On Love and Phenomenological Reduction
I. Doubting Certainty
All human beings by nature desire to know. No one desires to be ignorant. Between ignorance and knowledge, no one hesitates to prefer knowledge. But why? After all, the conquest of knowledge—or, more modestly, of a knowledge—requires focused attention, effort and time, to the point that one would often like, voluptuously, to dispense with it. In reality, however, we don’t dispense with it. Nor could we, were we inclined to, without surrendering our humanity or at least the most minimal social integration. So why do we prefer knowledge over ignorance, even at the price of constraint?
A first answer is to suggest that we desire to know for the sheer pleasure of it—perhaps the most exciting, durable and pure pleasure of which we are capable in this lifetime. To the point that some have seen in knowledge the unique possibility of a natural beatitude, rivaling the other, unconditioned beatitude. But then we would have to conclude right away that we do not desire knowledge for its own sake but for the pleasure afforded by knowledge—we know in order to enjoy knowledge, to enjoy the act of knowing, in short to enjoy ourselves through the process of knowing. So it turns out that we do not desire to know, but to enjoy ourselves. Knowledge is a mere means—even if the most efficient and economical—of self-gratification. More essential than the desire to know is thus desire itself. Desire that desires self-gratification, even in knowledge.
To this primacy, over knowledge, of the desire to find pleasure in it, one immediately objects: even if knowledge sometimes fills us with a contentment that reaches true gratification, this is not always or even often the case. First of all because our knowledge may fail to reach the truth, or worse, leaves us with the illusion of having discovered it. Secondly because knowledge may wound us and trouble us to the very extent that we ascertain it reliably. We must therefore admit, in such a case, that we do not pursue knowledge for the pleasure of it, since on the contrary it makes us suffer. Does it follow from this that we desire knowledge for its own sake when we learn what is hurtful and disquieting? Hardly the right conclusion: for indeed why is it better to run the risk of discovering an unwelcome truth than to know nothing at all? The reason is obvious: being aware of a potentially bad situation gives me some mastery over it, allowing me to try to change it or at least to predict and anticipate what will befall me. Especially when it pertains to what is problematic or threatening, knowledge is directly relevant to the knower’s security and therefore to self-preservation. The desire to know is aimed, of course, at the content of what is known or knowable, but the first and ultimate aim is the knower’s advantage. More essential than the desire to know is thus the desire to guard oneself from harm, in other words to gratify oneself.
So we indeed desire to know rather than be ignorant, but this desire in itself is not for the knowledge that we know but for the knowers who we are. The paradox is only apparent, since the most classical definition of science includes it: by science we mean knowledge that is certain,
i.e. a knowledge of objects. The eruption of the notion of certainty tells us that knowing is insufficient for rational, scientific knowledge: science achieves its certainty only by distinguishing between those aspects of things that can be reduced to permanence (through modeling and parameters, reproduction and production) and those aspects that cannot. From this distinction there results on the one hand what is objective—the object being what is certifiably known, known by the knower as certain; on the other what cannot be objectified—what remains in a given thing that eludes as such the conditions of knowledge, in short what remains doubtful.
Between what is certain and what is doubtful, between object and what cannot be made into an object, who draws the boundary? The knower, the ego—the I who separates what will become an object to himself from what will escape him. Since certainty indicates that what is known (and, negatively, what is unknowable) is referred to the ego, it follows that knowing an object involves, even more centrally than the object itself, the ego that objectifies it, constitutes it, and, strictly speaking, certifies it. Of course, the object imposes itself as certain, but this certainty would have no meaning were it not referred to the ego, which alone sees it and, above all, institutes it. What shows up first and foremost in the certified object, by right and in fact, is its certifier—the ego. So it turns out that even with regard to a scientific knowledge of objects, even under the régime of certainty, the desire to know stems once again from self-enjoyment.
Determining truth as certain thus confirms what the desire to know already suggested—namely that all knowledge ultimately points to the self taking pleasure in itself. It should follow therefore that the desire to know will ultimately make the knower known, with the very certainty possessed by the certifying ego. And yet we must call this evidence of certainty into doubt. Or rather, we must eventually doubt whether the same sort of certainty that attaches to certified objects can indeed be extended to the ego who certifies them. If instead one and the same certainty used in the same sense embraces the ego and its objects, then some essential part of the ego would lie beyond. In short, if certainty suffices to ascertain objects, it fails in principle with regard to sheltering the ego from doubt, since there might be a wholly different kind of doubt than the sort of doubt that is annulled by certainty. A number of arguments will help establish this.
