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Red Light Therapy


By Adam Phillips, from Unforbidden Pleasures, which was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Phillips is a psychoanalyst and the author of more than fifteen books.

Traffic changed in the United States after the First World War, when the traditional mutual accommodation travelers had been making to one another on their bikes and cars and carts was replaced by a set of lights. The purpose of the signals, according to the anthropologist James C. Scott, “was to prevent accidents by imposing an engineered scheme of coordination.” The proliferation of vehicles and the new scientific and bureaucratic fantasies of efficiency and productivity caused familiar forms of cooperation to give way to new, technologically implemented rules. Practical judgment was delegated to a red lamp. People had known when to stop, but now they were being told when to stop.

In the Netherlands in 2003, a “counterintuitive traffic engineer” named Hans Monderman proposed removing traffic lights in the interest of what he called shared space. When his theory was put to the test, the results were extraordinary, and they led to a series of “red-light-removal schemes” across Europe and America. Monderman began, Scott tells us,

with the observation that, when an electrical failure incapacitated traffic lights, the result was improved flow rather than congestion. As an experiment, he replaced the busiest traffic-light intersection in Drachten, handling 22,000 cars a day, with a traffic circle, an extended cycle path, and a pedestrian area. In the two years following . . . the number of accidents plummeted to only two, compared with thirty-six crashes in the four years prior. Traffic moves more briskly through the intersection when all drivers know they must be alert and use their common sense, while backups and the road rage associated with them have virtually disappeared. Monderman likened it to skaters in a crowded ice rink who manage successfully to tailor their movements to those of the other skaters. He also believed that an excess of signage led drivers to take their eyes off the road, and actually contributed to making junctions less safe.

It is a suggestive experiment, not least because questioning the rules — wondering what a rule is, and what it means to follow a rule; wondering what morality is, and why moral obligations matter — is a perennial concern of ours. We are always tempted to ask, as Laurence Sterne does in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, “Is a man to follow rules — or rules to follow him?” Indeed, we are encouraged (that is, educated) to ask in whose interests the rules are made, and for what purpose; whether we are being punished or coerced in the name of being protected; and whether the rules apply to some people but not to others. It has become second nature now for many people to think that rules — even in their most extreme versions, as taboos — may always be no more and no less than human artifacts. We are inevitably exercised about where we draw the lines, the kind of lines we draw, and to whom we delegate the drawing of lines.

In certain circumstances, killing people is not forbidden, but killing certain people is; torture is not forbidden, but torturing certain people is; sex is not forbidden, but certain kinds of sexual activity with certain people are; and so on. Virtually no one supports incest or pedophilia, but in every other case, when it comes to the forbidden — what we mustn’t do, as opposed to what we shouldn’t do — there are always exceptions, mitigating circumstances, good reasons found for redescribing forbidden acts as acceptable. Nearly all rules seem to be breakable. This is the familiar legacy of the Enlightenment; this is what a certain kind of modern person believes. Everything forbidden can be redescribed as ultimately desirable. Everything sacred can be rendered secular.

But, like attending to the stoplights, attending to the rules can mean inattention elsewhere. Rules are supposed to attract and organize our attention, and to be taken for granted. The rules have to be wholly absorbing, and automatically abided by; a second nature to deal with our first. Rules — and particularly absolute rules, the guardians of the forbidden — are not supposed to be forgettable. Indeed, when it comes to the forbidden we are not supposed to let our minds wander; we are supposed to be utterly gripped, in the grip of the law. The forbidden is by definition defined, is always already defined, such that one cannot be ignorant of it or casual about it. Whether one is conscious or unconscious of the definition, it is in principle knowable. Acculturation, adaptation, means living as if one knows what is forbidden.

Psychoanalysis — the theory and therapy that organizes itself around forbidden desire — adds that we can be at once conscious and unconscious of what is forbidden; and that being able to rename forbidden pleasures as unforbidden is the only way to find out what it is possible to say about them. Psychoanalysis is the only secular therapy that puts the otherwise sacred idea of the forbidden at the heart of its theory and practice, and it has added an emblematic profession to the culture: one that makes us go on thinking about the forbidden in a secular language. By the same token, it exposes not merely what forbidden desire inhibits but what the whole idea of the forbidden forbids us from considering. The thing, the real thing, that the forbidden has kept us from thinking about is the unforbidden. The pleasures we allow ourselves have suffered at the hands of the pleasures we don’t. By placing unforbidden pleasures in the shade, we may have forbidden ourselves more pleasure, and more about pleasure, than we realize.

In Monderman’s traffic experiment, fewer accidents took place because people were more attentive to what they were doing. They were more alert, as if rules made people less sentient; as if something were handed over to the rules, and implicitly to the rule makers, that made people behave automatically, or as sleepwalkers, or as people less inventively competent than they in fact are. If Monderman’s experiment is about red-light-removal schemes, in Scott’s telling it is also about the more or less impeded, regulated, formulated flow of something or other. What kind of flow does the red light think it is organizing? What is the catastrophe the red light wants to avert?

When it comes to the forbidden, we have to distinguish between the authoritarians and the experimentalists, between the essentialists and the pragmatists. The pragmatists, the experimentalists, say, “I (or someone else) have tried this — have done this forbidden thing — and it had, by our standards, catastrophic consequences. We mustn’t let anyone we care about do it again.” The authoritarians, the essentialists, say, “This is evil, it certainly mustn’t be tried, and preferably shouldn’t be thought about or discussed. It is what our worst punishments are designed to abolish.” The French psychoanalyst Béla Grunberger was an experimentalist when he wrote that the reason the father should prohibit his son from sleeping with his mother was that the son who slept with his mother would be unable to satisfy himself or her, and so would be humiliated. In this version of the Oedipus complex the father is not a castrator but a guardian of his child’s future potency. God was being an essentialist in the Old Testament when he told the Jews, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Either way, the forbidden is the foreclosure of certain ways of thinking about the future. The forbidden refers to a future that mustn’t happen.

