Since the 1980s, bell hooks (a pseudonym for City College professor Gloria Watkins) has become one of America's premier public intellectuals. With her 1981 book, Ain't I a Woman, she emerged as a strong and visible opponent of white, classist feminism and African-American patriarchy. The rest of her 15-odd books propelled her to the top of cultural commentary, and into cultural-studies classrooms, as she pored over representations of race, gender and power in film and other media.
In a world where "race talk" has often been the province of men like Andrew Hacker, Studs Terkel and Cornel West, hooks has been a welcome voice. Exploring racism and rage, she has shown that black women have ample reasons to be angry, and in Killing Rage (1995), she vented her own visceral hatred of sexism and racism.
So there is perhaps no better person than bell hooks to write a book about love's power. Like an alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in years can talk about the long road to sobriety, someone who knows rage can talk about redemption.
Released in early January, hooks' new work, All About Love: New Visions, is billed as a "love song for the nation" on its jacket. Maybe more than a love song for the country, All About Love is an extended diagnosis of a culture plagued by widespread acceptance of lying, consumerism and isolation. But does hooks have the cure?
All About Love contains 13 chapters, and hooks wastes no time explaining the origins of the love crisis in the United States. In the first chapter, "Clarity," hooks betrays her academic mind by asking a question that has occupied thinkers throughout the ages: "What is the meaning of love?"
Her answer: No one knows what love is, and that's the problem.
After that diagnosis, hooks searches for a meaning that encompasses the many loves she discusses later in the book: romantic love, love of man and community, self-love, and so on.
For hooks, defining or operationalizing (finding a measurable concept that can apply in various situations) love is not an insurmountable task. She selects a definition that suits her from M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
With Peck's interpretation in hand, she continues and breaks "real" love into components: care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust. Ultimately, she says, these things are about how we act, and not how we feel. Our greatest error is thinking love is an emotion, a feeling for which we are not responsible: We "fall" in love as if it's an accident, experience love at first sight, or get shot by Cupid's arrows.
According to hooks, the way to look at this most-vaulted of human emotions (or non-emotions) is to distinguish love from affection and care. Mixing up love with affection and care, victims cling to their abusers. Looking at the abuser's actions, hooks says, should demonstrate what love is not.
No argument there, but defining love itself is an enterprise of dubious value. Though hooks might criticize relativism, can't each of us see love differently?
In All About Love, hooks cites John Bradshaw, who calls confusion about love "mystification" and calls for teaching children--and adults--sound definitions and practices of love. Yet mystification doesn't have to be synonymous with confusion. The mystery, the uncertainty often present in the first stages of a relationship, are part and parcel of the excitement.
Given hooks' knowledge of philosophy and diverse thought traditions (she mentions Buddhism and Thomas Merton), it's surprising that she bases her discussion on self-help literature. Her reputation has been built on acerbic media criticism, but when she tries here, she falters. Taking on television, which "models for us inappropriate behavior, and in worst-case scenarios, unloving behaviors," her great example is Home Alone (a movie, actually), "which celebrates disobedience and violence."
It's surprising that hooks uses self-help literature because this billion-dollar industry often focuses on individual change. Cultural criticism, her preferred genre, may emphasize the individual, but as a cog, the smallest unit of change within a greater society.
While hooks quotes New Age guru Marianne Williamson and others, she hasn't reconciled herself with the self-help movement. In All About Love's introduction, she waxes on about how self-help books have become big business and that the industry is dominated by men writing for women consumers.
Pages later, she writes, "even though John Gray's work troubles me and makes me mad, I confess to reading and rereading [his] Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." His books, she claims, lend credence to the idea that the sexes are irrevocably different and men are incapable of loving, but establish men as experts in what used to be considered a female domain--love.
New Age and self-help literature are not clearly differentiated, but hooks reserves a special slam for the former because "it makes it seem as though everything will always be wonderful if we are just loving." She critiques the literature because of the people who buy it, a group she believes is economically privileged and unwilling to love, i.e. act in the interests of others and distribute their wealth.
Now the question is: What is All About Love? It certainly seems like self-help literature to aid readers in attaining self-love, romantic and spiritual love, as well as the elusive "love ethic" that should govern our interactions with the world.
During interviews and in All About Love, hooks has attacked self-help and self-victimization. Speaking about her dysfunctional family, relationships and bouts of therapy, she's doing the very thing she's reproached Oprah Winfrey for: publicizing and making money from pathology. But hooks calls it "truth-telling."
Reading All About Love, one wonders why hooks wrote it. Assuming she lives by her love ethic, she didn't produce it to have a book out during the Valentine's Day rush, to ensure tenure, make money, or to keep the publishers happy.
The only reason left is that she's still struggling to resolve personal issues that self-help books have failed to exorcise. People engaged in their own struggles, as many of us are, may find it insightful to view what goes on in an intellectual's heart and head. Others may merely find reading hooks' analysis and problems tiring. As for this writer, I'm with the tired bunch. While bell hooks may have been creating a "love map" for her life, that map led me around and around in circles.