Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sixty-Three: Distinctions

I found a blog post today that argues that we have to wholly re-vamp language in order to have ways to discuss relationships that aren't "problematic". The argument seems to be that Western culture applies the evil idea of binary division to love and that this inhibits relationships from evolving beyond the "problematic".  It's taken as a given that all binary divisions are evil, of course. The particular evil binary here is the division of romantic-sexual and platonic love. The argument I suppose is that all relationships, like all categories, should be fluid and amorphous, and that any fixed distinctions led to exclusion, marginalization, and oppression.

The blog post claims that a new language is needed to "accept the possibilities and realities of asexual romance, primary nonsexual/nonromantic love, nonromantic sex and sexual friendship, romantic (nonsexual) friendship, queerplatonic nonsexual relationships..."  Let's leave aside for a moment the very awkward word "queerplatonic"and just think about a very clear distinction here. Relationships either involve sex or they don't. They can change--- move across the dividing line in either direction ---but there is that clear distinction. A sexual relationship can be romantic or not, monogamous or not. But it's clearly different from a non-sexual relationship, and driven by different dynamics. And we do have words for all the things on the blogger's list. We know what FWB means, we know (even if the term isn't used much these days) what "romantic friendship" is. We've had those terms for rather a while.

I am baffled by "primary non-sexual/nonromantic love", mind you. Does that mean that there's some secondary relationship that is sexual/romantic? If so, isn't that just a way of saying that someone has a close friend and a lover? How is that not about two different relationships--- relationships for which we already have terms?

I have to say that "queerplatonic" is just an awkward and silly and unattractive word. It seems to mean a relationship between two people of the same sex that's emotionally deep and long-lasting but not sexual. But didn't Jay & Silent Bob give that the much better description of "hetero life-mates" years ago? And how exactly is it different from a close same-sex friendship, except in using "queer" to imply (or confirm the suspicion) that all close same-sex friendships must be "in reality" sublimated gay affairs?

Sex is a dividing line, and it always has been. Relationships where sex is or likely soon will be happening have a very different emotional content from those where sex isn't or hasn't or won't be happening. That's not just about jealousy, mind you. Even the most casual FWB relationship has different drivers from a non-sexual friendship, and has different expectations and a different sense of timing. Adding sex to a relationship, even in its most casual form, adds a very different set of questions, questions about when sex will happen, about whether it'll happen again, about how one's performance was assessed, about how third parties will treat the news. 

I have to wonder if this particular attack on the evil binary is based on a desire to see the power and distinctiveness of sexuality drained away, to argue that sex  should not have the power to define a relationship--- which is part of the argument that sex can be taken out of male-female interactions, or that intense sexual/romantic love is somehow unnecessary or suspect. There's a subtext here, and an agenda. We already have the vocabulary for different forms of relationship, so what's at issue is something more conceptual, more ideological.

Any thoughts on this? Are your own relationships hampered or thwarted by a lack of vocabulary to describe what you want? What distinctions do you draw amongst your relationships?   

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sixty-Two: Essences

Tonight I'm thinking about desire. I'm not quite sure how to differentiate it from lust, or if the distinction means anything at all. Desire is always there, and just maybe if it's distinguished from lust it's only the grounds of intensity.

Lust is the noonday demon; that definition goes back to late classical times. Lust has always to be underlain by desire, though. Desire as the sense of a lack, as a need--- lust is just the more fevered form.  Edmund White writes that to know what someone desires is to know their essence, to know the things that define them.

Desire isn't much talked about these days. It's certainly not examined and celebrated the way it was a generation ago. Lust is written about, though almost never favourably. Lust is seen as being really about power, about the need to dominate.  Desire is read as both weakness and aggression. There's a lack of some kind--- a lack that's seen as somehow culpable ---that can only be filled by taking something from another, by violating the autonomy of the other. We're a long way from the celebrations of desire and the flesh that you can find in some twentieth-century writers. We tend here in the new century to think of desire as a politically-suspect screen for the need to subjugate or degrade or violate, and to simultaneously see desire as representing a shameful lack, a weakness growing out of neediness.

I have been thinking about Edmund White's formulation: know what someone desires, and know the essence of the person.  It's hard, I suppose, to think about what you really desire. In my own life, I know it hasn't been fame or wealth. I've been an academic, so knowledge is always there: the desire to know about the past and the world, the desire to know all the stories about why and how the world came to be this way over time. Beauty, too. I want beautiful young companions in my life. If you want to think that what I'm looking for is the beauty I've never had for myself, you wouldn't be wrong. Beyond that, though, it's hard. I can think of girls I've desired, girls I've sighed over, girls who've filled my dreams. It's just hard to break those images down, to see what each of them represented.

I know about desiring, but it's hard to imagine being desired. I must've been desired in my life--- there are girls who've come willingly to my bed. What's hard there is to understand why, to understand why they'd find me worth desiring. I'm not sure that statement is all about self-loathing. Some of it is about incomprehension, about trying to understand what a young companion could imagine I'd have to offer her. I take it for granted that we're all creatures who live inside stories, and so I do try to puzzle out what stories I'm offering up to a girl, or what stories she thinks I'll help her create.

It may be a hard thing to be desired. It's only human to feel that if someone unsuitable or unattractive desires you, that you've somehow done something wrong. It must be hard, too, to have to always be aware of what about you is desired, to have to find that in yourself to keep offering it to a lover.

Now I suppose, too, that it's becoming a hard thing to feel desire without a tinge of shame. Desire implies a lack. Desire is unrequited far more often than not--- which is a judgment about one's own value. But it's not just that. Even if desire remains behind the eyes,  there's the current belief that desire is somehow always a kind of aggression, a way of treating someone as less. Everything is seen through a lens of power and dominance. To look at someone and find them desirable, to look at them and experience lust, is increasingly regarded as politically unacceptable--- as inflicting a kind of social harm.  I read too many articles and blog posts where the author insists that a sign of social progress is that fewer and fewer social interactions have any shred of sexuality associated. That leaves me baffled. Flirtation is one of the great pleasures of life--- it drives conversation and it does liven up the grey quotidian world. Being a roué, being a gentleman of a certain age, being someone who is fascinated with eighteenth-century culture--- how can I give up desire and its expression in flirtation?

Show me what you desire, and I'll tell you who you are. Edmund White's formula. I can look at that idea and have questions, but there's truth to it.

What makes me feel more and more out of step is that desire itself is less and less read as being about the possibilities of pleasure and play. To feel desire, let alone express it, is coming to be seen not as morally flawed--- the Victorian idea ---but as politically suspect and socially oppressive. I've no idea how that ever happened.