Following the ‘Twisted Staircase’ to Authenticity: The Deconstruction of Desire

In New York City, the seemingly innocuous task of lighting a cigarette in a bar wouldn’t have caused any alarm ten years ago. Today, however, the naive smoker would quickly find him- or herself expelled from the public business. The government of New York has decided to intervene in order to protect the rights of the many at the cost of the few. A ban in public places on a product that can harm nonparticipant bystanders is a fairly understandable decision. However even in private clubs, New York City has decided to invade the sphere of private business owners for their own safety. Western society at large has taken the same approach of censorship with its attitudes towards desire.

The concept of desire is one of the most universal facets of the human condition. It is experienced by all individuals, but the manner in which desire presents itself for each individual also causes this universality to be paradoxical. Desire does not result from rationality but rather irrationality: there is no logical process that a person can undertake in order to discover the causes of their desire. The result of the irrational nature of desire is the impossibility to define desire in a way that would capture the entire spectrum of humanity. Each individual must arrive at a subjective nature of his or her desire. It is a mistake to believe that desire is part of an individual’s identity. Desire is the result of an individual’s identity seeking validation from the external world. By upholding the binary of collectivism/individualism, we are shifting the role of desire into a facet of desire, rather than a function. This places a restriction on the individual that forces him or her to become a complete individual only through another person. This presents a very serious issue: by creating a standard of what is to be desired and instilling that desire in individuals, society defines desire in a way that objectifies individuals and forces them to accept a externally defined concept of desire as a part of their identity that is not even a part of identity. This pushes individuals into what Sartre would call the bad faith of facticity. This definition of desire into a social process creates the binary of love-as-completion/love-as-singularity. Therefore, it is by deconstructing this binary of love-as-completion/love-as-singularity, it becomes clear that desire born out of narcissism is more authentic than desire born out of dependency.

Due to the nature of this discussion, a certain amount of clarification is required in order for the issues to be accurately discussed. These definitions should be seen as a necessary assumption and are by no means exhaustive or universal.

  • Love is the emotional fulfillment of an individual’s desire for another individual.
  •  Love-as-completion is desire that is fulfilled in the identity that is a result of the partnership between individuals. This identity is inauthentic because both individuals are objectified in order to achieve an identity that is defined by an external source.
  • Love-as-singularity is desire that is fulfilled by means of the partnership between individuals. This partnership is authentic because it employs the subjective identity of the individuals to objectively affirm their preexisting identity.
  • Authenticity is the simultaneous existence of both the objective and subjective identity of an individual.
  •  Subjective identity is the identity an individual creates for him- or herself. This identity is constantly in flux as a response to the objective identity that is also changing.
  • Objective identity is the identity that is imposed upon an individual by external sources. This identity is constantly in flux depending on which external source is objectifying the individual.
  • Collectivism is the view that societal values should be preferred to individual values, while individualism prefers individual values over those of society.

Love-as-completion is the prevalent acceptable view on desire because it reflects the collectivist attitude that people are not complete within themselves. Instead, people must enter into relationships in order to fulfill the definition of humanity; their desire is fulfilled by the acquisition of that which they lack from their partner. Love in this sense is an exchange between two fragmented identities. In order to accept this definition, the premise that human beings are only fully human through another must already be supposed. This is a result of accepting the binary of collectivism/individualism, with collectivism taking the preferred role. Society is a system in identity is achieved through interactions between parts. Members of society define each other and themselves in a co-dependent fashion. A society’s identity, for example, is greater than the sum of the members’ identities. Individuals, however, are beings that continuously assert their subjective identity in order to become objectively defined in the same way. For example, individuals do not define themselves according to any organization or group they belong to. Instead, they belong to the group because it serves as an objective affirmation of their subjective identity. The moment an individual defines him- or herself according to an objective identity, the authentic identity is lost. Gender is such a case of objective identities being incorporated into individuals subjective identities. If an individual accepts the label of gender, he or she also accepts the role of gender. By accepting this role, an individual commits him- or herself to an identity that does not belong to him or her, which leads to inauthenticity. Jack Kerouac outlines this inherent inauthentic limitation on identity through gender by confessing: “I am crudely and malely sexual and cannot help myself and have lecherous and so on propensities as almost all my male readers no doubt are the same. (3)” The key indicator of the inauthenticity of the narrator’s adherence to the masculine gender is that he claims that he cannot help himself. There is no way to escape this conforming gender role, which the narrator abandons later in the hotel room of a man he desires. The narrator recognizes that this male gender is something that he should free himself from but is unable to do so because he has adopted the role of a man as a fundamental limitation on his subjective identity. This cause the narrator to later seek out a female, as is required of the masculine gender. However, the reason he seeks her out is because he needs here to complete his identity; the identity of a man. He must use her in order to complete the role that he has accepted as a part of himself. A consequence of the collectivist definition of identity is that desire is subjugated to a secondary role; a means by which an individual becomes completed. Instead of desire resulting from an individual’s identity, desire is used to create a mutual dependency between the individuals that results in their identities. The desire in love-as-completion is not oriented towards the other individual, but rather the result that the individual brings, such as the completion of the masculine role that Kerouac’s narrator requires. Love-as-completion is the inauthentic result of the incorporation of objective identities into an individual’s subjective identity.

