Chapter 2: Romeo & Juliet University – Love as knowledge

E. Hopper, Summer Evening
E. Hopper, Summer Evening


Mr. Alfred Gell’s analysis (see part 1 first) is based on the notion that love is interlinked with, or grounded on, a secret, private sharing of information between the two partners. He starts way back, from chimpanzees:

“The exchange of these [precopulatory] messages (which consist of physical gestures, furtive genital displays etc.) must be covertly done, or more dominant animals will intervene. Here we do not just have communication between partners, but exclusive, ‘confidential’ communication. Then the copulation itself is conducted out of sight, a second type of socially strategic information control, and of course the phylogenetic origin of human unwillingness to indulge in public copulation except in special circumstances”

In any society, says Gell, ‘there is the stock of information everybody has, that most have, that only a few have, and that only one or two have’. It may be argued that there is an increasing value in information known by lesser people, and that a tie is formed between those people sharing it. In the case of Umedas who, as discussed, experience romantic love in adultery relations:

“Love consisted of the generation, at the margins of society (in the bush, away from other people) of lethal knowledge, and the creation of pacts between those who generated and exchanged this knowledge, to preserve secrecy and discretion.”

This may also be the case for adultery, or otherwise prohibited relationships in our society. The lovers are bonded, if anything else, by the very secret of their relationship. But what about standard, ‘lawful’ romantic love?

“In Umeda as Strathern (1990) has suggested in relation to Melanesian societies more generally, who you marry is part of your personal make up, just as much as your red hair or snub nose, or the fact that you have a brother called Amasu. [..] In the absence of this structural predestination, modern couples have to convert abstract, generic relations between categories of persons into specific, grounded, historically embedded relations which will bear the structural loadings that will be imposed on them. Courting and falling in love provide the means for endowing relationships with histories which make subsequent commitment to their consequences more or less secure. They obviate the spectrum of opportunity costs that choice of partners implies. A married B, while C and D were also possible partners. A must have access to a kind of knowledge that, in retrospect, shows that C and D were not really possible at all, were only generically possible, but not specifically possible. Through the reciprocal exchange of a graded series of indiscretions, the courting couple converts a relation for whose existence no particular reason exist, into one which must be preserved because knowledge has come into existence which necessitates the lover’s pact, not to be incontinent, sexually or verbally.”

If you ask me, so far so good. On  comparison, we Westerners have it much better than the Umedas. We get to create our own personal stories, our own histories to base our romantic relationships on. Despite randomness, despite the fact that B could as well have been C, given Romeo happened to be there first, we are at least then free to create a secret A-B universe that is unique. In other words, namely Lincoln’s words, A and B build a knowledge system of, by and for A and B.

Well, not so fast..says Mr. Gell. I’m not so sure I’m gonna agree with him this time though.

Coming up, the slavery of Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: (some) light in the tunnel.



Chapter 1: Shakespeare’s Fabrizio and Juliet

Shakespeare’s most famous play could well have been entitled ‘Fabrizio and Juliet’ if Fabrizio had showed up a minute before Romeo.


We all pursue our own goals, our own ideas of happiness, of ‘our best self’, or just follow our obsessions if you like. People we meet and fall in love just happen to be at the right place, the right time (or wrong, you pick the word): the place and time we need to fall in love.

By no means do I intend to underestimate Romeo, but in order to be realistic, one has to acknowledge that chances are there were many other bold, handsome young men whose noble families were keen to eliminate other noble families. Randomness plays a big role in defining what the name next to Juliet’s will be, and it is only our a posteriori deterministic need that makes us neglect this, the need to find meaning through idealization. Quoting from one of Mr. Pamuk’s books:

‘Many people know that no life is predetermined and that, in reality, every story is a sequence of coincidences. Despite the big number of those who know this, when, at some point in their lives, they turn and look back, they reach the conclusion that the situations they lived through as coincidental, they were -in their present view- nothing but necessities.’

Indeed. What love would be like if Juliet was all: ‘Oh Romeo I love you! But in case you don’t make it tonight, I’ll call one of the other 999 Romeos out there’. No, no. It is a fact that the person is randomly picked in that sense, and it is a necessity to neglect this fact. Unless…well, unless things don’t go well, in which case we suddenly remember the randomness factor. But doesn’t this switch make us look fool or at least inconsistent with our very ideal of love that we were so keen to follow to begin with?

