On Relationships…


From Five Angels for the Millennium, Bill Viola, 2001

by Jeremy Fernando

[for my dear friend, Pearlyn Quan Wright]

The notion that haunts relationships is that of goodness; usually taking the form of the question, how good is the other person? However, in our politically correct age we would never approach that notion, let alone the subject in question, directly. It would usually take the form of “so, what do you do?”, “what are your views on _____ (insert in whatever is in fashion)?”, or something to that extent. And based on the other’s response, we would judge their so-called level of goodness.

Now, whether our judgment is legitimate or not is somewhat irrelevant. For, it would take the most naïve of persons to believe that all statements are constative (have a correspondence with reality, and thus, can be shown to be true or false). The other — (s)he — could well have been posturing with her or his response: after all, one makes, we make, performative statements all the time. The most important aspect is: from that judgment, we have to decide whether the person is good or not; more specifically, whether the person is good for us or not.

The trouble is: you’re not the only one doing it.

For, there is no reason to believe that not only is the other person judging you at the same time, more pertinently, the other person knows that you are judging her as (s)he is judging you. Thus, what we have here is a situation where the two (or more) of you are in a game, in the precise sense of a rules-bound situation. And like with all games, the rules are non-negotiable: you either play or leave. However, since the persons in the game are also the ones who have decided the very particularities of the game (no two relationships are alike) we have a situation where the ones imposing the rules upon the game are the very ones who are attempting to utilise the said rules to beat the others.

And here, we should make no mistakes, have no illusions: games are teleological by definition, and winning is their only objective. In football, for instance, the aim is to score more goals than your opponent, within the boundaries set by the rules of the game. Thus, the referee is absolutely crucial: it is only a goal if it is recognised as so by the arbiters of the game — whether the ball actually crosses the line or not is beside the point.

Perhaps, the fact that the interpretation of rules — which are the hinge around which all games revolve — lies solely in the hands of the referee might give us a clue to why diving has become such a major point of discussion in football: something that has been discussed ad nauseum during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. For, if the referee is interpreting the rules in a situation, this suggests that (s)he is always already caught in the tension between the universal (the rules as such) and the particular (the singular interpretation of those said rules). The problem lies in the translation of the rules — which must apply to everyone, and in all situations — into a singular situation, with its specific contexts, environment, and such. In other words, the referee is not interpreting the rules in a hermeneutical sense (what the letter of the rules mean), nor even a phenomenological sense (which still requires a correspondence between the situation and a pre-conceived code), but more radically, each time the referee blows the whistle, (s)he is writing those very rules. Each time (s)he enacts a judgment, (s)he is writing rules for a specific moment — applicable to that particular situation only. And thus, undoing the universality of the rules, potentially unravelling the very rules themselves. So, each time a player dives, we have the situation where (s)he is not breaking any of the rules (there is nothing in football that says you cannot decide to fall down in the middle of the game), but doing something much more radical that just attempting to hoodwink the referee to gain an advantage for the team: (s)he is foregrounding the fact that the referee is precisely the rule of the game.

And, since a game is nothing but its rules, that the referee is the game.

And, this is perhaps why spectators are outraged whenever a player dives; and fans go to great lengths to deny the fact that one of the players from their side has done so (even when it is painfully obvious). For, each dive foregrounds the fact that they are watching a game that is beyond them: that despite being devoted to the point of religious fanaticism, the fact that the rules are being written at the very moment they are applied means that there is no possibility of understanding the game. That all their attempts at discussing the game, perhaps even explaining the game to others, are nothing more than imaginary narratives; at best, their version(s) of the game. Which this is why those that are most vitriolic against diving are football commentators: for, each dive only reminds us that they really have no idea what they are talking about, and in fact have jobs based on absolutely nothing. [1]

And, to compound matters, in a relationship, the players involved are also its very referees.

Facing a situation where every utterance, every gesture, is a conflation of the constative and the performative. For, even if one were making a statement that was true (“I was home last night”), the statement cannot be divorced from any, all, of its potential — known and unknown — effects. This suggests that in order for one to lead the other person into a judgement that one is good, one has to not only be able to say the right things, one would also have to be a good judge of how the other judges. And since there is no a priori framework for judging (it can alter with the day, mood, or for no reason whatsoever), one has to constantly be judging which statements to put forth.

Which means: to be successful at this game, one has to be truly diabolical.

Not just merely manipulative: for, that still allows for certain consistency of the self. But, that one has to enact game theory at its purest: where oftentimes, one has to perform an act that is detrimental to one self in order to get ahead.

Naturally — or, perhaps more accurately, culturally — we have a polite term for this: we call it compromising. Which means nothing more than: giving in to another in order to gain an advantage.

Relational judo if you will. [2]

The irony, of course, is that even if one succeeds, not only does the other person remain a complete unknown (which is perfectly fine considering one cannot actually know another person), the one that the other has fallen for is also a performed you. Which means that: all you have done is to have given yourself more performing to do.

But it is not as if anyone doesn’t already know this.

And yet, we still fall in love.

Which suggests that we all want to be deceived.

And more than that, we are drawn towards another that can, not only deceive us well, but — more importantly — can make us deceive, not only them but our own selves as well.

Which means that: to be in a relationship with another, one has to not only be open to the possibility of the other, one has to be other to one’s very self.

And this is why one falls in love: not in some silly rom-com breezy sense, but falling in the precise sense of a crumbling. Where one’s sense of self is utterly destroyed. Where one is literally out of one’s mind. Where, for two persons to be in a relationship, there has to be complete and utter deception — of both the other and oneself — all whilst maintaining the illusion that you are still yourself to the other.

Which means that: love is evil.

And this is why the anthem for all relationships should be Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Interrogation of the Good’. Not in the traditional dialectical materialist reading, where the opening lines, “Step forward: we hear/ That you are a good man” refers to the trial of another. For, the “good man” is none other than our very self. Thus, whenever we are tempted to be good, we should tune to the second stanza, and heed its lesson:

Here us then: we know

You are our enemy. This is why we shall

Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration of your

merits and good qualities

We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you

With a good bullet form a good gun and bury you

With a good shovel in the good earth.

(Bertolt Brecht: ‘Verhör des Guten’, translated by Slavoj Žižek)


[1] The paragraphs on the relationship between diving and football owe a great debt to a conversation with Sean Smith.

[2] “As in judo, the best answer to an adversary manoeuvre is not to retreat, but to go along with it, turning it to one’s own advantage, as a resting point for the next phase.” (Michel Foucault)

About the Author:


Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy and the media; and has written six books — including Reading Blindly, and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.