Bollen, J. (1998) ‘Logics of desire’, Outrage, 181 (Jun): 32-33.
Last year, I learnt how to perve. I’m not sure how I’d escaped training in such a fundamental gay skill. I knew how to indulge the occasional stolen glance across a dance floor. But what my new found friends taught me was perving as lifestyle practice: the full-on, stop-in-your-tracks, did-you-see-that, kind of perve. It was a revelation. Every where we went blossomed with perving potential. We were indiscriminate, shameless, as we wove webs of perving pleasure around us. Casting our desires, we connected with these men. Some were oblivious. Others were delighted.
Desire strings us together and joins up our world. Desire connects all kinds of things: bodies to bodies, to bits of bodies, to objects, textures, and shapes, to feelings, images and movements. Desire is multiform: it multiplies and mutates. There is no one desire, no ‘gay desire’ as such.
Here, then, is a survey: a mix-and-match assortment of desire-links and link-logics, ways of desiring that enmesh gay men in dense networks of pleasure.
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
You want it. You need it. Maybe you’ve got it and don’t want to let go. Maybe you can’t have it but don’t let that stop you. The object of your desire can be anything, of course. That man, that body, those pecs, his dick. That frock, this magazine, that toaster, one more cigarette.
This is desire as hunger, as necessity, as need. Desire that satisfies a lack, that targets an object to fill a void. This is the kind of desire that sells white goods; the desire that sustains an unrequited against insurmountable odds; the desire for glamour, fame and fortune, for leather, fur and feathers; the desire, above all, for dick. That’s how psychoanalysis views the things we want: a never-ending series of phallic substitutes. I have to admit, they look more like fashion accessories. But that’s the point.
The phallus is, of course, more than a humble dick, flaccid or otherwise. In psychoanalysis, the phallus is the supreme object of desire. The fetish is any handy substitute — but preferably the latest product to hit the shelves.
Consider the dildo — the phallus made flesh-like — an exemplary object of consumer desire. Addicted to shopping? Call it commodity fetishism.
One of the joys of living in the late twentieth century is that our entire culture operates on this logic. As discerning consumers we are trained in fetishistic desire. Gay consumerism is just another market in a global economy of homoerotic exchange. It took a while, but they eventually worked it out: beefcake sells. In this setting, ‘What’s your type?’ becomes a question of brand loyalty. Hairy or smooth? Cut or uncut? Scene or non-scene? We’re talking product differentiation in the niche-marketed nineties. It’s not called the meat-market for nothing. Luckily there are other logics of desire that aren’t quite so cut-throat.
Good looking caucasian needs masculine nonscene cruel asian guy.
Sweet young thing seeks sugar-daddy type.
Are you FF top looking for reg sessions with hungry bottom?
Scan the personals and they leap off the page, usually in pairs: top / bottom, young / old, asian / caucasian. Desire differentials are the eroticisation of difference. Almost any difference is ripe for erotic treatment. But the big ones, of course, are age, race, class and gender.
Cross-crossed and doubled-up, desire differentials sustain those classic narratives and crass stereotypes of ‘gay desire’. Consider, for example, E.M. Forster’s penchant for a bit of working class rough in the impossibly bourgeois Maurice; or that western rice queen’s seduction by a Peking Opera drag queen in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly; or Oscar Wilde’s infatuation with the young Lord Alfred Douglas and the sublimation of youth in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Hell, throw in Oscar’s liaisons with Picadilly call boys and the snapshot of him dolled-up as the middle-eastern femme fatale, Salome, and you’ve got the lot.
Butch-femme was once the master differential of ‘gay desire’ when gay men were nellies and their lovers were not. Here, desire is modelled on heterosexuality where power animates the erotics of relations. Men, white men, ruling class men, wielded phallic power beating women, the working class and the racially other into submission or envy or both.
In the erotics of politics, desire-differentials are about brute power, crude and imbalanced. They inhabit a world of class domination, colonial imperialism and patriarchal mastery. Little wonder desire-differentials get some gay men all hot and bothered under their white, middle class, straight acting collars. Desire-differentials terrorise those who like to imagine that desire can operate outside regimes of power.
