How often do we hear in society today concerning the bleak outlook on this phenomenon we call Romantic Love or Eros (both hereafters will be referred simply to as Love)? Are we not repeatedly told that Love is an illusion? A predominantly selfish impulse predicated upon our desire for sexual conquest and gratification? Or from a sceptical scientific point of view, that what we call Love is simply an inbuilt animalistic and biological function to procreate? Maybe a more benign but still rather pessimistic stance would be that Love, Authentic Love, is a noble yet immensely rare ideal made nigh impossible due to our own inherent selfishness or shortcomings. Thus, in a time when Love is heavily commercialised, objectified, sexualised, trivialised, demonised, contractualised, formalised, and so on, what remains of Love as that which involves a deeply enriching existential project can only be found in literature or films.
What an abject perception of Love we have today by the looks of it. The above attitudes are certainly not exhaustive, nor do they all necessarily apply to every single individual. Yet perhaps a great deal of the youths and young adults of the current generation can be said to hold a vaguely sceptical and cynical view of Love. The two questions that arise from such a condemnation of Love or belief in the absence of its existence are, ‘Are they (the critics, sceptics, cynics, doubters of Love) right?’, and ‘Is it possible to rescue the notion that there exists such a phenomenon that can conceivably be called Love?’
Thus, for an antidote to our perplexing situation regarding our prevalent dismal opinion on Love, I turn to the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, and his work, In Praise of Love. We shall look at how Badiou can help us to redefine and rediscover what Love really is and is not, and how we might better cultivate ourselves to be better lovers.
Love under Threat: Ego or Desire?
Badiou starts off his book with a bleak chapter titled, ‘Love Under Threat’. Love, Badiou opines, in today’s society has become a ‘risk-free’ enterprise. This enterprise presents itself in the form of online dating sites such as Meetic, Tinder, Hinge, and so on. Thus, taking advantage of the technological advances that in our times have come to witness, Love in modernity seeks to encounter the Other under a certain fixed and controlled structure. Reminiscent of the arranged marriages of yesteryears. Although, unlike arranged marriages, the desire for the encounter with the Beloved-subject (or potential lover) today seeks to eliminate any contingent risks that might prevent Love from flourishing. Badiou equates such a mentality of ‘zero risk’ Love with that of ‘zero dead’ wars, both of which are impossibilities. In a way, the lack of risks in one’s endeavour for Love pertains only to oneself. Whatever risks are involved belong only to others. That is to say you, the seeker of modern Love, are trained to calculate and select your potential partner with a cold, detached approach. Attachment and affection do not factor into your assessment of potential partners. Rather, the initial encounter with the Beloved Other (your potential partner) is akin to a business interview – each subsequent encounter thereafter is not unlike a whittling down of suitable candidates in a series of call-backs.
Under such an approach to Love, it becomes hard to fully discover the other person as they truly are. Do we not often hear the passing comments of people (strangers and friends alike) at various social settings on how they want their potential partners to be – the various requirements they would like their future partners to fulfil in order for them to be happy? Likewise, do we not also see similar behaviour in the writings of online dating biographies that share more similarities with job advertisements in newspapers than actually being an appealing introductory overview of who one is?
In a manner of speaking, I shall assert that what we want is not Love or somebody to love. Instead, what we desire is merely our conception of that perfect someone. That perfect fit whom at the moment of the encounter, the heavens will open and rejoice, signalling that future events will be nothing but smooth sailing henceforth. As to whether that desire for the preconceived notion of our ideal Beloved-subject allows for the possibility for genuine love to arise or remains solely motivated by pure desire remains to be seen.
