What is Love?

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

heart-question

“Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” – Terri, aged 4

“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” Bobby, aged 7

“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” – Jessica, aged 8

What is Love? Is it a feeling, an instinct, an emotion, an ideology, a passion, a project, an activity, a form of power, struggle, work, wealth, action, a need, desire, intention, dream, illusion, utopia, or is it all of these, and more? For the past few years, a group of local people have gathered to discuss and debate a wide range of books and articles on this question. In 2014, some of us also organised Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics, a two day gathering to celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. To conclude the event those in attendance discussed the question posed above, sharing a diversity of views, experiences, and understandings of love. So, in the lead-up to the forth-coming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 I thought it was time to revisit this question.

‘Love is more easily experienced than defined.’

I’ve previously published blog posts about love and Christmas, love and advertising (here & here), love and revolution (here and here), about love as a movement, and a form of defence against hate, violence and terror. Yet I continue to struggle with the question of what love is.

Love is socially, economically, politically and culturally constructed. How we imagine love – what we think it is and how we think about it – is learned during childhood and developed through our relationships with each other and the world around us. What it’s like to love and be loved depends on social and individual histories and our understandings and beliefs about love change as we change, as those around us change, and as society changes. In a previous post I pointed out that the vast majority of books on the subject of love work hard to avoid giving clear definitions. According to Morgan Scott Peck love lacks clarity because it “is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words” and “our use of the word ‘love’ is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love.” None-the-less, when asked to produce a short response, I usually define love as the struggle to create, maintain and develop caring social relations.

John Armstrong’s philosophical work, Conditions of Love, explores “the task of separating the many themes, the many strands of thought that, are entangled around our word ‘love’.” He argues that love isn’t a single thing but a complex of different concerns which suggests some of the problems of love. “When we try to love we are not actually trying to undertake a single endeavour; rather, we are trying to do a whole range of different, and sometimes not very compatible, things simultaneously.”

All the Feels

People often think of love as an emotional reaction, as a ‘force or power inside the body’, which spontaneously erupts out of us. Love can produce a range of bodily processes and sensations, chemical reactions, and feelings which we may not clearly perceive, understand, or appear to have control over. But how we interpret and react to our bodies and emotions again reflects our personal and collective circumstances, histories, cultures, and ideologies.

There are various and contested definitions and understandings of emotions, what they are, how they’re created and how they’re experienced. Radical theorists explore emotions as structures of feeling that give meaning to relational experience, arguing you cannot understand love as an emotion from a consideration of the individual, because love is socially constructed,  shaped by acculturation and inter-personal relations. Also, rather than being distinct, emotion and rational thinking can be seen as different ways of regarding the same process. Human interaction involves affecting others, being affected by others and acting on those affects, which then affects others, and so on.  All of these social interactions are power relations and emotions/thought play a crucial role in them. Emotions are thus states of consciousness that go beyond sensations, feelings, expressions, or moods. They involve the recognition, combination, and alteration of these things.

Many theorists have written about the importance of ‘emotion work’ – trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling, in order to manage them – and how this can be done. Deborah Lupton explains how discourses on emotions, including ‘feeling rules’ (shared norms that influence how people try to feel), help to shape and reshape our emotions as continuous projects of subjectivity. Different cultures construct different rules and various prescriptions about what we’re supposed to feel about love and there’s a constant struggle around these ‘feeling rules’ as they’re contested, rise and fall, ebb and flow. These emotion struggles occur both within society and our own consciousness. So, rapid individual or social change can bring about a lack of clarity about what the ‘rules’ of love are, whether there are any rules, and if they should be obeyed. As with the attempt to define love, the emotions of love are uncertain and we often encounter situations where we can’t put our feelings into words, or find it hard to identify which emotion(s) we’re experiencing.

The Power of Love

Love is the result of our action, our caring activities. Since all relationships are power relations, love is about who has power, who has power over us, whether we have power to do what we want, and whether power is shared. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the limits capitalism places on love and it is helpful to appreciate how the dominant social system restricts what we can be, as well as appreciating how much power we have to overcome these limits.

In a recent article about love and what it could be, Natasha Lennard explored some of the problems with how we tend to perceive ‘romantic love’ and how “the mystification of romantic love has been particularly damaging to women.” Renata Grossi  explains that romantic love is often seen by feminist/queer theory as oppressive, patriarchal and heteronormative, while others see love as a site of resistance, transformation and agency, embodying “a radical and permissive ideology.” Many, like bell hooks, seek to salvage and elevate love as a radical and healing practice, arguing for a definition of love as a mutual, life-affirming choice and practice — a verb as well as a noun.

For Natasha Lennard “the key questions are not about what love is but about what love does. Or perhaps more precisely, what we can do with it.” Pessimistic views of love suppose that it weakens, disarms or enslaves us, making us needy, or dependent. Love is often seen as outside of our control, inevitable and overpowering. Many definitions of love “emphasise its spontaneity” and “refuse to acknowledge that it could involve any element of effort or intention.” Here the separation between love and our labour is both misguided and conservative, “to the extent that it suggests that we have no agency, no power to shape the world as we recreate it.”

“It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.” (John Armstrong)

Love is a practical matter – it involves caring for people. If love involves a desire ‘to do what is good for others’ – we require an understanding of what that ‘good’ is. Often love is considered to be about caring for others like you care for yourself. But what if you don’t care for yourself, or do so poorly? What if you’re self-abusive or self-destructive? And what if you reject notions of a stable ‘self’? Loving people raises a range of questions about what constitutes their well-being. Since people’s needs and desires are not static, but open to change, caring for others should involve developing a rich sense of what’s important to them, by maintaining an interest in what their needs and desires are. However, it can be incredibly difficult to understand one’s own motivations, desires, or the reasons we act in certain ways. So, it’s fair to assume that we cannot be sure what’s in other people’s heads or hearts, since our experiences, understandings and practices of love are diverse, complex, fluid and multitudinous.

Labours of Love

love-labour

Those who view love as a form of weakness fail to appreciate how caring connections can transform social conditions. Love can be constructed on the basis of hopeful practices and strategies that recognise both the limits and potentials of our relationships. Many people overemphasise the negativity of the world and seek to ruthlessly criticise everything. This is often because they fail to account for the positive impact of love and ignore how the work of love, care and solidarity, re/produce positive developments. Yet it is true that capitalist social relations restrict how and whether we can love – limiting what we can do and what we can be,  damaging our personalities, cutting us off from each other and our potentials, giving rise to numerous internal and external obstacles to love. Importantly we must continue to grapple with how some people’s professed love for themselves, their community, ethnicity, identity, or nation, can involve the hatred of others.

 It is widely recognised and understood that the most important contributor to the development of a child is love – their progress is largely dependent on whether they are cared for, whether those around them, their ‘carers’, love them. So, if the presence or absence of love is the most important aspect in the development of an individual, it is likely the same can be said for all social development. In my previous writing, I’ve explored how the language of love can discipline us to obey, work and consume. What we do with our time, and what we work to produce, are vital considerations. As the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ becomes more hazy, questions are frequently raised about what ‘work’ is?, what should we do with our time? and what should we love? Increasingly we’re supposed to love what we do, and find our passions in work. Yet many of us find our paid jobs less and less fulfilling.

A major obstacle when discussing ‘work’ is that the term tends to be limited to the re/productive work of and for capital and neglects the work of constructing living alternatives – the work of love. Love is an achievement; it is something we create, both individually and collectively. Yet love can be hard work. If we’re not prepared for our loving relationships to include struggles with pain and sorrow, and to provoke anxieties and fears, to at times involve loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability and fragility, then we’re ill prepared for love. These normal characteristics of loving relations do not negate love, sure they can make loving more difficult, but pure love is a fantasy. The idea that as a couple we become one person, or that our significant other is ‘the one’ we’re destined to be with, can be torn asunder when we find that we can’t fully understand them, they don’t understand everything about us, and there’s a lot we don’t have in common. John Armstrong explains, it is, therefore, “extremely important to work with a vision of love which sees problems not as the end of love, not as a sign that love is over, but as the ground upon which love operates.”love-anniversary

