Fists of Love 

NB: The title of this post is to be attributed to Big Black, and is a song off their 1986 LP, Atomizer (Homestead Records). Further, this post has its predecessors. I wouldn’t want to give the wrong idea. Thus, to be thorough, I’ll also mention those that I’ve no intention of mentioning: (Smog)’s “To be Hit,” and Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

“I’m sleeping with your best friend because
I want to make you jealous
and make you realize that you love me.
I make you jealous because I love you.
I sleep with your best friend because I love you.
I am hurting you because I love you.”
(Karen Finley, “St. Valentine’s Massacre,” Shock Treatment. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990)

Love needs to be interrogated. Or perhaps more properly speaking: dissected. Within pop culture it’s been offered as a cure-all, the salve to be applied to every skinned knee, the hanky with which to mop up all the tears and snot, the hormone induced man-boobs between which we find release, solace, and a good night’s sleep. But Baby, such blind belief, such love of love, is simple-minded hippy-shit. And fucking dangerous, to boot. Our hangover, perhaps, from the 60s, and one we’re in desperate need of addressing should we actually learn to deal decently with one another. It’s the morning after: time to sober up and face the carnage.

Love can never succeed as an antidote to violence, because love, in the broadest sense of the term, often precedes the violence it’s meant to heal. This sounds terrible, I know. But all the ooohing and aaahing over love has drowned out the spouse-beaters and child-abusers, the best friend-fuckers and trappers, the naggers and manipulators, not to mention the screams of their loved ones. If taken all together, this represents a majority, and one that must not be ignored. Love is morally neutral, be it agape, eros, philia, or xenia, all are necessarily grey.

It was thus that some eight years ago I took out my scalpel and began pouring over my mother’s dead body (out of love, of course), and came up with the following designations:

1. Love is a word denoting an abstract. We might as well speak of unicorns.

2. Love is a feeling. In its most extreme form it gives rise to the desire to gut the loved object and climb inside.

3. Love is a practice that must be fully conscious of the other two designations and their tendency to give rise to violence and bring harm upon the beloved. As a practice, love must take a decidedly hands-off approach and set itself the task of allowing the other to exist as unique, integral other. This can be quite difficult and, paradoxically, cause the beloved to feel unloved.

Thoughts? Further dissections? Surely the Christians must have something to say…

23 thoughts on “ Fists of Love 

  1. You and Friedrich Schlegel are on the same page here. One of my favorite passages from his Lucinde:

    Unquestionably there lies deeply rooted in the nature of man a desire to eat everything he loves and put every new object he encounters immediately into his mouth in order to break it down. A healthy hunger for knowledge makes him want to apprehend the objects completely, to penetrate and bite through to its inmost core.

  2. I tried to keep the post short, but it occurred to me in writing that the practice (which I prize) is entirely paltry without the violent desires. I think Vale’ry (accent aigu) is particularly brilliant in performing a balancing act (at least in his poetry) between the two and permitting the practice to feed the emotion and vice versa.

  3. Hopefully Grant will roll up in this thread and give you his thoughts as he has done a deal of thinking about this subject, and the violence of love. But for now, for me, writing a paper calls.

  4. My uncle had a saying, which he’d sometimes whip out on me when I started to push his buttons or something: “See this [his left fist]? This is hate. See this [his right fist]? That’s love. Don’t test me, boy, because I love you – and hate’ll hurt ya, but love’ll kill ya.”

    I think this call to interrogate love is a great idea, especially vis-a-vis violence. What do you mean, though, when you say “love is a feeling” while also saying “love is a word denoting an abstract”? An abstract feeling – feeling the abstract? Is this to say love is a positive aspect of our experience – as opposed to, say, something we do not have that we give to someone who does not want it?

  5. Alex: Wonderful of you to ask me to chime in.

    I’ve actually finished my dissertation on desire/politics/ethics and will be posting it to my blog shortly.

    Regarding violence, I’m a big fan of the the idea that violence is something that Christian theology says ought be diagnosed. In a Thomist sense, violence is whatever deters something from achieving its proper telos. Thus, everything that appears violent isn’t necessarily so. (IE the divine violence of Revelation isn’t really violence, since it restores creation to its proper ends.)

