Reviewed by Fabian Van Onzen
In his new book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou uses the concepts he developed in Being and Event to give a comprehensive theory of love. The book consists of a series of interviews at the yearly Avignon festival with Nicolas Truong, a journalist from Le Monde. Among the topics that Badiou and Truong discuss are the growing disappearance of love in the face of online dating agencies; love as an evental truth procedure; the relationship between love and politics; and love and art.
In the book, Badiou discusses the essential properties of love. Badiou thinks that one of the main features of love is an element of risk, for love is an event and every event contains risk and instability. An event is a radical break with the existing state of affairs and is “something that doesn’t enter into the immediate order of things” (28). In Being and Event, Badiou showed that one of the defining features of an event is a radical lack of stability and knowledge, for since an event is something entirely new, nothing in the encyclopedia of knowledge can tell one how to practice fidelity to the event. As a result, every decision made in the name of the event will contain an element of risk, for one has no means by which to know whether it is the correct decision.
Badiou begins his discussion with Truong by noting how online dating agencies such as Meetic are destroying love, for they remove the element of risk so essential to love. By using perfect-matching software, online dating agencies match the customer with a partner that has all the qualities needed for a stable bourgeois relationship. After answering hundreds of questions, posting pictures, rating photographs of possible lovers, and sharing one’s most intimate secrets, the online dating company uses this knowledge to find a perfect match and provide the customer with a love-commodity. Once the online dating agency has found a match, one can go on a ‘date’, fall in love, and start a safe, bourgeois relationship without any unexpected annoyances. Badiou compares the online dating agency to an arranged marriage, for the online dating relationship is done “in the name of safety of the individuals involved, through advanced agreements, that avoid randomness, chance encounters and in the end, any existential poetry, due to the categorical absence of risks” (8). The love commodity that online dating companies sell is thus not real love, but merely a stable bourgeois relationship that a priori excludes the possibility of anything new.
In the book, Badiou tries to save love from its enemies, for online dating agencies are threatening the very existence of love. The main highlight of In Praise of Love is a brilliant analysis of the structure of the love event and its transformation into a truth procedure. This is one of the things about In Praise of Love that makes it an important book, for Badiou has never offered a comprehensive analysis of love in any of his works (except for an essay in Conditions, which is more of a Lacanian analysis of love than a Badiouian one). In Being and Event, Badiou showed that every event begins from within a structured situation that includes an evental site where an event could take place. With respect to the love event, the evental site is not to be found in dating, but rather in one’s everyday relations with others: while one is at work, at school, at a political rally, or simply going on a walk. Badiou thinks the love event takes place when one encounters the Other and can no longer rely on the norms provided by the situation. The Encounter is a sudden random occurrence based entirely on chance, for it is such that one cannot plan for it because it was impossible to imagine. Badiou thinks that on the basis of such a totally random encounter, the lovers can engage in a shared universal project of love. For Badiou, love is defined by the difference of the two lovers and their different viewpoints on the world; this is one of the main reasons why love contains an element of risk. He says that “love involves a separation or disjuncture based on the simple difference between the two people and their infinite subjectivities” (27). It is this recognition of difference that no longer allows one to make one’s existence “from the perspective of the One, but from the perspective of the Two” (29). The difference between the two subjects is what makes the love process risky and is what gives it the possibility for creating novelty.
In the book, Badiou also offers a very interesting discussion of the passage from the Encounter (Event) to the truth procedure (Love). Badiou claims that the chance encounter is universalized into an evental truth procedure when the lovers declare their love to each other (by saying ‘I love you’ or something similar). He says that “a declaration of the ‘I love you’ kind seals the act of the encounter, is central and constitutes a commitment” (36). Badiou is not thinking of fidelity as a “simple promise not to sleep with someone else” (45), but rather as a commitment to create something unique that does not rely on bourgeois norms and social conventions. Badiou thinks that the element of risk that characterizes love is most marked in the declaration, for in the declaration “huge risks are involved that are dependent on language itself” (42). In making the declaration, there is always the possibility that language will fail or that the Other will flee from the event in horror. Hence, by naming the void that structures the Encounter, one makes oneself totally vulnerable to the Other and risks losing everything.
An interesting feature of In Praise of Love is that Badiou makes use of one of his newer categories from Logic of Worlds, namely, the ‘point’. Badiou thinks that once the lovers have declared their love and set the truth procedure in motion, the two lovers must construct their love point by point. He says that a point is “a particular moment around which an event establishes itself, where it must be re-played in some way, as if it were returning in a changed, displaced form, but one forcing you to `declare afresh’” (50). Each point breathes new life into the event and ensures that it will continue to exist, for the point only emerges at a moment when the very existence of the event is in danger. Unfortunately, the only example of such a point that Badiou gives is the birth of a child, for the child is a point that breathes new life into the love event and requires both lovers to reinvent their relationship. Although Badiou acknowledges that this is usually so only in heterosexual relationships (except in adoptions among gay and lesbian couples), he does not provide any example of a point for a homosexual love event. Indeed, one of the main problems of In Praise of Love is that it is heternormative and relies mainly on a heterosexual understanding of sexuality. However, this does not rule out the possibility of a love event amongst gay and lesbian people, for the same structure of encounter leading to declaration, leading to truth, leading to point would be at work. Future Badiou scholarship should take account of this problem and provide a queer interpretation of Badiou’s theory of love.
Having shown the structure of love, Badiou goes on to discuss with Truong the relationship between love and politics. Badiou says that “politics centers on the collective,” (53) for “political action tests out the truth of what the collective is capable of” (53). Love, on the other hand, focuses only on individuals and excludes the collective. Because of their different structure, politics being part of collective action and love part of an individual’s project, Badiou thinks that politics is a priori excluded from love. It might be the case that two political militants suddenly encounter each other while engaging in revolutionary politics at a rally, march, or demonstration. However, this encounter does not take place because of the structure of the political situation, but rather because the place in which they conduct their political activity provided a chance Encounter. Interestingly Badiou does claim that love is communist, for “the real subject of a love is the becoming of the couple and not the mere satisfaction of the individuals that are its component parts” (90). Although love itself is not political, it has the same structure as communist politics as far as it concerns the collective rather than the individual.
Although it is exciting that Badiou has finally written a book on love, In Praise of Love does have some problems. First, Badiou does not reflect on how one’s class position effects one’s experience of love. For a working class couple, it is probably not the creation of novelty and newness that structures their love, but their shared solidarity in their struggle against capitalism. A Badiouian love event is more likely to take place in the middle class, for the ability to create novelty and ‘construct’ something new requires time and money. Two workers who work all day probably do not have time to ‘construct’ something new or take a vacation and see the world from the perspective of the ‘Two’. Their love is more likely to be a momentary antidote to the loneliness and alienation created by capitalism. Second, the ‘encounter’ is a problematic concept, for Badiou does not really explain what he means by it and uses such idealistic stories as Romeo and Juliet as an example to explain what he means by it. This makes one wonder whether the encounter is not just a romantic concept derived from bourgeois fictions. Third, Badiou entirely ignores feminist writing on open relationships and does not question the monogamous structure of the ‘couple’. Instead, Badiou relies on a heternormative conceptualization of sexuality and universalizes the couple. While In Praise of Love has some problems, it is nonetheless an interesting book, especially for those who are already familiar with Badiou’s work (in so far as it is Badiou’s first complete evaluation of the love event). Those who have long wondered what Badiou thinks about love and why he includes love as one of the four conditions of truth will find answers here. Socialists who are less familiar with Badiou’s writings, but have long waited for a Marxist thinker to say something about love will also get a lot out of In Praise of Love. In Praise of Love will thus provide interesting insights about love to Badiou’s fans, as well as socialist philosophers.
2 October 2012