First, we might inquire how far the field of certainty extends. Indeed we certify an object with perfect mastery when it falls under the guard of our regarding gaze (regarder, in-tueri). To hold it thus under surveillance means to be able to constitute and re-constitute it again and again, starting with analysis into parts distinct and clear enough to allow the gaze to seize it without shadows or residue. Only reduced in this way to atoms of evidence does an object offer itself up to certainty. This is why we must start with the simplest of objects—those of mathematics (which require only the intuition of pure space), or logic (which require only a formal possibility). The same applies to objects that are mass-produced by technology (formal identity requiring in this case only an abstract form, design or “concept” and matter considered as homogenous material). Such objects—an equation, a theorem of logic or an industrial object—offer indeed a “total quality” and deserve to be described as “certain.” But only phenomena as poor as these in intuition are capable of being as rich as these in certainty.—Precisely: what does this kind of certainty matter to me? Why should I hold it in such high esteem? Is it to be assumed that my need for assurance is fully satisfied by the certainty of objects, of impoverished phenomena? After all, a certainty of this kind concerns only objects, referred to me precisely as not being me or like myself. How indeed am I? I am according to my flesh. In contrast to the formal abstraction that makes objects, my flesh is boundlessly affected by the things of the world, including therefore and above all by itself. My flesh offers me to myself as a phenomenon, where the flow of intuitions always and by far exceeds the security of forms that I could ever assign to them and the intelligibility of intentionalities that I could ever read in them. Between such a saturated phenomenon (my flesh) and the impoverished phenomena of objectivity, a definitive rift establishes itself. Paradoxically, at the very moment when I master it (when I use the object), their certainty no longer interests me: limited to the use of phenomena of another type than myself, irrelevant to my own manner of being and to the unique “whatness” of my flesh, invisible, uncertifiable.
From an opposite point of view, we could also inquire: what would the ego gain if we were able to extend to it the certainty of certified objects? Let us indeed grant the canonical argument: the ego as a matter of fact possesses certainty, perhaps the greatest, since, as we all know, even deceiving itself about evident truths, such as its own existence, implies that it must be in order to deceive itself. The more I deceive myself (or am deceived), the more I am, since I must think in order to deceive myself (or be deceived)—and thinking implies performing an act, an act that accomplishes the fact of being. Without doubt, the ego reaches therefore a certainty. All right, but what kind? This is our question. The ego has a certainty, just one—remaining present each time and as long as I think. Think what? That being deceived requires thinking, and therefore being. I am, therefore, in theory, be precisely to the extent that I perform an act—an act of thought since I dispose of no other possible act at this moment—and perform it of course in the present tense, from instant to instant, as long as I think (myself). This indeed counts as a certainty. But the same question immediately comes back: how does this certainty ascertain me in another mode than the objects which I myself certify? Does the certainty that I share with the objects that I certify, certify me in turn as such, namely as the condition of the very possibility of objects? If I am certain only in the same sense that objects are, have I become an object or does certainty divide and become double? Conversely, one could ask: what can I no longer doubt? Only this—that I am at the very instant that I think that I am and that I am as often as I repeat the same instant. But this is precisely the case with a certified object: here, too, I cannot doubt that it is each time and as long as I think it. If I manage to think it, it is—at least as an object. One might object that its subsistence is marked by a difference: the object is not always available to be thought, whereas I am always able to think myself since thinking depends only on me. This objection does not hold, because death will eventually terminate my thinking faculty, just as the contingency of things will eventually annihilate the object. I am therefore certain of myself only in the same sense that I am certain of an object: I do not doubt that I subsist and therefore that I am. I am fully certain of myself, but with the sort of certainty that I allow an object. In truth, there is but one alternative: either I am certain of myself because I think. but then I constitute myself as my own object, possess only an object’s certainty and miss myself precisely as ego; or I admit that the I who knows myself as a certified object is no longer the object of which I am certain, since certainty must come from the certification of another. Therefore I, who certify my own existence to myself as an object, is other than I. I am other than the self that is objectively certain. The certainty of the self therefore falls short of the I who I am.
