Not a critique of online dating, not exactly a critique of Marx, definitely a critique of Alain Badiou’s theory of love
Two readings have shunted me (it is not willful!) in the direction of this essay about online dating. (Though, in truth, this essay merely defends the ambiguous status of online dating and is by no means a phenomeno-cultural study.) The first is a passage written by Karl Marx in his now very much published “unpublished Manuscripts” wherein he all too briefly, yet rather provocatively, asserts that we can perceive the justice of the material relations of a society by observing the relationship between men and women in said society. To put it starkly, he states, “…this relationship reveals in a sensuous form, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature for man or nature has become the human essence for man. It is possible to judge from this relationship the entire level of development of mankind (Marx, p. 347).”
I intend to put this statement into context with the second reading, which I associate with this first one because it comes from perhaps the most famous (or second most famous) Marxist writer of our age, Alain Badiou, who offers in a published interview In Praise of Love (a title borrowed from Godard’s movie) a rather glib dismissal of online dating. Quite simply, he believes that online dating prevents the chance-encounter necessary for the event of love. In what will be a concentrated refutation of this assertion, I must dissuade anyone from believing my central wish is to recover the sanctity of online dating from the ideas of philosophers; more interesting to me is the utter lack of thought or critical aptitude on which this bold and manly logic subsists, so much so that it reveals Badiou’s particularly unscientific Marxism, a Marxism which does not even turn to Marx for assistance, but instead siphons from Marx nothing but the crudest of utopic (perhaps Christian) notions, Badiou’s famous truth-procedure concept, in the ‘brain-act’ of valuing the chance-encounter over the online one. So my interest in these two texts in coordination with online dating and my own experience of it lies in the question of material alienation in its most abstract sense (is it absolute? etc.), and the way in which we or specifically Badiou like to imagine that certain events can occur to help overcome this condition. I will state from the outset that alienation is indeed exemplified by online dating, but not in such a way to make online dating exceptionally alienating; for me, online dating has always been just as alienating, just as inorganic, just as unromantic as every other method of sexual pursuit. I mean, is the oldest profession not the gold standard for this kind of alienation?
Let’s contextualize Marx’s quote above: his conclusion about bearing witness to the relationship between men and women follows a critique of what he calls “vulgar communism [rohen Kommunismus]”, a communism which instead of eradicating private property transforms it into a (sui)societal venture (what Marx calls universal private property). Though Marx often bashes these unscientific utopic visions ala Proudhon, here he seems to generalize his critique by imagining that a vulgar communist world would institute a “community of women” prostituted among all the men of the community. “One might say that this idea of a community of women is the revealed secret of this as yet wholly crude and unthinking communism. Just as women are to go from marriage into general prostitution, so the whole world of wealth – i.e. the objective essence of man – is to make the transition from the relation of exclusive marriage with the private owner to the relation of universal prostitution with the community (Marx, p. 346).”
I in no light intend to compare online dating to this conceit (certainly men and women are both universally prostituting themselves on some level in virtual space), what I would like to stress is that Marx’s final conclusion about the relationship between men and women is a conclusion that has both the merit and flaw of suggestion: he intimates a possibility that transcends both marriage and social prostitution, while, very much like the communist vision itself, leaving the details in the dark.
I mean to say, we have nothing if not one of these tautological moralisms: when man is at his best so will his relation to women be at its best. Marx uses the term “species-being [Gattungswesen]” to suggest this tautology, to suggest the natural social order of man. Since our best would be a state (non-state) with neither private nor public (universally private) property, we can transcribe this logic onto Marx’s general theory of labor, where, in the Manuscripts, he uses the term “species-being” once again, and even more generally, in order to define both the problem of capitalist labor (that it strips the laborer of his or her product) and the potential of the Communist world, where man is at last, in the vein of a harmony between men and women, acting in accordance with his nature as species-being. Opposing the error of capitalism to the potential of communism he states, “But productive life is species-life. It is life-producing life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, resides in the nature of its life activity, and free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man (Marx, p. 328).”
The mode of production in capitalism, due to the fetishization of the object in its exchange-value, and due to the fact that the laborer no longer works in freedom for his own species but for another individual man, is the cause of exploitation, which is not simply the alienation of the object or product, exploitation is the alienation of the species-being of man, where man is stricken from his universal capacity.
