Thursday, February 08, 2007

you knew this time would come. most probably in the month of february.

valentine’s day is right around the corner, if you hadn’t noticed (which of course you have, because it’s all that our lovely consumer-driven media has been jamming down our throats since approximately January 2nd). you should also know that this means the return of a young tradition here on this little blog:

Kate’s Contrarian Posts about Romance™!

i so enjoyed meticulously dissecting (oh, all right, haphazardly slinging about) many of the tightly-held notions about love and marriage last year that i thought, why not do it again? especially since i am still semi-obsessed with the book i just finished last week, against love: a polemic by laura kipnis, which actually meticulously dissects the social phenomenon of adultery and what it says about our societal schizophrenia when it comes to marriage.

good stuff, people, seriously. and a great book to be reading on the subway over the next week if you really enjoy going against the grain!

i highly recommend that you all check out stephanie zacharek’s review of the book on salon.com; it does a much better job of consolidating the book’s major points, themes, and opinions better than i ever could. but if you’re too lazy (i know you), here are a few crucial excerpts:

first, an explanation of the title and overall point of the book:

Her book isn't called a polemic for nothing, which means, as she explains in the introduction, it's designed to turn us upside-down: "Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head, even about sacrosanct subjects like love. A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger. It won't injure you (well, not severely); it's just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions." Let's forget that Kipnis even needs to explain what a polemic is. My guess is that she wanted to stem the tide of letters from serious-minded cuddlebugs everywhere, taking pen to paper to assert angrily, "We happen to like being married!"


a summary of how kipnis draws a parallel between “work” and “love”:

…in Kipnis' view, there are strong societal forces at work that depend on our swallowing, hook, line and sinker, the notion of marriage as a romantic institution…Submerged in the marital jelly of docility and numbness, we're much more productive and easier to manage. We work hard all the livelong day, and then come home, where we work hard at being married, because we all know that "Marriage is hard work." And then, before we know it, all our hard work has killed our libidos, leaving them limp and lifeless and hanging like damp, dejected rags on the clothesline of life.


a hypothesis about why that parallel might exist:

The point is that marriage, which ostensibly jerks us into a lockstep of manageability that should ideally last a lifetime, serves society more than it serves the human spirit. And that's where the idea of adultery as civil disobedience comes in. Kipnis isn't interested in feelings here: What she really cares about are social patterns…Adultery is a form of risk-taking, a renegade act, a reaffirmation that, OK, we may be married, but we're not dead. We're humans with "messy subjectivities."


and finally:

…when she expands her argument, arguing that the hallowed halls of our government have much to lose if people either don't marry or don't stay married, she really gets cooking. Kipnis enumerates, with unrepressed glee, most of the politicians in recent history who have espoused family values only to be embarrassed by a naked mistress or two in their own closets…And, she reminds us, Bill Clinton, with Hillary's support, signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which she calls "a custom-built stockade fence to protect matrimony against infiltration by nefarious homosexual elements and safeguard the more panicky states from having to recognize another state's gay marriages, should any state actually grant the privilege, which none had."


that is a lot of block quoting, i know, but i wanted to give you an idea of what kipnis is doing here: taking what is considered in polite company to be an unmitigated evil – adultery – and unearthing the societal and cultural imperatives that make it so. we think of such things as givens, as naturals. “of course infidelity is bad! Of course ‘true love’ is good!” kipnis pulls apart these “truth”s that we have learned to regard, from day one, as self-evident.

all of this is not to say that i won’t, in the end, choose “companionate coupledom” (a phrase kipnis uses interchangeably with marriage to indicate lifelong, monogamous commitment between two people) as the best option – hell, i’m there now, and it’s working out pretty well! but just because i’m enjoying it doesn’t mean i can’t take a hard look at the bigger picture: how did i get here in the first place? what forces bigger than myself are influencing my decisions are far as this relationship goes? what price do I pay for it? and ultimately, is it worth it?

regardless of what the answers are for each and every different person, i think these are questions from which we shouldn’t shrink, or shy away. if society is screaming at you do one thing, consider why that is – consider what is being asked of you, as well as what is being offered. as the clichéd bumper sticker implores, “question authority”! chances are, you’ve got good reason to.

now that i’ve introduced this year’s Contrarian™ topic (luckily, it’s just about as broad and meandering as last year!), i am going try to post some excerpts directly from against love in the days ahead, to encourage some reactions and opinions from you all. so please, by all means: disagree, concede, tear apart, and “problematize” away. i’d really love (no pun intended) to hear what you all think about this massive, challenging, and complicated subject.

16 comments:

Toast said...

We work hard all the livelong day, and then come home, where we work hard at being married, because we all know that "Marriage is hard work."

See, that second part just doesn't apply for me. Yeah, Tracy and I "work hard" all day. Then we come home every single night, cook a delicious meal, drink wine & beer, play games, watch TV and otherwise entertain ourselves.

That said, good post. I look forward to reading more. You were right: It sounds like Against Love makes a nice sociological companion book to Why We Love.

