Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, and the Politics of Love

Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18BbQJ3rY6Mq0U/input 760730PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918760730Political Research QuarterlyButorac
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 710 –721
Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, and the
© 2018 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
Politics of Love
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918760730
Sean Kim Butorac1
Does love have a place in the inherently conflictual realm of democratic politics, particularly in a racialized democracy?
This article engages the question of love’s politics by way of Hannah Arendt’s critique of James Baldwin’s “Letter from
a Region in My Mind.” Troubled by his “gospel of love,” Arendt wrote to Baldwin, warning him that in politics, love will
achieve nothing “except hypocrisy.” Contra Arendt, who argues that love is antipolitical, I show how Baldwin utilizes
love to reclaim the lost promise of American democracy. Synthesizing Baldwin’s essays published between 1955–1972,
my argument proceeds in two parts: part 1 focuses on the psychological and embodied demands of love, which, for
Baldwin, are vital in transforming the consciousness of white and black Americans. Part 2 focuses on Baldwin’s critique
of property, linking the project of self-transformation to the need for structural transformation. I show how love
enables us to condemn the exploitative logic of capitalism and imagine new modes of relationality. In charting this
underexplored point of contact between these thinkers, this article complicates Arendt’s critique of love and sheds
new light on the role of love in Baldwin’s political thought.
Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, race, love, democracy
In observation of the fiftieth anniversary of James
Yancy was met with death threats, not love, his labors
Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a group of intellectuals
reveal the vulnerability that love demands and that whites
and activists published a collection of essays titled The
continue to evade. Likewise, Utz McKnight has framed
Fire This Time. Reflecting on the legacy of Baldwin’s
white indifference toward black suffering as a deficit of
political thought and the ongoing struggles of black
love, posing the question, “Where is the love that you
Americans, the essays testify to both Baldwin’s percep-
promised?” Reflecting on the unfulfilled promises of the
tiveness and the enduring mutability of white supremacy.
Civil Rights Era, McKnight argues, “The value of Blacks
Yet few essays referenced Baldwin on love, and perhaps
in America is measured by how much Whites need them.
this is justifiable in a moment marked by uncertainty and
Once they don’t care, Black people are no longer neces-
hatred. Indeed, the tone-deafness of calls for “love not
sary. We remain a problem for the society” (McKnight
hate” and platitudes like “love always wins,” which belie
2014). For both Yancy and McKnight, love remains a cor-
the terror of our political moment ought to give us pause.
rective to white supremacy, demanding both psychologi-
Yet the conspicuously absent discussion of Baldwin on
cal and structural transformation.
love, as well as the dissonance of these invocations, pose
Nor is it incidental that the language of “Black Lives
the question: does love have a place in the inherently con-
Matter” originated in a “love letter” to black Americans.
flictual realm of democratic politics, particularly in a
Alicia Garza, a cofounder of the network, has repeat-
democracy wrought by the public resurgence of a white
edly proclaimed, “Our movement is one grounded in
supremacist order?
love” (Fusion 2016). On Garza’s account, love is inte-
Although love is fraught ground, black scholars and
gral to both the organizational network and the move-
activists are already moving the public discourse in a
ment at large, and this commitment is reflected in the
more thoughtful direction. Speaking to “White America”
network platform’s call for “loving engagement”
as a child of “Socrates, James Baldwin, and Audre
Lorde,” George Yancy has demanded, “I want you to lis-
1University of Washington, Seattle, USA
ten with love. Well, at least try.” Drawing on Baldwin,
Corresponding Author:
Yancy (2015) maintains that only black Americans can
Sean Kim Butorac, Department of Political Science, University of
“help you to see yourself in ways that you have not seen
Washington, Gowen Hall, Box 353530, Seattle, WA 98105, USA.
before,” and the price of that ticket is love. Although
Email: sbutorac@uw.edu

