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Libidinous ecology

Peak Libido
Forfatter: Dominic Pettman
Forlag: Polity (Storbritannia)
CRISIS / Is nature in its essence erotic? And has capitalism – which will make us desire more of everything – overused our very capacity for desire?


As the third volume in a trilogy on intimacy and ecology, Dominic Pettman's Peak Libido is an attempt to deal with the ecological crisis in a bodily and sensory way. The search for health and balance in the semi-civilized human animal's relationship to itself and its surroundings. This is part of a long story that Pettman points out began long before Freud, but which revolves around his notion of our unruly libido, which must be tamed and controlled – albeit doomed to remain a frustration, a repressed and unfortunate savagery – the discomfort of the culture.

If ecological crises stem from a predation on a nature we have not bothered to understand, it is possible that this reflects another crisis in dealing with ourselves and each other: At the end of the book, Pettman summarizes the diagnosis just like that, with a pronounced reference to a certain climate denier in the White House: “We have lost touch with the world, and as a result we have become grasping, groping monsters. »

The vital pre-modern understanding of nature

In a search for answers on how we can regain contact with ourselves, each other and nature, Pettman resorts to a re-reading of theories about nature and the body from antiquity to our own time – not only to find answers, but in a search for dangerous misleading and misunderstanding.

A mechanistic understanding of nature from Descartes og Newton, which reduces everything and everyone to calculable objects subject to cause and effect, is gradually becoming a well-known target in (deep) ecological thinking. Instead of indulging in this lament, Pettman refreshingly throws himself into the vital understanding of nature that came before the mechanistic thinking of modern science, of which Freud is also a part. This pre-modern legacy is perpetuated in radical philosophers of desire as Wilhelm Reich, Deleuze og Guattari og Battles eroticism.

According to Pettman, there is not so much talk of eroticizing the relationship with nature as understanding that nature in its essence is erotic – if we can only understand it in the right way. This is where the oldest thinkers in the European tradition come in. In Epicurus and Lucretus, it is not only causes and their effects that move the world, but an active attraction – affinity, eros and irresistible attractions: "Life without love would not exist at all." What Freud referred to as man's libidinous economy is perhaps just a subdivision of a more general libidinous ecology. The small household (in Greek oikos as in economics) of desire in the individual or in a couple joins a larger erotic nature household (in Greek oikos as in ecology). It remains to be seen how all this has come to naught – because it is hardly possible to write about ecology today without at the same time indulging in criticism and warnings.

Kianoush Ill (Iran)

Predation on the ability to desire

The title itself Peak Libido plays of course against "Peak Oil" and all the other critical limits for nature utilization – for example peak phosphorus, which will soon haunt agriculture, or peak copper, which will be a problem for electric cars. This fatal topping of consumption accompanied by a declining access to resources points to the imbalance in our own lust household as well as the natural household.

The attraction, flirtation and pleasure in all its variants should permeate both work and
leisure time.

On the one hand, we have coveted too much, since overconsumption of material goods and thus natural resources are the main causes of the environmental crisis. On the other hand, there are signs that capitalism, which will make us desire more of everything, has overused our very capacity for desire. Late modern people crave less, insufficient, or the desire is completely captured by synthetic objects of fascination and what Marx called commodity fetishism: the magical promise that lies in trademarks, packaging and status markers. Japanese teenagers, yes young people everywhere, have less sex than ever – and many isolate themselves from the world and other people, lost in a lonely cocoon of digital amusements and means of escape.

Pettman refers to the recently deceased Bernard Stiegler a number of groundbreaking cultural analyzes addressed the effects of new media technologists on the sensory apparatus and the ability to live. Through contemporary examples, Stiegler read a breakdown in the very ability to sublimate desire, which ends up burning out as destructive drive, addiction, and overconsumption. In the extension of this drying up of desire, the ability to take care of oneself and others, to show care for the world, also disappears.

A new contact

However, Pettman's book is not of the type that with poetic depictions and an exploration of the experience of nature will help us to open the senses to the non-human.

Several others have done this well, like David Abram in the book The magic of the senses > (see, 2017 in Norwegian). Pettman's perspective, on the other hand, is urban, witty and experimental, more focused on the nature we have to find and what Guattari called a «social ecology». In the search for new social ties, Pettman turns half-ironically to "naive California subcultural start-ups," such as Annie Sprinkle's "Ecosex Manifesto," without it becoming clear whether he believes in a literal love of nature that is not only sensual, but also playing on a sexual register. It is also difficult to know how seriously we should take the long chapter on ecological speculation of the socialist utopian Charles Fourier, who slips into a fascinating review of this eighteenth-century eccentric's ordinance to optimize the large-scale orgies and harmonious communities of the future. The principle of pleasure must be made a positive force here: Attraction, flirtation and pleasure in all its variants must permeate both work and leisure.

Desire is a renewable resource

In our world, human desire has become a driving force for an economic machinery that can be said to consume nature, in addition to harming ourselves. As early as 1844, Marx described the forces that blunt our emotional life, exploit desire, and alienate us from each other. But Marx had no illusions that we could simply reveal and change these.

A settlement with the underlying material conditions, ownership and exploitation is necessary. Perhaps we need to challenge our notions of ownership of nature and its exploitation before we can even open up new bonds and an end to alienation from it, which Pettmann also points out is a kind of primordial alienation in Marx's writings.

Pettman's book is without clear conclusions, but is nevertheless rich, funny and full of ideas and striking statements. "The ultimate libidinous object is the future," writes Pettman. So what about peak libido?

After all, it seems unreasonable to deny that desire is a renewable resource. Plato describes a place of desire as a morbid itch, and that is also what capitalism does when it makes us constantly lack something and want more. But more deeply, desire, as Pettman understands it through Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, is not a deficiency, but a source: a swell of sensual presence and attentive presence – a wealth that creates fruitful connections. If this is true, we should in one sense or another be able to give nature and each other more than we take.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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