an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 5, January-February 2008, ISSN 1552-5112




The Lost Gospel: Reflections on Nirenberg’s ‘The Politics of Love and Its Enemies’[1]


Richard Grego, James Newell, Michael Flota and Nicholas Ruiz III


We turn up the earth to seek gold instead of to plant wheat; the soldier seeks gold in return for his blood.  The senate is closed to the poor, for gold is the merit that qualifies for office; gold it is that gives the juror weight, and degree to the knight.  Let them keep it all.  Let the Campus and the Forum be in their hire and let them decide war and peace; but in their fierce greed, let them not purchase our loves also.




For nails would not have held God-and-Man fast to the Cross, had love not held Him there.
Saint Catherine of Siena



RG: Nirenberg claims that “those who prescribe love and its politics are unaware of its long history of disappointment.”[2] He examines how the politics of love in Old Testament scripture, the Christian Gospels, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and to some extent, Hegel and Marx, tend to “generate specific anxieties and figures of exclusion, figures that shape the ways in which political love itself can be imagined.” This places love in the paradoxical political position of attempting to overcome “those very exclusions that the history of its use has generated”, and thus “any politics that acts in love’s name will have the potential to produce its enemies”. Basing a politics on love, in other words, has historically tended to engender the very problems that it seeks to redress—culminating, among other things, in the alienation, exclusion, and dehumanization of the “foreigner”, “woman,” and “Jew” in western culture.


Nirenberg illustrates this process at work in Judaism’s “tension between love of man’s relation to God and love as the mortar that binds man to man,” manifesting itself in an aversion to idolatry as symbolized by the “foreign and female.“ He describes how “Plato’s undeniable tendencies toward dualism” and Aristotle’s “bipartite” distinction between base material necessity on one hand and “a life that is human and political” on the other, lead to the alienation of such figures as “foreign women, aliens, or inhuman men”. He also examines how St. Augustine’s sundering of the “city of God” from the “city of man” leads to “the alienated figure of Judaism.”[3]


Although he does not mention it explicitly, there is an important thematic continuity in these exemplars of the western political tradition. Their philosophies share an assumed metaphysical dualism—between God and man, the ideal and the material, the abstract and the immanent—from which a dualistic politics—dividing self and other, man and woman, the elect and the forsaken—ineluctably emerges. Since the human condition is configured primordially by this insuperable divide, any conception of love applied to human relations or communities will reflect it. 


However, this intellectual legacy, though a very long and prominent one, is certainly not the only attempt in history to conceive a love-based politics. Nirenberg appears to overlook rich non-western, (and even western), traditions that have arguably been more successful in conceiving a love-based politics—for example, monastic traditions without the kind of internal contradictions through which love necessarily generates its own enemies.  These traditions begin with a non-dualistic conception of the human condition, and are therefore amenable to a concept of love and of politics that can attain the kind of universal inclusiveness, holism, and fraternity which has eluded those that Nirenberg describes. Gandhi’s politics of universal love via “satyagraha” and “ahimsa” –based, in turn, upon Vedanta’s conception of Brahman as the all-encompassing ground of existence—comes to mind in this connection.  The Upanishads clearly identify Brahman with the supreme Self (Atman) that encompasses all selves.


Verily, for him who sees this, who thinks this, who understands this, vital breath arises from the Self (Atman), hope, from the Self, memory, from the Self, appearance and disappearance, from the Self….indeed, this whole world from the Self.[4]


This insight becomes the basis for an ontology of interdependence in the Bhagavad Gita, which extends to all castes and genders: “Be certain that none can perish…woman or man sprung of the Viashya caste—or the lowly Shudra—all set foot upon the highest path.”[5] Since all selves are Brahman, all deserve reverence and love. Gandhi’s concept of Truth and politics of “satyagraha” and “ahimsa” arise from this monistic worldview:


I believe in the absolute oneness of God and therefore of humanity.  What though we have many bodies? We have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source. I cannot therefore detach myself from the wickedest soul nor may I be denied identity with the most virtuous.[6]


Love without exclusion is thus intrinsic to the human condition—as is a political community based upon universal love. The task of politics is to simply allow this condition to flourish. “It is the law of love that rules mankind. …And yet the tragedy of it is that so-called civilized men and nations conduct themselves as if the basis of society was violence.”[7]           


Similarly, Mahayana Buddhism’s all-pervasive groundless-ground of existence via ‘dependant origination’ finds expression in Nagarjuna’s unification of nirvana and samsara, and finally in Vietnamese philosopher/activist Thich Nhat Hahn’s politics of “inter-being”—which promotes an ethics and politics of universal love via “non-attachment”. Drawing upon such sources as Nagarguna’s “Madyamika Karika” and the Prajnaparamitra literature, as well as the metaphysical implications of quantum physics, Thich Nhat Hanh employs the notion of “emptiness”, or reality’s radical contingency, to refute both the Aristotelian categories of predication (“…the [classical western] principle of identity is that ‘A is A’…the first principle of the Prajnaparamitra is that ’A is not-A’”) and classical western dualism (“No one today can continue to think, as Descartes did, that mind and object are two distinct realities”). Having deconstructed those aspects of the western paradigm, he introduces an alternate worldview based upon the recognition of “inter-being,” or the fundamental realization that all aspects of reality are utterly interdependent. From this realization, a psychology and ethics of compassion (“cultivating the mind of love“) and a politics of love, emerge inevitably:


…everything is a construction of our minds. When we are caught by notions, we cannot see the true nature of things, and construct a world full of suffering. We build prisons, build Hell, build racial discrimination. We pollute the environment because we lack inter-being….If we see into the true nature of interbeing our ignorance is transformed into insight....Everything penetrates everything else. To harm one person is to harm ourselves and all people at the same time. To bring relief to one person is to bring relief to everyone.[8]


Here then are two starting-points for a politics of love which seem to avoid generating the sort of “specific anxieties and figures of exclusion”[9] that would undermine the political integrity of love itself. Nirenberg overlooks important non-western alternatives to the politics of love (as well as possible pre-Socratic, postmodern, and mystical Judeo-Christian alternatives in the west[10]) if he believes that the thinkers he describes are sufficient to discredit love’s redemptive political potentials entirely. In fact, the prominent stature of those thinkers in the western history of ideas may reveal more about the western tradition’s limitations than about the potentials of love, which the western tradition has perhaps failed to do justice to.



JN: In “The Politics of Love and Its Enemies,” David Nirenberg claims that “far from being an antidote to instrumental reason or to relations of possession and exchange, the fantasy that love can free interaction from interest is itself one of the more dangerous offspring of the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem that we sometimes call the Western tradition.”[11]


I ask, in economic transactions, do I really care if corporate conglomerates love me? Big box love doesn’t sound like anything I’m interested in pursuing. I don’t love them, and they certainly don’t love me. And I know that the dissent toward Wal-Mart is now somewhat cliché. But “It’s My Wal-Mart” is propaganda; there is only one thing that Wal-Mart executives are thinking about, and it certainly isn’t me. It is their bottom line. Is this out of love? Yes. The love of money and power.  But certainly not a love for me. These corporations are happy to comply with the notion that love in economics is dangerous. They profit when people choose a deal over all other factors. So, is love the sociopolitical problem or is it the loss of human qualities within exchange?


And ironically, big box retail seems to be pursuing the same love inherent in the religious factions discussed by Nirenberg. It is one-way love. And it is manifesting itself now in US consumerism. People love to buy. A good deal is like a modern mantra.


What happens when the love of “a good deal” takes the place of “love thy neighbor?” Something truly positive is lost in the transaction. What kind of love is big-box retail creating? It seems to be a love that is completely removed from all human elements. It is love for money – the symbol. Not love for the person – the signified. Nirenberg, while discussing Aristotle, writes, “Such men [lovers of money] forget the conventional role of money as a measure of need. They confuse the signifier for the signified and live only to accumulate the symbol itself.”[12]  Once again we can consider this dangerous behavior as a key characteristic of modern exchange—big-box retail also hides its face, so people don’t care because it doesn’t represent faces. The symbol reigns supreme in this example as well and forces the consumer to detach from the reality of the transaction. Everything loses human identity; thus, love has nothing to do with it. So is love the problem or is it a misrepresentation of love? I ask, could adding a human element back to this socioeconomic equation make the situation any worse? It seems the current system of loving the symbol while detaching from any human qualities has wreaked havoc on the middle class and any idea of distribution of wealth.


