On Love – Unrequited, Political and Otherwise
February 12, 2014
By James Anderson
Valentine’s Day offers a special opportunity to reflect on love – unrequited, political and otherwise.
But what is love? Like the act of love itself, the answer is not so easy.
Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at MIT, was unable to say for sure.
“I just know it has an unbreakable grip,” Chomsky said. “I can’t tell you what it is. Just, life is empty without it.”
Michel Gondry, the artist and filmmaker who directed the animated feature, “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?” about Chomsky, said the long-time linguistics scholar reminded him of the TV character “Columbo” during the interviews they did for the film.
“He always talked about his wife,” Gondry told the Wall Street Journal, admitting “it’s a bit of a stretch to compare Columbo to Noam Chomsky, but the way they talked about their wives had something touching.”
Chomsky married in 1949. His wife died in 2008, but during their years together the relationship was such that Carol Chomsky could wryly remark that “one never wins an argument with Noam,” as Neil Smith documented.
Decades of marital devotion and encyclopedic knowledge on world affairs notwithstanding, Chomsky, 85, failed to answer another one of life’s pressing, love-related questions.
“Do you have any recommendations for me to be able to talk to women better?” a student asked Chomsky after a lecture.
Chomsky replied that he’s “the wrong person to ask,” having left that business long ago.
Yet we continue to search for an answer.
What I have learned thus far: being overeager is not usually the way to go. When a girl you don’t know says, “hello,” the best response is not, “I love you,” as appropriate a response it may seem when one is filled with desire.
So are desire and love then to be considered signs of weakness?
Sam Stark, associate editor at Harper’s Magazine, problematized the question, using the philosophy of Marx to open up the life-love dialectic.
Because “manhood for Marx also meant, for example, the capacity to love,” Stark noted. He added that Marx described modern culture as making one weak, while love, as Marx put it, “makes the man once again into a man.”
Understanding Unrequited Love
Marx emphasized mutual reinforcing facets of true love.
“If you love unrequitedly,” that is “if your love as love does not call forth love in return, if through the vital expression of yourself as a loving person you to become a loved person,” he once wrote, “then your love is impotent, it is a misfortune.”
Ouch. Not only is unrequited love a misfortune, but a failed attempt to make – or at making – love is impotent.
James C. Scott, professor of political science and anthropology at Yale, advanced a different perspective on the potency of love and the power of love lost or unreturned.
When teaching an undergraduate course, Scott recalled in an interview, he posed a challenge to students at the beginning of the semester. If students wanted to remain in the class, they had to write about their most memorable experience of powerlessness or dependency.
The most common topic?
“Thirty-five percent of them write about unrequited love,” Scott said.
The statistics speak volumes. So does experience – like lying curled up in the fetal position in the corner of your room, after your love for another ceases to be reciprocated, sucking on a bottle of scotch, listening to Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and all of Kanye’s “808s & Heartbreak” on endless repeat, crying out: “Why?!?!”
We’ve all been there, rapt with desire. Sometimes the best medicine is to rap about it.
“Somethin’s burning,” Eminem rapped in “Love Game” featuring Kendrick Lamar, “I can’t figure out what. It’s either lust or a cloud of dust. Judgment is clouded, must just be the powder from the power of love.”
Waxing reflectively, Lamar opined in the song, she does not “love me, no she don’t love me no more. She hates my company, yeah she don’t love me no more.”
And alas, love can evolve from blissful mutual affair to relationship of resentment over many a previously unknown sordid affairs. Believe me. I know.
But the game of love is not so simple.
Scott explained why and how the unrequited love and feelings of powerlessness his students experienced can provide insight into “Domination and the Arts of Resistance,” which is the title of his book on the subject.
In detailing discreet forms of insubordination – what “might suitably be called the infrapolitics of the powerless,” Scott suggested “hidden transcripts” of those without authority illustrate the keen understanding of how power functions.