A third argument immediately arises: in effect, it is only once I ascertain that I exist that I can call myself into doubt. The truth is , I who am really certain of my existence have never stopped doubting myself. What have I doubted? Not my effectiveness, obviously, or my subsisting in presence, or even of my self-enjoyment—all of these have seemed acquired once and for all, barring contrary proof, updated and revived without conscious effort. I have doubted elsewhere and otherwise: of my possibility and my future. Consequently I have learned to doubt my talents and the strength of my desires. I thought for a long time to become—like many, I imagine—a great soccer player, then, more seriously, a champion long-distance runner. All during my childhood, I believed myself to be unhappy, although I was happy; then, half-adult, I believed I would be happy soon although my behavior insured that I would never be. Later, I believed that successes would give me self-assurance, but accumulating these only returned me to my initial doubt. I spontaneously believed all promises and pledges of love, and I still do today, in principle, even though I’ve been a bit disillusioned: in the end, repeated separations, my own failures and weariness taught me to call these in doubt as well. Without compensation, especially not the satisfaction of having grown in wisdom and moral stature, I saw on these occasions proofs of my own inconstancy and stupidity. None of this forced, compulsory skepticism impresses me as particularly luminous, either in myself or in others: there is no merit in boasting of one’s failures and shortcomings. Yet such skepticism as befalls every human destiny bereft of its own gravity instructs us however in an obvious truth: we are still capable of doubting, at great length and down to the root, even when familiar objects have long since become certain, and even if the ego who knows them is certain as well.
How can I doubt myself, if I am certain of my existence? Whence does my self-doubt come, if my certainty with regard to existence is insufficient to prevent it? How far does my doubt extend, when it overtakes my certainty of existing without even glancing back? Could it be that the doubt that undermines me deploys itself beyond the enclosed domain of certain existence? Perhaps doubt ultimately works to overcome certainty rather than to produce it.
II. “Who cares”
Metaphysical thought takes itself to have fulfilled all of its speculative duties in providing us with a certainty, even in promising us all thinkable certainty. Metaphysics imagines itself to have accomplished an incomparable feat by ascertaining the object and extending this certainty to the ego. In reality, this accomplishment bears witness only to its failure and blindness.
The problem is that metaphysics breaks its word, yielding in guise of certainty, even in the best cases, only the certainty that applies to objects (perhaps even only to a subset of objects): this kind of certainty fails to concern us, or at least fails to concern me, who am not an object, since it says nothing about the sort of certainty that would be meaningful to me—the certainty that involves me principally, concerned with myself. The objects of science, propositions of logic and truths of philosophy may well enjoy all the certainty in the world, what has this to do with me
I who am neither a scientific object, nor a logical theorem, nor a philosophical truth? The only inquiry resulting in an important finding for me would take on the problem of establishing a possible certainty for me—my identity, my status, my story, my destiny, my death, my birth and my flesh, in short, my irreducible “whatness.” Metaphysics and the sciences it articulates can hardly be reproached for giving rise to more uncertainties than certainties—they do their job as best they can and are the first to deplore the ambiguity of their own results. Nor can we reproach them for having consistently restricted the quest for wisdom to an inquest into truth, and an inquest into truth to a conquest of certainty, since this double restriction has produced an exceptional bounty of objective results. And the prestige of this bounty is quite understandably seductive. What we can legitimately argue is that they have narrowed their aim to a secondary and derivative sort of certainty, foreign and ultimately futile (objects, production and manipulation), by neglecting or ignoring the only certainty that matters to me—to us, namely the certainty of myself.
The fact is, even when reduced to objects that are not myself, certainty is not above suspicion. It is vulnerable to a counter-trial that can disqualify it all the more radically that it does not challenge its simple, first-degree certainty. I need only pose the simple question:—“who cares?” Logical calculi, mathematical algorithms, models of objects and techniques of production offer perfect certainty, a “total quality”—so what? How does this concern me, beyond the fact that I am engaged in their world, that I inscribe myself in an intramundane space? In so far as I stubbornly remain other, otherwise and elsewhere than they, a porous boundary mediates our exchanges: I intervene in the world of objects that are certain, but am not at home among them, since I have the terrible privilege of being the one who opens a world to them that they would never obtain on their own. Their certainty is irrelevant to me because I inhabit their world only in passing, like an owner touring his estate from time to time but domiciled elsewhere. Upon encountering the certainty of this foreign world, I am therefore able to experience—better, I cannot avoid experiencing—the irrepressible tonality of its vanity: this worldly certainty, supposing it could even be acquired, fails to matter to me, to concern me, to reach me—I who am not of this world. To put it plainly, technical progress improves neither my life, nor my capacity to live well, nor my self-knowledge. Expressed conceptually, intramundane certainty solves nothing about the ego, who alone opens the world to objects, entities and phenomena. The same is true of the certainty of the world of entities as of the “call to being”—they touch me only if I consent; and since they reach me neither by right nor in fact in my living creations, since they say nothing to me (nothing of me), they succumb to the verdict of vanity. Vanity disqualifies the certainty of objects. Of course, they remain reliably certain. But their certainty gives me no reassurance about myself, does not verify me in any way. Certainty, useless and certain.