Love-as-singularity, however, does not face the same problems of authentic desire. Instead of love being an exchange of beneficial results, love-as-singularity is a narcissistic desire between two individuals that become one. A narcissistic desire is the desire that results from an individual seeking an external instance of his or her subjective identity. There is no identity contingent on interdependency between the individuals; in love-as-singularity both individuals already are aware of their identities and those identities are what they desire. Andre Aciman illustrates the paradoxical ambiguity of narcissistic love in Call Me By Your Name:

Did I want to be like him? Did I want to be him? Or did I just want to have him? Or are “being” and “having” thoroughly inaccurate verbs in the twisted skein of desire, where having someone’s body to touch and being that someone we’re longing to touch are one and the same, just opposite banks on a river that passes from us to them, back to us and over to them again in the perpetual circuit where the chambers of the heart, like the trapdoors of desire, and the wormholes of time, and the false-bottomed drawer we call identity share a beguiling logic according to which the shortest distance between real life and the life unlived, between who we are and what we want, is a twisted staircase designed with the impish cruelty of M.C. Escher. When had they separated us, you and me, Oliver? And why did I know it, and why didn’t you? Is it your body that I want when I think of lying next to it every night or do I want to slip into it and own it as if it were my own, as I did when I put on your bathing suit and took it off again, all the while craving, as I craved nothing more in my life that afternoon, to feel you slip inside me as if my entire body were your bathing suit, your home? You in me, me in you… (Aciman 67-68).

As Aciman demonstrates, there is often ambiguity in narcissistic desire that is a result the object of the desire also functioning as the subject of the desire. Authentic desire follows the ‘twisted staircase’ and turns upon itself. By following this staircase, Elio (the narrator) discovers that what he desires is himself. However, Elio, acting as the subject cannot also be the object of his desire. There must be an external individual to act as the recipient of Elio’s desire. The lines blur between each individual’s identity in love-as-singularity, creating a singularity of their subjective identity. It is not the objective identity that is desired, however; a man can easily have narcissistic desire towards a woman although their objective identities are vastly different. The object of a narcissistic desire is actually the subjective identity of the external individual. Unlike love-as-completion, love-as-singularity remains authentic by recognizing the complete identity of both individuals. The desire is fulfilled not in the partnership but by way of the relationship. The relationship in this context serves as the objective outlet for an individual to confirm his or her self-contained subjective identity: Elio wants Oliver because Oliver wants Elio in the same way. Although it is true that by desiring a subjective identity it becomes objectified, the desiring individual merges the objective and subjective identities of the desired individual, which in turn the desired individual upholds because they are being objectified in a sense that matches their subjective identity. By objectifying the subjective identity which in turn is reaffirmed by the individual who’s identity has become objectified, the authenticity within the partnership is maintained. This is the nature of authenticity, to constantly shift between affirmation or denial of objective characterization. If the desire were to occur within one person, without an external source of verification, this would shift the desire into an inauthentic love-as-solipsism. It is important to note also that narcissistic desire is not simply the desire to become another person; Aciman makes this clear by showing that if Oliver were to slip inside Elio, the narrator, he would be at home, as another instance of himself. If Oliver’s desire was to adopt the identity of Elio, he would be a visitor, rather than at home. The desire is not to abandon an identity, but to verify a subjective identity through an external source. The desire to be another person is more accurately attributed to love-as-completion, as the desire to be another person is fundamentally the desire to be a person. This results from an individual not being authentic because they desire a subjective identity that is not theirs. The goal in love-as-completion is precisely for and individual to achieve an identity by becoming the other person, if only as the part of his or her identity that is lacking. The beguiling logic that Aciman references is the logic of authenticity. Individuals crave the freedom to be who they wish to be, but are limited by the fact that they are also defined by people other than themselves. Authenticity is achieved by maintaining the balance between the real life and the life unlived. It is an authentic individual that desires an external instance of him- or herself to define him or her in such a way that he or she wishes to be defined, or to be defined in accordance with his or her subjective identity. Instead of two distinct individuals existing in a partnership as is the case in love-as-completion, love-as-singularity creates one individual that exists in two instances simultaneously. This meta-individual allows for a true sharing of experience, since the barrier of differing perceptions no longer exits.

