This essay considers psychoanalytic theories of love in the work of Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and Jacques Lacan. Though there is no coherent theory of love in psychoanalysis, paying attention to love in the analytic situation—that is, to transference—allows us to read analytic love as a transformative practice through which subjects affiliate with one another as subjects rather than as objects. In considering the importance of love to solidarity, the work of Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Black feminist theory is mobilized to offer two short readings of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and the autobiography of Dorothy Day. Across these theoretical and narrative works, the author formulates an account of analytic love as a site of negative plenitude that rearranges conventional accounts of identity and difference.
This essay is an attempt to work through a focal point of psychoanalysis that simultaneously has no coherent theory within in it: love. In opposition to the normative scripts for love that exist in our capitalist present—as unwitting romantic delusion or commodified object-choice, for example—psychoanalytic theory offers a different account. In the works of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (and some of their contemporary interlocutors, like Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy), love throws off simple attempts to equate it with an uncomplicated wholeness or a purely reparative function. At the same time, in its willingness to make love porous to what it is seemingly not, such as hate and ambivalence, psychoanalysis establishes a critical framework for reading love as an intersubjective event and mode of thinking and acting that exceeds the couple or the dyad.
Love has been central to theorizing solidarity politics and coalition building for some time, especially from within Black feminist theory.1 Psychoanalysis may seem remote from these accounts, constrained by the clinic and suspicious of affirmative relationality. In “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” Freud makes the difficult claim that love and hate “do not [ . . . ] stand in any simple relation to each other” (138), and that hate develops in the subject before love does, leading to his assertion that “love so frequently manifests itself as ‘ambivalent’ ” (139). Even though for Freud, love’s difficulty is that it is always entangled with these multiple “polarities,” he continued to revisit the possibilities of love in his papers after 1915, especially in the case of transference, a fundamental technique of analysis. Transference, which Freud first describes as the displacement of affect from one entity to another in analysis, later comes to encompass the core relationship between analyst and analysand, one not based in reciprocity but in the aim of something no less ethical: the transformation of the patient’s suffering.2 And because of the centrality of transference—which is nothing other than love3—to the analytic act, Lacan, in his seminar on transference, calls love an “essential hinge” of psychoanalysis (Transference 29).
In what follows, I gather some of these remarks and take a special interest in Lacan’s observations about love and transference in Seminar VIII, Transference, and Seminar XX, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972–73. I suggest that love in psychoanalysis maps pathways to thinking and practicing solidarity in the interminable crisis we call by different names: capitalism, colonialism, climate change. This is because analytic love moves in the direction of a negative plenitude that exceeds the subject as bounded by individuation, spilling over into the domain of the social world. Love in psychoanalysis consequently allows for a critical reevaluation of identity as the grounds of solidarity building. But it also reconfigures some familiar terms for psychoanalysis itself, namely, lack, intersubjectivity, and the social.
In Seminar XX, Lacan makes one of his most well-known pronouncements, that the sexual relationship is “nonexistent” (On Feminine 45). Yet, for Lacan, “what makes up for the sexual relationship is, quite precisely, love” (45). Sexual difference, in Lacan’s account, is the radical nonexistence of any symmetry or coincidence between the symbolic positions of femininity and masculinity, in which “one category does not complete the other, [nor] make up for what is lacking in the other” (Copjec 41). Love does not make these two positions whole or complementary either. Rather, love exposes a truth about the subject’s desire and, in the situation of transference, leads to a new orientation to that desire. As Lacan further elaborates in Seminar VIII and which I will explore later in this essay, “to love is to give what one does not have” (Transference 29), a statement that allows us to reimagine the sharing of what is incommensurate rather than the simple exchange of what one already has, knows, or owns. Ultimately, I concentrate on these moments in Lacan’s later seminars because they strike me as an important admission on the part of psychoanalysis that love does something: that it is, in fact, of the order of praxis rather than simple feeling, and that it is useful, indeed indispensable, to transformation and struggle.
