In a previous post I began developing an object-oriented account of love. Building on this, we can ask, what is the ontological and philosophical significance of love? I wish I could take credit in answering this question, but my thoughts here are deeply influenced by Badiou. Despite the heteronormativity of his account of love, I do believe his theory of love is among the finest aspects of his thought. It will be recalled that for Badiou there are four conditions of philosophy: a doctrine of science or the matheme, a doctrine of politics, a doctrine of art, and a doctrine of love. Badiou’s aim– one which I share –is to think that present of the present. He wishes to think that which is most vital, most true, in the present. What are those truths, Badiou asks, that characterize the present of the present, the eternity of the present? What bit of the eternal and the universal do we manage to grasp in our present? Such is Badiou’s project.
For Badiou the aim is to think the compossibility of truths in these four domains. Compossibility is among the most profound concepts we inherit from Leibniz. In Leibniz’s thought “compossibility” refers to the way in which entities an events in the world hold or cohere together. For example, the world in which Nero did not persecute the Christians is incompossible with the world in which I exist. Had Nero not persecuted the Christians, a series of other historical events would have not taken place that led to my existence. These events include the presence and absence of particular human beings, the form that culture subsequently took, the way the environment was influenced over the course of this history, etc., etc., etc. In short, my existence is “compossible” with the world in which Nero persecuted the Christians. Had Nero not done this it’s unlikely that Christianity would have become the dominant religion in the West and I would not exist as the peculiar critter that I am. Would my parents have even been brought together without this history?
So it is with Leibniz’s conception of compossibility. In Badiou, the four domains– art, love, math/science, and politics –are to be thought in their coherence. The question is “what basic truth of being do they think or render available?” How are we to think the interrelation of these four conditions together in a present that is eternal and universal? Thus, for Badiou, the point is not so much to tell us what love or politics is– though he teaches us a great deal about these things too –but rather, the role of the philosopher is to think the manner in which these four domains disclose being in the present. What are they teaching us that is radically new? A doctrine of love teaches us not only, perhaps, what love is, but also about the very nature of being and truth.
From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, love seems to teach us two things: On the one hand, love is one of those relations of non-relation that teaches us the truth of withdrawal. Lovers, paradoxically, always withdraw from one another. In this respect, love, beyond all of its narcissistic illusions, teaches us primarily about withdrawal. In love the Two precisely are not alienated reflections of one another. Some will be familiar with he idea of alienated reflection from psychology under the title of “depersonalization”. In a state of depersonalization the person is no longer able to recognize themselves in their own image. I see an image in the mirror, but I don’t recognize it as my image. The diagnosis of depersonalization is the elementary matrix of much contemporary critical theory. What critical theory strives to teach us is to recognize our own alienated image in cultural artifacts and texts. It teaches us the lesson of depersonalization at the heart of culture: what we took to be natural and a property of things themselves is actually a depersonalized alienation of our own agency.
Yet in love things are different. The difference between love and fetishistic infatuation is that the latter encounters only its own depersonalized image, whereas the former encounters the withdrawal of the beloved. In a state of fetishistic infatuation I relate to the other only as a narcissistic reflection of myself. I am infatuated with the other because they reflect back to me myself in the light that I would like to be seen. By contrast, in love I encounter the difference between world and earth. I discover the fact that both me and my beloved share the same earth but inhabit different worlds or divergent series. As a consequence, I encounter the limits of my own world. Love, we might say, is “enantiomorphic’. It is an encounter with heterogeneous topologies that are neither complementary nor superimposible on one another. Lovers thus encounter each other as withdrawn. Insofar as their worlds are divergent, insofar as they are incompossible, the two opens on to the inassimable, non-consumable, beyond of narcissism. They enter into a relation of non-relation, into the absolute difference Lacan speaks of at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, where this very divergence and difference becomes a creative spark that sustains the relation. The two become explorers of alien worlds without conquest on an earth. Instead there is an entanglement of withdrawn worlds, always barely sensed yet never grasped or comprehended, that becomes its own perpetual motion machine. Here the aphorism that all communication is miscommunication reaches its fruition. No wonder lovers delight in nonsense.
Love thus first teaches withdrawal insofar as it is an encounter with the inassimable. The work of love is the work of withdrawal or the forging of a relation with non-relation. Love is betrayed wherever it becomes consumptive, wherever it seeks to assimilate to the mirror. Love affirms itself when it proceeds as an encounter with the withdrawn, with the other, that can never quite fit within one’s own topology. And if love is ontologically important, then it is because in this encounter with the withdrawn it opens us to the withdrawal of all things from one another. Do not lovers begin to delight in the thingliness of things, in their sheer thingness or withdrawn alterity, oddly refusing to treat things as objects (in a vernacular distinct from that of OOO) or as that which can no longer be assimilated to a positing consciousness? No, lovers, in their own odd heteroverse, come to celebrate the sheer facticity of things like botanical gardens, no longer requiring them to be, mean, or be useful for anything. In this respect, all love is queer, for there is no complementary of the two– the whole force of the Two is their non-complementarity –nor generic sexuality. No, there is only this odd differential libido they build together with snippets of the world, politics, their history, their aesthetic encounters, their ethics, the foreignness of their bodies to one another, and on and on.
This truth of withdrawal is also the truth of the heteroverse. In discovering the twoness of the Two, the fundamental incommensurability of the Two, the Two also discover the inexistence of every totality. The discovery of the fundamental heterogeneity of world, earth, and worlds, the two discover that there are no totalities. There is no whole, no totality, that would bring everything harmoniously together. No, the Two discover the queer being of being composed of fractured relations of non-relation, where that non-relationality of the relation becomes the very impetus of their bond. It is this that leads to the second teaching of love.
Love teaches the independence of things from their relations. Badiou speaks of the endless fascination we have with love stories in plays, novels, and modern cinema. What is it that fascinates us so with these love stories? We are fascinated, I believe, with the manner in which lovers seem to escape the gravitational constraint of all their relations. Romeo and Juliet escape, for a time, the constraints of their family relations and the vicious feud between their families. Their relation of non-relation gives them the power to escape these material relations. In Punch Drunk Love the characters of Sandler and Watson escape their constraining family relations and neuroses. Likewise, in The Secretary Gyllanhaal escapes the reproduction of her family’s dysfunction upon her body, while Spader escapes his solipsistic fear of women. The queer couple takes on all of society to be together, alienating themselves form family relations, military positions, social sanctions, refusing to compromise on this relation of non-relation. The academic couple with distant positions live in solitude and loneliness for much of the year yet reconfigure their entire life to affirm their relation of non-relation. And then, of course, there are the failed lovers that continue to affirm the Two for the remainder of their lives despite the fact that their series have ceased to resonate. These would be the amorous celibates.
The Two are profoundly inventive in a way that exceeds all ecological and social relations save their queer relation of non-relation. Together, through their incompossible worlds, they invent something new together, departing from their ecological social and natural fixity to affirm this resonant relation of non-relation. What is thus discerned in love is the power to break with relation, to produce something other, different, and new, or to affirm the relation of non-relation for its own sake. Love is a space of mad, unreasonable parings that no one outside the relation of non-relation ever understands and that those dancing within the relation of non-relation fail to understand.