Most of us want love to last and be able to withstand the difficulties long-term relationships bring with them. My partner, Sharon, and I have been together for 32 years, and as she will tell you, developing and maintaining such an enduring bond is a difficult endeavour. As Sharon explained in her speech at our 25th anniversary party, our love is a shared effort – “Nick and I decided to call this party a ‘celebration of love’ because we wanted to not only celebrate our years together, but also celebrate and say thank you to all of you, our family and friends, for the love, support and friendship we’ve received over those years. When we started thinking about what to do to mark this date, some people suggested that we really should do something romantic together as a couple, rather than have a big party. But we understand and appreciate that it is your love which has made our love possible. So this celebration is a celebration of all of our love.”

love-work

It is widely understood that the labours of love are disproportionately borne by women, most of which is unpaid, with the value, power, and influence of this work under-estimated. At the same time, many men and women believe that sacrificing their lives to stultifying work is an act of love for the family they’re meant to provide for. We tend to surrender much of our lives – minute by minute, day by day, year by year – to the competitive and often hard-hearted pursuit of ‘making a living’. Working for a boss or a bureaucracy, competing with others in a ruthless struggle to ‘get ahead’, undermines our ability to love, leaving too little time or energy for what is most important – those we love and learning the art of loving.

Learning to Love

“Love isn’t to be sought after, it’s everywhere, and to search is self-deception, a charade.” (Leo Buscaglia)

Caring for others continually involves overcoming obstacles, as we work on overcoming these obstacles we learn how to cultivate the growth and development of our loving power. Learning to love involves conscious decisions to change what we do and to take the time necessary to mould new ways of living and being. In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that love is an art and learning this art can be divided into two parts: theory and practice. Love requires a great deal of practice, and theoretical knowledge and the results of practice need to be blended together– what is often called praxis.  But, according to Fromm, there’s a third factor necessary for learning any art — it should be a matter of ultimate concern – and here lies the answer to why people struggle to learn the art of love. Despite a deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else tends to be considered more important: success, prestige, money, possessions, etc. According to Fromm, love is the only thing that can fully connect us to another person – and since he believes that being disconnected from other people is the central problem of our times, love is the solution to the key problem of human existence. Here the problem is not one of finding a person to love, but in developing our capacities to care for others – to love them. Searching for the right ‘object’ diverts attention from these tasks.

Learning to love involves adapting our subjectivities – changing our perceptions, our priorities and our behaviours. In an attempt to give more time to love, and as a way to connect loving theory and practice, the Love 2017 organising group has continued to hold regular discussions about various readings related to love. We’ve looked at the commodification of love and the need to transform work, explored questions about whether, or how, to work for wages, and in what ways the power of love has played a part in social struggles and movements. Recently we read Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons an interview with Silvia Federici on the importance of care work; for people, relationships, communities and social movements. Federici uses the example of Greece, where capital and its state forms are in deep crisis, to highlight the networks of social solidarity and support  which have been organised to help people survive and to create living alternatives to capitalism. She also discusses the leading role of women in creating these alternatives, arguing that while wages and wage struggles remain important these need to compliment struggles to expand our autonomy from capital, and to reappropriate the wealth we create.

Exploring the importance of love to social re/production, the Love reading group has considered the situation of many care workers, such as nurses, educators, etc., who are dissatisfied with their paid work because they cannot do a decent job due to constant cuts, erosion of working conditions, casualisation and the continual re-organisation of their work, which erodes the social relations between those who care/are cared for. This, of course, reflects a more general pattern where caring relationships (family ties, friendships, etc.) are undermined. Via another reading (Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities) we’ve looked at the difficulties of “working in accordance with our ethical stance” and how going against this stance causes us pain. This article highlights the importance of believing our work matters, that what we do makes a positive difference. Yet, the authors ask, how can our usefulness be measured? Their answer is – it cannot. However the value of what we do can be indicated by other people, when they acknowledge its worth. Therefore, they argue, we need ‘solidarity teams’ to help nuture and support us, to remind us of our ethics, and so we can work in constructive cooperative collaborations. These ‘solidarity teams’ may include family, work mates, friends, allies, and even people we’ve never met (e.g. for me bell hooks or Joe Strummer can be on my team).

