Love and Marriage (3)

April 28, 2011 § 8 Comments

“The therapeutic narrative is located at the tenuous, conflict-ridden and unstable junction between the market and the language of rights which saturates civil society,” Illouz writes. Insofar as they have managed to be recognized as complete members of society — as citizens and bourgeois professionals — men and women, and members of different economic classes, are now encouraged to practice this therapeutic discourse of self-distancing, whether in the workplace (middle managers are now expected to regularly solicit their employees’ feelings and are trained to ‘manage’ them as well as their own) or in their personal lives. Indeed, therapeutic discourse brings commodity logic into areas of life such as friendly and romantic relationships, which are less directly tied to economic gain and often fancy themselves opposed to it. Illouz studies how precisely the world of online dating is structured like a job market, even on sites not geared toward casual hookups: the cynicism created on both sides of any potential exchange by the vast quantity of options on display, hundreds for every style and taste, to be subjected to cost-benefit analysis, the demand that one convert one’s image and personality into sales pitches. How unromantic and even dehumanizing all this is is not lost on anyone (we are dealing neither with false consciousness nor subjects spoken by discourse), but the interesting thing is that it is presented as the demystification of love. The multimedia self-presentation of online profiles is supposed to bypass the ‘bullshit’ (and risk) of drunken courtship in bars and clubs to foreground the ‘real person.’ The whole exchange is rationalized. The phobia of “drama” so common on these sites neatly sums up their contradictory nature: ostensibly designed to facilitate the search for Romance they do so by eliminating as far as possible the chance of actually experiencing it. The logic of Facebook establishes an even more direct link between personal relations and market relations: under the sign of ‘friendship’ (which, again, ‘everyone knows’ is just a word) users convert their personal associations and consumer preferences into a database for use by marketing firms. Online social networks advance bourgeois utopia in all its contradictions — the conditions for more ‘open,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘ethical’ relations march hand in hand with the extension of market relations into all aspects of social life, regulating it by enforcing consistency. But the same networks permit new kinds of ‘closed,’ ‘dishonest,’ and ‘unethical’ relations (not to mention politically radical ones, left and right), justifying more rigorous governmental regulation and/or obnoxious moralizing.

If social media highlights the truth about anything, maybe it’s that ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ as we most easily recognize  them — as the clichéd images of wistfully anachronistic, apolitical forms of community — are obstacles to liberating our social lives from pointless suffering, not alternatives to cold-hearted capitalist rationality but its dominant means of organizing everyday life. But the interplay of market mechanisms and ‘anti-economic’ ethical demands to regulate social and cultural life in both economic and non-economic contexts is as old as ‘old media,’ which is also ‘social’; some 18th century novels created ideal models for (non-market) female value through suffering, others depicted amorous intrigues in what Christian Thorne wittily calls “Machiavellian romances of the marketplace,” a few tried to do both. The dialectic of personal property and personal character (personality, soul) is old. Common sense has it that capitalism progressively undermines the basis of traditional relationships, first the economic and political ones, then the emotional (bourgeois marriage and friendship were declared non-economic in the 18th century; today it’s considered ‘codependent’ to rely on anyone other than yourself, even emotionally — ‘relationships aren’t therapy,’ etc.). But even as it invalidates their earlier reasons for existing, it maintains them as tools for self-protection and consolation. Encouraged to misrecognize our relationships as detached from any biological, political, or economic imperative, or any collective project, we feel we make friends and lovers for no other reason than to assuage loneliness, and perhaps boredom. Marriage, for example, is one of the few securities against dying alone we have left.

Yet at the same time, the boundaries of monogamy are still actively policed, by feminists as often as conservative family values types. Support for monogamy on the left (at least in heterosexual relationships) tends to center on male privilege. Men, as everyone from Richardson to Engels to Hollywood to Dworkin will tell you, are essentially sexual libertarians, supporting marriage when it fails to restrain them and opposing it when it succeeds, sometimes in a way that superficially resembles feminism but is always just about getting laid. The biological drive argued by evolutionary psychologists and the potentially reversible historical gender identity argued by feminists and sociologists converge on sociopathic libido. On the right hand is the responsible, settled life where everyone’s rights are respected, and on the left is the jungle of sexual competition, a state of emotional adolescence and physical savagery, fit only for downmarket paperbacks and college dorms (and online dating sites, where one keeps running into these schmucks).

Here’s Judith Butler:

“Nevertheless, those who live outside the conjugal frame or maintain modes of social organization for sexuality that are neither monogamous nor quasi-marital are more and more considered unreal, and their loves and losses less than ‘true’ loves and ‘true’ losses. The derealization of this domain of human intimacy and sociality works by denying reality and truth to the relations at issue.”