In other words, we would not be amiss, nor hasty, to utilize Marx’s general critique against capitalism as a way to shed light on the specific issue of sexuality, of gender, etc. As such, however, we hit the same wall in our conception of the ‘correct’ species-being orientation between men and women as we do when we try to conceive the correct species-being orientation towards production. Sure, we have the critique, the alienation, the fact that man seems to be driven further apart from himself and from others in the “anarchy” of capitalism but, given the purported totality of its function in our life, we also cannot describe the ‘correct way, the natural one’ without falling-prey to the fantasy of suggestion. This too seems to explain why Marx’s critique of vulgar communism just like his critique of capitalistic marriage does not produce any picture of the ‘correct way’; rather, it wanders off into the very type of ideological abstraction Marx is well known to despise (see Althusser’s essays in For Marx).
That which is outside of the conceptualized totality of our alienation thus becomes a dialectical ideal, a tautology, a flimsy gust of thought. This fact, and I do believe it is a fact, that Marx (well, anyone for that matter) can never successfully, or let’s say scientifically, expose to light the unalienated experience of human reality, gives us at least some traction to think about online dating. Quite simply, if capital itself has caused an alienating construct that prevents the ‘correct’ relation between the opposite sexes or relations of the same sex variety (clearly Marx is not a Queer theorist, though I don’t doubt his ambiguity leaves open the potential to treat him as such), can we actually conclude that online dating is this evil, modern, capitalistic mode of affection and that stumbling drunk towards someone at a bar, meeting a mate at an Intellectual conference, or even crossing paths with him or her on some poetic crossing of the street defies the logic of capitalistic alienation and allows for the “truth-procedure” of love? Can we, that is, draw lines in the sand within a greater structure of species-being perversion? Can we say that an inherent quality of modern life soils our interactions but not in such a way where authentic experience is prohibited? And then, too, we start to wonder whether or not this wholesome species-being, this communist, has led us off track, perhaps instead we should state that alienation is not simply the workings of capital, but the essence of man. Still, let us look closer at what Badiou has to say, about what is gained in the chance-encounter and what is lost in online dating.
As stated, Badiou believes that online dating eliminates the risk central to the truth-procedure that is love, a gainsay he defends by quoting the slogans of the French dating service Meetic: “Love without suffering”, “Love without chance” and the even more ridiculous “Love without love (Badiou, p. 31)”. Honestly, these slogans are all rather surprising to me here in New York as a general user of OkCupid, a site whose main slogan demands “join the best dating site on earth”, and whose mascot Cupid is nothing more than the symbol of chance. Perhaps I am reading the name incorrectly, but it would seem that an Okcupid user is saying “Ok, Cupid, let’s take a chance”. Now, I am not trying to argue that Badiou simply made deductions from a unique example; no, I am saying instead that given the various possibilities of advertisement, I do believe that Badiou does not “go to the phenomenon itself” by judging online dating through the lens of a rather “odd” campaign. First off, and I can’t believe I even have to say this!, nobody would ever dare to directly equate the desire for a product with its advertisement. What does Badiou think, that Meetic users say, “Why, yes, I don’t want any chance, I want to find the perfectly suitable woman/man, I don’t want any suffering, so Meetic seems the perfect site for me.” This is a terrible misreading of the seduction of online dating. One only needs to read the first lines of every other profile to discover why we use this dispositif (apparatus): 1) looking for a new scene: “I am tired of the bar scene”, “All my work colleagues are gay”, “My friend circle is not cutting it for me” etc. and 2) contagion: “Everyone is doing this, so I thought I should give it a try”. Not to mention probably the most common reason, which is rarely conceded, “I am shy, I am hoping my chances are better in this forum”/ Perhaps if we look at couples who are trying to play out some fantasy, or men and women trying to fulfill their less vanilla inclinations, we observe the desire to ‘curate’ a specific experience. Even this final example, which may seem to align itself more closely with Badiou’s critique, certainly has the potential of a great number of risks, the least of which is the contraction of STD’s. This unique usage of online dating aside, I think the most common experience of online dating is one where all the usual ‘butterflies’ and ‘insecurities’ are transmitted through this apparatus. Badiou himself seems to give us exactly the logical refutation we are looking for when he states: “Nothing enables one to prearrange the encounter – not even Meetic, and all those long, preparatory chats!: in the end, the moment you see each other in the flesh, you see each other, and that’s that, and it’s out of control! (Badiou, p. 31)”. Moreover, the flesh is extended into these “preparatory chats” which, yes, sadly, are capable of transmitting the frisson Badiou can only imagine occurring in the flesh.
