On Trinkets; or, This Crazy Little Thing Called Love…


Adam and Eve, Sara Chong

by Jeremy Fernando

… love is much more than love: love is something before love …

— Clarice Lispector

Almost without fail, on the fourteenth day of February, one is bound to hear numerous complaints from just about everyone (besides florists, perhaps even them) about how Valentine’s Day is mere commercialism. The nay-sayers among us who maintain a soft spot for Karl Marx would proceed to call it the commodification of relationships; those who prefer the gods would claim that the sanctity of relationships has been profaned; the gender theorists would note how the fact that males — or those playing, performing, male roles — buy the gifts only serves to highlight the unequal power-relations between the genders.

Whichever side they come from — and whichever variation of the argument they choose — it all boils down to an attempt to decry the fact that relationships have moved from the private to the public sphere. The underlying logic is that love is between two persons only and should remain between them. In other words, love should remain an unmediated experience between the persons in that relationship.

Which, of course, completely misses the point.

If we consider the fact that relationships are a negotiation between two (or more) persons, there must always already be a space between them — relationality — for this very negotiation to occur. For, “in order to touch, there must first be space to do so” (Jean-Luc Nancy). Otherwise, all that is happening is that one person is subsuming the other(s): and this would be understanding at its most banal — and perverse — form; that of bringing the other person under one’s stance. If that were the case, there would no longer be any relationship; all negotiation is gone and the other person is effectively effaced. In order for any attempt at understanding to occur, one has to first open oneself to the possibility of another, which suggests that any notion of understanding itself has to be first set aside. Thus, even as one is reaching out to another, even as one has been working at being with another — regardless of the length of time, regardless of the connection one feels with another — one can never quite be certain if any understanding has even take place. Or, as Werner Hamacher eloquently, and deceptively simply, articulates it, “understanding is in want of understanding.” (Premises, 1) Not just in the form of a lack, but precisely in the attempt to, desire for, in its want to, understand, perhaps all that is foregrounded is that it is, at best, an understanding that is to come.

Hence, whenever one hears the phrase “I understand my partner,” one should be wary; clearly that person’s version of a relationship is a masturbatory one.

If the premise of any relationship is an attempt at understanding, but if understanding, at the same time, is its threshold — within its gap as it were — all relationality brings with it the unknown, and perhaps always unknowable. Which suggests that the other person is an enigma, remains enigmatic, to one. For, this is the only way in which the proclamation “I love you” remains singular, remains a love that is about the person as a singularity — and not merely about the qualities of the person, what the person is. If the other person comes under one’s schema, then the love for the other person is also a completely transparent love, one that can be known thoroughly, calculated; the other person becomes nothing more than a check-list. To compound matters, if it is the qualities that one loves, by extension, if those qualities go away, so does the love. Which is not to say that one can separate the characteristics, the what, of the person from the who. But if we are attempting to think the possibility of singularity, if we are to refuse the reduction of who into merely what, then we must also open the register that the who, the other, (s)he, must perhaps always remain wholly other, mysterious, a mystery. For, only when the love for the other person is an enigmatic one, one that cannot be understood, can that love potentially be an event.

And if evental, it cannot be known before it happens; at best, it can be glimpsed as it is happening, or perhaps even only realised retrospectively. At the point in which it happens, it is a love that strikes us, that might well come from elsewhere; captured wonderfully in the colloquial phrase, I was struck by love or even more so by I was blinded by love. This is a blinding in the very precise sense of: I have no idea why or when it happened; before I knew it, I was in love. Cupid is blind for this reason: not just because love is random (and can happen to anyone at any time) but, more importantly, because even after it happens, both the reason one is in love, and the person one is in love with, remain veiled from one.

Since there is a potentially unknowable relationality with the other person, the only way one can approach it is through a ritual. This is the lesson that religions have taught us: since one is never able to phenomenally experience the god(s), one has no choice but to approach them ritualistically, symbolically. Keeping in mind that rituals are strictly speaking meaningless — the actual content is interchangeable, but it is the form that is important. It is through a following of their precise form, the repetition of the exact syntax, order, that rituals allow us momentary glimpses at secrets. And since secrets are never about content, it is the recognition that they are secrets — in their form as secrets — that is crucial. This can be seen when one considers how group secrets work; since the entire group knows what the secret is, clearly the content of the secret is not as important as the fact that only members within the group are privy to this as secret. Occasionally, the actual content can be so trivial that even other people outside the group might know the information; they just do not realise, recognise, its significance. For instance, if I used my date of birth as my bank-account password, merely knowing when I was born would not instantly give you the key to my life savings. In order for that to happen, one would have had to recognise the significance of the knowledge of my birthday. This means that one has to know that one knows something, has to know it as something.

And since love is potentially a secret, remains potentially secret even as it is felt, this suggests that we must both know its significance (otherwise one wouldn’t even be attempting to experience it) but at the same time never pretend to understand it. Thus, love is the very premise of relationships itself; keeping in mind that even as relationality might well be premised on it, love is of the order of the unknown. Hence, one needs a ritual in order to potentially catch a glimpse of it.

And it is precisely the meaningless trinkets, gestures, on Valentine’s Day that play this role.

For, it is not so much what one gives the other person, but the fact that one gives it to them. The gift in this sense is very much akin to an offering — the gift opens the possibility of an exchange. Never forgetting that just because one has given a gift does not guarantee that one will like what is returned; there is always a reciprocation of the gift (even if nothing, no thing is given in exchange), but what is returned to one — along with its effects, the way it affects one — is unknown until the moment it is received. Which suggest there is always a risk in receiving, accepting, gifts. This also means that the worst thing that one can do is not to give the gift: for, there is also a risk in giving — a risk that the other might well have taken in giving one a gift. A non-giving would be akin to a cutting off of all possibilities, a complete closing of all communication with — an effacement of — the other person. At the same time, this means that one cannot wait for the other to give before one attempts to give: if that were the scenario, the return gift would be nothing more than a calculated return, and the relationship is reduced to nothing more than an accounting figure, where the other would be once again reduced to a statistic, a mere return of investment, a what.

The only manner in which both persons can give true gifts — gifts that maintain the singularity of the exchange, the ritual of giving — is to offer them independently of the other person, whilst keeping them in mind. In this way, the two gifts are always already both uncalculated (in the sense of not knowing what the return is) and reciprocatory, at the same time. Of course, this would seem like an irrational, even crazy way of buying gifts. But it is precisely the madness involved that saves the exchange, and the relationship, from being banal.

And more importantly, prevents it from entering the profane.

Thus, it is the stupidity of Valentine’s Day — complete with the kitsch-ness of its silly gifts — that protects the sacredness of relationships, precisely by being completely and utterly meaningless. For, it is the leap of faith, as it were, of and in the giving that opens one to potentially, that opens the possibility of, catching a glimpse of the secret that is love …

** for May Ee …**

A version of this piece was first published as ‘In Defense of Stupidity; on Love and Valentine’s Day’ in The Public Sphere, March 2009. 

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, most recently, 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 Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.

About the Artist:

With a pack of sketchbooks and a bottomless horn of eternally-cold beer, Sara Chong travels the worlds of the subconscious searching for stories and meeting creatures yet unknown. All she really wanted to do was just draw, draw and draw, but along the way she did 3 years worth of animation studies, stopmotion in particular, and so now all she really wants to do now is draw, draw, draw and play with puppets. Sara lives by a religion of phone doodles and believes that everything is inevitably connected.