An argument against love-as-singularity is that it is impractical because desiring one’s self is in essence a homosexual desire. In order to fulfill your desire, you would have to find someone of the same sex if they were to serve as a complete instance of your identity. However, that argument is also predicated on the assumption that society is preferred over an individual. Gender is a fabrication generated by society to more easily facilitate the dependent relationship of love-as-completion; by placing people into opposing categories with distinct characteristics, the illusion that an individual is only one side of humanity is maintained. This fabrication is a set of societal barriers placed upon us that applies an ethics onto desire: for example, the idea that there is behavior that each gender ought to perform. The problem with this is that gender is another example of an external source defining an individual’s identity. By accepting the role of the gender that society assigns into one’s subjective identity, an individual’s identity becomes a function of what he or she is rather than what he or she wants to be. While it is true that human beings’ identities are composed of the objective and subjective components, gender is an example of a facet of our objective selves being used to craft our subjective selves. The system in which Sartre defines bad faith, transcendence and facticity is one in which separately contained identities, transcendence functioning as the subjective identity of a human being while facticity is the objective counter identity, form a mutually parasitic relationship. Facticity is the “real life” that external individuals can witness and experience while transcendence is the “life unlived”. The reason they are separate is that even if the objective identity correlates to the subjective identity, the subjective identity always transcends any form of definition by its nature. The subjective facet of an individual’s identity can be seen as the projection of a human being’s identity into the future; the subjective identity is who a person wants to be, but not is currently. Gender imposes an objective definition onto an individual’s subjective identity that is by its nature impossible to transcend because in all of an individual’s actions that seek to establish his or her subjective identity, he or she acts as a member of the respective gender class. Narcissistic desire exists between individuals with complete identities that are contained within themselves desiring their own subjective identities; there is no logical necessity that would require love-as-singularity to exist exclusively in homosexual relationships. There is no inherent meaning or truth in the label of gender; by defining individuals according to their genitalia, society makes a claim as arbitrary as defining people by their race. The identity that is desired in a narcissistic love transcends the imprecise categories of gender and other such superficiality.

The consequences of a prevalence of love-as-singularity over love-as-completion would be a great change in Western societal norms and attitudes. For one, the concept of marriage would suddenly become a hollow tradition since there would be no need to bond two individuals together when they are already connected through their very being. To impose a contractual context for desire is another example of preferring the objective identity over the subjective. Secondly, if this change were to occur, then it is very likely that the underlying assumption that led people to believe in love-as-completion would be questioned: Humans are only complete within others. This could lead to major attitude changes in regards to the roles of the individual and of society in the human race that would in turn upset the binary of collectivism/individualism. The consequences of those changes would be immeasurable in redefining what it means to be human, but it is also impossible to make a qualitative claim about such changes, as the basis for values would no longer be what they are now. However shocking some of the changes may be, one change that can be qualified as beneficial, so long as you accept the premise that authenticity is a justifiable criterion, is that societal impositions on individual desires would evaporate. No longer would society create a mold for individual’s desires to pour into, but rather each individual would desire what their subjective identities necessitated.

Though the advantage of authenticity is appealing, the schism between individualism and collectivism is not one that is easily bridged. Neither category contains the totality of the human experiences, nor is either inherently advantageous for human beings: a preference of one over the other is advantageous for the category itself. For example, to prefer collectivism over individuality qualifies society as the over-arching subject with human beings serving as the objects by which the subject’s goals and desires are actualized but to prefer individualism instead places an individual into a solipsistic subject state, in which other human beings are also objects that serve as means to actualize transcendent desires. If the goal is to achieve authenticity, especially in the form of desire, a balance must be maintained between the two attitudes. The solution lies in a delegation of responsibility: to maintain a balance through counterbalancing of individual values and societal values. In order to achieve this, concepts such as desire, which are fundamentally the function of an individual and not society, must be actualized through individualistic means. However, other aspects of humanity, politics for example, must be actualized within the system of societal values. The way to achieve authenticity in both cases is through a metaphysical pluralism. This metaphysical pluralism is defined by Chantal Mouffe in The Democratic Paradox as: “The end of a substantive idea of the good life, what Claude Lefort calls ‘the dissolution of the markers of certainty’ (18).” By negating the concept of a model of life that members of a society are obliged to pursue, individuals are allowed to pursue their desires and subjective values in such a way that does not exclude the external world but rather allows for authentic discourse and compromise to occur between the individual and society. In order to achieve authenticity in the form of desire, society does not have to lose the capacity to construct value systems, but rather society must simply only qualify interactions that effect society directly. Although there is a seemingly inherent resistance to compromise, it appears to be the most applicable method to achieving a society in which individuals could exist more authentically.

Works Cited

Aciman, André. Call Me by Your Name. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove, 1981. Print.

Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso, 2000. Print.

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