Why Love Matters
It is love, not sex, that needs liberation.
The following is the first of my three-part essay series on love, why it matters and the dire need for its reinvention.
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.”
― Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, P. 49)
Love without freedom doesn’t exist, and freedom serves love. We’re told (for good reasons) we live in the freest time in human history. On paper, we have the most political and socioeconomic freedom anyone’s ever had. And culturally, we’re free from the shackles of tradition. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity to practice authentic love, that is, loving purely for the sake of love and nothing else. And once one understands the reality of love, this verity will either be emancipatory or terrifying.
Thanks to freedoms fought for by feminists, women can now participate in the workforce and broader society; therefore, they aren’t reliant on men for their livelihood. Notwithstanding the myriad catastrophes capitalism has created, it has been an economic system that’s liberated women―or at least equally made them slaves to the neoliberal hegemony, much like men. And socially, due to secularity, we don’t have religious institutions qua religio-cultural norms pressuring us to get married or be monogamous. In fact, conventional bourgeois marriage and its concomitant expectations are dead, opening up ground for practising different forms of love that start from a substanceless void where we get married or be in a relationship purely out of choice. And, I hope, since love cannot be outsourced to the Lacanian big Other (i.e., religion, culture, history, biological procreation, etc.) anymore, we take radical responsibility for our decisions and treat love as a metaphysical project.
When Darcy declares, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride & Prejudice, P. 185), he is a proto-modernist lover. By his declaration, he overcomes his pride of seeing Elizabeth as being only someone of “lower class”. Darcy prevails over the absurdly regimented class boundaries in Regency England, consequently exposing the hollowness of such social stratification and class prejudices―notably, love here becomes a political act. But the sublimity of Austen’s work is epitomised in her portrayal of Elizabeth. As the novel develops, Elizabeth begins to see love fundamentally as a misrecognition: to love someone is to see them still as the Other―true love is not loving someone because ultimately they’re just like us but rather loving them because they are completely alien to us. Surpassing Elizabeth’s clear socio-political transgressions (e.g. rejecting Mr Collins’ marriage proposal despite marrying him would secure Elizabeth and her family’s future), her choice to see beyond Darcy’s apparent haughtiness, overcome her prejudice, and ultimately marry him is (as Slavoj Žižek points out) the Hegelian metaphysical apprehension of “truth arising from misrecognition.” Austen doesn’t allow the typical liberal “we’re all the same” nonsense to taint the story but rather brings to light how it’s DIFFERENCE itself that encompasses love; it’s by working through fundamental, irreconcilable differences that two people can “accede to the true nature of the other and at the same time to overcome our own deficiency - for Darcy, to free himself of his false pride; for Elizabeth, to get rid of her prejudices.” Furthermore, we see in both characters how Hegel’s self-consciousnesscomes to be where each of them finds recognition of themselves in being aware of the other’s awareness of themselves. Or put more simply - through the difference of love, truer parts of ourselves are revealed to us in our lover. And such love, with all its beauty and terror, is only possible in a society stripped from all tradition and metaphysical scaffoldings. Loving in our times is to be helpless, directionless and lost; nonetheless, to persevere with one’s lover. Therein lies the sublime nature of love; through an ostensible negative and lack, we build something positive and new.
If the picture I’ve painted of love so far is a happy-go-lucky one that makes you feel good, I will change course now (to provoke, of course). If you’ve truly been in love, you’d know that love is a catastrophe. To reappropriate Žižek’s famous example illustrating the trauma of love: imagine a lad in his mid-20s with a stable career, making decent money and in relatively good health. Perhaps he lives in a cosmopolitan city like Melbourne, where there’s enough to keep him occupied and entertained. He’d go for happy hour drinks on Friday with his workmates, go for a few gigs with his mates, probably travel around a bit and even get laid occasionally. And on an arbitrary day, in one of his escapades purely by chance, he meets a girl, let’s say, at the Latin dance classes in Ms Collins (a popular nightclub in Melbourne). There’s nothing too exciting at first; they dance a bit, chat afterwards, and seem to get along well. So they exchange numbers. They keep chatting in the following weeks, and eventually, he musters up the courage to ask her out on a date. She agrees. They go to Beneath Driver Lane, a dingy whiskey bar by Elizabeth Street and have a couple of drinks to loosen up - Old fashioneds for him and Martinis for her. Although he doesn’t feel the need to use alcohol to loosen up because he feels comfortable with her―the conversation is passionate, engaging and not contrived. He isn’t pressured to be overtly performative to keep things interesting; he could simply be his stupid self, and she could be hers. Despite being on a date, he doesn’t feel the need to use any “tactics” to make her like him. They could just be. And the icing on the cake is that she, too, is a fellow Dostoyevsky lover, so he brings up Dostoyevsky’s foot fetish hoping to make her laugh. She giggles a bit. As the night goes on, he reaches out to kiss her. She, for better or worse, reciprocates. Kissing her is different from any other casual hookups he’s been having. The kiss isn’t even that intense, but the moment he feels her soft petite lips, her loose wavy hair on his face, and when he tastes and smells her distinctly, running his arm down her back, feeling an infinite part of her, the lad realises he’s in love―an absolute revelation for him because love only makes sense in retrospect. He looks back on the past couple of weeks with her and sees how madly in love he’s fallen. “Oh shit!” he thinks to himself. Now he can’t just sleep with her that night and move on to his normal life because, at that bar, he experiences an Event, as Badiou would say.