Someone will retort: but metaphysics understands this perfectly well, since it sought and managed to extend the certainty of worldly things to the ego, who in turn welcomes them only by exempting itself from their midst. Nothing is more certain than my existence, as long as, and as many time as, I pronounce it and think it. Let the certainty of the world dissolve—the more it does, the more I who think it and doubt it think myself and therefore that I am indubitably. Such a response demonstrates indeed the certainty of the ego, but engulfed in vanity, since it limits itself to providing the ego, a stranger in this world, with the type of certainty that belongs to objects and intramundane entities. What good does it do me, at heart, to be certain like them, even more than them? A number of arguments confirm that certainty of this type fails to reach me as an irrevocably individuated ego. First: the certainty of persisting in existence, when and as long as I wish, only comes to me as an effect of my thinking, as one of its products, as my first artifact, indeed my paradigmatic artifact since it marshals my art as its point of origin, my cogitatio ; my certainty is therefore not primordial, but derives from my cogitatio , which alone insures that I am when I want assurance that I am. Everything depends on what I cogitate, therefore on my thinking will. But then if all depends on a deliberation, the question “what good is it?” imposes itself right away: if I am only in so far as I want to produce a proof of my existence, am I always in a state of wanting it, willing it? Might I not reply: “what good is it?” when confronted with the possibility of producing my own certainty with regard to being? What infallible reason assures me of infallibly wanting this certainty, without reserve? What indestructible motive do I have to produce this certainty rather than not? No one today, in our age of nihilism, would dismiss this question as extravagant. Behind the evidence of self-cogitation lurks the shadow of a decision—to produce or not to produce my own certainty. Here is where the question who cares exerts itself freely. The certainty of the cogitatio does not stretch back to the real point of origin, which is occupied instead by another, earlier decision. And this decision in turn establishes only a certainty, vulnerable to be disqualified through vanity. Secondly: a certainty that is producible or not at will—does it not remain essentially contingent, derivative, and therefore foreign to me? If my certainty depends on me, such certainty, which I must produce and decide to produce, cannot in any way reassure me, since, even once accomplished, it has its origin only in me—in this me begging in turn to be secured. Either what we have is an auto-foundation, in other words a vicious circle condemned to mimic unsuccessfully the supposedly divine (and basically untenable) causa sui; or we have a half-foundation, an empirical event presuming to be transcendent, which temporality will always drive back to an incurable contingency. As a matter of fact, our supposedly primitive certainty marks instead an unbridgeable gap: on the one hand, what remains of my realm, me without any assurance but me, and on the other hand what alone could reassure me about myself—which is to say a certainty grasped elsewhere, prior to myself. Either I am through myself alone, and then my certainty lacks the character of origin; or my certainty has this character, in which case it does not come from me. Self-certainty can proclaim itself as widely as it wishes: it quickly recognizes itself as provisional, in the illusory wait for another principle, God no doubt, a principle capable at last to ground it truly. Such a metaphysical recourse on the ego’s part to God confesses the self- insufficiency of autarchic certainty.
Nothing thus exposes me more openly to the devastating attack of vanity than the metaphysical demonstration of the ego’s existence, my certainty of being by way of ego. Such a certainty indeed manifests its failure at the very moment of its success: I acquire certainty, yes, but, like the certainty of worldly entities that I reduce to the rank of objects certified through my efforts, it sends me back to my own initiative, therefore to me—arbitrary and indecisive craftsman of all certainty, including my own. Above all my own. In no way does it reassure me To be certain of my certainty through myself, rather it drives me to panic before vanity itself, vanity in person. What good is my certainty, if it still depends on me? What good is me, if I am only grounded in me?
III. Erotic Reduction
Vanity thus disqualifies all certainty, whether it bears on the world or, especially, on myself. Must we renounce self-assurance, renounce being reassured against vanity’s assault? Our powerlessness to answer the question who cares?, even to bear it, would seem, would it not, to illustrate vanity par excellence—to illustrate indeed the pitiless excellence of vanity. Nothing holds its ground against vanity, since vanity seeps around and annuls all evidence, all certainty, all capacity to resist.
Unless what is needed to truly secure the ego is to renounce the paradigm of certainty, which comes from the world and rules over it—to renounce the absurd ambition of warranting by myself the meager certainty of a bestowed existence of the same kind as an object or worldly entity. For indeed in my case, in my unique case, assurance asks for more than an existence that is certain, more perhaps than certainty. It asks that I view myself, in this existence, as freed of vanity, liberated of even the suspicion of inanity, safe from the ever-lurking who cares? In order to face this requirement, the point is no longer to obtain certainty with regard to being, but rather an answer to a wholly different question: “does anyone love me?”
