Love and Marriage (2)

March 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

The aim of all of this, by the way, is not to deny the universality of ‘love feelings’ (detectable in the brain!). The problem is the reduction of a complex range of emotions to a narrow set of psychological, ethical, and political conclusions — to denaturalize the sense of lack that romantic love promises to completely fill, to relearn it as something that has been expropriated.

Complicating the more or less neat story of my last post, peoples’ movements — feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonial, queer — have succeeded in broadening the scope of privileged subjectivity and substantially redefining it. Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of “instrumental reason,” the reduction of reality to the logic of utility maximization for ‘humanity,’ needs to be modified. There is a good deal of confusion on this issue. Large bodies of work exist on the mutual reinforcement of white supremacist patriarchy, capitalism, Enlightenment liberal theory, and their effects on our capacity to live together. But accounts of how these new social movements of the late 20th century both influenced and were appropriated by their reactionary opposition are less cohesive.

Post-Frankfurt School sociologist Eva Illouz’s work seems to me to be on the right track. As I posted last, she argues that a therapeutic style of communication, assembled from Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism, and professional self-help literature, became the mainstream emotional jargon for 20th century America. Just as feminism forced a rethinking of class among the left, Illouz argues that it also forced a rethinking of what it meant to be normal, and what it meant to be a man, albeit not necessarily in line with feminism’s goals. Psychoanalysis altered how the ‘first world,’ both male and female, explained itself, as both subject to the telos of self-help — personal realization and happiness within a basically naturalized capitalism. Whether ‘sick’ or ‘healthy,’ male or female, we are compelled to talk about ourselves and our love relationships in the language of therapy, constructing narratives around originary childhood traumas meant to explain the sources of unhappiness: failure to achieve professional success, a happy marriage, or otherwise find satisfaction. (“I can’t love women because my mother didn’t love me enough!” “My hyper-competitive drive is compensation for childhood bullying!”) In addition to normalizing psychological suffering, we learn to understand ourselves as individual bundles of individual neuroses, addictions, and traumas. Illouz argues that this actually encourages the “self-distancing” described by Theweleit. Converting our feelings into a highly conventional language may in some ways expand our repertoire of feelings (as even a debased language is capable of), but it is also a way of detaching them from the limitless potential for self-realization we assume lies beneath all superficial detail. We affirm our uniqueness by commodifying our personal qualities, as either tools to be exploited or barriers to be overcome through consuming specialized products and services. Rather than understand our problems in social and political terms that might lead to communities of shared interest (in the manner of feminists, labor unions, environmental activists, etc.), we seek confirmation from various support groups tailored to suit our special brand(s) of suffering, the point of which is to render us self-sufficient. Ironically, the communities of interest are the ones denounced with the label “identity politics.”

Readers of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which modern medical and legal institutions produced confessing, self-scrutinizing subjects for whom the truth of the self (and ultimately truth itself) is to be found in sexual desire and forms of perversion, should find this story familiar. Against Foucault’s argument that the modern institutionalization of the self produced new pleasures (“pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing the truth, of discovering and exposing it”), however, she notices that the pleasures of inquisition are not distributed evenly — rather, the therapeutic narrative increased the emotional suffering it was supposed to alleviate, extending it in new directions and creating new dependencies and therefore new ‘opportunities.’ It is inessential whether or not we enjoy carving ourselves up for various market-based interactions, guided by the recommendations of experts; in any case we are coerced. A person who fails to make themselves legible in this way is quite literally antisocial, with consequences up to and including institutionalization (is there any earlier indicator of insanity than an inability to make the reasons for one’s ‘own actions’ commonly understood?). In any case it is striking how much mileage Foucault gets out of assuming the universal appeal of kink.

Another problem I have with Foucault’s account is his lack of distinction between monogamy as a sexual relation and as a form of social reproduction guaranteed by marriage. Against the (unreferenced) ‘Marxian’ argument that reproduction is the economic base to sexuality’s superstructure, he writes:

“People often say that modern society has attempted to reduce sexuality to the couple — the heterosexual and, insofar as possible, legitimate couple. There are equal grounds for saying that it has, if not created, at least outfitted and made to proliferate, groups with multiple elements and a circulating sexuality: a distribution of points of power, hierarchized and placed opposite to one another; ‘pursued’ pleasures, that is, both sought after and searched out; compartmental sexualities that are tolerated or encouraged; proximities that serve as surveillance procedures, and function as mechanisms of intensification; contacts that operate as inductors.”

But I think what Foucault is actually noticing is that sexuality and the normative force of the couple are two different things. Sexualities proliferate, and a scientia sexualis can develop, only when untethered from social reproduction (whether construed as biological, economic, or ideological). And this is just what Foucault argues — the modern production of sexualities only requires a stable center (heterosexual monogamy) to define itself against,  a kind of fiction whose practical influence over any individual’s sex life need not be binding (and Foucault repeatedly implies it’s silly to believe it is). But what he ignores is that the real strength of this normative model persists even if it has little to do with sexuality. This is the freedom (that is, the power) to form social bonds that are both lasting and legitimate, which go beyond single human lifetimes to become institutions. These are mediated by the family, and at the family’s core is the couple, the one permissible free choice in this domain. The institutionally guaranteed predictability of domestic life and its separation from the public is what allows for our age’s sexual diversity (which, incidentally, still seems most open to enjoyment by bourgeois white men). Everything may be open to the swinging husband no less than the adolescent of means, but these ‘life stages’ exist on a single continuum. And that is why I write about love, instead of sex.


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§ One Response to Love and Marriage (2)

  • These posts are great.

    I just wanted to note two things:

    Foucault, once recognised as an example of, (and rather typical once you get past the theatrical self-presentation), the proprietor mainstream, rather than outsider or critic, seems to illustrate the kind of “first as tragedy, then as farce” camp pageantry of the noble predecessor and model with the way he fanatsises, in the later volume of HoS, early classical society as kind of a paradise for caricatures of himself, with slaves all around, housebound powerless wives for breeding, and the landlord-citizens with whom he identifies (through Sade and Nietzsche) having something like this self-helpy, therapeutic relation to their appetite for other people. And one becomes aware that Foucault isn’t watching and recording this merely – he is engaged in establishing these norms, these moeurs and these values, with other members of his class, in an effort to recreate such a society, or something like it for proprietied “First World” men. But it couldn’t really come to dominance until “neoliberalism” was in full swing (that is, it depends on a highly stratified society with elitist values to justify inequality). But he isn’t merely witnessing but performing the cultural labours to build “sexual” neoliberalism, advertising liberty and concealing structural tyranny.

    The other thing I wanted to mention is André Shiffrin, formerly Foucault’s American publisher at Pantheon, has this book out Words and Money, (haven’t read it) about the disastrous takeover of book publishing by big media and the way Newhouse and Murdoch do in fact interfere in content directly (the reactionary shift in the spectrum of ideas is not just a side effect of profit maximising). But the example of good practises abolished by the media megacorps he offers in his (very engaging) talks on his book tour is Foucault, who turned out eventually to be a big success in the US of course but it took a long time. Schiffrin’s intent of course is to show how big capital, demanding that every book be profitable (which really changes the m.o. of commercial publishing), means Foucault would not get published today. (But in his stories, it is not Foucault that the corporate brass actually scolds editorial about, it’s Chomsky’s political books, and left stuff.) Anyhow, one realises that Schiffrin (who is French by birth) is talking of the virtues of old publishing where he personally, with a few other educated experts of the upper middle class, would select Foucault and publish him at a loss and do everything to disseminate his ideas in the US, without copping to the evident role of their less-powerful-than-Newhouse but still significant power (in money and institutional clout) and these lost-lamented practises in NY elite commercial publishing, in insinuating and eventually imposing Foucault’s ideas in an environment (centred on Universities) that had been increasingly taken over by radical left American thought (James Turner talks about the actual praxis here), and that Foucault represented intellectual and political reaction of the usual substitute pseudo-radical sort. When you align this with the therapeutic and self-improvement discourse of these other institutions, from daytime TV to medical psychology to the cosmetics industry, the import of that publishing savvy of that specialised class to which Schiffrin belongs in the period prior to the consolidation becomes clear, as a precondition to the consolidation which followed. All these factors together establish the hegemony of an idea of individualist subjectivity, dressed up paper dolls of these romanticised citizen elites of a classical age, the Platonic upper classes, who are restaged as “immaterial labourers” (producers of meaning, the _real_ creators of our world) rather than as the proprietor approriator ruling class.


    A person who fails to make themselves legible in this way is quite literally antisocial, with consequences up to and including institutionalization (is there any earlier indicator of insanity than an inability to make the reasons for one’s ‘own actions’ commonly understood?).

    Brings to mind Zadie Smith this week recounting the difference between her take and that of her students on Toussaint’s The Bathroom.

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