Valentine’s Day

This post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.

Not again? Are you home alone on Valentine’s day, feeling yourself like a miserable old ghost, excluded from the feast of love? If so, you could join up with the ‘one-billion-rising’, the global feminist campaign which, in the footsteps of Eve Ensler seventeen years ago, turned Valentine’s Day into V-Day. Women and men everywhere are being urged to take a stand against violence against women, so often perpetrated through sexual assault. Here the V stands for Victory over men’s Violence against Women. It is a victory that is to be achieved through, among other things, everybody learning to love, instead of hating and abusing, the Vagina. It’s a crucial movement, with rape culture still endemic around the world.

But let me return to my opening question, the thought of being home alone on Valentine’s Day. Are we unlovable if tonight we find ourselves undatable, living alone, outside any couple? Of course not! We all know that there are so many different kinds of love, some might even reflect, like Jeanette Winterson this time last year, that all our relationships are based on love of different kinds: ‘If we could try to experience love as a quality – like compassion or courage – and focus less on love as an event, something that happens, then love would belong to us, rather than being dependent on us belonging to someone’.

In his conversation, In Praise of Love, the philosopher Alain Badiou echoes some of Winterson’s thoughts, though reinstating the couple as the site of ‘love’. Disdaining what he sees, rather oddly, as the ‘risk-free’ commercialization of love in internet dating, Badiou affirms the truth of ‘love’ in the movement from the chance encounter to the challenging commitment of an enduring recognition and acceptance of ‘difference’ between two people, as each negotiates a shared encounter with the world, no longer ‘from the perspective of the One, but from the perspective of the Two’.

Love may indeed be best seen as a quality of commitment, acceptance and enduring negotiation. However there is surely a little more to add when Winterson or Badiou object, as many do, to the commodification of the trade in ‘love’ nowadays, exemplified by those roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day. This is because, even when free from the taint of commercialism, love is always shadowed by various forms of envy, dread of abandonment, and more, on the one hand; constraint and fears of suffocation, on the other.

This underbelly of love persists, whether we see ‘love’ as a type of event (the expression of desire, the occurrence of sexual activity, the declaration of strong affection); or alternatively, as a quality of lasting attachment and care (trying to be always dependable, supportive, comforting, responsive, in sharing one’s life with another). In a brief meditation on the risks of love the philosopher Judith Butler agrees, when she writes, ‘love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.’ The archetypal bond of love, that of a child for its mother, conveys it all; soon enough the child will be caught between need and flight, even as the mother was perhaps once caught between fear and flight at the initial total dependence of the infant on her ceaseless ministrations.

We could all love each other more, even that passing stranger, and the world be a better, indeed unrecognizable, place. But who dares ask for love without fear of rejection? It is the horror of the pitying smugness of the securely (or insecurely) coupled that single people experience, especially on Valentine’s Day. Now where exactly can I find those billion people rising, tonight?

Listen to a podcast from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosopy’s lecture series ‘The Importance of Being Human’ (2011). Professor Lynne Segal and Professor Stephen Frosh discuss : Is love possible?

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