For Freud, however, Love and Desire are predominantly incompatible. This is essentially because, for the Freudian subject, the perceived qualities attached to the person we love and to the person we desire are wholly different. Freud argues that for the subject of our love, we ascribe certain values such as purity, honesty, and innocence to them that they become virtually untouchable. To think of them (the Beloved) in a sexual manner, as we would for the subject of our desire, is to debase their being (personhood). That is an act only reserved for the desired subject who is fantasised about in a sexual manner, lusted after, and is far removed in our minds from the ‘sacred’ qualities we posit on the Beloved. Thus, here we have a discrepancy between the holy subject of Love and the erotic subject of Desire.
Another point that Freud raises – which Lacan picks up and further develops later on – is that this desire for the Other stems from a narcissistic standpoint. A drive for identity and not difference. What many mistakenly believe to be love for the Other is but a love for oneself. The Other reflects our own self back unto us, and it is this derivation of self-satisfaction that we erroneously equate it with the feeling of Love. This projection of oneself into the Other is, as Lacan contends, due to the ‘ldeal Ego’ (a sense of self-worth derived from the perception of others). This satiation of emotional needs coupled with sexual pleasure derived from intimacy with the Other ultimately relates back to our own experience of ourselves.
“I find after all that love is nothing else but the thirst for sexual enjoyment in a desired object…”
“In sex, you are really in a relationship with yourself via the mediation of the Other. The Other helps you to discover the reality of pleasure.”
Having said that, it would be churlish to think that sex is not important in Love. After all, it is for many, a huge component of a romantic relationship. But, for Lacan and Badiou, Love is ultimately what connects two subjects and relates them to each other, not sex. It might seem an obvious platitude to some, but perhaps it would be clear to all if I were to spell out their position in the following format.
- Sex in a romantic relationship is a natural consequence and expression of Love. Thus, Love → Sex, and not Sex → Love.
In a romantic relationship, Love precedes sex, and it fills the void of emptiness left by sex both before and after the act. I suppose it would be contradictory to the idea that sex is like a sort of recharging activity, that fuels the Love bar each time the act is performed, and if not performed, the Love bar drops lower and lower. If that were the case, surely couples who lack the ability or whose bodily faculties are too diminished to engage in sexual activities would have no love for each other as there is no physical intimacy to connect the two individuals.
Having said that, I do not discount the fact that two individuals might initially engage in sexual activities without any sort of emotional attachment or fondness before developing feelings for each other. Yet, I think it proper to distinguish between the sex that takes place before Love and the sex that takes place after Love. Taking a leaf out of Lacan’s book, I agree with his argument when he says that is no such thing as a sexual relationship. As mentioned previously in this section, sex and the pleasures derived from sex relates only back to the experience of the Self. The Self only ever experiences its own pleasure in sex, pleasure mediated by the Other but ultimately, the Self never experiences the pleasure of the Other. What predicates the sexual desire for the Other is thus actually a longing for a relationship with one’s own pleasure and not a relationship with the Other. On the contrary, sex after Love is what Badiou terms the ‘material symbolisation’ of the surrender to the totality of the Other’s being. Romantic Love (Eros) in this sense not only encompasses the emotional and intellectual relation of the Self with the Other, like other forms of Love such as friendship (Philia) or familial ties (Storge), but also the physical relation to the Other that takes the form of sex.
Unlike Badiou, however, I do not necessarily find the various platforms on which we seek a romantic Other available to be wholly detrimental. The challenge is, as Badiou is right to note, the shallow ease of which such platforms purport to match individuals together. It is a challenge as it suggests that Love is a phenomenon that can be sustained without effort or will, and one where the satisfaction of the Self takes primacy. The problem then would not be technology but rather the lack of reflectiveness on the part of the Self.
Love as more than an Encounter or Illusion
“We must learn to love, learn to be kind…if education or chance give us no opportunity to practice these feelings, our soul becomes dry and unsuited even to understanding the tender inventions of loving people.”
‘Why does this all matter?’, you, the reader, might ask. Well, the concern here, according to Badiou, is that Love today seems to be reduced to primarily three interpretations.
- The romantic idealisation of Love that revolves around this ecstatic frenzy associated with the moment of encounter with the Other.
