Today, Roland Barthes is among the less trendy of the famed French theorists of the sixties and seventies, or at least one of those considered less germane to our current moment. While revivals of Deleuze, Lacan, Foucault, and even Derrida abound as potential solutions to the social, cultural, and economic problems plaguing the planet, Barthes rarely pops his head outside of the undergraduate classroom. As a serious political conversation piece, love, too, has gone out of fashion. While the hippie movement of Barthes’s own generation united love with countercultural politics, today such attempts seem disengaged and out of touch. A data-pull from Google Scholar articles shows that academic work on love has halved in the past five years. The more pressing our political struggles become, the more love recedes into the background.
So in a time when even football has become a stage for protest, does love somehow manage to retain amnesty from politics? Even when we think about some of history’s most turbulent moments, love manages to divorce itself from the political sphere. Take, for example, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 movie Dreamers, a romance set in the midst of the French 1968 riots. While Molotov cocktails are going off hourly on the streets, the characters, ensconced in their bourgeois Parisian apartment, are given vast distance from their context to experiment with sex and love.
Bertolucci’s brilliant movie embodies a long tradition of holding love separate from political concerns, but lately things seem to have shifted. Today, far-right agitators are mining OKCupid for data that proves white supremacy; Tinder is leading us into a Silicon Valley dystopia; Grindr is fomenting a revolution in desire; and pop-philosophers are agonizing over whether love can survive postmodernity and the power of Big Data. In light of this new and violent reunion between politics and love, I would like to make a brief case here for a serious re-engagement with Roland Barthes. His work on love, in particular, just might repoliticize love in the digital age and make visible a corporate organization of desire—a technology of love—that the progressive left will soon have to confront.
In The Radicality of Love, arguably the most important book about love published in recent years, Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat questions that quixotic tendency to partition love from politics. He opposes the argument made a few years earlier in Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, which argues for love’s ability to escape the political—another indication that something might have changed since 2012. In fact, Horvat argues that in recent years the right has managed to manipulate the public’s emotions much better than the left, including love: new technologies of dating, communication, and virtual partnerships encourage us to love the image of ourselves and reject difference and otherness, favoring right-wing discourse. Even if this bias is incidental, and not the deliberate intent of technology companies—by no means a foregone conclusion—Horvat argues that the left will need a similarly new kind of political engagement with love to combat these trends. To be sure, recent projects on the left, such as the campaign for marriage equality in Australia and the backlash against the new porn laws in the UK, recognize that the political and legal world impinge on the personal world of relationships. But these movements must be accompanied by a more comprehensive understanding, as Horvat argues, that love is always, and always has been, political. Such movements go some way to show that what we need is not a “politics of love” (as people have argued from the sixties to now) but an attitude toward love that acknowledges its political nature.
By 1977, Barthes had already acknowledged as much in Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse), perhaps his most psychoanalytic text. A Lover’s Discourse is also—under the surface at least—an analysis of technology. In a section entitled “ravishment,” Barthes discusses the moment when we “fall” in love: a “supposedly initial episode (though it may be reconstructed after the fact) during which the amorous subject is ‘ravished’ (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object.” Such moments, Barthes says, go by the popular term “love at first sight,” but demand the scholarly name “enamoration” (an anachronistic term that Barthes adopts). For Barthes, enamoration is a “hypnosis” that sets the subject on a path from which they cannot deviate. We suffer enamoration as an electrifying blow, inflicting in us a “wound” that cannot heal until the object of desire is “captured.” In other words, the object of desire dooms us to pursue it, even when doing so might be irrational and costly. When we are enamored, we “need” the object in order to be complete, though of course it is this mirage of fulfillment that constitutes enamoration’s illusion.
