On Derrida On Love
A note on translation before we begin: If I am quoting Derrida, who speaks almost entirely in French in this particular source, I am not actually quoting Derrida. I am instead quoting the subtitles attributed to him, on account of my relatively low ability in French and also the fact that he speaks quite fast, speaks like a philosopher, and is, in his inimitable poststructural manner, difficult enough to decipher as it is. Suffice to say that, if I had a Derrida level grasp of the French language, I would translate the interview myself. Regrettably, I do not.
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There is a video on youtube, roughly five minutes long, entitled “Jacques Derrida On Love and Being”. It is an interview, or part of an interview (the date of which is left unclear, though the video was uploaded in 2007, 3 years after Derrida’s death), where the interviewer asks Derrida to speak on love; “just whatever you want to say”. Derrida initially refuses to speak, apparently frustrated by the question, or rather the absence of a question and flatly tells his interviewer he has nothing to say, or otherwise can only recite a series of clichés: “I’m not capable”. He goes on to frame his own question regarding the nature of love and being and perform a typical differance-style deconstruction with regard to the above, but that is not what I am interested in now. What I am interested in is how and why love appears as an impasse before Derrida. If asked to speak on language in general, I suggest that, while he may still be irked by the proposition itself, he would have little problem rattling off a small thesis-worth of information. What then, is it about love which leaves Derrida only the options of silence or cliché? What is it about love that makes him not capable of speaking?
In a pleasing [if academically questionable] self-referential loop, I turn to Derrida for my answer. In Giovanna Borradori’s 2003 publication; Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Borradori compiles interviews with the two philosophers on the subject of terrorism and the World Trade Centre attacks into a succinct and crisp volume of their responses. In the book, Derrida deals with the idea of the attacks as an “event” with reference to Heidegger, and interrogates the role of the media in constructing this “event”. What I wish to take from this is the Heideggerian definition of an “event”, which Borradori expounds upon thus:
The notion of “event” indicates something that offers itself to being experienced but also resists being wholly comprehended and appropriated. An event exposes us to a situation in which we are unable to wholly appropriate what happens. Utter unpredictability is one feature of events, for if something cannot be predicted it cannot be entirely explained either. This causes the event to remain irreproducible, singular, and somewhat free-floating.
An event then, is that which, at least in part, eludes representation. That which, as a result of eluding representation becomes unrepresentable and therefore unrepeatable. And by dint of being unrepeatable becomes a temporal singularity, something which could not be wholly predicted before it occurs, cannot be wholly understood as it happens, and will not be wholly memorised, sterilised, tamed, or escaped from once it is over (if in fact it ever ends).
It is my position then, that the reason Derrida is left at an incapacity to express and represent love, is that love is, in this particular Heideggerian sense, an “event”. It is not enough, however, to simply assert this. Why should love be considered an “event”, and what makes an event unrepresentable? Here I turn to the psychoanalytic definition of trauma. Borradori describes trauma as that which “happens beyond language” (147), and further goes on to state that a traumatic event is both “unpredictable and beyond the subject’s control… by repeating any fragment of the traumatic situation, the victim tries retrospectively to dominate it”.
Love is a true traumatic event. In spite of it being a familiar concept in every human culture I am aware of, it eludes full linguistic representation in any language. Like trauma victims, we obsessively and hysterically return to it in film, music, literature, philosophy, in everyday speech, in our imaginations, in our dreams. Love springs on its subject necessarily unpredicted (if not entirely unexpected). It flashes by in an inexplicable haze of wordless, speechless, breathless, unsignifiable aporias, or what are commonly called ‘feelings’. After the fact, it exists only in the crumpled letter, the acrimonious text message, the faded polaroid, the facebook relationship status:- impossible to exorcise, impossible to forget, impossible to remember, impossible to memorise. Like the mythological (Barthes) signified it flees as you approach, trying to commit it to the scrapbook of nostalgia. And when you try to leave it behind, you find it lingering like sand in the turn ups of your jeans and old receipts in your jacket pockets, pursuing you like so many differential signifiers which can never fully reconcile themselves with what you are certain was ‘real’. So, unable to escape, we revisit and re-examine. Unable to recall, we mythologise, we fantasise, we recriminate, we simulate, until we are left with a completely sterile mythology, a perfect simulacra, a memory of a romance that never happened; love dominated.
I assert that love remains one of the most spoken about subjects of human history, yet no language has yet struck love into an accurate representation. Or perhaps that is not true. Perhaps it is that language is terrified of striking love. Perhaps to possess all the words to describe one’s love means to no longer be in love. Perhaps to birth love as a representation is to murder it as a concept, to create it as a sign, and obliterate its signified.
Indeed, I feel as if I am taking advantage of Derrida’s name (and death) by speaking for him (or resurrecting him). I can’t say what he would have made of my lighthearted critique in this particular case, whether he would have agreed or disagreed, been happy or unhappy with this presentation of my thoughts. I do think, however, that he would have a lot more to say on love as traumatic event than love in general and that whatever has been said about love here can also be said about rejection, heartbreak, and death.
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If you want to see the video where Derrida talks about love and being try this link;
If you’re interested in the book I mentioned, which has some writing of great interest in terms of race and postcolonial studies dealing with issues of terrorism and globalisation in the international community in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks;
Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003.
I would also like to say, I certainly don’t purport this to be an academic work of any sort, nor do I wish to say I can at all accurately represent the mind of a great thinker such as Derrida. What he actually thought on love, we may never know, God rest his soul.