Scott suggested those who have been subject to the power others have exercised over them – and those who have experienced unrequited love – can understand phenomena of power and love better than others immersed in either. What then matters is using those insights to address conditions of power-over.
Structural Violence: Systematic Strangulation of Love Erased by Ideology
The exercise of power-over, especially if institutionalized, can constitute structural violence, an insidious mode of injurious compulsion that peace studies scholar Johan Galtung first explained more than 40 years ago.
Drawing on Galtung’s work, William Hathaway, professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, defined structural violence as “injustice and exploitation built into a social system that generates wealth for the few and poverty for the many, stunting everyone’s ability to develop their full humanity.”
Structural violence privileges “some classes, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities over others,” and “it institutionalizes unequal opportunities for education, resources, and respect,” Hathaway wrote. “Structural violence forms the very basis of capitalism, patriarchy, and any dominator system.”
A system of domination “reveals the pathology of love,” Paulo Freire wrote in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in elucidating the sickness of sadistic love.
Domination, oppression and “overwhelming control,” are “necrophilic,” and “nourished by love of death, not life,” Freire wrote.
The ineluctability of love occludes its power. Internalization of oppression normalizes structural violence, privileging Thanatos over Eros, as the ancient Greeks would have it.
Miya Tokumitsu, who holds a PhD in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, wrote passionately for Jacobin about the pitfalls of the pervasive “Do what you love” (DWYL) mantra regarding labor, which at its worst becomes both internalized oppression and structural violence.
In the piece titled, “In the Name of Love,” she noted the individualist, entrepreneurial DWYL adage is “ultimately self-focused to the point of narcissism,” and it functions ideologically to conceal hurtful class antagonisms. It masks heartbreaking – and backbreaking – iniquities.
Excerpts from a commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005 illustrate the point:
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
That DWYL ethos seems encouraging on the surface, but the “violence of this erasure needs to be exposed,” Tokumitsu told readers, referring to how much of his speech reinforced the effects of commodity fetishism, propagating a superficially pleasing necro-politics incompatible with real love.
Because “by portraying Apple as a labor of his individual love,” she wrote, “Jobs elided the labor of untold thousands in Apple’s factories, conveniently hidden from sight on the other side of the planet — the very labor that allowed Jobs to actualize his love.”
Some of that labor takes place in Foxconn factories in China, where student interns process iPhone casings. Liang Pui Kwan reported that “Apple CEO Tim Cook failed to reply to students’ and scholars’ open letter on student labour exploitation” at Foxconn factories in February 2012.
Investigations by the Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, “demonstrate that Apple supplier factories are intensifying a military-style management of workers,” according to a report from last February.
At the Jabil Green Point Technology factory located in the Wixu, Jiangsu Province where workers provide manufacturing services for Apple phones, laborers are loved so much they often have mandatory overtime – sometimes paid at rates less than required by law – on top of the usual 11.5 hours of standing work they do per day, according to a China Labor Watch report published Sept. 5, 2013.
Meanwhile, the DWYL “Jobsian view demands that we all turn inward,” Tokumitsu wrote. “It absolves us of any obligation to or acknowledgment of the wider world, underscoring its fundamental betrayal of all workers, whether they consciously embrace it or not.”
She noted severe consequences of DWYL dogma, “largely along class lines,” wherein work is “divided into two opposing classes,” that which is lovable and creative – monopolized by those “vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases and political clout,” juxtaposed with work which is “repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished,” and hard to love.
Those doing the latter work are “effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations,” and, she asked, is it surprising that these strains “barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?”
Folk singer Phil Ochs, who committed suicide at the age of 35 after losing his love for life following more than a decade of writing songs to advance issues of socioeconomic justice, satirized the disconcerting indifference of affluent liberalism.
“Once I was young and impulsive,” he sang. “I wore every conceivable pin. Even went to the socialist meetings. Learned all the old union hymns. But I’ve grown older and wiser. And that’s why I’m turning you in. So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.”
The same sensibilities legitimate structural violence within contemporary University walls, Tokumitsu argued.
“Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia,” she explained. “The average PhD student of the mid 2000s forwent the easy money of finance and law (now slightly less easy) to live on a meager stipend in order to pursue their passion for Norse mythology or the history of Afro-Cuban music.
“The reward for answering this higher calling is an academic employment marketplace in which around 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors — contract instructors who usually receive low pay, no benefits, no office, no job security, and no long-term stake in the schools where they work.”
Many factors contribute these conditions, Tokumitsu noted, “including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”
Tokumitsu is right to assail the DWYL formula for the way it obviates class antagonisms and entreats those atop the academic pyramid to repress any concern for those hurt by structural violence.
David Graeber, who teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, was essentially forced to resign from his post at Yale over activist and union related issues, compounded by his principled rejection of institutional hierarchy, an outmoded edifice of structural violence.
Much like the less-visible processes of structural violence, Graeber said Yale’s explanation for pushing him out was not transparent. Students thought they still had a good idea why it went down.
“While I don’t know what happened, a lot of the students felt that they did,” Graeber said in an interview with Charlie Rose. “Originally it was the students that began to protest, and the overwhelming conclusion of the graduate students was that it had something to do with my defense of one of the graduate students who was a union organizer, who they [the administration at Yale] tried to kick out of the program.”
He went on to explain that the student excelled academically and deserved to be defended.
The University structure suppressed any non-violent, ethically-motivated militancy, he found.
“In academia there’s a hierarchy,” Graeber said. “And you’re supposed to be scared. You’re supposed to be sort of cowering before people. And I was never disrespectful to people, but I didn’t cower.”
Those structures of hierarchy, which give some “people complete impunity and power over others,” can create “a psychological dynamic that is almost sadomasochistic,” he said.
In his 2006 Malinowski Lecture address, Graeber assailed the tendency in academia to play up the notion of knowledge alone, devoid of praxis, as a form of social power. Professors extolling this theory “were themselves most completely divorced from any access to political power, or increasingly, even to real social movements,” Graeber explained.
The trajectory came part and parcel with increasing bureaucratization of higher education. It dovetailed with concentration of decision-making power and capital at the top of these institutions.
Reinforcing spirals of violence ensued.
“What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence—particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures,” he said in the lecture, which was later turned into an essay. “To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.”
Praxis as Theory and Action of Love
Those harmful hierarchies and systems of violence outlined above are reified when Graduate Assistants are made to pay more than two months of their salary back to the University in fees just to perform the labor they love.
When Graduate Assistants are coerced into laboring in excess of the hours per week average stipulated in their contract, too many professors look the other way or are directly involved in reinforcing the power relations that make such exploitative work possible. Too many higher-paid academic professionals remain complicit in the reaffirmation of structural violence.
To be sure, our own love is not always pure.
At times we are even complicit in the structural violence that offends us, either through apathy or tacit acceptance of the way existing conditions disproportionately hurt more disadvantaged GAs.
Within the union there is also hierarchy. Sometimes intra-organizational verticality perpetuates power relations that too closely parallel the structural violence seen in the society and institutions we wish to transform.
Historically, social movement unionism of the collectively loving and simultaneously emancipatory kind, has made enormous contributions to eliminating such structural violence. It is worth recalling.
For example, the Spanish CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), an anarcho-syndicalist union, created a comunismo libertario society in Andalusia, Catalonia, Barcelona and other cities around the time Francisco Franco’s fascist forces attempted a coup d’état in the summer of 1936, igniting a civil war in Spain.
“The trade unionism of class struggle,” wrote Daniel Guérin, a French theorist who supported collective struggles of love, “had been regenerated by the anarcho-syndicalists who had entered it,” with the aid of the CNT and its predominant síndicatos únicos (local unions). “These groups, close to the workers, free from all corporate egoism, served as a physical and spiritual home,” for those disaffected by institutions of injustice.
