Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Jaques Derrida on Love and Being

The above video will help express the ideas I have been writing about in a more accessible way for the reader. It is subtly poignant and well worth watching.

There are four points that I would like to comment on:

- Derrida's hesistation.
- The distinction between 'the who and the what'.
- The death of love. (This will be discussed in a subsequent post)
- The philosophical note on ontology.

Derrida cannot speak of love in generalities. Our knowledge does not stretch this far. In my last post I remarked that "The process of love itself is unthinkable"; likewise, Derrida has "an empty head on love in general". He even evades framing love in terms of the history of philosophy - is he meant to parrot or list what others have said, or tie them together with a remark on what they all have in common, what is identical to each? The former Derrida calls cliche; the latter presupposes a position on love in general, concerning which he has "nothing to say".

Nonetheless, Derrida succeeds in talking about love, not in a generality, but in a specific problematic that love negotiates: The difference between the who and the what. Derrida locates these in terms of an essential singularity - who someone is, and non-essential qualities - what comprises that person. Though Derrida is speaking in the third person (hence 'qualities'), we can nonetheless relate this distinction to the problem of forces and coherent selves. Do we love someone because they are 'the person that they are', or because joy is brought us by those things that constitute them, their behaviour, and their relation to us?

How do we think about the things that make us love someone? Do we see them as prior to and separable from the subject, or do we see them as following from the subject (either 'at all', or 'significantly enough to account for what we love to the extent that we love it')? This is the place in which philosophical theorising comes into play - are we going to maintain that existence precedes essence (the subjectival), or will we side with Nietzsche's lightning flash? As Derrida rightly points out, the question of what it is for something to be (the ontological question) is primary.

Derrida's words: "The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, separates the heart".

How do we understand 'the death of love'? It is this, more than anything, that determines whether we can give expression to love as a real force. Derrida remarks that whoever is in love, was in love, or begins to be in love gets caught up between the two ontological attitudes. To the extent that we love, therefore, reality is cleaved in two for us. It seems that on this view unrequited love necessarily leads to ressentiment. The heart becomes separated and torn, our feelings get discarded and our hopes get dashed to the pavement. Must we cast down those that we love and call them unworthy of it? Can we not save our love this cruel fate?

Saturday, February 24, 2007


My last few posts are linked: Love is a form of hubris that entails a loss of the self.

1) Love is not only something real but something radically real, something that changes us and makes us different to what we were. When we fall in love it is only ever for the first time, but love does not regress to some original dynamic - it creates afresh by bursting us open. It is a force that is precisely out of our control: Instead, we are placed eagerly in its hands. Love is a process of change that is always possible - 'we' cannot be 'beyond' love; love is a force that moves to the 'beyond' of 'us'.

2) We do not know and cannot know what love is. The process of love itself is unthinkable. We undergo this or that love, we can express it more or less, become more or less in love, but we cannot capture it within our concepts about ourselves - there can be no social history of love, nor any personal history that is permitted to say 'what it is'. What we can talk about is 'how it is' with us, which includes any talk about how it has been (we can recite our personal history of love to ourselves, dispassionately, but this shows our present constitution, our relative inability to be in love).

3) It is by a system of signs that we understand love. Our character is put under strain, and this is how we feel it - violent emotions disrupt and distort 'us'. We endure and then we break.

"Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else" - George Bernard Shaw

In this view, there are objective standards of differences between subjects that become in a sense inflamed and distorted when we fall in love. When we are in love, our social determinations tend to tear apart, but from Shaw's point of view this is something to be understood in terms of social reality, with the message that we should bring love back down to earth.

I ask - why would we do this? For what purpose? It seems that social purpose has overriden love, that the self has been able to deal with the emotions it feels within the systems of meaning it already inhabits. But love is something that we temper, qualify and make useful precisely when we are not in love. When we are in love things stop making sense.

We ask ourselves: "What good is this love to me?" But it doesn't matter. It never mattered. The idea of self-sacrifice never starts to become important; the questions of what we lose and what we gain hang relative to a 'reality' that reality has already dissipated. We cannot trace shadows in a room full of light.

In love there are no conceptual participants other than those which become eternal, and real love knows no laws but its own:

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
That alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! It is an ever fixed mark,
That looks upon tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, though his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

The reader might contend that this is idealistic; a standard romanticisation of love that doesn't fit the facts. But what facts do we attempt to make 'love' fit?

Since love happens immanently to a given subject, there is no equivocity involved, but only ebbs and flows of emotion as they swell up within us. Love gives expression to a return of difference (to use Deleuze's terms), which means that everything we think we know about love misses the point - that love returns as forever new feelings. Feeling something and trying to recontextualise it through the comparative history of people you have loved is to seek to chain love to similarity that stays within the idea of the self and does not go beyond it (i.e. does not speak of love at all).