    This is, of course, provided you subscribe to the Christian school of thinking on all this, which I don’t… But I”m always curious as to what people mean when they say “violence” with regards to love. Is it merely a way of indicating the magnitude of the desire in question? Are we talking about violence in an ethical sense? Different authors mean different things by it. For Bataille, desire is violent simply because its disruptive – but what he means by violence here doesn’t really have anything to do with ethics. Further, the disruptive or “violent” nature of desire actually founds the ethical, because it uncovers “what is”…

    (Excuse the preponderance of elipses, but after doing a ton of legal briefing on due process cases it’s nice to be able to employ them without punishment.)

  6. Joe: I like that quote. Grandfatherly wisdom at its best. As to your request for clarification:

    1. Love as abstract word – Love, regardless, is immaterial, represents an ideal, and does not necessitate any particular practice *or*, for that matter, feeling. Further, it’s individual every time with regards to utterance. Like “truth,” it can be deployed to indicate anything and can be used in an attempt to manipulate anyone. I suppose I’m merely trying to articulate that the words “I love you” don’t necessarily mean anything to me, nor do I necessarily trust them. They’re as good the circumstance and individual permit, are unverifiable, and can mean anything.

    2. Nor, for that matter do the emotions of another necessarily mean anything to me. When a man romantically inclined tells me that he loves me, I assume that he wants to gut me and climb inside. Well… good for him! But that in no way indicates how he will act upon his feeling and it has far more to do with him than me. At base, he might as well tell me he’s chilly.

    I think of it in terms of the following lines, written by the immortal poet, Shel Silverstein:


    Agatha Fry, she made a pie
    And Christopher John helped bake it
    Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
    And Agatha Fry helped rake it

    Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
    And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
    Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
    And Zachary Zugg helped break it

    And some kind of help is the kind of help
    That helping’s all about
    And some kind of help is the kind of help
    We all can do without

  7. “Divine love = divine violence.”

    That makes me think of a koan.

    “Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls in Master Nansen temple were quarreling about a cat. Nansen held the cat up and said, ‘You monks! If one of you can say a word, I will spare the cat. If you can’t say anything, I will put it to the sword.’ No one would answer, so Nansen finally slew it. In the evening when Joshu returned, Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu thereupon took of his sandals, put them on his head, and walked off. Nansen said, ‘if you had been there, I could have spared the cat.'”

    Nansen was well aware that the first of the Five Precepts was “I shall refrain from taking life,” and yet none of the commentaries condemn what he did to the cat. Some even claim that the cat was destined to become a Buddha because of it, or that Nansen claimed this.

  8. Love is like the Holy Land: one territory claimed by vastly incommensurable stories. There is no solution for Love, either. As a word there are too many usages, definitions, connotations. Like Batman (a character that has given rise both to beauties like The Dark Knight and, err, uh…inanities like “Quick Robin– hand me the Shark-Repellent Bat-Spray!”), love is a term with way too many interpretations. For that reason I hate talking about it. There can be no productive argument about it unless there is some shared center of opinion.


    There is a feeling that we sometimes have, though not often, that goes beyond affection, that is free of the pubescent grabbiness and neediness that sickens and inspires revulsion, that remains at a peaceful distance. Adam K. was, I think, talking about it when he comments about a love shown best by leaving the beloved alone.

    Whether or not this phenomenon deserves to be called love is not my call to make. But I think I can sum up the experience of it as this: Yes. A simple, unqualified Yes. What I would call Love is that movement that seeks to know the beloved, not to change it or alter it or to extract pleasure from it, but only that it may have details and specifics to add to what it wills “Yes” to when it wills this “Yes” and nothing more.

    Or we could ask musical Christian Steve Taylor, who wrote the song “Love is a Dead Language.”

  9. The crucifixion is often interpreted in terms of “love,” and the Holy Spirit is basically identified with love in Augustine and others.

    The crucifixion thing reminds me of a story. A friend of mine said she was explaining Lutheran theology to her daughter, who was like 7. The friend said, “So God loved us so much that he was willing to sacrifice his own son for us.” Daughter: “He would do that for me?” (this is really the perfect “naive” response, almost like in a Jack Chick tract). But then the daughter says, “Wait, am I really sinful enough that this was necessary?”

