kortina.nyc / notes
6 May 2019 | by kortina

Verhaeghe // Love in a Time of Loneliness

Love in a Time of Loneliness.

After repeated exchanges of Slavoj Zizek YouTube videos back and forth — also possibly in response to a stint of film clubs that Rob and I hosted which all dealt with paranoia in some way or another (#11, #12, #13, #15) — my neighbor loaned me Paul Verhaeghe’s Love in a Time of Loneliness. (This is the same neighbor that loaned me Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson’s Angels Fear, btw.)

It took me awhile to get around to this one, and even longer to get into it. I did not love the first essay, but was really into the second two. A few of the interesting bits…

An amusing recurring quote about Moose (and the effect of the disappearance of authority on children):

In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to the subject of bullying at school. A large-scale scientific research project on this subject conducted by several researchers over several months came to the following statistically supported, and therefore scientifically bona fide results: one, there is more bullying at school than at home; two, there is more bullying during breaks than during classes; three, children with a physical defect — obesity (fatty!), astigmatism (cross-eyes!) — are bullied more than others. Sometimes science is all too simple. This reminds me of an unforgettable quotation from the discussion in the *Times Literary Supplement *about _The Encyclopaedia of Banality: _‘Moose are frequently found in large numbers in many parts of Canada.’

So what about bullying? Sometimes human sciences are an attempt to formulate things that have already been said more succinctly elsewhere. In her splendid autobiography, Doris Lessing makes the following remark in pass- ing: ‘Children have always been bullies and will always continue to be bullies. The question is not so much what is wrong with our children; the question is why adults and teachers nowadays cannot handle it anymore’. Not being able to cope has now taken all sorts of excessive forms, and references are even made to bullied parents and bullied teachers at every level of the educational system.

This is extrapolated in child psychiatry Those working in that field complain that they see fewer psychiatric symptoms but are increasingly confronted with problems related to upbringing. Therefore child psychiatry is reduced to a process of re-education that always fails. The reason for the failure lies in the question we saw above in Doris Lessing’s remark: there is something wrong with authority. The function of authority, which used to be a self-evident truth embodied in many different figures, has now disappeared. The fact that the basis for bringing up children disappeared at the same time can be seen in everyday life. Optimists maintain that teachers and par- ents now have to make sure that they ‘deserve’ their authority — they have to earn it. However, experience has shown that the authority that remains usually consists of pure power, and, further, such power exists only if it is visible and tangible.

One historical relevance of myths as reflections upon the cultures interpreting the myths (as opposed to the cultures that generated the myths):

Whether Freud’s story contains a factual truth — as he him- self was convinced it did — is irrelevant to us. Levi-Strauss showed us that a myth is always an attempt to cast an underlying structure in an epic form. Thus it becomes a collective story that serves as a framework for a previous psychological reality and, at the same time, determines the subsequent one. In the example above, this is indeed the case. The invented myth is merely one version of some- thing that can be found in different forms in historical anthropology. Actually, Freud’s version of the story is rather poor compared to other versions. There are certain- ly many stories describing the power relationship between mother-goddesses and the patriarchal system. The most important tragedy in this context is not _Oedipus Rex _(Sophocles) but _The Oresteia _(Aeschylus).

On the polytheism of modern media culture. I’ll quote at length in a bit, as this is probably my favorite passage of the book. But first, to summarize: the demagogic rhetorical form (which is now dominant) is more dangerous than either the poetic or prosaic form, and the real danger is that today we are not confronted with this rhetoric from a solitary figure (remember this was written in 1999 — would be interesting to hear what Verhaeghe would say about Trump..) but we are confronted on all sides by demagogic rhetoric on all sides by mass media advertising. The other key difference which makes the current situation more dangerous than historical demagogues pushing a particularly ideology is that the message of advertising is not one of restraint, but the command to “enjoy now, enjoy fully as long and as much as possible.”

The full passage:

In itself, I believe this illustrates what I wrote at the end of the first essay The relationship between men and women lies in the word — it is not only achieved there but actually created there. There are as many methods of creation as there are styles. In that essay we referred to only two forms, the poetic and the prosaic form. The form confronting us here is historically the most dangerous, the demagogic rhetorical form. It is this form that has gained the upper hand in our day, and has done so in an area that is not recognised.

