Love’s Labour in the 21st Century

Has our language exhausted itself speaking of love? Or, does love itself need to be reinvented in this era?

Love has to be reinvented, that much is certain.

Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat

Integral to the Human Condition

Rimbaud left us with a musical, utopian sensibility when he wrote those words. Seemingly a product of cynicism, but once uttered, they bring with them a promise of hope.

And, haven’t we reinvented love? Love stares at us from beneath our dainty fingers clickety-clacking against gorilla glass; love invites us to spaces increasingly accessible for its displays; love comes many times and yet love may come simultaneously. All at once.

Here, I try to present a few varying perspectives on love, and explore their myriad manifestations. The reader may look at the examples provided as provocations and add to/contest them with an open mind. Anybody who attempts to study, examine, deconstruct or simply glide through “love” shall encounter a long history of ideas, which they may struggle to incorporate, accept, or build upon. This attempt of mine has been no exception.

Julia Kristeva, in her Tales of Love, affirms that “Trying to talk about it seems to me different from living it, but no less troublesome and delightfully intoxicating. Does this sound ridiculous? It is mad.”1 When love is so elusive and grounded in individual experience, it is indeed difficult to simply talk about it. However, its integral role in human life is something that cannot be disputed. 

From the numerous retellings of the star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet to the incestuous love in Old Boy (2003); from the gothic romance in Wuthering Heights (1847) to the cultivation of desire between the synthetic personality Rei and mega rock-star Rez in Idoru (1996); from the Creature’s yearning for intimacy in Frankenstein (1818) to the attempted erasure of love via memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)—the world has never stopped appreciating a good love story. 

The most popular genre when it comes to book sales is romance; and while adventure/action may have outstripped it in the films department, a romantic element *must* exist, if it must sell more tickets. Despite all these, isn’t it true that we’ve largely been appreciating love as mediated through the language of the media? While the arts may provide metaphors for love, we seem to be resistant to its interpretations beyond art, beyond culture. 

While Jean-Luc Nancy wonders if “everything [has] been said on the subject of love,” Roland Barthes goes so far as to declare that all ‘discourses of love’, in that sense, can never be original. Love can be perceived as a script, a text, which is polysemic—that is, its reading is entirely dependent on the references of love (via text, music, a film and so on) that dominate our consciousness. Love, then, becomes a re-staging of what we know about these discourses. Every random declaration you’ve seen—from the ‘I love you’s to the modern ‘I’m sorta kinda into you’ to ‘what are we?’ are all derived, contrived, fragments of memory made personal.  

So, what do we do? Do we immediately stop uttering the prevalent linguistic expressions of love and try inventing newer terms (which may be possible, but may not be as redemptive as one thinks they would be)—or do we simply say nothing at all? 

Hence, the first step may be neither of these, but a sobering realisation that love will never remove itself from the annals of human history, culture and all that is contained within. And, thus, we must keep talking about it. 

Love as Desire/Commodified?

The poem is the fulfilled love of desire remaining desire.

Rene Char, On Poetry

There is good sex somewhere, because I am its caricature.

Jean Baudrillard, Seduction

We observe that modern love is obsessed with instant fulfilment, gratification—satiation. Desire surfaces and becomes the simulacrum of love, arriving with a whole host of its own demands. When we rely extensively on technological communication for the satiation of this desire via video, text, sound and so on, we run the risk of eliminating the flights of fancy that often accompany love. As Byung Chul-Han remarks in The Agony of Eros, “New communications media do not give flight to fantasy. Their high information density, especially in visual terms, does precisely the opposite: it stifles fantasy. Hypervisibility is not conducive to imagination. As such, pornography—which maximises visual information, as it were—destroys erotic fantasy.”2   

My own foray into the realm of dating apps can attest to this, as anecdotal as it is. As panel after panel flashed by, the first experience in the quest for digitised matchmaking might have been excitement: the excitement of discovery, the thrill that only choice can bring you. However, only dopamine remained at the end of this seemingly bottomless well, each ping driving your sense of self-esteem up a little. 

In fact, the proof of my own desirability suddenly was enough. I am someone attractive, after all. The match comes equipped with signs and symbols that drive you. Isn’t a friends-with-benefits situation enough? Won’t take you home until after the third date. Pizza is the way to my heart. If yoU tyP lyk dis, swipe left. Daddy ki pari. Politically liberal, a bibliophile here and a pluviophile there, a dog-momma thereabouts, and to round it off, their music preferences fall into place in the tapestry of your mental jigsaw. My brain is suddenly prepared to fall without the risk of falling. A zero-gravity indulgence.  

