The Empire of Love

Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality

The Empire of Love

Public Planet Books

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Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: Published: August 2006

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Queer Theory

In The Empire of Love anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli reflects on a set of ethical and normative claims about the governance of love, sociality, and the body that circulates in liberal settler colonies such as the United States and Australia. She boldly theorizes intimate relations as pivotal sites where liberal logics and aspirations absorbed through settler imperialism are manifest, where discourses of self-sovereignty, social constraint, and value converge.

For more than twenty years, Povinelli has traveled to the social worlds of indigenous men and women living at Belyuen, a small community in the Northern Territory of Australia. More recently she has moved across communities of alternative progressive queer movements in the United States, particularly those who identify as radical faeries. In this book she traces how liberal binary concepts of individual freedom and social constraint influence understandings of intimacy in these two worlds. At the same time, she describes alternative models of social relations within each group in order to highlight modes of intimacy that transcend a reductive choice between freedom and constraint.

Shifting focus away from identities toward the social matrices out of which identities and divisions emerge, Povinelli offers a framework for thinking through such issues as what counts as sexuality and which forms of intimate social relations result in the distribution of rights, recognition, and resources, and which do not. In The Empire of Love Povinelli calls for, and begins to formulate, a politics of “thick life,” a way of representing social life nuanced enough to meet the density and variation of actual social worlds.


The Empire of Love has much to offer, not least of which is a vision of how an anthropologist might keep vigil with the wounds that liberalism inscribes on bodies and minds. . . . [A] brave and useful book.” — Danilyn Rutherford, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Empire of Love is a remarkable book which is theoretically ambitious as it is compelling. It makes a very significant critical contribution to thinking sexuality in the operations of liberal governance, to open up and reinvigorate this field of analysis and theoretical intervention.” — Silvia Posocco, Darkmatter

“[A] lively and engaging style. . . . [T]he final chapter of the book is absorbing reading and should be a set text for students in women’s and queer studies.” — Helen Pringle, Australian Journal of Political Science

“[A] unique work by a unique author.” — Sonia Ryang, American Anthropologist

“[A]n important contribution to understanding how 'heterotopias', or spaces of otherness, continue to be constructed and performed (sometimes even despite agents' intentions) by those who resist all imperial hegemonizing of the social field—in this case one which aims to solve the 'problem' of difference and equality through the production of identical liberal agents with intimate selves that are immanently governable. It will be important reading for all those interested in liberal colonial governance, post-colonial theory, queer theory or studies in biopolitics.” — Robert Lee Nichols, Theory & Event

“[T]here are some great insights and vivid examples . . . and the whole project is animated by a passionate concern about the real dilemmas and material consequences of life and lobe. In these ways, Povinelli amply demonstrates the virtues of transcending ‘sexuality studies’ as a think unto itself—a ghettoized scholarly domain.” — Steven Epstein, American Journal of Sociology

“Elizabeth Povinelli's new book, The Empire of Love, elaborates a stronger way of understanding what goes by the name of identity.” — Elspeth Probyn, Criticism

“The great strength of Povinelli’s work is the introduction of a way of thinking about the interconnectedness of individual experiences and indeed the contingency of one’s experience on the existence of another.” — Damien W. Riggs, Continuum

“This is a fresh, original and compelling text from an author with a diverse cultural and academic background. . . . [A] text of originality, insight and considerable charm. Decades of close engagement with individuals and groups from hidden, suppressed, misunderstood and frequently maligned cultures (and subcultures) have served Povinelli well.” — Graeme Lyle La Macchia, Griffith Law Review

“Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s Empire of Love is a stunning achievement, tracking the intricate connections between forms of liberal governance and forms of love in the contemporary world. Povinelli renounces any temptation to take the highway of thought and instead takes the reader on a journey in which worlds known and less-known are slowly and patiently explored and shared. This is a book that touches the soul.” — Veena Das, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

“What a brilliant book. Elizabeth A. Povinelli strives to make all the intellectual moves that need to be made today: connecting studies of sexuality to other phenomena that seem to be unrelated, thus opening out what gets to count as ‘sexuality’; thinking about sexuality in relation to liberal governance; and moving us beyond the binary opposition of freedom versus constraint. These arguments are refreshing as well as pressing for our times.” — Lisa Rofel, author of Desiring China

“Writing in this exquisite and courageous book of her experiences of community at opposite ends of the world, Elizabeth A. Povinelli meditates here on everything that both links and divides Australian indigenes from North American radical faeries—and, in so doing, provides us with an astonishing account of embodied intimacies caught between global discourses of individual freedom and social constraint.” — Andrew Parker, editor of The Philosopher and His Poor by Jacques Rancière


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University, where she is also Codirector of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture. She is the author of The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, also published by Duke University Press. She is a former editor of the journal Public Culture.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Empires of Love: An Introduction 1

1. Rotten Worlds 27

2. Spiritual Freedom, Cultural Copyright 95

3. The Intimate Event and Genealogical Society 175

Notes 237

Bibliography 257
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3889-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3836-9
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