Consumerism and the Liquefaction of Desire

What do your desires mean? The average university graduate would have a hard time parsing this simple query. Since when is desire about meaning? Like the man who has to explain why he did not call after a one-night stand, most of us shrug in the direction of our desires, saying, “It didn’t mean a thing, baby.”

This meaninglessness serves a purpose, as the philanderer would understand well. Meaningful desire would require commitment, as well as self-sacrifice in pursuit of a goal somehow bigger than ourselves. We dimly sense that meaning makes demands, whereas simply following the dictates of animal instinct, or pursuing momentary pleasure, or lighting up the right parts of our nervous system, or whatever it is we think desire is and does in its meaningless fashion, requires nothing especially onerous of us.

Yet this evacuation of significance has the unexpected side-effect of making our desires insignificant. Why bother to pursue a woman at all? That seems to require too much effort, when one can simply self-pleasure at home with the help of a screen. Unshackled from meaning, our desires have become liquid, unfocused, and increasingly trivial.

Desire and Significance

Triviality was not what desire’s liquid revolutionaries had in mind. They were aiming rather for liberation. According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who understood quite well that desire and significance implicate each other, both ought to be fluid.

Through the impasses and the triangles a schizophrenic flow moves, irresistibly; sperm, river, drainage, inflamed genital mucus, or a stream of words that do not let themselves be coded, a libido that is too fluid, too viscous: a violence against syntax, a concerted destruction of the signifier, non-sense erected as a flow, polyvocity that returns to haunt all relations.[1]

In contrast to such liberating fluidity is solidity. It goes along with social organization—“coding,” in their language—in which divine transcendence smuggles itself in, hidden behind words and signs. Deleuze and Guattari mock not only traditional truth-seekers but also modern linguists and Lacanian psychoanalysts, all of whom are no more than “young palace dogs” in the court of an epistemological despot. They are sycophants (or worse, new and therapeutic ascetic priests) “who never tire of crying: The signifier, you have not reached the signifier, you are still at the level of the signified! The signifier is the only thing that gladdens their hearts” (A-O 208).

Social and linguistic codes “territorialize” desire and language by rooting them in a particular socio-economic soil.[2] Deleuze and Guattari believed that capitalism had a deterritorializing effect, in that capitalism uprooted desires from their social embeddedness and created them from scratch. But it also reterritorialized the desires according to the arbitrary requirements of capital. Linguists and psychoanalysts were part of this reterritorializing moment, channeling desire into a search for the missing signifier, or the missing phallus, or some other missing good that looks suspiciously like a missing god.

To look for meaning and purpose in language and desire is to admit that we seek a true good that somehow escapes us, and this Deleuze and Guattari refuse to accept. Desire does not move toward a missing good; there is nothing we lack. The sycophants are misguided in seeking the master signifier that “remains what it was in ages past, a transcendent stock that distributes lack to all the elements of the chain …” (A-O 208). Lack is an intrinsically theological and hence inadmissible concept, distracting one with nothingness, as happens with a slave bewitched by the ascetic priest. “O signifier, terrible archaism of the despot where they still look for the empty tomb, the dead father, and the mystery of the name!” (A-O 208-9) In this, Deleuze and Guattari echo Nietzsche: “I fear we have not freed ourselves from God, because we still believe in grammar.”[3]

Released from all lack—of meaning, of the desired object, of transcendence—what can emerge is the positive reality of desire-production, with no purpose beyond its own flows. “The question posed by desire is not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘How does it work?’ … Desire makes its entry with the general collapse of the question ‘What does it mean?’” (A-O 109, emphasis in the original). Desire-production requires also the neutralization of the subject who desires. Rather than existing before desire, the subject is instead the after-effect of desire-production, its “residue” (A-0 40-41).

In a similar manner, Michel Foucault argued for the replacement of telos and subject with his preferred formulation, pleasure. He and Deleuze did not agree on the wording. Deleuze recounts, “The last time we saw each other, Michel told me, with much kindness and affection, something like, I cannot bear the word desire; even if you use it differently, I cannot keep myself from thinking or living that desire = lack, or that desire is repressed. … [F]or my part I [Deleuze] can scarcely tolerate the word pleasure.”[4]

