michael j. morris


dispossession, desire, and love
12 July, 2015, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ontology | Tags: , ,

Today I am thinking about the relationship between what can be considered founding, constitutive relations of dispossession—the ways in which we are all always already given over to a world of others that form both who we are and the very conditions of our being—and the more willful or desiring ways in which one gives oneself to another or others, as in love. [For anyone familiar with my thinking and writing, it will no doubt be obvious that these thoughts are heavily influenced by the work of Judith Butler.]

The former perhaps—or certainly—prefigures the latter; the former conditions the possibility of the latter. Having been given over to a world already, in ways that constitute who one can or will be, to give of oneself to another will always in part be a citation or reference back to that fundamental dispossession. When there is a one to whom I give myself, surrender myself, or to whom I want to give or surrender myself—in which case I give/surrender myself to desire—how is that event different from or the same as the ways in which I am given over to, say, language, to ecological relations, to kinship systems, to gender norms and racial politics, to legal apparatuses and medical institutions and so on? In all of these ways, I enter a world that already exists, that precedes me, a world I did not make or choose, and I am reliant on this world of others and systems and structures and institutions in ways that not only ensure—and constrain—my living, but also come to define my sense of self. Who I am to myself and to others is shaped by the language I inherit, the family to whom I am born, the gender I am assigned and attributed, the race to which I am taken to belong, the rights I am afforded by systems of power, the healthcare to which I have access, and so on. And that sense of self, as it becomes available to me, is made available through those very words, categories, and ideas that originate beyond myself, in a world of others. Likewise, the sense of myself that I receive from others—how I am seen or recognized or misrecognized, and how that is reflected back to me—becomes enfolded into my sense of who I am, because I am always already in and of this world; who I am to the others of which this world is formed will directly and indirectly shape who I am to and for myself.
In short, I am never fully self-sufficient in my own being. The reliances and dependencies that knot me into this world of others are necessary for my existence, for my survival, and as such, “I” am never merely “my” self. I emerge from these necessary social, ecological, familial, political, juridical, cultural relations. This is what I mean when I ask about founding, constitutive relations of dispossession. These various worldly relations form the foundation of who I can be, they constitute who I am, and as such, “I” am dispossessed of “my” self.

So, dispossession or being given over to others is fundamental to what it means to be the subject or person that I am, and this fundamental dispossession is not of my choosing. I am born, never asked, to quote Laurie Anderson.

And then it happens that I encounter another, someone who it seems that I love or might love. And in this nebulous experience we call love, I want to give myself over to this other. I want to give of myself to them, and be taken by them. This is something that I desire and that I will.
But maybe there is a rupture there: in any number of ways, desire is not something that I will. Desire itself is an experience to which I am given over. In the longing of desire, the reaching for that which is thus far out of reach, I am also dispossessed—or perhaps displaced—from myself. When I desire, I am caught up in the swelling of feeling, that sense of need that may or may not be need, in which it seems that you are what I need; you are both necessary and out of reach, and if only I could reach you, have you, hold you, then I would be complete.

[In writing this, years of studying psychoanalysis—directly, and indirectly by way of feminist philosophy and queer theory—loom up, and I think: of course, to desire, perhaps even to love, is first and foremost a reproduction of the primary attachment to a caretaker, the longing of an infant for the one who will feed me, hold me, care for me. Desire is the excess of need, where those infantile patterns—of reaching out to be held, crying to be fed, twisting and turning to be reassured that I am not alone—resurface, no longer necessarily necessary in the same ways, but fixating on an other who will occupy the promise of fulfillment. Perhaps I am writing and thinking about issues that have been well-worn at this point; perhaps I am thinking and writing nothing new.]
But it is not merely the origins of desire that I am trying to think about…or the origins of love, why it is that we love and desire.
It is this question of dispossession, of being given over, first in ways we do not choose, and later in ways that we perhaps also do not choose—when we desire another—but that we nonetheless desire. When we desire to desire, and perhaps even more when we desire to love, we desire our own dispossession.
Perhaps like the primary caretaker attachments of infancy, dispossession can become associated with (or even identical to?) survival?
If being given over to others is necessary to my constitution, to both my survival and my sense of self, doesn’t it follow that I might become attached to the desire to become dispossessed? That I might desire being given over to another or others, or desire being given over to the desire to be given over to another or others, because that sense of being given over is knotted into what it means to survive and to be the me that I know as my self? Do we not come to love our dispossession when (it seems) our survival is at stake?

