TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Love, in Theory: Five Questions for Vincent Lloyd

Vincent Lloyd’s essay on Gillian Rose, available here, has just appeared in Telos 143. Nellie Bowles, a Telos Press intern, asks him some questions.

In your essay, “On Gillian Rose and Love,” you read Gillian Rose’s often autobiographical Love’s Work. Rose has been, in many ways, breezed over by modern academia. Why do you think this is?

Firstly, Rose’s work is difficult. It’s hard to read. She engages with complex writers, ranging from Bergson to Strauss to Lacan to Buber. Discerning how she positions herself in relation to those she critically engages with takes effort. And her prose is often painfully dense (a style perhaps inflected by her early work on Adorno).

Secondly, Rose was saying things you weren’t supposed to say at the time. In the 1980s, she was championing Hegel and criticizing Foucault and Derrida. In the early 1990s, she was putting philosophy in serious dialogue with religious thought. In 1995, she said, “I think that, in the wake of the perceived demise of Marxism and of Heidegger’s Nazism, everybody’s looking for an ethics. But in fact they should be looking for a political theology.” Today the hippest theorists (Badiou, Žižek, Agamben, et al.) are acclaimed for making these theoretical moves—although I think there are still many lessons from Rose’s work which are yet to be appreciated.

Thirdly, some of the most provocative and powerful ideas from Rose’s work have been taken over—and Christianized—by John Milbank and his “Radical Orthodoxy” associates. (Milbank and Rose were close personal friends.) Rose argued that the tradition of social theory is based on appeals to transcendence. Milbank agreed—and argued that we should respond by starting social theorizing with Christian transcendence. Rose argued that we should promote intermediary institutions in “the middle,” between the individual and the state. Milbank agreed—and argued that we should promote a “complex space” filled with intermediary institutions arranged harmoniously like a gothic cathedral. In both cases, Rose sought to maintain difficulty, tension, while Milbank has sought to ease tension with a happy story of Christian redemption. And it’s Milbank’s accounts, not Rose’s, that are getting heard.

However, Rose’s work is beginning to receive more attention, including two books on her thought being published this year. Andrew Shanks, an Anglican priest, is publishing Against Innocence, which starts from Rose’s deathbed conversion to Christianity (from Judaism) and reads a Christian message back into her philosophical work. My book, Law and Transcendence (coming out in November), puts Rose’s thought in dialogue with contemporary theorists, including Judith Butler, Jean-Luc Marion, Catherine Pickstock, and Robert Brandom, expands on Rose’s account of law, and suggests affinities between Rose’s thought and the work of the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

You begin to reconstruct Rose’s account of love with a Hegelian tracing of love’s roots from Homeric philos, or immanent affection, to Platonic eros, or transcendent desire. How do we discuss the historical progression of love when it is so unique to the individual, when it continuously dies with us and is reborn again with each generation?

Love seems very personal and specific, but there’s a long tradition in Christianity, for example, of thinking about love in terms of the universal (God). The difference between the immanent and transcendent concepts of love actually seems quite intuitive. We become attached to the things and people we are very comfortable with, and we say we “love” them. We also say we “love” distant, abstract, amorphous entities like “God” or “the nation” or “that man”—where the man loved has nothing to do with the actual physical organism over there.

In the style of Rose, I suggest that philosophy has vacillated between focusing on one or the other of these concepts of love. But I argue that focusing on one or the other leads to solipsism—put another way, to narcissism. We think we love others, but we are actually only loving ourselves. It is only through the dynamic tension between the two concepts of love, through a love that is always equivocal, that love can do philosophical (and political and ethical) work. This tension is played out both in this history of philosophy and in an individual’s life. Crudely put: young people love in the immanent and transcendent sense—and then, eventually, they grow up. Rose is arguing that philosophy needs to grow up.

Rose seems generally opposed to the French deconstructionist school with its heavy reliance on the “other.” In a familiar turn, Rose argues that love is a performance, an act, yet the différance of Derrida is markedly missing from her discussion. How does she use and simultaneously build a counterargument to French deconstruction in her book?

