What Is Love (In the Time of Tinder)?

Perhaps, within a love ballad blasting through some grocery store speakers, a pulsing nostalgia emerges from your mind, reminding you of what was once “our” song. Maybe, in a third grade classroom, static against the juvenile noise that has erupted from the recess bell, you see it in a red-haired girl: your first crush, the exact crush that will soon become the object of your terrifying hormonal transformation to adulthood. It’s possible that you have even felt it numerous times, a gliding and liberating feeling as, upon attempting to remember one singular romantic venture, you instead squint at a dizzying blur of infinitive lovers, reminders of your commitment-phobia. You now feel empty. Perhaps you have only felt it once, with the force of a million tsunamis, how powerful as it rose to its incredible heights and how destructive were its result as it so suddenly collapsed. For years, you feel unwilling to try again, for fear of its painful return. Or, even worse, you had felt it once, with equal strength, only to realize, day by day, that you have made a tremendous mistake, that your commitment had developed under false pretences or, possibly, that the one you had once fallen for is no longer the same. Unlike a tsunami, this wave erodes the shoreline in its lethal, yet slow, motions. Maybe you travelled to another country and found it within the embrace of an absolute stranger, creating for yourself a passionate familiarity in another world, only to be forced to abandon them for the vague excuse that, simply: life got in the way. Maybe, at some point, you had begun to feel it and yet, in the final hour, despite all of the signs of a promising future coming to fruition, it was ripped away in a harsh and sudden moment of rejection. Maybe you have never felt it and now assume that you never will. You look upon the world with an absolute bitterness, certain that the Hallmark Card image of romance is nothing more than a cruel illusion to propagate an economic behavioural strategy we adorably have decided to call: love.

The question posed by Haddaway in his hit song “What Is Love” is followed by the line “baby don’t hurt me, no more”. Before we ask the biologists, anthropologists, phenomenologists, psychologists, and poets, we should ask ourselves exactly what Haddaway meant when asking the very same question posed by so many before him. “People always ask me about what I meant, (…) I meant that ‘what is love’ needs to be defined by everyone by his own definition. It’s unique and individual. For me, it has to do with trust, honesty, and dedication”

There is something incredibly true about this statement from a human perspective. Love appears to escape definition, forcing the most technical of writers to take on a more poetic approach when dealing with the subject. Each of us struggles to understand it and yet, for the most part, can recognize it with absolute certainty. Lacan does a good job of describing its incomprehensible nature “Imagine you see in front of you a beautiful flower, or a ripe fruit. You reach out your hand to grab it. But at the moment you do, the flower, or the fruit, bursts into flames. In its place you see another hand appear, reaching back towards your own.” However, in the age of information and science, love has been reduced. For many, love is neurochemical, defined by a series of compounds interacting with the brain. With testosterone and estrogen pushing along the process, norepinephrine and dopamine reinforce it, releasing a love cocktail only at the precise moment when certain conditions have been met, at least according to the anthropologist Helen Fisher from Rutgers University. If love can be simply defined by these processes, what then can we do in order to find our perfect partner? What are these perfect conditions? For many geneticists and determinists, our DNA has already formed the deciding criteria in any romantic choice. We like someone and are condemned to do so. This could explain why we so suddenly fall for someone and not for others, a process based upon the Darwinian logic that we love simply in order to reproduce healthy offspring and continue the species. However, if we follow this train of thought, why then has society romanticized romance? Why haven’t we taken the form of two horny squirrels in a park, stripping all customs of love to its animal nakedness?

We have tried to an extent. The founder of OK Cupid has proudly exclaimed that the site uses an algorithm to match ‘suitable partners’. If anything, the rise of these apps, nothing more than get-love-quick games, that reassure our self-worth and narcissism while quenching our thirst for anything other than miserable loneliness, speaks to this idea of love as something not all that special. After all, we see someone physically attractive, swipe right, potentially match, hope to convey the best version of ourselves through text, at least enough to get a date, and hope for the best. No need for formality, luck, chance, or cupid’s arrow if all it takes is a few Silicon Valley nerds to organize the conditions Fisher speaks of. Why fall in love when you can program yourself into love? Well, perhaps thats the issue. Love, of the romantic sort, is naturally defined as an encounter. In various languages, one falls in love. We sit in a cafe one evening and briefly lock eyes with a stranger. Or maybe our fall is much longer in duration, as a friendship slowly melts into passion. This was not always the case, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains. Throughout human history, monogamy and dating were generally designed by your relatives and close family for political or social means. However, as far back as the 1590s, in Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen”, the idea of falling in love, of a spontaneous and formative encounter that surpasses simple social strategy, has existed in our language. For Zizek, this fall has began to increase in rarity, as love organizations, such as Tinder, have replaced the roles of those relatives. “It is love without the fall”.

