Note: This text was written as a reaction in an e-mail conversation concerning the use of an audio fragment of an interview with Jacques Derrida in the song /Farewell to Maya from the album /A hundred year ocean
thoughts notes on love
Which forces us first of all to conclude with a question: How to think (about) love? That is, without making it into an object, something we can grasp intellectually, get a mental grip on, without losing touch with the experience which cannot but become a (de)formed thing once we name it…
Putting aside this written rejoinder that -in absence of a proper phenomenological approach- would have muted this already half-heard and half-hearted soliloquy, we might proceed by silently listening to the following unarticulated voices, answering to both an implicit agitation by what is here named, or called upon, to be the subject of this text, and a more explicit pro-vocation, which both either cause this text from its very start to be one step removed from its claimed subject or impede any contact with ‘it’ whatsoever. Such may turn out to be the ‘conclusion’ of this text. But not before listening…
Thus I invite you to read with your ear.
1- In the documentary ‘Derrida, the movie’ interviewer Amy Kofman presses Derrida to speak about love in general. He tentatively ventures into a distinction at the heart of all love that divides it at its very core. He speaks searchingly of the difference between the ‘who’ (‘le qui’) and the ‘what’ (‘le quoi’). Does one love someone, or something about someone?
Does one love someone because of the ‘absolute singularity of who they are’ – I love you, because you are you – or does one love someone because this person is such and such - because you have certain qualities -?
‘la difference entre le qui et le quoi au coeur de l’amour partage le coeur.’
[ the difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, divides the heart ]
The problem of this difference is how to make the difference. How to distinguish the person from its qualities? What is the person stripped of it’s qualities, and what are such qualities when not applied to a person? This formulation is very much Cartesian in that it presupposes the possibility of discerning a person as such, stripped of its qualities - conceived as an independent substance, carrier of non-independent properties.1 This supposed distinction is metaphysical in that it transcends a person as such by imposing a (‘closed’) decision on where a person as such ends and its qualities begins. In both groups the infinite varieties and subtleties that make up a person are transcended in order to be unified at a conceptual level. In order to distinguish the who from the what, both groups are unified at a conceptual level. Such a metaphysical distinction places us before the questions posed above… how to distinguish? On what basis do we separate or oppose a person from its qualities if we cannot think them separately. Have you discovered the person behind the qualities, in order to make a rational proper judgement on ‘who they are’? The dualist metaphysics that seems inherent in Derrida’s answer is at odds with his philosophical position. There are several ways out of this Cartesian dualism, which is just another form of metaphysical idealism.
2 - One might try to put this difference in an evolutionary or Darwinist perspective. One might then venture to equate this opposition of the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ to two different genetic situations. Could not the love for ‘you being you’ be explained in terms of shared genetic material? One would then love someone for who they are, when they share genetic material [i.e. are related], whereas one would love someone for what or how they are when such isn’t the case. The most pressing question would then be ‘Can romantic love transcend genetics such that it becomes love "for you being you"?’ Can one get from the ‘what’ to the ‘who’?
Certain remarks are to be made - given this starting point, and my affection for Derrida’s philosophy which, at least for this moment, invites me to stay close to it.
First of all, I would argue that a geneticist approach fails to capture a certain tension that is at play in the writings of Derrida. The geneticist explanation as summarized above allows a certain reduction which is at the core of Darwinism, which amounts to saying that the ‘who’ is a relational concept.
‘I love you, because you are to me [….]’ (e.g. my daughter, my flesh and blood). Such a love could then easily be reduced to a programmed mechanics. A Darwinist (or geneticist) would try to explain how certain actions have evolved (to be eventually hard-wired in our being human) as being most effective in multiplication of genes. There can be no Darwinist energy investment in behaviour that wouldn’t increase chances of survival. One doesn’t ‘love’ someone then, but is genetically programmed to offer up everything in favour of the multiplication of shared genetic code.2
In the same way, the ‘what’ – I like you, because of certain qualities you have – could then be reduced. Any affectionate bond that demands an investment in any form whatsoever that decreases a subjects own ‘replicative energy’, can only be understood as an economic calculation that ultimately, through a detour, does have personal gain – either in direct or indirect improvement of chances of replication.