Yet both thinkers want the same thing, to escape from the subject and from lack. Both the beginning and the end are denied: the subject as the beginning of desire or pleasure, and the missing goal sought in desire or pleasure. Both Foucault and Deleuze attempt to replace a metaphysics of meaning and telos with a physics of power (for the former) or of “lines of flight” away from organization (for the latter), in which the forces of pleasure and movements of desire are freed from beginnings and ends: a Nietzschean physics of the impersonal will to power prior to any subject (“that little changeling”) that exercises power. Without beginnings and ends, nothing means anything; there are, Foucault said, only “bodies and pleasures” in forcefields of power.[5]

Fluid Consumerist Desire

From a much different starting point, recent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman came to many of the same observations about contemporary desire. Although he does not refer to Deleuze and Guattari’s flows of desire, Bauman names our age “liquid modernity,” in contrast to the “solid modernity” of encyclopedias and the Ford automobile factory. Today we prize the strength of liquid flexibility over the massive power of institutional heft.

Based on his observations, rather than any theoretical ontology, Bauman noticed that both the beginning and end of desire have been unsettled. The desiring subject has been liquified, as the “solid” certainties of class and ancestry no longer provide answers to the question “Who am I?” And we are no longer ordered to a “solid” set of goods that we know will fulfill us, as the very idea of a stable human nature has been called into question.

What Bauman sees clearly, and Deleuze and Guattari sensed inchoately, is that this situation is tailor-made for consumerism.

It has been said that the spiritus movens of consumer activity is no longer the measurable set of articulated needs, but desire—a much more volatile and ephemeral, evasive and capricious, and essentially non-referential entity than “needs,” a self-begotten and self-propelled motive that needs no other justification or “cause.”[6]

This ateleology of liquid desire means that relationships are increasingly unstable and unpredictable. If there is no common goal that can be recognized in a relationship, there is also no measure to norm one’s behavior. This means that, if the demands of plastic identity-formation so indicate, nothing constrains a partner to remain in a relationship, when exiting it fits the needs of the moment. It should be noted that this relationship model suits the well-off, not the poor, for whom fragile relationships lead to an increased likelihood of financially unsupported single motherhood.[7]

Into this situation steps consumerist desire, that spiritus movens that leads people to the products that are capable of forming their identity du jour. This is why, Bauman believes, late capitalism has underwritten identity politics. “The logic of consumerism is geared to the needs of men and women struggling to construct, preserve, and refresh their individuality …”[8] Deregulated desire, which is incited and accelerated in liquid modernity, aligns with the provisional nature of identity. And identity itself is accessible through shopping. A person who transitions through multiple identities, purchasing the requisite gear for each along the way, is a good customer.[9]

Hence liquid modernity actively “train[s] men and women (or make[s] them learn the hard way) to perceive the world as a container full of disposable objects, objects for one-off use; the whole world—including other human beings” (LM 162). A generalized consumerism will rule a liquid world. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis adds the grotesque detail that the demons somehow feed upon the inhabitants of hell and even other devils, constantly devouring yet never fully destroying their prey and thus never being satisfied. Philosopher Karol Wojtyła calls this relational consumerism a kind of “utilitarianism” that uses other people as means to our own ends, adding that the Latin consumere means “to use up.”[10]

In liquid consumerist utilitarianism, “bonds and partnerships tend to be viewed and treated as things meant to be consumed, not produced …” (LM 163).[11] A relationship is not something to work on but something to enjoy while one can. But consumption, unlike production, can never be anything but a lonely task. I might make something with someone else, but I can only consume by myself, even if I do it in the company of others. One’s own pleasure can at best be “next to” another person’s pleasure.[12] Community in consumption is not necessary and often antithetical to the end. Thus, even the ties that should bind us to other people can become, paradoxically, isolating rather than uniting (LM 165). As Wojtyła puts it, the consumption of pleasure “is not a supra-subjective or transsubjective good.” It is, in the end, “what is good only for me.”[13] It does not mean anything beyond my momentary enjoyment. As John Paul II succinctly puts it, “The values of being are replaced by those of having” (Evangelium Vitae, §23, emphasis in the original).