Zizek has applied his general observation that, in the contemporary era of marketing and consumption, we want the thing without its negative properties. Hence, we have potato chips that promise 0 calories and cigarettes without the promise of lung cancer. This ‘love with training wheels’ promises us with a similar assurance, that we can retain the benefits of love without succumbing to its destructive power. Have we reached the end of love through reduction? Can we continue living and loving knowing full well that, with simply an algorithm and the pure lust to procreate, we can experience true love in its painless form?

Aristotle may have felt quite sad if he saw our 21st century reduced love. He considered genuine love to be incredibly important, if not integral to what would be considered a good life. However, what for Aristotle is genuine love? He sees three versions of relationships. There is the relationship of pleasure, in which the body and desire within it become fulfilled in physical embrace. In terms of sexual exploration and understanding oneself on a physical level, or perhaps even elevating ones social status, casual sex doesn’t appear inherently wrong. However, in understanding what love is, hooking-up isn’t a productive pursuit. Immanuel Kant states plainly “The desire which a man has for a woman is not directed toward her because she is a human being, but because she is a woman; that she is a human being is of no concern to the man; only her sex is the object of his desires.” For Kant, even if both companies ‘enjoy’ their time, there occurs a common disrespect for each others humanity. “They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations.” If one wants true love, they cannot pursue human beings as a means to an end but, instead, should treat them as the end itself.

The second relationship, a relationship of utility, is somewhat an extension of the first. “thus friends (or lovers) whose affection is based on utility do not love each other in themselves, but in so far as some benefit accrues to them from each other.” This can be associated with the gold-digger or business partner, who solely maintain their relations in order to accomplish their personal goals, such as status or wealth. However, it can manifest itself in far more subtle forms, such as when one marries another, not because of some inherent good but, instead, because they are agreeable. Simply put, this person wants to have their voice heard and affirmed and, sadly, the origin of this affirmation matters little as long as it proves itself to be constant.

The third relationship, which Aristotle argues to be the most fulfilling and true, is a relationship of virtue. Firstly, one must develop a deep sense of self-love in order to pursue such a thing. Such love must not spring from hedonistic self-pleasure or self-interested pursuit but instead as a deep and honest reflection on one’s virtue and character. This is of course a lot more difficult than swiping right and tossing your beloved a half-hearted pick-up line. For Aristotle, this love is a fusion of two souls, a process of one soul and two bodies, a sense of self-identification with another, not as a means to an end, but, as Kant suggests, as the end itself. This is reflected in Solomon who argues that, in loving someone, one wants to be better so as to be worthy of their love.

If one is to associate, truly and honestly, their identity with someone else, possessiveness will soon develop. This element of love, of the promise of ever-lasting union, of associating oneself so much with the other to the point where, if your other half was to leave, you would surely experience a deep internal pain, as if an integral piece of your identity had been surgically removed, reflects itself in Haddaway’s sad plea. “Baby don’t hurt me, no more”. That we associate such a positive, all-encompassing act of union and growth with this dreadful fear of loss speaks to our need to avoid the fall.

“I fear you close by, I love you far away” writes Nietzsche in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. This great act of vulnerability, of identifying with another to your greatest extent, is a terrifying scenario. It is not only the fear of loss that terrorizes the one in love but, equally, the painful process of this fusion. Love cannot be practiced or experienced without a certain risk of mutual harm. As observed by both Freud and Schopenhauer, we resemble porcupines who, in attempting to avoid a cold and harsh storm, must huddle together for warm. However, as soon as they draw close they find themselves poked and stabbed by each others quills and quickly realize that they must distance themselves. After a while, they learn that if they maintain a close enough distance, without entirely touching each other, they can remain somewhat warm without hurting each other.

This dance between two lovers, authentic love as Simone de Beauvoir may have called it, in which both tenderly respect each others freedom, is crucial if one is to survive the fall into love. She writes “Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other: neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world.

Why must falling in love be so difficult? Why isn’t it this light, effortless process that exists in every chick-flick and housewife romance? We have tried to simplify it. Even reduced to an algorithm or a science, it continues to cause messes in our personal lives, consume our daily thoughts, and shape our society. No matter how hard we try, the fall is seemingly avoidable. The heartbroken figure, no matter how many drunken nights they spend confessing their pledge to chastity and loneliness, will inevitably fall again and again. Perhaps, it is one of the true markers of our humanity, our simultaneous enslavement to primal urges and our transcendental self, forever seeking further meaning to existence, all bound to the form of a beautiful other. If one is interested in experiencing life to its most colourful and deep offerings, then one ought to love endlessly and, although difficult, find a balance between romantic naivety and lonely cynicism. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell”

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