Does Love Have a Politics?

By Lida MaxwellFebruary 24, 2016

Does Love Have a Politics?
IF FRIENDSHIP pulls us into the world, love tends to pull us out of it. We socialize with friends in public and semipublic settings, while love seems to demand that the world be kept at bay. In love, we focus, in a kind of tunnel vision, on the one who has become the beloved — taking in, even devouring, every detail of their person and life.

This “worldlessness” of love, in Hannah Arendt’s words, has led thinkers like Arendt and Michael Warner to cast love as antipolitical. Love, Arendt says in The Human Condition, “is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public.” Arendt does not mean that people in love cannot be in public, but rather that the attempt to bring love’s power to bear on politics (in public) kills the unique and intimate experience that is love.

For Warner, bringing love into politics — as gay marriage advocates do when they argue that the government does not have the right to legislate love — is bad both for love and for politics, and, in particular, for queer politics. Warner argues in his now-landmark 1999 book, The Trouble with Normal, that “this notion of pure love” as “beyond criticism and beyond the judgments of law” is a kind of ideology that queers (and their allies) consume to their detriment. Attachment to “pure love” ideology — which is opposed in Warner’s work to other modes of intimacy that are more communal and less oriented around a single object — orients queers to demand as rightfully theirs, too, the package of benefits and social legitimacy contained in marriage. And this package discriminates, Warner claims, against those who cannot (by choice, taste, or necessity) have their “love” legitimated in marriage. Yet also and in a more directly Arendtian vein, Warner suggests that focusing queer political energies on the intimate experience of love obscures the public forms of queer culture and life that have given many of our lives (and loves) meaning, or what Warner calls “the world-making project of queer life.” Marriage, he says, “privatizes our image of belonging.” To turn love into a political justification for marriage diminishes the importance of, and may also crush, the queer common life on which queer love depends.

If politicizing love hurts love and politics both, does that mean that love does not have a politics? The story told in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and in Todd Haynes’s gorgeously acted filmic version, Carol — a story about an older woman (Carol) and a younger woman (Therese) falling in love — seems, at first glance, to present love as essentially beyond or outside of politics, and especially beyond queer politics. We never, for example, hear the words “lesbian,” “homosexual,” or “gay.” The story of Carol and Therese’s love, in other words, is not the story of their identity, or at least not their identity as established by whom they love. As Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel for the film, puts it (quoted in an article by Frank Rich), the “two central figures” don’t “giv[e] a rat’s ass about sexual identity. No one frets about being gay; others fret on their behalf.”

Several reviewers frame the love in Carol in precisely this way. In his perceptive review in The New Yorker, for example, Anthony Lane rightly locates love at the center of Carol (“Todd Haynes was in the mood for love”) but barely discusses the fact that this love is between two women, except to note that in the 1950s this means that we are confronted with “the basic thwarting without which romance cannot flower into drama.” Similarly, Francine Prose’s review in The New York Review of Books is entitled “Love Is the Plot.” When love is the center of the story, then politics is not. Prose says that while Carol has to sacrifice her daughter in the movie in order to be with Therese, “one can imagine a contemporary judge awarding Rindy to the two loving moms [of their race and class] rather than the bullying, homophobic Harge.” Both Prose and Lane say that, today, their relationship would be nothing shocking or, really, very interesting at all. As Prose says, “the idea of a lesbian relationship no longer seems aberrant or exotic.” Similarly, Lane says, “if Haynes had updated ‘The Price of Salt’ to the present, our response would have been: big deal. Trade your straight marriage for a same-sex relationship, these days, and you will be hailed for your emotional honesty.” Or as Richard Brody puts it in his New Yorker review, “The political essence of “Carol” is that it shouldn’t take any greater measure of courage or heroism for two women or two men to pursue their romance than it would take a heterosexual couple in similar circumstances.”