A bit earlier, Nirenberg brings in a conversation from Lysis, which addresses the following question: “What is the purest case of love: mutual love, with its reciprocal exchanges and benefits, or the gratuitous love of a lover whose love is not returned by the beloved?”[13] This distinction between asymmetrical and symmetrical love can provide some insight into this discussion of love and politico-economic exchange. Applied to the big-box retail design, people are, in their own way, worshiping this system. It is similar in concept to asymmetrical love. It is like a cult or a God figure. According to Frontline’s “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?,” approximately 100 million consumers shop at Wal-Mart each week. And many of these people profess that they “love” Wal-Mart. Sounds similar to worship to me. Nirenberg also cites Pope Benedict XVI as having made “the argument (God is Love), that it is neither justice nor economics, but only love, patterned after God’s gratuitous love manifest in the Incarnation that can cross the gap that separates us from each other and create a truly human community.”[14]  It seems that a “good deal” holds together a false sense of community.


Nirenberg also raises the issue of exchange creating hostility; love creates enemies. And I’m not denying this danger. He again uses Plato as a jumping off point by saying, “Plato also seems to think that monetary exchange makes such a community of friends impossible because monetization tends to turn exchanges of goods into relations of hostility.”[15] I see this as the driving force behind the development of faceless corporations like Wal-Mart, which are all about profit, yet, ironically, people continue to profess their love for them via their spending habits. Nirenberg follows with “hence the need to banish these corrupting forms of exchange into the hands of ‘non-friends’ and noncitizens if the friendliness of the community is to be maintained.”[16] Does it follow that big-box retail is the savior of civilized society because it succeeds in removing the human connection within exchange?


Again using the Greeks as a point of reference, Nirenberg quotes, “For how is a cobbler to have dealings with a farmer unless one equates the work of the two by proportion.”[17] Nirenberg is using this to show the dangers of love in economic exchange; however, if we consider this comment in light of the exponential sociopolitical dealings of a mega-corporation like Wal-Mart, I ask, how is a U.S. consumer to have dealings with a laborer in a Chinese factory when both the consumer and the laborer are unaware of each other’s existence—much less each other’s role in the transaction? The consumer no longer cares if the farmer is mistreated – the mega-retailer is just a faceless corporation, which makes it impossible for the “cobbler to have dealings with a farmer.” Such a relation is gone. Wal-Mart has systematically removed any connection the farmer would have with the cobbler. The connection or “love” that Nirenberg is discussing no longer exists in a large portion of present economic situations because there is such a firm detachment from anything human. It is all numbers and price comparison. The consumer is now programmed to search for the best deal with no consideration of other factors. Out of sight, out of mind. The meat in the refrigerated case might as well have fallen from the sky. Removing love from transaction seems to produce dire consequences.


In his closing paragraph, Nirenberg asks, “Why should we worry about the abiding importance of love in our attempts to imagine more perfect forms of community and communication?”[18] Because it makes us human. It creates communities. The U.S. has already removed love from most transactions. Removing love creates selfishness. And I’m not saying that I want Wal-Mart to love me, but I think that these big-box retailers have in effect removed a connection (farmer to cobbler) that makes communities of exchange function. And I’m not saying love is everything in economic exchange, but such distant relations (China to the U.S.) has reduced a community of people to a set of numbers. If people can’t see the effects of their exchange, how can empathy exist? And empathy may not be the love Nirenberg speaks of, but I think it would do a world of good if it were added back into the economic equation. Understanding and seeing that people exist on both sides of the transaction could do a lot for returning human qualities to the economic picture. I again ask: Could love make it any worse?


