This Intimacy: Love, Language, Democracy


Twentieth Century, Columbia Pictures, 1934

by Cornelia Barber

How do I write to you? The relationship between what language can do and what love does, not its possibility, but its doing, is so thin yet raw and complex. The possibility of language is always shifting, digressing, switching meanings, accumulating sentiment, manifesting failure. Love, in its own way is received through language, as in I love you and yet conjured, felt, given. I suppose at its best the words I love you are composed through the sincerity of the given feeling and the responsibility that comes with the utterance. However, so often they do not correspond and I love you can be gas-lighting, can be insincere, ironic, confused, too feeling, irresponsible. In a recent interview on NoteBook, the digital magazine of international cinema and film culture, writer/blogger/cinephile Masha Tupitsyn writes:

Rarely does a character during that period of cinema (1930s/40s screwball) say I love you and not mean it. Rarely does someone say I love you until they mean it. It’s the other way around: all other utterances are outtakes for the properly timed utterance. I love you is a moment of truth that the lover must be accountable for and to from then on. It’s less about fairytale and more about the responsibility of a real relation. If the main character does not mean their I love you it is because the structure or genre itself is compromised—false—like in noir, where the subject of the film is betrayal, so everything is under suspicion. Today the space between love, ambivalence, betrayal, and paranoia is so collapsed and blurred that we don’t know what structure or person will betray us and which will set us free. We don’t know where to invest our love and where to invest our disillusionment.

Tupitsyn’s words here resonate. Our culture is built around the polarizing simulacra of romantic comedy, and irony, where on the one hand there is a fairytale and on the other there is this nihilistic conviction that true love doesn’t really exist except as an insincere or half sincere attempt at sustaining what is “good enough” in hopes that one day “good enough” might satisfy the desire at the core of our romantic fairytale desire for true love e.g. Knocked Up, Friends with Kids.

Independent of love relationships, ambivalence, paranoia and betrayal are already embedded in our culture, “collapsed and blurred” in our own individual bodies, and in how we navigate technology (social media), bureaucracy, and capitalism. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes,

…the origin of this capitalist nihilism is to be found in the effect of deterritorialization that is inherent in global financial capitalism. The relations between capital and society is deterritorialized, as economic power is no longer based on property of physical things. The bourgeoisie is dead, and the new financial class has a virtual existence, fragmented, dispersed, impersonal.

The rest of us non- financial classes are equally burdened with the disassociation of this territorial/physical alienation in our most intimate relationships. We are also plagued by indecision, nihilism, anxiety. I’m not saying that people haven’t always been fickle assholes, it is more the particular strain of it, how it manifests, and through what cultural circuits it swells. The psychic consequences of the “abstraction of digital finance” (as Bifo calls it) can only leak into our psychic personal and intimate spheres. Our language. Into how we say I love you.

The relationship between love and language has never been more intimate, partly because in our cultural imagination there is not that 1930’s orthodoxy around saying it. If you have ever been on the internet or more specifically on online dating sites you know that people don’t always mean what they say or know why they say it. Saying I love you is not always a truth. In fact, often, it is probably not the truth. It is a tool of language, to get something else other than love: comfort, affirmation, silence, space, to be wanted, a guarantee for an immediate future with someone.

Then there are people like us who connect spiritually to things. Who desperately crave intimacy and love. For me, big love, “true” love doesn’t come around all the time. In other words though I love love I’m not a love addict. When a boy likes me I usually don’t fall in love with him. When I have sex with someone a few times it doesn’t necessarily mean I think we should be in a relationship, or even that we could possibly fall in love. And if I hook up with someone with whom I don’t feel that possibility with, chances are we will not be hooking up for long.

The I love you of the 1930s movie screwballs is still the basis on which I say I love you. It is a moment of truth and accountability. But it is also a moment where language gets complicated.

This year I attended Yom Kippur services for the first time at my local Chabad. During the New Year’s atonement ceremony the Kol Nidre is recited. You recite all your sins, you beat your breast with each sin as the Cantor sings, you repeat your evils over and over beating them out of the heart, opening up space for forgiveness. What strikes me most about this prayer is its recognition that you will leave services and you will continue to sin. That in the eyes of god you have already sinned for the next year, that all the vows you have just made have already been broken.

All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to god from this Yom Kippur to the next—may it approach us for good—we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid nor binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations; and our promises shall not be considered promises

And then we ask God for forgiveness.

