Chapter two � the second layer of Love
A reminder: please read the endnotes � if you haven’t already done so for the last chapter, now might be a good time. Now, as I was saying at the end of our last episode: The first layer of love � rooted in radical subjectivity � rescued us from humiliation and inauthenticity. The second layer of love extends outside the self to those around us. It catalyzes an empathy, an understanding of those with whom we interact in our daily lives as radical subjects themselves. Love is the ability to see the familiar in the foreign; thus Vaneigem envisions love teaching us “”to love only oneself through other people, to be loved by others through the love they own themselves” (Vaneigem 251). The love born of radical subjectivity now evolves to take on the challenge of community. In doing so it must overcome the same obstacles abroad that it with which it tangled at home � reification, passivism, and spectacular pretenders to the throne of love.
critique of isolation
Further testaments to the reach of the spectacle: That the majority of adults in this country live alone. That the majority of people find this fact of little concern. That we internalize power’s perspective and justify our solitary confinement through the grails of ambition and independence. That our isolation is something we chose, and something we could just as easily overcome.
Vaneigem sees the story a bit differently than the traditional narrative of excited young professionals ‘exploring their options’ and content septuagenarians reflecting peacefully on their lives. His opening anecdote in his chapter on “Isolation” � a bit less cryptic than most of his others � is a direct allegory of the confinement of humanity: “It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open, without their being able to escape”. In Vaneigem’s story, the poor animals are “estranged from everything outside the cage” and only act within the cage to give life a “little meaning” (Vaneigem 38). What better example of this cage than the dominant “Reality”? � where individual actions matter only insofar as they cohere to this Reality, from which flows the sole meaning in the animals’ life.
Vaneigem uses this rather blunt anecdote to outline his critique of spectacular isolation. Above all else, he seeks to show its existence as an essential condition of the spectacle, rather than out of some kind of voluntarism. Secondly, Vaneigem argues that isolation only exists because of the pathetic animals’ inability to love � their inability to recognize their own subjectivity and � through one failure, another � their inability to empathize so that each others’ histories and sufferings are as their own. Vaneigem also argues that such an ugly reality is masked by a spectacular “Reality”, the atmosphere of false community that dares call itself ‘society’.
According to his anecdote, every woman’s cage is her castle, the fortress of her pride and possessions. And every woman’s castle has walls that separate her from every other woman, creating a billion different cages with a billion different Realities, all sharing but one thing � their loneliness. Sound familiar? That�s probably because it’s acted out every day all over the world. How many people tuned in to depression to watch the same prefabricated television program about somebody else’s happiness, at the same preordained time, each of them alone? But ever more insidious for Vaneigem than physical separation is psychological separation � that even when we are together, the bonds among us are not those of community, but of isolation.
“We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together” (Vaneigem 39). Vaneigem asks us to analyze our everyday relations, to create lucidity in our lives and to understand our feelings when walking through crowded streets, thrown together on a public bus with “statistical indifference,” or watching a movie. Such lucidity comes out of love, the great liberator from spectacular perspective and status quo. To understand how alone we truly are is to understand each other; to understand that every other woman walking down that street, brisk pace and blank face, fears loneliness just as desperately and clings just as tightly to the false illusion of community. The illusion that ruptures so quickly, as a dollar bill floats lightly to the floor, or terror grips us at the thought of missing the elevator. Where is our community then? Drowning in a vat of isolation.
In disregarding the possibility of community within spectacular encounters, Vaneigem shows community’s centrality to his own philosophy. “Real community remains to be created” � his matter of fact annunciation that it is the solemn intent of the Situationist International to do just that. For real community must be based on love; on a shared appreciation of humanity; on an activist interest in the lives of others. Real community must be based on real communication; whereas in the spectacle, false communication is the order of the day. No real communication is possible when “everyone [is] the policeman of his own encounters” (Vaneigem 39). Where is the free exchange of love in the spectacle? Fallen far behind the free exchange of consumable goods, I would imagine.
And ordinary conversation? Our constrained encounters seldom allow for something that mild. How often have you thought to ask the time, but been discouraged, anxious, then waited for someone else, someone more familiar, perhaps? How often have you looked away when crossing paths with another stranger, just in time to barely notice she was doing the same? How many times are children taught to smile at strangers out of love, and how times are they taught to keep there mouths shut out of fear? And for what � to save the pleasures of molestation for the family pastor instead of the neighborhood pedophile?