Much of this seems quite self-evident and rather fruitless as such, do we really need to demonstrate the artificial techne through which we approach reality? Do we really believe that the digital is less authentic then the chemical? Anyone who even hesitates before these questions must have a hard time with Hegel. In fact, Badiou’s somewhat curmudgeonly dismissal of online dating vitiates any rigorous assessment of the manner in which capitalistic production encroaches on our life. To escape the psychic influence of technology is it really as easy as “Let’s just meet in the library stacks like we used to”? It is the danger of the reactionary, the danger of a father telling you how he used to do things—and how well it worked out for him, that I find must appalling about Badiou’s now famous critique of online dating.
Badiou neglects the far more disturbing investigations concerning how our new technology in fact does transform our relations to each other, to the point where the noble reader of Badiou who opts to close his or her online account and pursue love the old-fashioned way finds that the world in which online dating can exist renders this puritanical endeavor entirely impotent in the totalizing structure of fiber-optic capital. This is a very clear example of where Badiou leaves what we can call, in concert with Althusser, the science of historical materialism behind, opting instead to cull from Marx the much less dependable ‘vision of the future’. As Bruno Bosteels explains in his introduction to Badious’s Theory of the Subject: “… Badiou repeatedly rejects any notion of a ‘science of history’ that would be embodied in Marx’s own study and critique of the political economy of advanced capitalism, in favour of a militant definition of the reference to texts by Marx, Lenin, and Mao in concrete political experiments (Bosteels in Badiou, p. xix).” Bosteels describes this inclination as a partiality towards the logic of the Communist Manifesto, which we can align with the period of the Manuscripts discussed above, over that found in Das Capital.
Suffering from the same fever for revolution (dangling modifier), for Badiou, the question of the relationship between man and woman is not a question of a general habit induced by the artifacts of modernity but a question of love itself, an authentic event, a “truth-procedure”. In other words, Badiou is only interested in how we break out of the mold, which would explain why he can respond to the technologies disseminating love without any dialectical finesse. It is thus that I view Badiou’s dismissal of online dating as symptomatic of a concept of love that continues to favor “militancy” and “revolution” over a “critique of the political economy of advanced capitalism,” a symptom which also reveals its error in the vacuous descriptions that we are compelled to make when describing the ‘correct way’ to either love or live.
First, then, we must describe Badiou’s theory of love, hoping to discover how it relates to the militant politics of communist revolution (despite his own denial that there is anything political about love) and how this concept necessitates the chance-encounter online dating somehow forecloses entirely. Let me just say for all those who have not glanced through Being and Event recently that Badiou designates 4 loci of truth-procedures, love is one of them, and the other three are politics, science, and art. Each of these loci are capable of producing events: with science it is very much an epistemological shift in the sense of Kuhn or Foucault, with politics it is essentially the event of communism, with art it is the introduction of a new mode of perception, of thought, of experience, and with love it is, in a mathematical sense, when 1 and 1 becomes 2, when identity becomes difference. Here in this long quotation we can listen to Badiou explain why ‘true love’ is a truth procedure unique from dissimulating procedures of love such as that of the website Meetic:
“First, there is the romantic interpretation that focuses on the ecstasy of the encounter. Secondly, what we referred to briefly when discussing the Meetic dating agency, the interpretation based on a commercial or legalistic perspective, which argues that love must in the end be a contract. A contract between two free individuals who would presumably declare that they love each other, though they never forget the necessary equality of the relationship, the system of mutual benefits, etc. Finally, there is the sceptical interpretation that turns love into an illusion. My own philosophical view is attempting to say that love cannot be reduced to any of these approximations and is a quest for truth. What kind of truth? you will ask. I mean truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? (Badiou, pp. 21-22)”.
Though his first example of dissimulating love places the chance encounter outside of ‘correct’ love, he returns to this point later, clarifying that the first encounter, though not the consummation of love, is indeed a necessary element for “The Arena of Love”. “I think many people still cling to a romantic conception of love that in a way absorbs love in the encounter. Love is simultaneously ignited, consummated and consumed in the meeting, in a magical moment outside the world as it really is. Something happens that is in the nature of a miracle, an existential intensity, an encounter leading to meltdown (Badiou, p. 30).”