KD'sM said...

Sorry, I can't stop myself from commenting on this one.

"Companionate Coupledom" ??? Are we really at the point in society that a semantic change is the answer?

Maybe it's time to let "marriage" be whatever the definition that the 2 people doing it decide it to be. Go out on the "proverbial limb" and screw society's definition. And let the world know you are doing that. Given that, there is the potential for lifelong commitments that are fullfilling, rewarding, and provide the opportunity for individual and mutual growth...which then can translate into understanding and growth in the larger sociological picture...and on and on...

To "Toast".. so glad that marriage isn't hard work right now..but prep yourself, cause when you come out on the other side of the hard work that most likely will occur at sometime...it can gets even better...

Oh and Kate, I will attempt to read the book:)

kate.d. said...

is that my mother speaking? :) gauging the cryptic moniker and familiar tone, i suspect it may be - but if it's not, whoever you are - you are a lot like my mom!

anyway, two points:

the "companionate coupledom" was not her attempt at semantic change, but just used in the book to cast a wider net for monogamous relationships than just marriage (i.e., to encompass people in long-term monogamous relationships who aren't technically married, and gay and lesbian monogamous couples. she's an equal opportunity polemicist :) ).

and as to this idea: Maybe it's time to let "marriage" be whatever the definition that the 2 people doing it decide it to be. you've teed it up for me here! this is going to be my next topic for posting - i'll try to write it in the next day or so - because this is one of the central questions as BoyCat and i consider marriage as a possibility. is it truly possible to do such a thing as "defining marriage for yourself," given the intrinsically societal nature of the arrangement?

i mean, you go to city hall and get a license - that's what makes you "married." it's societal. the lack of a state-issued piece of paper is all that technically makes me and BoyCat "unmarried" at present. so wouldn't it seem like, if you were really interested in screwing society's definitions, staying away from society's involvement in your relationship would be the way to go?

(these are not hypothetical questions, by the way! i am truly wondering about this issue, in a serious way. so definitely more on this from me later...)

kate.d. said...

oh, and toast, i was thinking it might be a fun little inter-blog project - if you are up for it sometime in the near/far future - for me to read "why we love" and you to read "against love", and then we can both post about it. given that you already did a short review of "why we love" on twoglasses and i'm doing, well, this, it could be kinda interesting!

lemme know what you think :)

Toast said...

so glad that marriage isn't hard work right now..but prep yourself, cause when you come out on the other side of the hard work that most likely will occur at sometime

Oddly enough, I feel like we're on the other side already, in the "as good as it gets" stage. The key was that we did our "hard work" elsewhere, me in my first marriage and Tracy in her many relationships prior to ours. When we got together we'd both pretty much figured out exactly what we wanted out of a relationship and how to get it.

Also, I think a great deal of the work people do to keep a relationship together happens when kids complicate things. We've recently determined that isn't going to be an issue for us, so there you go.

Toast said...

if you were really interested in screwing society's definitions, staying away from society's involvement in your relationship would be the way to go?

It's one thing to say "screw society", but marriage is so much more than a societal sanction of a relationship. It brings together the families and friends of the two individuals, both to be witnesses to an act of commitment and also to bind them together into a newer, larger community in their own right.

Toast said...

lemme know what you think :)

Sounds great. Hey, maybe we can exchange books when you and BoyCat change your mind at the last minute and come up to NYC for TartFest?

kd'sm said...

OF course it's your mother speaking:) But given that we are approaching the big 30 in years of wedded bliss, I figured I had to make a statement of some sort. And I think that you can attest to the fact that it can be done in a less than conventional fashion and, as long as all parties are in agreement as to what that is, it can fullfilling and long lasting. Also, I am really curious that "monogamous" seems to be a critical word in the on going discussion of marriage..I guess the question would be.. monogamous in what sense of that word....critically important point to think about...

And toast, glad your hard work is done but that does make the point that it (hard work) is usually going to pop up there somewhere...sometimes when you least expect it..hope yours is mostly done:)

And I agree with toast's point RE:
"It's one thing to say "screw society", but marriage is so much more than a societal sanction of a relationship"

And. really, how did you know it was me.....

Cinnamon said...

I think marriage is hard, in the same way that any long-lived and close relationship can be hard. How many times have we had friends we've known for a long time who say things that hurt our feelings and we have to talk to them about it? But when you live with someone and are intimate with them, the frequency of those days and the areas for more are even bigger and therefore more likely to happen.

And I have to disagree with Toast. All marriage is, is a legal contract that binds the finances, belongings, legal rights, etc. of two people firmly together. The inter-mingling of families, the creation of a larger community doesn't rely on marriage. But! Because weddings bring these people together, AND because people are used to the societal expectations of marriage, ONLY after people are married do these things generally happen.

