Every year, on the fourteenth day of February, one is bound to hear numerous complaints from just about everyone (besides florists) about how Valentine’s Day is mere commercialism. The ones amongst the nay-sayers who maintain a soft spot for Karl Marx would proceed to call it the commodification of relationships; those who prefer the gods would claim that the sanctity of relationships has been profaned; the gender theorists would note how the fact that males buy the gifts only serves to highlight the unequal power-relation between the genders.
Whichever side they come from – and whichever variation of the arguments they choose – it all boils down to this: they are decrying the fact that relationships have moved from the private to the public sphere. The underlying logic is that love is between two persons only and should remain between them; love should remain an unmediated experience between the two persons in that relationship.
Which of course completely misses the point.
If we consider the fact that relationships are the result of a negotiation between two persons, then there must be a space between them for this very negotiation to occur. Otherwise, all that is happening is that one person is subsuming the other within their own sphere of understanding. This would be understanding at its most banal – and perverse – form; that of bringing the other person under one’s stance. If that were the case, there would no longer be any relationship; all negotiation is gone and the other person is effectively effaced. Hence whenever one hears the phrase “I understand my partner,” one should be wary; clearly that person’s version of a relationship is a masturbatory one.
In this sense, any relationship between two (or more) persons always already carries with it the unknown, and always unknowable. The other person is an enigma, remains enigmatic, to you. This is the only way in which the proclamation “I love you” remains singular, remains a love that is about the person as a singular person – and not merely about the qualities of the person, what the person is. For if the other person comes under your own schema, then the love for the other person is also a completely transparent love, one that you can know thoroughly, calculate; the other person becomes nothing more than a check-list. To compound matters, if it is the qualities that you love, by extension, if those qualities go away, so does the love. Only when the love for the other person is an enigmatic one, one that cannot be understood, can that love potentially be an event.
If it is an event, then strictly speaking it cannot be known before it happens; in fact, at best it can be glimpsed as it is happening, or perhaps even only realized retrospectively. Hence at the point in which it happens, it is a love that comes from elsewhere; this strange phenomenon is best captured in the colloquial phrase, ‘I was struck by love’ or even more so by ‘I was blinded by love.’ This is a blinding in the very precise sense of, ‘I have no idea why or when it happened; before I knew it, I was in love.’ Cupid is blind for this reason: not just because love is random (and can happen to anyone at any time) but more importantly because even after it happens, both the reason you are in love, and the person you are in love with, remain blind to you.
Since there is an unknowable relationship with the other person, the only way you can approach it is via a ritual. This is the lesson that religions have taught us: since one is never able to phenomenally experience the god(s), one has no choice but to approach them through rituals. These rituals are strictly speaking meaningless – the actual content is interchangeable – but it is the form that is important. Rituals allow us momentary glimpses at secrets, and secrets are never about content. Rather, secrets entail the recognition that they are secrets; the secret lies in their form as secret. This can be seen when we consider how group secrets work; since the entire group knows the secret, clearly the content of the secret is not as important as the fact that only members within the group are privy to this secret. Occasionally the actual secret content can be so trivial that even other people outside the group might know the information; they just do not realize its significance. For instance, if I used my date of birth as my bank-account password, merely knowing when I was born would not instantly give you the key to my life savings. In order for that to happen, you would have had to recognize the significance of the knowledge of my birthday. This of course means that you have to know that you know something. Since the god(s) are, strictly speaking, unknowable, this suggests that rituals put one in a position to potentially experience the god(s).
The meaningless gestures on Valentine’s Day play precisely this ritual role. It is not so much what you give the other person, but the fact that you give it to them. The gift in this sense is very much akin to an offering; the gift opens the possibility of an exchange. Gift-giving does not guarantee that you will like what is returned; there is always a reciprocation of the gift, but what is returned to you is never known in advance, until the moment it is received. This of course means that the worst thing that one can do is not to give the gift: that would be akin to a cutting off of all possibilities, a complete closing of all communication with the other person. This at the same time also means that you cannot wait for the other person to give you something before you get them their gift: if that were the scenario, the return gift would be nothing more than a calculated return, where the relationship is nothing more than an accounting figure, where the other would be once again reduced to a statistic, a mere return of investment.
The only manner in which both persons can give true gifts is to offer them independently of the other person, whilst keeping them in mind. In this way, the two gifts are always already both uncalculated (in the sense of not knowing what the return is) and the reciprocation for the other (without knowing whether the other person actually has a gift in the first place).
Of course this would seem like an irrational, even stupid, way of buying gifts. The stupidity involved actually saves the relationship from being merely banal. And more importantly, prevents it from entering the mere profane.
It is the stupidity of Valentine’s Day – complete with it kitsch-ness – that protects the sacredness of relationships, precisely by being completely and utterly meaningless …