Loving Solidarity

love-solidarity

There’s a growing need for the collective organising of affective politics and various forms of ‘solidarity teams’ can provide times/spaces where we develop reciprocal caring relationships. Over the last few years, one of my most important ‘solidarity teams’ has been the Love group. Together we sustain and support each other, offer camaraderie, and help to provide hope. We also learn about how other people are trying to do the same. Recently we read The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work by Carlos Delclos which focuses on the struggles of informal workers in Barcelona to help examine the growing importance of this work and the need to organise it collectively, with the aim of putting human dignity above property rights. Carlos explores various perspectives on the ‘informal economy’ and considers how the ‘sharing economy’ can both reinforce capitalist exploitation and provide mutual aid. Importantly he also highlights how Barcelona’s African and unemployed communities take care of each other through self-organisation and group solidarity.

Another article that struck a chord among the reading group, and among others who talked about it on social media, was ‘Life-hacks of the Poor & Aimless‘ by Laurie Penny. She examines a number of issues raised during the group’s previous discussions, including the problem of activist burn-out, the importance of taking care of yourself and others, and the relationship between self-care/individual fulfilment and collective engagement/social solidarity. Laurie points out that queer and feminist communities understand the personal is political and that ‘real love’ is an action rather than just a feeling.  Commenting on Facebook, in a heart-felt response to this text, one of our friends explained how she had countered her own anxiety through contributing to the community and by reconnecting to her political ideals via engaging in collective struggle. Recent social movements, such as Love Makes a Way  or Equal Love, reflect similar understandings and seek to deploy love politically. Last month, the Love reading group discussed The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia by Renata Grossi.  This article revolved around the need to pose the marriage equality campaign as a struggle about love in order to counter the restriction of love to heterosexual relationships, to help transform social perceptions of love, and to demonstrate the power of mobilising love. She concluded by arguing that we need to redefine love “in a way that retains its utopian ideals” and expresses “love’s optimism.”

What is Love?

Some of you may have read this post looking for a simple, complete theory of love; a pithy answer to the question posed, rather than ideas suggesting the richness and varieties of love and the wide-ranging debates and activities currently spreading around the world. Narrow notions of love limit our imaginations and horizons, while open and expansive conceptions of love both challenge us and indicate how our social encounters and collaborations can bring us joy. The purpose of the Love group and the upcoming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics event is to foster continuing dialogue and encounter. We interpret our theme broadly and are interested in conversations that celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. This might be a personal exploration of the way we interact with each other and the world, or a discussion about how to deepen solidarity and peace, build strong communities, lessen alienation and inequality. It might be a creative workshop that explores love through movement, art or music. Rather than providing definitive answers – we prefer to carry on discussing and debating various forms of love, their uses and usefulness – constructing a range of responses as we ‘learn to love by loving’. Recognising that love is a form of power produced by our efforts to create alternative relationships and community, we seek to develop grounded optimism and realistic hope for the future, as we continue to ask – what is love?

Nick Southall

Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 –  website

Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 – Facebook page

Sources

Armstrong, J., 2001, Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy, Penguin, London.

bell, h., 2000, All About Love: New Visions, Harper, New York.

Delclos, C., 2016, ‘The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 55 – 67.

Federici, S. & Sitrin, M., 2016, ‘Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 34 – 43.

Fromm, E., 2010, The Art of Loving, HarperCollins, New York.

Grossi, R., 2012, ‘The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia’, International Journal of Law in Context, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp. 487 – 505.

Lupton, D., 1998, The Emotional Self: A Sociocultural Exploration, SAGE Publications, London.

Reynolds, V., interviewed by Hammoud-Beckett, S., 2012, ‘Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities’, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work,  Number 4, pp. 57 – 61.

Scott Peck, M., 1978, The Road Less Travelled:  A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth, Simon Schuster, New York.

Advertisements

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s