MF: There is much to admire in David Nirenberg’s article The Politics of Love and Its Enemies, yet it also suffers from several empirical and theoretical weaknesses.  Here I will focus on the weaknesses.  Nirenberg rightly points out that the concepts of love and exchange have not always been defined as separate activities.  He alludes to ancient societies in which the two are conflated into the same terms and the same meanings.  This is an important point whose broader significance is never developed in the piece.  Karl Polanyi (1944) argued that economic activity is always “embedded” in the society and culture surrounding it.  His point is that you can never simply juxtapose economics with other aspects of a society.  To do so gives economic action a power it does not and cannot possess.  Instead our conceptions of exchange and our conceptions of love will be inextricably tied to one another and ever influencing our experience with either concept.


This means two things: the relationship between love and economic activity may not always involve exchange, and even if it does, the content of that relationship will vary across time and culture.  Nirenberg instead imagines a love that stands outside of exchange, as if economic activity was motivated by forces beyond the numerous motivations that have been attributed to what he calls love.  This rendering of love and exchange can easily be undermined by an examination of the actual reasons social actors enter into economic activity: much of it involves some form of familial, sexual or emotional connection to other actors (Scitovsky, 1976:120-121).


There is a deeper history here that Nirenberg never fully explores: the shift of societies from the pursuit of glory to the pursuit of profit.  Hirschman (1977) argues that the early proponents of capitalism argued for a replacement of the passions with individual self interest.  The logic was that if people were less concerned with honor, glory and the rest of it they would be less inclined to engage in all manner of nasty activities.  The history of the world since then has proved otherwise, but this argument is quite compatible with much of what Nirenberg says here.  In fact, Nirenberg is reviving an old debate.  Adam Smith is the culprit Hirschman identifies as having repressed much of the debate over interests versus passions (one of which is certainly Nirenberg’s love).   Prior to Smith, the idea was that the pursuit of individual interest would create a more stable political order than that based on pursuit of the passions.  After Smith, the focus shifted exclusively to the procurement of economic efficiency and gain.  Now, Nirenberg is asking us to consider the obverse: the replacement of the interests with the passions, or love.  Nirenberg finds such a notion lacking.


The most damaging pieces of evidence against Nirenberg’s thesis are empirical.   Sweden seems to be the exact replication of what Nirenberg states cannot exist.  Sweden is generally considered the most egalitarian of modern political regimes and the home of the world’s most developed welfare state.  “The People’s Home” was a rhetorical device used during the construction and consolidation of the welfare state in Sweden and remains an active conceptual weapon in current Swedish politics (Esping-Anderson 1990).  This effort was certainly not perfectly egalitarian; it rested on certain class loyalties that saw the wealthy as outsiders (enemies), for instance.  Yet, the overarching imagery was one of familial love binding Swedes together in social solidarity, each Swede a member of the family.  And this represents only the most obvious example, as most European welfare states have used similar imagery and the related concept of Noblesse Oblige, as have the Asian developmental states (Esping-Anderson 1990).


Even the primary strength of the piece can be called into question when one realizes that the “love and its enemies” as a process is what social psychologists refer to as the in-group/out-group effect.  But the in-group/out-group effect is not a condition that warrants eternal pessimism.  The “other” can just as easily be a condition and the in-group can be all of humanity—at least in theory.  In practice, we do know that groups in a given situation can all coalesce around the achievement of a certain objective or amelioration of a certain problematic (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood and Sherrif, 1961; Blake and Mouton, 1962).  In that case, the problem or objective becomes “the other” around which the groups coalesce to resolve.   Under the right conditions the achievement of an egalitarian politics might be that objective.  The classic case of creating such conditions is where all groups achieve small consistent victories in their work together and that their work requires them to rely more or less equally on one another (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood and Sherrif, 1961; Blake and Mouton, 1962).  Not an easy task to bring about in a national politics, but hardly impossible.  The formation of the United States is an example as would be the development of the People’s Home in Sweden.


