On the Political Concept of Love: A Guide to Cinema
I. In our time, love has come to stand as a justification for two complementary and equally depoliticising modes of being. On the one hand love signifies little other than fun, sex and collaborative consumption; on the other hand, it is the way by which humans are integrated into the laws of the nation, state and capital. These dual forms of love appear most vividly in blockbuster cinema. The romance of Queen Gorgo and Leonidas in 300, Lorrell and Jimmy’s affairs in Dreamgirls and Dent and Rachel’s love in The Dark Knight – in each case the characters themselves are merely supplemental to a choice of costumes that can carry the characters over to the side of the good. Despite love’s ornamental function in these films, the characters are nevertheless animated under the name of “love”: the love of nation, the passion for the law, and the seduction of wealth. It is only under the name “love” that featureless characters endure the plot as they are crushed, mutilated, dismantled, and tossed across the screen. The romance of kitsch is easy to consume because it reflects the structure of everyday life, and the banal romance of everyday life is magical because its elements are found in the phantasmagoric epic of kitsch.
II. The story goes that until not long ago, people were subject to the discipline of religious and patriarchal masters who scorned sexual pleasures, especially the pleasures that were deemed illegitimate; the story then logically follows that we are sexually liberated because we dismay pious scorn with laughter. What such sermonizing, after all, could survive a single episode of Sex and the City, Will and Grace, or even Friends? But there is at least one possibility for the disciplinary law to survive: what if Joey Tribbiani is the true archbishop of New York? Today, through sit-com jokes, sex advice columns, and the endless statistics and polls about sexual fantasies and practices, modern subjects learn to regulate their bodies, construct their fantasies, measure themselves against the average, and take the intensity of orgasms as the criterion of good life. Today the mode of discipline is the injunction to enjoy.
III. The private life of modern subjects is the oscillation between long periods of empty homogeneous time of repetitive practice and moments of explosive overstimulation by spectacles and drugs. Of course, love is not alien to the lives of modern subjects; modern romance simply fits in the general structure of the modern experience, which puts abrupt intensity in place of meaningful duration. Popular romantic movies are simply sentimentalized representations of the cycles of empty and overstimulated times. Whether the empty time is the time of uneventful marriage (Bridges of Madison County; The Horse Whisperer), frustrated engagement (Titanic), or honest prostitution (Pretty Woman), the romantic movie climaxes with a passionate kiss or a night of sensual lovemaking. But after this moment, either the lovers should be permanently separated (by death or by other means) or the movie should end, because after the climax there is little to narrate but the return of empty time.
IV. Key to the current hegemonic success of liberal-capitalism is its anti-essentialist characteristic. Money does not distinguish sex, colour or ethnicity; capital views polygamist Arab sheikhs, lesbian couples in San Francisco, and aboriginal Australians simply as “diversities.” Capitalism emancipates humans from the dogmas of totalitarian cults as it makes everything holy profane, but it also falsifies all truths, turns every thought into an opinion and every practice into a choice of life. In the falsified world of liberal-capitalism, human’s biological body is the only remaining common denominator of judgment. For this reason, not only in our conversational language is “fun” emerging as an equivalent to “good,” but also in academic discourses of political scientists, psychologists and sociologists, biology is emerging as the only reliable foundation to analyze society. In motion pictures, the exploration of “fun” is delegated to pornography. The cameras that close up on the genitals of men and women penetrating, violating and pleasuring each other are not demonic – they are simply the ciphers of our time. No wonder then that the oft-quoted anti-war slogan that hung off the buildings from Berkley to the Sorbonne during the Vietnam War was poorly re-written before the 2003 Iraq War from “make love not war” to “make the sex not the war.”
V. People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept. Unlike the premodern and religious concepts of love, the modern concept is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family. Love has become a strictly private affair. Withdrawal into privacy today means adopting formulas of private authenticity propagated by cinema, television, and advertisement – from taking classes in spiritual enlightenment and following the latest cultural trends and other fashions, to engaging in yoga and jogging. But the ultimate truth of withdrawal into privacy also re-emerges in the public as the confession of intimate secrets on TV shows and the release of amateur pornography. Against this kind of privacy, we should emphasize that today the only way of breaking out of the constraints of alienated commodification is to invent a new collectivity. Today more than ever, the only way to have a passionate and fulfilling personal (sexual) relationship is not for the couple to look into each other’s eyes forgetting about the world around them while meditating, but, while holding hands, to take their love to serve as the basis for political projects in common and in the construction of a new community.
VI. What are the practices of the political subjects who construct a new community on the basis of their romantic love? The cinema of Chaplin was the last great enterprise of Western culture industry to offer a concrete answer to this question. In Chaplin’s movies the protagonist, often a tramp or a ghetto-dwelling Jew, is an outlaw, not in the sense of breaking the law, but based on the very fact of being abandoned by the law. But in his abandonment the protagonist also displays utmost indifference to the law, and transforms everything sacred and “respectable” into childish profanity. It is precisely within this outlawed profanity that Chaplin’s “heroes” encounter their beloveds, and tenderly and compassionately cater to them. However, these characters also know that for those living out of law, love is precarious. Their love is never attained but is always required to be reaffirmed – no wonder Chaplin’s protagonists treat every encounter as though it is their last. Nothing could be further away from this profane love than the contract of bourgeois marriage. Out of law, out of judgment, and especially out of the bourgeois contract, lovers encounter each other as such: tramps, beggars, abandoned children, and barmaids transform into the “heroes” of romantic epics. This is the sense in which we may say that love is the paradigm of emancipatory politics. Love is the fundamental indifference to the norm of the state; lovers do not forge their relation on the basis of the law – instead they negotiate their ways of life while their loves persist in spite of its precariousness. Love exemplifies the possibility of life out of the violence of law and judgment.
VII. There is no phrase more often said in cinema than “I love you”. Even in pornography “I love you” often appears as the pretext to a strip tease routine. The “I love you” that is the justification for a performance is the word becoming flesh: in cinema, there is simply no content in “I love you” other than the routine of the movement of bodies and predictable plots. But the corrupted word that has become profane flesh provides modern humans with an unprecedented opportunity that we should not ignore. Facing degenerate language, modern lovers neither recite poems to each other, nor do they find the “I love you” ever adequate. This is perhaps the reason behind the lovers’ insatiable need to cuddle, kiss, and hold hands, as well as to engage in frequent childish gestures when they talk to each other. In their romantic gestures, modern humans touch not this or that word of the corrupted language, but grasp its very communicability. In lovers’ kisses and gestures, flesh becomes word. The flesh that has become word is the profane realization of dreams, the incarnation of ideals and the creation of an egalitarian polity that takes the precariousness of life as its condition of possibility. But the flesh that has become word is precisely the domain that cinema can never reach.