Love By Any Means Possible (and The Postmodern Condition of Desire)
“Love is something like a theater of the world but with only two people in the audience,”
-Alain Badiou, “What is love, sexuality and desire?,”[i]
In 1909, E.M. Forester wrote the “The Machine Stops.” He described a future world where people live privately in rooms and interact with one another via screens connected to one unifying machine. People only relate to each other remotely, until one mother and son seek each other in person and share in the natural world. The story is obviously prophetic of the postmodern condition, where we now connect to one another by connecting to machines and co-viewing the theater of the world online. In the story however, people trust the machine as the life source. The machine becomes not only the means for their love but also the object of the relationship, and of devotion.
Romantic love involves sharing an exclusive vision of one another and the world. And all relations require some degree of seeing the present together and visioning a future. So like any generation, we are sharing our view, but unlike the past, we are physically engaging with technology, touching the machine, to generate the vision. We are then loving via typing, texting, and logging in. There is of course someone on the other end of a text or video chat, but the means of communication have become so accessible, and so far reaching, that we are seeing a shift in how we love with a rising dedication to means that privilege the immediacy of desire.
More and more of the world “gets love” from websites, social media and icons to the point that 25% of all new love relationships are formed online. A recent study found that when people were prevented from connecting online for only 24 hours, they “felt lonely,” and “isolated.”[ii] Connecting via technology however normally means being alone. And even in an email or chat with another person, we are frequently connected to other things online, reducing any relationship to one among many things. And those relationships, along with everything else in technology, have a new urgency that speaks more of desire than love. Desire drives us toward impossible satisfaction that needs to be resolved again and again. Most technology is driven by the ethics of desire – “meet your needs now.” By contrast love is aligned with the eternal, with patient endurance and ultimately a resolution of desire, without end. Love gives us the sense of greater life beyond the self, what Lacan called “be-eternal-ing.”[iii]
In a recent essay for The Guardian, John Walters explained that with the internet people have reduced the great significance of love to something equivalent to a product you can order online, to the point that “love – this great irrational driver of humanity – has become an object, which people wish to be fully informed about, choose rationally, and not suffer any unexpected disappointments from.”[iv] But if we only order our love online, and do not fulfill it, work at it and endure it in the lived world, then we are not in the Marxist sense, resolving the commodity fetishism, nor in the Christian sense, living out unconditional love. Walters also explained that we are relying on an appearance of rationality in technological devices. Our devices seem driven by reason, so love, which typically overdetermines reason, now seems more in our control. But the interactive nature also puts us under technology’s command. If you want to know what has your love and devotion, look no further than the bookmarks on your computer screen.
Technology alone cannot erode humanity. The world is already broken. We are called to love God and one another above all other things and can see an increase in contemporary means. While it seems obvious that the means of love are not the source, we become emotionally invested in devices and forms of communicating. Feeling the “need” to check texts, emails and other messages rises from the genuine, deeper human condition that longs to be needed and to love. We can socially say “I need to check my email,” more than, “I need to be loved and I need to love others.” The accepted emphasis on the means is the great risk Forester wrote of, that we begin to think of anything as more necessary than love.
[iii] Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge (Book XX, Encore 1972-1973), Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Trans. Bruce Fink, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 40.