It’s here where he sees the truth of what Plato writes:
“Love is a madness.” (Phaedrus, S. 265e)
And begins to understand Schopenhauer’s morbid remarks:
“A man, in order to have his love gratified, will unhesitatingly risk his life; in fact, if his love is absolutely rejected, he will sacrifice his life into the bargain. [...] Love drives a still greater number of people into the lunatic asylum. There is a case of some sort every year of two lovers committing suicide together because material circumstances happen to be unfavourable to their union.” (Metaphysics of Love, P. 1)
The event of love subverts one’s life. Like the young man, you could be living an egocentric life with your daily habits, routines and so on, just “doing your thing”, as we’d colloquially say. But the “chance encounter” that leads to the love-event disrupts everything! Egocentrism now is impossible as there’s another ego you can’t stop thinking about; when deeply in love, we stop worrying about our concerns. Perhaps you’re even mad at yourself for letting this stranger come into your life because you’re forced to step out of your solipsism and recognise the presence of another. Falling in love is a catastrophe because the fall changes your past and opens up an unknown future. Suddenly, you now evaluate your life with the other in mind. And there certainly is some madness to it; despite your attempts to keep a “healthy distance” from this person, you fail (pathetically). One may label it “infatuation” or “attachment issues” and try to psychologise the love-event (as we do with everything in our culture of therapy mania), but nothing changes the palpable reality of love—when in love, you’re never fully yourself; or as Beyoncé says you’re “crazy in love.” In a time that perpetually demands us to fulfil our desires, be it through consumerism, pseudo-health and wellness or our narcissistic obsession with self-help, self-care, etc., no wonder then we’re afraid of love—love’s an obstacle to “living your best life.” So either one altogether flees love (and for good reasons), or one seeks to “be in love without FALLING in love” (In Praise of Love, P. 6), as Badiou writes. Our culture attempts to domesticate, bureaucratise and remove the dangerous excesses of love. We seek a safety-first version of love through applications like Tinder or Hinge, dating coaches, agencies, courses, speed dating, etc.—we outsource love, especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts, to the Other. The hegemonic ideologies promise a comprehensively risk-free option of love because the enigmatic algorithms or “love experts” that we bestow metaphysical qualities upon will find the perfect partner for you based on interests, hobbies, tastes, etc. You don’t have to risk the chance encounter or the pain of being rejected. We’re trying to experience the beauty without the terror. Badiou, amusingly, compares this outsourcing of love to the Other as no different to the Military–industrial complex propaganda promoting ideas of drone-based “smart” bombs or “zero-dead” wars. True love, like war, invariably has an element of terror. Such is why when one falls in love, it uproots your life; it’s a catastrophic rapture in your existence, and none of the “safety tools” or “relationship strategies” will save you.
What’s more, even once you’ve found someone, you’re told to keep desiring. To paraphrase Žižek: nowadays, the young man from our story is told to keep “discovering” himself, don’t get too fixated on anyone and never settle with the woman he’s in love with because there’s someone or something better (similar to how there’s always a better smartphone, a commodity we’ve fetishised). So he’s exasperated at himself for falling in love; he experiences the anxiety of love as our consumerist culture tells him that he should keep experimenting with himself, explore his sexuality, try different kinds of people, etc., and not let love get in the way of “the good life.”
