michael j. morris


partial notes on love
25 April, 2014, 6:04 pm
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This piece of writing began as journaling, partially in response to having read and re-read Judith Butler’s article “Responses: Performative Reflections on Love and Commitment” (Women’s Studies Quarterly 39, No. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2011), 236-239) this week, partially as a part of my ongoing pursuit of the question, “what is love?” which continues to be situated within the context of my living experiences of loving and being loved. These are rambling thoughts and questions, but they are the start of something that feels worth sharing.

To say “I love you” is to position myself within a particular speech act, a performative with a history of enunciation—a history both personal and in excess of my person—and to bring that history of enunciation to bear on and with/in the present situation in which that declaration is made. It positions the present in relation to that history of enunciation, bringing something of that history into the present, and directing the force of that performative history—the history of “I love you” having been said—into a present constitution of myself, to the degree that something of myself is within what I say.

But to offer this phrase, to say “I love you,” is also to add to this history of enunciation. The occasion on which I am moved to say “I love you” is also it seems to pose a question to this speech act: what of this present situation moves me to say “I love you,” and, having been moved to do so, what of this situation and movement illuminates something of what it is that I mean when I say these words? Indeed, since to say “I love you” positions myself and another as “I” and “you” in a manner of direct address, positions that might be assumed by any number of subjects, the present situation of enunciation might also be an occasion on which to ask why one—not only myself—might be moved to say these words.

To say “I love you,” to identify something that I recognize between you and I as “love,” raises more questions, questions that may not be answerable in the end:
What of this is “love”?
How might my recognition of this as love say something of what I believe or understand love to be?
In that this moment and the perspective it provides can be called new—a new that belongs to now and never before—and in that sense cannot be fully identical to any other occasion on which I have said “I love you”—or on which “I love you” has been said—or on which I have recognized something as love, how might this present present an amendment or modification of what I understand love to be?
More broadly, to the degree that all recognition is only partial recognition, because it relies upon a structure of time in which the present cannot be identical to the memories on which recognition is founded, recognition requires a partial revision of the memory of what came before. For instance, if I have come to recognize same-sex marriage as marriage, I have necessarily revised a certain previous [normative] understanding of what it meant to marry. Even in interpersonal situations, if I recognize you as my parent or sibling, I must in a partial sense overwrite or add to my existing memory of who you have been with who I now see you to be.

Questions about love have led the to questions about time and recognition, memory and language, the ways in which they structure and produce meaning…
Is there a way of thinking the meaning of love outside of these terms? I don’t think so.

So then, to love, or to recognize and identify an experience as love, involves a partial recognition that requires a revision of the terms through which that recognition was extended. To love—in the present and ongoingly—is to add to and in that sense revise some part of what love has meant and what makes love recognizable. Love then must remain open, at least in part, to such revision.

Does speaking in terms of recognition imply the possibility of mis-recognition? And if so, if to love or to call something love—as in the act of saying “I love you”—depends upon a process of recognition, then does it—must it—become necessary to inquire after the possibility of mis-recognizing or mis-identifying love? It seems that it is possible, looking back, to say, “I thought that was love, but I was wrong.”

To mis-recognize love would be to first recognize or believe oneself to recognize love, and then, afterwards, to realize that recognition to be somehow mistaken. But if recognition of love always involves some revision of the terms by which life is recognizable, then even in the case of what might become known as mis-recognition, such a revision of terms must have already taken place. What one might eventually come to no longer recognize as love will have already been added to what one has recognized as love; by what process would one undo such a revision of the terms by which love might be recognized after realizing one’s own mis-recognition?

Or: is it possible that love itself consists of this recognition, such that even when one might say, “I thought that was love, but I was wrong,” this does not negate, erase, or undo that initial recognition, which could then be said to have-been-love while no longer being recognized as love? Is it possible that what one might come to recognize as “not love” might continue to “have been love” if love is in part the experience of recognizing it as such?

Within these questions is also the question or concern regarding the reliability of the memories by which love comes to be recognized: when and how has one known or recognized love? What is the composition or consistency of how one has known love or what has been recognized as love? What were the conditions under which love was first or previously known, and how do those conditions structure what might or must then be recognized as love?

If to love in the present requires that love remain partially open to revision, its correspondence to some previous experience requires that some parts of love remain consistent and made to persist. These stable or consistent parts of what has been known as love, that must persist in order for one to love, to go on loving and recognizing love, are likely highly individual—an individuality that gets obscured as soon as we call it “love,” a term which one neither invents nor to which one has exclusive access or use—and these individual, personal associations with what has been known as love constrain what love can then be.

The previous scenes, situations, and conditions in and through which one has known love must persist in order both for one to recognize love, and for one to retain a sense of having loved and been loved. They must persist in order to enable a possible future for love as well as a retention of a certain version of oneself, a self who has known love. These previous scenes and situations, the characteristics and experiences which one has previously known as love, must be reinscribed, recreated, and reconstituted in the present, in order to recognize this as love, and in order to recognize oneself as loving and being loved, and having loved and having been loved. This means that love requires the individual to reconstitute the past in the present, at least in part, enough so that the present might be called “love.” Where love has previously meant care and affection and support, for instance, this means that care and affection and support must be recreated and made to persist in the present. This also means that where love has meant injury or abuse, where injury or abuse have been previous recognized and identified as love, these conditions must also be recreated and made to persist. For the one who has experienced injury or abuse, and had these experiences called “love,” this one must insist—consciously or unconsciously—on recreating these scenes and conditions in order to go on experiencing what can be called love and in order to maintain a memory of having been loved and the possibility of being loved again. To do otherwise would risk revising one’s own history, one’s own constitution: it would allow for the possibility that one has not known love, that one has been unloved. To do so would mean that one does not know if one can be loved, or how one might recognize love otherwise.

But, again, if love must always remain partially open to revision, then love also becomes a situation in which histories of injury and abuse can be revised: not an erasure of having been, but an amendment of that having been love. This is some of the potential of love perhaps: its necessary partial openness allows that loving in the present might be how we rediscover what love can be, recognize when and how we have not loved or have not been loved, and intervene in patterns of behavior through which we insist on the persistence of injury and abuse in order to secure love. And possibly to heal.
This potential is not the entirety of love, as if one could speak of love’s entirety. While love might be an opportunity to address or revise one’s relation to one’s own past, it is of course also an opportunity to create what might become in one’s future. What we recognize as love in the present conditions what we might then recognize as love in the future. There are any number of ways through which love might be recognized, many of which do not require declaration. But to return to where I began, saying “I love you,” whatever else it might do, could provide an opportunity for intervening in what is recognized as love, what has been recognized as love, and what might then become recognizable as love.

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