This essay also reaches for three theoretical horizons that elaborate love as a critical relation in conversation with psychoanalysis: Badiou’s well-known account of love as “minimal communism,” Nancy’s essay, “Shattered Love,” and Black feminist theory’s focus on “selves laboring to love—to orient their selves toward difference, toward transcending the self—[and to] join in a new form of relationality” (Nash 453). By reading these texts together, we can see how analytic love might reconfigure one of Lacanian psychonanalysis’s most central notions, lack, as a negative plenitude based in ontology that allows subjects to affiliate with one another as subjects rather than as objects. This wider, more capacious but also more distanced and perhaps riskier form of love finds expression in the autobiography of anarchist and cofounder of the Catholic Worker’s movement Dorothy Day and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Scenes from both of these narratives allow me to sketch out the imaginative contours of analytic love’s possibilities. My hope is to contribute to this special issue not only by exploring how psychoanalysis—like love—can be useful to solidarity-building but also by demonstrating a scholarly practice that seeks to build common ground between disparate theorizations of love without eradicating their important differences.
Giving What You Do Not Have
It is both true and inaccurate that psychoanalysis has nothing to say about love: true in the sense, as Freud admits in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” that psychoanalysis typically concentrates on what motivates our desires and our enjoyments, which are not always coincident with a definition of love. True also in the sense that Lacan often emphasized that one couldn’t “speak” of love, that it was nonsense to locate it firmly in a discourse: “[W]hat I say of love is assuredly that one cannot speak of it. ‘Talk to me of love’—what a lark!” (On Feminine 17). Yet love is a problem psychoanalysis confronts again and again. Love takes root in a primary narcissism for Freud, as laid out in both “On Narcissism” and “Instincts.” In some of Lacan’s work, love is purely imaginary—a “specular mirage” and a “deception” (Four 168)—and because of this, the source of chaos and catastrophe, and often comedy.4 When psychoanalysis does speak of love, it is often to point out a limit: of language, of analysis, of bounded subjectivity itself.
In the work of Melanie Klein, for instance, love is coextensive with aggression for the infant who feels simultaneous feelings of hate and love toward its first caregiver. The infant’s negative drive to destroy the object who must also fulfill its demands eventually leads to psychic fantasies of destruction, which carry over into adulthood and all the subject’s subsequent close relationships. What initially distinguishes love in the Kleinian discourse is that it also serves a “reparative” function for the subject and its urge to destroy the other in fantasy. Klein subsequently writes in “Love, Guilt and Reparation”: “[R]eparation, in my view,[is] a fundamental element in love and in all human relationships” (313). In secularizing the vision of a God who both destroys and repairs, the subject’s management of both love and hate retroactively constitutes its social world and the morality of the objects in it. There are thus “good objects” deserving of repair, and others that are not. It is these objects that begin to constitute the social in the section “Wider Aspects of Love,” where Klein takes a surprising turn by broadening the ethical field of love beyond the family to include a social world driven by colonial violence. She notes that European colonization of other lands constitutes a wider social form of the infant’s first aggressive tendencies, “when ruthless cruelty against native populations was displayed by people who not only explored but conquered and colonized” (334). In Klein’s view, however, love ultimately acts as “the wished-for restoration.” The colonizer “found full expression in repopulating the [colonized] country with people of their own nationality” (334). Here, the equation of love with reparation performs a largely mimetic, and even narcissistic, function for the colonizer.
The stakes of thinking of love in these terms are high. David Eng reads this extraordinary passage as revealing an “aporia” at the heart of Klein’s theories of love as an intersubjective ethics. Love as reparation spells out “the disavowal of responsibility in a history of colonial war and violence that preserves and extends life to some while simultaneously withholding it from others” (12). Because love in Klein’s description of the colonizer and the colonized only “restores” the white population to itself, “reparation thus names the collective social and psychic processes by which love becomes a naturalized property of the European liberal human subject, foreclosing in the process any possibility for racial reparation and redress” (Eng 14). I find Eng’s reading instructive in at least two ways. Not only does he bring to light the difficulties of reading love as purely the stuff of psychic “cure” or reparation—affective modes that have been mobilized in contemporary literary studies to mark criticism that is somehow better attuned and more responsible to literary objects themselves; he also marks that affective impulse as integral to a fantasy of white liberal humanity, a fantasy that psychoanalysis has a responsibility to refuse.
For Anne Cheng, this vision of love, which presupposes or reaches for wholeness, “engenders rather than redeems the ethical crisis of intersubjective relations” (97). Reparation finds itself dangerously close to the deeply fraught “fetish economy” at the heart of colonial and capitalist ideology that Klein inadvertently runs up against, and within which modern love is always entangled. Colonialism’s and capitalism’s entwined psychic tentacles thus make it impossible to formulate neutral visions of love and repair in the face of both the ego’s and the world’s extraordinary capacity for violence (which manifest in the contemporary as racial capitalism and an extended coloniality). It is interesting to note that in his essay on transference, Freud, too, uses the term reparation to describe the analysand’s demand for love to be reciprocated in the analytic situation. Like the ethical imperative of the analyst then, it remains urgent to counter this reparative fantasy with a different account of love.