But power isn’t all one-sided. Any bottom can tell you that. And if power is a dialectical two-sided tango then the picture starts to shift. Power is not what you have or have not. Power enfolds us, draws us in and links us together, enabling desire and generating pleasure. If there’s no way out of power, there’s no escape. The only option: work that difference!
In any case, if it weren’t for desire-differentials we wouldn’t have drag. And that would be a shame.
MEN LIKE US
If desire-differentials don’t get you going, chances are this next desire-logic is more your cup of tea. Forget the erotics of politics, this kind of desire is about relational reciprocity, domesticated democracy and shared wardrobes.
This is one kind of desire at which gay men excel. It’s not that heterosexuals can’t do it — they just have to wait till they’re on holidays before donning colour coordinated leisure suits. But gay men can do it any day of the week. Although, dance parties, I’ve noted, provide the perfect occasion.
What kind of desire is this? What makes cute gay couples dress their spitting image bodies in matching party outfits so they can spend the night dancing face-to-face mirrored in each other’s reflection? Auto-eroticism? Narcissism? Wankers, though cruel, is not far off the mutual masturbatory mark. Clearly there is pleasure to be had here. Pleasure that goes beyond the announcement of coupledom. Pleasure that links desire with identification in an endless circuit of reflection. I like you. You like me. We like us.
And it’s not just party boys who get into this logic of desire. It is precisely this logic that spawns that array of erotically self-sufficient gay tribes: leather men who are into leather men, macho clones into macho clones, muscles marys into muscle marys, fashion queens into fashion queens, post-punk queer boys into post-punk queer boys.
For gay men, this is one big logic of desire. Dominant, I’d suggest, at this point in time. It is the one that builds ‘good gay relationships’ of the talk-test-test-trust kind. The one that stresses partnership, equality, open exchange and a flexible approach to role-playing. Confused heterosexuals ask: How do they work out who does what? Easy, they talk about it and then take turns.
But there is something to be said for the two-way reciprocity of gay desire. In some kind of way, when you’re having sex with a man, you know what’s it’s like for him. In this Walt Whitman saw the future of democracy. Knowing queens, as I do, I’m not so sure. But it does make for good sex.
We now come to the hardest logic of desire. Hardest because it defies logic. This makes talking about it difficult, understanding it almost impossible. This kind of desire can take any object. It can make any kind of desire-link, follow any desire-logic. It is, in fact, indifferent to object, link and logic. It is not about satisfaction or completion, resolution or reflection. It is desire in excess of itself, beyond all boundaries. Desire in that twilight zone philosophers call abjection.
Abjection is where you can no longer tell what’s you and what’s not. Abjection is where all sense of self is abandoned, where all boundaries are transgressed. In this murky world of the in-between, pleasures run out of control, elevated above safety and reason, maximised beyond all responsibility. This kind of desire overwhelms us, testing the limits of our endurance, risking our annihilation. This is desire lying back in the sling, legs in the air, whispering ‘Fuck me, fuck me’. Desire that defies the logic of HIV health rationalists. Desire that sends shivers down the spine of our collective safe sex culture.
But there’s something forgotten in this drama-queen’s wet-dream of desire as dire destiny. In small yet skilful ways, all erotic encounters play on the borders of abjection, on those zones of erotic contact at the edge of what’s you and what’s not. Mouth, eyes, ears, anus are portals that interface between your inside and the outside. Fingers, fists, feet, penis, tongue are points of contact where you end and something else begins. Spit, sweat, pre-cum, semen, blood, piss, shit lubricate these portals and points of contact, erotically transgressing our bodily boundaries. Learning the ins and outs of gay sex, gay men acquire distinctive skills in navigating zones of abjection. Developing these skills, learning how to desire, can make the difference between abandoning the self and abandoning your health.
So far, and despite their differences, all four desire-logics have had one thing in common. They have all assumed that desire is about you and your self: your attachment to object, your difference from others, your image reflected, your own undoing.
This last and final desire-logic requires a shift in perspective. Here you aren’t the starting point of desire. Rather, desire is what makes you, what produces you from outside. According to this logic, you are held together by little rubber bands of desire. But at any moment you can be broken up and rearranged by stronger desire-links from beyond. Desire is not about you as a whole. It is about the connections you make. Let me explain.
