Conflating Feelings

The eroticization of feelings of humiliation is a familiar example of the conflation of very different affect systems, which, as I have noted, is a uniquely human attribute. The conflation of feelings of humiliation and erotic excitement can be illustrated by the narrative structure of certain fantasies. These accounts also illustrate the importance of unconscious intentionality as a director of the corporeal imagination. The conflation of erotic feelings and humiliation is evident in fantasies of being beaten.5 I have no way of estimating the prevalence of fantasies of being beaten, but the writer Daphne Merkin, in a New Yorker article (1996), described her life-long preoccupation with fantasies of being beaten on the buttocks. Fantasies of being beaten, controlled, and humiliated may, for some, be necessary to achieve orgasm. A humiliating fantasy of this sort may take the following form: one is taken captive by a man (or woman) and is humiliated by being forced to urinate or defecate in front of the other. It is well recognized in our culture that losing control of one's bladder or rectum is the source of intense shame and humiliation. But the release of a pent-up substance can also serve as a perceptual metaphor for orgasm. Metaphor unites these seemingly disparate feelings because they share this similarity: a spreading sensation of fullness, followed by release. When the scene in which one is forced by the other to urinate and defecate accompanies the act of sexual intercourse, there is a conflation in fantasy of the bodily functions of urination, defecation, and genital orgasm. Within the fantasy there is also a play of similarity and difference among urination, defecation, and genital orgasm. There is both a fusion and a confusion of functions that can be controlled by the self, such as urination and defecation, and a function that cannot be fully controlled, sexual orgasm. Not uncommonly, such fantasies of being controlled by another occur in individuals who fear loss of control but also wish to avoid responsibility for their sexual feelings. They retain control by means of the fantasy, yet at the same time, within the fantasy, responsibility for sexual arousal is attributed to someone else. As the individual always knows that he or she is the author of the fantasy, a sense of autonomy is nevertheless preserved. But there is a paradox—for although one is in control of the fantasy, the content of the fantasy, limited as it is to humiliating scenes, indicates that the imagination is directed and to some extent involuntary. The structure of the fantasy shares the polysemy, the systematically related multiple meanings, as well as the unconscious intentionality that we observed in Freud's dream of the Botanical Monograph.

Freud's assumption that libido is a universal instinct would lead him to describe this fantasy as perverse (as an infantile regression). Viewed from the perspective of an autonomous imagination, this fantasy contains nothing relevant to the ideas of perversion, fixation, or regression. Inasmuch as the functional intent of the constructed scene is directed towards the present, this fantasy or constructed scene could be described, not as a perversion, but as part of Merleau-Ponty's "intentional arc," directed towards the here and now. "The life of consciousness—cognitive life, the life of desire—is subtended by an 'intentional arc,' which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting" (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 136). I will further explore this unconscious intentionality in the following chapter.

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