For Valentine's Day
By R.H. Lossin
No shortage of ink is spilled trying to terrify women into monogamous partnerships and make those who have chosen to leave them feel incomplete and pathological. The propaganda machine charged with propping up the economic unit of the nuclear family has upped its game lately and enlisted women to write smart sounding articles and editorials in high-quality publications about the statistical shortage of eligible men, but the message hasn’t changed: if you are single and you are female, feel desperate and sad.
I find the popularity of the sad/frustrated/resigned single lady genre as baffling as I do infuriating. Do women like to experience intense penis-envy (sex shortages are apparently not a problem for men)? Is the media run by an anti-feminist cabal? Do weddings and anniversary dinners really contribute that much to the GDP?
As it turns out, the answer to the last question is, in a roundabout way, yes. As Laura Kipnis argues in Against Love: A Polemic, the increasingly unattainable relationship form that causes us so much anguish is necessary to the maintenance of the social discipline that drives economic production and prevents dissent. Love, it turns out, is also a social institution and our attachment to the idea that it remains somehow outside of the realm of normative discourse, unsullied by politics, the ultimate relief from the burdens of neoliberal life, makes us really miserable. Karl Marx’s Capital, she muses, might be a good guide to modern relationships. Filled as it is with “gothic metaphors and menacing deadness,” its descriptions of labor-capital relations sound quite a bit like the mortuary adjectives that we assign to bad marriages.
Suggesting that we read Capital to understand love isn’t just an erudite joke (although the book is very funny). Modern love, Kipnis argues, is a work regime. It imports Fordist demands into our intimate lives. It normalizes a wide array of socially necessary activities. Think, she suggests, about how unproductive you are when you are in the thick of desire. There is something rebellious in this, something unconcerned with rules and social norms, with being a good worker. You become willing to get into trouble. You don’t think straight. Spontaneous desire is a kind of revolutionary feeling.
Marriage and its unsanctified double, monogamous cohabitation, are in this sense entirely counter-revolutionary. And convincing us that the giddy, irresponsible, overwhelming feeling of new attraction is located in permanent monogamy is an incredibly effective way to temper and contain the very feeling that these relationships promise to nurture and expand. Marriage not only contains this desire, it makes us diligently and endlessly work for its attainment and maintenance. Maybe, Kipnis suggests, this is an impossible task. Desire, by its very nature, dissipates when it obtains its object. It might be out of our control. But our culture will not let the dead bury their dead marriages.
And then there are those of us who don’t even have the chance to do all of this extra emotional labor. Rather than feeling liberated, we simply feel unemployable. “As love has increasingly become the center of all emotional expression in the modern imagination—the quantity without which life seems forlorn—anxiety about obtaining it in sufficient quantities and for sufficient duration has increased to the point that anxiety suffuses the population [and] uncoupling can only be experienced as ego-crushing crisis and inadequacy.”
This ego-crushing sense of inadequacy explains why women crank out articles with statistical explanations for their loneliness. But the problem with this is that single women are not actually a social problem and marriage is not a solution. What we need to be asking is not “where have all the good men gone?” but why we live in a society that only supports one type of romantic relationship and offers only one definition of love and intimacy.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about love is the dearth of choices offered by a cramped, capitalist imagination. Why don’t we support single-motherhood in real ways? Or more capacious definitions of family? Where is the social safety net that would allow for a family and your own education and professional advancement? Where is the health care system and the retirement benefits that would make uncoupled aging ok? Why are shared healthcare benefits pegged to sexual relations? Why aren’t we thinking about housing schemes that would provide for community and more dispersed forms of intimacy and support?
These are the things worth lamenting because, unlike the specter of under-educated, left-over creeps that you don’t want to date, these are real problems. And unlike desire, they can be solved.
So happy late Valentine’s Day. Heart shaped boxes of chocolate at Duane Reade should be half-off by now.