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Redeeming Desire

My digital friend, the respected author and journalist, Erik Wahlberg, sent me a message recently suggesting that I abandon the use of ‘horizons of desire’ as a way of framing human aspirations. He believed, with abundant justification, that desire is tied to consumerism, and the social construction of market demand for the luxurious, the wasteful, and the superfluous. Going further, borrowing from Noam Chomsky’s critique of ‘manufactured consent’ as expressive of mainstream media indoctrination in a liberal society, I would suggest that the term ‘manufactured desire’ might encompass Wahlberg’s appropriate concerns about the excesses of capitalism as promoted via advertizing, including ever more sophisticated techniques of subliminal manipulation. Let me go further, and suggest that due to growing pressures on food, water and energy security, prospects for future wellbeing and even civilizational survival depend on an ultimate repositioning of economic production and consumption around needs rather than wants, finding satisfaction and fulfillment through living in harmony with nature rather than, as now, as a predatory antagonist.

Despite accepting this line of thinking, I am too fond of desire to consign it to ‘the enemy.’ For me desire expresses our spiritual wishes as much, or more so, than our material appetites, and of course, honors our sensuality as a source of love and sacred attachment. As with any virtuous quality, desire can become excessive or malevolent, and must always be realized within an ethical framework of affirmation of ‘the other’ as subject, and never an object. In other words, desire, like its sibling, freedom, must be joined at the hip to an overriding sense of responsibility that includes prudence. Almost all forms of addiction are instances of over-indulging desire, which if contained within an ethos of moderation, would be satisfying and even redemptive.

Such a redemption of desire as a matter of ‘living well’ is distinct from the collective concerns of ‘living well together,’ to borrow again from another seminal thinker of our age, Jacques Derrida. For me, ‘horizons of desire’ supplements ‘horizons of necessity’ (what must be done for the sake of survival and sustainability) and ‘horizons of feasibility’ (what can be done given the constraints and inhibition of politics as usual, that is, politics conceived of as ‘the art of the possible’). What horizons of desire adds is the relevance of dreams, hopes, aspirations for a better, even an ideal, human future, a perfected ‘city of man’ to invoke the dualistic image of St. Augustine.

It is what the utopian imagination and visionary thought contribute to our engagement with the politics of a better tomorrow. It is what Goethe must have meant when he said in the patriarchic idiom of his day, “him who strives he we may save.” Or in my more secular terminology reacting against the closures associated with respecting horizons of feasibility, allow ourselves to be guided hereafter by ‘the politics of impossibility.’ To be more concrete, I believe that the existing gaps between what is necessary and what is possible can only be closed by enlisting desire in the enterprise.

Let me illustrate these abstractions more concretely. On matters of global scope, nuclear weaponry and climate change are swords of Damocles dangling precariously above human destiny. Existing political mechanisms are paralyzed by the shortsightedness of the 1% and the passivity of the 99%, which means that the necessary adaptations are ignored as not feasible. In effect, the threats posed are hidden through an induced narcosis: ‘a psychosis of denial.’ Desire means an awakening, an activism, a readiness to occupy and resist removal.

More narrowly conceived issues have the same structure, whether it is a just process of self-determination for Palestinians, Kashmiris, Kurds, and others or deferred historical justice for the many dispossessed indigenous peoples living in endangered enclaves of deprivation throughout the world or empathetic solidarity with the growing circle of victimization arising from the Fukushima disaster. It is only desire that gives teeth to the rhetoric of solidarity.

For me, acknowledging desire is indistinguishable from the vocation of healing the many wounds of the planet. I believe desire bestows delight and is powerful whether as emotion or fantasy. It is passion unleashed for the sake of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

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