ACTS AND ORGASMS
The “centering” of desire, especially the desire for meaning, within the organism is essential to the view of the human as active participant in even its earliest phases of development. This may be among Freud’s most generative contributions. My quarrel is not with this concept. Rather it is the taking for granted of the specific content of desire and the meanings to which desire becomes attached that is at issue. Nowhere is this more significant than in the taking of the sexual for granted, viewing it as a primary given that requires explanation only of its expressions and transformations but not of its origins or meanings. It is this assumption that allowed the very tradition of thinking that argued for the centrality of the sexual in human motivation to protect the sexual from critical scrutiny. In other words, the unexamined assumption of innate sexual desire made unnecessary a careful examination of the processes through which desire becomes sexualized.
In adopting a perspective that views the full development of the human in terms of repetitions of initial, primitive meanings expressed in varied metaphors, psychoanalytic theory became locked into archaeological rather than genealogical perspectives. This is what made necessary the “discovery” of the unconscious as the site that contained the critical determinants of subsequent behaviors, a site whose contents could only be observed indirectly. This discovery, I would submit, was required to obscure the increasing presence of the conscious—a strategy not unlike hiding adolescent (conscious) eroticism behind the screen of infantile (unconscious) eroticism. The discourse of the unconscious allowed for charting a wide menu of transgressions to which most could plead “no contest”, without admitting current guilt.
At its most basic, the acknowledgment of the unconscious was the acknowledgment of a person’s negotiating with herself or himself behind her or his own back. And it is the increasingly experienced need for this kind of negotiation that shapes and, in some sense, creates the modern self —including its capacity for generating chronic conflict and confusion. More enduring than the discovery of the unconscious is what it represented at the most general level: recognition of the inevitability of the divided self, as a normal condition.
The sexual can no more serve theorists of human development as the illusion of continuity within the lives of individuals than it can as an illusion of continuity across the human record. The origins of sexuality, as with the origins of all that is part of the human, remain of considerable significance, but we must be prepared to recognize that the very significance of such origins may change as their culmination—the living, active self—changes: an inevitable uncertainty regarding the future constantly threatens the past with promises of critical revision and the present a decline of the likely. Time and change tend to require and produce new visions of the future, just as they require and produce new constructions of the past. Such a perspective must come with heightened ease among expanding numbers from those recent cohorts who have been condemned to live their own futures to almost unprecedented degrees.
Our histories, both individual and collective, are significant conditioners of the present moment, but only in the way that they can be: as a history of histories. And these histories, more than a shadowy existence in the fluid territories of the unconscious, are for increasing numbers the scripts that both manage and mirror the complexities on the frontiers of psychological life, part of the continuing production and reproduction of the self. Concepts like sublimation remain rooted in a commitment to a predetermined direction of influence in the continuing construction of the self. Nonsexual activities are often examined for their latent sexual meaning, without considering the ways in which explicitly sexual perf ormances may in fact be an expression of nonsexual motives (Burke 1941). This privileging of the sexual is sustained by its assumed developmental priority and, consequently, its central role in the agenda of the intrapsychic. What is lost from view are the alternative psychic rewards afforded by the issues of the present moment, issues reflective of ongoing interpersonal possibilities remote or indifferent to the sexual. It is as if by overvaluing and overdramatizing the sexual, seeing its presence in many more places than it can be found in, we blind ourselves to the details of what for now are some of its compellingly inelegant idioms as we blind ourselves to the variable role sexuality plays in our equally variable ecologies of desire.
As this is written a fresh cohort has entered their adolescence in the context of a social landscape profoundly different in innumerable regards from that which contextualized the entry into adolescence of the author. Moreover, many of the individuals whose lives have documented available social science literatures had experiences—at least in proportion and coloration—significantly unlike those of the author and those of the latest recruits to adolescence as well. New meanings and experiences of gender and sex may not only produce new patterns of sexual behavior but also provide mute witness to changed qualities of experience among those engaging in conventional patterns of sexual behavior.