In Praise of Love

This is the reading for July 28

Love is an idea that we all have an investment in.  We like to love, and we like to be loved.  For Alain Badiou, this is because love produces truths.  Against those who would make love nothing other than the handmaiden of reproduction, or who believe it is merely a covering for the empty repetition of sex, Badiou claims it is a construction of a world from the point of view of Two, an enduring process that begins with a chance encounter. 

Love Under Threat

According to Badiou, “Love confronts two enemies, essentially: safety guaranteed by an insurance policy and the comfort zone limited by regulated pleasures.”

As an example of the first problem, he describes advertisements for an internet dating website, Meetic.  The ads had phrases such as “Get love without chance” and “Be in love without falling in love”.  The site, and others like it, offer the opportunity to carefully screen and select potential partners.  Encounters between two people only come after a vetting process of whatever length.    The process is, it seems, designed to limit the emotional risk involved with meeting someone.

This safety-first conception is part of a wider pattern; a lot of what goes on in western societies today is about the promotion of safety, at least for you.  Badiou points out the similarity between the Meetic ads and American war propaganda, which is full of phrases like “smart bombs” and “zero dead [on our side].”  The promise is that all the risk will be someone else’s: “Safety-first love, like everything governed by the norm of safety, implies the absence of risks for people who have a good insurance policy, a good army, a good police force, a good psychological take on personal hedonism, and all risks are for those on the opposite side.”

The second threat is a kind of trivialization, to make love a matter of pure pleasure.  It is seen as only a variant of rampant hedonism, part of the enjoyment of one’s own life.  The person one loves is a decoration for one’s life or a pleasant diversion.  However, when love is seen entirely as a matter of pleasure, it avoids “any deep and genuine experience of the otherness from which love is woven.”

Part of philosophy’s job is to defend love.  But, “It cannot be a defensive action simply to maintain the status quo.  The world is full of new developments and love must also be something that innovates.  Risk and adventure must be re-invented against safety and comfort.”

A Brief History of Love and Philosophy

Few philosophers have shown an interest in love, and those that do tend to oscillate between two extreme positions: disdain and religious reverence.

Arthur Schopenhauer is the best example of the anti-love brigade.  He wrote that he could not forgive women for experience a passion for love, “thus making it possible to perpetuate a human species that was in fact worthless!”  He thought love was a mask for pure will, and like all will, was something to be turned away from.

On the other end, someone like Soren Kierkegaard transforms love into one of the highest levels of subjective experience.  Kierkegaard thought life had three stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.  On the aesthetic level, “the experience of love is one of vain seduction and repetition.”  It is the pure selfishness of pleasure.  On the ethical level, love is genuine and demonstrates its own seriousness through marriage.

The highest level is the religious, after the ethical endorsement by marriage.  Marriage becomes an eternal commitment, turned towards the absolute; it is not just a strengthening of the social bond against jealousies and various human failings, but an institution “that channels genuine love toward its fundamental destination,”  which leads to the ego rooting itself in its divine source.  So for Kierkegaard, “Love then moves beyond seduction and, through the serious meditation of marriage, becomes a way to accede to the super-human.”

So on one hand, suspicion.  On the other hand, religious epiphany.   Another angle was taken by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who said “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship.”  An odd statement, to be sure, so what sense can we make of it?  In sex, each individual is basically on their own.  The other’s body is there, and is experienced, but at the end of the day, the pleasure is always your pleasure.  There is a certain sense in which sex separates people; it does not unite them.  Pleasure actually takes one far away from the other, because the reality (i.e., the real) of pleasure is narcissistic.

If sex does not unite two people, what role does love play?  There are two interpretations.  The first is that love is the imaginary construct that comes to fill the gap that sex leaves.  Sex, as a form of desire, is the attempt to find satisfaction by attaining an object.  Yet, of course, we always need to have sex again; an endless repetition.  The satisfaction is never complete.  Love imagines itself as covering over that gap.  Under this interpretation, love is what allows one to ignore their partner’s beer belly or saggy breasts.  The key point here is that pleasure is the real and love is imaginary.  It is a skeptical interpretation of love.

The second interpretation is that love reaches out to the ontological.  In love, “one tries to approach the being of the other.”  The individual goes beyond themselves, beyond the narcissistic.  In sex, the other helps you discover the reality of pleasure.  In love, the mediation of the other is enough in itself.  Sexual desire desire focusses on the other in a fetishistic way – particular objects, like breasts, buttocks, cock, etc.  But love “focuses on the being of the other, on the other as it has erupted, fully armed with its being into my life thus disrupted and re-fashioned.”  This ontological interpretation of love makes the being of the other its real; love is not just imaginary.