Rose’s argument against post-structuralist French thought is that it repeats a flawed neo-Kantian problematic. It separates the empirical from the transcendental, and it dogmatically asserts its own arbitrary commitments as transcendental. For Derrida, this is différance. According to Rose, he dogmatically asserts that this is the logic governing the world, and then proceeds to investigate the empirical world based on this transcendental principle. Rose’s Hegelian alternative is to suggest that the transcendental and empirical are always influencing each other. When this stops, arbitrary violence starts, because a theory’s premises are immunized from critique. Derrida is a particularly pernicious example of this, because he so vehemently denies, and so gracefully elides, his use of the transcendental.

Put differently, Rose is committed to equivocation. She argues that Derrida (and the great majority of the philosophical tradition) is unequivocal. Most philosophy asserts how things are and then goes about looking at the world based on that assertion (even “analytic” philosophy is guilty of this: it elevates “ordinary language” to the transcendental register). Rose commends equivocation not just in philosophy but in politics, ethical life, and literature. I suspect Rose would prefer Robert Musil to Samuel Beckett, Todd Solondz to Lars von Trier, Marilyn Hacker to Lyn Hejinian, Kimya Dawson to Elliott Smith. Equivocation, like the proverbial turtles, must go all the way down.

Why is Rose’s phenomenology of love in many ways more radical than, let’s say, a phenomenology of sexuality? And why have American feminists been slow to embrace Rose?

For Rose, love is nothing other than social life intensified. It is negotiating one’s self in the context of others, pushing and pulling, discovering novelties and terrors in the process. Physical intimacy may be involved, but that is just part of the intensification. Rose suggests that friendship and writing are also forms of social life intensified, though neither as much as love.

There seems to be a set of Jewish-Christian women with complicated relationships to gender and sexuality that feminism has not fully grappled with yet: along with Rose, we might think of Simone Weil, Edith Stein, and Hannah Arendt. Rose was ambivalent about feminism: “I’ve never found feminism relevant to me, but then politics begins when you think about what’s relevant to other people.” She criticized those who proclaim that they “write as a woman” because she thought that such identity categories are “highly mobile, volatile.” Interestingly, there are strong affinities between Judith Butler’s early work on Hegel and Rose’s Hegel contra Sociology, and perhaps Butler’s later work illustrates an alternative trajectory Rose’s work could have taken. Here again, Rose’s thought is strikingly prescient.

Rose reads King Arthur’s choice between his love for his wife and friend and his allegiance to the laws of Camelot as inevitably dissolving into sadness. Does she propose an escape from this sadness? Is there a trace of an ethical system in Rose’s work? What kind of philosophy for life does her theory of dynamic tension suggest?

Rose does not suggest that we can escape from the inevitable sadness of King Arthur, which is the inevitable sadness of social life, but she does think we can and should acknowledge it and work through it. Much philosophical energy has been spent trying to cover up the tragic nature of the human condition. But covering it up makes us culpable for the worldly violence which we allow when we champion an alternative that purports to bring peace.

It isn’t enough just to acknowledge the tragic with a breezy gesture (as some pragmatists do, like Sidney Hook and Cornel West). Rose argues that we must engage with the world, and that involves taking risks. Where the pragmatist disclaims philosophy in favor of an airy rhetoric, Rose wholeheartedly embraces the project of philosophy, and metaphysics. Engagement with the world means making robust claims about what the world is like and what it is not like, running the risk that those claims could be wrong. Ethical life, for Rose, means negotiating the difficult world, navigating its intricate structure, negotiating the law.

Love is an exercise that builds our capacity for ethical engagement with the world. In love we must acknowledge that we often get things wrong, we must be attentive to the nuances of ourselves and our lovers, and we must continue the riskful engagement that constitutes love even when it seems hopeless. To persevere in love requires faith, and so does ethical life in the world.

For more on Gillian Rose at Telos, see:

Wolfgang Palaver, “Mimesis and Nemsis: The Economy as a Theological Problem”

John Hughes and Matthew Bullimore, “What is Radical Orthodoxy?”

Adrian Pabst, “Only Christianity can save Britain from Aggressive Secularism and Religious Fundamentalism”

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