adoration, materialism and status. CLOUT.
How dare they give into Desire? The narcissism.
But it’s the free market of ideas - good, bad, problematic, and revolutionary ideas. Never before in human history, never on this scale.
Self-improvement influencers preach discipline to kids. How not to get overwhelmed by the vices of modernity; Stoicism and Fight Club are pushed as antidotes. This must be a Western problem, societies where the individual has been torn away from the collective.
Swetabh Gangwar is here in the trenches of India, teaching his audience of young (mostly) males, to do the same. He’ll of course use the Vedas as a reference for his “gangster philosophy”.
Anyway: all roads lead to Rome.
Confessions for Carl Jung
Father, forgive me for I sinned
Tried to crawl outta my own skin
A dalliance of mine once told me, “Everyone should have some kind of a vice”. I cultivated a respectable cornucopia for myself - alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, porn, junk food, and binge-watching bullshit.
The 21st Century preachers of Stoicism told me to take action. To rise above my vices. Impassioned detached action. But with passion. I tried. Maybe the passion was too heavy, I’d sink and swim in circles. That iron discipline doesn’t work for me. You start tripping about how passionately you’ve got to be Stoic.
That’s mucho machismo for me. I can be tough maybe, but I can’t be strong.
It seems like the worst impulses of people are magnified these days. Culture wars. Polarization, declining trust, and all that. Different question, that maybe those things always did exist. It was not Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Just a fracturing. For a while, the turn of the millennium looked like a new world order - some vanilla liberal Utopia.
But you know how New Year’s resolutions go.
No post-political all-inclusive utopian orgy; strife, intolerance, hate and disenchantment gatecrashed. Or were they always there? They wanted to hide the ugly side of human nature; sweep it like a necrotic limb under the carpet. Now there’s a pushback against minorities, rising nationalism and xenophobia, and all the progress in Gender relations appears to be slow dancing on thin ice.
Carl Jung would have laughed, for he knew you cannot wish away your darker impulses, individually or collectively. You have to tackle them head-on - you’ve to meet your Shadow. Try shaming it, it’ll give you a reason to be ashamed.
It is supposed to be painful. It’s called growing pains. All this strife must be natural then.
Luxury & its Necessity
“Luxury is a Necessity that begins when Necessity ends”
(Emily in Paris quoting Coco Chanel)
You’ve got to have the privilege to fuck up, get fucked up, get fucked with, and still keep on keeping on. It should be a universal human right. Trial and error. Then you can learn; then, it’ll be a true “scientific” knowledge society.
The platter of second chances I’ve gotten, I’ve taken; I cannot help but be grateful. Resources, networks and social safety nets; the Shadow wreaks real havoc in places devoid of such privileges. So perhaps, conservatives and prudes have their hearts in the right place. Stoicism and austerity are necessary to navigate dire straits. It may fundamentally secure us through the worst of times.
But, people have always wanted to transcend. It’s a primal mechanism etched in our bones. Even in the worst of times; to go beyond the bare necessities, fantasizing luxury. It’s what we long for.
A luxury media house, Neue Luxury, posts on their blog, “The Philosophy of Desire”, claiming both Eastern and Western philosophies have a history of somatophobia: fear of the body. These fashionistas go on to shade philosophers like Plato and Schopenhauer for being prudes. Even Buddhism is treated as sus’. They instead look to the Nietzschean and the Freudian; ones who took our animal instincts, our Desires for what they are. Natural.
Speaking of Nietzsche: he thought the Asectic ideals of Stoics, Buddhists and Puritans to be disingenuous to human nature; creating a false binary between worldly pleasures and otherworldy “transcendence”. Wanting to transcend this life, break free from the cycle of life and death, of pain-pleasure, or suffering and joy, he saw it as life-denying. In other words - he thought they were all buzzkills.
The Living Philosophy explains it better.
His Dionysian morality dove headfirst into life’s mania and melancholy. The Asectic ideal wants to minimize pain and pleasure. At some level, it means restricting and repressing urges and actions. They are defensive, scared and weary. Nietzche took inspiration from the Epicureans instead.
Epicureanism was a philosophy, contemporary of O.G. Stoicism, back in the Hellenistic days. The Epicureans emphasized pleasure to be the intrinsic goal of humans, and the drive to seek pleasure was seen as a powerful force. It is not necessarily the opposite of Stoicism – not Rock ‘n Roll hedonism. One of the premier digital authorities on philosophy: Academy of Ideas quotes the Roman Stoic thinker and statesman, Seneca the Younger –
“…the main difference between (his) Stoic school and the school of Epicurus - Epicureanism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of ‘training one’s desires’…”
We need to have the luxury to train our desires. Before we’re destroyed by it. So that we can go beyond being just “okay”, to actually being…
Metaphysics of Desire
The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, thought psychoanalysis occupied a pole position in investigating the metaphysics of Desire. Mainstream psychology dropped the school of Freud, Jung and Lacan et al - deemed too pseudoscientific.