Is there another way to describe love other than the simple oscillation between destruction and reparation, its “primordial ambivalent coupling with hate” (Lacan, Transference 12)? I want to turn first to Seminar VIII to explore these valences. The seminar is an exhaustive reading of Plato’s Symposium and what lies at its heart, and what lies at the “heart” of analysis itself: a theory of love. As a reminder, transference in the analytic situation is love. As Freud recounts, while transference has “special characteristics,” he also states that it is “second to none” in its “genuineness” as love (“Observations” 168). In Seminar XX, Lacan reiterates the claim that love is a “hinge” for analysis and states that he will address “what serves as the linchpin of everything that has been instituted on the basis of analytic experience: love” (On Feminine 39).
In Seminar VIII, Lacan distinguishes transference from other forms of love, such as courtly love (which he claims is “of the order and function of sublimation” ). He takes the genre of the Symposium, a dialogue between Socrates and several interlocutors, to be a “sort of account of psychoanalytic sessions” (21). Lacan devotes quite a bit of attention to Alcibiades’s love for Socrates, and Socrates’s refusal to return Alcibiades’s demand for love. Like the analysand and the analyst, Lacan draws an analogy between the lover and the beloved, “eron, the loving one and eromenos, the one who is loved” (33). The important thing for Lacan is that “between these two terms [ . . . ] you should notice that there is no coinciding. What is lacking to the one is not this ‘what he has,’ hidden in the other. And this is the whole problem of love” (Transference 33). “The whole problem of love” describes the difficulty of love as precisely what unmasks, rather than papers over, what is lacking in the subject and in the other. Unlike the “fusional, amorous” (On Feminine 47) myth of the total unification of two souls that conventionally distinguishes readings of Platonic love, Lacan emphasizes the jagged, interruptive nature of the Symposium: its form telegraphs the incommensurate forms of lack that engender analysis, and that spark love, too.
This is a rather surprising reading of Plato’s text that emphasizes its constitutive plurality rather than the identification of Socrates’s voice with Plato’s. Why does Lacan devote so much time to love, the alleged domain of poets and philosophers? Why is it paramount to emphasize that amid the demand for mutual reciprocity that distinguishes love from desire, there is still a lack that animates love that is never abolished, so to speak? And how might we understand the implications of this version of love and lack for what goes beyond the romantic couple, that is, for solidarity with and among (a potential infinity of) others?
In Lacan’s view, love always reaches toward ontology because it is “addressed to the semblance of being” (On Feminine 92). Analytic love is knotted by its own impossibility, by the impossibility that is “being.” In analysis, we repeat our traumas, garnering an enjoyment from this repetition in language of the site of repression. The end of analysis, brought on by love, should involve the production of something new in and through repetition, something that is radically interruptive of homogenized pathways of enjoyment: “[T]ransference love works to disrupt that repetition, making something new possible where there had previously been just a repetition of the same old same old” (Fink 81). In Seminar VIII, Lacan equates this disruption with a “moment of tipping over, the moment of reversal where from the conjunction of desire with its object qua inadequate, there must emerge the signification which is called love” (Transference 29). In this statement of Lacan’s, love broaches the comfortable “conjunction” of desire with its unreachable object (a sustained fantasy) that structures enjoyment at the heart of repetition. This seems paradoxical on the surface—shouldn’t love itself initiate a conjunction rather than a disjunction?—but the force of Lacan’s account is to stress the opposite. Analytic love makes an intervention, through listening and questioning, that holds open the space between desire and its object, prying apart a minimal difference to reveal the structure of our desires themselves. In this way, the “reversal” Lacan points to at the tipping point of analysis is not a straightforward return to the traumatic origins of repetition. This reversal is an interruption that must arise in and through the repetition itself, an enactment of the impossibility of origins and of “being,” too. We might call this “tipping point” of analysis falling in love backward.5
Alenka Zupančič clarifies why this seeming backward leap of love is in fact the production of something unforeseen and not given in advance. What is generated in analysis is “S1, a new signifier” (125). This primal signifier is not the origin of repetition, yet it has something to do with the lack that animates us and that moves into the field of love. S1 is the “signifier whose non-being is the only thing that makes repression possible, and structurally precedes it” (126). Zupančič further emphasizes that “the new signifier, S1, does not replace this ‘hole’ with which the signifying order appears, it does not close it or do away with it; rather, it produces it (by producing its letter) as something that can work as an emancipatory weapon” (126). The emancipatory possibilities of S1 refer not simply to the subject’s freedom from repression or desire, but to the possibility of issuing a break with those well-worn channels of the unconscious.