The Loss of the Structuring Good

Both Foucault and Deleuze were inclined to use non-procreative sex (especially sodomy) as a trope for how pleasure or desire should function. For Deleuze, whose sexual life was almost embarrassingly traditional within his radical circles, this trope was purely metaphorical. As he wrote about his relation to the history of philosophy, he was performing “a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet at the same time monstrous.”[14]

Foucault’s commitment to the trope, on the other hand, was lived. If bodies and pleasures were to be liberated from power, they had to be freed from a purpose. Sex could not be intrinsically reproductive or even genital. “I am for the de-centralization, the regionalization of all pleasures,” he argued, rather than their restriction to the historically organized regulations of “sexuality.”[15]

For both theorists, ordering sex to procreation meant trapping it within a certain normative discourse of goods and ends. Traditionally, sex was understood to be primarily procreative and only distantly about the pleasure of those involved.[16] This ordering to procreation, however, gave sexuality a social and political significance. Sex was indeed territorialized: grounded in a certain polis, with an importance extending beyond the couple involved. Contraception destabilized sex and the desiring person, deterritorializing his desire and setting it free for. . . what, exactly? Bauman perceptively argues, “Life organized around the producer’s role tends to be normatively regulated. … Life organized around consumption, on the other hand, must do without norms: it is guided by seduction, ever rising desires and volatile wishes—no longer by normative regulation” (LM 76).

Thus, our consumerist “desire becomes its own purpose, and the sole uncontested and unquestionable purpose” (LM 73). Desire-production exists for the sake of its own production. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, “[W]e shall not ask what it means, but what kind of [desiring-]machine is assembled in this manner—what kind of flows and breaks in the flows, in relation to other breaks and other flows” (A-O 181).

This approach interprets freedom as consumerist choice: “Consumer choice is now a value in its own right; the activity of choosing matters more than what is being chosen …” (LM 87). Here Bauman echoes the analysis by Servais Pinckaers, O.P., concerning the distinction between “freedom of indifference” and “freedom for excellence.”[17] Consumerist freedom is freedom of indifference, in which one is indifferent to the various goods presented to consciousness. The important thing is the ability to choose, not the good that one chooses. In contrast, freedom for excellence presupposes goods to which the human person is naturally drawn. This freedom depends upon a metaphysical account of the intimate connection between the good and the true, between value and meaning. For consumerist liquidity, however, being drawn to something because of its intrinsic goodness is to be avoided; the good functions only as an unwanted limitation on fluid choice.

Insatiability of Desire

As a result, Bauman observes that consumption becomes a self-perpetuating activity that functions effectively as an addiction (LM 73). “Desire has itself for its constant object, and for that reason is bound to remain insatiable however high the pile of other (physical or psychical) objects marking its past course may rise” (LM 75). This observation aligns with John Paul II’s analysis of post-lapsarian desire in his theology of the body. In that work, he emphasizes concupiscence’s quality of “insatiability.”[18] In speaking of lust, he emphasizes that its insatiability is not actually rooted in the body: “The explanation of this shame should not be sought in the body itself, in the somatic sexuality of both, but it goes back to the deepest transformations suffered by the human spirit. Precisely this spirit is particularly aware of how insatiable it is with regard to the mutual union between man and woman.” He recognizes the totemic status of the body in this regard: “consciousness shifts the blame to the body.”[19]

In the section “The Inner State of the Man of Concupiscence,” the pope quotes a memorable depiction of fallen reality from Sirach 23:17: “Desire, blazing like a furnace, will not die down until it has been satisfied; the man who is shameless in his body will not stop until the fire devours him …” He adds, “And here the biblical author rightly observes that the man whose will is occupied with satisfying the senses does not find rest nor does he find himself, but on the contrary ‘consumes himself.’”[20] As Bauman puts it, “As a means of quenching thirst, all addictions are self-destructive; they destroy the possibility of being ever satisfied” (LM 72). Further, Wojtyła observes that consumerist utilitarianism does not only reduce other people to a means to an end but also the self, which becomes yet another thing that is objectified and instrumentalized: “I must treat myself as a means and a tool since for my own sake I treat the other in this way.”[21] Consumerist desire ends in self-consumption.

Of course, as the quote from the ancient writer of Sirach indicates, the experience of insatiable desire is hardly original to contemporary liquid modernity. Here is Goethe’s Faust: “Galloping through the world, / I have grasped at every pleasure that could be had. / What did not satisfy, I discarded. / What escaped my clutches, I bid farewell. / I have merely desired and done and desired again, pushing my violent way through life.”[22] Or, as Aquinas recognized following Aristotle, the insatiable man is like an epileptic who cannot stop the spasms in his limbs.[23] His desire is literally end-less.

