No One is Sovereign in Love: A Conversation Between Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt

No One is Sovereign in Love: A Conversation Between Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt

On the occasion of the inaugural Research in Culture Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts, “On the Commons; or, Believing-Feeling-Acting Together” in May 2011, we sat down with guest faculty Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt to ask them about their use of love as a political concept. They each use the idiom of love to disrupt political discourse, as a means of thinking through non-sovereign social and subjective formations. Love, for both these thinkers, is transformative, a site for a collective becoming-different, that can help to inform alternate social imaginaries. But their notions about how this happens diverge. In his lecture at Banff, through a close reading of Marx, Michael Hardt proposed that substituting love for money or property as the means for organizing the social can open up new social and political projects. More generally he begins from the position of love as ontologically constitutive, or love as a generative force. Lauren Berlant’s description of love has attended to the ways in which love disorganizes our lives, opening us to move beyond ourselves. And so, for Berlant, the concepts of love and optimism foreground the sort of difficulties and investments involved in creating social change, understood as the construction of an attachment to a world that we don’t know yet, but that we hope will provide the possibility for flourishing. Throughout the interview Berlant and Hardt try on each other’s positions, organizing relationality through models of incoherence and multiplicity. In this, they speak to, reflect, inform and inspire activist projects of social change from queer communities to neo-anarchist organizers. It was breathtaking to watch these two brilliant thinkers engage in conversation with one another given the scenic view of the mountains that was framed in the window behind them. As they rallied back and forth, shifting, clarifying and providing counterpoint to each other, their exchange was a testament to intellectual generosity and the possibilities of dialogue and collective endeavors. What follows is an excerpt from that discussion.







Heather Davis: What is it about love that makes it a compelling or politically interesting concept?


Michael Hardt: One healthy thing love does, which is probably not even the core of it, but at least one healthy thing it does, is it breaks through a variety of conceptions about reason, passion, and the role of affect in politics. There are a number of other ways of doing this, but considering love as central to politics confounds the notion of interest as driving politics. Love makes central the role of affect within the political sphere.


Another thing that interests me is how love designates a transformative, collective power of politics – transformative, collective and also sustained. If it were just a matter of the construction of social bonds and attachments, or rupture and transformation, it would be insufficient. For me it would have to be a necessarily collective, transformative power in duration.


When I get confused about love, or other things in the world, thinking about Spinozian definitions often helps me because of their clarity. Spinoza defines love as the increase of our joy, that is, the increase of our power to act and think, with the recognition of an external cause. You can see why Spinoza says self-love is a nonsense term, since it involves no external cause. Love is thus necessarily collective and expansive in the sense that it increases our power and hence our joy. Here’s one way of thinking about the transformative character of love: we always lose ourselves in love, but we lose ourselves in love in the way that has a duration, and is not simply rupture. To use a limited metaphor, if you think about love as muscles, they require a kind of training and increase with use. Love as a social muscle has to involve a kind of askesis, a kind of training in order to increase its power, but this has to be done in cooperation with many.


Lauren Berlant: Another way to think about your metaphor, Michael, is that in order to make a muscle you have to rip your tendons.


I often talk about love as one of the few places where people actually admit they want to become different. And so it’s like change without trauma, but it’s not change without instability. It’s change without guarantees, without knowing what the other side of it is, because it’s entering into relationality.


The thing I like about love as a concept for the possibility of the social, is that love always means non-sovereignty. Love is always about violating your own attachment to your intentionality, without being anti-intentional. I like that love is greedy. You want incommensurate things and you want them now. And the now part is important.


The question of duration is also important in this regard because there are many places that one holds duration. One holds duration in one’s head, and one holds duration in relation. As a formal relation, love could have continuity, whereas, as an experiential relation it could have discontinuities.


