Love and Marriage (1)

February 17, 2011 § 7 Comments

Some notes on modern romantic love, by which I mean, love that tends toward monogamy. If there are other possibilities for romantic love, this is the only one I feel capable of thinking all the way to the end: love as a singular, all-encompassing commitment to a single individual, freely entered. The boring kind, in other words. But I won’t pretend this isn’t the situation in which most of us love and think about love, for better and worse (one could say the same thing about romantic love that Fredric Jameson says about capitalism: it’s easier to imagine the end of love than the end of monogamy).

Thus delimited, love is a relation that forces together two contradictory imperatives. An overriding passion grounded in the other, and the seemingly inevitable consequence, an ethical demand that it be rationally administered. There is usually some window of time before the second shoe drops. But if the love is to be sustained, if the initial passion is to be honored, then the couple is obligated to detach that feeling from its immediacy and subject it to rational analysis. Can we fulfill each others’ individual needs. Will we live together. Will we marry. Will we have children. How to divide the housework. How to stay ‘sexy.’ To separate love from these questions is to abandon the whole problem. But if we reduce romantic coupledom to a practical arrangement — like ‘the dominant form of bourgeois social organization’ — we’re not really talking about love anymore either. This is unbearable. When we suffer, our therapist tells us that suffering is reduced by discussing it rationally. Why should the same not be true of love? Even if our reasoning is hedonistic (as it should be) we will have lost something if we equate it with passion. Maybe the pleasure of any emotion is in its seeming immediacy. Not as an overcoming of the self (let’s at least take responsibility for our feelings), but a form of lateral thinking drawn from embodied experience, and which bypasses the plodding labor of analytic thought. Love is hard work, but if it feels like work, it’s not love. The truth of this statement should be a clue that we might be playing a sucker’s game.

Reasoning about love, like any kind of reasoning, is always situational and therefore has a history. Its institutional history is the history of the secularization of marriage and the establishment of distinct gendered identities supposed to ‘complement’ each other in love (even if today the first seems opposed to the second). In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici explains the importance of marriage to the state and the birth of the modern idea of woman through a history of the witch trials — an assault on women bordering on genocide. In response to the material gains won by the peasant revolts (1350-1500) and a population crisis, the mission of the ruling class was clear. The workforce needed to be disciplined and its reproduction needed to be put under the control of the state. Marriage and the family had to monopolize all social life and come under the supervision of a centralized state. The repression of all collective forms of sociality and sexuality (“sports, games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers”) was a necessary condition. And another was accomplished through a patriarchal class compromise: the delegitimization of unwaged labor, the expansion of private property through enclosure of the commons, and the restriction of property ownership and wage labor to men pacified their revolutionary desires while enlisting them as the overseers of their wives and children, who were now reduced to domestic slaves.

“According to this new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will…in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.”

All of that was the carrot. There was also the stick: though all women could be accused, any woman who had an independent existence outside the confines of marriage (elderly widows, pagans, midwives, prostitutes, etc.) was in special danger of being tried as a witch, tortured, raped, and killed — estimates run anywhere between 40,000 to 100,000 executions. A new female image was constructed around plays like The Taming of the Shrew, part of a propaganda campaign that sought to literally demonize women, defining them as lusty, willful, and irrational. “The definition of women as demonic beings, and the atrocious and humiliating practices to which so many of them were subjected left indelible marks in the collective female psyche and in women’s sense of possibilities…For the witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.”

After the witch trials ended towards the end of the 17th century, middle class women were to conform their bodies to the image of a new feminine ideal, combining Christian (asexual) morality, a contradictory though ornamental eroticism (‘beauty’), and enlightened manners, a piece of private property who could be trotted out for public display when needed. But as we will see, the image of the witch would always remain latent, ready to accuse any woman (of any class) who refused or failed to live up to the impossible ideal of femininity.

Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, in addition to being a materialist critique of psychoanalysis and a study of Nazi ideology, also includes a survey of what he calls the “monogamization” of Europe from the Reformation through the Enlightenment. The divided self of psychoanalysis, existentialism, and other theorists of ‘modern alienation’ is the result, Theweleit argues, of a sexual division more rigorously policed than ever before. This was the formation of modern gender roles, through unequal restrictions on sexuality and an unequal division of labor (waged vs. unwaged). Marriage conceived as the joining of sexual opposites developed along with the new class divisions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. ‘New moralities,’ whether progressive or regressive, always appear as criticisms of ruling class hypocrisy, and are displayed on the bodies of women. The quasi-divine feminine of the bourgeois romantic poets, for example, was a reaction to the ‘immoral’ sexual promiscuity of 18th century noblewomen. For the rising middle class, for whom women’s domestic servitude was most successfully naturalized, marriage was not to be determined by anything other than true love. They felt justified in rejecting noble intrigues as pathetic and corrupting attempts to compensate for loveless arranged marriages. With the bourgeois in power, it was working class women whose sexuality was then persecuted according to the new ‘progressive’  standards (now through quiet internment in prisons and asylums instead of public burning). The witch trials themselves could be seen as another example, albeit ideologically distinct, of patriarchal ‘new morality’ undermining solidarity within classes. Both masculine hardness (the ignorant, ‘violent’ man of the proletariat) and masculine castration (the liberal, ‘sensitive’ man of the bourgeoisie) respond to the disturbing malleability of female images and their power to frame female bodies. For Theweleit, the proto-Nazi Freikorps officers he analyzes thus represent an extreme rather than a deviation of normal masculinity:

“The men construct an image of a high-born woman (‘white countess’). They then worship that image, which must be asexual. They persecute the sexuality of the ‘low-born’ woman — proletarian, communist, Jew (=whore) — by first making her a prostitute, then murdering her; meanwhile lack is maintained in relationships with their own (child-bearing and asexual) women through their exclusion (as nameless wives) from social productions and from the contrafraternities of men. All of these forms of oppression — adoration, murder, exploitation — are related.”

According to this account, romantic love is a relation to the other defined by the desire to reincorporate a missing part of the self, a compensatory response to intolerable social and (in consequence) psychological divisions. Those divisions go hand in hand with the Enlightenment model of subjectivity, capable of what Theweleit calls “self-distancing,” the separation of ego from affect, of essential selfhood from secondary qualities. A masculine subjectivity, always capable of slipping into unrestrained violence when threatened by its ‘unconscious’ — that is, when other entities fail to conform to the alienated ego’s idealized notion of what it lacks. Women, on the other hand, are expected to serve as mere regulating conduits for male desire, binding it to productive social institutions through their enforced economic dependency. Man desires an image, and he gets a nag. Woman’s desires are secondary to her oppressor’s, and she gets a tyrannical child (if not also tyrannical children).

Understood in this way, love is modernity’s containment strategy for threatening, ‘anti-social’ desires, disguised as a good-natured concession to romantic critics of ‘soulless modern society,’ in which men and women are both, in cruelly contradictory ways, dependent on fantasy for emotional fulfillment.

Thankfully this is not the whole story. The next installment will advance from the nebulously defined ‘modern’ to the equally nebulous ‘contemporary.’


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§ 7 Responses to Love and Marriage (1)

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Crary, traxus4420. traxus4420 said: notes on the history of love, gender, marriage: […]

  • Adam František Kollár says:

    beautiful piece here, always looking for more interesting analyses on the web of love. here’s the thing though, even by going against the grain of psychoanalysis and its historical male characters and ambitions, you are still using its premises for argumentation. that is, its still a Western analysis, even if its a rejection, of love’s “function” as social role. as such, then, its a functionalist analysis, which is always the achilles heel of western theory (even the continental stuff).

    why always seek the functional (even critical) “explanation” for something, or for what social role it “fulfills” (note the slight affinities with male subjectivity here) rather than seeing the other performative, cohesive, cultural etc entanglements it might have? what about seeing love as a kind of archive of loves, historical movements, etc?

  • traxus4420 says:

    thanks –

    this is a very limited set of notes toward an institutional history of love as a component of modernism – i think it sets barriers that all the things you’re talking about often try to work around (or, sometimes, ignore altogether). the next part will hopefully get away from this to some extent but i don’t think internal critiques of normativity are bad as long as you don’t assume they determine everything.

  • afkollar says:

    great. i’m looking forward to part ii, iii, etc. i loved (whoa!) american stranger and this blog promises to be excellent as well!

  • […] the more or less neat story of my last post, peoples’ movements — feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonial, queer — have succeeded in […]

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