What is love? Poets and philosophers have struggled with this question from time immemorial. Before talking about their findings, it is worth noting that ‘love’ is an abstract noun that can be used in a various ways. As Wittgenstein observed, in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use. I love Nietzsche and I also love a good cherry Danish. I doubt that either of these forms of love is what Wendy James from Transvision Vamp has in mind in the song, ‘I Want Your Love’. You see my point. Let’s start by agreeing, then, that love is an abstract noun that can have different meanings depending on its context.
Love comes in many flavours. Ultimately, though, you (and I) are probably not so much interested in the weird and exotic variants of love as we are with big love – true love – the kind of love that Pierrot and Marianne feel in the shot above (from Godard’s 1965 film, ‘Pierrot le Fou’). Transformational love. Pulse-bursting, sweep-us-off-our-feet, turn-your-life-around love. This is the kind of love I am thinking of when I ask: ‘What is love?’ Not just a feeling. A life-changing event. This kind of love is something that French philosopher Alain Badiou takes as a given.
In The Meaning of Sarkozy (2010) and his ground-breaking dialogue, In Praise of Love (2012), Badiou claims that ‘love needs reinventing’. We need to rethink love as an existential event in which two (or more) people discover a different perspective on life and the world. Lovers, Badiou claims, see the world ‘from the point of view of two rather than one’. This thesis initially appears to be a gloss on Aristotle’s take on love as ‘two bodies with one soul’. However, Badiou’s theory is more interesting than Aristotle’s rather trite conception. It explains, for a start, why love, when it happens, is a life-changing, and often inconvenient, event. It also lends itself to extrapolation in areas of life beyond the realms of romance. Quality collaborations are infused with an element of love, as Badiou understands it. It should come as no surprise that Badiou is a committed political activist in addition to an incurable romantic.
Philosophers tend to come over chaste when they talk about love. The ancient Greeks drew a distinction between eros, physical, sensual, or sexual love, and philia, fraternal love – the kind of manly love that one Spartan warrior feels for another. The Greeks, as we know, were notorious for blurring theoretical distinctions in practice, but let’s leave this aside. What is interesting about the philosophy of love in ancient Greek times is the relationship that philosophers took to truth. Plato’s disquisition on love in the Symposium initiated a way of thinking about love that is simultaneously aesthetic (in that it holds that love is fundamentally the love of beauty) and ascetic (in that it recommends that we restrain our erotic urges and contemplate instead the pure idea of love incarnated in physical form). Plato distinguished true love from eros, arguing that love is defined by a desire for ideal beauty – a desire that can never be satisfied in physical form. Ultimately, the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.
Wendy James wouldn’t be impressed with Plato’s idea of love. Badiou isn’t and neither am I.
One thing that Plato got right, Badiou says, was to see love as an experience of truth. Where Plato went wrong was to think about this experience in individualistic, or subjective, terms, so that love becomes ‘my’ or ‘your’ love – a personal feeling directed towards an object or (ultimately) an idea. Badiou argues that love opens parties to a different experience of truth, namely, the truth of a world experienced in ‘our’ terms, ‘from the point of view of two rather than one’. While this theory may be difficult to verify (a problem that besets most philosophical points of view), I’d wager that it resonates with most people’s experience of love. It also makes sense of why love tends to be a life-changing experience. Falling in love radically changes our perspective on life. Experiences, events, and opportunities cease to be seen in an individual light, and are seen and judged instead in light of the partnership. The extent to which one embraces the partnership perspective is often a good measure of the strength of the love relationship itself. Generally, when people are really smitten with one another, they don’t tend to question the common perspective. This doesn’t always lead to happy outcomes, it must be noted. Romeo and Juliet are a case in point.
Badiou rails against the modern notion of ‘risk free love’. He refers to Meetic, an online dating agency, as an exemple of a service that claims to offer ‘risk free’ romance. Badiou argues that love carries an inherent risk, for love is a violation of the ego and involves transcending the narcissistic self for a common perspective. Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be – together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise that life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise, in a sense, that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou, claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain. Badiou puts it succinctly:
Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship; it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.
Love is the birth of co-possibility. We maintain it in a state of tension, unpredictability, and risk.
Badiou’s conception of love has applications beyond our reflections on personal relationships and romance. Trying to see things from the perspective of two and not one is good advice for anyone trying to collaborate effectively, or negotiating differences and trying to figure out what is shared in common. Too often, collaborating teams are hampered by competing perspectives, as egos jostle to define the nature and direction of the work. Perhaps what is lacking in these situations is a genuine feeling of love, both for others and the collaborative event. When we focus on what empowers us in our collaborations, and nurture the sense of common empowerment, feeding it with affirmation and support, we stand the chance of transfiguring the relationship, or heightening it, at least, with the awakening of love. Love, in these contexts, is a political event. It can transform a team or network into a vital force, powerful in its congruence and vision.