When you plan social change, you have to imagine the world that you could promise, the world that could be seductive, the world you could induce people to want to leap into. But leaps are awkward, they’re not actually that beautiful. When you land you’re probably going to fall, or hurt your ankle or hit someone. When you’re asking for social change, you want to be able to say there will be some kind of cushion when we take the leap. What love does as a seduction for this is, and has done historically for political theory, is to try to imagine some continuity in the affective level. One that isn’t experienced at the historical, social or everyday level, but that still provides a kind of referential anchor, affectively and as a political project.


Michael Hardt: Let me start with the non-sovereign thing. I like that. If one were to think a political project that would be based on or include love as a central motivation, you say notions of sovereignty would be ruptured. That’s very interesting and powerful. I assume we are talking about a variety of scales here simultaneously, where both the self and the social are not sovereign in love.


When we engage in love we abandon at least a certain type of sovereignty. In what ways would sovereignty not be adequate in explaining a social formation that was grounded in love? If we were to think of the sovereign as the one who decides, in the social relation of love there is no one who decides. Which does not mean that there are no decisions but, rather, that there would be a non-one who decides. That seems like a challenging and interesting question: what is a non-sovereign social formation? How is decision-making then arrived at? These are the kinds of things that require modes of organization; that require, if not institutions, customs, or habits, at least certain means of organizing the decision-making process. In a politics of love, one of the interests for me is a non-sovereign politics, or a non-sovereign social formation. By thinking love as political, as somehow centrally involved in a political project, it forces us to think through that non-sovereignty, both conceptually, but also practically, organizationally.


Heather Davis: I’m really intrigued by the ways you both speak of how love is a project of non-sovereignty in terms of both the social and the self. If you’re trying to conceive of each of those layers with a certain consistency, then what is the difference between those formations and sovereignty?


Michael Hardt: I’ll start with some basic things. I think within the tradition of political theory it’s not at all clear what a non-sovereign politics could be. It’s hard to make such grand generalizations. But the tradition of political theory we inherit is fundamentally related to the role and decision making of the one, whether that one be the king, the party, the liberal individual, all of these. Here, decision-making can only be performed by the one, and so I think this is what Toni Negri and I have felt is interestingly challenging about the concept of multitude itself. How can a multiplicity decide? The organization of decision-making is central for me, for thinking politics or political theory. I guess I would apply this to the level of the individual too. How can an individual as multiplicity, and hence as non-sovereign, decide and not be just an incoherent helpless heap? What I think is required for that, now back again at the level of political theory, is understanding how collective structures, or structures of multiplicity, can enable social decision-making. We also have a long tradition of the possibility of the democracy proper – the rule of the many – but it’s a minor tradition, or sometimes a subterranean tradition. That seems to be one way of characterizing what’s at stake, or challenging in this.


Lauren Berlant: I think sovereignty is a bad concept for almost anything. It’s an aspirational concept and, as often happens, aspirational concepts get treated as normative concepts, and then get traded and circulated as realism. And I think that’s what happened with sovereignty. So, in “Slow Death” I say we should throw sovereignty out. But people are so invested in it [so] maybe we can’t because you can’t just decide ghosts don’t exist. You have to find a way to change something from within.


There’s another way of going at this that also has to do with a different relation to incoherence. Part of the reason I think that queer theory and love theory are related to each other as political idioms, is that queer theory presumes the affective incoherence of the subject with respect to the objects that anchor it or to which they’re attached. One thing that is very powerful for me to try and think about is how we could have a political pedagogy that deals with incoherence. Where the taking up of a position won’t be so that an individual can be coherent, intentional, agentive, and encounter themselves through their object, but that there would be a way that situational clarity can be produced without negating the incoherence of the subject. Training in one’s own incoherence, training in the ways in which one’s complexity and contradiction can never be resolved by the political, is a really important part of a political theory of non-sovereignty. But we still have to find a place for adjudication, or working out, or working for, or working over, which requires a pedagogy of attention, of paying attention to the different ways in which we engender different kinds of claims on the world, in our attachments or ways of moving or desires for habituation or aspirations . . .