Thus, in a Darwinist stance, ‘love’ of both the who and the what can and must be reduced to economics. It is this step, while not completely disagreeing, I am tempted to argue that Derrida is reluctant to make. In general, though this is perhaps somewhat to straightforward, Derrida displays a much too ethical side to allow for such a strict economist reduction. In general it is the tension between mechanicist/economist determination and freedom that is at play in Derrida’s writing.
3- While at least acknowledging the uneasiness of the last question on transcending the ‘what’ in the direction of the ‘who’, I would like to take a somewhat different yet related road. While not a Darwinist in the biological or geneticist sense, it is however not at all an unfruitful approach when we widen its terminology a bit. In philosophy Darwinism has most impact because of a certain way that unity or identity appears in it. This is called ‘replicative identity’ and is not only at the heart of the semantics of biological Darwinism, but also implies a movement against metaphysics.3 The shortest way of describing this change is to say that identity or unity is no longer a fixed transcendent essence, but an emergent and changing way of appearing. Every instantiation of a replicative entity is (even if infinitesimally) different from another, and with time these differences can amount to a significant change in what we conceive to be for instance ‘a species’. The relevance here is that ‘what something is’ is open to change, and that every new instance changes ‘what the (purported) whole is’. 4
We no longer define what a human being is through some sort of fixed essence that unites us all, a humanity, but acknowledge what humans are as a species is in itself variable.5 We are through all kinds of intermediates related to, say doves and asses - more than metaphorically that is – yet all strict distinctions are in a sense random, metaphysical, because – in this terminology- such a distinction would amount to totalizing and therefore closing into a finite conceptual group an infinite and open-ended series. Ask the half-fish, half-lizard that set ‘foot’ on land, and it would have never guessed that it eventually also gave rise to what we now call humans, it’s conception of its ‘being’ can never take its future into account. Yet still there are distinctions, we can tell a human from an ape, but we concede rather quickly that the distinctions are by degree, debatable, and certainly not eternal.
Perhaps now, we can get closer to the heart of the matter. For we are still concerned, very much so, with the difference between the person one loves, for who he or she is, and the qualities attributed to them. The problem ‘who’ and the ‘what’ can be formulated as problem of identity. The metaphysical solution is to transcend the qualities in order to grasp them together and separate essential qualities from mere accidentals, and assume a carrier behind those qualities. This transcendent ‘being’ is what assures the identity in a person, despite all the disparate qualities.
I would like to equate here the ‘who’ to an identity. In a replicative way of thinking, there ultimately is no fixed identity as such. What something, and I would argue ‘someone’, ‘is’, changes. All qualities a person might have (the what), I would equate to instantiations in an ongoing series. A person is all he does, how he acts, the qualities he has. Without ‘the what’ there is no ‘who’. This might be affirmed by the fact that Derrida speaks mostly about qualities – the ‘who’ is left unarticulated. That does not however mean that there is no ‘who’. The person is a whole of all the qualities, and that is what makes them ‘them’, and what sets them apart from others.
‘By what you do, you find what you are’, Schopenhauer wrote. But this discovery is not like a sign, what you do signals in the right direction of what you are. There is no you, without that which you do. And by doing, you experience what you are and already were. Rather than finding something either lost or unknown, you rather make explicit what cannot be know except by acting it.
A persons' qualities make up what they are, there is no person outside of, transcendent, or behind, the qualities they display. ‘You are such and such’ and ‘you are you’ amount to the same. That doesn’t however stop us from trying to conceive of a person as a whole, as ‘who they are’.
Trying to find a fixed identity of what all these qualities amount to (who you are) is trying to close and summarize an ongoing series, and as such a metaphysical geste. The who is a sort of idealized unfathomable yet desired, because safe, idea of a totality. Perhaps because, in case someone has qualities we cannot fully appreciate, we want to believe that, despite those qualities, that person is fundamentally good. We rather tell ourselves that ‘who you are’ is at base a good person, someone we like, than allow the economist reduction that would translate this debate into a balance of good and bad qualities. Is this person still worthwhile (to be with)? Love cannot be doing the math of costs and benefits properly, can it?
4 - But there is yet a wholly other voice to pay heed to. When one listens carefully, one might find a subtle clue, perhaps even a certain encouragement, in the sound of a single word. ‘A singularity’, Derrida says, apparently without any care. And if we would be looking for a single cue to proceed, we might take our steps further from here. ‘Can one love someone for the “absolute singularity of who they are”? ‘, Derrida asks himself, and if we (think we) know Derrida well enough, we may know what connotation lies in those words and in what direction it would defer us.