I think I am too easily transposing desire for another into being given over to another. Certainly, in desire we are given over to desire, which is a form of dispossession or displacement, but isn’t desire for another also, in some way(s), a desire for possession, for having, for belonging? [I’ll suspend for the moment the many layers of “possession,” and its potential relationship to property and capitalism, although those may be necessary layers to explore.] When I desire you, I desire to have your hand in mine, your lips to kiss, to hear your voice, to smell your scent, to taste you, to feel your flesh against mine. So, inasmuch as I am dispossessed by desire, it is also a longing for possession, for having. Why? For reassurance? Is it a power play? I am given over to a world of others in ways that I did not choose or will at the start, and now I desire to have you, as a way of recuperating a sense of my own power? [This is what the phallus is about, after all: having the phallus, being the phallus.]

But it is not enough usually simply to have you.
To desire you is also to desire your desire, to desire being desired by you. And if I am desired by you and I have you, you have me as well. To whatever extent I come to possess you, you possess me as well, and it is thus a(nother) (dis)possession that I desire. [And again, when I use “possess” here, I am meaning it almost entirely as “having,” in order to parallel my use of “dispossession,” not to suggest anything about property or ownership.] While I may not will myself to be given over to my desire, if I come to be possessed by you while also possessing you, it is because I have chosen to surrender. I have willed some part of this dispossession, and perhaps this is also a constitutive event in the formation of myself as a subject/person: if first I am formed by constitutive relations that I did not choose but of and with which I am formed, and this is necessary for my survival and sense of self, I perhaps then later come to will my own dispossession, my giving myself over to your desire, to my desire for your desire, in order to consolidate dispossession within or beneath my own will. Is this a re-writing or recuperation of sorts? I said at the start that the dispossession of desire will always be a citation or reference of those founding dispossessing relations that constitute one’s being. If this is the case, then to cite or reference those dispossessions now as an effect or result of my will is to enact a kind of restaging with/in a different set of conditions: when I was born and never asked, I was given over to relations in any number of ways that I did not choose; now, in choosing to be given over and dispossessed, even at the moment of dispossession, I consolidate some sense of myself as an agential subject, “in control” of even those experiences in which I have had the least control. In giving myself, I produce for myself a sense that I am in such a position to give, a position from which to choose to act, a position that I did not have at those moments that were fundamental to my formation.

Perhaps this is true of love as well. For now, my working definitions of love are something like: to contribute to the flourishing of another, to act as more than one self, to pursue a view of the world from the perspective of more than one. Love is an activity, not a feeling, although it can be fueled by strong feelings—usually desire. It is, by these definitions, fundamentally altruistic, not necessarily to the detriment of oneself, but to the side of oneself, for and towards others or an other. The surrender of “one self” for a self that is more than one. It is a giving of oneself to and for another or others, for their wellbeing. Is that giving also a kind of dispossession, in that what of oneself is given is no longer entirely or exclusively possessed by the self that is giving? Yes, I think so. Following the above, it seems reasonable that even in love, even when I am choosing to act with and for others, for their flourishing, I am perhaps also providing myself with a sense of my own agency. I consolidate myself as a willful subject (this is not a direct reference to Sara Ahmed, just an accidentally similar phrasing), in a sense “in control,” precisely at those times that I choose to be in less control, to surrender some sense of myself to or for another.

These thoughts are more speculative than conclusive. I don’t think I’ve developed a fully cohesive theory of desire, love, and dispossession here. But I think perhaps where it leads me is to ask: what is it that we are giving to ourselves—through the sense of giving, our sense of being able to give—even at our most loving, our most desiring, our most dispossessed?

***

Addendum (a few hours later):

While walking in the park, a few more ideas/implications occurred to me. If our authority over ourselves—our capacity to authorize our own giving of ourselves over to another—is something that we assure or reassure ourselves through the act of giving ourselves, then it seems that this authority is in question or uncertain. This is not surprising given that from the start we are not fully in control of ourselves in that we are acted upon by others in ways that we do not will or choose; it is not surprising then that our sense of our own authority over ourselves would be questionable or uncertain, but it seemed necessary to state. Given this uncertainty, if it is true that one provides oneself with a sense of agency or authority through the act of giving oneself in love or giving oneself over to desire or the desires of another, there is a kind of undoing. If I assure myself of my authority to give of myself through the act of giving, then it is precisely at the moment of providing myself with that reassurance that I am no longer entirely containable within my own authority or will. If the supplement of an other to whom one gives oneself is necessary to the self that gives, then that self is undone by that other just as that self has been done up.

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