    At this point, I interjected into the story: “Even if you’re not, you’d better play along with it, because clearly that motherfucker is crazy.”

  10. I’m simply confused on how love can be morally neutral and also tend toward violence and harm upon the beloved. I agree that “love needs to be interrogated” or even “dissected” and definitely resurrected from the “cure-all” it has been posited as (I use the term ‘resurrected’ intentionally). I simply cannot seem to bring myself into full agreement with your stance on love: a sort of neutral, grey thing.

    I am under the impression that love is not amoral, but that it is instead entirely moral. It is the love for ‘that-special-someone’ that has the potential to break the social and kinship bonds we may have so strongly struggled to create and maintain; love for community, country or people often inspires intense demonstrations of self sacrifice; love of self can bring on a narcissistic destruction of the world around us. My intention is not to judge these actions as good or not, but to point out that they are definitely moral. They are steeped in the application of value, judgment and action. It is in this sense that love needs to be interrogated. Yes, it is a word. Yes, it is a feeling. But it is not a unicorn (which doesn’t seem to be the foundation of any action or non-action, as far as I know) or only a desire to gut and climb inside the beloved. The examples I have given above need to be dissected and interrogated, as they often fall under a certain monopolizing of love under a grand narrative of romance, patriotism, self-actualization (to gut and climb in). You are right in pointing this out – they are incongruous. There is no unifying theme of love flowing through these things, and in this sense love should be discarded.

    But, again back to the ‘resurrection’ of love. This is the only way I know to counteract your version of amoral, yet violent love. It may be highly inadequate and I know that others here are more qualified than I am to give a ‘Christian’ perspective. But nonetheless, I continue. I was struck with the thought that the problematic love you refer to can be discarded and reunified in Christ. He is a unifying theme of love in all the above situations. The grand narratives of romantic love, patriotic love, and self love, which I agree are often violent, can be replaced with Christ, which I associate with non-violence or at least the defining and last act of violence taken upon himself (I’m unsure how to articulate this event in relation to violence or non-violence, though I’m sure someone out there can comment on this better than I or at least point me in the direction of some resource that can). There is then a foundation (ontological and historical) to love someone, community, ‘the other’ and even self. This is messier than it sounds as it is tied up in theological reflections and changes over at least the last 2,000 years, which I am barely versed in. And this love, though it has been subsumed under many narratives (often ethnocentric or power-based), is a narrative in itself – an historical, defining narrative at that – but I am under the impression that this is not an inherent cause for its immediate dismissal. It is, however, a cause for it to be dissected and evaluated. For me, however, this process of evaluation (which is still occurring) has led me to a very different conclusion than the one you arrived at, and I hope I have somehow clearly stated it.

    I’m not sure why I felt compelled to type this out or make the jump from passively and safely observing the happenings on this blog to inserting myself into to this discussion…maybe I do have an idealized version of love!…that I am seeking to justify and maintain.

  11. Hi Matt,
    I suppose I should preface: I don’t advocate non-violence. And clarify: I never said love was a unicorn. It seems to me that Christ can’t be seen as purely non-violent insofar as he was crucified and this was necessary and he saw it coming and so Judas was awesome. Right? I also don’t see how Christ can encompass sexual love, which I in no way want to discard, and I think “self-sacrifice” is no more than a slogan used to keep slaves slaves. Love of an other needs to begin with self-love, like on an airplane: you put your oxygen mask on first and *then* help the children, disabled, and elderly. I resent martyrdom. It helps no one. And I think seeing Christ as the historical foundation to love someone, or something (I’m not a big patriot either), is… well, narcissistic? The work of a missionary is something of a bludgeoning. Perhaps I have misunderstood your argument. I read: Christ is the resurrection of love that will save it from violence. But this is, actually, historically refuted. Could you explicate this a bit better?

  12. Hi Kelsey,
    I will do my best to clarify all I can here.
    My thoughts weren’t meant to be centered around non-violence, and you are right in pointing out that the crucifixion is inherently violent and that the resurrection has not historically been used to end violence (I meant to refer to this fact when I mentioned it being ‘subsumed under many other narratives’…that were indeed violent). What I did want to say was that love is moral. The morality of love is not a clear one, which is why I chose three different examples, which were more off the cuff than exhaustive (clearly sexual love is important…though I don’t separate it from relational love), and is also why I agree that love needs to be interrogated.