Marriage in particular has also ‘returned’ as a class marker. A recent spate of articles announces that marriage rates in general are down and divorce rates are up, but this trend is significantly less pronounced in the petit bourgeois professional class, a reversal of earlier generational norms. This is the new ‘marriage gap.’

About half (52%) of all adults in this country were married in 2008; back in 1960, seven-in-ten (72%) were. This decline has occurred along class lines. In 2008, a 16-percentage-point gap separated marriage rates of college graduates (64%) and of those with a high school diploma or less (48%). In 1960, this gap had been just four percentage points (76% vs. 72%). The Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends project finds that those with a high school diploma or less are just as likely as those with a college degree to say they want to marry. But they place a higher premium than college graduates (38% vs. 21%) on financial stability as a very important reason to marry.

Which also has a racial component:

There are notable differences by race in the education, marriage and income patterns of U.S.-born adults ages 30-44. Black marriage rates, already lower than those of whites in 1970, have dropped more sharply since then, especially for the least educated. Only 33% of black women and 44% of black men were married in 2007.

And we are assured that a good marriage is the basis for peak human health and emotional well-being.

All of which puts me in mind of a passage from Adorno in Minima Moralia:

“Marriage as a community of interests unfailingly means the degradation of the interested parties, and it is the perfidy of the world’s arrangements that no-one, even if aware of it, can escape such degradation. The idea might therefore be entertained that marriage without ignominy is a possibility reserved for those spared the pursuit of interests, for the rich. But the possibility is purely formal, for the privileged are precisely those in whom the pursuit of interests has become second nature — they would not otherwise uphold privilege.” 

For the class modern marriage seems to fit best, normative time is comparatively not, being on the whole less determined by forces contrary to individual interest. ‘Sustainability’ is its ethical vision — the point is just to keep going, though we appropriate justifications from other classes and other people whose lives are more focused on the threat of economic insecurity, child-rearing, and are in general shorter. To these we apply a veneer of evolutionary psychology, pop neuroscience, and pop historicism, in an effort to naturalize the conventional behaviors of the least ‘externally’ determined social class in history.

To round all this out: the rules of love — the behaviors and ethical frames that it seems to imply — are responses to the splitting of the social body and the corresponding splitting of the self. We are forced to rely on them to protect ‘our’ ‘emotional’ interests from the jungle of competition, which of course just intensifies our isolation. The rationalization of polyamory, still in its early stages but steadily gaining ground with your Facebook friends, is an honorable attempt to extend the juridical structure of monogamy to other forms of love and sex. As with the extension of marriage rights to homosexual love, the side effect is to fit alternative arrangements to normative or “straight,” “homogeneous” time (cf. Judith Halberstam), the time of continuity, predictable life stages, and the primacy of a ‘sustainable,’ individualized concept of interest.

Here is a vaguely cartographic taxonomy of queer love*:

Or arrangements that need to be followed in order to secure the self against emotional pain and separation, that piece of the self buried in a lost romantic utopia, irrecoverable yet constantly at risk of being lost forever. A properly tragic complex that obscures the existence of relationships of mutual sensitivity and repeated contact, adaptability to shifting desires, and careful attention, behind an impossible search, a ship lost at sea. Love relations (as long as we’re dreaming) not misconstrued as supplements or substitutes for a debilitated social life, but understood to be its very substance.

* in a real map, the kingdom of ‘Cheating’ would be many times larger.


§ 8 Responses to Love and Marriage (3)

  • traxus4420 says:

    keep this up and you’re going to make me read a romance novel! (that is, beyond the dirty bits at the 2/3 mark)

  • ... says:

    ♥ 🙂

  • ... says:


  • Alex says:

    I’m looking for an apartment in Berlin right now, and one of the common words used in ads for roommates is “unkompliziert.” I know perfectly well that it means that the people looking for a roommate don’t want a sociopath, but my response is always, “Amoebas, nicht Menschen, sind unkompliziert.”

  • Alex says:

    Anti-individualism can be its own kind of reification. The positing of some kind of pure sociality in which we’re all always-already embedded in complex relations, etc., tends to ignore the fact that we always experience it from a certain vantage-point, a certain “I.” It’s easy to parody polyamory as solipsism (clearly, it’s nice to have your cake and eat it too), but I think no one is more aware of the complexity of these attempts to resolve social contradictions than those engaged in (quasi-)utopian projects to deal with them. The question that I think we should ask – is it justified, a la Lacan, to equate the search for happiness with a naive belief that happiness is a concrete thing or to equate the mainstreaming of sexual openness with egotism? The simple answer, I think, is that the popularization of various forms of sexual openness can only be a good thing, unless it isn’t, and that yes, you’re always going to have to deal with the unexpected. Maybe we’re saying the same thing (I’m having a hard time deciphering your last paragraph).

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