For Deleuze, thinking is something that constantly pushes the boundaries of thought, and should not be assimilated via preformed images, since in this way the mind only reflects upon itself (albeit with certain intensities) - it sees its categories of recognition out in the world: Good morning Theaetetus. In the same way, if we are truly to begin to love, we must learn to love afresh, anew, for the first time. To see in expressions of love only promises made a thousand times before is to see our own emotional structures reflected back upon us, and by this means we put love in shackles. To learn to be in love is to be aware, when something connects, that it connects. This means emotional struggle and toil, as we begin to love with greater depth and subtlety of emotion. We struggle to be more in love because we begin to affirm that we are in love, and this is sufficient.

Let us take a case, and one that has become very dear to me - Spenser's Amoretti. Sonnet 30 of the Amoretti reads as follows (translated from the Middle English):

"MY love is like to ice, and I to fire;
how comes it then that this her cold so great
is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
but harder grows the more I her intreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
is not delayed by her heart frozen cold:
but that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
and feel my flames augmented manifold?
What more miraculous thing may be told
that fire which all things melts, should harden ice:
and ice which is congealed with senseless cold,
should kindle fire by wonderful device.
Such is the power of love in gentle mind,
that it can alter all the course of kind."

Love overrides all our assumed typologies, moral positions and 'lifestyle choices'. Knowing this to be the case, shouldn't we avoid love: isn't love something that is profoundly useless, that takes away the strengths we use to move through life, and that causes us harm? Shouldn't we resist love, and preserve notions of the self? Shouldn't we forgo the anarchy of becoming-what-we-will-be for the tidy management of reality as a list of social contracts? Isn't this the only way to survive?

No. This is death itself.

Love is not a contract that we enter into, nor can it ever be. Love that can be accepted given prearranged conditions is not love at all, since 1) to fall in love is to be changed, and 2) the idea of a change that does not change anything cannot be called a change. The sense of responsibility we feel toward each other is not engendered through a contract that one of us must propose and the other accept, as this is merely 'responsibility' in its abstract, legal formulation. Love does not obey the law, and in asking it to we leave the affirmation and expression of love behind, and with it our chance of truly connecting with someone, all for the sake of security. Why do we care about each other's feelings? Is it because we are obligated, or because we empathise? It must (for the love of life!) be because we make the attempt to understand.

Permit me to ask - if you, dear reader, were in love, and this love was not returned, would you expect the other person to treat you kindly and gently only because they felt an obligation to? Does their kind behaviour now bring you comfort? What of the thought that the other person might have, i.e. 'Well, I didn't ask for your feelings, so I don't have an obligation to deal with them'? I hope we would want to point out that the opposing circumstance, in which the feelings were asked for, is just as barren and bereft of life as the present one.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


What is the extent to which one should care and worry about the life of another?

When is it that someone is 'in control' or otherwise to be thought to be 'responsible enough' to make a decision that is down to their own free agency? We commonly deal with worrying by setting up these limits. In fact, people spend much of their lives contextualising and recontextualising these boundaries, whilst avoiding situations and people that offer them some risk of recalcitrance.

I am convinced that this system of 'coping' is nonsense. It certainly makes it easier not to worry about someone, but I'm afraid that it isn't much help when you don't think it has much to do with the truth (not that philosophy is required here - we feel it). What seems to enable the prevalent notion of coping is the deployment of a kind of dualistic 'ghost in the machine', where we superimpose on our thoughts of people the ability to make free choices that go against both character and circumstance (well, in short, against everything we know about human psychology).

Not only this, but we also have a disgusting way of valuing people through this idea: people seem to be worthy of our efforts only insofar as they do not break with notions of the 'reasonable'; our efforts must not exceed our present thinking. Adopting a profound empathy or a responsibility toward someone else seems to be predicated upon their not being so different to us that we do not understand their choices when we consider them 'rationally'. If I choose to jump off a bridge, this, considered as a 'rational' action by a 'reasonable' person, makes no real sense and doesn't merit any further thinking about.

Not only is this wrong, it is despicable. We cease to care about somebody by inflicting upon them a most cruel responsibility for themselves. I don't have to worry about you because you're free to suffer - in other words, fuck you.

We feel and know that this isn't right. A child falls in a lake, and we jump in. After a few minutes the child is still underwater and we cannot find her. What if the child dies? This is the state of worry and panic that grips us in human drama. If we form a connection with someone that takes a tragic turn we find ourselves in this lake, this and no other. We tread water, exasperated - nothing will be the same again. We do not think of home, we do not think of a warm bowl of soup, there is nothing that can pull us back to our former selves. Those who suggest to me that this is where we should hate the child suggest a baseness that it is beyond my ability to put into words.

