On the Nature of Love: an unromantic critique

On the Nature of Love: an unromantic critique

When you love someone what is it that you love?

Let me tell you why I ask.

I think that often when we relate to other people we objectify them. This is most noticeable on virtual social networks such as facebook. The term facebook friend long ago started meaning something different from a friend in the real world.

A friend on facebook means something like – a member of my virtual community. And much like those that follow you on Twitter a facebook friend is a commodity rather than a friend.

Naturally the lines do cross and you may have some real friends on facebook and even meet some new ones.

But for the most part a facebook friend is simply a member of your community and has a commodity value.

Having lots of facebook friends adds status and extends the reach of your communications, in much the same way for instance that a radio station of newspaper is valued according to their audience size.  Now I realise this is not news to anyone who has participated in any online community for any length of time. I use this example though to illustrate the commoditisation of people generally in our lives.

Although it is more blatant on the web than in the real world I think the same kind of commoditisation occurs. Actually I raised this point about objectifying the other in a conference (on the effects of the technology on society) I attended in London about two years ago, and the response was one of incredulity at my naiveté. In fact a respondent said as much, “but don’t you think we do that all the time anyway”, i.e. objectify other people.

So I must start this post by conceding that this, objectification of the other, whilst being something that I am only really thinking about now is quite possibly old hat to you. Nevertheless I proceed with my thoughts, if somewhat tentatively.

What is it exactly that I love about you?

Well generally speaking, possibly not always, but often enough to make it true, when I say I love you what I mean is you have a value to me. Your presence in my life enriches me. Now one may say that if I recognise your innate humanity and subjectivity it is precisely this that would enrich me. Yes okay that may well be so, but that is not what I mean, and I would wager that I am far from unique in this regard.

What I mean is rather something along these lines:

As a friend or student you are part of my fan base. The more fans I have the more popular I am; being popular makes me a ‘big man’ someone respected and of value.

In evaluating you as a friend I consider what your value proposition is:

  • Are you intelligent?
  • Wealthy?
  • Good looking?
  • Influential- can you further my cause in any way?
  • Are you entertaining, although this is a little further down the scale.
  • Just how much do you care for me? This is very important because I am deeply interested in what you are willing to do for me.

Anyway you get the idea. I consider your value proposition. I objectify you, and, in as much as I do this, I commoditise you. Now from this you may, justly, form the idea that I am not the nicest of people and have a mercenary attitude towards other people. I think that is a fair and fairly accurate assessment.

Nevertheless you may be inclined to mitigate your judgement by virtue of the fact that I am a man of my time. Whilst there is lots of fuzzy, huggy and woolly talk about empathy and caring for others, the truth is that the value of the individual is in decline globally. So although I may be a little worse than most and not as bad as some, I’m probably pretty much middle of the road (I don’t know of course, but it seems that way to me).

You might be inclined to forgive me to the extent that I am a family man and you would imagine that this objectification of the other does not extend to my immediate family.

Well you might think that, but I am actually not so sure. Sure I love my wife and children but honestly who wouldn’t? At the risk of arrogance I would have to say they are an exceptional group of people, intelligent, original and easy on the eye. But you see that right there is the issue – do I love them because of their gifts, or because they are my family, or is there something beyond that?

In as much as I love them because they are gifted or even in as much as they are related to me I would have to conclude that I have commoditised them as well. Their presence improves the quality of my life in many varied ways. And this makes them easy to love.

The question I have to ask is this. Am I, beyond their value proposition, able to recognise the intrinsic value of their subjectivity? That is to say: am I able to recognise and value that, like me, they too have an inner life, a soul and are people, not simply commodities?

Hello how do you do?

Last Wednesday evening, in an Anthroposophical study group I participate in, the discussion turned to the convention of following a greeting in South Africa with –how are you? So the South African convention is to say: Hello, how are you? And the standard response is: I am fine thanks and you?

Now the question is, is this a sincere enquiry? And naturally one must conclude no it is not, it is simply a greeting convention. Jane (Abrahams), who facilitates the group, made the point that in England the proper greeting is actually: Hello how do you do? And this is meant strictly as a rhetorical question.

In both cases one may assume that this form of greeting began with the intention of a sincere enquiry. Not being an anthropologist I can only hazard a guess; but I am inclined to think not. I would say it is, and was, simply meant as a polite greeting, and in no way should it be taken as a genuine question.

Slavoj Žižek suggests these conventions are designed for the very reason of keeping the (obscene) other at a safe distance. And in as much as one witnesses their use I think his analysis is correct. Not only is it not a genuine enquiry, but beyond that it is an implicit communication that I do not wish to know how you are. Now perversely in my case when I ask how you are it is with genuine interest in the answer. And I have noticed over the years how frequently this surprises the person I am asking it of; in my defence, I attribute this social clumsiness to an improvised education.

The point here is that the other is held (or meant to be held) at arm’s length. It is in fact impolite to make a genuine personal enquiry. This reflects the idea that society encourages us to see and relate to the other as an actor in society. To understand and engage with the other as a role player and in as much as we heed this implicit social instruction we necessarily objectify the one we are relating to.

The Unfortunate case of the beggar

I don’t know about you but, for my part, I have to say I hate do-gooders. I don’t want to bore you with my long list of prejudices against them so I’ll limit myself to only the most salient issues. For one, in my own case I barely have enough energy to do good to myself never mind anyone else. My father (may he rest in peace) was always fond of saying charity begins at home, and I have pretty much taken that to heart. Oh and beyond that, I find the do-gooders generally vacuous, insincere and irritating. Still no doubt these are my own prejudices and the world would be a poorer place but for these aspiring Florence Nightingales.