Let us return to Lacan’s reading of the Symposium to consider how S1 might further function as an “emancipatory weapon.” As Bruce Fink puts it in his commentary on Seminar VIII, “[A]ll speech is a demand for something we are missing [ . . . ] all speech constitutes a demand for love” (68). If the analysand is first in the position of the lover and the analyst in the position of the beloved, it is the analysand who primarily speaks, and therefore utters the demand for love. Lacan’s analogy between the romantic couple and the analytic dialogue allows us to view the positions of lover and beloved—like his commentary on the positions of masculinity and femininity in sexual difference—as structural, as positions to inhabit for the dyad of the patient who speaks and the analyst who listens and questions. In the classic analytic situation, the analysand places the analyst in the position of the subject-supposed-to-know, taking up the momentary place of the objet petit a. To recap what is well-known to most readers, for Lacan, the analytic session should be made up of the speech of the analysand only. The analyst’s speech is merely to ask further questions and to puncture the analysand’s speech at specific moments in order to make their lack apparent.
The love, or transference, that arises in the analytic situation is of a very specific kind. The analyst does not reciprocate the analysand’s speech—and the lack that resides there—with their own. What the analyst should ideally provide to the analysand is a shift, the real place of the subject’s lack or the objet a. The analyst does not properly return the analysand’s desire but reflects it back to them, resulting in the emergence of the primordial signifier, or S1, which makes visible desire as the site of its own impossibility. This transformation is the grounds for an analytic love that arises out of the incommensurability of two lacks: the analysand’s, the one “who does not know that he is lacking,” and the analyst’s, the one “who does not know what he has” (Transference 33). The production of a love between “two unconscious knowledges” (On Feminine 144) is what leads to one of Lacan’s more compelling definitions: that love “is to give what one does not have.”
Giving what one does not have in the situation of transference initiates something out of nothing, properly speaking. Lacan makes many other pronouncements about love, but I want to stay with this formulation, that love is “to give what one does not have,” because it has consequences that are far-reaching. “Falling in love” with one’s analyst is a common refrain of patients (as Freud remarks in “Observations on Transference Love”),6 but I argue that in its theoretical formulation, transference love mobilizes some of the potentiality of this occurrence while going beyond its romantic or conjugal aspects. We can think of Lacan’s definition of love as having immediate quotidian effects. It could short circuit a capitalist system that folds love into its own logic, that turns around material profit and gain. Analysis untethers love from anything the subject consciously “possesses” or owns because it reorients subjectivity toward what neither the analyst nor the analysand knows: the kernel of the real or the objet a.
Giving what one does not have need not be understood as altruistic (and indeed, Lacan does not mean it to be so) to be resonant. We can begin to construct a definition of solidarity on this very basis: enacting a meaningful form of solidarity involves beginning from nothing or what Lacan, in discussing the analytic situation, calls an “almost nothing” (Transference 23). This “almost nothing” challenges perceptions of change that involves a top-down model or that takes root in a fixed origin that could be easily found. Here, psychoanalysis suggests that if social change could result from the unconscious transformations that can occur in analysis, it is by paying attention to the latter’s structure as lateral rather than vertical. Or, to put it another way, we can think of the dyad of the analyst and analysand as always traversed by something else it cannot readily incorporate or properly “know.”
Analytic love is not always curative, but it should be transformational and potentially durational: in the movement from enjoyment through repetition to the appearance of a rupture in that repetition, a different signifying path appears. As Zupančič writes, this traversal can and should initiate the new because, to put it simply, “love does something to us” (135). On this note, we may also consider the astonishing last paragraph of Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts, in which Lacan points to a further dimension of love that I will briefly take up in the next section: “The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law, where alone it might live” (276). Despite Lacan’s pronouncements about love’s unsayability, this passage also affirms love’s existence “outside the limits of the law” and the limits of language. There is always a gap and a difference in love and in the clinical situation of transference: this “absolute difference” is never closed but held open. When it appears, the subject is “in a position to subject himself” to S1: to the impossibility of being, of the Real, and of subjectivization, where transformative potential lies. Lacan further puts forth an important suggestion: that love is “limitless,” that it contains a fundamental relationship to infinity even while it is grounded in the limitations of subjective existence. This suggestion remains crucial for understanding psychoanalytic love as potentially emancipatory.
