A brief history of desire, an essay

Exploring the evolution of human desires: survival, imagination, and contemporary dilemmas

by Giulia Pozzobon

Culture 02 May 2024

The history of Homo sapiens is intertwined with the evolution of our desires. For much of our existence as a species, our desires were tied to physiological needs and focused on survival and basic functions. Then, as our prefrontal cortex developed through evolutionary selection, we began to develop more complex and abstract desires. This shift coincided with the time when we began to create cave paintings of hand outlines and mammoth profiles, reflecting a new self-consciousness and the ability to imagine and desire the intangible.


West and East 

In Western culture, Epicurus was one of the first philosophers to analyze different kinds of desires. He classified them into four categories: natural and necessary, natural but non-necessary, vain, and unattainable. Among the natural and necessary desires, he included well-being in the sense of the absence of pain, rest, and a sense of protection. Natural but non-necessary desires included the pursuit of pleasure and pleasantness. Vain desires encompassed things like wealth and fame. Finally, there were the unattainable desires, such as the desire for immortality. In contrast, about two centuries earlier in India, between the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., philosopher Gautama Buddha provided deep insights into human desire through his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. According to Buddhist philosophy, by distancing oneself from longing — which is incessant desire — one ceases to feel pain. By abandoning the perception of being a subject separate from others and the world, one can achieve the state of nirvana, defined in some translations as “freedom from desire.”


The body and the stars

The concept of desire is explicitly linked to pleasure and eros, but it also leads to the notion of happiness as the fulfillment of one’s desires. It can even spark ethical discussions about moral desires for justice, beauty, and equality. The interplay of mirrors and contrasts makes it difficult to define and trace the history of desire.

The etymology of the word “desire” is undeniably fascinating. It comes from the Latin de-sidera, which means “lack of stars.” It expresses movement, a tension between two poles: on the one hand, the body, with its real impulses and drives towards sensual pleasure; on the other hand, the aspiration of consciousness towards something missing or distant, like the stars, like the Universe or the Other. Basically, it reflects the uniqueness of humanity, described by Arthur Schopenhauer, among others, as subjects capable of knowing, but also beings endowed with bodies.

Our body is both an object among objects and the site of an inner sense — the will or desire that we feel vibrating between thought and sensation. It is an unstable internal phenomenon that arises out of lack and belongs to the realm of the imaginary. As such, it is never truly fulfilled yet remains incredibly powerful.


Freedom and slavery

“You never desire someone or something, you always desire an aggregate,” explains the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in the 1988 interview L’Abécédaire, “[…] I don’t desire a woman, I also desire a landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape that, if needs be — I don’t know — but that I can feel. As long as I haven’t yet unfolded the landscape that envelops her, I will not be happy, that is, my desire will not have been attained, my desire will remain unsatisfied.”

This fragment of an interview with a renowned critic of psychoanalysis leads us to what has been called the “science” of desire and its opposite. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, defined desire as a psychic action that seeks to reconstruct the original situation of satisfaction — like a mother feeding her child. According to Freud, we always desire an object that has been lost and cannot be regained.

Jacques Lacan later expanded and, in some ways, “liberated” the notion of desire. In his analysis, desire is also a force capable of revealing our uniqueness. Unlike Freud, who described the unconscious as a cauldron containing passions and all the most hidden instinctual components, Lacan saw the unconscious as being governed by the logic of desire. In Lacanian thought, desire and the unconscious are always transgressive. Prohibition produces desire, giving rise to the revolutionary potential of the act of desiring, with which religions and institutions have always had a contentious relationship.


Power and liberation

The control of desire and pleasure is a typical function of power. Institutions, ideologies, and religions have often tended to limit their scope. The individual and subjective chaos of desire — the drive of the ego to continue along the lines of its psychoanalytic interpretation — threatens order, the categories of society, and the rules of coexistence. In his 1976 History of Sexuality, (three volumes entitled The Will to Knowledge, The Use of Pleasure, and The Care of the Self), Michel Foucault sets out a genealogy of sexuality and examines the relationship between sex and the instruments of power that have historically governed it. He observes how modern power represses sex while simultaneously producing an overproduction of discourses on sexuality.

Capitalism, as a contemporary religion or ideology, has also engaged in direct dialogue with desire. It proposes a relationship opposite to that of the major historical traditions: whereas religions and political narratives have almost always thwarted and controlled desire, generating movements of rebellion against them over the centuries, capitalism has promoted the liberation of pleasure, the absence of limits, encouraging the complete fulfillment of drives and pleasure in a kind of perpetual compulsion to desire. This drive to consume — objects, experiences, and each other — characterizes globalized society in a crescendo that we can call turbo-capitalist.

But while the cornerstone of desire is the lack we alluded to in the introduction, what desire can we feel when the landscape is full and at our complete disposal? What emptiness can we fill with desire when every space is occupied, every experience accessible, every pleasure experienceable? How does our desire affect the world we live in, namely our planet? Can we rediscover our authentic desire by repeatedly transgressing the categorical imperative to desire? Or should we abandon the pairing of desire and lack and turn to the concept of immanent joy, recently revived by the philosopher Rosi Braidotti?

These questions — especially from a gendered perspective — are central to contemporary reflections on the crisis of desire and the need to revise its connotations.