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  • Christopher Clarke

All About Love

Writer and social critic Bell Hooks posing for a photo on December 16, 1996

In her 1999 book All About Love, the esteemed scholar, cultural critic, and feminist bell hooks challenges our cultural view of love as romance. Alternatively, hooks attempts to devise a love-entrenched solution for the lovelessness within our culture. The text can be generally understood as an exploration of the question “What is love?” consisting of thirteen succinct chapters through which hooks explores her own search for love in a culture that is systematically rooted in lovelessness. Ultimately, hooks opposes the “cultural paradigm” that makes love, sex and desire synonymous; instead, she proposes a paradigm shift—she offers us a different way to approach and view love—one that is ultimately restorative, sacred, and healing for the reader.

In the preface, hooks asserts, “I feel our nation’s turning away from love as intensely as I felt love’s abandonment in my girlhood.” Throughout the first few chapters, hooks explores the impact that “love’s abandonment” had on her psyche as a young person. Like many children, hooks’ childhood was imperfect and disorienting—she explains that her parents proclaimed their love for her, even as they acted in a manner that directly opposed their assertion. Moreover, at the beginning of chapter two, hooks interrogates and explores her experience as a young girl growing up in a loveless home. “It’s our original school of love,” writes hooks, referring to our childhood homes. Whether our childhood homes are joyous or troubled, our families functional or not, our homes are where we are first taught how to love. So, how are our ideas of love impacted when love is conflated with abuse? For hooks, she writes that the loss of love in her childhood created a deep longing in her being to find love again. For hooks, the absence of love allowed her to understand its qualities and importance—its ability to liberate the soul: “The communion in love our soul seeks is the most heroic and divine quest any human can take.”

But, how can we find fulfilling love when the cultural paradigm conflates sex and desire with love? For hooks, the answer resides in a conscious shift—individually and culturally—in the way we think about love:

To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.

This definition of love is significantly different from our cultural understanding. hooks’ definition emphasizes the importance of viewing love as a verb; comparatively, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary suggests, first, that love is a noun: “An intense feeling of deep affection.” As hooks explains, this widespread cultural definition of love is problematic. This idea of love emphasizes the lack of autonomy possessed by the individual; consequently, we deduce that love is merely some uncontrollable feeling that our brains produce. Popular phrases within the culture, such as “We can’t choose who we love” are a product of our misconception of love.

As hooks explains, this popular conception of love is in actuality, merely a feeling of cathexis. Cathexis describes the initial investment of feelings or emotions in another person. Alternatively, hooks’ love refers to a continual commitment to care between two individuals; hence, it becomes a verb. Verbalizing love emphasizes that love is “an act of will, both an intention and an action.”

But, why does hooks’ distinction between love and cathexis matter? Simply put, hooks’ conception emphasizes how love is antithetical to violence, domination, power, control, etc. In other words, the verbalization of love does not allow us to claim love even as we act in opposition to it.

In the text, hooks primarily focuses on the impact of power structures—patriarchy, capitalism, etc.—on heterosexual relationships. As we have already established, these power structures are rooted in lovelessness—love is antithetical to power and domination. Consequently, there is a struggle amongst heterosexuals who are desperately attempting to navigate their relationships with power and love. In order to find love, we must relinquish our desire for power:

Awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination . Culturally, all spheres of American life-politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relations should and could have as their foundation a love ethic. The underlying values of a culture and its ethics shape and inform the way we speak and act. A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.


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