Review: The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality

The Empire of Love: Toward a Thoery of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Elizabeth A. Povinelli. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. xix + 285.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli begins The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality by addressing the ways in which the book might potentially fail. Despite Povinelli’s initial fears that her hopeful goals have doomed her project, she successfully works through three distinct chapters, each with its own tone and focus, to look at intimacy, carnality, and genealogy through her own experience with queer and indigenous cultures. This division of the book into three separate essays, building off her work as an anthropologist in Australia as well as her experience as a lesbian woman, showcases an archive of knowledge and experience relating to who is privileged and who is forgotten. Through Povinelli’s insights that manage to provide arguments that cross cultural boundaries, The Empire of Love proves to be a great addition to scholarship exploring the formation and perceptions of various communities and the intimacy and familial constructs that bind them together.

The book’s first chapter, “Rotten Worlds,” begins with the author’s own experience of contracting troubling sores while conducting fieldwork in northern Australia. Though Povinelli seems unfazed by the giant, flesh-eating sore on her arm, the doctors she encounters both in Chicago and Canada are taken aback by her condition. Prior to 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax scare that rattled the United States, Povinelli’s contraction of this affliction, common in the region in Australia where she did much of her anthropological research, serves to highlight differences in medical care and concern for Western populations such as the American politicians and postal workers who would later face the threat of anthrax and marginal populations like the indigenous people with whom she worked. Although she later doubts that she does indeed have anthrax, the reactions of her doctors compared to the little attention paid to those with whom she worked, who regularly deal with these sores, allows her to explore the “so what?” that separates what different cultures worry about (35). Povinelli extends the conversation from disease to deadly insects and to affects, connecting the sores, most likely staphylococcal, and giant mosquitoes to jealousy and sorrow. She then uses this connection to move her argument toward the intersection of jealousy and sorrow. Povinelli describes this intersection as what occurs when “a desired object is possessed or taken by another” while “the desired object remains within the world of the person who desires it” and describes “the emotional response to the irrevocable passing of a things from one ontological realm to another” meet (43), as the state of being alone. This extension of disease to feeling, feeling that is recognized widely though experience personally, reappears with Povinelli’s description of the removal of lumps from Aboriginal women and is one of the book’s clearest presentations of affect.

Povinelli counters her ideas of being alone and isolation, previously mentioned in the book’s first chapter, with the idea of the “thick life,” a life that embodies social relations (45). This idea is illustrated through the bodily representation of the sores on the skin. Having no sores isolates one from the northwest Australian group, while “being within a socially thick world is to expose the skin to its play and its care” (45). Povinelli argues that allowing one’s body to become marked by these shared illnesses and parasites helps foster a sense of intimate kinship within the community. Throughout this chapter, Povinelli relates her thoughts on marginalized populations to her own encounter with the Australian sores, comparing the poverty and racism that contribute to sores in Australia to the way HIV/AIDS is dealt with in America and around the world. This connection is especially important to Povinelli as a member of the queer community, which she argues has been increasingly marked as a population through its connection to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Povinelli uses the illustration of hiding her own sore during a date as a way to point to the larger conversation regarding safe sex for her community.

Povinelli also uses her sore to highlight the discrepancies in welfare for aboriginal people, stating, “My sore is not mine in any sense that really matters, after all. It belongs to a cascading set of social harms and attitudes toward these harms that have emerged in the wake of setter colonialism” (74). This last section of the chapter centers on the typical attitude towards the marginalized and racially marked, especially as the author is continually reassured that she will not continue to suffer from the sores as the cure will occur when she returns to North America. Povinelli links this disparity in medical treatment of varying populations to larger conversations about marginalized populations by arguing that “diseases of poverty are not usually medical rarities; they demand neither high technology nor new movies to apprehend them. Rather they demand choices about wealth and resource distribution and political sensitivity to a different kind of corporeality” (78). This first chapter focuses on the intimacy and genealogy of both queer communities and especially aboriginal communities through the lens of disease and welfare.

The second chapter of the book, “Spiritual Freedom, Cultural Copyright,” focuses on radical faerie communities and the author’s own experience moving between different communities as part of her occupation. Opening with another personal anecdote, this time about souvenir shells and a gourd, Povinelli works through the history of the radical faerie movement, starting with Harry Hay’s life philosophy and involvement with the Mattachine Society, to current alternative communities ranging? based on a variety of values. This chapter especially focuses on the book’s queer theory emphasis; also, it provides additional examples of how Aboriginal populations relate of these radical faerie communities. Povinelli describes the inverted relationship between the two, stating “if genealogy is the overtly negative social condition through which positive state values are distributed to indigenous subjects in settler colonies – such that indigenous Australians must remove themselves from the destiny of a hyper-valued freedom in order to obtain state resources – freedom is the overtly positive social condition through which negative state disciplines are exacted on people like Jai[, a member of a faerie community” (101). Povinelli uses radical faerie groups as a way to show issues with her own argument of freedom, questioning if these groups are really as free as they claim to be.

The Empire of Love’s third chapter, “The Intimate Event and Genealogical Society,” centers on understanding “how the intimate event continues to hold such a grip on liberal social and psychic life, given all the contradictory discourse that cluster around it, threatening the magical qualities invested in it” (182). Povinelli’s central argument is that the intimate event, by which she means the intimate event of modern love, is not an actual event. Through an exploration of what separates love from lust and other affects, the author solidifies the intimate event as something uniquely between two people, where “object and subject of enunciation appear to collapse into one another, forming a new plural subject of thought” (193). Povinelli continues to range broadly by connecting issues of race to those facing queer populations. One pivotal example of this connection of racial injustices and injustices faced by queer population in her argument is her use of legal scholar Randall Kennedy and his understanding of Loving v. Virginia and its implications for the recognition and legalization of same-sex marriage. Povinelli uses the intimate and love to argue against how the popular acceptance of genealogy, race, and gender have allowed normative idea of marriage to become engrained in current culture. This chapter’s argument hinges on the way love can be defined and qualified between two people, allowing this understanding of love and intimacy to allow those arguing for a wider recognition of marriages to push for a broader recognition of marriage.

Povinelli’s book tackles issues such as disease, alternative communities, and marital rights through the author’s unique experience as both a member of the queer community and an anthropologist with extensive experience with aboriginal populations in northern Australia. Her structure, three independent essays, combine with her clear and authoritative voice to persuasively present her ideas on these topics within queer theory, affect theory, and anthropology to the reader.

Kandis H. Sisson