(Garza, Cullors, and Tometi 2016). For these activists,
Love and the Problem of Plurality
love connotes a way of being and acting in the world
that prepares one for the conflict that is not only essen-
Arendt’s critique of love centers on the concept of plural-
tial to undoing white supremacy but endemic to demo-
ity, with its “twofold character of equality and distinc-
cratic politics.
tion.” For Arendt (1958, 175–76), plurality both relates
In the hope of reorienting us toward Baldwin on
and distinguishes us—we are united by our shared
love, this article revisits Hannah Arendt’s twofold cri-
humanity, yet each human represents a set of unique
tique of neighborly love and intimate love, which she
leveled against Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in my
Mind.” In a 1962 letter, Arendt responded to Baldwin’s
If men were not equal, they could neither understand each
other and those who came before them nor plan for the
essay, which appeared in The New Yorker and later
future and foresee the needs of those who will come after
composed much of The Fire Next Time. In that essay,
them. If men were not distinct, each human being
Baldwin (1998, 347) confronted “America’s racial
distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be,
nightmare,” insisting that “the relatively conscious
they would need neither speech nor action to make
whites and the relatively conscious blacks . . . must,
themselves understood.
like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the
others.” Arendt (1962), troubled by Baldwin’s “gospel
Corresponding to this twofold character of plurality,
of love,” wrote, “In politics, love is a stranger, and
Arendt’s critique of love is twofold in its concern with the
when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved
antipolitical effects of neighborly love and intimate love.
except hypocrisy.” This hypocrisy arises from the anti-
This critique of neighborly love first appears in Arendt’s
political effects of neighborly love, which suppresses
dissertation on St. Augustine, while her concerns regard-
our uniqueness, as well as intimate love, which pre-
ing intimate love appear in The Human Condition. The
vents us from forming relationships of equality. For
trouble with neighborly love is that it absolves humans of
Arendt, who regards plurality as the condition of action,
the characteristics that make distinction possible, while
and therefore the precondition of freedom, love evis-
the intrusion of intimate love into the public realm pre-
cerates the very possibility of politics. Love must
vents us from maintaining relationships of equality. Love
remain private, Arendt (1958, 242) argues, or it will
threatens both elements of plurality and, therefore, the
become “not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps
very possibility of politics.
the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.”
In her dissertation, Arendt argues that neighborly love,
Yet in his essays published between 1955 and 1972,
or caritas, is antipolitical because it sublimates our
Baldwin repeatedly invokes love in ways that preserve,
uniqueness, that dimension of plurality that distinguishes
rather than sublimate, plurality, complicating Arendt’s
us. Caritas requires that one loves their neighbor with a
critique. In what follows, I first outline Arendt’s cri-
“sublime indifference of what or who he is” (Arendt
tique of neighborly love and intimate love, then turn to
1996, 43). Contra Arendt, who names plurality as the
Baldwin’s essays. My reading proceeds into two parts:
condition of action, and therefore the precondition of
freedom, caritas sublimates our uniqueness. In emulating
part 1 focuses on the psychological and embodied
God’s unconditional love, caritas disavows the signifi-
dimensions of love. Baldwin, I argue, diagnoses white-
cance of our uniqueness in public life:
ness as a condition of lovelessness, drawing together
both the psychological and embodied effects of racial
Now he loves and hates as God does. By renouncing himself
innocence, and also conceives of love as a tactic of
man at the same time renounces all worldly relations . . . In
survival and resistance for black Americans, charting a
this way the neighbor loses the meaning of his concrete
path toward self-transformation. Part 2 links the proj-
worldly existence, for example, as a friend or enemy. (Arendt
ect of self-transformation—love’s psychological and
1996, 94)
embodied demands—to the need for structural trans-
formation. Here, I link love to Baldwin’s critique of
Man and neighbor become untethered from the character-
property, showing how love enables us to condemn the
istics that distinguish and relate them in public life, losing
exploitative logic of capitalist social relations and
all sense of their uniqueness. For Arendt, who refuted the
imagine new modes of relationality. In...

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