When you fuck, sometimes it’s the person you fuck. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just the fuck that you fuck — as dick-to-arse practice, not person-to-person communion. Here, there is no self and no object of desire, just a practice, a process of connection, a linking of body part to body part, a movement and a sensation. There is no higher logic, no ulterior motive or purpose above the proliferation of pleasure, the intensity of sensation.
Gay men know how to desire like this. When a fuck’s just a fuck what more do you need? But we risk losing this capacity when ‘intimacy’ is elevated as master logic of desire (a recent tendency in studies of gay men’s sexual cultures in the context of HIV/AIDS). Intimacy is about interiority: getting close, getting inside, traversing the boundary between us. That’s one way to desire. When you’re in love, in love with love, the circuit is closed, cut-off from outside. But this other desire opens out and extends. It runs along the surface, connecting not fusing, generating intensities not self-satisfied identities, expanding not harnessing the production of pleasure.
In the end, it would seem, there are two kinds of questions to ask of desire. You can seek in desire an answer to who you are. You can ask it to tell you ‘You’re gay and here’s why’. But desire can do more than just hold you together and keep you in shape. Desire can open you up, pull you apart and draw you outside. It can make new connections, link things together and build pleasure making machines. What more could you ask? Desire can show you how.
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The science of sexuality is barely a century old. Getting couples to have sex on cold clinical bench tops, measuring everything from brain waves and penis length to the time it takes to orgasm, isolating hormones, pheromones and strands of DNA — these are relatively recent phenomena and the findings are rarely very sexy. Scientists tend to favour singular theories — sometimes called ‘the truth’. This isn’t always the best way to go when it comes to duplicitous desire in all its multiform multiplicity.
In contrast, the philosophy of desire has a long and illustrious history that can be traced back, in the western tradition, to the fifth century BC. In his Symposium, Plato documents a delightfully camp post-banquet debate where Socrates and fellow philosophers ponder the nature of love (mostly their own for Athenian youths) and where one of them drunkenly confesses a night of unrequited bliss under the doona with Socrates (nothing happened), just after Socrates had finished outlining his theory of desire as the yearning for what we don’t have.
Plato’s theory of desire as lack has sustained a major philosophical tradition. The theory was reworked in the early nineteenth century by the german idealist philosopher, Hegel. In his The phenomenology of the spirit — in part, a handy textbook on the erotics of master-slave relations — Hegel worked out that when desire gets satisfied, it’s no longer desire. He argued that for desire to keep on desiring, the object of desire must always be absent.
Maybe you’re not in love with him, maybe you’re in love with love. This is how the psychoanalysts, Freud and Lacan, view desire. Instead of seeking satisfaction, desire seeks perpetuation: desire desires desire. It is this kind of desire that Baudrillard yokes with marxism in his analysis of commodity fetishism in postmodernity. You can find a very different mix of psychoanalysis and marxism in Guy Hocquenghem’s seminal Homosexual desire — one of the first in a long line of psychoanalytically-inspired theories of gay desire.
From here there are roughly two paths that theories of desire have trod. One is a critical reworking of desire as absence, recast as the ecstatic beyond of jouissance: the desire for pleasures unrepresentable, irresponsible, incontinent. Elaborations of jouissance can be found in the work of french literary theorists Barthes, Derrida and Kristeva and some queer theorists like Leo Bersani. This is also the crowd that gets into the messy stuff of abjection.
The other path rehabillitates a counter tradition of theorising desire in relation to power. In this tradition, desire is no longer associated with absence, lack and negativity. On the contrary, desire is a positive energy, a productive force. Desire is what enervates and intensifies, what makes things go, connects things together, assembles us and spare parts into ‘desiring machines’. Whilst Spinoza and Nietzsche are key philosophers here, it has been Foucault’s work on power, knowledge and desire and Deleuze and Guattari’s counter-psychoanalytic theorising that have popularised this approach to desire. Foucault, of course, is the patron saint of many a gay male theorist. But so far Deleuze and Guattari seem more popular with lesbian theorists of desire.
Patrick Fuery, 1995, Theories of desire, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press
Elizabeth Grosz, 1989, Sexual subversions, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Elizabeth Grosz, 1995, Space, time and perversion, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Brian Massumi, 1992, A user’s guide to capitalism and schizophrenia, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
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