According to many, romantic love in modern Western world is what we use to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice, a choice that it’s too risky to make without Cubic’s help. Alfred Gell makes an interesting analysis on his article ‘On love‘. Take for instance this tribe in New Guinea, called Umeda. They live in villages of max. 750 persons. The Umedas marry cross-cousins, i.e. the person whom they will marry is pretty much predetermined, often before they hit puberty. There are really no ‘singles’ available to mess around and fall in love. Yet they do. Mostly through extramarital relationships of women with younger unmarried men, that must remain secret at all costs. Pure Umedas, you think, what a lack of freedom…Well, not so fast…Let’s move to ‘our’ society, shall we?

“Here people are taught to believe that one day they will discover, through elective affinity, out of the indefinite number of social others of whom they have generic knowledge, some particular one to love, with whom they will live in predestined harmony, have children and so on. I do not need to say that this idea is as arbitrary, as fantastic, as anything Umedas believe on the subject of sorcery. It is, however, necessary, given the fact that in modern society choice of mates is not institutionalized at the level of individual (though it is highly institutionalized in other ways, i.e. class, locality etc.)”

And he goes on to say:

“Because, pecuniary advantage aside, there are no really good reasons for committing oneself to one person rather than another, and very good reasons for fearing the worst, the essentially arbitrary choice is rationalized as fixed in advance by the wiles of the love-god, whose intervention relieves us from the burden of responsibility for our actions, which, in fact, is necessary for us to act at all, rather than hover interminably in a state of radical indecision. Whereas in Umeda love is outside the social system, in our society love has license and is supposed to make the world turn around, to be the very principle upon which society rests’.

I find this ‘functionalistic’ view to be quite grounded. However, one could as well argue that this only applies to the initial stages of a romantic relationship, when two people first meet, flirt and grow intense feelings without really knowing the object of their affection. As they spend more time together and they get to know each other, they grow – if they’re lucky enough – another kind of love, more grounded on the ‘real’ qualities of their partner, more informed, more knowledge-based. Now their actions- maintaining the relationship or not – is based on rationally evaluating the other person according to the information they receive. This must be the real thing then.

Well, not so fast…Coming up next, love as a system of knowledge.

Working on the work of mourning

‘Failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other

Last time I was on the library I was in a hurry – in an effort not to make a friend wait too long. I was looking for books in philosophy of science, when I bumped on a book called ‘The work of mourning’ by Derrida. I didn’t have time to check it out, but I decided to take it. ‘Death and Derrida…how bad can this combination be?’ The book was orderly placed on my table, along with a dozen more, all uncomplainingly waiting for me to find time. A month later, on a rather hot Saturday noon, I was getting ready to hit the beach. I was hastily going through the book pile for something that would fit well with sand, and there it showed up. Hmm…I had forgotten about it. I sat on the couch to leaf through it. Four hours later, I got up. Ah, the unspeakable joy of discovering a treasure when not expected..

The book is a collection of texts written by Derrida for friends of him when each passed away. The great introduction by Brault and Naas analyzes how Derrida struggles to be responsible towards his dead friend (or more accurately, towards his dead friend still existing in him) and towards the living (the receivers of his words), while at the same time copying with his loss, copying with the effects of this death on himself. Even with the best of intentions, even when one has no agenda of political calculations, of serving his own purposes when speaking of the dead, still, there is always the risk of being narcissist, the risk

“of saying ‘we’, or worse, ‘me’” (Derrida, Lyotard and Us).

But how can we ever avoid that? Especially since it is only in us that the dead may speak? As Brault and Nass point out:

“Fidelity thus consists in mourning, and mourning –at least in a first moment- consists in interiorizing the other and recognizing that if we were to give the dead anything it can be only in us, the living. [..] According to Derrida, interiorization cannot – must not – be denied; the other is indeed reduced to images ‘in us’. And yet, the very notion of interiorization is limited in its assumption of a topology with limits between inside and out, what is ours and what is the other”.

Therefore the key to avoid egotism perhaps is this:

“It is within us, but is not ours” (Derrida, The Deaths of Rolland Barthes)

As goosebumbs-ly put by Derrida:

Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για constantine manos
Constantine Manos, Mother At Funeral Of Her Son Killed In Vietnam

“Upon the death of the other we are given to memory, and thus, to interiorization, since the other, outside of us, is now nothing. And with the dark light of this nothing, we learn that the other resists the closure of our interiorizing memory…death constitutes and makes manifest the limits of a me or an us who are obliged to harbor something that is greater and other than them; something outside of them within them

So ‘failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other, thus we acknowledge that the other will always remain ‘other’, in his unique alterity, in a space above and beyond us.

