On Love (Again): Hardt/Negri and D.H. Lawrence

A couple of months ago, I reflected on Lauren Berlant’s short book Desire/Love (2012) and Marguerite Duras’s short novel The Lover (1984). Given the continuing fascination that love has for me as a literary and theoretical problematic, I thought I might look at two more theorists/philosophers—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—whose collaborative approach to love initially seems to resonate with my own.

Here are some instances of what they have to say about love, drawn from their three collaborations Empire (2000), Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and Commonwealth (2009):

What we need is to create a new social body, which is a project that goes beyond refusal. Our lines of flight, our exodus must be constituent and create a real alternative. Beyond the simple refusal, or as part of that refusal, we need also to construct a new mode of life and above all a new community. This project leads not toward the naked life of homo tantum but toward homohomo, humanity squared, enriched by the collective intelligence and love of the community. (Empire 204)

Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in [Saint] Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control — because biopower and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist. (Empire 413)

Love is a means to escape the solitude of individualism but not, as contemporary ideology tells us, only to be isolated again in the private life of the couple or the family. To arrive at a political concept of love that recognizes it as centered on the production of the common and the production of social life, we have to break away from most of the contemporary meanings of the term by bringing back and working with some older notions [. . .] the power of becoming defined by differences [. . .] a new definition of wealth that extends our notion of the common and points toward a process of liberation. (Commonwealth xii)

All the theoretical elements we have accumulated thus far [. . .] despite all their power, risk lying inert beside one another without one more element that pulls them together and animates them in a coherent project. What is missing is love. Yes, we know that term makes many readers uncomfortable [. . .] It is necessary for us, then, to do some conceptual housecleaning, clearing away some of the misconceptions that disqualify love for philosophical and political discourse and redefining [it] in such a way as to demonstrate its utility [. . .] Love—in the production of affective networks, schemes of cooperation, and social subjectivities—is an economic power. Conceived in this way love is not, as it is often characterized, spontaneous or passive. It does not simply happen to us, as if it were an event that mystically arrives from elsewhere. Instead it is an action, a biopolitical event, planned and realized in common. (Commonwealth 179-80)

Being [. . .] is not some immutable background against which life takes place but is rather a living relation in which we constantly have the power to intervene. Love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with what exists and the creation of the new. Being is constituted by love. [. . .] Love, Spinoza explains with his usual geometric precision, is joy, that is, the increase of our power to act and think, together with the recognition of an external cause. Through love we form a relation to that cause and seek to repeat and expand our joy, forming new, more powerful bodies and minds. (Commonwealth 181)

[. . .] we might say that populisms, nationalisms, fascisms, and various religious fundamentalisms are based not so much on hatred as on love—but a horribly corrupted form of identitarian love. (Commonwealth 182)

Whereas in the ontological context we characterized the process of love as constitution, here in the political context we should emphasize its power of composition. Love composes singularities, like themes in a musical score, not in unity but as a network of social relations. (Commonwealth 184)

Constituent power [. . .] is a decision that emerges out of the ontological and social process of productive labor; it is an institutional form that develops a common content; it is a deployment of force that defends the historical progression of emancipation and liberation; it is, in short, an act of love.

People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude [. . .] We need to recuperate the public and political concept of love common to premodern traditions [. . .] There is really nothing necessarily metaphysical about the Christian and Judaic love of God: both God’s love of humanity and humanity’s love of God are expressed and incarnated in the common material project of the multitude. We need to recover today this material and political sense of love, a love as strong as death. This does not mean you cannot love your spouse, your mother, and your child. It only means that your love does not end there, that love serves as the basis for our political projects in common and the construction of a new society. Without this love, we are nothing. (Multitude 351-52)

The multiplicity of the multitude is not just a matter of being different but also of becoming different. Become different than you are! These singularities, act in common and thus form a new races, that is a politically coordinated subjectivity that the multitude produces. The primary decision made by the multitude is really the decision to create a new race or, rather, a new humanity. When love is conceived politically, then, this creation of a new humanity is the ultimate act of love. (Multitude 356)

