"I think it is the task of philosophy, as well as other fields, to rally to (love's) defence. And that probably means, as the poet Rimbaud said, that it also needs re-inventing. 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."
In his very accessible book, In Praise of Love (recently released in English translation), the eminent French philosopher and political radical Alain Badiou begins with an attempt to seduce us. His book promises something new, a re-invention of love as an act of daring and adventure to rescue it from liberals, libertines and the operators of computer dating sites alike. By the end of this short book however (which is made up of interviews with journalist Nicolas Truong) we feel the lover's abandonment of promises not fulfilled. Badiou's new definition of love, which is at the heart of the book, sounds like something very old, although stated in a novel way. Only long-term, committed, sexual relationships (which lead to universal truths) are actually love, he says. In spite of the occasional insight along the way, this idiosyncratic, conservative and idealistic definition is highly problematic. It leads to contentious conclusions and undermines the radical political position, which he otherwise advocates.
Love, as Badiou defines it, is a committed relationship between two people, usually of opposite sexes. It begins with a random encounter. This is the first "point" in a series of points where two people decide to pursue a committed relationship and construct a joint perspective, a "two scene." His definition involves what we commonly think of as mature romantic love, and Badiou does in fact distinguish the love he speaks of from youthful and passionate first attraction, and also from the romanticized idea of love as a subjective merger between two people. He sees love as something that unfolds over time, and involves continual re-commitment and effort. It is a "re-invention of life." His position could thus be defined as a post-existentialist one, based on the idea that we create our own subjectivity.
Badiou argues that sex within a two scene is an outcome of love (so a change presumably occurs if sex occurred early on in a relationship). He rejects the scepticist's view of love as a façade covering up the sexual desire which truly motivates us. To the contrary, he sees sex as surrender when part of the re-invention of their world by two people in love. Desire, in this case, originates with love and is the expression of a declaration of love. It is the sexual relationship which distinguishes love from friendship.
Badiou's position with respect to love is ultimately an idealistic one. Love, as he defines it with reference to Plato, is a quest for truth. It "suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one." This gives love a universal quality which, he asserts, is the reason for our fascination with love in popular culture. We all love truth, according to Badiou.
To move from an encounter to an on-going construction of love by two people requires a declaration of love, a frightening move because it takes us from the chance nature of the first meeting to an eternity lived out in the day-to-day world. Fidelity, in Badiou's view is fidelity to this bond between two people. As a relationship moves from point to point it requires continual reaffirmation and re-declaration.
Not surprisingly, since love, according to Badiou, begins with a chance encounter, he is critical of the idea of love as contract and pays particular attention to computer assisted matchmaking businesses. These are, in his view, a modern variant of arranged marriage. They are also objectionable because they promote a safety first, risk free approach. This undermines love. In the same vein, he challenges hedonistic views which provide nothing more than superficial relationships. He characterizes liberal and libertine views of love in these terms and feels that the role of philosophy should be to challenge these views and to advocate for risk and adventure. This is hardly a fair dismissal of liberal or libertine views, but the argument is possibly not developed because the interview format doesn't t lend itself to this sort of development.
With such a limiting definition of love, we might well ask questions such as: Can children not love? Cannot a woman who was raped and keeps the child not love that child? The answer in both cases, if we accept Badiou's definition of love, would appear to be no. A compelling case for the exclusion of examples that we would commonly refer to as love is never made. Essentially, Badiou is saying that only romantic love has the qualities of romantic love. His definition is too pat, fitting love into his larger philosophy. Love, he asserts, is one of four conditions of philosophy, one 'truth procedure.' His definition of love parallels his definition of politics (beginning with a random event and moving towards truth).
Although analogous, Badiou argues that politics and love differ in that the first is about collective possibilities whereas love is only about a twosome. Love is socialized by the family while the possibilities of politics are controlled by the state. (The love we see within a family is part of the two scene of the parents.) The goal of love is not to create a family and the goal of politics is not power. This idealistic presumption is based on seeing politics as the theoretical communism which follows an event, politics following a similar truth procedure as love.
Despite referencing the socializing effect of family on love he does not develop this analysis nor the influences of other sorts of authority. Nor does he address the fact that the relationships he describes as love (long-term, committed, requiring fidelity) are similar to conservative descriptions of romantic love which contribute to relationships frequently becoming bound by obligation and the opposite of adventure. Could his description not rationalize sexual abstinence outside of committed relationships, for example?
