On Stupidity — or, on love and Valentine’s Day
by Jeremy Fernando
… love is much more than love: love is something before love …
Almost without fail, on the fourteenth day of February, one is bound to hear endless complaints from just about everyone (besides florists, perhaps even them) about how Valentine’s Day is mere commercialism. The nay-sayers among us who maintain a soft spot for Karl Marx would proceed to call it the commodification of relationships; those who prefer the gods would claim that the sanctity of relationships has been profaned; the gender theorists would note how the fact that males — or those playing, performing, male roles — are the ones buying the gifts only serves to highlight the unequal power-relations between the genders.
Regardless of the side they come from — and whichever variation of the argument they choose — it boils down to an attempt to decry the fact that relationships have moved from the private to the public sphere. The underlying logic is that love is between the persons involved, and should remain exclusively between them. In other words, love should remain an unmediated experience between the persons in that relationship.
Which, of course, completely misses the point.
For, if relationships are an attempt by two (or more) persons to affect, perhaps touch each other — whilst negotiating what their relationship means, what relationships itself mean — there must always already be a space between them for to occur. After all, as Jean-Luc Nancy teaches us, “in order to touch, there must first be space to do so.” Otherwise, all that is happening is that one person is subsuming the other(s): and this would be understanding at its most banal — and perverse — form; that of bringing the other person under one’s stance. If that were the case, there would no longer be any relationality; all negotiation is gone and the other person is effectively effaced. Moreover, in order for any attempt at understanding to occur, one has to first open oneself to the possibility of another; which suggests that any notion of understanding itself has to be first set aside. Thus, even as one is reaching out to another, even as one has been working at being with another — regardless of the length of time, regardless of the connection one feels with another — one can never quite be certain if any understanding has even take place. Thus, understanding can only be an attempt to respond if, as Werner Hamacher might say, “understanding is in want of understanding.” Not in the form of a lack, but precisely in the attempt to, desire for, in its want to, understand; where perhaps all that can be said is that, at best, it is an understanding that is to come.
Hence, whenever one hears the phrase ‘I understand my partner’, one should be wary — clearly that person’s version of a relationship is a masturbatory one.
For, if the condition — and limit — of relationality is the attempt at understanding, all relationships always already brings with it an unknown. Which suggests that the other person is an enigma, remains enigmatic, to one. And, this is the only way in which the proclamation “I love you” remains singular, remains a love that is about the person as a singularity — and not merely about the qualities of the person, what the person is. For, if the other person comes under one’s schema, then that relationship is also a completely transparent love, one that can be thoroughly known, calculated; the other person becomes nothing more than a check-list. To compound matters, if it is the qualities of another that one loves, when those qualities go away, so does the love. Which is not to say that one can separate the characteristics, the what, of the person from the who. But if we are attempting to think the possibility of singularity, if we are to refuse the reduction of who into merely what, we must then also open the register that the who, the other, (s)he, must perhaps always remain wholly other, mysterious, a mystery. For, only when the love for another is enigmatic — possibly ruptures understanding — can that love potentially be an event.
And if evental, it cannot be known before it happens — at best, it can be glimpsed as it is happening, or perhaps even only retrospectively.
At the point in which it happens, it is a love that strikes us, that might well come from elsewhere; captured wonderfully in the colloquial phrase, I was struck by love or even more so by I was blinded by love. A blinding in the precise sense of: I have no idea why or when it happened; before I knew it, I was in love. And therefore is winged Cupid is painted blind: not just because love is random (and can happen to anyone at any time) but, more importantly, even after it happens, both the reason one is in love and the person one is in love with, remain veiled from one.
Since there is a potentially unknowable relationality with the other person, the only way one can approach it is through a ritual. And this is nothing other than the lesson religions have taught us: since one is never able to phenomenally experience the god(s), one has no choice but to approach them ritualistically, symbolically. Here, one should keep in mind the fact that rituals are strictly speaking meaningless — the actual content is interchangeable, but the form is important. For, it is through an adherence to the repetition of the exact syntax, order, of words, alongside particular gestures, that rituals potentially allow us momentary glimpses at secrets. And since secrets are never about content, it is the recognition that they are secrets — in their form as secrets — that is crucial. This can be seen when one considers how group-secrets work; since the entire group knows what the secret is, the content of the secret is clearly not as important as the fact that only members within the group are privy to the secret as secret. Occasionally, the actual content can be so trivial that even other people outside the group might know the information; what they do not realise, recognise, is its significance. For instance, if I used my date of birth as the password for my bank-account, merely knowing when I was born would not give one the key to my life savings. In order for that to happen, one would have had to recognise the significance of the knowledge of my birthday. This means that one has to know that one knows something, has to know it as something.
And since love is potentially a secret, remains potentially secret even as it is felt, this suggests that we must both know its significance (otherwise one wouldn’t even be attempting to understand it) but at the same time never pretend to understand it. Thus, love is the very premise of relationships itself; keeping in mind that even as relationality might well be premised on it, love is of the order of the unknown.
Thus, the need for rituals.
And it is precisely the meaningless trinkets, gestures, on Valentine’s Day that play this role.
And, it is not so much what one gives the other person, but the fact that one gives it to them.
Where gift is akin to an offering — for, it opens the possibility of an exchange. Whilst never forgetting that just because one has given a gift does not guarantee that one will like what is returned; it is always reciprocated (even if nothing, no thing is given in exchange), but what is returned to one — along with its effects, the way it affects one — is unknown until the moment it is received.
Which suggest there is always a risk in receiving, accepting, gifts.
Which also means that the worst thing that one can do is to not give the gift: for, a non-giving would be a cutting off of all possibilities, a complete closing of all communication with — an effacement of — the other person. At the same time, this also means that one cannot wait for the other to give before one attempts to give: if that were the case, the reciprocation would be nothing more than a calculated return, and the relationship is reduced to nothing more than an accounting figure; the other would once again be reduced to a statistic, a mere return of investment, a what.
The only manner in which both persons can give true gifts — gifts that maintain the singularity of the exchange, the ritual of giving — is to offer them independently of the other person, whilst keeping them in mind. In this way, the two gifts are always already both uncalculated (in the sense of not knowing what the return is) and reciprocatory, at the same time. Of course, this would seem like an irrational, even crazy way of buying gifts. But it is precisely the madness involved that saves the exchange, and the relationship, from being banal.
And more importantly, prevents it from entering the profane.
Thus, it is the stupidity of Valentine’s Day — complete with the kitsch-ness of its silly gifts — that protects the sacredness of relationships, precisely by being completely and utterly meaningless. For, it is the leap of faith, as it were, of and in the giving that opens one to the possibility, that opens the potentiality of, catching a glimpse of the secret that is love …
for, May Ee
[An earlier version of this piece entitled ‘On Trinkets; or, This Crazy Little Thing Called Love…’ was published at http://www.berfrois.com/2013/02/on-trinkets-jeremy-fernando/]