The paradox of science: the more it wants to homogenize and systematize knowledge production, the more it cannibalizes its own spirit.
The marshmallow test and surveys of people answering about their desire for sleep, sex and success, all move like a toddler on training wheels in knowledge production. The theories of Older thinkers had a wider breadth and depth. They’d dare to be audacious and infallible without needing to justify their mass circulation as “ideas” in the world.
That childhood experiences shape adult behavioural patterns is now a truism in psychology. The psychoanalysts were the first to emphasize its extreme importance.
Hits and misses.
Jacques Lacan claimed Desire to be the leftover after the Demand for your Needs is fulfilled. A neat tripartite model that clawed to the essence of Desire. That surplus of wanting, that little itch that still keeps on going. Untouchable and elusive.
For Lacan, all Desire is the desire for unconditional love and attention, what a child is supposed to receive from their caregivers. It is the “Desire for the Other”. Love, sex, respect or whatever, it’s the need for recognition and reassurance that we’re safe, secure and worthy. Even if someone is driven to obsession with food, or their work, or their collection of stamps. It is about finding some kinda comfort most people knew as children. Something that socialization weans them off. Something they will never get again.
Desire destructively ravages our psyche when we become pathological in chasing that feeling, the one we’ll never get again. It goes beyond the “pleasure principle”. For Lacan, it is chasing jouissance: the ecstasy of transgressing the boundary of acceptable pleasure. It’s a kind of suffering really.
The impulse to chase after our Desires like that - that’s Drive.
Lacan thought Drive “vampirically” feeds off of Desire’s dissatisfaction. It’s self-fulfilling, and its appetite is voracious. Each time Desire bounces to the next thing, Drive follows.
Utopia & Hedonia
As Caroline Polachek tells Vogue, Desire “is really the force that guides us through our lives”.
Even the ones trying to kill it, desire freedom from it. Circular, but kinda true. In a way, there is no escaping it. The psychoanalysts, Nietzsche, the “artistic types”, and maybe a lot of people, in general, appreciate the concept for what it truly is.
Primordial, provocative energy. You know what they say about energy - it can’t be created or destroyed, only transferred.
Way back when polytheism may have actually meant something, i.e., a cacophony of competing philosophies; you had 6 orthodox schools and the various heterodox schools jockeying for the Culture, they thought there were 4 goals for human life.
In sequence of succession:
Dharma (ethical duty) => Artha (wealth) => Kama (Desire) => Moksha (liberation).
When all hell broke loose, and the chips were down, they’d say focus on Dharma, on the fundamental. But for Eudaimonia (the Good Life), you’d have to go through all the stages. They put wealth and Desire after the fundamental.
Abstract conceptualization aside, everybody has a bit of all 4 to some extent or other in all stages of their lives; the fact that it doesn’t matter anymore whether my friend is rocking cooler sneakers at a party than me – now that’s Moksha.
There is a reason Kama must be the 3rd goal, after the duty and material security; it could be that it is less important, but it could also be the more advanced goal to master. The Juggernaut will point out that the West reduced the Kama Sutra to just a sex manual, whereas it actually discussed the art of living and relationships itself. We gotta blame ourselves too for our pathological neuroses tho’.
IDK the precise points they make, I’m too broke to break their paywall.
The larger Kama Shastras contain a whole bibliography of thought on the subject. If Culture today is devoid of any discussion of the Arthashastra (like Kautilya’s work) and Dharmashastra, save for maybe Sanskrit and philosophy departments in universities on verge of extinction, one can’t imagine the 3rd goal (possibly the most misunderstood) getting any traction.
The Asectics (Stoics, Buddhists, Advaita Vedantist Hindus and prudes) who make Desire one of the central villains of their principles got me feeling some type of way. They may not be wrong to do so, since we’re always our own worst enemies. But it feels like they don’t want to upgrade their arsenal to face life. The logical extreme of their thought will encourage them to recoil into themselves, detach from the universe, and eternally fight their psyche. You have the philosophy of Purusartha, Epicureans, and Nietzschean-Dionysian who emphasize the power of Desire as something to be harnessed, not vanquished.
And I’m like “Wow, so true!”.
Coz how we gonna forge metal if we don’t play with fire?
As Rolling Stone noted about Polachek’s album title, there’s a dual meaning: it could be about “you”, the object of desire, about the obsessive feeling of love and infatuation, or …. Or, it could be about turning into Desire itself.
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