A Letter to Students: Love Theory (Round 1)

[The following is a slightly modified letter I sent to one of my classes this semester at USD. The names of students have been removed and replaced with pseudonyms. I have added and edited a few sentences. In many ways, this letter was as much “for me” as it was “for them”: a way to synthesize a good deal of theoretical and philosophical writing around a series of problems that may or may not be directly posed in the texts themselves. My work is less interested in what love is than I am in interesting problems that emerge in the ways people talk, write, feel, or think about love . . .]

Reading Assignment (February 4th, 2016):

  1. selections from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (1977, trans. 1978)
  2. Michael Hardt’s Cultural Anthropology essay, “For Love or Money” (2011)
  3. Luce Irigaray’s “Introducing: Love Between Us” from I Love to You: Sketch for a Felicity Within History (1990, 1996)
  4. Martha C. Nussbaum’s “Love’s Knowledge” and “Love and the Individual” from Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990)
  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s introduction to Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003); fourth chapter from A Dialogue on Love (1999)
  6. Robert C. Solomon’s “What Is Love: The Loveworld” and “Beyond Sex and Gender” from Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor (1990)

Reading Assignment (2/4/16)

Dear love theorists,


As challenging as it may have been to wrap our minds around all six of our theorists last week, I hope each of you came away from Thursday’s seminar (or at least from your own private engagements with the reading) with a good sense of one or two problems that we might bring to our novels this semester. To help you recall and potentially flesh out these problems, I thought I’d review some of the transversal lines of inquiry we drew among Barthes, Hardt, Irigaray, Nussbaum, Sedgwick, and Solomon.

I. Universal Theory of Love?

It was Edith, I believe, who initially posed the question of whether or not Solomon (or really any of the theorists) intend to develop a universal theory of love that would apply across cultures and across periods. We might also pose the question, Can there be a universal theory of love? Or does the fact that we immediately distinguish filial from romantic from [x kind of love] make such a theory impossible? Is love something one can discover or study scientifically or methodically (like, say, an ecosystem or differential equations), or is it so culturally and/or individually specific that the student of love is almost always studying something that self-differentiates?

Solomon, for instance, is skeptical of the existence of “human nature” (47), yet he does seem to think he can answer the question, “What is love?” Or at least say definitive things about it: “And love is much more than a ‘feeling’” (125); “To be in love is to be looked at, not just to look” (131). But is it? Is love always more than a feeling? Is being in love always to be looked at? If so, on what scale? Is it this way for everyone across every culture? Just here in the West where individualism is so highly valued (as Solomon likes to point out regularly)? Are Solomon’s claims only approximations? Only occasionally true? Ever true?

What do the other treatments of love we’ve read suggest about the universal or general applicability of their insights or interventions into how we think or feel love?

II. Inside or Outside?

Regardless of what love is or how applicable these treatments of love might be, we might also pose the question of the proper critical position from which to develop a theory of love. Should one speak from inside or outside the experience of love? Solomon writes, “Love can be understood only ‘from the inside,’ as a language can be understood only by someone who speaks it, as a world can be known only by someone who has—even if vicariously—lived it” (126). Yet there is something rather arm’s-length about Solomon’s analysis, no? His text might very well build up the prototype (or archetype?) of a “loveworld” and place us inside of it, but he does not really place us inside the individual experience of love (which is what usually leads to misunderstandings, he thinks).

But what about Barthes? Consider his note early in A Lover’s Discourse: “[This book chooses] a ‘dramatic’ method which renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language (no metalanguage). The description of the lover’s discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis” (3). No metalanguage. No analysis. No description. A primary language. A staging of the lover. A simulation of love.

And what about Nussbaum? Might one say that “Love’s Knowledge” takes an intellectual distance? Even if it argues that the lover gains knowledge (indeed, makes the thing of which it has knowledge) cataleptically? Is this what it argues? And what of the second essay, “Love and the Individual”? As Vanessa noted, it seems that Nussbaum paradoxically draws nearer the experience of love here, even as the speaking voice of the essay becomes (fictionally) distinguished (and twice removed) from her.