Imagine that you have just dived in. You search for the child... there's no sign. The water makes your eyes see differently, the light is bent and shadows move without form. Do you complain or do you search? This doesn't enter your head: You search again... nothing. Time and again and your efforts are becoming futile, even though you don't yet know it; you are single-minded, frantic.

Don't you resist this futility even when the thought finally occurs? What about the passer-by who shouts that it is the child's fault for not knowing well enough how to swim? Upon hearing this do you stop and say 'yes, it is futile', or do you search? How the fuck is this pitiful comment meant to convince us to give up the search?

Ultimately it seems we ignore our premises. Those that we love, we forget why we love them. We step outside, by whatever means, of the habit that changes us. I say this is possible only with a moderate, casual love, the kind that is sought as standard, the kind that is worthless. I don't speak only of 'relationships' but of dying parents, dying pets, broken friendships and betrayed trusts. A disconnected reason can do nothing for us when the chips are truly down, when we are completely on the line. Reality every time peeks through the cracks of our broken sensibilities, putting the lie to what we thought we were and should be, what we were thinking and should have thought.

Assuming a deep responsibility toward someone without the ability to act is a floundering around in the depths, a radical disconnect that stabs into our hearts that reality speaks in a single voice. There is no theological subject and no dualism strong enough to force my hands away from my head as I sit and write this. While others cope, I am altered, moved, destroyed. God will not intervene. Agony will prolong and my love will prolong it; I will be changed forever.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Eternal Return

The eternal return, according to Deleuze, effectively realises Being in the following way: "Being is said in a single and same sense, but this sense is that of eternal return as the return or repetition of that of which it is said."

The test of something's return is it's excessivity, it's becoming - different:

"When Nietzsche says that hubris is the real problem of every Heraclitean, or that hierarchy is the problem of free spirits, he means one - and only one - thing: that it is in hubris that everyone finds the being which makes him return..."

(Both quotations from Difference & Repetition, Continuum Press, 2004, p. 51)

Hubris is the repetition of difference, and this repetition is the expression of univocal being. This test is concerned with the idea that production is only expressed in actualising new forms, where 'hubris' denotes forces that transgress the qualitative state of a subject such that it is destroyed (i.e. not oppositionally but generically) and a new process of individuation starts its becoming. This becoming is preconceptual and is expressive of being, where a reflexive concept would subordinate production to its products and mute difference, making it dependent on the identical.

On the human level, hubris is the negation of the great ideal, and the project of the revaluation of values. Does this require a subject, or the becoming of new larval subjects?

This notwithstanding (though if anyone could help me with the above that would be great), it would be good to hear some opinions on the thought experiment of the eternal return as it occurs in Nietzsche:

The greatest weight. -- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' If this thought gained possession of you, it would change, you as you are or perhaps crush you. (GS 341)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Self-ownership and submission

A video on self-ownership.

As I understand it, an argument from self-ownership is a completely political stance. Viewed with this in mind, the video above is tragically funny. ‘The Philosophy of Liberty’, as it styles itself, is a particularly overworked exercise in middle-management morality, and, considered intellectually, would make even the most obstinate child blush. However, the sudden appearance of boxes containing ticks and crosses over the heads of the figures is bordering on comedic mastery; The Very Naughty Swivelling Hands of Oppression explode my morality, right through the jocular tissues in my face.

This said, there are serious points to be made about self-ownership: specifically, concerning the ideas that 1) there are coherent ‘selves’, and 2) that it is of the nature of these selves to have property (and, further, primarily of themselves). Yet these points would be best discussed in the situations in which they are forced upon us, and not analysed in a propositional fashion – so, when do we encounter them?

There is an expression of self-ownership in the use of drugs, cigarettes etc, in which arguments from health meet with a particularly aggressive rebuttal. The Very Naughty Swivelling Hands of Oppression (TVNSHO), as always, get bounced back by the Forcefield of Self-Love and Anti-Genocidal-Justice (FSLAGJ), and we as interlocutors are left defending a very peculiar straw man – that it violates us as political subjects to see someone do something damaging to themselves.

Surely this, on the part of the self-damaging person, is an attempt to demonstrate that it is politically coherent to be self-damaging given a principle of self-ownership? What kind of an argument is this? Who would accept it?

On the other hand, it appears that self-ownership arguments are a way of legitimating a virtual person that is able to conform to the demands of our rights-centered, legalistic society. Not to mention, of course, that the assertion of absolute personal sovereignty grounds unlimited, polymorphous consumption. It may be the case that self-ownership can, in negative cases, support and reinforce damaging behaviour, but it also has the 'positive' effect of reinforcing values of consumption and alienation. The question I would like to ask is how these resolve into each other – is not damaging behaviour a specific instance of becoming politicised as a consumer?

Specifically, can we not say that the act of demanding property rights over the self is the same as giving up those rights, in an act of submission: that this submission is effected precisely by forcing its status as a legitimate, consistent political subject position upon the interrogator?