Emily Witt’s report on her experience of the San Francisco BDSM scene in the latest issue of n+1 provokes not only for its graphic descriptions, but also for the questions it raises about life’s meaning. The piece contrasts that radical environment with Witt’s more conventional desires: “I had insisted to myself that I wanted a long-term, committed relationship, of the kind celebrated by the CDC and most happy endings (of the narrative sort). I had decided that any other kind of sexual relationship was a ‘waste of time.’”
Yet Witt, like me (and probably you), lives in a world where those conventional social structures and incentives that once promoted monogamy, early (or somewhat early) marriage, and stable families full of children are receding. Dwelling on her (and our) predicament, she writes:
What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
The long debate over Witt’s piece has failed to address her original question: What do you desire? She desires love, as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes, but she hasn’t been able to find it. This is the “idea” she would like to throw away: the idea that love is what she desires.
Instead, the debate has recast Witt’s original question into a series of formal-ethical questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is bad for civilization? What should a free society permit, and what should it censor? Predictably, this has ended in a Kantian blind alley. This trajectory is captured by the titles of Conor Friedersdorf’s two contributions to the debate: “The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults?” and “Sex, Morality, and Modernity: Can Immanuel Kant Unite Us?”
Both Gobry and Friedersdorf admire the Kantian injunction to treat human beings always as ends in themselves and never as a means to something else, and they both think that this injunction can perhaps offer our pluralistic society a common ground within which to determine what kinds of sex or porn should be outlawed. But—as many a college professor who has asked his undergrads to “apply” ethical theories would have guessed—Gobry and Friedersdorf do not seem to agree as to what Kantian ethics would actually disallow.
We could find a way out of this impasse if we took Witt’s question seriously. She is not asking whether something is right or wrong. She is asking “What do you desire?” The question is a probe, a tool for going deeper: What do we desire? Perhaps we all desire some things in common. Perhaps politics could build upon a consensus of desire. Perhaps some social pathologies can best be addressed through her question.
Ours is such a radically pluralistic society that we naturally search for something that we all hold in common. Friedersdorf is especially sensitive to this fact, and no doubt this diversity is one of the most interesting aspects of life in America. And this diversity is the reason why Kant’s pure reason would seem attractive for a situation like ours. But practically speaking, the Kantian approach will yield abstract moral injunctions that can be endlessly refined but don’t give us an adequate way “into” them, a way to appropriate them for our lives.
Instead, we could approach the issues that Witt raises with this working hypothesis: that we all desire the same goods. This approach might yield more fruit than an attempt to create working rules for coexistence. Desire is a more humane way to enter into moral discourse; it is what motivates us to think about morality to begin with. Desire is often confused with impulsiveness (action without reason behind it), appetite (natural, “animal” desire for food, sex, etc.), and the passions (the feelings associated with appetite).
But desire may also be eros. Desire is our fundamental longing for, and inclination toward, happiness and the good. Ask Socrates, for whom (at least in Plato’s Symposium) desire begins with wanting to possess beautiful bodies, and advances toward other beauties: science, art, law, and noble sacrifice for an ideal. The issue, for Socrates, is to make sure that our desire is led to its fulfillment, that it doesn’t gorge on partial pleasures.
Friedersdorf considers different moral scenarios in his piece, so here is my stab at one: Joanna has just finished college, is unemployed, and decides to take up her gainfully employed, older boyfriend’s offer to move in with him. She loves him, but she also needs a place to stay (and she can’t go back home, for whatever reason). Is she treating her boyfriend as a means to an end? Yes. Her motivations are, at best, mixed. According to the Kantian paradigm, she is wrong.
But if we spoke with Joanna from the vantage point of desire, we could learn more about the desires driving her decision: desires for community, for order, for work, for solidarity. With the details of her experience we would have more preliminary data to work with in a political discussion. It would be a richer discussion, anyway. And it is a discussion that would presuppose something which already brings us closer: a common grammar of desire.
The day I came across Witt’s piece I was reading Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, and when I returned to the novel later that evening, I came across this passage, describing the Madame’s longing: “Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.” Witt—like me, and you—lives in a world where the conventions are no longer holding us back. But the desire remains, and it remains dissatisfied. We are in a semi-anarchic situation in which we are often left on our own, without resources, to answer, “What do you desire?” There is a certain extent to which we all share in Witt’s predicament. With a qualification here or there, I can say that Emily Witt—c’est moi.
But the anarchy is only temporary. New structures and norms are being forged. Some (Reno here, Houellebecq there) have tried to discern what the future holds. But whatever the new order ends up being, its justice and goodness will be measured by the question of “What do you desire?” That is, if by “desire” we mean eros, and if by asking the question, we mean asking for fulfillment, joy, and not a temporary anesthetic for our suffering. Witt should not give up her “idea”—her desire for love. But the rest of us should give up on Kant.
Santiago Ramos is pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College.