And Sedgwick? While many of you may have struggled with this reading, I think of the end of the Introduction of Touching Feeling where she compares her relationship with her writing (and the authors she reads and the things she wishes to say about them) with Judith Scott’s relationship with her art. Meditate on this:

I think my identification with Scott is less as the subject of some kind of privation than as the holder of an obscure treasure, or as a person receptively held by it. . . . I do feel close to Scott in that we evidently share a sensibility in which fibers and textures have particular value, relationally and somehow also ontologically. But in acknowledging the sense of tenderness toward a treasured gift that wants exploring, I suppose I also identify with the very expressive sadness and fatigue in this photograph. Probably one reason Scott’s picture was catalytic for this hard-to-articulate book: it conveys an affective and aesthetic fullness that can attach even to experiences of cognitive frustration. In writing this book I’ve continually felt pressed against the limits of my stupidity, even as I’ve felt the promising closeness of transmissible gifts. (24)

What love is this?

III. Learning to Love (Again?)

Can we learn to love differently? Apply the lessons of private love to the public sphere? Irigaray seems to think so: “Indeed, Buddha contemplates the flower without picking it. He gazes at what is other to him without uprooting it. . . . Buddha’s gazing at the flower might provide us with a model. So might the flower. Between us, we can train ourselves to be both contemplative regard and the beauty appropriate to our matter, the spiritual and carnal fulfillment of the forms of our body” (24-25, emphasis added). Is this the model that Irigaray indicates in her title, “I Love To You”(J’aime à toi)?

Hardt writes (in a passage Leonard pointed out for us): “Like new powers to see and think we almost must gain a new power to love. Perhaps we should call these social ‘muscles’ . . . because we develop them through use and practice, breaking them down and building them up to strengthen and expand our human relations to the world, that is, our powers to create and manage social bonds. The development of a new sensorium” (680).

And how does one ever learn a lover’s discourse? Learn to recognize the figures Barthes dramatizes? How does the image-repertoire of the I who speaks in his book become our own? Could it have been otherwise? Could we have learned to love otherwise? How we train, develop, athleticize, and activate amorous “social muscles” that must (first) be built, cultivated, and recognized? What new scripts will emerges? What unforeseen and highly seductive normativities?

IV. Prepositionality of Love

Irigaray inserts the preposition “to” in the common declaration, “I love you.” She does so purposefully and polemically. But why?

Solomon believes that thinking of “love [as] an attitude toward someone, a feeling directed at a person” leads to “an insidious view” (130). For him, the important preposition is “with”: “Love is not just an attitude directed toward another person; it is an emotion which, at least hopefully, is shared with him or her” (131).

And, of course, Sedgwick:

I have tried in this project to explore some ways around the topos of depth or hiddenness, typically followed by a drama of exposure, that has been such a staple of critical work . . .. Beneath and behind are hard enough to let go of; what has been even more difficult is to get a little distance from beyond, in particular the bossy gesture of “calling for” an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate.

Instead, as the title suggests, the most salient preposition of Touching Feeling is probably beside. (8)

Why might prepositions matter? Perhaps they suggest something to us about love’s arrangement. Perhaps they give us ways to navigate the binaries of love, which Rebecca catalogued for us in class, in different ways. Perhaps they also bring to light the potential politics or power relations at work in love, speaking to and moving the very boundaries of inside/outside. Can love exist between more than two? What other prepositions can we bring to love to help us rethink its (possible) arrangement(s) and attachment(s)? Between? From? Over? Above? Next to? Across from? Among?

V. The Love Story?

Barthes outright rejects a narrative arrangement for his book: “Each figure explodes, vibrates in and of itself like a sound severed from any tune . . . No logic links the figures, determines their continuity: the figures are non-syntagmatic, non-narrative” (6-7). Sedgwick, likewise, while not necessarily rejecting narrative per se, does think that exploring “promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy” helped her to produce a book that is remarkably nonlinear, non-plotted. Her interest in affect and texture, in particular, seems to challenge the associations of narrative with things like progression, development, and conclusion.

And yet there is Nussbaum: “To show these ideas adequately in a text, we seem to require a text that shows a temporal sequence of events (that has a plot), that can represent the complexities of a concrete human relationship, that can show both denial and yielding; that gives no definitions and allows the mysterious to remain so. Could any non-narrative text do all this? . . . We seem to require no unit shorter than this actual story, with all its openendedness” (281). Clearly narrative is not as associated with strict “order” for Nussbaum as it is for Barthes (and potentially for Sedgwick), yet perhaps we might ask ourselves: is love always a story? Need it be a story? Do the occasions of love we “find” in the novels we read take the form of stories? What is the form of a story? What are the forms of love stories? What are the literary forms proper (or productively improper) to love?

All right. That’s probably enough now. I hope you all had a wonderful weekend, and I look very forward to our discussion of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love next week (as well as the next chapter or so of A Dialogue on Love).

All best,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s