Nirenberg also never defines the central concept of his piece.  Instead he seems more interested in defining what love is not.  Thus, it is impossible to know exactly where Nirenberg draws the line between various conceptions of love, but one would assume that empathetic love is among those on his list.  Yet, empathy has now been identified as the root of human rationality and action in a land mark study by neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994).  With such a deep role for empathy in the human psyche, it seems at least, unadvisable to simply write it off as a crucial element for the good society.  But love cannot be the necessary and sufficient cause of an egalitarian polity.  There must also be an economic system associated with love in order for the political regime to survive.  We simply do not know what these elements of the final product would look like because Nirenberg never tells us.  Clearly these facets of the solution are beyond the scope of his article; but then again, without them, no intelligent conclusion can be made on whether love can or cannot be a solution to egalitarian politics.  On this basis, Nirenberg’s argument runs into serious trouble.


The global capitalist economy since at least the early 1980s has been going through a period of market fundamentalist resurgence, or in Polanyi’s terms a renewed effort to dis-embed the economy from society and rely upon the self regulating market.  The call for love can easily be seen as part of the “double movement” Polanyi described to re-embed the economy into society.  The calls for love should not be seen as an effort to replace exchange with love, but to more firmly re-embed the principles of love into exchange, in fact to subordinate exchange to them.  Doing so would bring the economy back into human balance at a time when such balance is critically needed.  The growing rise of global inequality, population and the steady decline of the planet’s ecosystem make just such a move an urgent requirement of continued human survival.   


NRIII:  One supposes in life that some things are possible.  Love is one of these things, no?  We presume such a thing is possible?  But what if love were impossible?  Not in the sense of David Nirenberg’s thesis, but in the sense of a real impossibility.  That is to say, what would it mean, if love was unreal?  Surely such a hypothesis would relate to the death of god.  In the consumer Christian (we were never Christ-like; have a look at the Gnostic gospels) west, can we dissociate god from love?  Perhaps the two are rotting, like corpses in the killing fields of ideas.  It would also follow, perhaps, that if we can agree that the nature of god is unsuitable for politics, then so too, might the nature of love be unsuitable for such a thing as politics requires.[19]


So two things: god and love.  Every major religion of the world syncopates these two concepts, paradoxically, via the utilization of conceptual infinity, and one concept’s weakness becomes the other concept’s strength: the horizon of god’s love is endless, and the horizon of one’s love for god, should be too…Yes, that it is it: love is the purview of sacrifice.  We must bleed for the love of god.  This is the claim of the disciple; the saint and the poet.  But there are no saints any longer, and poetry is endangered, if not extinct.  And the sacred, by definition, is always exterminated as a functional violence of the holy service. The Christians sacrifice Christ, only to acknowledge him two thousand years later as a gold trinket on a chain.  Should some supposed prophet have the loving good fortune of being born and executed today, some have toyed with the idea of honoring this postmodern savior with a golden electric chair dangling on a chain around the necks of the future chosen.


The children of Abraham are no different.  A covenant excludes by default, Nirenberg is right to point out.  A rendering of god and love in Asia?  Unfortunately, a diversity of idols does not obtain a plurality of beneficence. Via the tautologies of chosen castes, starvation and fasting, of desiring ‘non-desire,’ resistance as nonviolence, or further still, the hoped for cessation of some unidentified universal ‘craving,’—nirvana, samsara, kundalini and salvation are offered, as an abstract suicide solution passing throughout the aeons as a transcendent absence to which the flocks must aspire.  An offering of western dualistic limitation regulated as the ungraspable moral divinity on high and heathen animality on low rejected, Asia most often opts for euphorias of a different kind: of olfactory stimulation (with as many sticks of incense as gods or idols), along with neurotransmitters conjoining the hyper-suppression of reptilian brain function: meditation.   And yet the question remains: the word of god is the word of love?  A hypothesis: After the death of god, love is an impossibility.  Perhaps the physicists loathe infinity for good reason…it is rarely applicable. 