We can already recognize that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living — and the yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous. In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love. (Multitude 358)

Clipping passages from three of their collaborations is perhaps a poor way to begin reading Hardt and Negri. But then again, perhaps it itsn’t. What this collage accomplishes, in its own way, is a visualization of how little Hardt and Negri actually say about love, even as they attribute supreme importance to it, and how little analytical attention they give to the consequences and the risks of its operation on the ground and in the lives of subjects (and objects). Though their claim that love is a compositional force is akin to my own position, it is a bit unnerving that they cluster love with such discordant ideas: e.g., multiplicity, simplicity, innocence, utility, rupture, newness, emancipation, difference, tradition, lightness, action, and purity (the non-corrupted, the untainted). While it is undeniable that the rhetoric of this conceptual cluster is effectively provocative in its admixture of quasi-Deleuzian, -Torahic, and -Pauline buzzwords (“Our lines of flight, our exodus [. . .] Without this love, we are nothing”), it is difficult to feel that there is any theoretical and critical rigor in the use of these buzzwords or in the formation of their conceptual clusters. Again, I do not necessarily have objections to their purported theoretical grounding or their philosophical gestures. After all, I too have recourse to notions of flight and composition and political affect as well as the assemblage itself as a primary unit of analysis that is always on the move.

So what am I really objecting to?

First, something rubs me the wrong way about Hardt and Negri’s optimism concerning love. I’m not alone here, of course. Timothy Brennan puts it well in his scathing account of Empire first published in 2003 (and later revised for Wars of Position [2006]):

Why, at a moment of American imperial adventure almost Roman in its excess, is the end of imperialism confidently announced [by Hardt and Negri]? And why by intellectuals on the far Left for whom the older legacies of communism are not radical enough? The imperatives underlying these questions seem so contradictory, in fact, that one hunts for a dialectical mode capable of explaining how a deeply ambitious theoreticism—the full flower, in fact, of three decades of refined 68ist Continental philosophy—could come to sound, in Empire‘s hands, so pragmatic, so cheery, and, if one may put it this way, so American. (“The Empire’s New Clothes” 339-40)

Ouch. I have no desire to align myself completely with Brennan’s contextualization of Hardt and Negri among a larger theoretical field (of which he is wholly critical, I think), but I do find his distrust of the tone of their work instructive. Though I’m more drawn to their scattered fragments about love—rather than to their prophecies and promises—I feel as if they miss something quite important about love as a compositional operation: namely that it is not a priori good or empowering or pure or innocent. In other words, just as it is a bit strange for a book entitled “Empire” to say so little about “the colonized of today [. . .] in [its] sprawling thesis about multitudes, biopolitical control, and the creation of alternative values” (Brennan 338), it is also a bit strange that in a book that attempts to place love at the ground of a revolutionary project that their sense of love remains so oddly romantic, idyllic, and heteronormative in its conceptual structure and tone. For instance, though Hardt and Negri turn to Christian theology for their model of the ontological and political potentialities of love, it is striking to note how selective they actually are in drawing from this vast tradition: they cite St. Francis but not Marguerite Porete or St. John of the Cross; they emphasize lightness but not “the dark night of the soul”; they reference multiplicity and collectivity but not the trauma of individual will; they anticipate the empowering accrual of joy but none of the sorrow, none of the pain, none of the discipline, none of the ascetic elements that, for so many theologians and mystics, form the condition of possibility for that accrual in the first place. While Hardt and Negri certainly anticipate “new” projects and actions and constructions that would, one assumes, require discipline and planning and pain and sorrow in their pursuit of emancipation, none of these more painful and difficult elements seem very present in any of the passages above or in their epithets. “Become different than you are!” they rail. But how? At what cost? Plugged into what assemblage? By what force of will? Against whom? In accord (or discord) with what accident?

Regarding love, I find Amy Hollywood’s book Sensible Ecstasy (2003) and her work on Benedictine monks instructive insofar as they offer a much more theoretically rich and nuanced sense of what Hardt and Negri call “older notions.” [Perhaps I might spend some time with this work in a third blog post “on love.”]