Everything we properly ‘know’ as such, is known only by being articulated – by the non-principle of différance – within a system of differences.6 Simply put, we recognize things only through a certain framework – though this vast simplification does no right to Derrida’s philosophy. The singular is that (experience) which falls outside the borders of our conceptual generalizations, but calls upon us to describe it – it compels us to communicate within an iterable and generalized language something that does not fit in – and gives itself only in escaping our grasp. Thus the singular makes itself known only by escaping articulation, yet calls upon us. This tension is very important, when we furthermore recognize that in Derrida’s constantly shifting vocabulary, ‘the singular’ and ‘the other’ are two closely-linked links in a chain – so much so that for our purposes here we can consider them interchangeable. ‘ l’ autre ’ [the other] is a term Derrida borrows from Immanuel Levinas, and functions, just as ‘singularité ’ [ singularity ] as a tentative name for that which escapes our thinking.
There is then a certain tension, for when the other beckons us to grasp it we can only do so by fitting it into our current ‘framework’, which would result in a domestication of the other. In order to make the other fully known to us - make it ours- we violate it in a sense. Uncorrupted respect for the ‘otherness’ however would amount to foregoing every form of contact.
"... each of us, everyone else, each other is infinitely other in its absolute singularity, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest ... there is no ethical generality ... At the moment of decision and through the relation to *every other (one) as every (bit) other*, everyone else asks us to behave like knights of faith..."7
The impact on the discussion on the who and the what is double-sided. People are others as well, and in relations a certain double otherness so to say leaves its trace. When we look at a certain moment in time, in order to grasp someone other than ourselves8, we have to interpret them through our own conceptions, usually finding there are things unknown to us. One gets to know the other through oneself, which results in a certain injustice towards the other person being just him-, or herself. We might find things that don’t fit in, in which case our own conceptions are put to the test in a conflict with the otherness of the other. Or to put in a cliché: ‘ one gets to know oneself through the other’. And again, without this certain degree of deformation in forming our conception of the other, we cannot get to know the other. We have to articulate a person’s qualities (the what) through a differential structure that sets them apart from the rest as being ‘what they are, such and such’. All these qualities, articulated or other, make up a person, as who they are.
Or so we might be led to believe. Because as time goes on people may change as well. The series of qualities that make up a person change, changing the person as well. When we, like proposed above, equate a persons qualities with all differing instances in a series, and the ‘who’ with a preliminary, yet never totalised or closed, conception of that series, this means we each person is always ‘ other’. (a totalisation of all someone was or is into a ‘who’ is always impeded by a fundamental openness of what someone ‘will be’) We can never fully know a person’s being. A person is never finished. Our conception of who someone is, as a totality, set apart from certain qualities, is always a reduction that cannot take into account the future qualities, actions, etc. that make that person what they are as well.
5 - It seems that we are still enclosed in a form of thinking that calls for a conception at all, a totalisation. Can we think, accept and love a person, who they are – you for being you – knowing that it will change, and does so continuously? That we can only judge the ‘who’ as a snapshot, knowing our conception is incomplete? In the course of this evasive dance, a pirouette circling seemingly around the point, we may have, by keeping our distance, found ourselves closer…
In a text on ‘forgiving’ 9 Derrida discusses the act of forgiving someone. His point is that true or absolute forgiveness can only be of what is absolutely unforgivable - since every act of forgiving of something which would already in advance be considered to be worth forgiving, would only amount to a certain economic transaction that would void the import or meaning of granting absolution for the violence, crime or offence committed. 10 I am tempted to apply a same sort of reasoning to the topic of ‘love’. (And is not love an act of forgiving, or forgiving, in its true form that is, an act of love?) True, or absolute love, is then the absolute respect for the otherness of the other. It is loving the unloveable or unknowable. Firstly this would mean loving someone’s qualities without trying to fit it all in one’s own conception. Secondly, and all the more challenging, it would ask of you to love unconditionally, with absolute respect for the groundless openness of what a person can or will be. To stand fearlessly in the knowledge that this certain excess of the ‘who’ over the ‘what’ will prevent one from ever fully knowing ‘who the other is’. 11
Still, at the very heart of love, love is divided between the ‘what’ we know, and the ‘who’ we cannot know, but cannot but try to get to know as a whole. It is by result of the trying to conceive a person as a whole, that we can’t. The other will always inescapably escape our image of them. In the same way, that which we here have provisionally called ‘love’ always inevitably escapes at least both our thoughts, words, and more often than not even our experience, when we cannot stop looking over and after ourselves - so that what we say or think is always one step too late and at a distance from the moment itself that escapes us. This singular experience of what calls us without a name.