I always have a phrase that I’ve decided is a placeholder phrase, as phrases often are in my life, which for a long time is a satisfying phrase, and then I realize I haven’t actually had that thought yet. For example, in a crisis culture we’re so excited about gaming the difference between zero and one that flourishing somehow gets bracketed. Survival looks like a triumph, and that’s a terrible thing. I want flourishing. But what do I mean by flourishing anyway? What are all of the synonyms I know for flourishing? There aren’t that many. Isn’t that interesting? The phrase you use is an increase in joy. But an increase of joy might not feel like increase. It might feel like relief, it might feel like I can be a mass of incoherent things and not be defeated by that.


Paige Sarlin: Why turn to this mode of imagining now? Why the idiom of love?


Michael Hardt: For me, with regard to the discourses of today, there seemed to me to be an excessive focus on sovereignty, on the state of exception, even as antagonists, I mean. Those discourses close immediately and unavoidably the vulnerable position of wanting more. The discussions about the enormity of the sovereign that we face, the near impossibility of confronting that power that’s both inside and outside the law, that puts us in the position of bare life, all of that obviates the problem of the vulnerability of wanting, of expressing the desire for the world to be different, almost by saying“of course it can’t be”, by saying “of course you’re powerless so it doesn’t matter what you want.” In that way, talking about love seems a useful challenge to what I perceive as a dominant mode of political theorizing and political discourse today. It also connects up with a series of things emerging today and kinds of political movements or the kinds of theorizing going on in political movements that seems to grasp that well. So the concept of love helps name an undercurrent that seems worth fostering in contrast to what I see as a dominant mode of theorizing.


Lauren Berlant: The discourse of political love has always, or long been, associated with religious idioms of thinking the social. Partly what we’re doing is trying to bring it back into the place of political action, where political action and new social relations happen in time with different types of practices. I think Michael is right that there’s already energy for that in neo-anarchists. And if you have a practice-based model of thinking in relation to other kinds of political work, it’s also saying that it’s not spirit over there and doing the material work of reorganizing life over here, but trying to find a synthetic language for both. In that way, it’s jarring in a good sense, it’s not just a mode of reflection but actually it’s a mode for action and also a description of what it would take for people to take the risk of new relationality.







Heather Davis is a researcher and writer living in Montréal. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Communication at Concordia University on the political potential of community-based art and is thrilled at being finally unchained from her computer. She explores and participates in expanded art practices that bring together researchers, activists, and community members to enact social change.


Paige Sarlin is a writer, filmmaker, and activist. The love she feels for her Leninist dog, Krupskaya, knows no bounds; it is grounded in the familiarity borne of shared space, time, and activity. The two of them are busy organizing to fight injustice and working to build lasting structures and connections for the larger struggle to re-make society. At present, she is finishing a dissertation on the history of the interview entitled “Interview-work: A Genealogy of a Cultural Form;” and she is developing a book project about the various vulnerabilities associated with and accumulated by being-in-common. This project is based on her experiences in various social movements and as a participant in 16 Beaver group.


Michael Hardt teaches in the Literature Program at Duke University. He is co-author with Antonio Negri of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. He currently serves as editor of the South Atlantic Quarterly.


Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her national sentimentality trilogy — The Anatomy of National Fantasy (University of Chicago Press, 1991, Chicago), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke University Press, 1997, Durham), and The Female Complaint (Duke University Press, 2008, Durham) — has now morphed into a quartet, with Cruel Optimism (2011) addressing precarious publics and the aesthetics of affective adjustment in the contemporary U.S. and Europe. A co-editor of Critical Inquiry, she is also editor of Intimacy (University of Chicago Press, 2000, Chicago); Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest (New York University Press, 2001, New York); Compassion: the Culture and Politics of an Emotion (Routledge, 2004, New York); and On the Case (Critical Inquiry, 2007). She blogs at Supervalent Thought and is also a founding member of the art/activist group Feel Tank Chicago.

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