    My final resting point, given that I labeled love as moral, is that the morality of love can be clarified in Christ. It is in Christ that I see the necessity to love yourself before you can love another – “love your neighbor *as yourself*”. It is also in Christ where I see the end of wanting to gut and climb into the beloved. What I want to say is that in Christ love becomes more than a contested area of meaning that is used for violence, non-violence, patriotism, anarchy, oppression, revolution, etc. It becomes the end rather than the manipulative means. I hope this makes sense because I am unsure of my ability to further expound upon it. It is true that historically this has not always been the case, but my argument is that regardless of the negative or positive (as their has been both) use of Christ, he makes sense of a morality of love.

    One last thing. Your designation of a Christ-centered view of love as narcissistic is intriguing. I think I understand what you’re saying: that my focus on his person is narcissistic in that it is my own religious belief/tradition. But it would be an other-centered, relationally-based narcissism, which intrigues me. Also (and here is the kicker), I realize that my proposition of love as I see it in Christ kind of assumes the willingness of the Christian to be gutted and climbed into by him, but without this we cannot become like Christ or understand the love (and morality as such) that he is…this may have just taken us full circle in a weird sort of totally unhelpful way =)

    I really do appreciate your request for clarification, and I hope I was able to clarify some of my thoughts in light of your questions.

  13. Adam –
    “‘Hey, you know that new Nazi? He used to be a pope!’

    ‘I’m outta here man, that guy is DANGEROUS!'”

    Matt – I’m going to think and respond some time tomorrow. But do you think morally neutral/grey is the same as amoral? That’s a genuine question, I’m still thinking.

  14. It is possible that I could have overextended the semantic range; if you would please expand on what you mean by morally neutral/grey I would greatly appreciate it. I look forward to your response.

  15. Hi Matt,
    I was super antisocial yesterday (blogging seemed too much a commitment). Here we go:

    1. You say: “the morality of love is not a clear one”. I think we agree on this and always have.

    2. It seems to me that the admonition: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is placing the cart before the horse and potential trouble (indeed a logical impossibility) in light of the popularity of martyrdom and doormat-like behaviour. Further, unlike the Greeks, I am unaware of any overt prescription for self care within Christianity.

    3. Feeling is not doing. And the desire to gut and climb inside is also the desire to penetrate. Christ then would be the end of sexual love.

    4. I like your qualification of love as an end in lieu of a means. But certainly the relation of love gives default birth to a new entity, hence the Holy Ghost. Further, I take issue with an other based narcissism if the other is the *means* by which *you* become Christ-like. I think, then, that Christ just gets in the way.

  16. Hey Kelsey,
    Four corresponding points used to pass time at work.

    1. Yes, I would say we have been in agreement here

    2. I’m also unaware of any institutionally overt prescription of self-care. This was more my own conception of that verse, which I don’t think is textually misguided, but neither is it exhaustive (i.e. I don’t think that is the main point of the verse, but I do believe that self love is vital in the process of loving your neighbor and I think this is contained within the verse). I don’t see one as being in front of the other, but as both being vital to a dynamic process.

    3. I don’t think we will be in total agreement here, but my take on sexual love is that it is a dynamic of relational love. Christ isn’t the end of sexual love, but rather the beginning of relational love. We learn relational love in many contexts, and one of these contexts is sexual. Please don’t misconstrue my point here. People who don’t identify with Christ can obviously participate in various moralities of love. But for me, Christ subsumes all competing moralities of love into himself. That’s what I mean when I say “he’s the beginning of relational love”, not that he is the only way to experience such love.

    4. My idea on other-based narcissism was that to focus on Christ was actually not narcissistic, but was rather dependence on an ‘other’. This dependence is the following of Christ to be like Christ (a much better metaphor than being gutted my him). And I would also agree that love by default gives birth to a new entity. My hope is that a Christian community would be born, from relating to Christ, that loves as an end rather than allows itself to be taken up into more confusing moralities of love.

    Your call for the interrogation of love and our subsequent discussion has forced me to think through many things I would have otherwise left buried. Thanks for that.

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