“What’s love got to do with it?”
– Tina Turner
“You’re Gonna Love Me”
Black women singing anti-love and love-demanding songs written by white men. Tina Turner in my childhood memories, scandalously dressed, teaching me how to think about love.
Teaching us how to think about love:
I love you honey / was the dribbled caramel / of Hollywood
movies / . . . / words that / cost nothing / meant nothing
– Shailja Patel, Migritude
This is my darkest hour,
Write me off your list
There’s nothing left to say, and my glass is empty – anyway,
Just like the seat where you’d once been.
And I’m starting to doubt, even the things that I’ve seen.
So it’ll be easier, to pretend we never met.
Given time we will surely forget.
Fear not though, don’t despair,
I’ve still got your name tattooed on my blood
And I’m still here, and I’m cursed.
Cursed like you, dear.
-Tony Mochama, What If I am a Literary Gangster?
I understand love as callused and unspoken and lost. The thing whose loss is mourned, the thing always known and named in retrospect.
Objects in the rear view mirror.
Of course I had to start with Tina. Don’t we always start with Tina?
There are more poems celebrating parents loving their children in Kenya than there are poems about “romantic” love; we also have many other poems
Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.
-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
All the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.
-bell hooks, All About Love
Fanon and hooks teach me that love cannot exist under conditions of inequality. In hooks’s terms, “There can be no love without justice.” I am finding this very difficult to understand.
Why is this so hard to understand?
Fanon and hooks are writing about romantic love (eros) and familial love (storgos). Both offer sociogenic views on love—sociogeny is Fanon’s term for the mutuality between the social and the psychic. A sociogenic view of love ruptures an idea of love as a refuge from the world’s depredations: love as something that happens in private, away from the eroding public, something that protects and salves and heals, something protected from a dangerous out there.
What did the PEV do to love?
If we want to protect love, we might claim that the friends and lovers and spouses who abandoned each other did not truly love each other, because love “endures all.” This is what I’ve been thinking of as a “hygienic” view of love. Love cleansed of its “impurities” and “perversions.”
A hygienic view of love allows us to manage how love disorganizes: how we “should not feel” for “improper objects.” Even feeling can seem “improper.” From Sara Ahmed’s description of the stranger as the person who is known in advance as strange, I am thinking of how certain objects and scenes and occasions are labeled as lovable. And what happens when we turn from these scenes and objects of lovability to love elsewhere, to love “wrongly.”
What does it mean to think of love as a disciplinary capacity: “I don’t know why I love you.” “You are not what I expected.” “I’m surprised into loving.” All these statements register love as sociogenic rather than uniquely individual.
(“the heteronormative love plot is at its most ideological when it produces subjects who believe that their love story expresses their true, nuanced, and unique feelings, their own personal destiny,” Berlant, Desire/Love)
I started by thinking about slave and colonial histories where the capacity to love was hierarchized: the enslaved did not value their kin and friends and sex-partners as much, the story goes, and so they could be readily separated. The work of love and unloving. It has always mattered who can love. Who is granted the capacity to love.
The capacity to love is racialized and racializing.
Romantic love is a sticky web. One cannot write about love today without encountering it. It is the most dominant notion of love. It saturates everything.
Romance ideology . . . [depicts] sentiment or feeling as the essential and universal truth of persons. Feeling is what people have in common despite their apparent differences.
-Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love
Berlant ends somewhere I am inclined to go and so, perversely, I resist it.
Many people argue that love of the other is a powerful tool for bringing marginalized groups into the dominant social world; on the other hand, sentimental identification with suffering created by national, racial, economic, and religious privilege has long coexisted with laws that discriminate among particular forms of difference, privileging some against others.
– Berlant, Desire/Love
Cherríe Moraga writes, “I have sometimes hated my lover for loving me.” But then,
Loving in the war years
calls for this kind of risking
-Moraga, Loving in the War Years
Against a hygienic view of love—love cleansed of “impurities” and “perversions”—or a cynical view of love as impossible because always tainted or doomed to fail, I have been wondering about “loving in the war years,” about the kinds of incoherent attachments we make and that happen because of and despite ourselves.
What is this thing I want to believe about love and why do I want it? Why do I think thinking about love matters? And why can’t the ideas line up properly?
“What is Love”?
Why not dance to a track associated with a comedy skit? Surely there are more important things to consider than love? Not to mention, as Berlant argues, “there is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disputed by someone with a theory” (Desire/Love).
I wanted to write on love from minority discourse, to see what had been said, who had said it, how they had said it, and how they came to say it.
And I had fallen in love.
– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Compare this remarkable line from Baldwin’s 1984 Preface with how love appears in the “Autobiographical Notes,” the first essay in this 1955 collection of essays.
I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt.
I love to eat and drink
I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly
I love to laugh
I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually
Love is not absent in 1955; it is simply differently present. Its objects defined in careful, precise, unobjectionable ways. In 1955, Baldwin could not say he had “fallen in love.” He could in 1984. It makes a difference when love happens, how it can be narrated, and when it can be narrated.
But what kind of difference?
One could say love is political. But this is not what I want to say. I’ve been trying to say love is sociogenic. And to figure out what it means to think of love as sociogenic: as registering the always porous traffic between the social and the psychic, as caught in the whirls and whorls of history, as flavored and tinged and hued by the now-here. One might imagine gauze or cheesecloth, though I’m not quite sure what this barrier is (psychic-skin). If we are to follow Fanon’s sociogenic prompting – he tells us how difficult this is: “There is a point at which methods devour themselves” – then it might seem necessary to construct a love archive (“The example is always the problem for desire/love”), but that, I think, is not quite right.
I have no interest in mystifying love. Nor am I particularly interested in defining it in some hygienic way. I am interested in its possibilities to index our present, in how to read its impress on our ongoingness. And how to read it as more than simply indexical.
Love, Wambui tells me, is not opposed to anger. Love cannot thrive under conditions of domination. Love cannot thrive without justice. And I wonder what it means not only to love within the war years, but to fight for loving in the war years.