“The trade-union center had become the real town hall,” Guérin explained. At the Saragossa congress in May 1936, the CNT took care of the “many adepts of naturism and vegetarianism among its members, especially among the poor peasants of the south,” Guérin wrote. The union “did not forget to consider the fate of groups of naturists and nudists,” and because those groups would not be able to supply all their own needs, the union made arrangements for special economic agreements to ensure their survival. Despite the impending war and the growing power of Franco’s followers to contend with, “the CNT did not think it foolish to try to meet the infinitely varied aspirations of individual human beings.”
Pat Gallagher documented how, in response to the stifling of formative culture by those with concentrated power, the Spanish syndicalist unions “became forerunners in experimentations of education reform,” for children and adults, “offering all kinds of classes on every imaginable subject: evolution, sexuality, free love, revolution, women’s liberation, ecology, economics,” and myriad others.
Historical recollection – and critical reflection regarding our own union activities – throws light on internal impediments to actualizing a greater public pedagogy of love, as exemplified in many ways by the CNT almost 80 years ago.
Of course, love is a process. We can replenish it with reflection and action – a praxis whereby within our own organization we begin to create the sort of loving bonds and mutually empowering relations we want reflected in the larger institutions and the world system of which we are all part.
Australian cultural critic Roman Krznaric described six main kinds of love identified by the ancient Greeks, one of which has implications for union praxis.
Krznaric explained that philautia is a kind of self-love, recognized by the Greeks to have two different types. One reflects the Steve Jobs DWYL Apple ideology of individually-focused advancement. The other “healthier version” of philautia can enhance “your wider capacity to love,” Krznaric wrote. “The idea was that if you like yourself and feel secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give others (today this is reflected in the Buddhist-inspired concept of ‘self-compassion’).”
Alternatively, it could be secular.
What in “Everyday Revolutions” Marina Sitrin, visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, called politica afectiva, “a politics and social relationship based on love and trust,” suggests a self-love that could lead to a radically selfless love, or agape, another variety of love known to the Greeks in antiquity.
For this, an indomitable spirit is necessary because “love is an act of courage, not of fear,” and thus “love is commitment to others,” Paulo Freire averred again in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a book as much about love as anything else.
This is especially true if we push the notion of solidarity beyond “the old, traditional sense of doing for the other,” as Sitrin, my unrequited love, suggested in “Occupying Language,” and extend it to “each of us seeing ourselves in the oppressed other—in actually being the other—and the other being us.”
We can expand solidarity to include something like what Michael Hardt called a “properly political concept of love,” which generates bonds both intimate and social.
In so doing, we can better love ourselves and make our institutions better reflect and foster that love.
In another folk ballad, Phil Ochs told the story of Joe Hill to remind us of the role union activity can play in the process of generating new subjectivities by overcoming systemically unrequited love:
So he headed out for the California shore
There things were just as bad
So he joined the Industrial Workers of the World
‘Cause the union was the only friend he had
‘Cause the union was the only friend he had
Elsewhere, Ochs pointed out in a hymn how empowering people and producing protagonists in a movement means conscious, organized – if also spontaneous – acts of militant, non-violent love.
“Come you ranks of labor, come you union core,” Ochs once sang, “and see if you remember the struggles of before, when you were standing helpless on the outside of the door. And you started building links on the chain. On the chain. You started building links on the chain. When the police on the horses were waiting on demand, riding through the strike with the pistols in their hands, swinging at the skulls of many a union man, as you built one more link on the chain. On the chain. As you built one more link on the chain.”
Cultivating links of love is not simple. But, as my many failed attempts at intimate interpersonal relationships attest to, love never comes easy.
Undoubtedly, to build a movement to manifest love is a challenge. But, like Alfred Lord Tennyson told us, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.