This whole text then, as we have seen, is always already one step, and therefore an infinite number of steps, removed from what we know and feel as ‘love’. Certainly one can analyze it (in)to pieces – take possession of that which we yearn for so much. Yet, just like the ‘thing itself’ our thoughts or analyses of it are always at the same time too little and too much. Perhaps we should, at this point, withdraw – find another approach without knowing what we, and the other, were (looking for). Perhaps one should, like Derrida confesses, ‘have an empty head on love in general…’12
But, (how) to experience (…), that is a wholly other question
1- This is the equivalent of Descartes distinction into substance (which can exist independently) and properties (which can only be ‘of’ something, and are therefore dependent of substance).
2- An example is the dog that let’s itself be completely drained and almost killed in favour of her children. Why does she not fight for her own survival? Because chances of her dna surviving are greater through her seven or eight pups with dna similar enough to bias the balance. This would still only allow us to explain first degree ‘love’, of a son or daughter. The issue whether social interaction between higher degrees of genetic relatedness can be reduced to Darwinist mechanics is an issue that would require a whole literature in itself.
3- For lack of other words, I must stress here that ‘movement’ does not imply an active party, or a conscious counterforce against metaphysical thinking. It is a gradual shift in the meaning of how we view things. Thinking in terms of unchanging unity –transcendent essences that allow us to think the unity in disparate physical instances - is slowly giving way to a way of thinking that acknowledges the ultimate randomness of such a fixed judgement.
4- For sake of brevity I have omitted here the argument why Derrida can be discussed in these terms. This form of replicative identity is most visible in Derrida’s conception of language. Derrida claims that language is a differential structure. This means that each word or letter can only have meaning by differing from other words or letter. Meaning of a sign is therefore never immanent, but always endlessly deferred to other signs – to a context. Furthermore, a word, or a letter, can only have a communicatable meaning if it is repeated. Repetition allows the same letter to have a generalized meaning, each instance it occurs. Yet, if meaning can only be produced given a context, and if context changes every time, then every instantiation, even if slightly, means something else. And thus, every instantiation changes the meaning of the whole series. This double difference and deferral (spatial and temporal) is what is indicated with the non-concept of ‘Différance’.
Hence, the metaphysical trouble with ‘concepts’ – a concept would imply either a totalisation of an endless context, (an end to constant deferral of meaning), or a transcendence of the whole series, totalising and closing off a finite number of occurrences into a ‘proper meaning’, ignoring the infinite continuation of instances of the word occurring and consequential ongoing changes that would void the current concept.
5- Thinking in terms of an essence for every species needs the premise that every species was created separately and has not changed. The other option is that species themselves change and all are to a greater or smaller extent related.
6- That is, not entirely language itself, but a generalized writing that Derrida calls proto-writing or arche-writing, by which he means nothing other than the articulation through differentiality.
7- Derrida, J. Gift of Death, pp. 78-79.
8- Though one might even argue that in analyzing oneself, one makes himself other to himself.
9- Derrida, J. “forgiveness” in: On cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London and New York, Routledge, 2001. pp. 27-60.
10- Only could also insert here a discussion on the question whether one forgives someone, or forgives something. Does on forgive the person, despite what she has done, or a certain (ine)quality she has displayed? Or does one forgive the act, the quality, what has happened. And don’t both ways still imply a split between the ‘who’and the ‘what’?
11- Of course, the question is now: is such absolute or true love possible? Derrida, even if only for the occurrence of the word ‘ true’ or ‘absolute’, would probably claim that it is not. He would, however, also argue that this doesn’t mean that we should give up. Not trying to write, describe, experience or know the other, would be to halt this dance, and start circling endlessly like Sisyphus in a pirouette, around the same point – always safely alone with(in) our own world, always without each other.
12- How, then, is one to think? To write? Or should one? Should one want to?