The frontiersmen for dating apps can be found suggesting that this is foolproof love. A love that minimises the risk of heartache, of separation or, even more profoundly, a tacit understanding of the status quo that is supposed to govern this space between two entities. 

While I find traditionalist criticisms of modern love altogether too exhausting, it is appropriate to instead situate love as capitalism’s bane. Of course, the manifestations of capitalism are by no means monolithic, but one can easily draw these parallels. The dread for heartache is rooted in what capitalism espouses: 1) individualistic consumption under the guise of freedom; 2) an obsessive focus on commodifying time and space; 3) defining purpose to be rooted in the realisation of self—the truth of the self, as discovered by the self on the basis of the strength of the self.  

Beyond consumption, when time is commodified, very little can be left to chance or facilitate the existence of an event that is love. Love takes you away from being an ideal producer, or cultivator of capital in the form of ‘tangible work’ because it tends to transform reality altogether for those who fall into it. 

Utterances like I don’t feel like myself, nothing seems to be enough, in fact, nearly everything else might start seeming like a hurdle, or simply a sidelined ritual standing in the way of experiencing love. And how can capitalism, in its infinite wisdom, allow deviances such as this without commodifying them all, marking them ready for consumption? Love’s elusive nature makes desire an easy target, and we witness that through the plethora of objects that aim to contract the time between encounter and gratification by premediating the very encounter.

In Praise of Love—where do we go from here?

Cursing capitalism can only take us so far. Where do we go from here when we say that love has to be reinvented? Let us begin by first situating love within three concrete ideas that usually define its ‘acts’: Fulfilment, Liquidity, and Reinvention. 

Fulfilment: The idea of love as fulfilment isn’t entirely new: the attempt to fill a lack, to become whole. We often see this image too—love is supposed to unify us, complete us. The language with which we talk about this lack might differ in its nuances but this can be traced to material that existed even before Plato. In his signature texts, Phaedrus and The Symposium, we see love being associated with all kinds of emotions that still resonate with us today. 

This feeling of something being fulfilled can easily take on a more pessimistic approach, like we find in Nietzsche. Distinguishing between love (usually borne out of avarice, self-interest and baser urges) and friendship (borne out of differences, the urge for mutual growth), his ideas of love find resonance in modern sensibilities. 

Liquidity: Today, shallow romances are often those that remain lulled in bliss, drugged by the promise of happily-ever-afters. The air of complacency settles on a relationship that is sterile, where we focus on the sense of possession. The possession of the other. This is where liquidity comes in because if one is to not be complacent, there needs to be an acceptance of change within the idea of how two individuals love each other. This leads us to our third act: reinvention.

Reinvention: Similarly, we can also try and place our faith in that thing called chance—which, in turn, can only be implemented when we try taking a step back from creating circumstances where only desire may flourish. Curiously, we can link it to the concept of ‘availability’—for me, an absurd concept especially in the context of love. 

Individualistic notions of love are rooted in the larger ideals that govern different ways of living. Despite these multiplicities of perspectives, desire performs love. We may have to agree that in the pursuit of actualising desire (which is not as perpetual, or as elusive as love), we experience a deadening, a loathing. We hate love that involves chance encounters and the acceptance of a differing other (as opposed to manufactured facsimiles found in love’s many marketplaces). 

The crux of the matter is this: If we accept that love is a perpetual movement towards lack (a void, an absence) and that it forsakes complete consummation, then we may need to accept that the current paradigm has altered this process in a way that is perhaps beyond correction. 

To reinvent love, then, is to reinvent lack. And if we reinvent lack, we find that this perpetual movement towards fulfilment can only be fulfilled when we take a stand against premeditated, safe modern love that trades illusions of control for our very ability to feel love as we have felt it through its numerous languages; it shoves desire to the forefront instead. 

In a world full of choice that encourages instant fulfilment, lack can only be reinvented when we burn these safety nets that guarantee immediacy, speed, convenience, and leave this highly individualistic event to the grand, societal mechanics of chance. 

Through that, Rimbaud’s declaration won’t be uttered melancholically because love’s perpetuity shall guarantee reinvention through time, space, and circumstance. Vastly differing others shall keep rediscovering each other, indulging in a shared perception of reality as opposed to the idea of a collective, enforced singular vision that two individuals bound in love are supposed to represent.    

1Kristeva, J. (1989). Tales of love (L. S. Roudiez, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

2Han, B.-C. (2017). The agony of Eros: Volume 1 (E. Butler, Trans.). London, England: MIT Press.

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