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Luce Irigaray points out in I love to you that Hegel conceives of love as a form of labor. In fact, she claims that Hegel is “the only Western philosopher to have approached the question of love as labor.”[1]  In this regard, love and labor, both concepts which have been written extensively about, have seldom been spoken about together, except through Hegel who Irigaray will go on to critique. Irigaray critiques the concept of love’s labor as presented by Hegel because he embeds both terms in patriarchal cultures, defining man and woman as opposites and in opposition to one another.[2] This opposition of man and woman becomes the motor to produce a synthesis: the family system which ends up perpetuating bourgeois morality. “Beyond the family context, Hegel shows “little concern for granting each gender its own identity” she writes.[3] Irigaray shows that the outcome of love’s labor is essentially the creation of the child who becomes the end goal (i.e. commodity) of love.[4]

For Irigaray,  Hegel’s labor of love alienates women and man from one another like thesis and antithesis. She determines that woman and man are divided from one another in opposition to each other, that also means that their labor exists in two wholly separate realms. Irigaray critiques that Hegel ends up alienating men and women from one another through a labor. The labor of love, and the division that comes in labor results in a division of love between man and woman, not because of social conditions, but because of some mystical essence of man and women.

More specifically, Irigaray points out that love’s labor confers onto women the need to exercise an abstract labor of childrearing,[5] showing the problem of Hegel’s labor of love with regards to women: the labor is abstracted. Namely, man relates to woman in the particular: a man loves woman, child and so on. Meanwhile, women are doomed in Hegel’s system to exercise “a labor of the universal in the sense that she has to love man and child without loving this man or this child.”[6] As a result, a woman can only love by fulfilling her role as a universal Feminine, and is barred from loving in her particularities towards her beloved. We can see this clearly in the struggle for women trying to gain material recognition for the labor they partake in the household: it is unthinkable in dominant ideology to imagine the job of household labor as connected with material condition precisely because it is trapped in the realm of the abstract universal Feminine.

So one may ask why I would want to re-use the term labor of love, which is riddled with a Hegelian problematic. I believe thinking through love as labor can be productive if we are careful not to fall into the same trappings as Hegel. Specifically, it is thinking through love’s labor with regards to an outside ‘third’ term of love that problems of woman/man oppositions can be untangled. Instead of defining man and woman in opposition to one another (where woman can only act with regards to universalisms and man only with particularisms), their identities are mediated through a Third Term: i.e. the world around the two lovers. The lovers are stripped of gender and instead gender emerges not from the way the lovers interact with one another, but the ways they mutually interact with the world and its scripts.

So far I have generated two ways love’s labor as a theory of the value of love based off the Labor Theory of Value that could be thought through. Marx’s labor theory of value is about how the labor put into making a commodity is a measure of how much that commodity is worth. Now ignoring all the details of the LTV and how it is economically inaccurate in many places, we use it as a way to think through love. The obvious connection between love and the LTV is that the process of world building (the Third Term) in a love affair increases the more labor is put into that process. That is, we can measure the richness of a love affair based off how much work each party has put into that relationship.

Now the LTV is itself is inaccurate, but it gives us a belief that the deeds we do for the lover do not disappear into the aether once they are done, but, like labor producing a commodity, help strengthen the relation between one and their lover. It is entirely the case that the work we put into love does not materialize as anything, but we can choose to believe that it matters in order to make love matter. That is, we can choose to recognize abstract labor as material by sharing a world between us and our loved one’s that is both abstract but also material. The world between me and my beloved does not exist materially yet nevertheless it still matters. Love’s labor is a belief that putting in labor for the beloved does not only benefit the beloved but also one’s relation with the beloved and the mutual world the beloved and one are building and experiencing through love.

Significantly, with the Third Term of ‘the world’ in love introduced, we understand that love’s labor is not simply about doing good for the lover, but about an orientation of engagement with the world itself. Namely, love’s labor is understanding the significance of the world in love, thereby taking on projects in the world in the name of love. A love affair grows based on a lover’s engagement with projects in the world. The object created in love’s labor would be a “biographical” object, that is an object “endowed with the personal characteristics of the maker” which lives in the world alongside its maker.[7] Love’s labor is labor that is extracted on the world and in this way it is in the world just as much as it is for the beloved. As a result, it becomes a “material affirmation” that “reifies” a love relation, grounding it in the world, and inscribing love in time and space in a real material sense.[8] The labor of love, instead of dividing man from women in Hegel’s schema, ends up created a shared space of a shared world between man and women.

There is also the second part of love’s labor: the constitution of joy. Like the worker in Marxist theory who is not alienated by their labor, the lover who labors experiences great joy in their laboring. Creating gifts and doing good for their beloved makes them happy. The joy of laboring for one’s beloved comes in two forms: first, the joy in doing the work itself insofar as the work is pleasurable in its execution, second, the joy of the beloved’s reaction, which, in the process of work, the lover excites themselves with through the imagining of their surprise and elation. Significantly these two joys can be contradictory. We can have no joy in the work itself but much joy in our lover’s reaction. Similarly, we can enjoy the work, but find ourselves anxious of our lover’s reaction—a love affair grows through the writing of unread love letter. The unread love letter, in fact, is not a lesser version of the love letter but its own category itself. It is not merely the product that strengths a love world, but the production.

If we can dialectically think between these two aspects of love’s labor, then we can hope to create a love, which like happiness for Denis De Rougemont, will resemble “the old, but no longer [belong] to the form of the world, for this new” love will “transform the world.”[9] That is to say, we will foster an orientation towards life of great joy in changing the world. The projects the lover engages in, whether it be the creation of a gift, or an act of service, all happen in the world and, as a result, change the world. However, we can also give our lover the world itself as a gift, give them a world, changed, better, with an increased capacity of love.

To have to choose between fighting for change or being in love finds momentary resolution. The personal becomes the political when I love those of different material conditions from myself and so, stemming from my personal love of the Other, have the will to give them a better world. This will to change the world involves both abstract and particular labor: it excludes neither women nor men from its project. One must theorize a better loving world, and then act in order to achieve said world. One must have an abstract notion of loving an Other alongside a real particular lived love of another. Side by side, hand in hand, entangling all types of labor together and conferring it on the world in hopes of changing it. You are the ghost, the specter that haunts me as I march for change. Here I am emphasizing the political aspects of ‘labors of love.’ I labor for love on the world for the sake of my love and for the sake of love itself. I labor, in utmost joy, in presenting my love a more loving world. Is this a world of revolution? Perhaps, necessarily so. But it is also a world of revelation. A world where “Everything will remain the same as here—only a little bit different”[10]—a world, where a labor of love has universal implications, where love remains love but also is a little bit different.


[1] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of A Possible Felicity in History (New York: Routledge, 1996): 19.
[2] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of A Possible Felicity in History: 21.
[3] ibid
[4] ibid, 55.
[5] ibid, 25-26.
[6] ibid, 21.
[7] Yvonne Clarke-Salt, “Between the Covers” in The Materiality of Love: Essays on Affection and Cultural Practice, ed. Anna Malinowska and Michael Gratzke (New York: Routledge, 2017): 57.
[8] Yvonne Clarke-Salt, “Between the Covers,” 58.
[9] Denis De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983): 323
[10] Walter Benjamin, “In the Sun” in Collected Works Vol. 2, Part 2 (Cambridge: Belknap, 2005): 664

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