In his work ‘Ethics’(1677) Benedict Spinoza developed a framework in which reason could be used to approach the tumult of impulse and desire: An idea that we find reflections of all around us, from psychoanalysis to self-improvement. However these fields of exploration do t prefigure our ability to talk about our emotions and the terminology that we have to do so: If passions lead our lives how do we develop the language that we have to express them? Who speaks of love and why?
We learn from what we see, from what we hear and what we experience. In ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’ Raoul Vaneigem writes that ‘The face of happiness vanished from art and literature as it began to be reproduced along endless walls and hoardings, offering to each particular passer by the universal image in which he is invited to recognise himself’. What is identified here is the historical point where our emotions become relative not only to an archetype but an archetype that is produced by capitalism and the vested interests therein. Our experiences are both overpowered and infected by this. It is painfully clear that our lives do not measure up to the images and words that we receive. To attain a state of personal emotional balance goes against the endless flow of consumption and production and is therefore impossible. As a product happiness and love must be constantly present yet unattainable.
Returning to Spinoza’s concept of approaching the passions via a logical schema let us approach a contemporary manifestation of such a thing, a rigid and well known form for locating the passions, of love and hate, of desire and loss. What does this form tell us about how we perceive the emotions today and why is this the case?
LOVE IS ALL AROUND, IN THE AIR AND ON THE AIRWAVES…
Whilst all popular artistic media rely on an understandable and reliable form, we find that in popular music this form is intensely refined. Ever since the well-tempered tuning, or circular system taught our ears to hear in a certain way, the formula has been heightened and reduced. A life or love reduced to 3 minutes formed of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus. On closer examination this organisation can be seen to extend further to the use of rhyme, syllabic patterns and a reduced lexicon of words. With little effort and no formal understanding of music we are able to empathise with chord progressions that lift our spirits or tug our emotions. This affinity is based on a repetition of a vernacular form and also the ability of a global industry to place these sounds within our lives, sound tracking our experiences and reinforcing the process of identification. Variation with the form is permissible and within reason.
The classic subject matter for the pop song is a pretty good match for the emotions that Spinoza identifies as primary; Joy/Love, Sadness and Desire. As Vaneigem suggests we are invited to recognise our (weaker) experiences of life in what we hear. This is mechanisation of an art form to its constituent and most effective parts.
The other vital component of the song and the way that emotion is conveyed, in our world of images, is via the performer and the role they play for us.
THE MARTYR OR THE HARLOT?
The lives of our pop stars are no mystery to us. They perpetuate aspirational life style and personal torment in equal measure, both of which provide valuable content when inserting their particular brand into the popular psyche. This is also a gift for the record executives who are able to tailor the artists material to the story that the media suggests is their private life. The best stories; loss, death, addiction provide the juiciest material.
In 2003 MTV, the apotheosis of pop music, produced the series ‘Newlyweds’ which followed the life and marriage of the singers Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. Jessica Simpson duly played the rising star and the dumb blonde, whilst her husband portrayed the fading star (he had been the member of a ‘Boy Band’) whose money barely disguised his pathos. Three years and four seasons of the series later and the couple were filing for divorce. The month before their divorce was finalised Lachey released the album ‘What is left of me’ which in contrast to the album he made during the marriage, was a hit. It seems fairly evident how the album was being marketed, this is embodied most strongly in the hit single “I can’t hate you anymore” a generic, radio friendly track that was in fact a love song that the listener was easily able to relate to the Lachey/Simpson story. It also morally elevated Lachey above his ex wife because of his saintly ability to forgive her failings.
‘BEING IN LOVE MEANS REALLY WANTING TO LIVE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD.’
Love is a dangerous thing, as is hate, both cause people to act in extreme and dangerous ways. This has the effect of separating the emotions from any kind of dissection or logical framework and pushing us into the realm of mysticism and cupid’s arrow. This is useful because one thing that is particularly problematic about love is that it falls outside of normal economic exchange. Let’s just say that the idea of giving yourself entirely to another individual by your own volition despite potential loss or harm is not an acceptable idea. Normal exchange does not apply in this transaction; reciprocation is the only appropriate price. Love, like hate, should be without not within, the product of the ‘other’. It is not ours to control, only to be guided towards and in it we identify the weak light of our own existence. The causes of love and hate must remain external. We have as little control over what and how we love as we do over any hatred that is applied to us.
A CORPSE IN THE MOUTH.
If you say a word enough times it ceases to have any meaning, it becomes a sound not a signifier. The prevalence of the use of the word ‘love’ applied ad nauseum to any product, object or person has the effect of reducing ‘I love” to at best ‘I like’. Is the vernacular logic, ‘I like this. You should like this too. You want this. You need this. We need this’?
Perhaps we are unreasonable to expect love. The radical psychotherapy of the 1970’s suggested that this expectation, that we place upon our loved ones and family, is in fact not only a source of psychosis but also the manifestation of manipulative subjugation. This negative behavioural reading of love may relate more closely to the prevalence of consumer love I described earlier, as both relate to lack above all else. The difference here is that the object subject role is reversed. We use love, and the expectations it carries, to enslave those that we claim to love.
So what we have are two concepts of love. One as a radical state which attacks the value system of capital and the other which identifies love as an aggressive form of inter personal control. We have Spinoza. We have manufactured pop music.
‘WHAT IS LOVE, BABY DON’T HURT ME, DON’T HURT ME, NO MORE, BABY DON’T HURT ME, DON’T HURT ME, NO MORE, WHAT IS LOVE, OH, I DON’T KNOW.’