- A legalistic or contractual conception of Love, as discussed predominantly in the previous section. This conception of Love centres on the notion that a romantic relationship with an Other is primarily predicated upon an evaluation of pros and cons. The Other that is chosen is the one who ultimately benefits the Self the most.
- The last is perhaps a view shared by a growing portion of the current generation disillusioned with Love. It holds the view that any experience of Love or any account of Love must needs be an illusion. It is the position of sceptics and cynics.
Badiou strongly disagrees with the abovementioned characterisations of Love. In his view, Love is a quest for truth. Those familiar with Plato would recognise that Badiou’s claim contains platonic undertones. For Plato, Love aims at the Form of Beauty – it begins with the particular beautiful object or subject of Love that, upon our reflection of it, instils in us a notion of transcendent and universal beauty (the realm of Forms or Ideas). Similarly, for Badiou, the movement of Love aims at experiencing the particular and different Other. Through this experience of the Other’s particularity, the Self goes on to further experience the world (the universal) from a basis of difference. This is thus ‘THE’ existential project of Love: to come and know a different sort of truth, the truth of the world as lived from the perspective of the Two and not the One.
Here we are given a notion that Love is something more than the notion of a sublime and euphoric encounter with the Other. Though Badiou does not deny that in a loving relationship, the encounter does play an important role, it is not an experience of Love in and of itself. For Badiou, the moment of initial encounter with the Other is not an instantiation of Love but the possibility of Love. And since it is merely the starting-point of Love, it is not yet an experience of it.
As an analogy, imagine meeting someone for the first time. You two have a great time, sparks are flying, and you feel a strong connection on all levels with them. You two may even go on to – in the term of the film ‘Mamma Mia’ – dot dot dot. Well, congratulations! You two are now in Love. Or at least that is what you two may think, Badiou will no doubt affectionately disagree. According to Badiou, this is but the romantic conception of Love that many still believe in; that Love magically bursts forth and is subsequently consummated at the moment of the encounter. There may be no doubt that there could exist a strong emotional, mental, and [or] physical attraction in the initial encounter with the Other, however, it seems difficult to classify that as Love proper. It is a Love unforged and untested by tribulations in the world.
For Badiou, Love is something made to last. It is not an ephemeral emotion or moment – only the ecstatic impulses at the beginning can be said to be so, but for Love proper, it is a continuous process built to endure. That endurance of Love, however, cannot come from a longing for identity – the desire for sameness between the Self and the Other. It is extremely unlikely that two individuals should, despite their similarities, be exactly alike in every possible way. Therefore Love, Badiou suggests, can only fulfil its desire to endure by thriving and navigating the world from a basis of difference.
Let us now turn to the final prevalent interpretation of Love as identified by Badiou: Love as merely an illusion. A term used as a cover-up for our own desires. Naturally, there are many reasons one might come to be sceptical of Love with some of the contributing factors stemming from the first two interpretations of modern Love as postulated by Badiou. One suggestion that Badiou makes is that for the sceptic, Love is but a mere camouflage for desire. In this sense, the sceptic adopts a naturalistic and scientific attitude towards the phenomena of Love. Love is now simply a term given to the sexual urge to engage in intercourse with another person. An activity that all animals partake in and as such, Love does not constitute any transcendent dimension within its movement (the bond between two individuals). On a similar note, this deconstruction of Love also belongs to the ‘language of safety’ according to Badiou. It provides a justification for self-indulgence without having to spare a thought for feelings, particularly those of the Other. Essentially, it goes back to the idea that one has glimpsed the ‘truth’ and is thus no longer enslaved to a petty notion that commits one to the Other. Yet, this is but one of the potential stances the sceptic might take. Simon May in ‘Love: A History’, provides an alternate account for such scepticism of Love. He notes that in positing or holding certain idealised versions of Love yet having experiences that deviate from those ideals, disappointed individuals quickly turn to resentment and a distrust of Love.
