The Role of Desire in Academic Writing

I have written before about how the logic of fiction moves forward from the force of desire. We read a fictional story to find out how the characters try to get what they want and what consequences arise as a result of their desires and choices.

What is less well understood is how desire functions with regard to academic women's writing. To explore this, I will reflect on the ideas in Jessica Benjamin's essay, "A Desire of One's Own: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space."

For women in academe, there is a fundamental problem at the heart of one's position--namely, that men have been socialized to believe that their independence is founded upon seeing the other as an object. Psychoanalytically, as well as culturally, a boy must deny his dependence upon the mother in order to forge his subjectivity.

This denial of dependence opens the doorway to domination. The transition goes something like this: "I cannot live without your help. But this creates dependence in me and therefore I cannot act on my own. So I will live without your help. I will deny that you have anything to give me. In fact, the reverse is true: you cannot live without me."

If academic women are emotionally honest about their situations, this is parallel to their relationship to men in power. Perhaps not in a daily way, but during review processes, and tenure decisions, and instances of asking for funding or leave - the male authority makes clear that his independence and ability to affect the outcome of the decision creates a dynamic where men's power exists at the expense of women's domination.

But there is a solution - and in fact, the solution is, ironically, also the way through which women in academe have the possibility of generating and expressing their power.

It comes through writing.

As long as women remain in the realm of the intrapsychic - staying in an internal dialogue with the self - no power or agency is possible. But when a woman moves into the intersubjective realm and uses her voice, she also opens herself to the possibility of gaining recognition from the other.

Here is how Benjamin puts it: "the awareness of one's intentions, the ability to express them, and the confidence that they are one's own evolve through recognition between persons."

To say it in simpler terms: the writing you do not do could be contributing to your domination.

The writing you do not do could be contributing to your domination.

When you ask yourself these questions, you are moving from the position of object into the position of subject:

What do I want to say?

How can I say it?

Who can I say it to?

This is because these questions move women into their desire. They are no longer the object of desire or domination but the subject who risks relationship with an actual other.

And this relationship, this recognition of two selves as separate and existing together with desire, moves a woman into a position of power.

It is the risk of using one's voice to express desire, paradoxically, that creates the conditions for dismantling of women's domination. The way out of a fearful situation is by moving through the fear itself.

It is by writing, then-- and the concomitant processes of submission, revision, and publication--that a woman can move from dependence upon the system that sees her as "other" and "object" and into a relationship in and with the system where she then becomes a subject and agent able to create change.

If power is what you desire, writing is the way to attain it.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., designed her Feminar classes for women academics as a way to inspire those who struggle with questions of mind and body, reason and emotion, sabotage and empowerment. This is the last in a series of five posts on these themes. The Pre-Feminar, a 3-week online program to learn new ways to write without fear, starts this week. Learn more here.