For these reviewers, the politics of Carol is that Carol and Therese’s love should never have been political — and only was so by virtue of a mistaken prohibition — and certainly nothing to get all heated up about (perhaps this is why both Lane and Prose wish in different moments of their reviews that Carol had been just a bit more dramatic — either with sex or violence).

While this reading of Carol is tempting, I think that we should resist the impulse to read the contemporary (gay marriage) politics of the loving couple into Carol. There is a politics of love in the movie — but not that one. Rather, Carol offers its viewers a dissident politics of love between women that alerts us to how love may not just be a privately, but also a publicly, transformative experience. In Carol, the shocking novelty and penetrating intensity of love unsettles dominant social scripts of love — thrusting Carol and Therese out of familiar roles, and opening up new ways of being … maybe … free. To put the point differently, this love story is a story of how love transforms individuals, not about how something in those individuals predisposes them to certain kinds of loves. Love in Carol is not a trait of identity that could have political implications, but an experimental practice of transfiguration.

These transformations are in play from the beginning of Carol’s central relationship. Before Therese really knows that she might love or be attracted to Carol, their intense first encounter in Frankenberg’s leads her to break with gender norms. Rather than turning in Carol’s gloves (which, in the movie, she leaves at the store) to her boss or a male employee, Therese returns them to Carol, herself. When Carol discovers who sent them back, she is surprised because she assumed that a man had done it. After this, both take turns initiating further meetings in ways that do not conform to norms of female comportment, even in the context of friendship. For example, Carol asks Therese to lunch to thank her for returning the gloves and then, at the restaurant, tells Therese that she should “invite her round.” Of course, the major break with gender and friendship norms is Carol’s invitation to Therese to join her on an open-ended road trip. Such an invitation does not conform to norms of female friendship in the 1950s (although it does co-opt the genre of the “buddy film,” where two men take to the road and discover themselves), nor does it conform to norms of heterosexual romance, again especially in the 1950s (when a man and woman who had just met would likely not have hit the road together).

What are Therese and Carol doing? Most likely, they don’t know. As John Thomason notes in his excellent discussion of Carol’s nonnormative aesthetics, Carol and Therese “do not have access to existing labels or categories, but they also do not desire them.” Rather, they’re making it up as they go along. This creativity in their relationship — or, as Todd Haynes says in a recent interview, “[t]he utter unrepresentability, the just unimagined notions of what love between women might look like and how it might be explored” — is part of what makes the film so exciting. Unlike most other love stories we’ve read or seen, this one is not following or departing from an already existing script. There is no script.

Of course, in addition to norms of female friendship, there was one possible script that Carol and Therese’s relationship could have followed: the script of the mother/daughter relationship, of maternal love. And this is the possibility that most seems to haunt and threaten their love at different points. In the movie, Therese (who is of course quite a bit younger than Carol) resembles Carol’s daughter, Rindy, who is the subject of a custody dispute between Carol and her husband, Harge. In the book, the resemblance is depicted not through physical similarity but through portraying Therese as sometimes child-like. For example, when Carol first meets Therese in the book, her knee is bandaged, and then, later in the book, Carol looks at a picture of her daughter where her knee is similarly bandaged. Carol also often seems to want to treat Therese like a daughter — or, at least, to not know how else to treat her. When Therese first comes to her house in the movie, Carol asks Therese to decorate her Christmas tree along with Rindy — assimilating Therese into the family scene as another kind of daughter. (In the book, in a deliciously perverse scene, Carol instead gives Therese some warm milk and tries to put her down for a nap.) Carol also tries to “mother” Therese by buying her expensive gifts (like a camera) and generally telling her what to do.

In the movie, Therese and Carol struggle to find a way to love each other that is not dominated by some form of maternal love. It is only when Therese finally starts to initiate intimacy with Carol — especially by grasping Carol’s hand on New Year’s Eve, saying “I’m always alone on New Year’s Eve. But I’m not alone this year, am I?” — that Carol is finally able to initiate sex with Therese. But after this moment, they revert to an unequal relationship — with Carol taking the maternal role in comforting a sobbing Therese in the car after they realize that Harge has had a PI follow them and make recordings of them.

