The famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls attention to a key component of desire that is easy to overlook, namely that we often experience the desire of others as deeply enigmatic. Such enigmatic desire can be dramatically over-stimulating and disorienting so that we end up spending a lot of energy trying to make sense of currents of desire that can never be entirely decoded. The most obvious example of this is the child who is trying to figure out what her parents want from her. But adults can also get caught up in networks of desire that agitate them, adding a layer of vulnerability to their lives. This can happen on the personal level, but it is perhaps nowhere as evident as when we feel compelled to respond to the mysterious demands of bureaucratic social institutions. 

Let me give you a personal example. A few years ago, a Canadian immigration officer decided that I alone among the hundreds of foreign professors at the University of Toronto (let alone other Canadian universities) did not deserve permanent residency. His decision was eventually overturned by the immigration headquarters in Ottawa, but not before I had spent countless sleepless nights worrying about my future and wondering about the "why" of it all. The enigma was compounded by the fact that my university-appointed immigration lawyer told me that the decision was absolutely unprecedented. And, as chance would have it, at the time I had two foreign graduate students with no immediate employment prospects who received their papers without a hassle while mine were mysteriously held up.

The disorienting impact of the other's enigmatic desire has never been as palpable for me as during the months I struggled to figure out what in my application could possibly have induced the officer in question to go rogue. Was it that I was a single woman who would not contribute to Canada's population growth by having children? Was it that my curriculum vitae indicated expertise in critical theory, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies? Was it that the officer wanted to protect his country from ivy-educated professionals who took jobs away from Canadians? Or was he perhaps in the claws of negative transference towards someone with a higher income level than his? Or was he simply just plain incompetent?

As far as psychological grievances go, mine were hardly severe, paling in comparison to war, rape, ethnic cleansing, domestic abuse, hunger, poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia, political dictatorship, and religious persecution (among other things). But it made me realize the enormous psychological and emotional toll exacted by the enigmatic desire of those who wield authority over us. And it made me think of the helplessness that besets us when we are confronted by institutional structures of power that either refuse or cannot give a good explanation for wanting what they want. Such helplessness can in fact become so deeply embedded that it alters our relationship not only to the world (so that we are constantly looking over our shoulder), but also to our bodies, so that we find ourselves overpowered by generalized anxiety that does not let us rest.

Perhaps most importantly, the disorienting impact of the other's enigmatic desire is related to our social positioning, so that those who inhabit precarious subject positions - say, because of race, ethnicity, or religion - carry a bigger burden of anxiety than do those who are more privileged. When the mystery of the other's desire is intertwined with the other's (overt or covert) hostility, this desire becomes even more menacing. And when this desire rouses us to over-vigilance not only because of its inherent opacity, but also because there are power-related barriers to our ability to interpret it, we can become agitated to the point of exasperation (or even self-injury). Finally, when we feel that our very existence depends on our capacity to read the other's desire - that the price of failure is nothing short of social extinction - we can become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Whether we are walking in a given neighborhood after dark, trying to make a living, catching a cab across town, entering a government building, or crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, how we are situated in relation to social networks of power matters. If the enigmatic desire of bureaucratic institutions can be maddening for all of us, there are instances when it is nothing short of terrorizing.

About the Author

Mari Ruti

Mari Ruti, Ph.D., is a professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Case for Falling in Love and The Summons of Love.

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