And pleasantries? Our “nomansland of impersonal relationships” only allows for the morality of shopkeepers � “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. Can no one really say what she thinks? It’s always “things aren’t so bad really” � because emotional ‘investment’ in a conversation is a bit too risky. Any why emote? responds the spectacle, when people mustn’t waste their energy on each other � there are things to be done. Here we have the new politeness, internalized deep within us: though the sentiments behind ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ have gone by the wayside, the “art of non-communication” has not.
critique of time
In the realm of daily life, or its lack, the spectacle scores its greatest gains. Every time we walk away, every glance at the watch, every anxious moment that we should be doing something productive is a moment of the spectacle living our lives. The new activism is a war against spectacular time.
The practical consequence of submission to spectacular time is that one never really lives, for one never really has the time. For with spectacular time comes spectacular appropriation � you must sleep eight hours every night, work eight hours every day, and spend your remaining eight hours in sanctified forms of leisure: television, the newspaper, fast food, solipsism. No room for extraneous passions that do not add to the balance sheet of production and consumption. No extra-economic activity. And why not? No time to do so. “I don�t have the time” is the most fascinating self-deception of our era. A total abdication of free will in a few simple words: complete ignorance of the sentence’s odious implications. Unless the person is busy living, unless every moment thus allocated in her life is allocated poetically, such a statement is nothing more than the living certifying her own desire to die. “I don�t have time” codifies “I am too caught up in my own death to bother living”. This is Vaneigem’s radical interpretation � since “whatever you possess possesses you in return,” then you are owned by the time that you carelessly allocate to work and organized leisure. And then, of course, you wonder (and discuss) where all the time went. Vaneigem’s answer: “Time-which-slips-away is what fills the void created by the absence of the self” (Vaneigem 154). We are so eager to lose time � just as we are so eager to flee freedom � because we fear self-realization. It has been too long since the days of spontaneous poetry: our heart turns away from joy itself. Vaneigem is trying to reawaken the revolutionary impulse, to seize control over the time in our lives and ‘spend’ it in love instead of in malls. For Vaneigem, “we were worn born never to grow old, never to die. All we can hope for, however, is an awareness of having come too soon. And a healthy contempt for the future can at least ensure us a rich portion of life” (Vaneigem 155). Teleology is mystification � all exhortations to put off the present for the idyllic future are insults leveled at life. The spectacle, the eternal present, seeks to sublimate our aspirations, our impulses, our inner poetry into an eternal future. Through an activist mindset, though a conscious desire to live as we choose and not by the schedules of authority, by the calendars of oppression, we take back the present.
isolation and suffering: voyeurism and altruism
If we’re going to be taking back anything, it’s going to have to be together. The revolution is not a singular venture, nor is it possible through the movement of unmotivated masses � it relies upon community.
This notion, community, underlies Vaneigem’s struggle against the spectacle’s main operating principle: divide-and-conquer. Overcoming the notion that other people are mere objects is a giant leap forward on the path to love, and therefore to revolution. As Vaneigem puts it, “hierarchical social organization is like a system of hoppers lined with sharp blades. While it flays us alive, power cleverly persuades us that we are flaying each other” (Vaneigem 48). Vaneigem pushes community as the antidote � that clever beast which overcomes individual insecurities (through its basis in love) and brings people together to appreciate each other and, therefore, to flay power. Vaneigem’s community roots itself in personal happiness, in delight. For “suffering results from constraint. A portion of pure delight, no matter how tiny, will hold it at bay. To work for delight and authentic festivity is barely distinguishable from preparing for a general insurrection” (Vaneigem 51). That is, once again, the projects of individual joy, liberation from suffering, and general insurrection are one and the same.
The beauty of love in dealing with suffering is love’s ability to bridge the gaps of isolation � to truly give one subject an appreciation of the suffering of someone else. To do this, love has to transcend the tricky dialectic of spectacular suffering, which Vaneigem describes as follows (Vaneigem 47):
“Perhaps it is to ensure that a universal desire to perish does not take hold of men that a whole spectacle is organized around particular sufferings. A sort of nationalized philanthropy impels each person to find consolation for his own infirmities in the spectacle of other people’s. Consider disaster photographs, stories of cuckolded singers, or the grotesque dramas of the gutter press. And at the other end of the scale, the hospitals, asylums and prisons � real museums of suffering for the use of those whose fear of going in there makes them rejoice to be on the outside.”