Certainty suits objects and, more broadly, worldly entities, because being in their case means subsisting in effective presenthood—which can be certified. But this way of being is unsuitable to me. Unsuitable, first, because I am not measured by what about me is effective in actuality but by what about me is possible: were I to remain in the effective state in which I actually am, I would certainly be what I am, but one could correctly call me “dead”; to be who I really am, I must instead unlock the possibility of becoming other than I am, project myself into the future, not persist in the present state of my being but be in some other state; in short, in order to be who I am (rather than an object or worldly entity), I must be by way of possibility, and therefore by way of possibly being otherwise. But possibility, as such, escapes the strictures of certainty—its very definition lies in being irreducible to certainty. Through my mode of possible being, I therefore no longer come under certainty. There is yet another, more radical reason why certifiable efficiency is unsuitable to me: I cannot as a matter of fact reduce myself to any mode of being, even to possible being. To be, as such, is not enough for me to remain who I am: above all, I have to be loved.
We can verify this by a simple test: suppose the offer of having a limitless span of time with certified being, but on the condition of renouncing once and for all the possibility (not even the actuality) of ever being loved—who would accept? It seems as clear as daylight that no I, no ego, in fact no human being, above all not the world’s greatest cynic (who yearns only to be loved), would accept, because to renounce the mere possibility of being loved would have the effect on me of a transcendental castration and would topple me down to the rank of some artificial intelligence, routine calculator or demon, in short lower than animals, who at least mimic love. And as a matter of fact, those of my peers who have given up—only partly, to be honest, and in some specific regard—on being loved have lost their humanity in the same proportion that they have given up. To renounce asking (oneself) the question “am I loved?” and especially the possibility of a positive answer is to renounce what is human as such.
Here, a strong objection arises: does the question “am I loved?” not presuppose, first, that I am? In other words: in order to be-well, one first has to be. Or put it this way: to be loved (or lovable) would remain a simple ontic correction to a more fundamental ontological character. In short, however relevant and judicious we make the question of love, it would still remain secondary, at best a second-rank philosophy among others (such as ethics, political philosophy, etc.) All we have here, however, is a trick argument, a sophism that assumes precisely what must be demonstrated—namely that the ego’s mode of being (or of not being) is reducible to the mode of objects and worldly entities, as well as sufficient as such for self-understanding. In fact, only these objects and worldly entities require being prior to being-well, just as they must subsist prior to being. Whereas I, in contrast, cannot primitively be but according to possibility, according to the future, and therefore also according to whether I am loved or whether I could possibly be loved. In any other case but mine, “to be loved” may indeed be interpreted as a synthetic statement, where “loved” is added from the outside to what is presupposed—“be.” But in my case, to me, the I, “be loved” turns out to be an analytic statement, since I could not be, or accept to endure being without at least the open-ended possibility of being loved at some time or other. Being, for me, means nothing less than being-loved. English seems to suggest as much since “to be loved” can be said in one word: “beloved.” Why is it that I cannot accept to be except under the express condition that I be loved? Because I withstand, in my being, vanity’s assault only under the protection of this love, or at least of its possibility.
We must finish once and for all with what produces the certainty of worldly objects—the epistemic reduction, which preserves in a thing only what about it remains repeatable, permanent, as though finding its home under the mind’s gaze. We must also leave aside the ontological reduction, which preserves only the thing’s status as an entity, in order to guide it back to its being, even eventually pursue it until it delivers a glimpse of being itself. All we have left is to attempt a third reduction: in order for me to appear as a phenomenon in its own right, it is not enough to recognize myself as a certified object or even as a properly subsisting entity. For this, I would have to discover myself as a phenomenon that is given (and gifted) such that it assures itself to be a gift exempt of vanity. What authority could provide such assurance? At this point of the journey, we have no idea what it is, or whether it even is; let us at least sketch the function it must fulfill. The purpose is to secure me against the vanity of my own given (and gifted) self-phenomenon by answering a new question: no longer “am I certain?” but “am I not, despite all of my certainty, in vain?” And to require securing my own self-certainty against the dark aggression of vanity, boils down to asking nothing less than: “does anyone love me?” Here we have it: the assurance that is proper to the begiven (and begifted) ego involves an erotic reduction.
