Desire is Essential: A Little Riff On The “Unthought” Behind All The Sexual Controversies

imagesWarning: This is a post which depends on some knowledge of Foucault, Coakley, even Zizek and McIntyre. Read at your own risk. I probably can’t reply to comments asking me to outline the thought of these thinkers. Sorry 🙂


There is an idea in the work of Michael Foucault (p. 322-327 Order of Things 1970) he calls the “unthought.” It is the set of assumptions and stories that form the backdrop of our conscious thoughts and actions. The “unthought” drives how we see the world yet is never really examined. It’s in the water we swim in. In some sense the “unthought” can’t be examined, because it is so ingrained in the frame by which we think and feel and move. To look at it face to face is to dismantle the whole “frame” and, in a sense, have to start all over again (a bit of Zizek here). We lose who we are and that is just too traumatic. “Unthoughts” can only be revealed as inadequate through some sort of “epistemic crisis” (MacIntyre), through contradictions that in the end force the subject to deal with the inadequacy of the way (s)he is living his or her life.

For me, an unthought that drives our culture is “desire is innate, not shaped, cannot be changed, and is who I am.” This unthought is so much part of the water we swim in it is rarely if ever challenged. It plays deep into the psyches of the sexually charged cultures of the young. It drives the sexual controversies in society at large and in the church. To challenge this unthought is to invite the accusation of being a medieval fundamentalist who would repress people for the sake of a Victorian morality. This unthought orders the psyche of every man women and child raised in the West post the 1960’s. Desire is essential to us. It is what keeps us getting up in the morning. It is the indicator of our identity. The loss of desire is cause for psychological (not religious) concern. This unthought is inscribed deep into modern capitalism’s ideology despite the fact advertising industries baldly spend billions to influence and shape these same desires. This contradiction is overlooked everyday as we live and breath this unthought. It is American to announce to the world “we are free!” to fulfil all our human desires all the while we are the most drugged up addicted culture in the world.

But of course no society can run ultimately on the premise of this unthought. Even Freud said we must channel, indeed repress our desires in order to live together in a civil society (Civilization and Its Discontents). And so everywhere we see signs of the contradiction exhibiting itself (but largely ignored). We say our children must discover their sexuality at their psychic core, discover their sexual identity, all the while admitting the young and innocent are susceptible to having their desires formed by many sordid places that they must be protected from., i.e scripts from R rated movies (we therefore rate movies), pornography, and sexual abuse of multiple kinds. So we rightfully protect our children at all costs. It’s a contradiction among contradictions. Most recently, this contradiction was written large in the Santa Barbara killer’s manifesto and the response to it in media. Oddly his desire for a certain kind of co-ed that looked a certain way was not the focus of the media response. Instead, the outrage was over the killers’ implicit denying of those women the right to choose who they’d have sex with. This was what was focused on as objectifying/mysogyny, not the whole culture that shaped the desire. This contradiction is also exhibited every time a pedophile is revealed in an institution. Here, rightfully, the whole of society’s outrage explodes against the sexual perpetrator and the institution who allowed such a thing (because the evil is clear cut and unquestioned). Meanwhile, on the other side of town, we celebrate sexual expression as the core of our identity in the ways we march for and legislate for “the right” to sexual expression whether it be heterosexual or an alternative sexual expression, “unless of course it hurts somebody else.” Sarah Coakley argues (here read all 3 parts) this contradiction is revealed in the church everytime we tell the pedophile priest to stop sexually abusing children all the while extolling the virtue of self expression as the end of all sexual desire in the way we think about marriage, celibacy, divorce, and most recently same sex marriage. Through all of this, somehow, somewhere, (I would argue this is largely the work of late capitalist economic organization) desire got essentialized, and now it is unquestioned on a universal basis.

The church in our culture, in response, has largely been impotent in addressing this new world, unthinkable just a short 50 years ago. The protestant mainline liberal mostly encourages the flourishing of all desire as innate and God given. Why should any desire be denied if it feels right and doesn’t hurt anyone else (at least that we know of). To repress is evil and a sin against God’s creation. The evangelical fundamentalist condemns all desire outside of God’s parameters as evil and just says stop doing it. And yet it is pathetically vacuous in offering a way of sanctification that melds suffering with formation with hope. This leaves the soul formed in modern American self-expressivism with nothing. You take away desire and what do you have to live for in this world? Therefore this comes across as an attack against “who I am.” The evangelical response leaves the person lost in desire with nowhere to go with that desire. Both engagements with the culture of desire ideologies are inadequate on their own, although there’s some truth in both.

The way forward for the church, I would argue, is to display a way of life before the rest of the world that defies its very ideologies. You cannot argue with an ideology. You cannot confront it head on. You can only live a life that reveals its holes until it comes crashing in on itself, and be there to provide help. The idea that desires are not the foundation of life, but rather the life of crucified desire and resurrected desire in Christ is absurd to the ideologies of desire in the West. It must be lived in such a way that cannot be argued with, only looked at with amazement.

To me, the best shot for such a faithful integral theology of desire being worked out lies with the sanctificationist traditions melded with the Anabaptist ones. People in these traditions have resources to explore the way God works to order desire in the life of a community (not individuals). It offers a way of being shaped by a community of worship and service as opposed to a consumerist potpourri of the capitalist smorgasbord. What Sarah Coakley says about Gregory of Nyssa, I say is a possibility for the Anabaptist/Holiness traditions. She says:

Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God – which would then produce spiritual fruits of love and service in a range of other relationships and communal bonds – represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.

What say you?

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