From this we glean that ‘something’ of the chance encounter is necessary, and so we can properly conceive of the danger online dating might pose: it eliminates the necessary chance. For Badiou, the “work or labor” of love, which is the truth procedure of love, has a relation or relates to the “moment of destiny” while constitutively moving beyond it. Thus he explains that those who remain bound by the chance-encounter remain as “One” and have yet to develop, sublate or proceed to the “Two”. We should note here that Badiou claims that many of us today still possess this Romantic idea of love, that we “absorb love in the encounter”—an idea which certainly contradicts the many of us who use online dating to avoid it entirely. I personally believe this is part of the inconsistency of his logic here: nowhere does Badiou systematically oppose the yearning for the encounter with the destruction of it; instead, he simply uses both conceits to delineate what a truth-procedure is not.
What then is this truth procedure, this work of love, where: “an apparently insignificant act, but one that is a really radical event in life at a micro-level, bears universal meaning in the way it persists and endures (Badiou, p. 41).” Do we find any description in Badiou’s logic more concrete than what we found in Marx’s Manuscripts? Not exactly.
Later in In Praise of Love, Badiou tells us that the disagreements that occur in love “are the sharpest experience of the conflict between identity and difference (Badiou, p. 62 )”. So that love does not “melt” into the fate of the encounter but constantly oscillates within the “dialogue” of the “Two” as they attempt to bring forth this universal act, or “accomodate eternity in life”. Though Badiou tells us not to confuse love with politics (it seems easier not to confuse it with science or art) since it is not concerned with upsetting the codes of the state but with a private interaction between the “Two”, it is also in this idea of eternity and universality that we cannot miss the metaphysical formula that equates the event of all truth-procedures. “But love, the essence of which is fidelity in the meaning I give to this word, demonstrates how eternity can exist within the time span of life itself. Happiness, in a word! Yes, happiness in love is the proof that time can accommodate eternity. And you can also find proof in the political enthusiasm you feel when participating in a revolutionary act, in the pleasure given by works of art and the almost supernatural joy you experience when you at last grasp in depth the meaning of a scientific theory (Badiou, pp. 48-49).”
This amazing passage, which views eternity as somehow “negotiable”, and which places happiness within our grasp after more then 2000 years of rejecting such a naïve idea, not only brings all the truth-procedures together, it explains that, along with happiness, enthusiasm, pleasure and joy are the affective records or experiences of the event itself. He also designates “fidelity” the action or subjective orientation towards the event, so that he can later claim that all this pleasure and happiness consummates in “fidelity”, where any “truth procedure” but specifically love: “transition[s] from [a] random encounter to a construction that is resilient, as if it had been necessary (Badiou, p. 44).”
It is exactly here that I think we can appraise a general logic that permeates each event, one that prevails in Badiou’s effervescent confidence in communism, claiming throughout his oeuvre that the Paris Commune, the Shanghai Commune, and May ’68 are political events (or fractions of the major one) to which we must remain faithful. I believe Badiou inadvertently exposes the connection between love and communism in response to a question asking him to distinguish them, thus producing a general theory of capital where both love and communism “escape” alienation.
So, when asked why love is not political, he responds, “When I talk of the Communist hypothesis, I simply want to suggest that future forms of the politics of emancipation must be inscribed in a resurrection, a re-affirmation, of the Communist idea, the idea of a world that isn’t given over to the avarice of private property, a world of free association and equality…In such a framework, it will be easier to re-invent love than if surrounded by capitalist frenzy. Because we can be sure that nothing disinterested can be at ease amid such frenzy (Badiou, p. 73).” So that though love is not identical to the political truth-procedure, the success of the truth-procedure of communism would fashion “new possibilities” for love, a greater potential in other words, a potential no longer hindered by the frenzy of capital.
Here we see how Meetic, the online dating site, is no longer a specific error in the system of capital, it is the epitomizing example, at least within his text. It demonstrates the entire problem with capitalistic identity: “The reactionary project is always the defence of “our values”, casting us in the mold of worldwide capitalism as the only possible identity. The impulse driving reaction is always a crude reference to identity in one form or another. Now, when the logic of identity wins the day, love is under threat. The way it is attracted to difference, its social dimension, and its wild, eventually violent side are under threat. They promote a “love” that is safe, in line with all their other security initiatives. (Badiou, p. 98).”
It is exactly in the fable of online dating that we can see the dimension of alienation up close, in real-time, in such a way that this frenzy of identity grows a callous over any notion of difference. However, due to the very nature of this example, it can no longer pretend to be anything more than a foreground for the total structure Badiou prophetically rails against. In other words, when Badiou pits love against Meetic at the beginning of the text we find out later that this is a metonymy for a more generic struggle: that between love and capital. And if we also think about how both love and communism are similar, or have “a common resonance” in their ‘breaking eternity’, then we see that love like communism defies capital, which is also why Badiou later concedes “love is the minimal form of communism”. So that, for Badiou, love is like a little communist revolution you get to have on the side, while you are still waiting for the real one.
