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Desire, Love, and IdentityReview - Desire, Love, and Identity
Philosophy of Sex and Love
by Gary Foster
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis, PhD
Jun 27th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 26)

"I cannot hope to seize the concept of it [love] except "by the tail": by flashes, formulas, surprises of expression, scattered through the great stream of the Image-repertoire; I am in love's wrong place, which is its dazzling place," wrote Roland Barthes in 1977 in his famous book A Lover's Discourse (2002: 59). Even catching love "by the tail" seems to be a challenge, a diachronic, transcultural, transdisciplinary effort. And yet, ever since Plato, love and its mysterious sister, sex, have been in the forefront of all humanistic discourses in some shape: from the instinctual to the sublime, to the sanctified and "dirty," to the romantic, physical, and metaphysical. Where, then, is one to look at least for the "tail" in the pursuit of this ever-fleeting, ever-mischievous, and ever-present concept, that "old roller coaster" which we ride since the first moment of our lives (Young Bruehl 2003: 280)?

The new edited collection Desire, Love, & Identity: Philosophy of Sex and Love combines classical texts in philosophy with contemporary articles exploring love and sex as defining elements of our human identity. As the title suggests, what makes this collection unique is the very specific interest in exploring the questions of love and desire vis. the issue of identity and identity-formation. The volume includes readings from a variety of perspectives -- continental, analytical, feminist -- addressing topics such as sexual objectification, sexual identity, the ethics of sex work, love and sex online, friendship, polyamory, and BDSM. Alongside the ancient and modern selections, the reader will find sixteen original contributions written by scholars offering take on the philosophy of love and sex. Foster finishes off each chapter with a very informative discussion and some relevant suggestions for further reading.

The book is divided in two main parts, one examining pertinent aspects of sex, and the other -- on love. Because of its elegant, streamlined structure, Desire, Love, & Identity: Philosophy of Sex and Love will be a valuable resource not just for the student and the university professor, but also for any intelligent reader outside of academe eager to gain glimpses from an impressive range of philosophical texts. From the ancient notions of eros and agape to modern issues like online dating, sexting and cybersex, Foster successfully encapsulates the minimum of serious, thought-provoking philosophical texts that will spark interest and further research beyond the boundaries of the anthology.

In chapter one, for example, we find two iconic texts, Jean-Paul Sartre's on sexual desire and Thomas Nagel's on sexual perversion. In the discussion that follows, Foster juxtaposes the perspectives of the two philosophers on sexual desire and states that both would have agreed agree that, beyond the search for physical pleasure, sexual desire is a fundamental way of "being with and for others." (26) Posited like this, sexual desire is a part of our identity which is predicated on nature (as in drives and sexuality) and nurture (as a culturally informed and socially governed behavior), in a tight-knit relation to the Other. In other words, as Sartre states, "Thus the revelation of the Other's flesh is made through my own flesh; in desire and in the caress which expresses desire, I incarnate myself in order to realize the incarnation of the Other." (14) Equally, Nagel responds, "Sexual desire involves a kind of perception, but not merely a single perception of its object, […] there is a complex system of superimposed mutual perceptions -- not only perceptions of the sexual object, but perceptions of oneself." (20)

So, why is sex so important in our lives and what constitutes an "object" of sexual desire, and, even further, is sex an art or a science, asks Foster and tries to answer these questions, at least partially, by refereeing to some key texts like Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (1980) and John Russon's Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (2003), but also involving in this on-going dialogue scholars like Réal Fillion and Ada S. Jaarsma. So, why are we so preoccupied in defining, postulating, discussing, displaying, or hiding our sexual identities? Because, as Russon argues, "Sexual life is the domain in which we navigate interpersonal issues of care, self-esteem, and power, […] sex is an activity  in and through which we establish […] a sense of our own desirability to other persons." (42) In the creation and exercise of a very specific intimacy, we find ourselves indulging in the physical, yet building upon psychic levels that hark back to our identity.