Love and the Feminine Commons
In the 1952 autobiography of anarchist, writer, and cofounder of the Catholic Worker’s Movement, Dorothy Day, an event from her past reappears often. It is the 1906 earthquake that shook San Francisco and Oakland, a 7.9 magnitude seismic catastrophe in which “the earth became a sea” (Long 21). The earthquake killed over 3000 people and destroyed much of the Bay area. Functioning very much like the primal scene of both of her autobiographies, From Union Square to Rome (1938) and The Long Loneliness (1952), the earthquake introduced the young Day to the terror of the Father, or what she describes as the “idea of God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Voice, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love” (Long 21). In her memories, the devastation also recalls the proximate illness of Day’s mother that together with “the earthquake were both part of the world’s tragedy to me” (21). Reflecting on the relationship of this traumatic childhood event to her eventual conversion to Catholicism, Day sees only the blurry outline of a religious fear of “death, of eternity,” an alchemy of fantasy and testimony in which “even as I write this I am wondering if I had these nightmares before the San Francisco earthquake or afterward” (20).
Amid the chaos of this earthquake, another feeling makes itself clear in Day’s account. Day recalls refugees pouring into Oakland from San Francisco, of her mother and neighbors “serving the homeless” (Long 21), giving all their clothing away, and providing mutual aid. “While the crisis lasted,” writes Day, “people loved each other” (From 41). Love emerges as the primary chorus throughout Day’s narrative of her tumultuous life of community activism. It is often understood through the prism of Day’s Catholicism and as an expression of a particularly Christian form of solidarity. But Day’s statement shows a comingling of intense terror of God and simultaneous ardor for people’s communal strength. If, in Day’s memories, the pressure of God’s will fragments experience on a scale often beyond repair, it is the community that picks up the pieces, shaping what was left into a new form. I therefore read Day’s statement as departing from a solely Christian view of love and bearing some relation to a psychoanalysis of love. This is because psychoanalytic love is both an event and the possibility of a new relation. Not only social but also temporal, Day’s simple declarative negates the cause of love as a command from above: it is the command’s voiding. Over and above “loving thy neighbor,”7 Day’s memory broaches the temporality of crisis with a temporality of infinity: the possibility of building solidarities in love that would cut through the crisis.
Psychoanalytic love therefore opens the space for a commons in the minimal difference it cleaves between the subject and the Other. Could this be a feminist commons? As Rebecca Wanzo writes in the pages of this journal, “[T]he more linked a community feels because of sameness, the more undifferentiated their responses” (30). She argues in favor of a “feminist scaled-solidarity” that takes as its aim the end of gendered oppression while doing the difficult work of producing varied and sometimes conflicting responses to violence and injury. Freud, too, cautioned against a model of the group that confused identification with an ego ideal—the group leader— as love. These are the kinds of social and political formations in which “all members should be loved in the same way by one person, the leader” (Group 121). Instead, psychoanalytic love links up to a vision of contemporary solidarity that would involve difference rather than the sameness of a group formed around a master. It is frequently around the “feminine” position (in Lacan’s account of sexual difference) that this difference crystallizes, because the love that breaches the law refuses the phallic function and its coordination of difference.8 While the relationship between love and the feminine position is too complex to cover here, I do want to suggest that rather than shore up a conventional account of sexual difference (and an essentialized notion of feminine care and nurture, for example), analytic love introduces the potentially radical possibilities inscribed in the feminine position, which goes beyond language and the law.
