Last week, I watched John Jackson give a very moving talk as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Signature Program at Penn, with Philadelphia’s only black-owned talk radio station, WURD, recording the talk. He began by reading from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and for the record, I would pay good money to have an audio recording of that book with Jackson doing the voice over – the entire room was immediately committed to hearing Jackson’s talk.
I found the talk so moving because it was about love, and specifically about love as a form of political action. One of Jackson’s key themes related to the tendency, even or especially in the context of social justice, for academics to be abstract and activists to be angry. Regarding the former, academic training requires and celebrates the ability to analyze and re-articulate, which at its best can be an important exercise in situating lived experience in a larger context or history. At its worst, though, academic language strips concrete experiences of their materiality, vitality and even their violence, doing a disservice to the people whose experiences we’re analyzing. As Jackson noted, even if race is a social construct, that doesn’t mean there aren’t real physical, legal and monetary consequences for being a person of color. If academics tend towards abstraction, activists can tend towards anger, which is understandable when the gaps of power are stark, resources are few and real acts of state violence happen every day. Yet it is both braver and more necessary to be willing to love, where Jackson cited Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone who recognized “love as a way of scaffolding what community can be.”
I have noticed a range of writers increasingly turning to love as a form of politics, from Jennifer Nash using love as an important antidote to divisive identity politics to Lisa Henderson talking about queer friendship and love as a powerful form of legibility and solidarity. Even Hardt and Negri conclude Multitude with the demand that love anchor new forms of democracy. When I read these arguments, I often find myself responding with a queasy kind of skepticism, a discomfort that is partly, I think, about the divide between how academics write (abstractly) and what they are writing about (love and hope). This tension is precisely what Jackson was identifying in his talk, and I agree with his claims that it’s crucial to be able to talk about love as part of daily life, for love to be inclusive and something that is felt rather than abstracted. When I think of how love has shaped my politics, it is primarily through a lens of anger – anger that certain forms of love have long been recognized as invalid, but also (if I’m honest) angry that the people I love should immediately be politicized, and angry at the way other queer folk can demand intimacy with me because of a shared subject position. Sometimes these responses of anger about love have been politically productive, getting me to organize or participate in actions and protests. But I think that Jackson’s argument is that in its capacity for community building and dialogue, love is much more powerful when coupled with joy rather than anger. One of Jackson’s closing lines was the commitment that, “in any space I am, I want to be the most generous person in the room … I want to be the most loved-filled person in the room.” A difficult challenge, to be sure – but I found myself thinking about how much activist work as much as my academic work would be different if I approached more spaces this way, with a commitment to love as a feeling, and moreover, love as a feeling that can render people more visible, that can scaffold community and that can be radical in its joyfulness.
Jessa Lingel, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania