Alain Badiou on love and threats to love

The Book by Alain Badiou called in Praise of love is one I think everyone should read, it’s short, concise and explains in a non-reductive but thoughtful way what love is and why it is important, not from a Christian standpoint, but in fact from a French Atheist Marxist’s standpoint, which in fact happens to coincide with the Christian standpoint in many respects. With soaring divorce rates, the rise of buisinesses that commodify sex and love (such as tinder, to give an obvious example), more and more people becoming permanently single and lonely, and with a general growing attitude of egotism and a growing alienation the topic of love is becoming something that needs to be dealt with.

Alain’s basic thesis is that love is about people experiencing the world, or creating a world, based on difference rather than identity, based on the experience of two rather than one. He also goes over various threats to love. He says:

In effect I think that liberals and libertarians converge around the idea that love is a futile risk. And that, on the one hand, you can have a kind of well-planned marriage, pursued with all the delights of consummation and, on the other, fun sexual arrangements full of pleasure, if you disregard passion. Seen from this perspective, I really do think that love, in today’s world, is caught in this bind, in this vicious circle and is consequently under threat.

An intrinsic concept in both classical liberalism and American libertarianism is the concept of individual autonomy, both of ones identity and  ones physical domain. Love, according to Alain Badiou is about risk, the giving up of identity, it’s about “falling” in love. Alain Badiou says:

It (love) is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentred point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.

If this definition of love is to be taken seriously then what more of a heretical concept could there be in our liberal, market driven world than the concept that it is good and right that a person give away his identity, decenter his or her world, in order to create a world through the other? There can be no autonomy in such a project, there can be no self-interest, of course in a relationship based on love those things still exist, but they exist despite the love, not because of it. Yet autonomy and self-Interestmare the main virtues in a liberal, market driven society.

Much of the pseudo-spirituality of today is about taking eastern philosophical/religious concepts and adapting them to the modern liberal/market mentality. It’s all about self-actualization, maximizing your individual potential, increasing your efficiency (one of the highest virtues of capitalism), meditation is advertised as making one more effective in the work place, or as stripping away all the external impediments to being who you truly are, it being the best you can be (of course using liberal and capitalist measures of what “best” is). Love, as Alain Badiou describes it, is the opposite. Love limits your individual potential, it shackles you to an outside force (the lover), it very often means you are less efficient, yet it is what makes us human.

The liberal/capitalist version of love is that of the dating agency, it has to be safe, it has to be a mutually profitable exchange, and it has to be non-binding. In the first quote by Alain Badiou he says that in the liberal or libertarian worldview one can enjoy the pleasures of sex, if one disregards passion. Passion is, in a way, losing yourself in something, love demands passion, the giving up of autonomous control over yourself and your surroundings. Dating agencies attempt to give a person control over their love life, you can pick from many different options, getting to know things about a potential mate with no fear of attachment and with no threat from a passionate losing of ones self. You can then advertise yourself to the potential mate, showing what you can offer them, then finally you meet, you have a safe and sterilized nearly market exchange that will supposedly serve as a rational and profitable start of a relationship. The problem with this is, according the Alain Badiou, the initial encounter, he says:

It (love) is an event that can’t be predicted or calculated in terms father world’s laws. Nothing enables one to prearrange the encounter – not even Meetic (a dating agency), and all those long, preparatory chats!: in the end, the moment you see each other in the flesh, you see each other, and that’s that, and it’s out of control!

So ultimately love cannot be sterilized and made safe for the liberal/capitalist ideology, as much as people would like it to be. There’s another problem Alain Badiou points out as well:

what we referred briefly to when discussing the Meetic dating agency, the interpretation based on a commercial or legalistic perspective, which argues that love must in the end be a contract. A contract between two free individuals who would presumably declare that they love each other, though they never forget the necessary equality of the relationship, the system of mutual benefits, etc.
……….
My own philosophical view is attempting to say that love cannot be reduced to any of these approximations and is a quest for truth.

When one attempts to reduce the concept of love, or the practice of love, to a kind of efficient, mutual market transaction, where both individuals remain free and autonomous but just reap benefits of the relationship, the whole point is gone. Love cannot be reduced to that simply because of the reality of what it is, when one attempts to reduce it to a free exchange between two autonomous individuals maintaining their individual identities either love wins out and kills the autonomy and self-identity or it dies and one is left with nothing more that a transaction of goods and services that does not resemble anything like genuine love.

Those who demand equality in a relationship, or who demand that they get as much as he other out of the relationship are attempting to apply market/liberal standards on something which is much more than that, they are attempting to maintain their individual identity and autonomy, fighting for it, in a relationship whose whole project is denying those things in order to create something greater; a world based on difference rather than identity, a self giving for the sake of each other, a two scene rather than a one scene.

Alain Badiou’s definition of love, I believe, is why the admonition of many modern market/liberal spiritual so-called gurus to “love yourself” is misguided and nonsensical. If it is true that love is about constructing a world with someone else on the basis of union with the other and from the perspective of difference rather than identity, then it is impossible to do that with yourself. The admonition to “love yourself” confuses love with things like admiration or adoration, with acceptance or with affirmation, you can do all of these things without threatening your own autonomy, without giving of yourself at all (much less than the total giving that love requires), without any self sacrifice. In fact acceptance or affirmation of someone or something implies your authority and right to accept or reject or affirm or deny that person or thing, thus affirming your own identity and in fact exalting it. Love demands you give up yourself. Alain Badiou says;

Selfishness, not any rival, is love’s enemy. One could say: my love’s main enemy, the one I must defeat, is not the other, it is myself, The “myself” that prefers identity to difference, that prefers to impose it’s world against the world re-constructed through the filter of difference.

This is the central issue. The virtue of love is diametrically opposed to the liberal/capitalist virtues of self identity, autonomy, individual profit and self interest. Someone might say that I am confusing the political and the personal, but I would disagree. The social and political structures and ideologies of society most certainly affect and shape the personal lives and ideologies of people, and vice versa, the two are intertwined. To argue that modern ideologies and economic realities have nothing to do with the soaring divorce rates and the growth of people not wanting to get married is simply to be ignoring the obvious.

Alain Badiou thinks that one cannot really apply love to the political, he says:

A central issue in political though is the question of enemies ….

The issue of the enemy is completely foreign to the question of love.

He also says:

I don’t think you can mix up love and politics. In my opinion, the “politics of love” is a meaningless expression. I think that when you begin to say “Love one another”, that can lead to a kind of ethics, but not to any kind of politics. Principally because there are people in politics one doesn’t love… That’s undeniable. Nobody can expect us to love them.

From a Christian perspective I have to disagree, but for this we need to differentiate between “Eros” and “agape.” Eros being the Greek word describing romantic or erotic love, the type Alain Badiou talks about mostly in his book. Agape being the type of love the New Testament emphasizes, especially the Johanian writings and some of Paul’s writings, agape being what Terry Eagleton rightly calls “political love,” or love based on universal principle, principled love. Agape is used in both Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36. Both of those verses have Jesus commanding his followers to “love (agapate) your enemy,” in Matthew it’s quite straight forward, saying that even the wicked are good to their friends, but God makes it rain and shine on both the wicked and righteous, Luke adds a lot of seemingly impossible, or extremely difficult demands, such as turning the other cheek, lending without expecting your money back and so on.

These verses explicitly bring love, agape love, into the realm of the enemy, the verses don’t deny that there are enemies, or that we should simply view those enemies as friends, but rather that there are real enemies and that love must apply to them also. If this is the case then love certainly belongs to the political, according to Alain Badiou’s idea of the political.

In today’s world political love is nearly non existent, and in the individualistic, market driven world we live in it’s nearly impossible to imagine it taking hold. But as Alain Badiou points out, and as can be seen in western society today, even romantic love is coming under threat, and I believe it’s explicitly the result of the type of individualistic, market driven ideology that rules modern society.

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Alain Badiou on love and threats to love

6 thoughts on “Alain Badiou on love and threats to love

  1. […] Alain Badiou has called romantic love the smallest possible communism, I think that’s true, and that would make Marriage the smallest possible communist institution. From marriage comes the idea of Kinship, family, a larger institution where social relations happen outside Capitalist logic. I think the word “reciprocity” is a little problematic however, what happens in a family relationship is not reciprocity in the “I scratch your back you scratch mine” kind of way. What happens is actual communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” the very idea of counting the inputs of the individuals in the relationship so as to justify the distribution would seem to ruin the very logic of the family. […]

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  2. Why am I not reading your blog regularly? I don’t know, other than to say that I honestly forgot about it at some point.

    I urge you to read Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin’s review of Anders Nygren’s _Eros and Agape_, is all I would add. Also, Pseudo-Dionysius has some things to say about Eros that are positive.

    Meandering over to your Locke articles now.

    Liked by 1 person

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