Talking about sex again

“Oh, but sir I have only honorable intentions toward your daughter.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about desire and intentionality. I like Dennett and Haugeland’s reduction of the term intentionality to “aboutness.” So, what’s it all about? The narratives that surround us generally point to one easy resolution of the problem, as this bit of dialogue from Finding Forester declares:

“You mean women will want to sleep with me if I write a book?”

“Women will want to sleep with you if you write a bad book.”

This reminded me of an episode, a long time ago. I was hanging out with some friends in a house that doubled as a practice space for a band. Larry V., one of the best funk bass players I’ve ever known, was strolling around the room practicing slaps and pops on his bass.

“I’m just searching for that perfect tone— the sound that will cause all the panties in the room to drop at once.”

Larry was unusual in his honesty. He knew why he started playing the bass— to get laid. I think that’s why I really enjoyed hanging out with the funk crowd for a while. They had few illusions. While funk can be ridiculed as being simplistic and lacking conceptual depth, I much prefer funk to rap. Rap seems to be more about power, whereas funk is purely about sex; the power relations are submerged beneath a much sexier exterior. It’s not as much a strutting, justifying “I’m the man,” as it is “I’m the man who wants.” Few professional people are as honest as Larry V. about the overwhelming desire to get laid that drives most people to pursue certain skills.

For some, it might be just making money because they believe that money will get you laid. For others, it might be something more artistic because I (and I suspect a lot of people) believe that art is a way of touching people. And what is the desire to touch people if not a sexual desire? It might seem horribly reductive, but ultimately, I think most of human intentionality can be reduced to a desire for sex.

Reading “The Critic as Host” by J. Hillis Miller helped me put a new perspective on this whole language intentionality enterprise. Miller argues that the relationship between critic and text is much like a parasite / host relationship, where the symbiosis depends on the presence of both. Texts are, in a sense, irreducible in that they cannot be fully explained by any means. There is always a residue. Miller sets into opposition the forces of metaphysics and nihilism as a more complex, sexual, parasite / host dynamic. Reduction of metaphysics always moves toward nihilism, which in turn can never completely consume the desire for transcendence. There is always a residue which remains, which seeks to reconstitute itself.

I have reflected in the past about the transience of sexual memory, how it fades so quickly that we have no choice but to repeat the experience as often as possible— there is no such thing as a perfect and transcendent union, only the search for its possibility. This search is perhaps the defining aboutness of the human condition. In Miller’s perception, there is always a residue after the act that drives us to repeat it. Part of that imperfection may lie in language itself.

The play of substitutions in language can never be a purely ideal interchange. This interchange is always contaminated by its necessary incarnation, the most dramatic form of which is the bodies of lovers. On the other hand, lovemaking is never a purely wordless communion or intercourse. It is in its turn contaminated by language. Lovemaking is a way of living, in the flesh, the aporias of figure. It is also a way of experiencing the way language functions to forbid the perfect union of lovers. Language always remains, after they have exhausted or even annihilated themselves in an attempt to get it right, as the genetic trace starting the cycle all over again.

The persistence of desire assures the continuance of the species. and desire fills our intentionality. But it seems locked in a paradox of non-disclosure. We mustn’t talk about the real intention behind our words. To attempt to teach language skills is in effect to teach the survival skills of humanity. How is this possible without dealing with the language of desire? No matter how often we wash the sheets, that curious stain begs to reappear.

Why isn’t sex an “honorable” intention?

1 thought on “Talking about sex again”

  1. Jeff wrote:

    It might seem horribly reductive, but ultimately, I think most of human intentionality can be reduced to a desire for sex.

    Yep, it is horribly reductive. It’s a good thing that you said “most.” I’d even take issue with that. We human beings have quite a few basic desires. We can start with the biological ones, if you like (breathing, drinking, eating, sleeping, having sex) although I’m always highly skeptical of arguments from nature, since we know so very little about nature, and what we do claim to know is always ideologically inflected.

    But I think you could argue that the desire to connect is prior to the desire for sex. As infants, without connection we suffer from failure to thrive, and we die. Literally.

    And in our humanity, our desire for meaning is often prior even to our basic biological desires. How else to explain that people quite often die for ideas (which is positively amazing if you stop to think about it)? How else to explain the despair of the depressed person, for whom life has become meaningless to the point where death is preferable?

    Why isn’t sex an “honorable” intention?

    I think many modern people would say that it is, particularly if the desire is grounded in those drives for connection and meaning that I think are even more basic.

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