“I’m Not Fucking, I’m Talking to You”, or I Could be Fucking You.

babyIn Lacan’s Seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, in his attempt to explain how sublimation of desire works and how closely it is tied to language, he says:

Sublimation is nonetheless satisfaction of the drive, without repression. In other words —for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment. 1

There are usually two reactions to this passage: the first is that it is unnecessarily crude, and the second is that talking is not fucking and it doesn’t feel remotely the same.

As to the first, it never ceases to amaze me what incredible volumes of writing intellectuals do on the subject of the erotic, the drive, desire and jouissance, while managing never to get down to the nitty gritty of what most people are often thinking, which is: this is about sex, right? Why doesn’t it ever sound like it’s about sex? If you look at almost the entire body of academic and theoretical writing on sex, it is stunning how strangely reticent anyone is to just come out and say the words, use the imagery and offer examples that are concrete and overtly sexual. Academics and theoreticians are master-sublimators. In fact, after three years of combing through texts on eroticism, I’d say they make a veritable fetish of it. I suspect there is a very specific neurosis, suffered by intellectuals, about speaking about sex directly unless it is medicalized. It does, of course, bring out the hysteric in me. I read along thinking: what are you actually telling me, and why aren’t you really telling me? If I were a practicing psychoanalyst, this might be interesting but I’m not and I just find it annoying. Recognizing that I’m never going to get the satisfaction of an answer, I settle – like any good hysteric does – for knowledge.

The second reaction intrigues me more: talking is not fucking, or is it?

If you’re not much up on Lacanian theory, I’m about to take you on a bit of a wild ride.

As babies, before we begin to get a handle on language, we need things and we want things. We cry when we’re hungry, or wet, or tired and – unless we live in a place of a lot of disruption (a war-zone, a place of famine) – we get those needs met pretty quick. But we also want things – something  – and often we really don’t have any idea what we want. In babies, you see it when they get cranky. When no matter if you’ve fed them, changed them, cuddled them, they still carry on crying no matter what you do. Drives parents mad.

Once babies start to acquire language, it is still very seldom that they actually linger in a miserable state of need very long, but now they have a little language, you get a better idea of what’s going on. They want something, and they don’t know what it is. They say banana, and you hand them one, and they throw it on the ground. They want ‘Mum’ but even when they get a cuddle, they still whine. Sooner or later, everyone gets smart and starts suggesting things: Oh, honey, you want a cookie, don’t you? You want your blankie? Your teddy bear? The kid takes the cookie, still not exactly satisfied, but stuffs it in their mouth. But the fact that the cookie sort of stops them from throwing a full-on mortifying tantrum is the clue.

We have needs – which are usually met fast. We have wants – which are at first simply a sense of wanting SOMETHING – that triggers a parent’s solicitations. And those solicitations hardly ever satisfy at first. Mostly, they just reassure us that our parents are paying attention to us, and love us, and dislike seeing us miserable.  Some have theorized that all ‘wants’ (as opposed to needs) are really a ‘want’ for a gesture that indicates we are loved. Of course, you can’t ‘give love’. You can only show love. 2

But as a child’s acquisition of language becomes better, this transfer of information works both ways. A child can tell you what he or she thinks they want – but this is often fraught with frustration – because it’s so very often not exactly what they want. However you can also tell the child what he or she wants. “You want some ice cream, don’t you?” As often as not, this backwards fulfillment of want works just as well.

What is clear is that, as much as we do learn to say what we need, we never really learn to say what we want – because what we really want has no fixed target, so whatever we say we want and get is ever only somewhat satisfying. This is desire. There are needs and wants before we acquire language but, once we enter the world of language, we desire. And desire is always at least partly fallible.

There are some theories that what we all want is that perfect satisfaction of the mother’s breast – food, warmth, affection, love – on tap whenever we need it and all ‘wants’ are really just wanting that one thing. 3

I don’t know that I buy this. I’m not sure anyone really knows what that lack – that want that cannot be addressed – is. But it’s there. And you know it’s there every time you’re honest about the lack of total satisfaction you feel after you’ve gotten what you think you wanted. It’s not that we’re spoiled or cranky. It’s just the way we’re made.