In the end, the only way that they finally overcome the specter of maternal love is for Carol to actually give up being a mother. When Carol decides that she will not fight for custody of Rindy (and will be content only with visits), she seems to be freed of the need to mother in general. At the end of the movie, when Therese decides that she will at least meet up with Carol — and perhaps move in with her — Carol looks at Therese in a new way, a way that she has never looked at her before, not as a friend or a mother but as one woman in love with another woman. This spectacular look (with which the movie ends), directed straight into the camera and performed to perfection by Cate Blanchett, appears to the viewer as totally and marvelously new, as a look that perhaps she has never given anyone before in her life — a look, we might say, of love.

The freedom from the script of maternal love that allows for this spontaneous look, for this perhaps novel form of life that we in the audience guess that Therese and Carol may create with each other, offers a subtle critique of contemporary queer women. Many lesbians and queer women find themselves today within a love couple, and oriented toward the role of mother(s). Whether they are trying to get pregnant, or failing to do so, or contemplating adoption, or having children, or considering whether or not to do so, I think it is fair to say that the project of having children, of becoming mothers, dominates many (although not all) contemporary queer women’s lives as much as (or more than) it does their straight counterparts, especially in a certain life stage. Such an orientation to the private life of the family — even when discussed, fought for, and mediated in public — exercises (as Warner says) a depoliticizing, privatizing influence on queer life. Far from the queer publics of experimentation (especially around relationships and sex) that Warner writes about, we find ourselves in queer families, and in publics oriented around private family/ies. This raises questions similar to the one that Sarah Schulman asks late in The Gentrification of the Mind: when queer women pour all their energy into families, do they close themselves off to public (creative and political) lives?

Warner’s work suggests that looking to love to regenerate queer public life would likely be a mistake — one that simply pushes us further into the private sphere. Yet can’t love, like sex, be queer? It certainly is in Carol. Carol and Therese’s love is not — as Lane and Prose suggested — an instance of a universal form of love. When Therese asks her boyfriend Richard whether a boy can fall in love with another boy (and, in the book, whether a girl can fall in love with another girl), she is not questioning the bounds of love — that is, whether the love between men and women could extend to relationships between women. Rather, she is asking whether a different kind of love, and perhaps a different way of being a woman and a lover, is possible. And it turns out that, with Carol, it is. The critique of contemporary queer women thus also gives way to possibility: love can transform, and not just undermine, our public roles and lives. The pursuit of maternal love can draw us into the private, but love (and perhaps even an alternative form of maternal love) can draw us back out.

In the end, what Carol shows us is that there is no such thing as universal love. It shows us that the idea that “love is love,” as President Obama put it after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, actually exercises a deadening influence on what love, and especially queer love, can do to us — politically. To presume that love is universal, or that love in public only generates a problematic ideology, presumes that love is either private or domesticating. To recognize instead, with Carol, that love can be queer — that this supposedly private experience can set us off at an angle, to possibly create new public worlds and roles — is to realize that love may undo and reconstitute our public (not just private) selves. Love can (in the immortal words of Joy Division) tear us apart, in politically generative ways. Let us not forget, after all, that the last scene of Carol is in public. Carol’s look of love, offered to Therese across the crowded restaurant, is no longer the tunnel vision of intimate love but on display for everyone to see. What happens next? We don’t know, but in that look we see the beginning of a public world that might nourish, if also risk, an as yet unscripted love.


Lida Maxwell is Associate Professor of Political Science at Trinity College. She is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes (Oxford UP, 2014), and is currently writing a book on the politics of truth-telling.

LARB Contributor

Lida Maxwell is associate professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling (Oxford, 2019) and the co-author of The Right to Have Rights (Verso, 2018). Right now, she is writing and thinking about democratic, queer, feminist, and environmental theory, and working on a new project on Rachel Carson.


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