I am—such an eventual certainty, even if it is unshakable, even if it is erected into a first principle by a metaphysics that aims at nothing higher, is worthless if it fails to secure me against vanity, to give me the assurance that I am loved. After all, I can always—and more often than not I do—laugh at being to the point of callousness, shrug it off, even go so far as to hate it. By no means does knowing myself to exist with certainty and without restriction suffice for me to bear existing, accept it and cherish it. On the contrary, the certainty of my existence may very well weigh down on me like a yoke, ensnare me like silt, imprison me like a cell. For every ego, to be or not to be can always turn into a matter of free choice, with no guarantee in favor of a positive answer. The problem is not simply one of suicide, but first and foremost of vanity’s overarching grip. Under vanity’s hegemony, I can recognize “I think, therefore I am” all I want, and right away cancel this certainty by asking “what good is it?”. Certainty by itself cannot ever render my existence just, or good, or beautiful, or desirable—in short it does not suffice to secure it. The certainty of my existence simply demonstrates that I possess the solitary power of establishing myself in being on my own account, through my own intimate decision; but such certainty, produced by my own action of thinking, remains first and foremost my own initiative, my handiwork and my private affair—autistic certainty, narcissistic certainty of a mirror reflecting forever another mirror, void repeated upon void. All I get from this is the most arid, deserted existence—pure product of hyperbolic doubt, bereft of intuition, without concept or name: desert that remains desert, poorest of phenomena, yielding only its very inanity. I am:—a certainty perhaps, but at the price of bearing the absence of all gift. I am:—less the first truth, I am nothing then but the last blossom of doubt itself. At least I doubt—at least my doubt is certain. Yes, of course, I am certain, but with a certainty so empty, and about a phenomenon so impoverished, that it becomes immediately apparent that such a certainty cannot possibly matter to me, cannot possibly truly concern me and cannot help but crumble before vanity’s interrogation, “who cares?” Like a minimalist mime of the causa sui, certainty nails the ego to just enough existence for it to receive, defenseless, vanity’s violent blow. For me to be myself, not only with certainty but with a certainty that matters to me, I must therefore be more than, and otherwise than, what I myself am able to warrant for myself. I must be from a being that secures me from somewhere else than myself. I can forever produce and reproduce for myself the certainty of my existence, but I cannot for all that assure it myself against vanity. Only someone other than myself can do this, the way a mountain guide gives assurance to a client. Assurance and certainty must not be confused. Certainty results from epistemic reduction (or even ontological reduction) and comes into play between the ego, master, and the object, mastered; even if the ego becomes certain of its own existence, especially if it remains its own master prior to God, it knows its existence still as its own derivative, if primary, object, wholly exposed to vanity. Assurance, in contrast, results from an erotic reduction. It comes into play between, on one side, the ego, its existence, certainty and objects, and on the other side some yet unknown authority, sovereign in so far as it will answer the question “am I loved?” and hold its ground against the challenge “who cares?.” Certifying my existence depends on my thought, therefore on me. Receiving assurance against the vanity of my certain existence does not depend on me, but requires me to learn from elsewhere that I am and am free of the vanity of being. To hold fast against vanity, which is to say to obtain elsewhere what justifies being—means that I am not in so far as I exist (even through myself), but in so far as I am loved (therefore from elsewhere).
What possible “elsewhere” is at stake? Obviously, I do not yet have the means to answer. But nor do I have to decide of it here and now. It is enough, for the erotic reduction to take place, to understand what I ask (of myself): not a certainty in and by itself, but a security advening to myself from elsewhere. This elsewhere begins as soon as the self’s dreamy self-enclosure gives way, allowing some authority to pierce through that is not me, and from which I receive myself, according to varying and still undefined modalities. It is unimportant for this elsewhere to be identified as some neutral other (life, nature, the world) or as the other in general (a given group, society), or even as a particular other (man or woman, the divine, perhaps God); all that matters is that it reach me from elsewhere, so vividly that it cannot not matter to me since it matters in me. Its very anonymity, far from weakening the impact, would instead reinforce it: by remaining anonymous, the elsewhere will precisely befall me unannounced, surprise me unpredictably; and the more off guard it finds me, the more deeply it will reach into my heart, in short the more it will matter to me. By reaching my depth, the anonymous elsewhere intervenes like an event. Only a radical event can dissipate the vanity of being and unnerve the “who cares.” The lethargy insinuated by “so what?” dissipates only when the elsewhere matters in me and thus matters to me. The anonymous event assures me therefore (that I am from elsewhere) in proportion to the certainty it denies me about itself (its identity). We must therefore refrain from seeking as our first concern the identity of elsewhere, since its very anonymity makes it matter all the more. Rather, we should first understand how it manages to matter to me, how it succeeds in replacing the query “am I?” with the question “does anyone love me?” In short, how it manages the erotic reduction.