We must, however, hold in view the shortcomings of a theory of solidarity that fetishizes crisis and dispersal over collectivization. Writing about Frantz Fanon’s conceptual definition of solidarity through the radio, Ian Baucom observes of theoretical scholarship: “[L]onging to render our critical labors politically effective, we find ourselves reproducing the politics of autonomous individualism as a politics of nonautonomous individualism which may yearn for solidarity but [ . . . ] can postulate solidarity only in the most impoverished of forms, as little more than a business of being in the same place at the same time” (26). While spontaneous and important forms of solidarity can and do arise from physical proximity or nearness, psychoanalysis can, in its rigorous account of the structures and affects of relation and attachment, provide tools for theorizing solidarity based on each subject’s singularity: their irreducible uniqueness that cannot be scripted in advance. Psychoanalytic love, especially in the analytic situation of transference, can usefully point toward building affiliations across difference because it is a break that allows the world (of the subject’s desire, but also their larger social world) to potentially be reconstituted on different terms. Beginning from each subject’s singularity allows, then, for an alternative to both identity and radical nonidentification. Singularity suggests that our uniqueness and difference as subjects are often most palpable when we are confronted with likeness—“the idea of a beside yet alike” (Lacan, Ethics 51)—and the minimal forms of what we might hold in common.
Despite initially taking place in the form of a couple or a dyad, analytic love exceeds the coordinates of the one and the two: the seemingly intimate and the personal. This tension between the two and the wider social world animates one of the closing sentences of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), in which Sixo, an enslaved man on the plantation Sweet Home, recalls a woman he stole away to see night after night, the “Thirty-Mile Woman”: “[S]he is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces that I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order” (321). The temporality of Sixo’s recollection (or “rememory,” if we are to use Beloved’s own vocabulary for trauma and recollection) opens itself to a communal encounter. The infinitive “to gather” exceeds the two-person love of Sixo and the Thirty-Mile Woman to seep into the other relations of the novel, especially since the memory occurs secondhand through the first-person narration of Paul D., another formerly enslaved man from Sweet Home, who meditates on the possibility of returning to Sethe after leaving. Earlier in Morrison’s novel, it is a feminine community, specifically “30 women,” that intervenes to wrench Sethe—the formerly enslaved woman from Sweet Home who commits infanticide rather than surrender her daughter to the violence of slavery—from the brink of complete dissolution. Neither Day nor Morrison prop up a fiction of individual and social coherence (the women in Beloved don’t particularly understand Sethe, nor do they like her), nor do they pretend that complete and enduring repair is possible (“to gather” in the infinitive of Sixo’s declaration is necessarily ongoing and never finished). These visions of psychic and social gathering refuse to disavow the violent fault lines (in Day’s case, literal ones) of existence.
Across both Day’s and Morrison’s writing, then, I observe a critical horizon of love that exceeds identity, a fixed and bounded sense of one’s being. Instead, these writers reach toward the sharing of what is incommensurate and what is, unlike identity, unable to be owned or possessed. In Beloved, love must exist outside of the rubric of Atlantic slavery, whose only logic is a racialized calculation of fungible bodies and ownership. The novel shows that sometimes that kind of love—as Sethe’s act of killing her daughter demonstrates—radically breaches the contours of what passes as ethical and just. The terror of the void haunts love in these instances, as in all instances. The void—the irreducible and the unassimilable—ensures that this kind of love is not within the realm of completion or satisfaction. Because love is opposed to coherence, it holds a critical function for any solidarity project that seeks to orient around difference and singularity rather than sameness and identitarian motivations. Psychoanalytic theories of love thus complement, rather than oppose, what Black feminist theorist bell hooks, in “Love as a Practice of Freedom,” explains as a practice of love in which “to serve another I cannot see them as an object, I must see their subjecthood” (296). In both Day’s autobiographies and Morrison’s Beloved, to love is not to love from the position of comfortable charity but the opposite: to love and give when one has precisely “nothing” to offer.
Love at the Limit
I want to entertain the fact that the transformative potential of analytic love raises pessimism from all corners, including from Lacan himself, who, as is well known, vacillated between sympathy and annoyance with social movements like those of May ’68.9 But this pessimism has also been the starting point for some contemporary theorists, like Cheng, who notes that psychoanalysis’s “failures are precisely all the places that render [it] not only interesting but ethically vital to political consideration” (92). Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’s Intimacies also takes psychoanalysis’s “failures” as the site of its most radical interventions. In a set of chapters voiced first by Bersani and then Phillips, they consider how the analytic dialogue—rife as it is with contingency, and with the emergence of S1, the primordial signifier—could “put us on the path to a new relationality” (4). For Bersani in the first chapter, something he wants to call “impersonal intimacy” arises in analysis: it is an intimacy that, instead of shunning narcissism for the Other’s desire, maintains their border, and in doing so brings back Klein’s ardent belief in the ego’s destructiveness without letting this tendency master and destroy the world around it. Bersani wonders if analysis, this “talk without sex,” holds the potential for other kinds of intimate situations that might acknowledge ours and others’ violence without giving in to that violence. In Bersani’s reading of Patrice Leconte’s film Intimate Strangers (2004), analytic exchange between the film’s two main characters enacts a type of democratic intimacy between them. However, for Bersani, “this new relational mode can survive only if it is sequestered, if the world is excluded from it” (31).
