Metaphors for love are significantly constitutive of our concept of love. Take away all those metaphorical ways of conceptualising love, and there’s not a whole lot left.
—Lakoff & Johnson, ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’
It’s autumn. You shuffle in your shoes outside St. Pancras station, rolling your suitcase back and forth. You’re nervous. You take the ticket from your coat pocket and run your thumb along its side. You put it back. You roll up your sleeve, and check your watch. You roll it down, and fold your arms against your chest. Head down, you shiver, and when you look up, you’re presented with a dozen red roses, a bottle of Marks & Spencers’ finest fizz, and a padlock.
On your way to Paris with your partner for the weekend, you plan to advertise your attached status by attaching a padlock to one of the city’s pedestrian bridges. You could have also planned a trip to Venice, Moscow, or New York, given that the practice of ‘love locking’ has recently been taken up by lovers the world over—so much so, in fact, that several centrally-organised campaigns to prevent the practice have been instituted in the past year. Critics have vociferously argued that the act of so-called ‘love locking’ is the epitome of “unconscious vandalism”: a defacement of historical monuments that is both unattractive and unsafe.
When these critics called for #lovewithoutlocks on Twitter, they got my attention. But my own contention with ‘love locking’ is unsurprisingly unrelated to the threat posed to the structural integrity or aesthetic quality of the monuments upon which the practice is practiced. Rather, it seems curious that from the list of countless possibilities, the padlock has become a symbol for true love in the twenty-first century. Most often, the padlock presents itself in idioms about imprisonment (being ‘under lock and key’ or ‘in lockdown’, for example). When used as an expression of affection, then, it is uncomfortable, since “metaphors for love are significantly constitutive of our concept of love.”
What is meant by this statement? In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson maintain that the symbols we use to think about love are critical: not only to the ways in which our thoughts about love are structured, but to the experience of love itself. And yet, while these scholars took the time to tell us about how love has been conceptualised as (i) a journey, (ii) a physical force, (iii) a patient, (iv) madness, (v) magic, and (vi) war, they said little about the image of lovers locked together, either on the Pont des Arts, or elsewhere. Today, it is clear that the ‘love lock’ is a critical cultural symbol: a supposed signifier of love that simultaneously signifies something about the social construction – and personal experience – of intimate relationships.
What is most worrying about the gesture of ‘love locking’ is that it has been explained as an expression of the “permanence” and “security” of a romantic relationship. Articulated somewhat differently, the ‘love locked’ relationship is one ostensibly underpinned by notions of monogamy, stability, and longevity. As a public symbol of this particular type of relationship – to which one becomes ‘locked’ – it is inappropriate. In essence, padlock displays speak more to ideas about property than passion, and incite a shift in meaning – from agency to ownership in intimate relations – that is ultimately unpleasant.
Relationships – romantic or otherwise – need not be constructed in this way. This idea is not new, and nor should it be seen as controversial. As the Boston Women’s Collective told us many decades ago,
‘Notions such as ‘property’ and ‘dominance’ have to be combated in our day-to-day contact with others, and in ourselves… We want to explore the possibilities of getting love and support from several people, rather than having one primary intimate relationship that is supposed to satisfy all needs. [And] although in this society the monogamous, nuclear family is seen as the ideal living situation, there are, in fact, other choices we can make about how and with whom we live.’
This being the case, the critics of ‘love locks’ should be out in full force. And while this latest form of romantic display is but one of many in the public sphere to proffer a particular (and restrictive) narrative of relationships and their development, it is nevertheless one which needs derailing, not only because it does not reflect an appropriate way of seeing ourselves and our relationships to others, but, crucially, because neither does it reflect the reality of romantic relationships themselves.
This week, Rosamund Pike was especially vocal about not wanting to be solely conceptualised as somebody else’s partner. Last week, Grace Gelder described her decision to marry—herself. In fact, scholarly research has shown that individuals are both initially living alone for longer periods of time at the same time as fewer people in Britain are choosing to get married. There has been a clear rise both in terms of the number of individuals opting instead to cohabit with a partner, and in terms of the number of relationship transitions individuals now experience. In sum, romantic relationships are not today ubiquitously conceptualised as about monogamy, stability, or longevity, nor as a commitment to one other person alone (if ever they were).
If Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas about the role of metaphors in the genesis (and experience) of love are correct, then ‘love locking’ is ultimately problematic because it promotes a way of seeing that does not in fact correspond to ways of being (and hence renders those who do not love ‘in lockdown’ as somehow inferior). To be absolutely clear, there is nothing inherently good (or bad) about a love that is long-lasting, and/or that which is monogamous. There is, however, something inherently negative about love that is about power, control, imprisonment, property, and ownership; in which assumptions about consent may be made by virtue of the fact that all parties agreed – at one point in time, at least – to attach a padlock to a bridge.
And yet, for all these musings about there being no love lost between the ‘love locks’ and I, in a beautiful twist of fate in June of this year, part of the Pont des Arts collapsed. The bridge buckled under the weight of the padlocks. In so doing, it has provided an opportunity for more interesting thinking about love—its symbol, and, hence, its essence. That thinking should begin now.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, L. (1999) Philosophy in the flesh. New York: Basic Books.
Phillips, A. and Rakusen, J. (1978) Our Bodies Ourselves (UK Edition). Middlesex: Penguin Books.