Unlike in the past, our symbolic authority isn’t about explicit prohibitions (e.g. no premarital sex, no blasphemy, etc.) as moral law is absent—we tacitly know that traditional morality is dead. At least in the past, explicit prohibitive social mores were there to be followed regardless of whether we liked it or not; in the past, there was a God to transgress against. But now the old God is dead, and as Žižekpoints out, without a God, without “internal obstruction”, one is left “‘completely impotent’, enjoyment is entirely forbidden to him. Or, in the words of Lacan against Dostoevsky’s famous position, ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’: if there is no God—the Name-of-the-Father as an instance of the Law/Prohibition—everything is forbidden.” (For They Know Not What They Do, P. 9) For authentic enjoyment, one needs prohibition; one needs a tyrannical God (the big Other) to anger. But, of course, the death of God doesn’t leave one with infinite freedom and bliss. Instead, another universal replaces it; Žižek theorises this phenomenon as “the obverse paradox of pleasure becoming duty in a ‘permissive’ society. Subjects experience the need to ‘have a good time’, to enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy. The superego controls the zone in which these two opposites overlap – in which the command to enjoy doing your duty coincides with the duty to enjoy yourself.” The postmodern superego of our times demands to Enjoy! A moral injunction that can’t be followed fully—because the demands of the Freudian-Lacanian superego can never be met. As Žižek continues, “How do we account for this paradox that the absence of Law universalizes Prohibition? There is only one possible explanation: enjoyment itself, which we experience as “transgression”, is in its innermost status something imposed, ordered - when we enjoy, we never do it spontaneously”, we always follow a certain injunction. The psychoanalytic name for this obscene injunction, for this obscene call. “Enjoy!”, is superego.” (Ibid, P. 10) Our God of enjoyment constantly berates us to either be a hedonist: go and do hardcore party drugs, sleep around, don’t miss out on any transgression, etc. Or the other side of the same coin - become a wellness and self-help fanatic: “live your best life”, “treat your body like a temple”, and, worst of all, “be fulfilled.”—the recent revivification of psychedelics also falls into this pseudo-spiritualist category along with “psychedelicism”: the false ideology that psychedelics will be the panacea to all of our social and individual ills. Of course, all of these demands are tailored to work synergistically with neoliberal capitalism, where we’ll still be good subservient consumers—no wonder, then, asexuality is on the rise, where people are choosing not to partake in the demands and transgress against transgressions themselves, saying, “I Would Prefer Not To.” Love needs deliverance from the God of Enjoy! It is love, not sex, that needs liberation.
Authentic self-sacrificial love like that we see in Christ (where you go all the way to the end) is the antidote to the ideological injunction of consumerist capitalism: ‘thou shalt enjoy!’ Because once you’re in love and choose to be with your lover, you realise love isn’t about satisfying your needs. Love opens up a new dimension that transcends those needs, albeit only if you choose to partake in the quest of love. In fact, choosing to love someone is a negation, a “fuck off!” to the rest of society. As Kierkegaard writes, love is a particularisation. It’s saying I pick out this particular person from infinite options and endeavour to construct a truth as love is a “truth procedure.”
Love gets in the way of neoliberal capitalism’s desiring machine. In love, only the particularities matter, as when in love, a new truth is revealed to you, and the realities of the status quo seem empty and banal. Momentarily, the temptations of consumerism don’t allure you, and you decide NOT to partake in the vicissitudes of market mechanics. You say enough! Don’t sell me a better option or a better partner! I choose to be with this person as they are absolute—in typical Kierkegaardian fashion, their absoluteness is bestowed upon them by my choice, and only in retrospect, my decision will make sense (or not!). Yet again, love here becomes a politico-revolutionary act. In a transactional world where people are viewed solely as a means to an end, mere agents of capital in which all human experiences are subsumed into capitalism that makes us keep desiring and keep partaking in the “love-industrial complex”, authentic loving is subversive. To truly be in love by saying NO is the ultimate existential subversion. Such is why, despite having my heart broken multiple times and being told that it’s a delusion, I will still ardently believe in love. But genuinely believing in our times is also to realise love’s dire need for reinvention.
See P. 66 - 77 of The Sublime Object of Ideology.
See P. 111 of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Start with these lectures.
Read C. 1: On the One (The non-analysable Slovene) of For They Know Not What They Do.
This type of enjoyment isn’t the usual pleasures (e.g. good sex, food, etc.) that we’d colloquially use the term to describe. Instead, “enjoyment” is used here psychoanalytically, specifically through a Žižekian-Lacanian lens. The removal of the oppressive symbolic authority (God) doesn’t give one infinite freedom to enjoy but “gives rise to new and more severe prohibitions.” (How to Read Lacan, P. 92). To use Žižek’s example: “Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: ‘I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!’ In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a ‘postmodern’ non-authoritarian father: ‘You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her - go there only if you really want to!’ Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do. but what to want to do.” (Ibid, P. 92 - 93) The point isn’t that one type of symbolic authority (i.e. traditional vs postmodern) is better than the other. But that one’s enjoyment is never fully free and permissive but always requires an obstruction and, in our times, is carried out at the whims of a superego imperative. So unsurprisingly, terms like “FoMO” have a moral weight in our society; to miss out on enjoyment is to sin against the God of our time.
Read C. 6: Ego Ideal and Superego of How to Read Lacan.
See P. 38 - 40 of In Praise of Love.