Our relationship with love, god and the infinity of price and spectacle, is recently articulated in Damien Hirst’s art:


Damien Hirst, For the Love of God,
Platinum, 8,601 diamonds and human teeth
6 3/4 x 5 x 7 1/2 in. (17.1 x 12.7 x 19.1 cm)



$100 million.  A record: the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist.  One marvels that we can any longer, truly render Aquinas’ corporeal metaphors for spiritual things. As for love, that euphoria of the genetic Code and capitalizations as currencies of that Code…a molecular symphony of melancholy and bliss.  And God?  Neurotransmissions; a battery of concepts, like 8,601 diamonds in the rough.  All of which pale in comparison to what is wished for in the impossibility of political love as the gift of some Other. All we have are eternal returns to self interest wrought by each other.  And all such returns serve to eternally rekindle the mordant fire of the sacrificial flame, as societies flicker here and there, among the dark wars they render unto themselves.  In other words, we can expect all returns to reveal the prospect of nothing, more or less, than the oldest violence, that wrought by increasing quantities of peoples and the scarcity of resources.  There is however, always the wager of belief to allay our concerns.  And it is in this sense that meaning is epidemic.  It is meaninglessness that we must get to know as a people, if we are ever to find ourselves, no?


Such uncertainties lay in the choice, and why we speak of ‘falling’ in (and out) of love.  Politics, on the other hand, need not be ‘fallen’ into—and functions instead, on the quantitative, necessary and sufficient premise of some number greater than One. There can never be a politics of oneself.  Perhaps that is the ruse of plastic surgery and other biotechnical editing experiments…


After the Apocalypse, you see…that is what we are faced with—the apocalypse being now.  After love, you see…that too, is what we are faced with—that time is now. And perhaps it is not that we know not love, and through ignorance render it impotent, but instead that by knowing it, by having identified such an object, we have in turn destroyed the idol.  Like the god of our sun, that star of nuclear fusion.  Discovery changes everything, no?


For politicians then, what is at stake in Nirenberg’s claim?  Nothing really, and that is why aristocracy reifies itself under every name it is given (democracy, etc.)   And for lovers? Well, lovers don’t care about truth or the real, do they?  It is the suspension of the real, which all lovers seek, and they deserve the full fire of our admiration for it.   






an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 5, January-February 2008, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] David Nirenberg, “The Politics of Love and its Enemies” Critical Inquiry, 2007, VOL 33; NUMB 3, pp. 573-605

[2] Ibid, p.575


[3] Ibid, pp.600-601


[4] Chandogya Upanishad, Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. ed. Radikrishnan, Moore (Princeton University Press, 1957) pg. 72

[5] Bhagavad Gita, Sourcebook in  Indian Philosophy. p.134

[6] The Essential Gandhi.  ed. Fischer. (New York, 1962) p. 229

[7] Gandhi on Non-violence.  ed. Merton (New York, 1965) pg. 45

[8] Thich Nhat Hanh, Cultivating the Mind of Love (Berkley, 1996)  pg 64, 114.

[9] David Nirenberg, “The Politics of Love and its Enemies” Critical Inquiry, 2007, VOL 33; NUMB 3, p.605


[10] In her preface to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha Living Christ, New Testament scholar Elaine Pagels notes significant similarities between Buddhist and early Christian—specifically, Gnostic concepts of universal love. She agrees with Thich Nhat Hanh that Pope John Paul XII’s exclusion of non-Christians from the community of the redeemed in his book “Crossing the Threshhold of Hope” should not be considered the only Christian perspective on this issue. She says, “I find myself agreeing with Thich Nhat Hanh at this and every significant turn …Yet my agreement does not come from immersion in the Buddhist tradition—on the contrary, it comes from exploration into the earliest history of Christianity.” 

[11] David Nirenberg, “The Politics of Love and its Enemies” Critical Inquiry, 2007, VOL 33; NUMB 3, pp. 575-576


[12] Ibid, p.592


[13] Ibid, p.582


[14] Ibid, p.574


[15] Ibid, p.585


[16] Ibid, p.585


[17] Ibid, p.589


[18] Ibid, p.604


[19] I thank Jessica Kester for this insight.




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1977. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph.  Princeton University Press. 

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[1944] 2000.  The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.  Boston: Beacon Press.

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Sherrif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif

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