Anja, who for the most part is as intolerant as I am, happened to befriend a group of do-gooders, through no fault of her own, but simply out of desperation for some contact with the extended community (honestly one would think my company would more than enough, but there you have it :-)).

Anyway in a discussion about how one should behave towards beggars, a national plague in South Africa, the suggestion was made that ‘one should at the very least make eye contact, and thereby acknowledge them and their existence.’ This instead of the usual trick we use of manoeuvring the car back and forward, checking cellphone messages, adjusting the radio etc. all in order naturally not to see and acknowledge their presence and their plight (one may equally here say blight).

Now on the face of it this sounds very humane does it not? In a sense an act in service of acknowledging the beggars humanity is the very thing this post is about. However I am less than convinced and I must concede that I have influenced by Žižek in this regard.

Does my act of looking at you begging at the side of the road, making eye contact and then still ignoring your plea for alms somehow mitigate the insult (if this is what it is) against your humanity. Does my having the courage to look you in the eye and then drive on, without in any way substantively aiding you, rather than my usual overt display of guilt in so obviously ignoring you, in some sense raise your value in the estimation of my gaze?

Well personally I think not.

Existence vs. Essence

Possibly this is the fundamental question. Can we decide that at the very least in the case of human beings, as opposed to plants and dogs for instance, their very existence has an intrinsic value? And going further may it also possibly be true to think that the value of their existence, and by extension their subjectivity, in and of itself, eclipses their value as objectified role players in our lives?

Or alternatively must we decide in favour of essentialism and identify people with their objective characteristics: gender, age, race, professional and social status etc.

Is it a genuinely meaningful proposition to consider the human spirit in each individual we encounter as transcending their personalities in the broadest sense of the word- or not?

To be completely honest with you, even though it runs contrary to my intention in this post, I am struck by the naiveté of my own question. For if we genuinely remove all objective and objectifying characteristics form the subject what could possibly remain?

Is there something genuinely transcendent left behind worth caring about?

Well I’ll leave it to you to decide…

A final thought

Consider your own relationships with those you care for.

  • What is it that you really care about in others?
  • Do you objectify those you relate to?
  • Do you have a value scale that you move people in your life up or down? And if so what is this based on?
  • Perhaps most significantly is there anyone in your life you do not objectify, that you could describe your love for this person in a genuinely transcendent sense? And if so how does this differ from your other relationships?


Until we speak again.

God bless you,


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Comments (6)

  • Michael Reply

    such an interesting topic. I think that the mirror effect is useful to raise … that the way in which we view others, and their roles and “commodity value”, will be mirrored in the way in which we view ourselves .. and our place in the lives of others, either intrinsically as valuable, or as commodities. That we view ourselves as commodities in the lives of others is so evident, in being driven to wear all the right clothes, labels, drive the right car … name dropping … all these attest to our deep sense of being without, unless we have the right “value add-ons” … !! Surely then, we will attach similar value (or lack of) to others

    March 1, 2012 at 11:16 am
  • Stephen Reply

    Michael, I think you make a very good and very important point. In retrospect the post is poorer for neglecting this element- the objectification of ourselves.
    I like the way you put it.
    And as someone who is guilty of objectifying the other, it is worth stating (in line with your suggestion) that I am guilty of objectifying myself as well.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:24 am
  • Belinda Baker Reply

    Very Interesting and well articulated. I can appreciate the intellect and rationality of this article and your choice of words make your opinions persuasive. Personally I agree with some of your philosophies and the way you interpret the world and the meaning you give to love however such reductionist thinking leaves little room for how we feel love rather than how we describe it.

    Many brilliant authors and poets have shared their gift of words in interpreting the transcendence and rapture, both states that defy understanding. I suppose in the end we are fortunate to live in world that science can almost explain everything down to the energy of a quark but I have yet to find in science an explanation for something that we all know in our essence, something that calls out to an other and something greater than us alone, that is the reason for living (not life) and that is to be happy and experience love.

    Thank you for a great read and I look forward to your next article.


    March 1, 2012 at 11:48 am
  • carol Reply

    Wow, some really fantastic replies. I have read that love like spirit cannot be contained within the horizons of the mind and I agree….

    March 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm
  • Svein Olav Nyberg Reply

    I noticed that in North America, the correct response to “How do you do?” is actually … “How do you do?” !! Do by no means try to actually answer the question, not even as a prelude to asking it back. Just repeat it in return, immediately, for it is merely a long-winded but polite phrase correctly translated as “Hello!”.

    March 4, 2012 at 7:59 am
  • Chantelle Reply

    I am only with my husband because I thought he was the person I wanted to be. I was (and still am) to the largest extent, very naive, and if you tell me you are a keen anthropologist looking to restore cultural pride to local peoples, I will believe you even after doubt creeps in in the form of “WHAT?!”
    So it was with slight dismay that I discovered some time into my marriage that my beloved Adrian is probably only 60% (at best) of what he put out there in making his pitch. Thankfully, that hardly matters anymore, although there are still many things about him I envy and wish I could emulate. But I do feel sorely commoditised by him. I hate score-keeping. I’ll forgive almost anything for a bit of peace.
    But I love my little daughters mostly despite their best efforts at defiant self-expression (in the sweets aisles of supermarkets), so I have to say that, at least for now, those relationships are unsullied.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:36 am

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