Desire: Push Theories and Pull Theories (Part 1)

Desire: Push Theories and Pull Theories (Part 1)

This piece composes part one of a larger two part essay which continues our ongoing series on the philosophical question posed by self-destructive behaviors in humans. You can read part two by clicking here.

Rene Girard’s work is instructive in a number of ways, but on this point we may find him especially useful — he effectively re-frames discussions of desire from the classical formulation of desire as a "pull" to a more psychoanalytic formulation of desire as a "push." Rather than the attributes of objects pulling the lover towards them, the adoption of the model of desire creates the push which propels the lover towards objects of desire existing contingently in their imagination or environment.

Pull Theories

One can readily find examples of the “pull theory of desire” in such thinkers as Plato and Aristotle who locate the movement of desire in the qualities of the object. This paradigm appeals so much to our unexamined intuitions that Aristotle takes it almost for granted, rhetorically implying that it’s silly to imagine someone disputing the claim.

For libidinal pull theorists, desire operates according to the logic of recognizing the excellence(s) of an object, which consequently draws us towards it in hopes of being affected by (uniting with? possessing?) the perceived good. An apple looks delicious, so we desire it. We perceive that a lover is beautiful, so we desire them. In short, libidinal pull theorists locate the origin of desire outside in the external world of objects.

However, would not one need to first experience themselves as lacking before the pull of some good could hold any sway over them? Presumably the pull of the object would derive its power from its correlation to the shape of the desiring subject’s perceived lack. There are many good things we do not pursue, simply because we do not perceive ourselves as impoverished for not having them. Pull theories hastily pass over this fraught operation of how the desirer comes to define the scope of their own internal lack.

One may accuse libidinal pull theorists of taking our own libidinal self-reporting too much at face value. We say we desire the food because it is delicious, but to what extent are we mistaken or mislead about the operations at work in our own consciousness? What if we have provided a neat story for our own lack by projecting the cause of our desire out into the world?

A proponent of a push theory of desire would point out that the desire for this food results from the way that this object maps to the coordinates of our own perceived lack. In each case, the shape of our lack propels us towards things, rather than the attributes of things pulling us towards them. Why this lack should push us towards things we will explore in part two next week.

It was the Neo-Platonist Christian theologian St. Augustine whose introspective investigations of libidinal dynamics first documented reasons to doubt the efficacy of pull theories. In his famous re-telling of a boyhood experience in which he and his delinquent friends stole some pears from an orchard, Augustine marvels how there was nothing about the pears he desired, and yet he felt compelled to steal them nonetheless. There was no quality of the object which made them desirable in themselves; it was merely their purely formal status as "forbidden" which aroused his desire. The interdiction itself created Augustine's desire, which indicates that his desire was indifferent to the particulars of the pears themselves. The only reason he stole the pears was because they were the objects that happened to be there for the stealing. If it had been a woman, a horse, or any other object... so be it.

His was a desire in search of an object.

Producing Lack

To understand desire, I believe, we must start further back in the libidinal process — at the point where lack is posited. To do this, we must attend to how lack as a thing has no existence proper, i.e. is simply a pure negativity — and therefore must be generated by a mind and inserted into the order of things.

Nothingness as pure abstraction and absolute negation requires a sophisticated mental operation in order to emerge. Lack is a formal quality of an object, and must be projected into objects or introjected into mental objects (our own imagined interiority) by way of the operation of consciousness.

Lack emerges where an interpretive grid has been superimposed over an object such that a gap appears where the system determines something ought to be but is not actually. The Dewey Decimal system for organizing library books provides an excellent example of how to produce just such a lack. If one is searching for book 241.4, but only finds 241.3 and 241.5 side by side on the shelf, there is no actual gap in reality — all the books that are there are simply there — but a gap exists formally, and thus experientially, because the system of categorization determines that 241.4 belongs between those other two books. We sense that something is missing, although what we are experiencing is actually the presence of an absence where we are the authors of this absence.

Part of what I hope to achieve with my recent pieces is to give the reader reasons to begin questioning the received logic of the pull theorists, and, conversely, to gently prod the reader to look instead with fresh curiosity at what I term the push theories of desire. I contend that the central insight of the preceding paragraph seems to indicate that the activity of positing a lack must precede the operation of any valuation of objects in the world. This order of operations strongly suggests the possibility that how we posit this lack within ourselves does more to determine what we find desirable than the perceived qualities of things themselves [1].

You can find part two of this essay available here.

[1] In fact, we may even entertain the notion that how we perceive our own lack provides the very framework for our perception of the qualities of other objects, but we will let this claim remain merely speculative, and it need not be considered necessary for the overarching thesis. To explore this idea further, I recommend Richard Boothby's book Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology after Lacan.

Thank you for your faithful readership. Next week we'll see part two of this piece where I'll be addressing two categories of lack – the Symbolic and the Imaginary – and how this lack pushes us towards things (why does a void push?).

As a reminder, Samsara Audio launched this past week, and I'd encourage you to follow the YouTube channel and the podcast at Thanks!

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