12 May 2007

An Environment Charged with Desire

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:06 pm

This is a further elaboration of Gibson’s theory of affordances outlined in yesterday’s post. Here I extend the ideas to the understanding of human desires.

All animals are genetically equipped with desires. These desires begin as surviving-machines — inboard motors that enhance the likelihood of the animal transmitting its genes to the next generation. An animal’s desires are “aimed” at the environment in which the animal lives, seeking fulfillment in features of the environment that afford survival and reproduction. So: an animal’s desire to eat seeks its fulfillment in things in the environment that afford nourishment. If the animal has no desire to eat it will not survive. If the animal desires to eat foods that are non-nutritious or toxic to its species, the animal will not survive. Genes that induce the animal specifically to desire nourishing foods (e.g. through visual attraction or taste pleasure) would persist in the gene pool; genes that cause the animal to desire toxic foods would not persist.

The animal’s innate desires have been shaped by features of the environment that can fulfill those desires. Perception and action are selectively drawn to these environmental affordances. Affordances are real, existing in the environment as virtual satisfiers of desire; they become actualized when an animal’s desire is drawn to them.

Many of our desires are “aimed” toward other people for their fulfillment. We look to other humans for protection, for learning about the world, for affiliation, for affection, for procreation, for communication, for learning about ourselves. These desires too have been shaped through evolution, genetically passed on to us as motivations to surive and to reproduce. Our desires are attracted to the affordances that other people possess for fulfilling our desires. Everyone else is a virtual fulfiller of our desires, actualized when our desires are drawn to them.

Because we individually are “other” to everyone else, we are also virtual fulfillers of others’ desires. We afford protection, friendship, learning opportunities, sex, conversation — virtual fulfillments of others’ desires, actualized when their desires are drawn to us.

We aren’t isolated atoms traversing the world, occasionally bouncing off or sticking to another atom. We are always immersed in the environment, an environment in which our species evolved and to which we are genetically suited, an environment full of objects and other people that afford virtual fulfillments of our desires. As we move through the environment one or more desires may become activated in us. Then we move through the environment attuned to the multiple virtual fulfillments that the environment affords. The environment becomes charged with desire. Things and people possess features that now attract our attention; they emerge from the flux as virtual fulfillments of our desire. And we are predisposed to respond to their attraction — as if the environment desires our desire.

At the same time we are always also part of the environment. We possess affordances for fulfilling others’ desires. For some our affordances remain latent and undetected, and we recede into the undifferentiated flux of the environment. For others our affordances have become evident, attracting their attention. These are the ones whose desire is activated, who as they move through the ambient environmental array are attuned to the virtual fulfillments of desire that surround them. They detect our affordances — the attractors we always emit as virtual fulfillers of others’ desire. They find themselves attracted to us.



  1. Just wanted you to know that even though I haven’t commented recently, I have been reading these posts on affordances and desire with great interest! It’s quite helpful actually because I have been going back over interview data from street kids here in Bucharest for the last few weeks and have been attempting to draw out and explain the “interactional” dynamics of internal resources and the surrounding environment that I see emerging from the data. You have reminded me of Gibson and your posts on “affordances” has made me wonder if that might be a richer language to use than “interactional”. Do you know of other work that has extended the notion of “affordances” into the relational realm? Also, what happens when we are attracted to a potential human affordance and than are stymied (I’m thinking here of infants/children who don’t have attuned parents)? Does that person learn to shut down their attraction towards affordances? Interesting stuff to begin to try and bring into dialogue with relational psychoanalytic theory!


    Comment by Ron Wright — 13 May 2007 @ 8:07 am

  2. Thanks, I think this might be a fruitful line to explore. I don’t know of others who are linking Gibson to interpersonal relations. What triggered the connection for me was Deleuze’s idea of the “virtual,” as well as the importance he ascribes to sub-personal desires. The reason I know anything about Gibson is because when I went to grad school the department “afforded” interaction between areas as diverse as community (my field of study) and visual perception (Gibson’s specialty). I wonder if Gibson and Deleuze knew of each other’s work. Probably not, I’d guess, though they were around at the same time.

    Also, what happens when we are attracted to a potential human affordance and than are stymied (I’m thinking here of infants/children who don’t have attuned parents)? Does that person learn to shut down their attraction towards affordances? Good question. I think that’s likely, don’t you? A kind of psychic numbing, a reduced level of desire, would minimize the situations where one’s attunement to affordances would kick in. Also, rejection can also take the form of denial — I wasn’t projecting any sort of “vibes” that would attract you to me as someone who could fulfill your desire. Now the person can come to question his discernment of affordances, doubt his ability to extract meaningful information from the interpersonal environment. The person starts believing it’s all fantasy, projection, transference…

    If desires aren’t repressed, then perhaps the person comes to doubt his/her ability to extract meaningful information about affordances from the interpersonal environment. Affordances are built into the human organism; they operate even without conscious awareness or intent. Consequently it often happens that the other person denies transmitting any sort of “vibe” to attract desire. It’s not that they’re denying unconscious desires of their own (though that might also be true); it’s because our affordances are part of us. Each of us is always a virtual fulfiller of interpersonal desire, regardless of intentionality on either our part or the other’s. Someone with intact desires but who has come to doubt his/her ability to detect affordances might redirect his/her attunement inward. Because we’ve evolved in an interpersonal environment, each of us has desires and affordances that map onto those desires. That means each of us is a virtual fulfiller of his/her own desires.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 May 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  3. and Ron –

    I’m thinking here of infants/children (who don’t have attuned parents)? Does that person learn to shut down their attraction towards affordances? There needs to be a mutual attunement between parent and child. A parent would be genetically predisposed to desire this attunement because the child carries her genes. Establishing an attuned relationship helps ensure the survival of the child, and thereby the survival of the genes. A parent who fails to attune to the child might be manifesting a defect, either in desire or in attunement to affordances. This defect could be genetic, and so it could be passed on genetically to the child.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 May 2007 @ 4:00 pm

  4. Ron,
    I’m thinking Feuerstein. Feuerstein said children that are traumatised or neglected indeed benifit from what he calls ‘mediated experience’. He himself didn’t write much, because he wanted to help as many persons as possible. He also said that he develops self-esteem through developping thinking strategies. I found a few articles on Feuerstein + affordances with google, in pdf format.


    Comment by Odile — 17 May 2007 @ 8:15 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: