For Valentine’s Day, there was only one question “What Is X” could ask, one that thinkers through the ages, from Plato to Howard Jones, have not managed to answer: What is love? In this episode, Justin E. H. Smith is joined by New School media studies professor Dominic Pettman, the author of books such as Peak Libido and Creaturely Love, for a wide-ranging discussion of desire, romance and what it means to be completed by someone (or something) else. Starting with Plato’s Symposium, they move on to Agamben and Badiou, Leibniz and Lacan, Proust and Fourier, Spinoza and Berlant. (One lesson from this episode: philosophers might be our best aphorists of love.) With these thinkers, they’re prepared to tackle the big issues: the tension between love of hyper-singularity and love for the generic nature of humanity; whether love is work or grace; how Aristophanes predicted Sex and the City; whether you can marry the Berlin Wall, or a white-naped crane; and just how it is love is a concept we can use to describe both our romantic partners and the crucial cup of coffee we have each morning.
Justin E.H. Smith [00:09]
Hello, you're listening to “What Is X?” for The Point magazine. I'm your regular host, Justin E.H. Smith. As regular listeners will know, on each episode, we explore a given X, where X is some fundamental concept or ideas central to our lives or to our understanding of reality. Today, we're going to be talking about that extremely important idea, especially this time of year: love. What is love, as the great Howard Jones once asked. My guest who will tell us, I hope, what love is, is none other than Dominic Pettman, University Professor of Media and New Humanities at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and author of many, many titles, I can only mention a few, perhaps the few that are the most relevant to our discussion today: “Peak Libido: Sex, Ecology and the Collapse of Desire” for Polity Press, and “Ceaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More and Less Than Human,” which appeared in a series at the University of Minnesota Press, the Posthumanities series. And he's a fascinating, original, and I would say playful thinker. So he's obviously the person to talk about this very, very difficult thing that is love with us today. Welcome, Dominic.
Dominic Pettman [02:08]
Oh, thank you, Justin. Such kind words. Really great to be here. Really been enjoying the the series so far, actually.
Justin E.H. Smith [02:15]
Oh, yeah. Thanks. Thanks. I'm glad you've been listening. So how do we get started? Sometimes when I'm trying to start, I just drop a bomb. And I throw a very kind of controversial account of the X that we're talking about. One of the possible bombs I was going to drop today is the—you know, this kind of, as Aristotle would say, as Aristotle might say, he didn't say it of love, he said it of being, but it seems to be sayable of love too, namely: love is said, in many ways, at least three ways, in fact, right? The Greeks had three different terms that we all translate as "love" on different occasions. What are they? Let me see if I can remember: eros, philia, and agape, right? I got them. Right. We could also translate these as desire, charity, and friendship. And if you translate them like that, it sounds like you're talking about three really different things. And yet, they also all get translated frequently as "love"—it depends who's doing the translation. So what weird kind of concept would be subject to such seeming diversity and at the same time, unity? How does love do that?
Dominic Pettman [03:47]
Mm, yes, this is one of only several million-dollar questions, I suppose, when it comes to love. Yeah, I tend to try and start here with classes with students, for instance, trying to get their definitions—of course, the variety is enormous. And as you say, even different languages have different emphasis. You know, we love everything from our partner to the cup of coffee we had this morning. That seems to be very, you know, sort of a huge range of different types of love that we just use this one word for any object, any qualities. So what is amazing, I suppose is, yeah, the paradox you point to, the fact that it can incorporate so many sort of overlapping synonyms. It's this massive Venn diagram, but it seems to have a certain amount of coherence still. It sort of holds. Because we know even if it is the ultimate floating signifier, we seem to still care about what's at stake in its use, in its definition, in its circulation. So, I mean, if we go back to the sort of primal scene of love in the Western tradition, the Symposium. They're all giving, all these men lying around are giving their own definitions, and they're very different.
Justin E.H. Smith [05:14]
Dominic Pettman [05:15]
They're completely competing. So it's, um, it's sort of a debate as much as anything else. Even if it's a friendly one. So, yeah, it's not something—I think the Howard Jones question will always be open, as you say, like, there will be as many answers as people. I mean, I have a sort of list of my favorite attempts to to define it or restrict, but—
Justin E.H. Smith [05:31]
Where would you want to enter that debate that that has been raging since the Symposium? What would your initial stab be if we can try to launch you into it?
Dominic Pettman [05:58]
I mean, the ur-story is the Aristophanes fable from the Symposium, and which we've inherited through the idea of trying to find our other half. Aristophanes sort of literalizes the androgynous creature who split in half, and you always feel this lack. And so the idea of love as a search for completion hasn't changed in two and a half thousand years. I mean, it's gone through lots of iterations and bifurcations and things, but it's—I mean, Plato has this weird knack, doesn't he, he has his cave, which we teach in media studies 101. And this idea of the discourse of love being an attempt to find the big other, or Mr. Big as it is in Sex and the City, you can trace that direct line. So maybe that's one of the place marks we can put down, this idea of love as completion qua lack and finding your other half.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:18]
It seems to me, if I can go back to the threefold scheme that I started with, that that would do the job, at least for one out of three, and maybe two out of three. But then the third is just left hanging, namely, that definitely provides a satisfactory account of love as eros. And maybe of love as friendship. Maybe when you love your friend, it's because your friend completes you. But charity is giving of yourself, is unloading yourself without the expectation of any kind of reciprocal filling, filling you back up, right?
Dominic Pettman [08:09]
Justin E.H. Smith [08:11]
Maybe we just want to say that, Oh, all that Christian stuff comes later, and in fact, it's just another topic, and we can skip that and get to the good stuff.
Dominic Pettman [08:22]
Stick with the pagans. Yeah.
Justin E.H. Smith [08:25]
I don't know. Is that what you would want to do?
Dominic Pettman [08:30]
Just to keep it under control perhaps, maybe we'll stick with the Valentine's theme, and the kind of eros-romance-passion constellation.
Justin E.H. Smith [08:43]
Dominic Pettman [08:44]
But the others, I think, the other stuff will come in, because you can't quarantine these from each other, in certain ways. bell hooks, for instance, who's been quite influential with her book All About Love. She explicitly argues that we shouldn't make these distinctions like the Greeks.
Justin E.H. Smith [09:07]
Right, yeah, I recall that line from her, yeah.
Dominic Pettman [09:10]
And that's something students love to debate as well. So we can't sort of put up fences, but I think maybe for the sake of the discussion we'll look at the kind of more agonistic side? [laughter]
Justin E.H. Smith [09:24]
Dominic Pettman [09:27]
That's where the movies and things and the pop culture tends to go. That's where all the pop songs are.
Justin E.H. Smith [09:33]
Yeah, yeah. I guess. I mean, but you know, I should say also, that it's pretty obvious how, both for your romantic partner and for your cup of coffee, what you're looking for is something that completes you. Right? And that there it's not a question of just using the same word in totally different senses, as bell hooks says, and also maybe even in respect to love of your love, if you've got it, of God, right? There, you're ultimately looking for completion. It's just in the other direction when your love is godlike, charitable, that's where you seem to be just changing the subject. So we can leave that part out of it right now. Except I do want to come back maybe at the end.
Dominic Pettman [10:22]
Yeah, I think we go full circle even. I mean, is it philautia, phlaush—? Not fellatio [laughter], philautia... As self-love I guess that could work.
Justin E.H. Smith [10:32]
Oh, right. Yeah.
Dominic Pettman [10:33]
And depending on how flexible you are. But I mean, my own interest in it as a research topic—and I should clarify from the outset that I don't pretend to be an expert in this subject, but rather just someone familiar with what others have said about it—is I was taken a long time ago with Agamben's—Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher—his idea of the coming community, namely a community of those who have nothing in common. And so he was positing a kind of belonging that isn't according to an essence. So you wouldn't have to be communist, you wouldn't have to be Italian, you wouldn't have to be, you know, and I thought that was a pretty seductive idea. But what struck me as the fly in the ointment was romantic love, in some ways, where we isolate somebody from the world and throw a halo over them, and say, You are special, you have an essence that the other people do not. And so that kind of tension was something I just thought I really needed to figure out. You know, Zizek, who loves to make trouble, is famous for saying that love is evil, even from the perspective of, say, the Christian imperative to love thy neighbor. To love everybody in those terms. So, yeah, to just love one person, even if it's as an avatar or metonym of humanity as a whole, is not enough.
Justin E.H. Smith [12:24]
Right, right, right.
Dominic Pettman [12:25]
So there's an interesting tradition of, I guess, the case against love. Yeah, Zizek would be one of those.
Justin E.H. Smith [12:33]
Right, right, right. But what about in Agamben? It's the fly in the ointment because when you pick someone out as the object of your romantic love, you are attributing special traits to them that distinguish them from the others, whereas the whole idea of this collective as he envisions it is that no one is marked by special traits?
Dominic Pettman [12:33]
More or less. Yeah, I mean, that's to put it in a nutshell. But yeah, when we fall in love with someone, we tend to idolize certain traits. We love to index what it is we love about them specifically—the uniqueness, the singularity.
Justin E.H. Smith [13:19]
What is going on, exactly, when we do that? Hallucination? Is it? Is it just a total kind of self-deception? Or is it an attunement to an essence that is really there that other people are missing?
Dominic Pettman [13:40]
Hmm. I could spend centuries trying to figure this out or to think it through. Because on the one hand, your beloved is entirely singular, is irreplaceable. And yet, as we know, from divorce, remarriage rates, etc., etc., this irreplaceable person is replaced. [laughter] I used to call that "the trauma of the second love," you know, everything's destined and fated until you fall in love a second time. And then you have to go through the same processes. And it's more disorienting because you can't pretend. You can't pretend, like in the Plato fable, that they are your other half. They're just another piece.
Justin E.H. Smith [14:28]
Right, right. Right, right.
Dominic Pettman [14:30]
So I've written maybe four books directly about love now. And I still haven't figured out exactly how to frame or explain that paradox or contradiction between hypersingularity versus the generic nature of humanity that you're also falling in love with. Oh, I mean, there's a chapter I have on Lolita.
Justin E.H. Smith [15:03]
Dominic Pettman [15:03]
Which is, you know, hard to teach these days. But, you know, Lolita, he falls in love with Lolita because she's a kind of reincarnation of Annabel, his first moment. And he talks a lot in the book about a mole that will move from mother to daughter or a voice that you can hear through different people, right? And so this trans-individual aspect of selfhood is really fascinating.
Justin E.H. Smith [15:36]
And the way also it seemingly, the way it latches on to something that would ultimately sound trivial if you attempted to give an account of it to anyone else, right? Like how could you fall in love with a mole? Right?
Dominic Pettman [15:54]
Right. Yeah. Nabokov has a beautiful phrase: We are all anagrams of each other. But that doesn't mean that each individual word is equivalent.
Justin E.H. Smith [16:05]
Right, right. There's also seemingly in at least many literary accounts of romantic love, a kind of metonymy, right—I'm thinking of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, where, you know, he says it more crudely than this, but that what the protagonist really wanted to conquer was not this particular, I think Swedish-American, milkmaid. What he wanted to conquer was America.
Dominic Pettman [16:45]
Oh, yes, it can become allegorical.
Justin E.H. Smith [16:47]
Yeah, yeah. And so she stands in symbolically for something that is actually a major kind of dynamic of history and exclusion and assimilation, and that is, from one perspective, much larger than romantic love of individuals, but maybe from another perspective, much smaller.
Dominic Pettman [17:17]
In a way, this also is in the Symposium, but it's almost ventriloquil, because the only woman who gives her opinion, Diotima—is that how the philosophers say it, Dye-o-teema?
Justin E.H. Smith [17:32]
Well, philosophers who know Greek. [laughter]
Dominic Pettman [17:38]
But Socrates tells us this meeting with Diotima. And part of her perspective on love is the way that if you fall for somebody's beauty, no matter how idiosyncratic it is, or specific, it's still judged against the kind of general beauty standards or a sort of platonic ideal of what a good figure should look like, or a good face should look like. And for her, that's a kind of doorway to a more generic, again, or metaphysical appreciation of beauty. Relation to the good or virtue. And I'll just put in a quick plug for a new book by a couple of friends, Carrie Jenkins and Carla Nappi, Uninvited, which is the Symposium from this sort of excluded voice.
Justin E.H. Smith [18:33]
Wow, I didn't know that. I knew they were working on a book together, I didn't know what. Oh, wonderful. Yeah, that's great. Yeah.
Dominic Pettman [18:43]
But this is another slippery thing about love, right? It's psychological, it's sociological, it's ontological, it's physiological. You can measure the effects of it, as the medical doctor even in the Symposium will say. So there's also all those lenses you can put on it, which is why you never run out of things to say, because each one sort of slips towards the other—it's this giant Mobius strip that you just keep following.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:17]
But I think Socrates in the Symposium advocates a conception of love as one that involves romantic love of another individual only as a step along the way to the more desirable form of love, which is to say direct engagement with with love itself, where you can kick over the ladder on which your earlier romantic partner was a mere rung, right.
Dominic Pettman [19:57]
So we call that philophilia.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:58]
[laughter] Right, yeah. So on that line of thinking it's as if romantic love is for the relatively simple-minded, or you're easily distracted. Or maybe what Socrates would say is you're just for the young, right, because it takes you some time to apprehend the forms directly. So does Socrates's reasoning here offend you?
Dominic Pettman [20:31]
[laughter] A good question... I mean, it's kind of aspirational. It's a nice idea. I also like the idea of the beloved's face or head just sort of getting in the way. On the one hand it inspires you to see, you know, what Rilke called the "open," that we can't see because we're humans in the prisonhouse of language. But the beloved almost makes the scales fall from your eyes, but their beautiful face keeps getting in the way. So there is that sort of hyper-romantic idea, but I also don't want to lose the distressing side, the abject side, the addictive side. Maybe that's not true love or good love.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:23]
Dominic Pettman [21:23]
Socrates loves to make these distinctions. But there's a lot of people scarred by it and cynical about it. And, you know, the first signs of its presence is panic, or, "Oh, no, not again." So is that just because you're caught in the shallows and you're not maturing in the Socratic sense? Or is it just because there's something inherently traumatic about having your subjectivity kind of, you know, prised open or shocked, colliding with someone else so intimately and so violently?
Justin E.H. Smith [22:06]
But the fact that people can move through a series of such experiences with different people suggests that it might not actually be collisions with others that gets to the heart of the experience. He is not often recognized for this, but Leibniz, my guy Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, has one of the most dis-consoling statements in the history of philosophy. He denies the reality of relations between substances. And in this connection, he says, Well, in fact, you shouldn't strictly say, "Paris loves Helen," you should say, "Paris is a lover, and ipso facto, Helen is beloved." Right? [laughter] Because it's not a relation. There's only Paris doing his thing, and Helen doing her thing. And there's a pre-established harmony that ensures that it will be experienced as an encounter, but only because they're relatively confused about exactly the scope of their actions. Is that a good example?
Dominic Pettman [23:24]
Well to the Lacanians that's exactly it. I didn't realize till now just how much that owes to the monadic, to the theory of the mona.
Justin E.H. Smith [23:28]
Yeah, yeah, I've had this suspicion about Lacan before, but I didn't want to venture it because that's a whole can of worms. But we might as well right now, tell us a bit about him.
Dominic Pettman [23:47]
Well, he's famous for his quip that there is no sexual relation and you described it just so well. There are two perspectives on something that doesn't quite happen. It's asymptotic. And I think he's also—one of the quotes is "Love is giving something you don't have to someone who doesn't want it." It's a great Valentine's Day card. Obviously that feels true in some relationships when you look back on it in retrospect, and you even might compare notes with someone once the ashes have come down, and you really don't see things the same way. And you misrecognized each other. It's sort of like two mirrors facing each other. So yeah, that's a compelling... I mean, I would never want to just stick with that. I'm not a Lacanian in the sense that like, that's my dogma, and I'm going to try to prove this non-relation is the heart of the heart. But I don't think it's wrong either. Because we bring so much of our own projections and narratives and framings to the table. It's sort of the narcissism for two.
Justin E.H. Smith [25:17]
Right. And I guess also a complementary angle on this is that it does seem possible, doesn't it, to love fictional beings? And here, you might cite as examples anything from kind of over-the-top anime fandom among adolescents, or you might cite a nun in a convent praying to the crucifix, right? Where we know from devotional writing that sometimes this gets truly hot. [laughter]
Dominic Pettman [25:52]
Catherine of Siena.
Justin E.H. Smith [25:54]
Yeah. And so in cases like these, this might reinforce the point that there might not need to be a relation—whether there can be or not, is another one. But there do seem to be some expressions of love that are at best unidirectional. And you might even say beyond that, that have no proper object, right?
Dominic Pettman [26:21]
Yeah. Yes. Which does suggest that a lot of it is just pulling up water from your own well, as it were. There's this woman who famously married the Berlin Wall.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:38]
Oh, right. Yeah.
Dominic Pettman [26:41]
I'm not sure if she's a widow now or not... It's not an art prank as far as I can tell. It's a serious passion. But even pet owners like dogs seem to reciprocate one's love. But then you see footage of dogs seemingly just as enamored with a machine that throws tennis balls. Did they really love you? Or did they love you your capacity to throw a tennis ball? Cats, of course, are a whole 'nother question.
Justin E.H. Smith [27:15]
Oh, I don't know if you heard about this, this case of some rare female stork that had fixated on a human zookeeper early in its infancy. And they tried to mate it with two male storks, both of which she immediately killed. And then they sent a human zookeeper, a man, a young man, and the female stork immediately started doing a mating dance.
Dominic Pettman [27:51]
I wish I'd known that for Creaturely Love.
Justin E.H. Smith [27:53]
I could send you a link! And so they quickly realized that the only way to inseminate this female stork was to send this particular man. And so the guy says, Well, I've got to say, this is going better than my other relationships. Yeah, I'm basically married to her. What can we do? And there seems to be some pretty legitimate sense in which they are married. This is not just mythological, right. It's just a social fact.
Dominic Pettman [28:32]
That's something out of Ovid.
Justin E.H. Smith [28:34]
Yeah. And, you know, he was very funny about it. He said, "Yeah, I mean, I do feel like I'm special for her. Even though, you know, when I think about it, she'd basically accept any human male," and then he adds, "any human male who's willing to spend as much time as I am." [laughter] Which is like, no other human male, right. So it's just an amazing story. Like the things that happen out there.
Dominic Pettman [29:00]
Yeah, that is also the question. Is it definitely an imprinting on this unique individual? Or is her type this kind of human male, and could be swapped out for another? One of my favorite quotes is from a nineties sitcom, George Segal says to his employees, "I couldn't have done this without you. Or people similar to you." [laughter] It's almost the same.
Justin E.H. Smith [29:32]
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. You know, Proust is really good on this.
Dominic Pettman [29:38]
I know you're reading him closely.
Justin E.H. Smith [29:41]
Yeah. Not exactly interchangeability, like everyone is basically the same. But just the seriality, right, that you don't know who's going to be eligible to be the replacement, but in his experience, someone will, and then when that happens, you're like, wait, whoa, whoa, what were the properties in that previous person?
Dominic Pettman [30:05]
Well, there's that moment on the beach with all the girls. And he can't even tell them apart at some point, because they're so overwhelmingly just—yeah.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:16]
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. But he's kind of in love with all of them at the same time, but he's studying to determine more precisely which one is actually the source of that general feeling of love.
Dominic Pettman [30:32]
And Swann famously has this intense, epic love affair with someone who isn't even his type.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:40]
Right, right. Right. Right. And it consumes his whole life. Yeah, yeah. But I mean, look, all of this is pretty dis-consoling, so far. The Leibniz, the Lacan, the stork, Albertine and the other girls... because it all suggests that people are just, again, hallucinating. But one thinker whom I know you admire—or maybe not admire, but you're attuned to—who seems in more recent years to have a kind of a full-throttle, pro-love, love-is-good-and-love-is-real sort of philosophy is Alain Badiou. Does he enter into your picture in any way?