Bersani’s reading is a challenge to open analytic love and psychoanalysis writ large to other consequences and possibilities. Both Bersani and Cheng take the supposed failures of psychoanalysis to be the points where it speaks most clearly to ethical problems of the contemporary. But what if we were to understand psychoanalytic love differently, as the site of praxis, of what actually works in analysis, rather than what fails? It is here that Badiou’s theory of love exerts a compelling hold. Badiou’s well-known wager, that love could be defined as “minimal communism” (90), points to a resonance between a psychoanalytic theory of love (which informs Badiou’s philosophy) and the wider question of community and social organization. In Badiou’s work, love constitutes one of the four “truth procedures” that anchor his philosophy, along with politics, mathematics, and art. Insofar as one might read love in the context of the clinic as merely the reification of the couple form, liberatory only within the clinic’s walls, for Badiou, the “scene of the two” of love opens itself to Truth. For Badiou, Truth is a fundamental reorientation to what seems to exist in the world from the perspective of difference rather than Oneness. On this note, he poses a set of questions that remain vital to a reading of love as transformative work: “[W]hat kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?” (22). Badiou takes an interest not only in the “two” of love as a site of contingency, surprise, and wonder but also as the beginning of something, as the onset of difference itself. In Badiou’s words, love is a “reinvention” of the world, and this should spell “the desire for an unknown duration” (33).
We should be careful to note that there are differences between how Lacan and Badiou might understand the relationship between love and its potential duration. For Badiou, love should involve a declaration of fidelity to its truth, a fidelity that ontologically affirms the multiplicity, rather than the oneness or univocacity, of being itself. This is a rigorously secular vision of love that is not of the order of political theology and that does not require a third term, such as God. While Lacan’s theories of love also reach toward ontology, for him, being is “collateral to its own impossibility” (Zupančič 134). Sustaining the contingency of love beyond transference is not a prospect Lacan entertains in any detailed fashion.10
I want to nevertheless suggest that between Lacan and Badiou there emerges a negative plenitude that affirms the contingency of love and its tight relationship to its “limitless” signification—in other words, to infinity. Badiou is obviously indebted to psychoanalytic love in formulating his theories of the “Scene of the two” (though this scene complicates the disjunctive “two” of Lacan’s theory of sexual difference by producing a universal truth that exceeds the coordinates of sexual difference). In turn, I read some of Lacan’s theories of love as more charged with a certain capacity for being than psychoanalysis itself might admit. The rhetorical profusion of Seminar XIII—and the concomitant “fullness” of the Symposium and Socrates’s interest in love—point in a direction that does not cancel out being for Lacan. This is the work of love in its affirmation of a negativity that is creative in a way that is impossible to fill in in advance. Rather, it introduces the real possibility that transference love might be a model for solidarities outside the clinic, and certainly outside the amorous couple.
Jean-Luc Nancy says as much in an interview on a pivotal chapter in The Inoperative Community, “Shattered Love.” Nancy’s interpretation of Lacan’s phrase, that love is “to give what you do not have,” pushes it past Lacan’s seeming pessimism and the “haunted nothingness” that suffuses many of his pronouncements about love. In the interview “Love and Community,” Nancy seeks to “underline that the impossibility of love should not be interpreted as a lack, as an originary lack, because every lack is to be filled if possible. Love means precisely to fill the emptiness with emptiness, and thus to share it.” This is one way to consider analytic love as the “sharing” of two unconscious knowledges and two subjects. The “filling up” of a shared lack is not of the order of accumulation, or of “plugging the hole,” so to speak. Nancy allows us to read lack differently, as a subtraction in being in which “there is no master figure” (“Shattered” 102).
Love is also marked by ontology for Nancy, but like the impossibility that is being-in-repetition for Lacan, “love remains absent from the heart of being” (“Shattered” 89). Stripped of any essence, “love multiplies itself to infinity, offering nothing other than its poverty of substance and of property” (102). In a striking formulation that recalls the analytic situation, Nancy further claims that love is thinking itself, which is why philosophy, despite its exhaustive treatment of love, has always fundamentally “missed” it: “[T]hinking does not produce the operators of a knowledge: it undergoes an experience, and lets the experience inscribe itself. Thought therefore essentially takes place in the reticence that lets the singular moments of this experience offer and arrange themselves” (84).