Instead of following Hollywood here, however, I thought I might rely on my own specialization: literary modernism. It seems to me that D.H. Lawrence—the most divisive twentieth-century English novelist—theorizes love as a compositional force (much like Hardt and Negri) without slipping into an idyllic tone (quite unlike Hardt and Negri). In Women in Love (1920), for instance, Lawrence sets Rupert Birkin “naked among the primroses [. . .] letting them touch his belly, his breasts,” but only after he is nearly murdered by his former lover Hermione Roddice (106-107):

Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like a fluid lightning, and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, [Hermione] brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head [. . .] But it was not somehow complete. She lifted her arm high to aim once more, straight down on the head that lay dazed on the table. She must smash it, it must be smashed before her ecstasy was consummated, fulfilled for ever. A thousand lives, a thousand deaths mattered nothing now, only the fulfillment of this perfect ecstasy. (105)

This deliciously Lawrentian passage expresses the climax of an affair grounded in a doubly possessive intimacy, that is, a mutually violent, cruel, paranoid, and coercive love relation. Birkin manages to escape the second blow of Herminoe’s jewel and flies from Breadalby (her country estate) to the textures of the “lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation” mentioned above (107). “To lie down,” Birkin muses,

and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knobs and ridges—this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that theere was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waitied for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!

Most studies of Women in Love identify Birkin—in this moment and in others—as a spokesman for some sort of Lawrentian “love ethic” that the critic must systematize or schematize. Many of these same studies either praise the novel’s purported doctrine as admirably modern or critique it as viciously misogynistic; for others, the novel’s ideal of love is either morally counternormative or grossly conservative. To approach the novel in search of an “ethic,” however, seems incredibly counterintuitive to me, for Birkin is far too unstable, uncertain, inconsistent, and characterologically incomplete to be any kind of ethical or moral spokesman. While he cetainly sermonizes (the passage above is something of a free indirect homily), what Birkin says obviously fails to cohere into an ethic. In the scope of the novel, he is less a character and more of a narrative machine for [1] clearing affective spaces and [2] aggregating assemblages of desire. (In this sense, Birkin constitutes what Deleuze and Guattari call an “aesthetic figure” in What Is Philosophy? [1991].)

Indeed, Birkin’s time among the primroses clears away the territorial lines that have kept him in relation to Hermione (lines already damaged before the events of the novel commence and nearly severed permanently with Hermione’s ball of “lapis lazuli” [105]). The impersonal touches and caresses of the vegetal surfaces hollow out an empty space in which Birkin will later pursue non-possessive relations with others, a “freedom together”—as he later puts it—with both Gerald Crich and Ursula Brangwen (WIL 132). This mode of clearing away or hollowing out initially resonates with Hardt and Negri’s claim that love “marks a rupture with what exists,” but Lawrence’s version of this clearing is far less ebullient. In fact, it’s nigh apocalyptic, deliriously post-human. The future to which Birkin attaches himself (or to which he is attached by love) is one in which “a human-being would” no longer have to “adhere to humanity[;] he was weary of the old ethic, of the human, and of humanity” (108). Birkin no doubt rejoices in this scene, but he rejoices neither in a new humanity nor in older notions but, rather, “in his own madness” in which “he was free,” isolated, and alone. His fantasy, then, is thoroughly distopic, the vision of “an island with only creatures and the trees” and “none of this heaviness, this misgiving.” This madness and this post-human vision are hard-won but also costly: he spends two weeks ill, achieving a modicum of his vision bed-ridden, separated from human-being. When he recovers and first sees Usrula again, it is this apocalyptic post-human vision that assembles their desire for one another. “You yourself,” he asks, “don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?” (127). “And really,” Ursula reflects, “it was attractive: a clean, lovely, humanless world. It was the really desirable.”