I’d wager that this isn’t a passage meant to say vows don’t mean anything, promises don’t mean anything, go be a dick, cheat on your husband, abandon your kids, go rape someone. Rather, it frames our actions and responsibilities. It frames what we say and how we say it. It invites ambivalence into promises and recognizes failure not of intention alone, but of language itself. It recognizes that to make a promise to a partner is a complicated system of learning, growing and yes perhaps even betraying. How we navigate reality, our promises to God, ourselves and each other lie not in the hands of a higher being who thinks we should be angels and punishes us if we fail, but in our own creativity.

When I tell you I love you it is a moment of truth, of accountability, and of self-recognition of my own failures, ambivalences, short-comings. In this way I love you is delicate, vulnerable. The all-consuming heat that I have to feel in order to say it is only matched by the deep fear of saying it, knowing I will fail you.

It is only recognizing this that gives me confidence in my potential to love and be loved. To be this vulnerable. To engage in the reality of failure.

I am not saying that this is some treatise that lets us off the hook and lets us do whatever we want whenever we want it. This is not a treatise against vow taking.

One of my best friends, we’ve been friends for ten years, we lost our virginities to one another, he recently was laying with me, casually, hugging my knees. It was the four year anniversary of my abortion. For me a day of loss, reflection, forgiveness, ceremony. We had just come back from a long walk in the park and hugging my knees he looked up, something came over him, I would say it was a kind of truth, and he said “I like you”. He started to get up and he continued to say, not quite done with the feeling, “I maybe even love you.” We have been through so much. Resentment, lust, betrayal, romance, ease, friendship and alienation. Our relationship has grown up with us. We’ve matured. We’ve said “I love you” in many different ways, for different reasons, at different times. The unfolding of our story has never fit into simple categories, it has never been contained by one title and it has certainly never limited or tried to limit our relationships with other people. Yet, those simple words “I like you” held so much love, so much being seen and forgiven, so much failure. Enough to fill so many categories and titles.

When he said “I like you” it surged through my body, the language felt inevitable, the consequence of so many years. And it was enough to keep going, to continue the relationship—a seal of unending friendship.

“We don’t know what structure or person will betray us and which will set us free”. Maybe this unknown is where trust comes in, where the Kol Nidre comes in. Do I trust the man who says he will never hurt me or trust the man that has hurt me a thousand times? Do I trust the person who is willing to be so vulnerable that they do the hard, fucked up work of getting to know themselves, their shadows and strengths and want to do some of it with me, or the person who thinks that love should be easy, that we should never do to each other what must be forgiven?

If love outside the simulacra is possible and a sustainable healthy love relationship is possible, saying I love you is not only the accumulation of feelings, or a vow, it is not just a signifier for some emotional referent. Love is the trust in the universe that language itself can give life to mutual responsibility, and freedom. Saying I love you and believing it is democratic. A statement that is for the people, for social bodies next to one another, doing work and building foundations for future endeavors. By democratic I don’t mean nuclear, hetero, progressive and white, the usual reductions of democracy. I mean for the people by the people—all people—social power and creativity.

Bifo compares love to social solidarity, “Like love solidarity is not about altruism it’s about the pleasure of sharing the breath and space of the other. Love is the ability to enjoy myself thanks to your presence, to your eyes. This is solidarity. Because solidarity is built on the territorial proximity of social bodies you cannot build solidarity between fragments in time.” Good governance is created by citizens willing to join in solidarity for causes that will help protect everyone. Good partnership, relationship, friendship works the same way.

The root of democratic action in the face of capitalistic and digitized systems of oppression is not altruism, it is not morality, or sacrifice in the name of what is “right”. The root is love: sharing space, world building, empathy, and trust; the opposite of being online, creating privatized portals, banking, and paranoia (ingredients in sexism, racism, Islamaphobia.) Along with the knowledge that in our trust in language lies the delicacy of doubt, in our responsibility to the people we love lies the possibility we will fail them and they will fail us. We say it not despite those facts, but because of them.

To quote James Baldwin:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

How do I write to you? Write truth and pain. The uneasiness of language. Its performance and necessity. The fragility of my feelings, and deep desire for respect. The all consuming heat you inspire in me, and the need to be seen through that heat as a separate being from you, as myself. The need to comfort, to care, to see you in return, to behold you on your own terms.

It is so tremendous, this us. This intimacy. The root of world building, of creativity. Grace. Democracy.

About the Author:

Cornelia Barber lives and works in Crown Heights, NY. She is editor at Queen Mobs Teahouse. Her essays, short stories, poems, dialogues, and reviews have been published with The Poetry Project Newsletter, Weird-Sister, Prelude, Imperial Matters, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. Her Chapbook “Unconditional” was a finalist in the Atlas Review Chapbook competition.