But let me put it another way: let’s pretend that before a baby learns our human language, they have their own language that’s in their heads. But it’s stuck in their heads. It’s not phonetic, really, and when they try to speak it to us it’s garbled and unintelligible. Kind of like your cat meowing at you. It wants something, it’s trying to let you know. You feed it, pet it, let it out, and it still meows at you. FUCK! What the hell does it want. Screw it – we’ll never know.

Luckily, you can teach human babies language. The problem is, babies don’t have interior dictionaries and there is no qualified translator. Whatever that thing the baby wants is NEVER translated. We just learn to settle for less, or something distracts us. So the dialogue looks like this with baby.

Baby: WANT!
Mom: Want a cookie? (Holds up a cookie)
Baby: Bwaaaahhhhh WANT!
Mom: Oh, you want to cuddle Mister Bear? (Pushes the teddy bear at you)
Baby: BWAHHHHHH WANT!
Mom: Oh dear. (Cuddles you) I know what you want. You want your bottle.
Baby: Bwaaaahhhh (fuck, this is futile) Oh, Look! A bottle. That’s cool! Oh, yum. Applejuice! (Gets distracted by a bug on the carpet).

As time goes on, the baby figures out that the whole “Bwaaaahhhh WANT!” thing never works. It learns to skip to the chase and settle for the cookie. After a while it begins to associate that wanty feeling with whatever it gets handed. Sooner or later, it just learns to say “Me WANT COOKIE!” That’s sublimation. And thank god for it. Otherwise we’d all be having toddler tantrums in the middle of the supermarket aisle all the time.

This is the theory of how language shapes want into desire. So, whenever we talk, there is a ghost of desire that rides on the process of our language. After all, it’s why we learned to talk. There is always a ghostly desire for satisfaction that comes along, like a shine, on everything we say.

Now, as much as most of you feel that sex is a need, like food or water or warmth, it’s not. People can go their whole lives without having sex and not die. It might be a necessity on a species level, it isn’t an individual necessity. It’s a want and, pushed through language, it is a desire.

I think this is why we get such pleasure about talking about sex. It’s like a double whammy. The subject of our discourse is sexual desire, and there is this shine of desire riding on using language anyway. Of course, it used to be even better – when it was socially frowned upon to talk about sex. Then it was a triple whammy – the subject was sex, you weren’t supposed to be talking about it which made it thrilling and transgressive and more desirable (if also a little uncomfortable) AND you were using language which also was piggy backing this shimmer of desire.

As a writer of erotic fiction (and writing is a kind of talking) I can assure you that while I’m talking to you, I’m absolutely and without a doubt humping your leg. Promise. And when you’re reading, you know it. You’re doing the same thing back. So, erotic fiction writers sublimate, too. We’re just not so good at it. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why a lot of intellectuals find us beneath their contempt. We just don’t sublimate enough.

Lacan’s little quip isn’t as nuts as it seems. Although it is pretty flirty. The translation is: I would enjoy fucking you. It wouldn’t bring me absolute satisfaction, but it wouldn’t be half bad. However, I’m giving a lecture, so fucking you would be impolite. So, I’m going to decide that talking is as good as fucking (since both always leave a little something short of perfect), and talk instead.

Yeah baby.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques-alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Routledge Classics, 2005. Print.
  3.  Bailly, Lionel. “Lacan In His Historical Context.” Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. Print.

4 Thoughts on ““I’m Not Fucking, I’m Talking to You”, or I Could be Fucking You.

  1. You always leave me with a little something to mull over.
    This time you left me laughing out loud.
    Well done.

  2. k.a. burton on July 7, 2015 at 6:05 pm said:

    Another word for conversation is intercourse, which is also a polite word for fucking. In my mind, a true conversation, is an intercourse, an exchange of intimacy on the same if not deeper level than actual sex. Hence the relationship of the words in our language.

  3. Thank you for giving me an example of communication that is not language, relevant to our twitter discussion a few days back.

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