Entanglements: The Examples of bell hooks and Lauren Berlant


Tomasz Baranowski: View from Siegessäule, Berlin, 2018 (CC)

by M. Munro

What might be revealed in any exploration of the meaning of love in our lives?[1]

Where love and desire are concerned, there are no adequate examples.[2]

Giorgio Agamben has outlined the constitutive structure of the example and so, thereby, its attendant – doubtless exemplary – difficulties. “The paradox here,” Agamben writes, “is that a single utterance in no way distinguished from others of its kind is isolated from them precisely insofar as it belongs to them. If the syntagm ‘I love you’ is uttered as an example

of a performative speech act, then this syntagm both cannot be understood as in a normal context and yet still must be treated as a real utterance in order for it to be taken as an example. What the example shows is its belonging to a class, but for this very reason the example steps out of its class in the very moment in which it exhibits and delimits it.[3]

Exemplary analysis, doubtless. And yet that’s hardly the final word, but rather only the beginning. What does it mean for something (or someone) to be exemplary? And what’s love got to do with it? In other words, if it is indeed true that there are, in fact, “no adequate examples” where love and desire are concerned, it appears to be an open question as to how love can be understood to make the example qua example, in its concept, intelligible. Or is that precisely its claim on (or to) exemplarity? If so, what would an adequate idea of this inadequacy look like? And what might it show?

“Here in the afterlife,” begins David Eagleman’s short story “Quantum,” “everything exists in all possible states at once,

even states that are mutually exclusive. This comes as a shock after your Earthly life, where making one choice causes the other choices to disappear. When you become a lover to one, you cannot become a lover to others; when you choose one door, others are lost to you.

In the afterlife you can enjoy all possibilities at once, living multiple lives in parallel. You find yourself simultaneously eating and not eating. You are bowling and not bowling at the same time. You are horseback riding and nowhere near a horse.

A velvety blue angel gently descends to see how you are coming along with this afterlife.

‘This is all too confusing for a poor human brain,’ you confess to the angel.

The angel rubs his chin. ‘Maybe we can ease you into this with something simpler, like a day job,’ he offers.

You are immediately dropped into a work life of simultaneous contradictions. You are concurrently practicing several careers at once, all the careers you had considered when you were younger. You simultaneously count down your rocket ship launch and defend a criminal client in front of a jury. In the same moments, you scrub your hands for a gallbladder surgery and navigate an eighteen-wheeler down a New Mexico interstate. Gone are the constraints of location and time.

‘This,’ you tell the angel, ‘is too much work.’

‘Perhaps we could warm you up with a simpler situation,’ he considers. ‘How would you like to be in a closed room, one-on-one with your lover?’

And then

“you are here. You are simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else; she both gives herself to you and does not give herself to you; you find her objectionable and you deeply love her; she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else.

“‘Thank you,’ you tell the angel. ‘This I’m used to.’”[4]

About the Author

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, The Map and the Territory (punctum books, 2021).


[1] bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), xix.

[2] Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (Brooklyn: punctum books, 2012), 2.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998), 22.

[4] David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), 82-83.

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