Dominic Pettman [31:30]
He does, because he is one of the few who's willing to go to bat for old Aphrodite or Eros in an interesting way. I compare him—the Invisible Committee have one of my favorite definitions of love, which is autism for two. But Badiou counters that with its communism for two.
Justin E.H. Smith [31:58]
Dominic Pettman [31:59]
And so it just depends what mood you're in, really, which one— —you prefer to go with. But Badiou, he's the great thinker of the event. And there are few events as as earth-shattering as love. And so fidelity to the event, when he puts it on that register, as opposed to politics or religion or art, is an interesting kind of existential dance because we can't pretend that our fates are written in the stars anymore. We're kind of too secular for that, even though we'd like to flirt with astrology and things. We don't one hundred percent believe that we were destined to be with this person. But Badiou says that just by the day-to-day negotiation and memory of the event, we can act more as if it's that. He calls it chance defeated. So it's not just sheer contingency that meant we happen to be sitting next to each other on the train and fell in love.
Justin E.H. Smith [32:02]
Yeah. Right. Yeah, I think about—I mean, there are many variations on this joke, but like, what a coincidence out of seven and a half billion people, my soulmate is also from Milwaukee.
Dominic Pettman [33:27]
Yeah, but he sort of challenges that and then sort of puts that to the test, calls it a retroactive fate. So it's a small-f fate rather than capital-F Fate. And if you live according to that, that's what love is. It's a kind of suspension of disbelief against the improbability of it all. So I mean, that's a lovely thought. Obviously Lacanians can't stand it because it's too... affirmative. [laughter] Too affirming and—
Justin E.H. Smith [34:02]
And warm and sentimental. [laughter]
Dominic Pettman [34:04]
Yeah, well, as much as he can be. But Bernard Stiegler also, towards the end of his life, thought love was one of the most important—it was the baby that's been thrown out with the bathwater of modern life. And his definition of libido is not just a sex drive, but the capacity to take care of someone, something, a person, a project, over time, sustained attention, something you know a lot about. And so, that's also another rather crucial and beautiful definition of love. It's not romantic, or sort of head-over-heels passionate, but it's about a type of long-term commitment that we're increasingly unable to do.
Justin E.H. Smith [35:00]
I guess there we're approaching another rather charged topic and maybe overlaps with another question, which is: What is marriage? Or what is long-term pair bonding, if you want to be less specific about it. But in asking that question, which also surely pertains to long-term love relationships, there's the crucial issue of whether there's a partial Venn diagram overlap with the idea of work, right? Is this work? Is this a form of work? Maybe not in the sense of remunerative labor? But in the sense of effort, right? Should it be an effort, or should it come naturally? And if it is an effort, is this a threat to the idea that it's also at the same time love?
Dominic Pettman [35:56]
Justin E.H. Smith [35:58]
Dominic Pettman [36:01]
There's probably different cultural—well, of course, there are—different cultural takes on this, I think the Catholic versus the Protestant vision of love is probably quite stark. You know, Americans tend to love working at their relationships, and getting satisfaction out of the effort.
Justin E.H. Smith [36:19]
And that's Protestant. Yeah.
Dominic Pettman [36:21]
Yeah. That's the evidence of the effort as opposed to some kind of random divine grace. But yeah, I think, someone we haven't mentioned yet, who I find one of the most compelling, even if his writing is very torturous, is Niklas Luhmann, the systems theorist.
Justin E.H. Smith [36:43]
Dominic Pettman [36:44]
And he has a book on love. His definition is maybe one of the ones that I find the most intriguing, which is the codification of intimacy. And so there are different iterations of the code over time, so it does change. But each code, like, say, your operating system, is dependent on the one that came before. So there are lots of bugs in the system that are also features. And for him, it's a space, that's where it's supposed to encourage the right type of behavior, the right type of feelings. And the more you communicate explicitly about love—in contrast to the American style, where you're supposed to be completely open, honest and transparent—for him, the more you communicate explicitly about love, the more it sort of breaks down more, like even explicitly a marriage is likely to break down because you're just supposed to anticipate each other, understand each other, there's supposed to be unspoken rapport, right? And empathy. So that's an interesting tension in the different types of the code, where you just understand each other, you finish each other sentences, et cetera. Or this more labor-intensive sharing of information. But I do think love is primarily a form of communication—it's a medium of communication. You have to prove it, you can't just feel it. In the case of the Berlin Wall, maybe, but you're supposed to constantly give tokens, give—it's a language. We haven't mentioned Roland Barthes either yet, but it's a discourse. It's a constant chatter in your own heart and in your head and with the beloved, either explicitly or through letters or implicitly, so that's a big part of it.
Justin E.H. Smith [38:53]
Maybe something that kind of straddles the boundary between the Catholic grace and the Protestant work is the notion of sacrifice. That inevitably, there's sacrifice of something involved there as well?
Dominic Pettman [39:09]
Certainly, in the modern discourse around relationships, yes—"I had to give up my job in order to raise these children" or "I gave up my youth."
Justin E.H. Smith [39:20]
Dominic Pettman [39:22]
There's so many different versions of it. Is that what you mean?
Justin E.H. Smith 39:27]
Perhaps, but maybe also, perhaps in a deeper sense of sacrifice...
Dominic Pettman [39:33]
Justin E.H. Smith [39:35]
As kind of a ritual parting with a significant part of your identity. Right.
Dominic Pettman [39:46]
Yeah. All right. That's interesting. Sacrificing the part of you that doesn't—that you don't need, outside of the relationship. One interesting thing that's happened in—I've been teaching this stuff for twenty years now—the polyamory. The pair-bonding thing is very twentieth-century. [laughter] In the age of Tinder and stuff, it's much more about negotiating different types of love or different lovers who provide different things. The idea of one person satisfying all your needs is kind of perverse to Gen Z.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:26]
It takes a village.
Dominic Pettman [40:28]
[laughter] That could be the new man.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:31]
But I mean, do you really think this is such a such a transformation in the Weltanschauung, irreversibly? Or is this just young people's promiscuity as usual, but inflected through a lot of technologically mediated rhetoric?
Dominic Pettman [40:54]
I mean, I would love to fast-forward fifty years.
Justin E.H. Smith [40:57]
We just have to wait and see, yeah.
Dominic Pettman [40:59]
I feel we are at the fork in the road here because it would be really interesting if we broke that open, the compulsory monogamy thing, which has been pretty tyrannical. I'm very much a Fourier kind of guy when it comes to the philosophy of love. Where I mean, speaking of sacrifice, most people do sacrifice much of their potential experience to the idea of pair-bonding.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:32]
Can you make a case for monogamy? Do you see its sweet side?
Dominic Pettman [41:39]
Oh, yeah. It's the compulsory side that's the problem. I think Badiou's idea is lovely. And of course there is something about intimacy that needs to be very limited. You know, you can't be intimate, genuinely intimate, with dozens of people.
Justin E.H. Smith [42:01]
Right, right. There's definitely an upper limit.
Dominic Pettman [42:04]
Yeah. So there's a smaller Dunbar number for love. [laughter] What I liked about Fourier is he just acknowledges that it is a kind of form of violence to oblige people to hitch their wagon to one person maybe very early in their life and that that's it, end of story. His perfect model was three: you'd have your partner. You'd have a sort of mistress or whatever the male equivalent—shameful we don't have a word for that—
Justin E.H. Smith [42:47]
It could be master. But— [laughter]
Dominic Pettman [42:49]
No, but Fourier would figure that out. And then a sort of much more flighty, capricious one. And that for him was the right number, but he was obsessed with math and geometry and divination. So, I don't know, just sort of opening it up to curiosity and generosity, and not—I mean, jealousy we haven't mentioned yet, but that's kind of the sting in the tail, isn't it? Love is about ego-reinforcement and recognition, and the threat of that being taken away is one of the most, you know, horrifying prospects possible. So there's a big element of emotional blackmail in love, and hostage-taking and Stockholm syndrome.
Justin E.H. Smith [43:12]
Yeah, yeah, I gather some Gen Z polyamorists will argue that jealousy will evaporate when we get a more just social order in place. That strikes me as... that's more optimistic than I'm willing to go, even if I also admire Fourier in certain respects. Yeah, it's an interesting one. I mean, if we were taught to share, as it were, a lot more earlier, I think it would be mitigated, but I don't think it's—it's pretty hardwired, that stuff. So, like everything in life, it's about navigating it and processing it and putting it into perspective. Yeah, you know, interestingly, if we try to find animal comparisons or reference points in the animal world, we can't really find an easy answer either because there are plenty of monogamous pair-bonding species, in particular birds. Oh, by the way, the name of the guy whose wife is a crane and not a stork, a crane—his name of all things is Chris Crowe. C-r-o-w-e, and you can look him up. There's a lovely Washington Post article about him from 2018. And then even if we look kind of closer, you know, you have more or less monogamous chimpanzees right next to their closest cousins, the bonobos, that are extremely famously the opposite. So, it's always a mistake to look to the natural world for models of conduct. But we really are in a bind if we try to figure out if nature has anything to tell us about the proper model of love, aren't we?
Dominic Pettman [45:42]
Right, I think that the pagans and the Christians were agreed that love is, is sort of the human. It's not the animal instincts. It's the part that transcends that, which is obviously, you know, I wouldn't go there as someone who's written on creaturely love. But I think it is complicated. It's sort of instinct-complicated whether it's through aesthetics, or just sort of contingency or psychology or personal experience. It's inflected and twisted and bent around. So I think the historic—I mean, clearly, I'm an interdisciplinary cultural studies sort of guy, I run all over the shop and I'm a bit promiscuous with ideas—I think a historian would be much more careful with which discourse could cut—what we've inherited, say from the twelfth-century troubadours and courtly love, and how that changes in Victorian times, and then, yeah, how the law plays into this, and how things like legal contracts then become symbolic contracts or life contracts. It's a massive, massive terrain. If you get back far enough to take a snapshot, any detail is lost, and then that's not very satisfying. So when you zoom in on a specific, say, a Proustian text, then you get a lot of detail. But then you lose the panorama. So this is why I kind of get vertigo, just lurching in and out all the time, like some Hitchcock camera, but I can't commit to just the close-up or the full picture.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:47]
One thing that complements what you're saying now is somehow I understand and jive with everything I see in Proust. But it's a very familiar experience to me when I'm reading a lot of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century fiction to be literally unable to discern what is an expression of feeling and what is an expression of manner, of what one must do in a given social situation. Indeed, forget about eighteenth, nineteenth-century literature—on an airplane recently, I watched Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. I couldn't make heads or tails out of what they were doing! I literally felt like I was watching an exotic tribe, you know, where I didn't know the codes. And in part this is because I was watching a particularly restrictive censorship code where they couldn't say what they were doing. And this is a film in the so-called remarriage comedy genre where they weren't allowed to show people separating, at least not as an ad quem of the story. They always had to show them getting back together. But I was so lost by their expressions of their sentiments and the rules binding their sentiments that I couldn't tell what was what.
Dominic Pettman [49:22]
Yeah, and I think that's why I do keep coming back to this codification of intimacy definition because it's open enough to account for even those radical changes in just a couple of generations. Does that uber sort of ur-quote by Rochefoucauld—"people would never fall in love if they'd never heard about it"—it sort of suggests that there's always going to be attraction and desire. But "love" is how we parse it, how we make sense of it through the conventions, in the language and the grammar of the age. Lauren Berlant calls love "desire in fancy dress." So I think that's right. It keeps evolving. But it also retains, so far, the main sort of forms.
Justin E.H. Smith [50:29]
I mean, it sounds like one would have to commit to the real existence of creaturely love, right? Because it's the creaturely love that endures across all of these mutating cultural expressions from one generation to the next. Right?
Dominic Pettman [50:50]
Yeah, I think that that's a big part. I mean, the emphasis of the spirituality of love, its transcendence, its humanity, as opposed to its animality, I think is in large part a disavowal of our mammalian heritage. You know, we've been creatures a lot longer than we've been humans. In the book I described love as a Voight-Kampff test, which is the one from Blade Runner with replicant or human. And so in that case, love would be a test to see if you're human or not. And ironically, if you fail that test, you're more lovable because we don't trust humans, we don't actually love humans. I think that's why love for pets are more pure and there's so much love for animals now, because we're disillusioned with humanity and we're looking for the kind of creature within, the becoming-animal.
Justin E.H. Smith [51:57]
Right. Did you see this recent quote that was circulating from a recent Sudanese immigrant to the United States? Asked what struck him most about American culture, he said, "Well, it took me a long time to figure out—after a while, I realized when people were talking about their kids, they usually meant their dogs." And that was such a striking quote, because it's like, presumably, this person is coming from somewhere where, let's say, kinship and social reproduction through marriage, marrying off your children, remains kind of all-important, remains the reason for society. And then that understanding of what society is for gets lost in certain exceptional situations like that.
Dominic Pettman [52:51]
Love is certainly being detached from institutions a lot more in our spheres. It becomes a sort of individual burden.
Justin E.H. Smith [53:01]
Right, right, yeah. Is that a consequence of marketization? Do you see this as an effect of neoliberalism? And I guess a parallel question is: Do you see structures like Tinder as the ultimate neoliberalization of love?
Dominic Pettman [53:24]
I mean, it's hard. It's hard to really—yeah, I mean, to swipe right or left on a human being is Levinas's nightmare, isn't it? Like, here you are with the infinity of the face, and in less than a second, you're like, nope. It's sort of training you—literally training and conditioning you—to treat the other as this kind of disposable commodity. So in that regard, yes, it's an obscenity. Hopefully, there are ways to hack it, to sort of make connections you wouldn't have made otherwise. But I'm less and less of a cultural studies person and trying to make lemonade out of this abundance of lemons.
Justin E.H. Smith [54:12]
But it also seems to be increasingly for some people an end in itself, doesn't it? It's the swiping itself that is what one is there for, right. Or am I wrong? [laughter] I don't know.
Dominic Pettman [54:27]
I don't know, I'm too old to have any insights on Tinder, sadly, but I do think there's something about love and technology. You could almost say that they're synonyms in some ways. As long as you expand the definition of technology to be not just machinic but you get a bit Heideggerian where techne, it's an art. Even back in the Symposium when the two halves are fused back together, when you find your other half and you want to become complete, you have to go and see Hephaestus, you know Vulcan, and his blacksmith tools to get you there. And it says Hephaestus and his instruments fused them back together. So it's a technical operation. We make love. Love is something you make. And Ovid will tell you it's an art. I have an earlier book, it's called Love and Other Technologies, it's supposed to be provocative, but I think there is an argument to be made that—well Heidegger said one of his definitions of modern technology is that it's an unreasonable demand of nature. That sounds like a good definition of love to me as well.
Justin E.H. Smith [55:50]
Oh, that's really intriguing. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think about Ovid's “Ars Amatoria,” right, and what he means by this is—or the way I've always interpreted it is, this is a guide to how to put on makeup to be more seductive, and stuff like that.