Augustine provides a subtle analysis of the post-lapsarian predicament of internal disintegration that results from insatiable desire. The “scattered elements of the self” slide “away into dispersion” because of sin, while ordered desire make a person “collected and brought back” into unity.[24] Sinful desire pulls a person outside himself for satisfaction: “But where was I when I sought after Thee? Thou wert there before me, but I had gone away from myself and I could not even find myself, much less Thee.”[25] True integration means a return into the healed and whole self, where God is found.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you.[26]

When Augustine’s desires are healed, they are turned toward their proper object, which can only be the infinite God: “You lavished your fragrance, I gasped and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”[27]

In John Paul II’s pre-papal writings, he examined this Augustinian theme through the lens of personal integration. Integration goes together with transcendence and action, he believed: only a person who is integrated in himself can extend beyond himself in action. Such integration requires the power of self-mastery, such that bodily desires and the emotions are not given free rein but rather are ordered toward the truly good in virtuous action.[28] In contrast, disintegration entails the weakening of the powers of self-possession and self-mastery.

Such a disintegrated person, which would be the missing subject of the post-moderns, is for Wojtyła an “I” marked as “insubordinable” and “unpossessible.”[29] Such an “unpossessible I” is not the source of freedom but rather its loss. Thus he would agree with the post-moderns that the absence of the beginning of desire (the subject) entails the loss of the end. Against them, however, he sees this as an incapacitating loss, not as a map to utopia.

What is New in Liquid Desire

What is peculiar to liquid modernity, therefore, is not simply insatiability. All post-lapsarian desire tends towards restless dissatisfaction. What liquid modernity has done is to liquefy many social and moral constraints that previously contained post-lapsarian desire. Contraception’s removal of the end of procreation made sex more arbitrary, uncontrollable, and self-involved. A similar dynamic is at work with other desires in liquid modernity.

Further, the overall trajectory of these desires is bent toward a distinctly contemporary purpose: the formation of the self built from the outside in, given that appearances are the only thing left after self-consumption. Citing Camus’s The Rebel, Bauman notes our tendency to make ourselves and others—our identities—into works of art: “That work of art which we want to mold out of the friable stuff of life is called ‘identity’” (LM 82). Yet, as seen in identity politics, this “identity” is an ephemeral solid tailored for liquid life, “like the spots of crust hardening time and again on the top of volcanic lava which melt and dissolve again before they have time to cool and set” (LM 83). Consumerist possession reigns instead of self-possession; the cultivation of the exterior self through purchased appearances preoccupies the consciousness instead of the cultivation of the interior life. Or, as James Twitchell puts it, with an air of resignation, “We live through things. We create ourselves through things. And we change ourselves by changing our things.”[30]

Reterritorializing Desire

I noted at the beginning of this essay that both Foucault and Deleuze wanted to “deterritorialize” desire (as Deleuze puts it) from its native soil. This native soil is that of concrete persons, in historical situations, desiring the good (well or badly conceived). Rather than allowing desire to grow, like a tree, out of this soil toward a good end (an “arborescent” vision), Deleuze argued for a “rhizomatic” spread of desire, like the ways potatoes or grass grow through the lateral movement of roots. Desire in this way remains superficial, on the surface, rather than rooting down and growing up.

Drawing on Augustine, Thomas, Bauman, and John Paul II, I have argued for the spastic nature of such end-less desire. The only natural limit to endless desire is fatigue. The spasm peters out. What is an arrow without a beginning or an end? Perhaps just an aimless flow, a seizure, or even a point, paralyzed and static. If this is the case, why would our desires be significant, in all the senses of the word? Like the woman who is not important enough to get the morning-after text, our desires do not rise to the level of our thoughtful attention.

But what if Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault are wrong? What if our desires have both a beginning in a person created by God and an end in something infinitely desirable? What if they are engines designed to direct us toward that goal? If that could be the way things are, maybe our desires deserve some loving consideration.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, vol. 1, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (New York: Penguin, 1977), 133. Future references will be parenthetical and abbreviated A-O.

[2] Here Deleuze and Guattari might meet the thought of Rene Girard, in that the former’s “territorializing” of desire is similar to the latter’s mimetic social processes.

[3] I am using the translation by Grant Kaplan of the fifth aphorism under “‘Reason’ in Philosophy,” Twilight of the Idols, in his René Girard, Unlikely Apologist: Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), 199.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, “Desire and Pleasure,” trans. Daniel W. Smith, in Between Deleuze and Foucault, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 227-28.

[5] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1: Introduction, (New York: Random House, 1978), 157.

