Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The love culture

Laura Kipnis's Against Love is full of interesting insights, but it's written in the most irritating way. She's always winking at the reader, making strained jokes and dopey analogies, trying to makes her subversiveness commercial. But this also defangs it; writing about how romantic love constitutes an ideology in the snarky prose of a woman's magazine leads to a muddle, as the medium cancels out the message to a degree. As willing as she is to question romantic love's role in stabilizing our current array of social relations under capitalism, she's not willing to take on the ideology embedded in what makes writing commericially viable, and the way that serves the same social relations. She is reinforcing with her tone what she's trying to tear down with the content.

Perhaps it could be defended as a kind of trojan horse, inducing readers to think in the counter-intuitive manner of Frankfurt-school theorists without burdening them with jargon or jarring them with unprepared assaults on their common sense. No, Kipnis is tirelessly reminding us about how contrarian she's being, and how she's writing a "polemic" with no pretense to objectivity. But she's not nearly as uncompromising as she seems to think she's being; instead the whole thing feels compromised in its conception, ashamed of its theoretical roots and ever fearful of a dismissive reading public. It seems like a real polemic would be much more apolegetic in telling its astringent truths. (Read Minima Moralia, for example.) Maybe I'm wrong, but when I imagine a popular yet theoretically informed kind of discourse, I imagine something looser than this, something less locked into magazine-y prose considerations.

Kipnis begins with the crucial point that societies, in order to reproduce themselves, must organize themselves so that certain personality types are reproduced, and that the notion of love is a way through which a person volunteers to mold himself to the appropriate type. Love is a nexus where society's agenda becomes inseparable from an individual's perception of his own. It allows us to feel ideology, what society needs us to think to replicate itself, at the deepest levels of our being, blending it in with our most primal, natural impulses, so that we'll more readily agree that love as we know it (i.e. the social code) is totally, obviously natural, and that alternatives are unthinkable, monsterous. So the stable relationship is a model for one's stable relation to the social order, you maintain peace with one by making accomodations with the other. This is sort of self-evident, when you think of how the family is the basic unit of any society -- of course the logic of what constitutes a family will be dictated by (or at least inbricated with) the logic that orders society. Shifts in love are always mirrored (if not determined) by shifts in social relations. And of course love is not some sort of universal eternal constant. Do we forget this because it's inconvenient to remember it in the face of all the pleasure going along with love, going along with society and being affirmed and validated by it, because this forgetting is necessary to fall in love and believe in it sufficiently to get the joys out of it? Can one be in love and know what love's social function is at the same time? Can one love a person sincerely without loving at the same time the society in which you both live?

For Kipnis (strange to say "for Kipnis" because she seems so uncommmitted to her own argument -- perhaps a deliberate strategy to match her substantive argument against commitment), the refusal to commit to a monogamous relationship is a way of maintaining utopian possibilities, of refusing to be obediant to an exploitative culture, and a way to assure the person you care for doesn't become your inadvertent jailer. In most relationships, Kipnis suggests, we are true to some abstract notion of relationship, which is how ideology has been passed down and internalized by us, rather than to the actual other person, whose own needs are not served by our fidelity, and who is likely as trapped by ideology himself.

The dilemma likely began in the 18th century, when companionate marriage becomes compensatory for the more juridiccal forms of society coming into being, or alternatively, when bourgeois indvidualism requires romantic love as a way of proving to oneself one's autonomy. Rather than having arranged marriages, individuals internalize the criteria that once guided their parents, and they mistake economic rationality and class prerogatives for "chemistry" and "soul mate"-hood. It becomes a protocol for self-examination and self-revelation, a confessional forum in which one takes responsibility for one's deviations and accepts society's dictates (in the form of love's considerations) as one's own best interests. In general, people begin to experience the structures of social order as their deepest, most intimate feelings, and they assent to them the way they assent to their own identity. The discovery of love, of what is a truly limiting set of emotions, in ourselves, we generally interpret as being set free, of opening ourselves up. This is essentially Foucault's argument, that institutions (and their way of describing us) lead us to discover our own subjectivity in order to become personally responsible for our own imprisonment in the cells society prepared for us, and to see those cells as a kind of inevitability, if not a paradise. Thus, intimacy is a velvet-lined cage, an ideology constructed (as Kipnis laboriously points out) of can'ts, an unrealizable ever receding goal, all at once. One's lover is a policeman in disguise. Kipnis sums up the reasons that domesticity is so configured: "Note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate." Love replicates the personality type needed for our capitalist oligarchy. Love "comes spouting the deadening language of the factory, enfolded in household regimes and quashed desires—an efficient way of organizing acquiesence to shrunken expectations and renunciation and status quo." So much for jouissance.

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