Wikipedia nicely summarizes that Love-Locks are a custom by which padlocks are affixed to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public fixture by sweethearts at an increasing number of locations in the world to symbolize their everlasting love. The phenomenon is a new one, which began in the 2000s at the earliest. But what is behind this trend of symbolizing our love? Why do we do it? How does it work?
Does the lock, the image of being bound and chained, really symbolize how we feel about our loved one? Probably not, or at least we like to think not. So is it the public place we chain the lock to that contains the important symbolism? A traffic bridge over a dirty urban river? Probably not. Further, the ‘everlasting love’ element of the gesture is at least precarious; not only are the structures the locks are attached to often torn down, but the locks are often removed by authorities. In Florence 5500 locks were taken down by the council, in Dublin the council have committed themselves to removing all locks in the city centre, in Canada locks have been removed because they are ‘a distraction from nature.’
So what makes us do it? The answer is: repetition. One lock means nothing at all, it does not contain any inherent symbolic quality that represents our ‘true love’ or anything like that. But when there are a whole load of locks, suddenly the symbolism starts to work. As such, Love-Locks teach us something fundamental about relationships; the idea of relationships as ‘unique’ and individual is replaced by a sense of the repetitious quality of the relationship.
Aristotle made a distinction between two forms of repetition, automaton and tyche. Whilst the automaton is an automatic repetition, a machine-like, controlled doubling, tyche is an accidental repetition, a coincidence or chance meeting. The automaton pertains to the repetition of the symbolic; a sign is a sign only insofar as it is repeatable, and this is what constitutes the symbolic. The symbolic is the idea of complete identity, the representation in language of something that appears to be outside language. This is exactly what is happening here, on the Love-Lock bridge. By millions and millions of repetitions of the same gesture, the impression is created that ‘all these symbols must refer to something else, some powerful love or commitment which exists elsewhere.’ In fact, there is nothing behind the repetition except our desire to believe that there is. As Kierkegaard writes; ‘the love of repetition is in truth the only happy love.’
(A purpose built iron-tree for love-locks, showing that in a way love-locks are the opposite of graffiti, they are not a gesture against the norm but a reflection of the norm’s ideology)
Yet, on the other hand, the other form of repetition, the tyche, pertains to a completely different register. So whilst the first type is a repetition of the pleasure principle, a form of mastery and control (think of the lock) the second type is destructive and incoherent. But as Mladen Dolar has argued, these two forms of repetition are in fact always happening simultaneous. To put it simply, says Dolar, ‘tyche is the gap of the automaton.’ There is a tiny gap between one occurrence and the next, which is difference itself. In every repetition there is, already, in a minimal way, the emergence of that which escapes symbolization. This difference is not the unique quality of our relationship with our boyfreinds or girlfreinds that makes it perfect and complete, but our inevitable failure of all attempts to symbolize the relationship as complete. It is not that language is inadequate to symbolize our relationship but that our relationship only exists within the inadequacy of language.