Perhaps the problem of scepticism is purely psychological instead. Studies done by psychologists, most notably Twenge and Campbell, have shown that there is an increase in narcissism amongst individuals (particularly emerging adults) in the current generation. Twenge particularly argues that due to this increase in self-perception and self-emphasis; it has created a culture of ‘perfectionism’. Thus, studies done in the field of social psychology seem to lend credence to the Lacanian suggestion that the primacy of one’s Ego and its satisfaction lies at the root of the problem at why individuals of the modern era are not able to form lasting and meaningful bonds with others, especially in romantic relationships. With two conflicting ideologies – an idealised notion of Love on the one hand and a tendency to focus on one’s self on the other, it would make sense that over time, repeated disappointments arising from two opposing ideologies would lead to scepticism as May has pointed out. Despite this, I do not imply that the findings of the studies necessarily apply to everyone but that it only means in comparison to other age group samples, the current generation, in general, has shown an observed increase in narcissistic behaviours.
In the Agony of Eros, the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han makes the same observation as the aforementioned intellectuals have in their own works. For Han, in the rise of rampant narcissistic individualism, the Other is absent. The ‘I’ of the Self (identity of the individual), is now not constructed in relation to the world and within it. It now defines itself against the world and apart from it, searching only for meaning within the same (that of identity) and not of difference (that which is not like the ‘I’). With such bleak observations of the modern age and its youth of today, the question of how we might define Love as being relevant and real seems like an uphill task. Fortunately, Badiou’s optimism shall provide us with a way forward, hopefully.
Love as a Construction: Quest for Truth based on Difference
In Badiou’s view, Love is a ‘truth procedure’. It is an experience where the truth of the ‘Two’ (two subjects in Love) is constructed. A truth derived from a basis of difference. Badiou terms this truth the ‘Two scene’. In anticipation of those that might object and suggest that Love is ultimately a personal and subjective experience, Badiou’s philosophy of Love acts as a foil to such an objection. There is something universal about Love no matter what expression in which it manifests itself. The universality of the truth that arises from Love is precisely this – an experience, an awareness, and a mode of perception of the world about what it means to be ‘Two’ and not ‘One’. As Badiou puts it, to encounter the world other than through a ‘solitary consciousness’ is what constitutes the truth that Love brings forth from the ‘Two’. In another sense, this universality of Love is that in its movement, it moves from the singular event of the encounter effected by chance to a construction of a process that lasts or endures.
Hence this is the reason why Love is also a rebellion against chance. It aims to curb it. Badiou identifies it as an ‘almost metaphysical problem’. This problem, Badiou states, is the idea that something so wholly unpredictable and random (the encounter with the Other) goes on to form the basis for the existence of the two individuals who have met and decided to engage in a relationship (the Couple), and thereby subsequently go on to experience the world in a different light – through the constant ‘mediation of the difference in their gazes’. Therefore, there is a sense of universality in the way Love engages the Self and the Other. This phenomenon is what Badiou terms a ‘rebirth of the world’, as a new truth and experience of the world emerge from the navigation of it through a perspective of difference – where such a concept remains only ever a possibility for the solitary consciousness. But for the ‘Two’ or ‘Couple’, it becomes an actuality. The declaration of Love, for Badiou, thus affirms this actuality and also that of the Other’s presence and to connote a sense of perpetuity – taking a singular chance event and in affirmation, locks in it within ‘the framework of eternity’. Therefore, when the individuals proclaim their love for each other in words such as, ‘I love you’, the implications are actually quite extraordinary. I suggests that what is actually conveyed when we tell our Beloved that we love them is something like this – ‘something in the initial random encounter commits me to you. I no longer wish to give up that encounter. That once wholly random encounter I now continuously affirm it as if it arose out of pure necessity.’
Here, I would like to invoke a scenario to illustrate Badiou’s argument. The solitary Self navigates the world from a perspective of the singular ‘I’. It identifies or differentiates things in the world based on this premise – is it like ‘I’ or not like ‘I’?
