What is love? It's a hard term to define in so far as it has a very wide application. I can love jogging. I can love a book, a movie. I can love escalopes. I can love my wife. (Laughter)
But there's a great difference between an escalope and my wife, for instance. That is, if I value the escalope, the escalope, on the other hand, it doesn't value me back. Whereas my wife, she calls me the star of her life. (Laughter)
Therefore, only another desiring conscience can conceive me as a desirable being. I know this, that's why love can be defined in a more accurate way as the desire of being desired. Hence the eternal problem of love: how to become and remain desirable?
The individual used to find an answer to this problem by submitting his life to community rules. You had a specific part to play according to your sex, your age, your social status, and you only had to play your part to be valued and loved by the whole community. Think about the young woman who must remain chaste before marriage. Think about the youngest son who must obey the eldest son, who in turn must obey the patriarch.
But a phenomenon started in the 13th century, mainly in the Renaissance, in the West, that caused the biggest identity crisis in the history of humankind. This phenomenon is modernity. We can basically summarize it through a triple process. First, a process of rationalization of scientific research, which has accelerated technical progress. Next, a process of political democratization, which has fostered individual rights. And finally, a process of rationalization of economic production and of trade liberalization.
These three intertwined processes have completely annihilated all the traditional bearings of Western societies, with radical consequences for the individual. Now individuals are free to value or disvalue any attitude, any choice, any object. But as a result, they are themselves confronted with this same freedom that others have to value or disvalue them. In other words, my value was once ensured by submitting myself to the traditional authorities. Now it is quoted in the stock exchange.
On the free market of individual desires, I negotiate my value every day. Hence the anxiety of contemporary man. He is obsessed: "Am I desirable? How desirable? How many people are going to love me?" And how does he respond to this anxiety? Well, by hysterically collecting symbols of desirability. (Laughter)
I call this act of collecting, along with others, seduction capital. Indeed, our consumer society is largely based on seduction capital. It is said about this consumption that our age is materialistic. But it's not true! We only accumulate objects in order to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental, than a teenager buying brand new jeans and tearing them at the knees, because he wants to please Jennifer. (Laughter) Consumerism is not materialism. It is rather what is swallowed up and sacrificed in the name of the god of love, or rather in the name of seduction capital.
In light of this observation on contemporary love, how can we think of love in the years to come? We can envision two hypotheses: The first one consists of betting that this process of narcissistic capitalization will intensify. It is hard to say what shape this intensification will take, because it largely depends on social and technical innovations, which are by definition difficult to predict. But we can, for instance, imagine a dating website which, a bit like those loyalty points programs, uses seduction capital points that vary according to my age, my height/weight ratio, my degree, my salary, or the number of clicks on my profile. We can also imagine a chemical treatment for breakups that weakens the feelings of attachment.
By the way, there's a program on MTV already in which seduction teachers treat heartache as a disease. These teachers call themselves "pick-up artists." "Artist" in French is easy, it means "artiste." "Pick-up" is to pick someone up, but not just any picking up — it's picking up chicks. So they are artists of picking up chicks. (Laughter) And they call heartache "one-itis." In English, "itis" is a suffix that signifies infection. One-itis can be translated as "an infection from one." It's a bit disgusting. Indeed, for the pick-up artists, falling in love with someone is a waste of time, it's squandering your seduction capital, so it must be eliminated like a disease, like an infection. We can also envision a romantic use of the genome. Everyone would carry it around and present it like a business card to verify if seduction can progress to reproduction. (Laughter)
Of course, this race for seduction, like every fierce competition, will create huge disparities in narcissistic satisfaction, and therefore a lot of loneliness and frustration too. So we can expect that modernity itself, which is the origin of seduction capital, would be called into question. I'm thinking particularly of the reaction of neo-fascist or religious communes. But such a future doesn't have to be.
Another path to thinking about love may be possible. But how? How to renounce the hysterical need to be valued? Well, by becoming aware of my uselessness. (Laughter) Yes, I'm useless. But rest assured: so are you. (Laughter) (Applause)
We are all useless. This uselessness is easily demonstrated, because in order to be valued I need another to desire me, which shows that I do not have any value of my own. I don't have any inherent value. We all pretend to have an idol; we all pretend to be an idol for someone else, but actually we are all impostors, a bit like a man on the street who appears totally cool and indifferent, while he has actually anticipated and calculated so that all eyes are on him.
I think that becoming aware of this general imposture that concerns all of us would ease our love relationships. It is because I want to be loved from head to toe, justified in my every choice, that the seduction hysteria exists. And therefore I want to seem perfect so that another can love me. I want them to be perfect so that I can be reassured of my value. It leads to couples obsessed with performance who will break up, just like that, at the slightest underachievement.
In contrast to this attitude, I call upon tenderness — love as tenderness. What is tenderness? To be tender is to accept the loved one's weaknesses. It's not about becoming a sad couple of orderlies. (Laughter) That's pretty bad. On the contrary, there's plenty of charm and happiness in tenderness. I refer specifically to a kind of humor that is unfortunately underused. It is a sort of poetry of deliberate awkwardness.
I refer to self-mockery. For a couple who is no longer sustained, supported by the constraints of tradition, I believe that self-mockery is one of the best means for the relationship to endure.
In this delightful talk, philosopher Yann Dall'Aglio explores the universal search for tenderness and connection in a world that's ever more focused on the individual. As it turns out, it's easier than you think. A wise and witty reflection on the state of love in the modern age. In French with subtitles.
Yann Dall'Aglio is a philosopher who thinks deeply about modern love.