(— is it just me, or this seems to make perfect sense in relationships between any two living persons as well? But this is another story…—)

And it is in these challenges that struggling only begins. For to cope with a single death do we need to cope with all deaths, with death as a phenomenon intrinsic in life, in our relationships? Is there only one death, the ‘first death’, after which all the deaths are repetitions of this first experience, in which we have to focus? Isn’t it infidelity to the friend when we transform coping with his unique loss into coping general concept of loss? The friend, the lover, the relative, whose single death, as a unique event of a unique person, whose “true photograph” is “destined to be lost and never be repeated again” (Elytis, Things Public and Private).

And here come the questions… However, I am going to pause the questions at this point, in an effort not to make yet another friend wait too long.

So the blog starts at the end, starts with death. Sheer coincidence or not, I, we, cannot afford to lose sight of the end.




On intellectual sympathy – or a blog’s raison d’être

Mina Mimbu. New Zealand.

Intellectual sympathy is one – among many – of Henri Bergson’s attempts to explain what he meant by the methodological approach of intuition (not to be confused with the common meaning of intuition). For Bergson, there are two ways of knowing: the relative, partial knowledge and the absolute, complete knowledge. When we follow the method of analysis, we approach the object in question from outside, we move around it, and observe it from specific position(s). We are bound therefore to see only a part of it, and degrade the object to the aspects accessible to us. Intuition, on the contrary, is ‘entering’ the object itself, participating in it, sympathizing with all its aspects, without separating them, but in their unity. The analysis gives us only relative knowledge, while intuition provides us with absolute knowledge of the object in question:

It follows that an absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis. We call intuition here the sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it. Analysis, on the  contrary,  is  the  operation  which  reduces  the  object  to  elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others. [H. Bergson, The Creative Mind: An introduction to metaphysics]

It is not within my intentions (and competence) to provide an accurate description of Mr. Bergson’s philosophy. Nor to defend it as the source of absolute truth – although I have to admit my positive predisposition. Rather, it serves me, in a quite remarkable coincidence with its content, as a point of unity. For I see in this notion an intersection of my wanderings, interests and questionings that have troubled my mind – severely – during the last years. Let me give you a brief idea on these wanderings.

First, there is anthropology. Anthropology is the one mostly to be blamed for the birth of this blog. I came across it by chance, while, unsatisfied by the natural sciences, I was looking for answers elsewhere, and fell in love. For those unfamiliar with it, what differentiates Anthropology from other fields like sociology is the methodological approach of participatory observation. For an anthropologist to study a group of people must, by and large, live with them for a considerable amount of time. He must participate in their lives as one of them, do the things they do, try to see the world as they see it. Not insignificant problems arise when actually trying to accomplish that, but for the moment let’s stick to the intention of ‘entering’ into the insides of the study object. Does that ring a Bergsonian bell?

Now I would like to dig a little deeper on the aforementioned un-satisfaction with the natural sciences. To set the record straight, I need to state this: science is among the greatest achievements of human intellect. Science has given us a valuable way of understanding things.  However, as many before, from the Romanticists to the postmodernists, I have grown a skepticism for the limits of knowledge, especially in relation to the dominant place that science has in our lives.  Is our intellect alone capable of providing the meaning of life? If phenomenologists are right, and there is no meaning a priori to find out there, then isn’t it concluded that science, in the sense of trying to discover the truth, is merely one of many ways to signify our lives? And here come the questions on the limitations of intellect..and again, Bergson*.

Intellectual sympathy, however, in the context of this blog, stands also for sympathy for intellectuals. Not in the elitist sense of an Illuminati class, rather in the struggle of human spirit to understand, and make sense of its existence. With that, with them, I sympathize.

And then, as always, love and death and our internal struggle to understand them, incorporate them, live with them. I find Bergson’s intuition again relative in many ways, but I will just draw on a brief remark by Mr. Derrida on love and the difference between a person as a singularity and its qualities:

Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? Often love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such. That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what. The question of being, to return to philosophy, because the first question of philosophy is: What is it to be? What is “being”? The question of being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is “Being” someone or something? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone—singularly, irreplaceably—and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the properties, the images that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what. [extract from interview]

So, there you have it. The unity and the part. The intellect and something beyond intellect. If you didn’t find any answers in this introduction, you got it right. If you keep reading this blog, I cannot guarantee you’ll find any answers, but questions, this I can promise.

* Although criticized by Russel and others as irrational and anti-intellectualist, Bergson’s intuition does not necessarily contradict intellect. See a well-presented view on this by Mr. M.D. Bolsover.