Experiences thus always relate purely back to the Self. The Self is the centre of one’s world. At the moment of the random encounter with the Other, should the Self proceed to develop deep romantic feelings for them after continuous engagement, I argue that the Self will go to experience what Sartre would call a decentring of one’s world. The singular Self and the singular Other will no longer experience the world from the standpoint of ‘I’ predominantly, but the decentring of both worlds will cause the two ‘I’s to converge to form the plural ‘We’. And it this ‘We’ that the new subject, the ‘Couple’, goes on to encounter the world anew. Yet, Badiou is keen to stress that the two individuals who make the subject ‘Couple’ do not cease to be individuals. Merely that the ‘I’ no longer remains the main standpoint in which two individuals in Love go on to engage with the world.
At this point, I anticipate certain objections that could be raised against Badiou’s philosophical stance on Love. There might be objections that involve polyamorous relationships, or exclusive triadic relationships, open relationships involving two individuals, and so on. Admittedly, Badiou does not touch on such subjects as his narrative is mainly predicated upon the normative notion of the ‘Couple’ and its universality. Despite that, I would argue that Badiou would not discount that Love might exist within those relationship structures. His purpose is, in my opinion, firstly to provide an ontological structure of Love within the world and how it shapes the existential experiences of individuals in Love. Secondly, the epistemic conditions and reflections necessary for sustained engagement with Love.
From gently highlights that to love is to ‘love from the essence of my being’. And throughout this piece, Badiou has shown us the challenges facing our experience of authentic Love (be it receiving or giving) due to a number of factors. Namely,
- the lack of reflection in order to distinguish between Desire and Love,
- confusing our Ego (or love of our own selves) with love for the Other,
- developing a sceptical and cynical approach to Love driven in part by the conflict between our idealised notion of Love and our experience of Love (of which our experiences might be partly informed by the first two factors).
The way to overcome these challenges is through Badiou’s emphasis on Love as being a construction – a phenomenon that requires the individuals involved to not seek comfort in that which is the same but to work from and through a point of difference. I do not just mean compromising with each other but to actively participate in the sphere of each other’s interest. It is subtle, but there is a difference in saying, ‘I will go along with this even though I do not like it’, as opposed to ‘We shall do this because it makes you happy and I desire your happiness.’ The former implies a certain sort of passivity in engagement with the Other, but the latter seems to indicate a dynamic and active participatory role. I must be clear to emphasise that I do not mean you forget yourself in the process of loving your partner, although it requires a measure of self-negation. That is, the Self as desire (for sameness), must be negated and make way in order to experience the Other from a point of difference. That said, I do not mean that you stay with them if they are horrible to you. Naturally, if your partner cheats on you, abuses you in any way, or does not reciprocate your actions (after repeated attempts to salvage the love), then please, save yourself. What is intended here is if you and your partner – ordinary, gentle, but understandably flawed individuals, do reciprocate each other’s gestures of love, remember that Love is not just all fun and games. There will be times when challenges arise to test your love for each other. Maybe they forgot to do the dishes, or maybe you had a bad day, and you two have plans later, but you have changed your mind and do not want to go, and a fight ensues etc. It is essential to bear in mind that it is in these situations that Badiou says where Love needs to be affirmed and the differences mediated. What arises out of the differences between you and your partner is thus the construction process that Love brings about. Love embraces not just the positive, but also the negative aspects – within reason of course, again, if they prove to be a danger to your well-being, please seek help (Stockholm syndrome is not Love).
At this point, I hope that I have positively provided an adequate exposition of Badiou’s philosophy of Love despite the two main concerns that weighed heavily on my mind constantly when drafting this article. On one hand, I have tried to avoid engaging with the incredibly dense philosophical commitments in Badiou’s philosophical oeuvre that go on to underlie his treatment of Love as I would in a proper academic paper. But on the other hand, I also hope that the key insights of Badiou’s concept of Love were not sacrificed or lost for the sake of keeping the intelligibility of this article comprehensible to those not familiar with Badiou or philosophy in general.
