Notes on Writing and Desire

Jonathan Alexander | University of California, Irvine

Earlier in my career (I’m now well into my third decade of the profession), I wrote a book, Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies, in which I attempted to mobilize the insights of queer theory for the teaching of writing.  I began that work out of a sense of myself as not just an outsider to the field of composition studies, but also as an outsider to normative orders of being in the late capitalist cultures of a heteronormative and patriarchal American hegemony, a hegemony that extended outward globally and inward (a la Foucault) to the construction of normative selves in the workroom of power we call the “self” and that Foucault and others rightly call the “subject,” as in what one is subject to.  Queer theory is born out of these insights and deeply felt senses of the normative insides and outsides of the social.  As such, it offered me a way to think about how composition studies and its focus on language, communication, writing, and rhetoric might be re-oriented toward an understanding and critique of the construction of normative discourses of the social.  It also allowed me to think about ways to approach an interrogation of a privileged heteronorm and a consequent derogation of lives, loves, interests, investments, and dispositions that lay, for whatever reason, outside those norms.  I wanted to know, and explore with others, how the insights of the “others” might complicate the discursive and material construction of such norms and what kind, to borrow from Foucault again, of “available freedom” was possible, discursively and materially, through the act of writing.

I think now I was missing the point.  In that book, I told a story about reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a boy—actually about how that book was read to me and other fifth graders in a class, and how the experience of that book and its telling of two stories at the same time (the fantasy story of Aslan the lion and the Pevensie children as allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ) opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing as the fantastical capacity to tell two stories at the same time, however related.  Such seemed a magical power of storytelling, of creation, of writing.  But I also quickly moved to how the narrative, a pedagogical story of Christian indoctrination for young minds, discursively and then just as surely materially trapped me in the closet, my nascent queer feelings and being already identified on the schoolyard as faggotry, as sinful, as undesirable.  I called Lewis’ wardrobe my first closet.

I wasn’t wrong, but I gave short shrift to what Lewis offered – or, perhaps more correctly, what I took from Lewis.  For I have never stopped believing in the power of writing to speak doubly, to tell a tale and tell a very different kind of tale at the same time.  And if my perversion of Lewis’ allegory lies in my commitment to writing as not just gesturing to the “real” story but to multiple, divergent, even contradictory stories, then so be it.  For this is what it did.  Yes, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe allegorized the story of Christ.  But it also allegorized the creative power of the word to mean multiply – and perhaps to mean very differently than what was first intended or first apprehended or later imposed on the text.  Writing couldn’t be as controlled as Lewis had perhaps imagined, or wanted.  Its correspondences were not as tightly braided as he hoped.  It was fluid.  It opened up and out.  It is (to return to Lewis and Prince Caspian, the sequel to Lion, the first book I read cover to cover as a prepubescent boy) my imagining crawling into bed with one of the Pevensie boys, perhaps the bed of Prince Caspian himself, surrounded by his strong arms, cuddled and cradled, imagining connection, dreaming of a being with that, yes, I quickly learned to keep to myself, but that I sought out in book after book.  And then I slowly started finding others with similar desires—even those with desires I didn’t know were possible—that sparked and ignited and inspired and that kept me looking, reading, dreaming, discovering.  That, in a word, kept me desiring.

Perhaps what I learned most importantly about writing and desire is that I pursued writing that opened up the world and its queerness to me precisely to resist the discursive and material injunctions against my queerness that surrounded me.  I kept reading, voraciously, because I needed not so much to find myself in writing but to discover how to survive, to re-educate my sense of self away from the damaged conception I was given of a damned and sinful self and toward a vibrant and lively self I wanted and wanted to be.  I then started writing my own fantasies, with accompanying maps, modeling myself on Lewis and others, because I needed to explore other worlds, other ways of being, other fantastical and creative capacities for living that were otherwise foreclosed in my day-to-day existence.  I have learned that such reading and writing were less about finding an identity than about the experience of language itself as a capacious, multiple, and generative process – less of being than of building, less of identifying and more of discovering.  My writing was expressing a desire, multiple desires surely; but it was also, more importantly, desire itself.  It was not just the representation of desire; it was desire.

To be sure, writing can represent a range of desires.  It can absolutely channel desires for foreclosure, for harm, for limitation.  But it can also be the gesture, the enactment, the being toward the other, toward otherness, the being that is becoming.  I have learned from my own story, my own desires, and the stories I have come to tell about those desires, about the need to cultivate, actively, my own desires – before they are cultivated in me, and even after they have been cultivated by others in me.  I am not talking here about authenticity, about the true self and its desires.  I have never been sure such exists.  But I am talking about awareness, about activity, about agency.  We learn desires, even how to desire, through the sponsorship of different institutions; my fifth-grade teacher reading us a book for children by C. S. Lewis was attempting to shape our emerging beings, direct us on particular paths.  But there is also writing that can direct us beyond the sponsorship of particular institutions, writing that resists certain forms of sponsorship and the values and ideologies channeled through it, and writing that opens us onto the unknown territories of being and possibility.  At moments, I want to argue (I desire to argue?) that the generative capaciousness of languaging, the inherent power of writing’s fundamental metaphoricity, lies precisely in its inability to fix reality and instead in its capacity to open it up for other ways of thinking, feeling, and being.  Lewis’ allegory deconstructing itself in my fifth-grade mind, pointing me less toward the sacrificial Christ and more to the power to tell a very different kind of story, was my first encounter with such a capacity.

In this way, writing as desire can become a constant education and re-education of desire itself.  As one initial example, I can point to how Eric Darnell Pritchard relies on Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” to forward a theory of restorative literacy and love.  He is thinking in particular about American Black folks and how they use language and writing to repair the damages done to them by racism. For Pritchard, writing is the desire for something different, something better than what is offered.  He writes that 

Lorde describes the erotic as a power source engendering the vision one has for one’s life on one’s own terms. . . . The erotic challenges and invites us to see how this kernel of energy animates the entire enterprise of our interventions, and of our lives as a whole. Lorde cites the erotic as an affective power within individual and collective struggles against oppression. (57) 

Indeed. But Lorde’s turn to the erotic and its uses is not just in service of living life on one’s own terms. It is also a turning outward and an opening to the experience of joy across multiple spheres, domains, and ecologies. As Lorde herself puts it

[An] important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. 

Bodies, music, dancing, bookcases, writing, and ideas.  This is the erotic as desire not just for satisfaction of identity, but as a stretching, a hearkening, an opening.  And Lorde, as master poet, knew well of the capacity of writing to enact such eroticism, to be such desire.

I want to write now, finally, not just about those desires, but about writing as desire, about writing as the particular kind of desire that is that reaching out.  Not a fixing, but a becoming.  Not an allegory, but a constant metaphorizing out that delights in difference, that learns to love the power of language itself to open us onto the brilliant and diffuse and shattering and extraordinary differences that surround it. I want to know what happens when I focus my attention now, finally, at last, on how writing is desire.

NOTE: These thoughts are part of a larger project.

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