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Desire Is Not Natural

January 29, 2010

When I get my Foucauldian talk going, I inevitably find someone who objects to the idea that desires are socially constructed by pointing out that we’re born hungry—as if hunger is entirely natural.

This won’t work, cause I don’t get hungry for breast milk (in fact, even calling it breast milk is an act of identification that is unavailable to infants because they haven’t yet been thoroughly socialized). I get hungry for pepperoni pizza, for buffalo wings, or whatever (this means it’s hard for me to be a vegetarian at times!).

But saying that our hunger is natural because we’re naturally hungry is like saying that speaking English is natural because we’re born with vocal chords.

Desire (even hunger) is better understood as a bodily potentiality that is thoroughly socialized soon after we’re born.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 3:00 pm

    Speaking English strikes me as comparable to hungering for pizza or breast milk… Making noise is what’s comparable to hungering, and that seems natural enough as far as it goes. I take your point about the social construction of particular modes of hunger, or noisemaking, or anything else, but I don’t see why it’s so problematic to deny that these things are natural on some significant level.

    I’m not very familiar with Foucault, so perhaps this is a dumb question, but what is the distinction between what you’re referring to as “bodily potentiality” and what others are referring to as a “natural desire”?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 29, 2010 3:08 pm

    The people I talk to seem to presume that their own desires (that they have as adults) are natural, JUST LIKE an infant’s. They see their own desires as analogous to the infant’s desires.

    I find that this can come up when people are trying to portray homosexuality as natural. Against them, I’d argue that since sexual difference is in part a social construction, then being a homosexual can’t be natural, since homosexuality depends on a sexual binary that is not universal.

    This doesn’t mean that sexual desires aren’t in part bodily (or in part natural), but they CAN’T be wholly natural.

    I don’t know that Foucault would use the language of bodily potentiality—that’s probably my vocabulary. I would use the language of bodily potentiality because “natural desire” is misleading, I think: I’d say that desire is not desire until it is directed toward something, and 99.9% of the time our desires are directed toward social constructs. If that’s right, then there is rarely—if ever—any desire that is “natural.”

  3. Beelzebub permalink
    January 29, 2010 7:52 pm

    Why does the fact that one thing or another is socially constructed also make it not “natural”?

    I kind of dislike the word “natural.” From my perspective, it seems fraught with contradiction and a host of implicit assumptions (is what is natural also what is good?). In one instance a person uses that word to mean that something is innate in humans, say. In another instance, it simply means that a particular occurrence follows a certain logic. (Example: taking steroids may cause growth in humans that some call unnatural. But at the same time, it is only natural that such growth will occur if a person does take such steroids. Obviously, this is an equivocation; “natural” means two different things. But the problem for me is that in one instant it means that without human intervention, something wouldn’t happen, in another it means, as I said before, that if A happens, then it only makes sense that B will follow.) This means things that occur because of social interactions are unnatural (I guess? maybe I misunderstand). At the same time, when social beings get together, creating concepts about the world and living in some degree in accordance with those concepts, it seems that it would be a natural thing to do, since they are social. But I would say all concepts created and all behaviors carried out are natural, but not necessarily innate. It’s just, you know, natural that social beings would create different concepts and carry out different behaviors.

    So, like I said. I dislike the word “natural” and to sum up, it’s basically because it’s not a very precise word.

  4. fuzzytheory permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:29 pm

    Evan: just a point of clarification. Hunger is a response to a stimuli that will be fatal if not satiated. So, being mute is probably not a good analogy, and not to be an internet dick, but is kind of an ablist analogy. The two key points about it, I think, are that the expression of hunger is socially constructed, but fundamental to hunger is a fatal desire. Reading Jain texts will surely make this clear… they speak about hunger with the metaphor of a deadly addiction. I don’t necessarily think that metaphor is appropriate in this context, unless one thinks of an addiction that must be fulfilled, the consequences being death. Anyway… perhaps a better metaphor is shitting. Everybody poops, but everybody poops differently.

    B: I’m right with you there with conceptual contempt for the word ‘natural.’ To my mind the word in general is a categorical conceit used purely rhetorically. I think this is especially true with the modification “human nature”. My automatic assumption about the use of the term “human nature” is that it is a rhetorical power play. Even the general term nature, as in green fields, or nature versus culture, is rhetorical. Here I think about Baudrillard’s example of the tribe in South America that the government isolated from external influences to keep it pure, to keep it in its natural state. But, unlike other tribal groups who had been molested by anthropologists and etc., the second that the government made the tribe a zoo like this, is the second they embedded it, corrupted it, did the opposite of their intent. Nature is a shiny word, but what does it really mean? No animal is said to be unnatural. Male lions kill baby cubs. It’s natural. Why do we have the conceit that anything humans do is unnatural? Anything a lion does is by the definition of nature, natural. It’s a silly conceit and huge blind spot that we think humans are somehow outside this. Anything we do is natural. Therefor, cities, global warming, any social or anti-social configuration IS natural. By definition anything we do is human nature. I can imagine the perspective of alien anthropologists being like this. Furthermore, we make an off-hand distinction between urban cities versus the “nature” of the woods. Sorry, cities are just as “natural” as the woods. From this analysis, we can actually see how we use the term “nature” or “natural” to do things, say things, to influence ourselves and others. It is a rhetorical strategy within a semiotic network. And buying into it is to lose sight of something important about how contemporary English speakers are influencing each other.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    January 30, 2010 10:40 am

    In general I agree with you guys about the dubious uses to which the word “natural” is put. I don’t think I was trying to pull one over you, though, with the way I was using the word.

    If we’re not going to use the word natural in this sort of case, what will we use to designate that which is not produced by social groups? (I do recognize that our bodies are, in fact, what they are in part because of social groups—without social groups, for instance, our bodies would have evolved differently ….)

  6. Beelzebub permalink
    January 30, 2010 3:27 pm

    Innate? Doesn’t innate work? Maybe it’s just as imprecise as natural and I’m just not seeing it right now, but it feels right. At the same time, it maybe a bit less of a common speech word. You’ll hear people use the word “natural” a lot more than you will “innate.”

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