11/26/2014 10:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Subversive Act of the Love Story


Heloise & Abelard

In an age of austere, calculated reason, absurd bureaucracy and dehumanizing exploitation, the love story might just be the ultimate subversive act.

Sometimes I begin my classes with the question: "If you were Queen or King of the universe, what would you NOT want your subjects to think?" And, in the end, if you want to maintain your absolute power over all, you don't want your subjects to know that your power is contingent -- that somehow you can be over thrown [throne]. A good exercise I encourage my students to think is how the reigning power-elite prevent us from thinking about their own contingency.

So, to tweak my question a bit we might ask, "How do the ruling power-elites shape our thoughts, beliefs and actions in ways that we cannot even think about their power as fragile or contingent?" Or, to put it in an even more poignant way: What can we not think or do?

To put things in these terms we have arrived at a central motif in psychoanalysis: The Super-Ego. The Super-Ego is basically the parental or social law that you adapt and internalize, which greatly influences what you think and do from what you can't think and do.


From Astra Taylor's film, Zizek!

Thou shalt not think or do x, y or z. We, as "subjects" of the reigning elites, are conditioned not to think, and to even enjoy our enslavement, or what, Slavoj Zizek calls the "super-ego injunction." This injunction means that we have a duty to satisfy our immediate pleasures of consuming and being good citizens.

And if we fail to live up to this duty of unquestionable consumption, we are guilty. Thus the act of thinking critically and democratically already declares us guilty of not doing our duty to enjoy our thoughtless even fascistic consumption. Think of George Bush's command to get out there and buy things in the wake of 9/11 that is, to enjoy our super-ego injunction and thereby enjoy our enslavement to unthinking consumption.


And what a brilliant way to destroy democracy: to get citizens to feel guilty about thinking democratically and in relationship to others as in a community or in solidarity for something higher than satisfying ourselves. I think this too explains why any thinking beyond the cliché binary categories (capitalism/communism, Republican/Democrats, national security/freedom etc.) is dismissed immediately as being guilty of not enjoying our enslaved symptom. We are told to "Get in line and stop thinking." And now you can see, given our limited compressed capitalist time, that we are forced to rely on the corporate media to give us "reality" in overly simplistic, even insulting terms.


But what act could we commit ourselves to that would break with this reigning ideological propaganda machine? I submit to you the love story.

Isn't the love story precisely that which gives us the coordinates to break the law of the super-ego injunction? And, of course, I'm not talking about the sentimental "Hollywood" love stories in which love is finally consummated in the act of reproducing (not life) but of the same American dream of suburban zombie "life" in which all great ideas are abandoned.

Think of the "love potion" wrongly administered in Tristan and Isolde. Or Romeo and Juliet who come from feuding families, but these "star-crossed" lovers give way to cupid's powers that ends in their tragic deaths. Then who can forget the tragic love of two medieval theologians, Holoise and Abelard? Abelard, a brilliant theologian at Notre Dame, Paris and his student, Heloise matched him in wit and intelligence. When she becomes pregnant a scandal ensues. They are tricked by the Cannon of Notre Dame, Fulbert and Abelard is castrated and crushed. They both take Holy Orders and live out their love immortalized in the most touching and passionate love letters ever written.

These letters are a language of subversion.

Of course, a love story isn't just confined to two people; a love story, at its most fundamental level, is about the creation of a new reality of hope beyond the despair of isolation. That is why the ultimate love story includes all of us together devoted to a common life.

The love story tells the tale of a great risk that we take despite, and even because, we have been trained to be good law-abiding citizens. We should never take a risk of love, so the super-ego tells us, because it's irresponsible and will condemn us to the guilt of not fulfilling our duty to blindly obey through consuming empty materialist things. In fact, the only ones authorized to take such irrational risks are the one's in power, (the Iraq war, the Wall Street financial debacle in which too much risk was allotted to speculative investment and so on).


And who, may I ask, ends up being even more enslaved by their irrational risks? We do! And yet their risks aren't even for the good of society but to make the rich richer and meanwhile we become even more isolated in the grip of economic fear.

Take for example this quote from Gloria E Anzaldúa that perfectly highlights my point about never taking risks: "Nobody's going to save you. No one's going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one's going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed. There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself." Neoliberalism only births despair, depression, and isolation placing on you the guilt of not doing it yourself, John Wayne style.

But suppose the love story provides us with a way to risk for the sake of that which gives life the possibility of meaning. To risk living a life worth living, we may have to risk everything we have (to risk violating the law of super-ego) and, in midst of that treasonous act of risking, we may just find a new life together.


Students and the community march in Athens

As I'm writing this, I was informed that the renowned philosopher, Prof. Roy Bhaskar died. And so I will leave you with his profound words, which nicely suggests that the love story that we all share is commonly cosmic. "It is not that there are the starry heavens above and the moral law within, as Kant would have it; rather, the true basis of your virtuous existence is the fact that the starry heavens are within you, and you are within them."