In summary, what Badiou’s philosophical account of Love consequently provides us is a renewed optimism to approach the world from that basis of being a ‘We’, to see the world not from the standpoint of identity (sameness) but of difference. It requires us to first know our own selves, and this requires discipline. Self-reflection requires one to plunge deep into one’s own inner world and acquaint oneself with who one is. It would not be possible to ‘love from the essence of your being’ if that ‘essence’ of who you are escapes your own knowledge. Love is not a game, with individuals as its chess pieces. As argued by Badiou, Love brings about a different existential dimension for the individuals involved. Badiou’s philosophy of Love is, therefore, doubly nuanced. On the one hand, he has provided an existential explanation about the ontological change concerning the individuals in Love as they move from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’ – from the standpoint of ‘One’ to the ‘Two’. Conversely, Badiou’s conceptualisation of Love is primarily metaphysical, in which the existential experience is an immanent aspect of its structure.
Before ending, I admit that there are many more things that can be said about Love that could not be said here due to circumstances. I also acknowledge that my understanding of the concepts utilised in this article is open to criticism. Criticisms are most welcomed, however. For it is in criticism that I am inspired to continue bettering myself as a philosopher and sharpen my philosophical prowess. I thank you in advance for your forthcoming criticisms. Thank you.
“We could say that Love is a tenacious adventure. The adventure side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity.”
Written by Luke Valentine during his second-year of his degree.
‘Luke, that is me by the way, has always been your average student of philosophy. He still is, that is to say, I still am. Yet, over the course of his philosophical studies – I have only recently finished with my MA – this average student has found that philosophy fills an existential void. Which, for this melancholic lost child, has always been the void of meaning.’
- Badiou, Alain. In Praise of Love: Alain Badiou with Nicholas Truong. Translated by Peter Bush. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012.
- Montaigne, Michel de. Michel De Montaigne: The Complete Works.Translated by Donald M. Frame. London: Everyman’s Library, 2003.
- Fink, Bruce. Lacan on Love: An exploration of Lacan’s Seminar VIII, Transference. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.
- Fromm, Erich. The Art Of Loving. London: Thorsons, 1995.
- Han, Byung-Chul. Foreword to The Agony of Eros, by Alain Badiou, vii-xi.Translated by Erik Butler. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017
- May,Simon. Love: A History.New Haven: Yale, 2012.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Introduction to Human, All Too Human, by Marion Faber, ix-xxvii. Translated by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann. London: Penguin Books, 1994.
- Plato, Introduction to Symposium, by C.J. Rowe. Translated by C.J. Rowe. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1998.
- Twenge, Jean M. “The Evidence For Generation Me And Against Generation We”. Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (2013): 11-16. doi:10.1177/2167696812466548.
- Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Atria Paperback, 2013.
Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love: Alain Badiou with Nicholas Truong, trans. Peter Bush(London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 5-11.
 Bruce Fink, Lacan On Love (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 16-32.
 Ibid, 73.
 Michel de Montaigne, Michel De Montaigne: The Complete Works, trans. Donald M. Frame (London: Everyman’s Library, 2003), 811
 Badiou, In Praise of Love, 19.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, introduction and notes to Human, All Too Human, by Marion Faber, trans. Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 251
 Plato, introduction to Symposium, by C.J. Rowe, trans. C.J. Rowe (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1998)
Simon May, Love: A History (New Haven: Yale, 2012), 235-256.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York: Atria Paperback, 2013)
 Jean M. Twenge, “The Evidence For Generation Me And Against Generation We”, Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (2013): 11-16, doi:10.1177/2167696812466548.
 Byung-Chul Han, foreword to The Agony of Eros, by Alain Badiou, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2017)
 Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: Thorsons, 1995), 44.
 Badiou, In Praise of Love, 32