Traditionally this danger is expected from the major ideologies and their prophets. As soon as such a figure emerges somewhere and attracts followers, the quality newspapers are full of historical comparisons and warnings. The risks at this level seem fairly slight at this point in history. This is not so much because of the fact that we have learned anything from history, or as a result of these warnings, but because of the huge numbers of such figures. While in the past it was possible for one man to gain the attention of a whole nation, every nation is now divided among different figures, each of whom can attract only part of the whole. The universal trend towards unification today is mainly a reflection of the fragmentation which can be felt on every front, from European political union to the local football team.

Instead of the large system guaranteed by a single mythical figure, we are now in an era of minor, often rather pathetic little patriarchs, each with his own primal horde, which they fearfully guard and protect from the evil world outside.

The ongoing fragmentation that accompanies this entails protecting us from the danger of a totalitarian system in the political and ideological sense of the word. Only the future will tell whether this danger really has declined to any great extent. However, discussion of this phenomenon means that we may lose sight of another dimension. There already *is *a totalitarian system that is becoming increasingly global and imposing world-wide norms and rules on the relationship between men and women. Further, it is itself hardly bound by any rules, except those of economic success. This is the power of the media, with advertising in the lead, and taking the top place once assumed by Hollywood. Every ten-year-old can sing along with advertising slogans, dance to video clips and even dream pre-programmed images.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence this has. We have only to look at the budgets of the advertisers to realise what is at stake. Nowadays, the science and practice of psychology is no longer carried out in university laboratories. It is developed and improved in scores of marketing agencies that examine human differences in experiments unhampered by too many ethical considerations, with the aim of manipulating them as efficiently as possible. Meanwhile, academic psychologists continue to worry about the question of whether violence in children’s films might or might not lead to real violence in the streets. ‘Moose are frequently found in large numbers’ etc!

It certainly isn’t necessary to set up a large-scale study to find out that just about every advertising message is focused either on the relationship between men and women or on parent-child interaction. Questions that science cannot answer are constantly answered, displayed and described in this context. This confronts us with a strange phenomenon called ‘reification’ — the word creates the thing. If something is repeated often enough it starts to exist on the strength of this continued repetition. The desires, relationships and education shown in advertising messages thus become more and more real because they are presented, acted out and sung with unremitting monotony. Eventually, this reality is imposed.

A liberated, enlightened spirit might object that this danger is not in any way new. All this was prescribed in the past by the church or other ideologies, and it is now done by advertising. As a system there is little difference in a formal sense, because in each case something is imposed from outside and therefore involves a fundamentally alienating situation. The moral indignation of those frustrated people who bristle whenever a breast or buttock appears in a video clip or in an advertisement says more about their own censored desires. The fact that cars are sold using pin-ups and soft drinks by surfers wrestling each other has become part of our world. The danger is not in the lack of censorship or in the association of irrelevancies with sexuality. After all, *anything *can be erotic, and this is not the fault of advertising. On the contrary, the possibility of this association is actually a precondition for the existence of advertising. The cause of this lies in a characteristic of human desire that was described above — the fact that it can never be wholly fulfilled and therefore leads to constant movement.

Certainly, the alienating character of desires created in this way is not an argument against advertising, despite all the claims suggesting this. ‘Advertising creates new needs’, ‘Advertising alienates people from their deepest desires’. No, as such, alienation has always existed. In his characteristic, ambiguous style, Lacan wrote: _‘Le desir de l’homme, c’est le desir de l’Autre’ _(Man’s desire is the desire of and for the Other). Our desire always goes through that of another, starting with that of our parents and finishing with that of the latest object of our love. ‘You have to follow your *own *desires’ is an impossible task. Every so-called ‘own’ desire relates to someone else, either in a positive or in a negative sense. It is only when you don’t care that you don’t desire.

Thus the danger posed by advertising and the media does not lie in the alienation they involve. It is connected with a particular aspect of the message of this new ‘Other’. In the first essay I remarked that all earlier systems — whether religious or ideological — contain rules with regard to desire and pleasure. No matter how different these rules may be in different systems, they all have one feature in common — they entail a restriction. This is so transparently obvious that Michel Foucault elevated it to an essential characteristic in his historical treatise on sexu- ality The rule — for ideology is too strong a term — expressed in advertising messages is in stark contrast to this. Briefly summarised: enjoy!

This is the new command of the superego — enjoy now, enjoy fully as long and as much as possible. The universal contemporary leitmotif is: ‘Have it now/ While religions promised happiness and tranquillity in the hereafter, and the ideologies promised this in a near post-revolutionary future, the contemporary message is what appeared on an ad for an aperitif: T want it right here, I want it right now’. At first sight, the modern hedonist will not see any problem with this — on the contrary. What could be wrong with pleasure, except that it is not available to everyone in the same way for the time being?