This is Barthes at his closest to Freud, but it’s also Barthes at his closest to Marx. We should take his remarks as referring not only—or perhaps not even primarily—to the lover but to “the loved object,” which is to say everything that works to consume our attention: our iPhones, our designer shoes, our sushi. Barthes refers to both the lover and the commodity, as well as the connections between them. The language of “hypnosis” and of being “fascinated by the image” puts commodification at the heart of falling in love. Although Barthes’s criticism is directed toward an emerging world of commodities, he never engages in nostalgia for a love free from politics. Instead he describes a perennial process of consecration by which the object of desire is set on stage in a prepared scene for the “subject” (us) to fall in love with:
The first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness (what makes me irresponsible, subject to fatality, swept away, ravished): and of all the arrangements of objects, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time: a curtain parts … I am initiated: the scene consecrates the object I am going to love.
If the city—from the Parisian arcades immortalized by Walter Benjamin to the Champs-Élysées and Eiffel Tower of Barthes’s own work—was once the stage on which people fell in love, then today’s stage is the screen of the mobile phone. In this new technological theater, all of us are herded into position by complex algorithms and codes. Technologies have always structured the scenes with which and in which we fall in love, but new technologies have dramatically transformed these scenes, and, in the process, transformed love itself. Love, then, cannot exist outside of history, and will always play out against the political and technological set pieces of the day. While love “at first sight” might seem sudden and instinctual, the scene has in fact been carefully set. What Barthes asks is not that we reject this situation, but simply that we recognize it and pay attention to the forces that arrange and prepare the objects of our desire: the politics which construct the moment of falling in love.
Elsewhere I argued that Pokémon GO was a kind of testing phase for Google’s technologies of social organization, placing, as it did, so many objects of desire in urban locations to maximize profit. Barthes, though, would argue that we are dealing with much more than a profit scheme. Instead, what we might call technocapitalist corporations—Silicon Valley tech giants that acquire and organize more and more online space each month—are fundamentally changing the process of falling in love. As users of technology in the “smart city,” we fall in love with the Pikachu when he pops up on our screen and set off in desperate search of him, almost instantaneously. We fall equally hard for the image of a lover on Tinder or Grindr (which shares a program interface with Pokémon GO), or even with the image of a meal as it appears on Seamless or Grubhub. As Barthes’s works tell us, this kind of connection between technology, politics, and love places the most power in the hands of those who set the scenes of our enamoration, who determine what and how we desire.
While early proponents of the internet assumed it would be a democratizing and heterogeneous space, it is an increasingly small group of power holders who control this network of desire. IAC owns OkCupid, Match, Tinder, and a hundred other companies, and Google controls the way we relate to everything from restaurants to Pokémon. Gaming corporation Beijing Kunlun Tech’s surprise acquisition of Grindr—a formerly independent and subversive application— shows again that love is assimilated into wider patterns of tech development. Behind today’s proscenium lie technocapitalists and a host of programmers whose products are increasingly subsumed by a small group of major conglomerates, centralizing the space to program our screens and set our desires on their course.
“The myth of love at first site is so powerful,” writes Barthes, “that we are astonished if we hear of someone deciding to fall in love.” The association between desire and spontaneity, Barthes argues, is such a well-entrenched ideology that it seems impossible to escape. It may not be easy, or even possible, to take control of the process and decide when and how to love—when it comes to people or to objects. However, what Barthes’s work calls for is an analysis of the scenes and screens in which enamoration occurs. Whether or not we can decide to fall in love, it has already been decided for us, the scene set by political and technological powers beyond our control. Horvat is correct that the right has been able to manipulate desires to serve their ends. We should respond in the way that Barthes laid out a long time ago: by rendering visible the politics of desire and recognizing that technologies of enamoration now dictate our movements, organize the citizenry, and even influence elections. We need to remember Barthes’s lesson that love is always political, no matter how intoxicating and spontaneous it feels, and work to reveal the politics behind the scenes.
Alfie Bown is coeditor of the Hong Kong Review of Books and author of two books on technology and psychoanalysis, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism and The PlayStation Dreamworld.