Because of his definition, where politics is about a collective, he feels that a 'politics of love' is an impossibility. Politics and love remain detached, although the one can be a model for the other and they can intersect at times. One distinguishing feature between the two is that the presence of an enemy is fundamental in the definition of politics whereas there is no enemy in love that plays a part in its construction. It is selfishness, the failure of the construction of a two scene that is the enemy of love. Although there is a separation, Badiou feels that communism will provide new possibilities for love. Like communism, he argues that, in love, origins don't matter and there is an acceptance of difference. Although he recognizes that both love and politics can be transgressive, he argues that they do not overlap.
In spite of his argument, it is problematic to try and draw a line between love and politics. History has shown that love demands a politics or subculture. The history of love moves from the courtly love of the middle ages, through Romanticism, into avant-gardes and the radical politics of the last century. Love continues to be at the heart of political and social change for peace and for women's, civil and LGBT rights. Badiou's own definition of love is shaped by these struggles. It presupposes gender equality (which has been fought for both theoretically and in practice, particularly its practice in love) and it presupposes colour, class and gender blindness. Modern love is what it is because its transgressive quality has been combined with political and artistic transgression. Although Badiou attempts to reconcile his views of love with his political communism the conservative nature of his description of love is not so different than the definitions of erotic love described by institutions of authority that use these definitions to seek to contain love's transgressions.
Badiou also addresses the notion of the ethical dimension of love through a refutation of Levinas who argued that we are social creatures so that our experience of the other creates an ethical demand. Badiou argues that our experience of the other is opaque, that it creates no demand. He contrasts his view of love as a construction with the view of love as an experience of difference. He recognizes that the experience of the other is the foundation of ethics but he is dismissive of this, seeing Levinas's description of the other as grounded in an idea of God as other. "In my view, there is nothing particularly 'ethical' about love as such. I really don't like all these theological ruminations inspired by love."
When one attempts to criticize Badiou, one finds that it is a case of either accepting his definition of love or arguing outside of it and thus challenging the definition. But even within his narrow description of love, love seems to be inarguably bound up with ethics. We love without regard to class, colour, religion, and gender because love transgresses these boundaries. Each time we love someone that we are not supposed to, love becomes an ethical act against hate. If we move beyond Badiou's view, then for most of us, our first experience of love is the selfless love of our mother which becomes the model for all love. Selfless love would not be possible, we would always concern ourselves solely with our own pleasure, if love did not transgress our selfishness, if it did not create an ethical demand (which then extends outwards). Does love not demand, for example, that we see a contradiction between love and honouring it with diamonds or other artefacts that result from human exploitation?
Badiou concludes his interviews with comments about love and theatre, his first love (sic). He distinguishes his interest in love, as explored in his own drama (love's endurance), from the usual artistic focus on the initial event which leads to a breakthrough. He feels that theatre and love both combine thought and the body, and require declaration, repetition and practice. And theatre depicts the violence of love. Referencing this transgressive nature of love, he describes theatre as the outcome of the intersection of love and politics. Transgression is depicted not just in tragedy but in romantic comedy where one loves the wrong person.
Love is being inked here to communism. Theatre has a communist nature, he says, (bringing disparate people together to one end), and, as such is a model for collective action. Based on this view, love is described as a form of minimal communism (the separation between love and politics slipping). Theatre, he argues, bridges the gap between love and politics. The theatre he speaks of, however, seems to be what one thinks of when speaking about formal versions, as a theatre troupe with an attendant audience. In spite of the fact that he was a participant in May '68 he does not address the attempt at a synthesis of desire, art and politics that was advocated by some of its participants (the Situationists in particular). Nor does he speak of street theatre. By focusing on formal theatre he can maintain his distinction between love, art and politics but he has not addressed how theatre will not be little more than propaganda.
In his concluding remarks about French politics, Badiou perceptively speaks about how love has historically become attached to the movement between reaction and revolution, although this could be developed much further. Current politics frequently focuses on identity, attacking immigrants for example, and this is the enemy of love. Love, he notes, is subversive with respect to law.
In spite of these insights and those found in some of Badiou's observations - e.g. sex as surrender - the narrowness and conservatism of his definition and its idealism (separating love from politics and ethics - perhaps intending to save it from co-optation) all run counter to the possibility that the demands and lessons of love might affect the world in which it occurs. This is something more like impotence than the bold and reinvigorated love we are promised.