The result: the death of desire and of pleasure:

The command shouted from the rooftops by the per- verse father is diametrically opposed to that of the rules of the clan or the Oedipal father of the past. Their command was: not now and not here, but later, and somewhere else, so that there was room for a dimension of desire. This is the first consequence of the new superego morality: the ‘right here, right now’ kills desire with a surfeit of objects. It creates the illusion of a sort of voluntary materialism. Every desire can be stilled with an object that is for sale: all you have to do is make the decision and carry it out. This is the new alienating myth that seeps in everywhere nowadays, and is replacing the previous equally alienating myth. The previous myth was the Hollywood version of the couple who live happily ever after. I would call the present myth ‘the junkie ideology’ — buy the right stuff and pleasure follows. Meanwhile the fact that this is not the case has become increasingly clear. The main result is boredom and a search for new boundaries.

The latter element — a search for a new prohibition — reveals the importance of a curtailment of enjoyment. The original prohibition/command was the condition for the possibility of finding pleasure, albeit in a restricted way. This restriction was the source of frustration and com- plaints, and removing it was aimed at achieving limitless enjoyment, preferably for the largest possible number of people. It was a great surprise to find out that this was not the case. The unexpected result of the obligation to enjoy was summarised by Lacan in what he called *‘Plus-de-jouir’. *This untranslatable pun makes the link between constant increase in pleasure *‘{Plus, encore plus’), *and the loss of pleasure *(‘plus de’). *To cap it all, it is by no means rare to find that the (p)leisured classes are confronted with an even more unexpected effect on the way to this unrestricted enjoyment: anxiety.

The source of anger and aggression:

The anger and aggression that often accompany it [drive] are always expressions of impotence and helplessness that are unknown to animals. Animals have instincts, not drives.

Greek pleasure comprised not only sexuality but also eating and drinking. It is perhaps because we have commercialized eating and drinking today that our cultural taboos are restricted to sexual taboos?

Greek culture from the fourth century certainly exhibits striking differences from our own. In the first place, our expression ‘sexuality’ did not exist at all. As both Foucault and Van Ussel have shown, this term was introduced only at the end of the nineteenth century. This is important, if only because it shows that what we mean by sexuality is not an unchanging concept, but simply a historically bound phenomenon. Consequently, Foucault did not talk about the sexuality of the Greeks, but about *the use of pleasure,3 *which covers three subjects — eating, drinking and eroticism. In other words, the relationship of pleasure that I adopt towards the intimate stranger, that is, in the first instance, *my own body, *and in the second instance, that of another.

His study shows that this relationship was the basis of a project for a very typical form of ethical self-care. Classical Greek culture developed a male morality that invited the free citizen to participate in what Foucault called self-practices, in contrast to the later Catholic system of externally imposed rules. The central element of this morality is the emphasis on austerity, with *enkrateia *and *sophrosyne *as the main themes. *Enkrateia *is the attitude of self-mastery that one must adopt in order to function as a moral subject. *Sophrosyne *is the related combination of moderation and wisdom. Together this results in an image of 'true' freedom, which is not the paradox it may seem because what is meant is freedom from *inner *slavery, through the achievement of a condition of total self-sufficiency and perfect sovereignty over oneself. This is where the concept of truth comes in, truth in the sense of self- knowledge.*Gnothi seauton, *know thyself.

From our perspective, this means that the dimension of prohibition certainly does apply, but by different means. In the first place, it is mainly aimed at drives, and much less at desire. Further, for the Greeks of the classical period, with the exception of incest there was virtually no prohibition on any specific sexual practices. Their morality was concerned not with the nature, but rather with the quantity and intensity of the use of pleasure, with the aim of rationing it. A man who surrendered wholly to food, drink and sex was considered a weakling. A closer examination of this need for rationing produces an unexpected result. For the Greeks such an attitude was reprehensible, *because it amounted to adopting the passive position. *It focused on the man who submitted passively, either to his own body or to that of another, and *that *was seen as the ultimate evil. Therefore the Greek attitude can be interpreted as a cultivation of the active, dominating approach.

Subsequently, Catholic morality made two important changes. Authority was imposed externally by God and the Church on pain of punishment, and, at the same time, the content of what was forbidden was defined. The Church fathers not only demanded moderation to the point of complete abstinence, but in addition, an ever- increasing number of sexual activities were both described and proscribed. In this way, Catholicism shifted the emphasis from drives to desires. All this was directed from outside by God the Father to whom absolute obeisance was due. There was not even freedom of thought, because merely thinking, imagining or contemplating punishable acts was considered a sin.