Here is one of the spectacle’s received options for suffering: a glorification of the ills of others, and a thanksgiving that we do not share a similar fate. Because nobody understands our own sufferings, we are goaded into making light � or inventing � the sufferings of others. Earthquakes captivate the news for a few hours, just long enough that we can get our taste of destruction, to appreciate all the more our own pathetic existences. Pure voyeurism. In its more ‘positive’ incarnations, voyeurism appears as the cult of fame � People Magazine and the cult of Jennifer Aniston’s waistline.
Of course, the other option we’re given to process suffering is equally unattractive � altruism (Vaneigem 49):
“The viewpoint of altruism, or of solidarity, turns the meaning of equality on its head. It becomes nothing but the common anguish of isolated associates who are humiliated, fucked over, beaten down, cuckolded and content with it… equality in the great family of man reeks of the incense of religious mystification. You need a stuffed-up nose to miss the stink.”
Altruism, for Vaneigem, couples knowledge of anguish with ignorance of one’s own subjectivity. Instead of finding strength in each other we seek weakness. Instead of seeking to help one another out of love, we do so out of contempt and pity, out of a desire to feel better about ourselves. Why do so many people give money to charities and not time � out of empathy with those who are cold, hungry, destitute? Or is it a half-baked guilt, not strong to change one’s everyday life, which haunts people around taxtime, whose only alleviation is to toss pennies at the poor?
Both of these reactions � voyeurism and altruism � emerge from a vision of suffering clouded by constraints. These are our options in the spectacle: a fake solidarity with those that suffer, coupled darkly with the glory of not being one of them, or a bitter joy in “helping people”, in ministering to the unfortunate without really understanding what is truly unfortunate about their lives, much less our own. Situationist love allows us to see beyond these constraints; love gives us the desire to end our own suffering as well as the sufferings of others. When love enters this ugly picture, it hurdles the spectacular dialectic to land in a space where one can truly understand the suffering of others, because one has consciously affirmed their existence as subjects. This love transcends its own incarnation as self-affirmation, and � in the conquest of suffering � re-manifests itself as empathy; the shared feeling between subjects of their mutual beauty and fate.
The reflex of identity
Vaneigem further elaborates the second layer of love, empathy, as the “reflex of identity”. Perhaps the best example of this reflex is his own: Vaneigem is not in the business of organizing a worldwide revolutionary society. His book is about a personal struggle to accept radical subjectivity and love in their totality, for himself. Consequently, he sees its effect as helping people on a personal level, to choose and live their immediate relationships with the harmonization of subjectivities in mind. In his own words, “Nothing gives me the right to speak in the name of other people. Yet at the same time I cant help thinking that my life is not of concern to me alone, but that I serve the interests of thousands of other people by living the way I live, and struggling to live more intensely and more freely” (Vaneigem 247).
When Vaneigem speaks of the totality, he speaks of the totality for the self. Sure, he thinks a total revolution of creativity, love, and play would be a beautiful thing � but his treatise is directed towards the individual reader, the young woman in search of the root of her malaise in spectacular society. For each person, then, Vaneigem impresses the notion that “all subjectivities are different, but all contain an identical desire for complete self-realisation” (Vaneigem 246). This is subjectivity radically understood, not merely as solipsism (fuck the world) or objectivism (fuck everyone in the world), but as community. Our everyday relationships, from the perfunctory kisses on the cheek we give to our wives and mothers to each time we deny eye contact to those who serve us to each time we unwittingly insult a friend � each of these interpersonal actions must be reinterpreted through this lens of radical, and thus communal, subjectivity. To do any less, to go on living without understand that each encounter is with another person as confused and struggling as you are, and thus deserves the respect and compassion you owe yourself, is to have understood nothing. True community needs both radical subjectivity and the reflex of identity. Without them there is only isolation, for “those who cannot see themselves in other people are condemned for ever to be strangers to themselves” (Vaneigem 247).
The reflex of identity is the negation of identification, the spectacle’s tool for destroying subjectivity and manufacturing personality: “through identification we lose our uniqueness in the multiplicity of roles; through the reflex of identity we strengthen the wealth of our individual possibilities in the unity of federated subjectivities” (Vaneigem 246). To decipher such a sentence is somewhat of a chore, but the meaning is clear nevertheless. The “unity of federated subjectivities” is Vaneigem’s definition for community; It is the notion that a group of subjective individuals have understood their basic humanity in common and treat each other as such. Thus, the reflex of identity, in opposition to defining yourself on other people, helps you find yourself in the hearts and minds of others. As a result, a community founded with the reflex of identity in mind negates of the ‘communities’ of isolation, competition, and dishonesty we find in the spectacle. It would be marked by a strength in unity, collaboration, and transparency: while there is no reason to speak truth in a society based upon falsehood, there is every reason to be honest in a community founded upon clarity and understanding.