Dominic Pettman [56:10]
Justin E.H. Smith [56:11]
Yeah, techniques, that's another term that's in the semantic cloud. But I always took that as not really being about love, right. Being about love in a derivative, or—
Dominic Pettman [56:23]
Or artifice, yeah, trying to simulate it, you mean.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:26]
Yeah. Right. Right. But maybe that's just not a sufficiently profound reading of it.
Dominic Pettman [56:34]
Well, I mean, one of my favorite books on all this is a short one by Baudrillard just called Seductions. He makes a very convincing argument for seduction being much more ethical. [laughter] And he's not using a vulgar term—like it's not Casanova, which he calls "siegecraft." But a much more mutual ludic ritualized game of recognition, which avoids the kind of "you belong to me," kind of white-knuckled version of love that is often so, so prevalent.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:15]
Right, right. Yeah. So if the artifice involved in sexual seduction is—
Dominic Pettman [57:21]
It doesn't need to be frivolous, like there can be seriousness to that, which is more profound in some ways, or at least challenge, a really interesting ethical challenge, to our sentimentalization of love.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:36]
Right, right, right. We should start veering towards a conclusion, but really quickly, maybe try to bring cups of coffee and God back into the picture, and see if we can have a comprehensive picture here. Because, you know, we did agree early on, I think, that your love of a cup of coffee is like your romantic love in that you think of it as something that can complete you, right? And so with such inanimate things as coffee, or you know, the other—your glass menagerie, to take a more pathetic case that kind of fills you with rapt attention and seems to give your life meaning—are these rightly called love?
Dominic Pettman [58:38]
I'm... I wasn't expecting this.
Justin E.H. Smith [58:42]
Dominic Pettman [58:43]
Actually. So I'm genuinely trying to think out loud here. About whether there's this sort of hierarchy of objects that changes the quality of the substance. I do think... I mean, maybe it doesn't matter, you're right, what the occasion is, what the trigger is. Love is the word we give to, let's say, an occasion that brings us outside ourselves. Maybe it's an attempt to go beyond the monad. It is to have a kind of faith that there is a bridge or that there is a point of contact or relation that can be made.
Justin E.H. Smith [59:38]
That was a really beautiful way of putting it. But when you talk about occasions, I'm reminded that somehow we managed to avoid this— [overlapping speech]—no, I was gonna say Spinoza, and the wonderful line—you want to give it?
Dominic Pettman [59:58]
No, you go.
Justin E.H. Smith [59:59]
—That love is titillation accompanied by the idea of an external object. And there's a lot of controversy about how to translate "titillatio" and some people try to soften it by calling it, you know, "excitement," maybe. But it seems as dis-consoling as Leibniz's denial of relations. Right? Because all you need is the idea of the external object.
Dominic Pettman [1:00:36]
I guess it's the excitement elicited by the fact that there is an outside of the self. And that in itself is, for such self-centered creatures as ourselves, who pretty much all suffer from main character syndrome, to be able to have, to put someone else in the main character role for a while, it's kind of a relief.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:00]
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, you've come up with some really beautiful and pithy definitions of love, both your own and others, some of which I already knew, some of which are new to me. But I think all of this, the sum of all of this, is that it's pretty clear that neither of us has an answer to the Howard Jones question.
Dominic Pettman [1:01:31]
We'll go with Tina Turner and say: and what's love got to do it?
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:34]
What's love got to do with it. [laughter] It is funny, though, isn't it? How on this topic, somehow, the pop songs of your adolescence seem like the most important, profound, yeah, as important and as profound as Plato and Lacan, and—
Dominic Pettman [1:01:54]
Well, they're the ones I remember, right, they're the ones I can actually recite. Again, it's funny that, you know, if you are heartbroken, suddenly, these songs will speak to you that are completely generic and about somebody else. But it's a way to plug in to this meta-experience, I suppose. That love is always going to be borrowed and secondhand and improvised.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:56]
Right, right. ell, this is getting us back on the main track here again, and I was trying to shut things down. But when you think about teenage love, and a couple might have its song when they're teenagers. And then in retrospect, they might find that actually, the love was so wrapped up with the song as to be more a relationship to the song than to the other person. Right?
Dominic Pettman [1:02:58]
Justin E.H. Smith [1:02:59]
Yeah, yeah. So strange.
Dominic Pettman [1:03:03]
The artifacts of love.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:03:04]
Yeah. Yeah. The artifacts of love, yeah.
Dominic Pettman [1:03:08]
There's a museum of broken relationships, somewhere. I can't remember where it is. But that's a nice idea.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:03:14]
Oh, yeah. Beautiful. Yeah, yeah. Well, listen, Happy Valentine's Day.
Dominic Pettman [1:03:19]
And to you! May you feel something you don't have to someone you don't want—to somebody doesn't want it.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:03:29]
I'll do my best. So again, I take it we've ended in aporia, which is the best you can hope for in an open-ended discussion like this. And it's been really a delight to talk to you. Again, my name is Justin E.H. Smith, and I've been talking to Dominic Pettman about Love. Anything else you want to add, Dominic?
Dominic Pettman [1:04:02]
Oh, let's not get started again. But it's been a pleasure.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:04:07]
Okay. Thanks. And again, this has been What is X? for The Point magazine. And I hope you'll join us next time. Goodbye.