If I originally hypothesized that Badiou leaves out the methodical “science” of Marx’s Das Capital, it is only when he uses it in its colloquial form (frenzied capital) that he reveals an analogy I would assume he would rather hide: that all truth-procedures hearken back to the “dream” aspect of Marx, where capital disappears and along with it property, exploitation and alienation. However, by placing love inside capital in the manner implied by a love that simply negotiates capital correctly (does not use online dating), we encounter, I think in a much more blatant manner, the disappointment Adorno felt towards Benjamin when he seemed to place the messianic within the structure of capital, thereby, according to Adorno’s logic, affirming the reactionary structure to some extent. I say Badiou is more blatant because of style, because of the bold face in which Badiou proclaims his own experience of the truth-procedure of love, of happiness, in comparison to the riddle-like messianism of Benjamin. In consequence, we see a glaring contradiction in Badiou’s logic: the event, fashioned around communism, both requires a total usurpation and is also capable of a localized one. By telling us that love is not political though still indeed an event, we deduce that communism is already among us in a sense, though this concept can only function if we maintain the possibility of the total event. In other words, either the localized event of love reduces the aspiration for communism or love is simply not an event, since it is not total.
Just as Marx in his Manuscripts presents a truly aporetic unqualified vision of a “correct” relationship between man and woman, the event of love suffers from the tautology of the beyond or the natural. It is by suffering as much that its resonance with communism proper obtains: events for Badiou are the possibility of moving beyond capital, where at last we could judge the relationship between men and women, between capitalist and laborer, satisfactorily, where, in fact, we must imagine the relation so transfigured that it does not even perpetuate these divisions, which are inherently capitalistic. So that the difference of the “Two” necessitates the same absolution as the disappearance of property itself.
Althusser has argued that we must not conflate Marx’s early Manuscripts with the scientific project of Das Capital. He writes, “Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of a fundamental investigation (Althusser, p. 26).” Engels himself was so frustrated by the absence in Das Capital: Volume II of Marx’s youthful fantasies that he initially told Friedrich Adolph Sorge: “The second volume will provoke great disappointment because it is purely scientific and does not contain much material for agitation (Marx, p. 9)”. But, for Althusser, the science, the critique we find in Das Capital, is Marx’s mature attempt to escape Hegelian Idealism, an Idealism encapsulated in the aporia of Badiou’s event. Though we may find something appealing in Badiou’s rejection of the critical capacity of Marx’s work, in his militant return to Marx’s ‘dreams of communism’, Badiou risks the very vulgarity of the communists Marx was keen to avoid when he eventually grounded his theory in the science of historical materialism. Badiou subsumes Marx’s science into the situation, the state, the one, and oppposes the event of the “truth-procedure” to what is no longer proven to be unjust but is simply presumably so (i.e. we all know capitalism is bad, let’s not even examine why). Badiou’s isolation of online dating corroborates this vulgarity. For he makes a bargain with capital, he tells us to use the “ less” alienating techne.
Badiou’s rejection of online dating thus requires a general lack of thought, the absence of a science, or a dialectic. It is the very “dream” of communism, of the beyond, that permits him this trespassing. Certainly, I have no intention of denying online dating’s implication; however, if we simply deny the way in which all products now before us are implicated in alienation; if we begin to balance ourselves in such a way where a proletariat (read dispossessed) potential need only occur with the right alienating object, we push the problem into the future while making claim that we are fighting back. As such, this whole essay, which I am still at a loss as to why it was written, begins now, where the labor of thought is not shirked by the pleasure of dreaming. I also would simply note that whenever anyone singles out online dating for propagating superficiality, for creating a culture of “love ‘em and leave ‘em”, for demeaning all of us to formulations and cunning photography, this is yet another case of historical amnesia. I truly believe that the only way to recuperate the event of communism, as the total event, would be to deny ourselves love until the time when there is no more property, on that day love will come easy to us, because we will be in tune with our Gattungswesen.
Althusser, Louis. For Marx, 2010.
Badiou, Alain. In Praise of Love, 2009.
Badiou, Alain. Theory of the Subject, 2009.
Marx, Karl. Early Writings, 1992.
Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume II, 1978.