This change is particularly important, because it externalises what was formerly an internal relation and internal division, and subjects it to an external authority. It was the Church that established the Name-of-the-Father.

On the importance of boundaries and release valves:

For Freud, the nightmare is the only exception to his general view that every dream contains a wish fulfilment. His correction is wrong. The nightmare is the ultimate — and therefore impossible — wish fulfilment that tries to take gratification to the point of no return. The question is: wish fulfilment for whom or what? We haven't got there yet.

The three situations—children's games, adult scenarios and nightmares—all have more or less the same structure, a passive subordination to the pleasure of the grasping other. The difference lies in the way in which limits are imposed. Both in children's and in adults' games, the lim- its are agreed on. Everyone takes turns being an Indian. When the victim has had enough, you can go on for just a moment, but only just a moment; violations are punished: 'you can't play anymore'. In a nightmare, there is a sort of automatic ejection chair that catapults the subject back into his everyday existence.

These boundaries are absolutely essential. When they are absent, the real daytime nightmare starts, in the form of perversion or psychosis. Jouissance is possible only when the boundaries have been put into place to create a limit. In accordance with the dual nature of the drive, this limit can function at two levels. There is an as yet incomprehensible physical level: orgasm, automatically waking up during a nightmare, self-mutilation. The common characteristic of these three somatic safety valves is the return of the active ego, coupled with a mixture of relief and dis- appointment. The limit can also be imposed at the collective, psychological level: agreement, rules establishing the limits in advance on the basis of a convention and an assurance that they will be observed. There may even be a collective agreement to suspend the rules for a limited period and within a limited area. Every culture, particularly the strictest and most disciplined, has a carnival, a feast of the flesh in which anything and everything is possible, any transgression of the bounds of everyday rationality, within defined limits of time and space.

Why a “a naive form of liberalism will always carry within it the seeds of its own failure” —

Without prohibition, there is no desire. Experience has often shown that when something is always permitted and always available, no one wants it. When the weather is fine every day, there is no such thing as good weather. Conversely, anything that is forbidden and scarce automatically becomes desirable.

The consequences of this link between the law and desire are very far-reaching. What should we do about the idea of a 'policy of tolerance' with regard to any aspect of pleasurable experience, when it is predictable that this pol- icy: (a) makes what is tolerated less attractive, precisely because it is permitted; (b) shifts the boundary of what is desirable onto the next prohibition, to what is not yet tolerated? There is no simple answer to these questions, and they require an ethical and therefore arbitrary stance. However, independently of any position that is adopted, it is predictable that a naive form of liberalism will always carry within it the seeds of its own failure. It is no coincidence that the majority of the peer groups discussed above are working on the development of group norms that are anything but a policy of tolerance. This does not apply solely to the straight-edgers and Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Recent research has shown that the present generation of young people are quite determined to bring up their children much more strictly in the future than they were themselves.

The law does not prohibit desire; it actually brings it to life, together with its object. The actual target of the law is what lies beyond desire—jouissance. The real question then is not so much, what can I and what may I desire, but rather, how far can I go with jouissance? It is the same question that we raised earlier with regard to ancient Greece.


No one has less pleasure than the person who has already had everything. By introducing a particular prohibition, and therefore the related pleasure, the law protects against the ultimate transgression of the ultimate pleasure, in which the subject itself disappears or causes another to disap- pear — the distinction becomes rather vague.

He ends with the duality of Eros and Thanatos, life and death, and an interesting bit on the self destruction that is ‘programmed’ into each of us:

Our understanding fails at this point, which is in itself enough to evoke anxiety. The plain facts are fairly simple. Creatures that reproduce asexually — single-cell organisms, bacteria, viruses, prions, and in the near future, clones — in principle have eternal life, because they merely repeat themselves when they reproduce. Death is an accidental phenomenon and not at all necessary. Creatures that reproduce sexually must die: death is structurally built in to the design.4 The one very particular cell division that characterises this life form, meiosis, results not only in the loss of half of the genetic material, but also, clearly, in the loss of the basic possibility for the individual to have eternal life. The chip that governs the programme contains the instruction to self-destruct after a while.

I biased towards anicent and modern philosophy in school, and most of my knowledge of postmodernism comes through art, literature, and film, not philosophy / academia. So for me, Paul Verhaeghe’s Love in a Time of Loneliness was a nice, easy intro to a bunch of postmodernist academic thinking.

Tweet Like andrew.kortina@gmail.com