Love

This piece was commissioned in 2006 by a magazine, but was rejected because they were not convinced the future would be so lacking in good honest fun, or what. As per my commission, I constructed it as an imaginary entry on LOVE as it might appear in an encyclopedia written circa 2100 CE. There are a number of theoretical cross-refs in the piece; they all appear in CAPS.

LOVE

LOVE. A term widely used in the Western Cultures of the planet Earth from the end of the first millennium of the Common Era until recent decades. It is most usually applied to human relations and institutions, such as sexual partnering, or the love of parents for children. Most definitions of this singularly complex term are circular, and may be boiled down to the statement that “love” is an intense form of a less intense emotion like “affection” or “fellow feeling” or “sexual attraction”. In other words, love may be defined as an intense form of anything that could be called love if it were more intense. No satisfactory — that is, widely applicable — definition of love in its essence has yet found acceptance. Under the present circumstances of world civilization, no satisfactory definition of the term is likely to emerge.

There are good historical reasons for the sidelining of a term so lethal. The effect of this circular term in sentences that purport to convey meaning might loosely be compared to the effect of a virus on a cell it has invaded. The functioning engine of the cell — like the modest cohesion of the original sentence — is fatally imitated by an “entity” that takes on the shape of its host only to mock it to death, while simultaneously breeding further iterations of fatally degraded import. As this comparison suggests, the use of the word “love” in human civilizations has generally been corrosive of proper language. For contemporaries, it is a word as embarrassingly archaic as “phlogiston” must have been for most 20th century scientists. “Love” shares this fate with other terms much in use until recent decades, like FREEDOM, or LIBERTY, or EVIL, or GOD.

From around the middle of the 21st century, therefore, when the long-anticipated achievement of the SINGULARITY began to transform world civilization, love has tended to apply almost exclusively to realtime interactions — usually but not necessarily sexual — among humans in the flesh. For non-flesh sentients, love tends for this reason to be treated as a form of nostalgia, a self-indulgent harking back to a time of SCARCITY; but this may be a simplification. The reasons for the current restriction of love’s remit lie deep in the complex history of the Western Cultures, and a short survey may suggest a richer explanation.

As essentialist definitions of the term are circular, it will be useful to trace the evolution of love by focusing on how the term was used over the centuries — rather like phlogiston — to give a name to a medium which might not exist but certainly seemed to work. Love, like phlogiston, is a term that points to the second mystery at the heart of being, the first being the mystery of existence itself: the second mystery is why does anything actually happen? It is a mystery the ancients were well aware existed, and before the end of the first millennium CE, early formulations of that which came to be called love tended to focus on the engendering relationship between the gods and mortal humans. The DIVINE AFFLATUS of the gods is an early formulation of the love that the God of the Christians so deeply felt that He embedded his Son into mortal flesh (see also AGAPE). Love is what makes Being move.

Romantic love — which it is now difficult to comprehend did not necessarily entail sexual love between two or more humans in the flesh — is a creation of the High Middle Ages, and has been extensively analyzed as a superfetation of the religious impulse. It may, however, be more usefully understood in its relation to a world defined in terms of SCARCITY. In the most obvious sense, an object of intense passion who is already imprisoned in a strictly-defined marriage can be defined as being scarce. More interestingly, the Western Cultures as a whole were inevitably structured around assumptions of SCARCITY so profound that they were never really articulated: all the things of the world are scarce; power and authority in human societies are built around the control of that which is scarce. More profoundly, mortal beings are scarce of years; the poignance of this everpresent factor seems, in post-SINGULARITY times, all the more intolerable. Romantic love, as expressed in song and story, and in the tragically distorted lives of men and women in its grip, is a counter-ode to the stringent drone of SCARCITY. Needless to say, it is a song of defeat; indeed, in its most intense expression — from the time of the troubadours who invented it up to the time of Richard WAGNER, who hypostasized it in his opera “Tristan und Isolde” (1859) — the song of romantic love is in truth a LIEBESTOD, a song of death. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, the literature of love normally treats of the defeat of the heart. Love is not compatible with the world.

It is arguable that the modern world begins with the invention of the literatures of the fantastic at the end of the 18th century — not surely for reasons of quality, for most of these literatures are made up of trash, but because the first writers of the fantastic were the first to respond to the world itself as subject matter. The old world may not have been in truth immutable, but clearly human literatures treated society as fixed. Once this changed — once we began to understand that history was an engine that was turning us inexorably into new beings who inhabited changed worlds — love, too, changed from a protest against the fixed SCARCITY of a cruel world into an emollient that eased lovers through the badlands of tradition. Baron Frankenstein, in Mary SHELLEY’s “Frankenstein” (1818), is a creature of the old world because he cannot love change; his MONSTER is an avaunt-courier of the new, because he can.

Well into the 21st century, “realistic” novels continued to focus on love frustrated by SCARCITY; but the world continued to change regardless. Digital VR environments released users from realistic controls over death and sex and metamorphosis. As early as 2030, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCES (AIs) were capable of creating primitive PARTIALS of their human “masters”, who could were able to experience, through these aspects of themselves, infinite worlds of the imagination. The first half of the 21st century was a time of profound despair about the world, whose death tremors were beginning to scald the soles of the human race; and nobody today blames the humans of that time for their escape into digital dreams, where “love” — sexually explicit, aggressive, polymorphic, costless, inturning — ruled.

The SINGULARITY — that moment when the world became incomprehensible to its human engenderers, and AIs took over the governance of history — did not in itself bring a halt to the compulsive narcissism of modern humanity; but a slow and voluntary return to the flesh has certainly marked the human story in recent decades. It has become a sign of virtue to restrict one’s sensorium to one’s single flesh of birth. It is no longer common usage to think of love as existing between humans and their PARTIALS. Love no longer joins the flesh to the dream. Much has been lost. SCARCITY has arguably returned to the human world as a kind of nostalgia. But for humans in the flesh, love is now what happens together.

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