Further insights from philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Martha Nussbaum, but also Patricia Marino, Emily Ann Parker, and Michael Gilbert are drawn on important issues like sexual objectification, sexual violence, and derivatization. As outlined by Judith Butler, there are potential dangers of gender identity "profiling" in which society is actively engaged and they raise significant legal and ethical issues. Further to experiencing the body of the Other in the sexual act, how is our perception of their demonstrated gender complicating our relation to them? This question, as Foster's selections illustrate, would be continuously scrutinized for entangling the personal and the social domains in quite un-expected ways.

The problematic ethical issues that scholars like Chloë Taylor, Julia O'Connell Davidson, Christopher Bartel, and Yolanda Estes analyze in their contributions range from prostitution to gaming to BDSM practices. Through his selections, Foster successfully outlines inherently ethical problems in sex work and their relation to the identity of the sex worker as well as the identity of the customer; the moral issues surrounding new online and virtual experiences, and BDSM practices. What is important here, it seems to me, is that between popular conceptions and misconception, Foster posits a dialogue which identifies importance aspects of these practices that need reconsideration and further study.

The second part of Desire, Love, & Identity: Philosophy of Sex and Love builds uponan impressive selection of texts from Plato, Aristotle, and Kant on love, friendship, and marriage, complemented by key modern works: Irving Singer's The Nature of Love (1984), Robert C. Solomon's About Love: Reinventing Romance for Our Time (1988), and Alan Soble's The Structure of Love (1990) The attempt that ancient and modern philosophers make is clearly to define a very fleeting concept, love, and to discuss its many manifestations. Whether they manage to absolutely define love for us is something to argue, since to quote Plato's Diotima, "Correct judgement, of course, has this character: it is in between understanding and ignorance." (181) What becomes clear is the fact that, unsurprisingly, there is always something more to be considered and said about love. In this sense, the voices of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Harry G. Frankfurt add variety to the selection by analyzing agape and eros, and what they do -- again -- to our sense of identity and how we relate to the Other. Through Platonic, parental, disinterested or romantic love, through friendship, marriage, monogamy or polygamy, through "free" love we always define the other as much as we define ourselves in the act of loving.

          Through discussions and identity theories, through reading and postulating structures, each one of the selections tries to define a very complicated concept that continuously evades through the centuries the philosopher, the poet, and the artist. More contemporary voices like Rekha Navneet, Glenn Parsons, and Noël Merino get engaged in a dialogue with the classical philosophical tradition to give their own twist in the understanding of this fleeting concept, for example, by examining the role of imagination in love, the role of intuition, reason, and argument, and so on. To rephrase the literary critic and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, philosophers and readers alike are entangled in answering the old question "Where do we fall when we fall in love?"

          As if this drive to define love is not complicated enough, the sections in the book on marriage and friendship touch once gain on the issues of how we relate, through love, to the Other: in pairing up, in circles, in open fields. Jill Rusin, Elizabeth Brake, Tony Milligan, Annette C. Baier, Alexis Shotwell, Lauren Bialystock, Robert Sharp, and Gary Foster take to task some of the most problematic ethical issues that we encounter in our lives: loving and marrying; loving, but not marrying; being monogamic and the idea of polygamy; the freedom to date online and, why not, to cheat online, or to entertain the thought of cheating. What would Plato or Aristotle think of our contemporary ars amoris? Undoubtedly, Foster's collection feeds the imagination about the outcome of such a reverse dialogue.  

Desire, Love, & Identity: Philosophy of Sex and Love offers an engaging, accessible introduction to the exciting field of philosophy of love and it successfully stimulates further investigation in a very challenging, eternally problematic area -- not simply the sexual or the amorous encounter, but the encounter between self and the Other. 

References:

Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse. Tr. from French by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Press, 2002.

Young Bruehl, Elisabeth. "Where Do We Fall When We Fall in Love?" JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society, Volume 8, number 2, Fall 2003, 279-288.

 

© 2017 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis

 

Dr Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern English and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.


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