As a first approximation, one might say: since the anonymous elsewhere secures me by advening to me, since it alone breaks the autism of lone self-certainty, it exposes me to itself and determines that which I am originally by that for whom (or for what) I am. Henceforth to be means for me to be according to the advent of elsewhere, to be towards and for what I am not—whatever this may be. I am, but no longer because I want it (or think it or perform it) but in so far as I am requested elsewhere. What could elsewhere request of me, want for me? Good or evil, strictly speaking, woman to male, man to man, group to group; but also in a broader, extramoral sense, the same as what inanimate things display towards me (the world can indeed be welcoming to me or not, the landscape repugnant or appealing, a city open or closed, living things amiable or hostile). So I am in so far as I am wished well or ill, in so far as I feel accepted or rejected, loved or not, hated or not. I am in so far as I ask myself “what do they want for me (was mögen sie)?”; I am in so far as I am open to a decision that does not belong to me yet determines me beforehand, since it advenes from elsewhere—a decision that makes me worthy of love or not. Assurance thus decides, beyond certainty (which becomes by the same token a native non-origin), that I can only be in so far as someone loves me or not. In so far as I am loved from elsewhere—not in so far as I think myself, all by myself, as a being. To be, for me, is always determined by a tonality of origin—to be loved or hated, from elsewhere.
Could we not object against this figure of the ego in a condition of erotic reduction that it enshrines without reserve a radical selfishness, which is therefore unjust? No, because if we understand the term “selfishness” in its strict sense, we should praise it. For indeed unlike the self-certainty that the ego gives itself, assurance cannot ever advene to the ego from itself, but always from elsewhere; hence a native alteration, even a radical alterity of the ego to itself.
Strictly speaking, the “selfishness” of an erotically-reduced ego deserves to be ethically privileged.—Selfishness, is it? Selfishness, yes, of course, but only under the condition of having the right means and the resolve. Only such selfishness as is armed and cunning has the effrontery not to be castrated in the transcendent neutrality where “I think” illusions itself over its own certainty, as though it could really secure it, as though it owed itself nothing more, as though it could indeed owe nothing elsewhere. The selfishness of the erotic-al reduction, in contrast, has the courage to face the terror that threatens every ego as soon as the slightest suspicion of vanity shows up, the courage to lock eyes with the silent panic that flows from the simple question “who cares?”. Put it this way: if the ego were only what it flatters itself to be—the abstract existence that it wants so miserably to certify—whence would it draw the strength, stubborn and secretive, to remain itself, whence would it marshal the legitimacy needed to bear its unsecured misery? Who would resign himself without panic to be a thinking ego, strictly confined to its allegedly transcendent neutrality, when the dark hour descends, not of doubting certainty, but of vanity without security? Neither I, nor you, reader—unless we are hypocrites pretending to be unconscious of the trial—can change the fact that a difference arises depending on whether one loves me or not, as though the erotic reduction did not give birth to a key difference, a difference that differs from all other differences and makes them all equally indifferent. Who can seriously maintain that he is unconcerned by the possibility of being loved or hated? Put it to the test: the greatest metaphysician in the world, as soon as he walks this tight rope, succumbs to vertigo (and what should we say in turn of small time philosophers and quibblers?).—Moreover what sense does it make to modestly pretend not to be selfish faced with the erotic reduction, while boastfully and unhesitantly claiming to exercise the imperial function of a transcendental ego? Conversely, what right do we have to call the ego selfish when it honestly admits its lack of security and exposes itself without safeguard to an elsewhere that is unknown as such and cannot ever be mastered?
We must therefore finish once and for all with the second-degree vanity of pretending not to be struck to the quick by the vanity of all certainty, including the arid, deserted certainty I confer on myself through thinking. Is there injustice in wanting to be loved from elsewhere? Do not justice and reason demand, on the contrary, that I secure myself—me, without whom nothing in the world would ever give itself or show itself? Moreover who more than I has the duty to worry about my erotic security—the only possible security—but me—who am the one who must carry the burden of myself? Especially since giving up would mean submitting to vanity without a fight, ingloriously: without rational selfishness and courage, required to accomplish the erotic-al reduction, I would let the ego sink in me. No ethical obligation, no altruism, no substitute could ever impose themselves on me, if my ego itself did not first resist vanity and its “what good is it?”—in short, if I failed to request, first and unconditionally, for myself, assurance from elsewhere. In light of the erotic-al reduction, selfishness itself demands a native alterity and therefore alone makes possible, eventually, the test and experience of someone other.
IV. The Lover
World that cannot phenomenalize itself except by giving itself to me and making me its own devotee through giftedness. My place under the sun—the erotic sun that secures me as beloved or hated—holds nothing that is either unjust, or tyrannical, or hateful: to claim it (reclaim it) imposes itself as my first duty.
On the other hand, another kind of objection might stop me in my tracks. To substitute the ego as loved or hated to the ego as thinking could as a matter of fact weaken it, for two reasons. First, because the ego cogitans depends only on itself in order to think and therefore produces its certainty with perfect autonomy, whereas in viewing myself through the erotic-al reduction, all I do, really, is ask myself the question “am I loved?”, which has no answer as of yet. This question makes me depend on some anonymous elsewhere which I cannot, by definition, master. It therefore exposes me to the radical uncertainty of an answer that is questionable and perhaps even impossible. Henceforth, I must proceed bereft of autonomy, that most unchallenged of obsessions.—Next, because even if an eventual erotic confirmation (which I cannot grant myself) befalls me from elsewhere, I would still stagnate in terminal uncertainty. Security advening from elsewhere would not indeed add itself to my own self-certainty and confirm it; at best, it comes as compensation for the weakness that it provoked by wounding the ego with an alterity more native to the ego than the ego itself. By entering into erotic reduction, I would thus be losing myself, since the character that would define me from then on—“beloved (or be-hated)”—would no longer ever properly belong to me (as “thinking” used to); ceasing to attribute me to myself, it will instead offer me up ecstatically to an undecided authority who will decide everything—starting with me. In short, the ego weakens through a theoretic and then factual heteronomy. The double weakening of the ego thus cannot be denied, and the objection holds with full force.
We must admittedly grant that the erotic reduction strikes at the ego most intimately by dismissing for ever all auto-production in certainty and existence. If, peradventure, an answer to the question “does one love me?” were to arise, it will insert itself into this dependence as into its ultimate horizon, without ever recovering—even as a wishful gesture or rational ideal—the autonomy of the certainty spun by cogitatio. But the resulting destitution is less equivalent to a clear loss than to a new acquisition, however obscure. For indeed if the blow inflicted by the erotic reduction causes me to no longer receive myself securely except as beloved (or hated), it follows that I enter an entirely new realm simply by being possibly loved (or lovable). The point is no longer to be there as loved, i.e. to be loved or hated there in order to be able to be or not be, but to appear to myself directly beyond all eventual status as entity, as potentially beloved or lovable. From this moment forth, “beloved” ceases to fill the role of an adjective or a means to be, since under the régime of erotic reduction that stares vanity in the face, it is no longer possible to incautiously presume, as in metaphysics, that “to be or not to be is the question.” The question “does one love me?” that is substituted for it on a definitive basis no longer aims at being and no longer cares about existence. The question ushers me into a horizon—if the term still applies—where my status as beloved or hated, in short as lovable, refers back only to itself. In asking whether I am loved from elsewhere, I must give up even inquiring first into my self-assurance: I enter into the reign of love, where I immediately receive the role of one who is able to love, able to be loved, and who believes that love is his due—the lover.
The lover thus stands opposite the thinker. First, because he dismisses the quest for certainty in favor of a quest for assurance; because he replaces the question “am-I?” (and therefore also the variation “am I, in so far as I am loved?”) with the reduced query “does one love me?”; because he is not in so far as he thinks, but, supposing that he still needs to be, only through receiving love from elsewhere. Above all, while the thinker thinks only in order to be and exercises his thought only as a means to certify his being, the lover in contrast loves in order to withstand what annuls being—vanity, which asks “who cares?”. The lover’s ambition is to surpass being in order not to succumb with being to what dismisses it. From the lover’s point of view, in fact from the point of view of the erotic reduction, being and its entities appear contaminated and untouchable, irradiated as they are by vanity’s black sun. It matters to love because, under the régime of erotic reduction, nothing remains that is not-loved or not-loving. In passing from thinker (who also doubts, ignores, understands, wants, denies, imagines and feels) to lover, the erotic reduction does not modify the figure of the ego in order to reach, my new means, the same goal—certifying the ego’s being. Rather it dethrones the question “to be or not to be,” relieves the question of being of its imperial burden by exposing it to the question “what good is it?”; and treats it seriously from the perspective of vanity. In erotic reduction, where the lover is at stake, the question “what is entity and its being?” loses the privilege accorded to it as the most ancient of questions, forever pursued and missed. The aporia of the question of being does not derive at bottom from the fact that it has always been missed, but from the fact that it has always been put again and again in first position, when it holds at best a secondary place, derivative, conditional. Neither first nor last, the question of being belongs to second philosophy, or so at least as soon as another question—“what good is it?”—afflicts it, and that a more radical philosophy asks “does anyone love me?”. Such a reversal of the attitude that is natural to us—naturally ontological and therefore naturally metaphysical (at least here)—can only be accomplished by a new style of reduction, which we have identified as the erotic reduction.
This is a rough draft of the first chapter of Le phénomène érotique (Paris: PUF, 2003). It was given as a lecture by Jean-Luc Marion at Harvard, at the invitation of Marty Cohen, in November 2002. English translation by Anne Davenport.