Yet when the traffic lights were removed — and this is one of at least two familiar kinds of modern story — the assumed catastrophe did not occur. In fact, as luck — or something else — would have it, things were even better than before. There were fewer accidents, the flow improved, there was less rage, more common sense. The other familiar modern story is that the red lights are removed and the consequences are beyond our worst imaginings; this is what tragedies and all political tyrannies are there to tell us about. But after Monderman’s experiment, Scott writes, “Small towns in the Netherlands put up one sign boasting that they were free of traffic signs,” and a conference discussing the new philosophy proclaimed, “Unsafe is safe.”

We know something of what it is like to drop the idea that there is such a thing as forbidden knowledge. And we know what it is like for certain forbidden desires to become unforbidden; indeed, some of our most terrible histories, of racism and sexism, are about the forbidding of desires that clearly need not have been forbidden. In retrospect these histories seem to some of us to be the fundamental histories of our times. They are both wildly unintelligible in their cruelty and all too intelligible. Also, the best bits of psychoanalysis have been able to tell us something useful about the anxieties that prompt the forbidding of desires, and about why, therefore, we should not always be overly confident as forbidders of desire.

Nobody now believes that we could, or would even want to, abolish all forbidden desires, any more than anyone could imagine a culture without the category of the unacceptable. (The forbidden is the unacceptable at its most intractable.) And some of us may believe — psychoanalysis clearly has a stake in this — that forbidden desires, like everything else, can be understood in a way that makes them less forbidden, or certainly less unthinkable. People traditionally come to psychoanalysis because of the monstrousness of their desires, or what they take to be the monstrousness of their desires; and the analyst redescribes what she can. But, obviously, there can be no psychoanalysis — just as, presumably, there can be no culture — without the idea of forbidden desire.

Growing up means growing up into what we call knowledge — the appropriate acknowledgment — of the forbidden. The forbidden is what adults need to tell children about, explicitly and implicitly, consciously and unwittingly. And the forbidden is essentially a story about the consequences of certain kinds of desiring. It is a catastrophic story, a punitive story, a story that is intimidating by definition, about what can happen if certain desires begin to flow. We have to wonder what it is like — what are the effects of children and adolescents growing up in an adult world that is obsessed by forbidden desires and pleasures, often at the cost of the unforbidden ones? And why, by the same token, might it be assumed that promoting unforbidden pleasures could seem to be merely a forlorn consolation for the middle-aged? Forbidden pleasures have stolen the show, but the more intriguing and unpredictable continuity of our lives may lie in our largely unarticulated experiences of unforbidden pleasures, in all their extraordinary variety. The aim of development may be to become as dependent as possible, not as transgressive as possible.

If we take forbidden pleasures as the essence of pleasure, as the real pleasures, what happens to the unforbidden pleasures? Do they really exist — are they derivatives, substitutes, sublimations? — and if they do, what kinds of pleasures are they? Are they all poor relations of the real thing? Are they merely for the timid, the inhibited, the cowardly, the dull? Is unforbidden pleasure merely hedonism for infants and the elderly?

If we believe, for example, that real pleasure, profound pleasure, passionate pleasure, is forbidden, or derives from the forbidden, then clearly courage is what we need, and risk is what we will celebrate and idealize. We will need to be as brave as possible in not betraying our desire; indeed, to promote unforbidden pleasures is to imagine a world in which we don’t have to take courage or cowardice very seriously. There certainly seems to be an old-fashioned story about heroism lurking somewhere in our commitment to the forbidden, in which the bold, the risk-taking, the transgressive, are, by definition, having a better time. If one of my greatest pleasures in life is my morning coffee, am I a pathetic person? If being as kind as is possible gives me the life I want, am I some kind of weakling? If I prefer friendship or political activism to sexual relationships or sexual encounters, am I just inhibited? Are the seekers of unforbidden pleasures simply bland? Are they great sublimators and displacers but poor realists? Are unforbidden pleasures sad substitutes for the forbidden ones? What has the monism of forbidden pleasure — the siren song, the abiding claim on the Freudian subject of the forbidden — stopped us from thinking about pleasure?

By convincing us that we should be suspicious of our desire for the unforbidden pleasures, psychoanalysis may have oversimplified us, and given us an impoverished picture of our pleasure-seeking, and of ourselves as pleasure-seekers. Psychoanalysis, it seems, has repressed the unforbidden, refused to elaborate it, and wanted to not take it too seriously. Or it has simply interpreted the unforbidden as a refuge from, or a disguised, watered-down version of, the real, horrifyingly exciting thing.

It is possible that paying so much attention to forbidden pleasures grossly narrows the pleasure people can take in one another, and overdetermines and confines their moral thinking. The forbidden has perhaps been overly forbidding. What would our lives be like if we didn’t take it for granted that forbidden pleasure was real pleasure, the only real pleasure? What if we thought of people seeking a multiplicity of pleasures, without a preassumed hierarchy?

We know what ideas about sanity have done to and for ideas about madness, and how the rational and the irrational have been mutually defining, and how heterosexuality has formed and deformed homosexuality, and vice versa. It should be no less important to track the effects of choosing, if not always preferring, the forbidden pleasures over the unforbidden ones. There can always, after all, be two-way traffic. The parts of ourselves that desire forbidden pleasures might have a lot to learn from the parts of ourselves that desire the unforbidden. The seekers of unforbidden pleasures may know something about pleasure that has never occurred to the transgressive.

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May 2016