How bell hooks Theorised ‘Love’

Whenever I feel scattered, I take refuge in feminist theory.

This may sound like a strange thing to say, but it has been true since I was a teenager. Over time, my relationship with the texts has only strengthened, grown, and complicated upon rereading, revisiting. I used to cleave to the pages of The Second Sex with a gnawing sincerity which in hindsight – despite cringing a little – I am massively grateful for. I was an incredibly, almost ridiculously, self-serious teenager who dealt with the tumultuous emotions and rapidly evolving identity crises of puberty by diving head-first into feminist theory. In other words, how could I distance myself from all of these inconvenient feelings and politically analyse my position in the world instead?

Reading bell hooks taught me fairly early on that there is no ‘instead’; you have to sit with the emotion, and recognise it as a source of knowledge. She affirmed to me that that the loneliness, self-scrutiny, feelings of lovelessness and undesirability that come with the territory of being a teenager are fundamentally political questions, even though people will try to say they are not. Reading All About Love was a moment of immeasurable importance for me, as I am confident it has been for anyone who has had the opportunity of encountering it.

bell hooks took love seriously. She theorised love and anchored it both as a central political/feminist question and solution in all her work. I feel like people still underestimate what an enormous contribution to feminist theory centering love in this way is. A society structured around love, according to bell hooks, is directly antithetical to the status quo of a society structured around domination. Not only that, she persistently argued that loving is both more honest and natural to us as human beings than any logic of hierarchy and domination can ever be. So, by granting the question of one’s ability to access and exercise love primacy, hooks’ work undermined the patriarchal impulses and Machiavellian machinations that underscore practically all of Western political theory, and by extension, radically challenged the way in which we understand the world.

As just one example, in the incredible chapter “Loss: Loving into Life and Death ” hooks discusses how the political realism of international security and warfare stem from a society that perpetually undermines love and life in favour of fear and death, even though it harms all parties involved. She writes that our society causes everyone pain by denying love and choosing to be “death centered”, because “the worship of death is a central component of patriarchal thinking”. The same thinking that prioritises supposed self-interest over love.

However, hooks recognised that placing an emphasis on love is an approach that is easy to scoff at or brush aside in a society run by the imperatives of the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. Throughout her career, bell hooks had grappled with a mainstream academic reluctance to consider love as a serious political subject, or feminist question. She showed us how we do ourselves a disservice by relegating a subject as crucial as love to the realm of the ostensibly analytically unserious: self-help, rom-coms, (and of course I don’t agree but) art, and poetry. By theorising love, bell hooks brought forth its centrality to almost every political question, and presented it to us as an ever present, overwhelmingly obvious answer.

We are still scratching the surface when it comes to realising the enormous implications of hooks’ work. When you read All About Love, or any writing by hooks for that matter, the imagination that she demands from you feels easy and familiar. This is no simple feat, and it is a testament to the power of bell hooks. You feel like you know the world she is describing, while also knowing that the world we live in is nothing like it – or is it ?

It is this ease of imagination that contemporary feminist writings are drawing upon when reckoning with alternatives, and possibilities for the future. For instance, The Right to Sex, a collection of essays by Amia Srinivasan published this year, grapples with difficult questions surrounding the politics of desirability, incel culture, consent, and the Me Too movement. In almost every chapter, Srinivasan’s discussion of envisioning a better future invariably turns back to bell hooks – how can something that is as unloving and restrictive as a racist, sexist, capitalist beauty standard possibly be beautiful? Alternative visions emphasise love and honesty, and the freedom that comes with it.

Thank you, bell hooks, for imagining.

Stuti Roy graduated in 2021 with a BA in Political Science from Victoria College, University of Toronto and is currently working with the National Alliance of People’s Movements as a research and communications associate. 

Featured image credit: Amazon; Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha