Love, Marriage and Totalitarianism

17May07

“Love is when you give away something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist” – Jacques Lacan

Alenka Zupancic’s “The Case of the Perforated Sheet” in the collection Sexuation opens with a depiction of the moment of love from Lacan’s Le Séminaire livre VIII: Le Transfert:

“Lacan depicts what he calls the ‘metaphor of love’ with this poignant image: a hand reaches out toward a fruit, a flower, or lips which suddenly blaze; its attempt to attain, to draw near, to make the fire burn, is closely connected with the ripening of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, the blazing of the lips. But when, in this attempt to attain, to draw near, to make the fire burn, the hand has moved far enough toward the object, another hand springs up from the fruit, from the flower, from the lips, and reaches out to meet our hand, and at this moment our hand freezes in the closed fullness of the fruit, in the open fullness of the flower, in the explosion of the blazing hand. That which occurs at this moment is love.”

The idea here is that one ‘falls in love’ when the object you look at, the object of your affection, looks back at you, when it ‘winks’ at you (it reaches towards you). “You either run away or fall, that is, resubjectivize accordingly” (p. 283, Sexuation).

Nat
When the object of one’s affection winks back

Now, the reason why these are the two reactions should seem obvious because love, regardless of the kind of romantic frosting you throw on it is ultimately a threat. Why? Two reasons come to mind:

Firstly – As I have mentioned many times before to the general annoyance of others, love is a forced choice. Because You cannot choose to love someone nor can you be forced to love someone. What this means is that you can only say you love someone after you already love them, you choose retroactively (Žižek discusses this in The Sublime Object of Ideology and in several other works). So this only adds weight to someone telling you that they love you. As Kurt Vonnegut has said “If somebody says, “I love you,” to me, I feel as though I had a pistol pointed at my head. What can anybody reply under such conditions but that which the pistol-holder requires? “I love you, too.”

Secondly – If someone truly loves another it is frightening because they love ‘something in you more than you’ as opposed to loving you for one attribute or another. I think one of the best examples of this is the lyrics from The Magnetic Fields song “Asleep and Dreaming”:

“Well you may not be beautiful
But it’s not for me to judge
I don’t know if you’re beautiful
Because I love you too much”

(This is why Kierkegaard thought it awful to follow Jesus because of his miracles – you should see the value of his works because you already love/believe in him!)

So while we can desire ‘one piece at a time’ it is love that retroactively assembles the pieces once they ‘speak’ or return our approach. The worry of course is you have no control or knowledge of this thing that is ‘more than you’ so again you have no choice let alone knowledge of the matter. The view of the lover then might be well described by a well known quote by Goethe – “What business is it of yours if I love you!?” I think this shows the paradox (?) of love quite well – while it is seemingly nothing but intersubjective, the two lovers, the two subjects of a love, at the same time it has a kind of violence to it because it is beyond a symbolic exchange.

“Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.” – G.K. Chesterton, Manalive

from the musical <i>I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change</i>
from the musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

The state of marriage, at least in America, has probably never been as widely discussed as it has been in the last few years. While the historical role of marriage is talked about ad infinitum, the actual value of marriage is a less popular topic. Several theorists/lawyers/activists and others have questioned why government recognition of a collective bond is limited to conjugality and consanguinity and same-sex marriage is of course the catalyst for this discussion and several folks, Lisa Duggan in particular, are against the push for gay marriage in that in advocates a kind of politics that appeals to the state for recognition and validation. This critique of state-appealing-politics is also found in some feminist critiques such as Wendy Brown or more radical post-marxist ones like Chantal Mouffe. There is also the long anarchist and Marxist traditions of rallying against dominant forms of marriage (such as Engels) or the concept of marriage all together (such as Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘the great american anarchist’) due to marriage’s roots in property and religion.

Now while some take issue with the particular form of relationship that the state recognizes, what I think is more interesting to discuss is whether love should ever be ‘solidified’ in contractual form whatsoever.

“totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.” – Hannah Arendt

Now why do I throw marriage with together with totalitarianism? The pessimists are already smiling with me because it seems like a pretty obvious grumpy thing to do. It is not this violence however that leads to the connection of marriage to totalitarianism but an example taken from Žižek as well as one from Badiou. In Žižek’s article The Two Totalitarianisms, he argues that the difference between Nazism and Fascism is evident in the way the leaders would respond after a speech was completed. Hitler, after delivering a speech, would stand and accept the applause whereas a Stalinist speaker, after speaking, would applaud with the crowd. This is because it was not the leader who spoke but the party itself that spoke through him. One can see the dangers of a collective ‘more in it than itself.’ Furthermore, what does arresting such a thing do? This is one of Slavoj Žižek’s many interesting anecdotes used in his essay Knee-Deep as well as his book The Parallax View:

“The fate of a Slovene Communist revolutionary serves as a perfect metaphor for the twists of Stalinism. In 1943, when Italy capitulated, he led a rebellion of Yugoslav prisoners in a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab: 2000 starving prisoners disarmed 2200 Italian soldiers. After the war, he was arrested and put in a prison on Goli otok (“Naked Island”), a notorious Communist concentration camp near Rab. While he was there, he and other prisoners were detailed to build a monument to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1943 rebellion on Rab. As a prisoner of the Communists, he was building a monument to himself and the rebellion he’d led. If poetic injustice means anything, this is it. The fate of this revolutionary was surely the fate of the people as a whole under Stalinist dictatorship: the millions who overthrew the ancien régime, and were then forced to build monuments to their own revolutionary past.”

Does marriage simply act as a gravestone to the stated cause of its own fire? What is the value of a vow, does it function as a proper name of love, and should marriage be that proper name?

The definition of totalitarianism from Badiou’s ‘little black book’ Ethics is of particular interest here. For Badiou the evil of totalitarianism lies in forcing the supposed truth of the event that one has experienced through terror. Doesn’t marriage seem awful close to terror here? Doesn’t approach the ‘forcing of the unnameable’ or attempting to determine, and fix the fullness of the truth-process of love? (Ethics, 87).

On Steven Shaviro’s blog there is a discussion of Caveh Zahedi’s film I Am A Sex Addict.

Zahedi's addiction
Zahedi’s addiction

While I myself have not seen the film, Shaviro notes that at the end of the film it is Caveh’s third marriage that has the power to stop his obsession with prostitutes. Shaviro notes:

“There’s a beautiful moment near the end of the film where Zahedi recounts (and shows via animation) a Greek myth that I didn’t know. It’s the story of the Sirens. These were singers whose beautiful songs lured sailors to their destruction. The familiar story, in the Odyssey, is about how Odysseus manages to outwit the Sirens, by putting wax in his sailors’ ears so they can’t hear the song, and having himself tied to the mast of the ship so that he cannot suicidally throw himself into the ocean when he hears them. But Zahedi tells a less familiar story: Jason and the Argonauts also escaped the Sirens; they did this by having Orpheus on board with them. Orpheus played a song that was so beautiful that it simply overwhelmed the poisonous beauty of the Sirens’ song. Zahedi is referring to his own (third and current) marriage, with which the film ends; the music of his current love, he tells us, has overwhelmed his prostitute obsession.”

The other side to this, to marriage, to love, functioning as the beautiful music of Orpheus is portrayed perfectly in the 1946 film noir The Killers.

The Killers

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) who is betrayed by Kitty (Ava Gardner) twice over (takes the money, then marries the creep) carries her green handkerchief throughout the film which has harps on it. The Swede tells his cellmate Charleston, having gone to prison to protect Kitty:

“Swede: You know what harps mean?
Charleston: Angels play ‘em.
Swede: They mean Ireland. That’s why they call them Mick’s harps. Kitty’s Irish. She give me this.”

After they’re released from prison, The Swede gets back into the crime game (because of Kitty) while Charleston refuses. As he’s leaving Charleston tells him:

“Stop listening to those golden harps, Swede. They can land you into a lot of trouble.”

Ultimately there may be a difference here, between what the destructive lure of the femme fatale represents and the view that marriage is the attempted totalization of the meaning of love. The difference may be that, ideally, that, following Badiou, nothing of the subjects of love exist prior to the amorous encounter and the following fidelity to that event. Here again we see the non-intersubjective definiton of love where love not only covers over the impossibility of a ‘true’ sexual rapport, but the subjects are invented through the very process of loving.

Finally, I believe that the troublesome role of marriage to love is much like the relationship (non-relationship?) of politics proper to the State, that is, of actual change to the political field as opposed to the regulatory measures of measuring, limiting, voting etc. Badiou ends his book Metapolitics with the odd statement “politics begins where love ends” (p. 151). He states that love goes from the 1 to the infinite, the 1 love event that continues as a truth in the form of mediating fundamental difference, whereas politics acts against the infinite errancy of the State to the 1 of collective equality.

In the end, love is the inverse of politics. And we need marriage as much as we need the state. But do we need them?

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3 Responses to “Love, Marriage and Totalitarianism”


  1. 1 Love and Formalization « Naught Thought
  2. 2 The Engima of Love’s Affect « Naught Thought
  3. 3 Amor, matrimonio y totalitarismo « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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