So love also composes and aggregates in Women in Love; as in Hardt and Negri it marks a point of departure but also anticipates and secures new continuities. But these continuities do not remain secure; the new is not always so easy to live or to realize. It is clear that Birkin also desires a “freedom together” with Gerald, an anomalous togetherness that takes momentary shape during their wrestling match in “Gladiatorial”:

So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures ever working into a tighter, closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like knotting and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sons of flesh escaping under flesh. Often, in the white, interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness. Then would appear the gleaming, ruffled head of Gerald, as the struggle changed, then or a moment the dun-colored, shadow-like head of the other man would lift up from the conflict, the eyes wide and dreadful and sightless. (270)

This passage has always fascinated me. I won’t go into it here, but it seems to me that this episode comprises some sort of novelistic effort at achieving some sort of anomalous collectivity, a “oneness” marked not by competing or possessive egos or psyches but by the free intermingling of different limbs, knots, bodies, and (as we see later in the episode and the novel) ideas. The “oneness of struggle” that Birkin and Gerald achieve here is merely provisional; the latter cannot accept their relationship (either spiritually or physically) and eventually wanders out alone one night while on vacation in the Tyrol mountains: “But he wandered on unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he fell to sleep,” freezing to death (474).

With Ursula—who does marry Birkin—love’s aggregation is not always secure either, always on some sort of precipice. To love and live without a model, Lawrence suggests, requires constant care and agitation, the maintenance of an immanent war machine directed at oneself (as demonstrated in the often derided and scrutinized episode “Excurse” [302-20]). The devastating conclusion of the novel—which encompasses Gerald’s suicide, Birkin’s grief, and Ursula’s reinscription within the “old ethic” (“You can’t have two kinds of love [. . .] because it’s false, impossible” [481])—leaves so many threads loose, so many tracks unexplored, so many spaces unopened. Indeed, there are so many roads to nowhere in Lawrence’s novel that it becomes clear that—at least in this text—the task of breaking with a traditionalist love ethic (monogamous, heterosexual, reproductive, preordained) is not simply liberating. The “freedom together” Birkin desires, this loving otherwise, is difficult, traumatic, saddening, and often violent (though in ways much different from the violence between Hermione and Birkin). That which aggregates, Women in Love teaches, also separates; lines of relation hurt and ache before they take off longingly into flight, leaving one at loss to know how to proceed, what to protect, what to abandon, and what to chance or change.

In Hardt and Negri’s onto-political conception of love, the sensuous and sensual aggregation and disaggregation of Birkin with Hermione, Gerald, Ursula, multiple sorts of vegetation, a vision of a post-human world, and the snowy heights of the Tyrol ranges would be hierarchized as an impure derivation of a truly democratic and communist love of difference. The novel would be, it seems to me, a morality tale of a love too domestic, too joyless, a love that falls short of the pure, innocent, simple love of the multitude, of the “new humanity.”

This sense of how Hardt and Negri might read Lawrence’s novel leads me to my closing point and my second critique: much of the idyllic and cheery tone of EmpireCommonwealth, and Multitude comes from their naive fetishization of the new itself. (Indeed, I am reminded of my posts on Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone [here and here].) For Hardt and Negri, newness—”a new mode of life and above all a new community,” “new, more powerful bodies and minds,” “a new society,” “a new race,” “new humanity”—is automatically aligned with a progressive bounty of moreness: more power, more freedom, more togetherness, more lightness, more joy, more innocence. Lawrence’s work gives us a more sober picture not only of love but also of The New: it is, in a sense, beyond good and evil. It is not a priori in our favor or to our benefit. As a rupture from “things as they are” (a refrain of Wallace Stevens), The New might very well offer one flight from mental (or even physical or emotional or relational) restrictions, oppressions, and inequalities, but it also enfolds a radical component of uncertainty, agitation, and pain. “I should like to go with you—no where,” Birkin confesses to Ursula, “It would be rather wandering just to nowhere. That’s the place to get to—no where. One wants to wander away from the world’s somewheres, into our own nowheres” (315). Indeed, it seems that the collaborations of Hardt and Negri share with Women in Love this component: they seem to lead nowhere . . . but in Lawrence, at least, this “no where” comprises a fraught ethical and relational task with people, plants, weathers, healths, and landscapes.

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