Love and isolation
How then the transition? Vaneigem opts for a “radical and tactically worked-out refusal, rather than going around knocking politely on all the doors where one mode of survival is exchanged for another” (Vaneigem 42). What he means by this is the revolution of love, or � more precisely � the redefinition of spectacular love to include both the first and second layers above, radical subjectivity and the reflex of identity.
In the way of demonstration, I quote one of my favorite passages from the book in full (Vaneigem 41):
“Love in its turn swells the illusion of unity. Most of the time it founders and is aborted in triviality. Its songs are crippled by the fear of always returning to the same single note: the icy fear, whether there are two of us or ten, of finishing up alone as before. What drives us to despair is not the immensity of our unsatisfied desires, but the moment when our newborn passion discovers its own emptiness. My insatiable desire to fall in love with so many pretty girls is born in anguish and the fear of loving: we are so afraid of never escaping from meetings withobjects. The dawn when lovers leave each other’s arms is the same dawn that breaks on the execution of revolutionaries without a revolution. Isolation á deux cannot overpower the general isolation. Pleasure is broken off prematurely and lovers find themselves naked in the world, their actions suddenly ridiculous and pointless. No love is possible in an unhappy world.
Love’s boat breaks up on the reefs of the everyday.
Are you ready to smash the reefs of the old world before they wreck your desires? Lovers should love their pleasure with more consequence and more poetry. A story tells how Prince Shekour captured a town and offered it to his favorite for a smile. Some of us have fallen in love with the pleasure of loving without reserve � passionately enough to offer our love the magnificent bed of a revolution.”
Spectacular love � melodrama and daisies and everything else � swells the illusion of being together. This is the lie of the spectacle � the pretense of unity when separation lies underneath. But how beautiful a failure! How poignant a realization that even when we perceive ourselves to be in love, we are the most afraid of being alone, afraid of losing the most vibrant illusion we have. For this reason, even spectacular love is to be encouraged, then liberated. For through spectacular love � through this icy fear of being alone, this proximity to despair, this imminent discovery of our own emptiness � do we truly become aware of our relationship with the spectacle. Therefore the heights of spectacular love bring us closest to a reversal of perspective. The incredible lie that we can love in the spectacle dramatizes the entire lie of the spectacle, and presents disavowal � a radical refusal of spectacular anything � as a viable option. Only then, only once we reject the spectacular idea of love and grasp the idea of love predicated in subjectivity, only then do we meet and fall in love with subjects. Only then does a relationship transcend the laws of exchange that permeate our world. Only then can we truly appreciate each other as loving creatures. And with such a realization comes the realization that everyone lived realized once, that even the few who attain the reversal of perspective are still alienated and isolated by the general condition. That is:
Love’s boat breaks up on the reefs of the everyday.
The notion of spectacular love cannot survive an everyday life devoid of real love, and therefore the desire to love is the desire to change your own everyday life, and such a radical desire also asserts the subjectivity of others, which is inseparable from the desire for revolution. The question of rejecting power’s perspective � of smashing the reefs of the dominant forms � is the question of how important it is to live and love in your own life. Only those who truly want to live should do so, and those who truly want to love must do so. Only then can lovers, like Prince Shekour, love with true consequence. Only once our hearts have been broken can we truly love, can we truly give everything away. And the ultimate experience of love, the ultimate testament to woman’s desire to love, is revolution, the total reordering of the world � the destruction of hierarchy and oppression � to rework the world in love’s image, that is, the magnificent bed of revolution.
Thus, when we reach the moment “when no illusion can measure up to our distress”, when we understand that � even in spectacular love � we are alone in this world, we can attain a desire to overcome such isolation, a desire both born and realized through love. Born through the radical subjectivity that is self-love, the prerequisite for all other forms of love, and realized through the reflex of identity, a recognition of the subjectivity of others, a recognition of each human’s desire to live her own life and express her own humanity. This recognition leads to true community, the harmonization of subjectivities and the rejection of the perspective of separation. This is the path of love out of the cages of isolation.