An Erotics of Research

This is going to be short, more like a provocation than a serious post. This quote really stirred me.

What [philosopher Arthur Danto’s book] The Transfiguration [of the Commonplace] really attempts to do is to display a certain train of ideas, a certain set of discoveries and the questions opened up by them. It is a beautiful authorship because it makes you feel the longing of the author, and his resolution to remain in or savor that longing rather than, say, to try to satisfy it immediately.

–Crispin Sartwell, “Danto as Writer” in The Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XXXIII: The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Open Court, 2013, p.713

What if this were a research norm of our community: to make “beautiful authorship because it makes you feel the longing of the author”?

Surely longing is a key epistemic feature of (at the very least) the design subcommunity within HCI, whether it’s for social justice, democratic participation, aesthetics, a methodology worthy of our ethical commitments, gender equality, a sustainable future, the pleasures of inquiry, or, as in my case, pretty shinies. That is, what we long for is not locked in our private personal world and somehow logically separated from our professional work. What I know of my colleagues personally is that their research is profoundly motivated by their ethical and aesthetic perspectives, and more fundamentally, what they long for.

Yet norms of academic writing encourage us to obfuscate this role. I can see that happening in two basic ways.

First is that, as Sartwell puts it,

The ability to inflict a certain kind of suffering–one I associate with a dull but chronic and debilitating headache centered just behind my eyes–has been taken as a mark of profundity, and the ability to experience that kind of suffering an index of one’s dedication to truth” (p. 710).

Academic writing itself suffers from a kind of medieval asceticism (and I say that as a medievalist), that it must eschew embodied pleasures (indeed, even to induce bodily pains) in order to get anywhere near to the “spiritual world” of truth.

In contrast to the obscurantism, know-it-allism, and brutalism that Sartwell finds in much philosophical writing, he says of Danto’s,

I took great pleasure in the book at the time: it was almost an erotic experience reading the thing, if I may say so, especially in the context of graduate school in philosophy, and every day trying to deal with Wittgenstein or Dewey. It is an intellectually seductive book (p.712)

The idea that we might have anything like an “erotic” experience reading research seems ridiculous, even offensive. Except that notions of erotic experiences with literature and art are commonplace in the humanities, as in this famous quote from Susan Sontag:

Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience…. What is important is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more…. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all…. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means. In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art. (Sontag, “Against Interpretation”)

Is there no room for this in research? Can there be an erotics of research? Yes, there is and there can be. Colleagues and students talk (off the record) about papers and certain researchers as if they were lovers. I joke in class about Foucault, Danto, and Carroll as if they are intimate, even lovers. It’s a metaphor, of course, but like many metaphors, its background is often as telling as its foreground. 

The other way that academic norms obfuscate the epistemic value of longing in research is another epistemic value: scientific distance or objectivity. To offer a scientific contribution is to be able to step back from your own subjective values and desires. It’s not about what you want the data to say; it’s about what the data says. This is obviously important and helps keep scientific communities from descending into, for example, the pomo nightmare of climate change denialism.

At the same time, none of us get into science because we just want to add a bunch of new facts to our awareness: I believe that we are committed to the proposition that scientific inquiry can improve the world in some way. We love and we long–the basis of an erotics I guess–but sublimate its expression in our work.

No wonder we’ve got headaches.

UPDATE: I learned after posting this that the Sartwell essay that I’ve been citing was originally solicited by the editors of the volume in which it appeared to talk about Danto and sex. (Danto is one of few philosophers to deal “unflinchingly” with sexual issues, among other things having written quite a bit about Robert Mapplethorpe’s work and the controversies surrounding it.) It’s especially interesting to me that what was initially intended as a commentary on Danto and sexuality became a commentary on the latter’s writing. Seductive writing indeed!

UPDATE #2: Danto himself wrote a reply to Sartwell. Among other things, he wrote, Sartwell

has said what no one else would have, that the writing aspires to the erotic, which I understand is itself a way of making love. I had not thought of that, but if I understand Sartwell, he has two reasons for saying it–not just that I take pleasure in the writing, but also that I want, in contrast to many philosophers, to give pleasure to the reader rather than to brutalize him by throwing up barriers of logical barbed wire, or fortifying my vulnerable insights with ramparts of obscurity. (Danto in the same volume, p. 720)


  1. Lone K. Hansen

    I totally agree. I personally find that if there’s no room for courting and seducing a text into becoming fun to write or to make me think about it all the time, then I’d stop doing this. Sure, some things are last minute etc but we must make room for the falling in love with specific research too. If that makes sense. The erotics of research is a good term for this.

  2. Leysia Palen

    I try not to sublimate my care and investment. I try to let it show but not in ways that are blindly persuasive. Once I realized that I didn’t have to sublimate my pretty strong emotion in the *process of my writing* and in the *expression* about the care I had for my subject matter, I became a much better writer, and could still produce material that showed a sober pursuit of (what seems to be) the truth. Emotional writing doesn’t have to produce emotion-filled writing; instead it can produce strong writing with good explanation of a topic that others might also come to care about (or even fall in love with) as well.


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