In order to think about analytic love’s capacities, we have to depart from the clinic, too: we have to think about where psychoanalysis crosses with other theories of love and what emerges from those crossings. In Seminar XX, Lacan mentions that “where there is being, infinity is required” (On Feminine 10). And yet, to quote the sixteenth-century Italian courtesan Tullia d’Aragona, “[L]ove is infinite potentially—not in actuality—for it is impossible to love with an end in sight” (84). What if we were to read the inscription of infinity in love’s ontological dimensions as formalized through solidarity, which is not bound by discourse, or by the difficult opposition between one version of love and law, that is, ethics and morality? Here, we find another way to consider Lacan’s suggestion of a “limitless love” outside of language. Rather than to endlessly try to “speak” of love, an exhausted prospect, according to Nancy, we would do better to “think” love, and thus to enact it, because “to think love would thus demand a boundless generosity toward all these possibilities, and it is this generosity that would command reticence: the generosity not to choose between loves, not to privilege, not to hierarchize, not to exclude” (“Shattered” 83).
Love must live beyond the law and thus beyond politics (which for both Badiou and Nancy must be kept rigorously separate from love). Any measure of identity circumscribed by that law runs up against the impoverishment of love (at best), or extreme violence (at worst). This is something Black feminist theory well knows. Here is poet June Jordan, discussing the thinking of love at the limit of identities under the law: “[I]t is here, in this extreme, inviolable coincidence of my status as a Black feminist [ . . . ] my status as a Black woman [ . . . ] it is here, in this extremity, that I ask, of myself, and of anyone who would call me sister, where is the love?” (270–71). I read Jordan’s question as profoundly in dialogue with the thought of love at the limit of language and all that language circumscribes in both Lacan and Nancy. Jordan reaffirms an open choice: to work with love. To see love as a kind of thinking that works and as incommensurate with other experiences—and therefore part and parcel of our singularity—is to submit its grounds to the ongoing work of solidarity. This is because solidarity demands a relationship to the infinite, a relationship by which love is also structured. This is a form of infinity that is not of the order of capitalism’s endless accumulation, but the potential for solidarity with any other person at any other time or place: the potential for an encounter to become something larger than itself and that it cannot quite know in advance.
If psychoanalysis “knows” anything, it is that psychic, material, and physical suffering cannot simply be tolerated. Yet, the present—with regards to the most intolerable of our crises, from Palestinian freedom to climate destruction—stresses such tolerance under the command of the status quo. To commit to love in the various ways I have sketched out here is to commit to something of a different order than tolerance: to bear the intolerable. To be in solidarity with those I cannot know requires me not only to imagine and strive for a different world but also to bear this one: to see it clearly, and to work, as Morrison writes, for “some kind of tomorrow” (322).
Freud writes in the essay that “the analyst must never under any circumstances accept or return the tender feelings that are offered him” (“Observations” 163).
Jacques-Alain Miller opens The Labyrinth of Love by noting: “[L]ove in psychoanalysis is called transference.”
In Seminar VIII Lacan posits that “love is a comic sentiment” (Transference 28).
I have to thank Peter Milat for supplying this phrase in conversation.
Of falling in love with one’s analyst, Freud writes that he will address the “difficulty” “partly because it occurs so often and is so important in its real aspects and partly for its theoretical interests” (“Observations” 159).
See Žižek et al. for an engagement with the political theology of the “neighbor.” I want to tentatively suggest that Day’s account of love is not within the realm of political theology, though it might initially begin there (with the fear of God).
See McNulty for a fuller analysis of “feminine love” in Badiou’s work through an engagement with Pauline Christianity. Badiou and Lacan both see the phallic function as impeding love—which aligns with feminine jouissance—but they differ in how to define “feminine” love in terms of a universal.
See Starr for an account of Lacan’s response to the student uprisings.
The difficulty, in Lacan’s view, is that love involves a movement from the repeated impossibility of being—“doesn’t stop not being written”—to its suspension, its “stops not being written.” It is this “stops not being written” that runs the risk of foreclosing the “absolute difference” of love over time rather than holding it open.