Love cannot be reduced to a wonderful first encounter, or a contract, or an illusion. It is a quest for truth: “what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one?  What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?”  It is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.

It is a construction of a world, which is not quite the same thing as the experience of it.  He says,

“When I lean on the shoulder of the woman I love. . .” and look at the world, “and know, not from the expression on her face, but from within the world as it is – that the woman I love is seeing the same world, and that this convergence is part of the world and that love constitutes precisely, at that very moment, the paradox of an identical difference, then love exists, and promises to continue to exist.”

“The fact is she and I are now incorporated into this unique Subject, the Subject of love that views the panorama of the world through the prism of our difference, so this world can be conceived, be born, and not simply represent what fills my own individual gaze.  Love is always the possibility of being present at the birth of the world.”

The Construction of Love

Let’s look at the ontological interpretation in greater detail.  There are two crucial points.  First, love involves a disjunction between two people, because of the difference of their infinite subjectivities.  Most often, that difference is sexual difference.  Regardless, love contains an initial element that differentiates.  “You have Two. Love involves Two.”

The idea that love is about the fusion of two souls into one must be rejected.  Many people still cling to a romantic conception of love which is caught up in the encounter.    A magical moment that leads to a meltdown – but this isn’t a “Two scene” but a “One scene”.  “It is the meltdown concept of love: the two lovers met and something like a heroic act for One was enacted against the world.”  We can see in stories how often this leads to death.  Love is consumed in the ineffable, and exceptional moment, then it has to go back to a world “that remains external to their relationship.”  It’s a radically romantic interpretation that needs to be challenged.  Artistically beautiful, but “existentially seriously lacking.”

Second, because love involves a disjunction, the moment when the Two appears can only be a matter of risk and chance.  This moment is an encounter, or more properly, an event.  Something that did not exist before comes to exist because two people have decided it exists.

There are many stories where the encounter is marked out.  Often, the two loves do not belong to the same group, as in Romeo and Juliet.  Love can slice through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations, and can often be very surprising.  “This surprise essentially unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world.”

“Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.”  It’s always about duration and process, not just starting points.  Love takes place over time.

Love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction.  “Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.”  The storybooks are silent on what this construction looks like.  “They got married and had lots of children.” — but is love only about marriage and children?  The family is a part of love, but love cannot be reduced to it.  The birth of a child is a part of love, not the fulfillment of it. (Q6)

The Truth of Love

Love, like art, science and politics, is a truth procedure.  Love is the specific kind of truth that derives from difference as such.  Like the other truth procedures, love involves universality, a declaration, grappling with chance, and something like eternity.

Why are there so many love stories?  There must be something universal about love for these stories to interest such an enormous audience.  What is universal is that all love suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be Two and not One.  “And that is why we like to love; as St. Augustine says, we like to love, but we also like others to love us: quite simply because we love truths.  This is what gives philosophy its meaning: people like truths, even when they don’t know that they like them.”

Love needs to be spoken; there must be a declaration of love, because “the declaration is inscribed in the structure of the event itself.”  Saying “I love you” means “I’m going to extract something that will endure, something that will persist, a commitment, a fidelity.”  Fidelity is much broader than the simply promise to not sleep with someone else.  In love, fidelity is the victory of endurance over chance.

And love does begin with a wholly chance encounter.  But chance, at a given moment, must be curbed.  It must turn into a process that can last.  It’s a tough problem – how can something random become the fulcrum of two people’s lives?

After the declaration, there is a transition from chance to destiny, “and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.  Moreover the declaration of love isn’t a one-off; it can be protracted,” or re-started many times.  “That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened, about that encounter and the incidents within the encounter.  I will tell the other that something that commits me took place. . . in a word, I love you.”

Why do people say “I will always love you”?  Skeptical moralists say that is always a ploy, that it is never true.  Not true!  “There are people who always love each other, and a lot more than you might think or say.”

Breaking off love, particularly unilaterally, is always a disaster, whatever the reasons put forward.  “I love you” is often the herald of “I’ll always love you,” so “it is in effect locking chance into the framework of eternity. . . it is an anticipation of eternity.”  The problem is how to inscribe this eternity within time.  “Because, basically, that is what  love is: a declaration of of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descending into time.” That’s why it is so intense.  It’s hard to know exactly what Badiou means by eternity.  I think it is at least partly about a rejection of Martin Heidegger’s being-towards-death – that is, that our anticipation of our impending death is what fuels our drive to get things done.  Rather, our motivation for action can be the infinity of possible truths, and our love of them.

“‘Always’ is the word used to declare eternity.  Because you cannot know what that ‘always’ means or how long it will last.  ‘Always’ means ‘eternally’.  It is simply a commitment within time” because there is no afterlife.  “Happiness in love is the proof that time can accommodate eternity.”


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