Despite the plethora of in-law problems I had, it was telling that several folks on my partner's side welcomed me to the family after we were married. We'd been together for 10 years, I'd spent many major and minor holidays with them, they came to our housewarmings, they discussed debt with us. But only after we had a signed piece of paper from a judge did they welcome me to the family. On the flip side, my family considered Andrew part of the family about 1-2 years after we moved in together. When my nephew was born, Andrew was called an uncle. My brothers have called him brother-in-law for years. But his family is very traditional and my family has a very broad sense of family. I consider Roni, her hubby and child, and a couple of other friends our family.

Sorry to go all ranty, but I firmly believe, or else I wouldn't have finally agreed to it, that marriage can be what you make of it. But I will say that it is a lot harder to get the people around you to understand that you make of it differently than they do.

And I will agree with Kate's mom, that after you go through tough times, after you struggle with major problems and find resolution between the two of you, the love you have feels more secure and intimate. And many times that has to do with kids. And many times it doesn't.

Next time, I might actually respond to the book and not just your commenters.

kate.d. said...

really, how did you know it was me.....

is this a serious query? i should hope not :) i knew it was you in the same way the psychic knew to ask "so who's kate" - cosmic connection :) that, and listening to your tone and manner of speech for 26 years!

But I will say that it is a lot harder to get the people around you to understand that you make of it differently than they do.

that's exactly my problem. the conflict between what *you* (universally speaking, not you cinn) think you're doing, and the assumptions everyone else can and will make about what you're doing based on the wedding ring they see on your finger.

i can draw a close paralell here to my overall problem with madonna. seriuosly. i will add that to my post, and all will become clear. well, maybe not clear, but i'll do it anyway!

Toast said...

The inter-mingling of families, the creation of a larger community doesn't rely on marriage.

True, and a Bar Mitzvah doesn't literally make a boy into a man. It is almost universally true across all human cultures, however, that we mark important passages between life stages with communal ceremonies. Hence, weddings.

(Not sure exactly where I was going with that. Hope it makes sense anyway.)

kate.d. said...

It is almost universally true across all human cultures, however, that we mark important passages between life stages with communal ceremonies. Hence, weddings.

teed it up again! you people are too good to me. this brings up a great point about ritual. my family had an interesting discussion about ritual based on this twisty post.

read the post, because there's oversimplification ahead on my part. twisty points out that ritual is always a give-and-take kind of situation. as people, we get something out of rituals, but something is almost always asked of us in return. it is the assessment of what is given versus what is gained by participation in ritual that interests me, especially when it comes to marriage (weddings, obviously, being the most prominent ritual associated with marriage.)

ok, so, we've got the "marriage is what you make it post," to be followed by the "marriage as ritual" post. i'm gonna have to block out some time this weekend :)

kate.d. said...

oh and mom, i almost forgot, you've hit the nail on the head here:

I guess the question would be.. monogamous in what sense of that word....critically important point to think about...

all of kipnis's criticisms/assessments stem from the standard of literal monogamy - one sexual partner for the rest of your life. i have a feeling she'd be very interested in a potentially more expansive view of what "monogamous" could mean!

this starts to skirt the idea of open marriages, which most people rank somewhere between foie gras and infanticide on the horror-o-meter. and to be honest, the idea of an open marriage makes total logical sense and zero emotional sense to me. but along the lines of an alterna-monogamy, they're probably as close of a practical application as can be found.

Toast said...

she'd be very interested in a potentially more expansive view of what "monogamous" could mean!

the idea of an open marriage makes total logical sense and zero emotional sense to me.

I have a very close friend who tried the "open marriage" thing. As long as it remained theoretical, it was fine. As soon as he tried to exercise the "open" clause, a shitstorm and divorce ensued. As you say, it makes "logical" sense. But as I discovered the hard way, love and attachment are not an intellectual exercise.

One of the most interesting conclusions of Fisher's book is that the relationship pattern which most suits us biologically is serial monogamy. (She bases this on the observation that it is in both the male and female's interest to stay together exclusively long enough to get offspring through their early, helpless years. She also cites a fascinating statistic in support of this: Divorce rates worldwide peak 4 years into marriage.)

Of course, while serial monogamy might make biological sense, it's more difficult from a psychological standpoint, in that each time you walk away from a relationship you risk not finding a replacement partner and thus growing old and dying alone.

fridge said...

in Kipnis' view, there are strong societal forces at work that depend on our swallowing, hook, line and sinker, the notion of marriage as a romantic institution…Submerged in the marital jelly of docility and numbness, we're much more productive and easier to manage.

This is interesting to me because it presupposes that we aren't meant to be submerged in a comfy jelly of docility and numbness or that we'd choose not to be. It's not a fair assumption that we're all wild passionate stallions that shouldn't be tamed. Some are, some aren't. Some may be happy untethered by convention and some may enjoy a stable, productive existence.

fridge said...

I have a very close friend who tried the "open marriage" thing. As long as it remained theoretical, it was fine.

heheh. so many things sound good on paper and yet in practice? not so much.

each time you walk away from a relationship you risk not finding a replacement partner and thus growing old and dying alone.

Well, there's my cheerful thought of the day :)