[6] Zygmunt Bauman, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2008), 74. Future references will be parenthetical and abbreviated LM.

[7] See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 90; Ann Branaman, “Gender and Sexualities in Liquid Modernity,” The Contemporary Bauman, ed. Anthony Elliott (New York: Routledge, 2007), 117-135 at 122-123.

[8] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 23-24.

[9] Zygmunt Bauman, Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 84; also Bauman, Liquid Life, 24-27, 80-115. The expense of identity-transformation also explains why liquid life is elitist, although the poor suffer the destabilizing effects of the liquid society thus created, as well as experiencing the impoverishing pressure to imitate the elite examples.

[10] Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. Gregorz Ignatik (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013), 13.

[11] Emphasis in the original. Bauman here shows himself to be following in the lines of, e.g., Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle [Canberra: Hobgoblin, 2002]) and Jean Baudrillard (The Consumer Society [London: Sage, 1998]) in remaking Marxist critiques of production into critiques of consumption; cf. the critical presentation in Marcello Musto, “Revisiting Marx’s Concept of Alienation,” Socialism and Democracy 24, no. 3 (2010): 79-101, in particular 90-92. I would argue that the production/consumption categories are not adequate for describing human relations, but Bauman certainly has a point in noting that healthy relationships involve labor that is certainly more like production, in that they must be created and continually sustained. See Livio Melina, Building a Culture of the Family: The Language of Love (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 2011), 57-59, which analyzes the liquidation of the family.

[12] Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 139.

[13] Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 22.

[14] Giles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 3-12 at 6.

[15] Michel Foucault, “A Bas la dictature du sexe’ (interview with Madeleine Chapsal), L’Express, 24-30 January 1977, 56-57, translated by David Macey, in Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 364.

[16] This tradition is, of course, a Christian one. See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Revealing Antiquity, vol. 20 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013); and Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Press, 1985); History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Press, 1988); and History of Sexuality, vol. 4: Confessions of the Flesh, trans. Robert Hurley, ed. Frédéric Gros (New York: Vintage Press, 2021).

[17] See Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, 3rd ed., trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 327-378.

[18] Unlike Bauman, who is working with sociological methods, John Paul II is able to distinguish between desire as natural appetitus and fallen desire as disordered concupiscence. See his explanation that appetitus is simply “aspiration … oriented toward an end” (John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein [Boston, MA: Pauline, 2006], 40:5, 289). Desire as appetitus flows from our construction as embodied spirits and points us toward the good, while desire as fallen concupiscence is insatiable and disordered, even when oriented to what is good in itself, such as sexual pleasure. Future references to this volume will be parenthetical and abbreviated TOB, followed by audience: paragraph, page.

[19] TOB 31:1, 253, emphasis in the original

[20] TOB 39:2, 284, emphasis in the original

[21] Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 24.

[22] Faust II, 5, midnight, translation in Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Finite Time Within Eternal Time: On the Christian Vision of Man” [1984], trans. Adrian J. Walker, in Explorations in Theology, vol. 5: Man is Created [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014], 47-65, at 64.

[23] Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 77, a. 3 (citing Nicomachean Ethics 7.8). See Angela Franks, “End-less and Self-Referential Desire: Toward an Understanding of Contemporary Sexuality,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 18, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 629–646.

[24] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, second ed. (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2012) X, 29, 40.

[25] Confessions, V, 2, 2.

[26] Confessions, X, 27, 38.

[27] See the famous uti/frui distinction in De Doctrina Christiana, which shows that finite desires remain well-ordered when ordered in themselves to the ultimate Good who is God.

[28] This sentence presents a very condensed summary of the explanation of psychic integration and affectivity given in Wojtyła, Part 3, ch. 6, “Integration and the Psyche,” in The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, Analecta Husserliana series (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979 [1969])220-258. See also the extensive discussion of sensuality and affectivity in Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 84-100.

[29] Wojtyła, Part 3, ch. 5, §2, Acting Person, 194, translation modified; he goes on to apologize for the neologisms.

[30] James Twitchell, “Two Cheers for Materialism,” in The Consumer Society Reader, ed. Juliet B. Schor and Douglas B. holt (New York: Free Press, 2000), 282, quoted in Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2015), 239. Gregory comments that this is a vision of human beings who “construct their identity through a never-ending series of acts of self-creation and re-creation mediated by the things they consume. To be is to buy.”

Featured Image: Taken by Göran Johansson, Walking Dali in London; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Read more by Angela Franks