The primacy of the primal

My friend and I were in Chinatown in downtown Boston tonight at what has become something of a weekly dinner, discussing existence, strangeness of human society, and online dating (we usually cover quite a range). As is typical for us, we splash around in light topics (like Rafael Nadal’s upcoming appendix surgery) and then dive into Locke, Hobbes, Hegel, and Foucault in a move to the deep end – good conversations that we both get a lot out of (though for me these thinkers and their eminent works are very new).

Tonight we dug into the interesting topic of physicality, carnality, by which I don’t mean sexuality per se so much as the physical dimensions of our existence as human beings. We both struggle with the fact of our physicality, for different reasons. My friend is troubled that we should be ruled – at times to the point of irrationality – by our primal desires for sex, food, sleep, and other “animal” needs that must be satisfied. She observed that these drives seem to be put front and center in modern life, stating that we seem to be compelled to prioritize sex, for example, over true connection on all levels allowing the gratification of these base impulses to take priority in our thoughts and common discourse over, say, the generation of ideas and the interrogation of reality. In short, my friend thinks we allow these “lower” desires to occupy most of our time and thought when in fact we are capable of much more.

I agree with this, for the most part, and in thinking about it, I in turn wondered what cultural shifts have occurred to create this increased focus on the primal in our modern-day consciousness. And it occurred to me that in our world, advertising fights for our dollars by converting our primal desires into a social discourse of need in a form of language about our biological imperatives to get food, make babies, feel wanted, and so on. Advertising draws upon these near-universal desires, purporting to give us an answer in the form of a product for purchase. Feeling lonely? Try a juice cleanse to make your skin look nicer (and younger, and more desirable, and more likely to draw the attention of potential partners). Hungry? Get in on the all-you-can-pasta-buffet-for-seven-weeks at Olive Garden. The products are endless, though the desires they pretend to satisfy are few in number.

Advertising’s influence in modern society has become more prevalent as computers, cell phones, tablets, televisions, and other screen-based forms of input pervade nearly every moment of social existence. We get these messages all the time as we move in subways, malls, reception areas, and other public spaces, messages that tell us to change, to be better, to improve, to be more marketable and competitive. And it has become a cultural given that we will reflect on what we lack – which on a universal level is the object of our primal desires – and strive with our dollars and time to win out over these desires once and for all. With such obsession about our carnal selves, we lose a sense of the imagined, the creative, the intellectual. We should be asking why we see our social environment as a public square to satisfy our carnal needs, crowding out all other possibilities, in the first place.

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