Tuesday, October 21, 2008

on the activity of eros (a letter to a friend)

My Friend,

Since we last spoke, your parting sentiment regarding opening a discussion of eros has been on my mind. I'd very much like to discuss my “project” and wanted to send you something that could act as a leaping off point. But where to start? Normally I'd start with something meant to provoke. In my mind it is nigh impossible to talk about what eros is until a good deal of work has been done to preempt the distortions (at best) or transmogrifications (at worst) that will occur when my attempts at delineation are processed through the cognitive schema that order and make sense of the world and lives of would-be-listeners. Often times such provocations come in the form of a performed lambasting of monogamy. As part of the preempting process—as well as a matter of priming—I also “clarify” that I think that the only thing more destructive than monogamy is the “open relationship” or other types of quasi-polygamy. Without exception, the question then comes, “If you are against monogamy and polygamous arrangements, what is left?” As the singular model currently operating in our culture is exhausted by monogamy and its negative, non-monogamy, the initial response is silence. How does one describe a heretofore unseen color? In the beginning I am unable to speak. Each and every word and phrasing will be made to fit the world that others are always already in. I must first create a space and even then I will long be forced to use poetic prose, paradox, cryptic metaphor and other strategies of massaging language into a plastic enough state to turn it from adversary to accomplice.

about the people I am referring to (despite my habit of invoking absolute language)
Most often my interlocutors are lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle class people of various genders who are mostly agnostics of varying shades and racially best described as urban-american. By race, I mean to indicate something about their experiences of self, their family and upbringing, and their social circles. I don’t often have occasion to discuss these things with individuals who might fit more readily into an explicitly raced cultural background (e.g. an African American from South Decatur, a 2nd generation Indian from E. Decatur, an exchange student from China, or a Latin American from a fairly insular Hispano-Catholic neighborhood). While I have in fact spoken with people from a veritable multitude of races (race in this case meaning that which is identified on a government form where you check a box) and even with people from Delhi while I was in India, these people all share a common enough world-view to constitute a homogenous population when it comes to love, intimacy, and sex. Please be assured that I am keenly aware of the infinite degree of nuance and difference that exists in this population as the hetero-normal drama is played out by this pair or that making each iteration distinct from an other. The point is that all difference and nuance is forced to unfold in a severely constrained arrangement; an arrangement to which I have found no exception.

on contemporary “alternatives” to monogamy
In my experience, there are some who believe that they have alternative conceptions of “love” and models of how to approach such a thing. With a bit of probing, however, it turns out that these individuals maintain dispositions that have the same core concepts and values. The references to “alternative” approaches are merely allusions to minor allowances in otherwise all too familiar conceptions. The fact of the matter is that there are certain fundamental tenets that are not merely hegemonic but that are so overwhelmingly ubiquitous as to be virtually without exception. They operate invisibly, behind the scenes, as though simply forces of nature, brute facts of life of which there are fulfilling aspects to be celebrated and unfortunate aspects to be accepted stoically. They function as the material out of which people construct thoughts, values, and their very sense of self regarding matters of love and intimacy. All of the conceptions, approaches, etc that I’ve come across in my extensive “interviewing” are built from the material of these fundamental tenets. As the quintessential model embodying these tenets is the hetero-normal model—a model which in practice is the referent of the term monogamy as I employ it—it is as though all approaches to love, intimacy, and sex are either mere iterations of this one or else are defined diametric to it thus affirming it as the zero point, the origin. Until these tenets are exploded, the bits and pieces weighed, and their magic exposed as illusion—and all such that their hold is greatly attenuated—there is little hope of anything that amounts to a true departure from the status quo.

beyond mere rhetoric
At the heart of the illness is a family of binaries: monogamy/non-monogamy; romantic/platonic; heterosexual/homosexual; male/female; self/other. Woven in between this constellation of binaries are a series of axiomatic “givens”: monogamy is synonymous with meaningfulness; promiscuity is a symptom of an unhealthy psyche; love is a zero-sum game; lust only arises when one is unfulfilled; mutuality negates malignancy. Of course, under-girding the entirety of this shroud is the mindless happenstance of history. As such, ideas wholly incompatible with the rampant individualism of contemporary capitalist urban culture still dominate individuals’ mindsets wreaking havoc on relationships. Traditional gender roles and the notion of a partner as property are two of the most prevalent and problematic.

on the mess manifest in Generation X
What plagues us can be at least partially illuminated by looking at certain events in recent in history. As genders, bodies, and sexual beings we live a schizophrenic existence torn between two diametrically opposed revolutions: the feminist and the sexual revolutions of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Instead of formidable creatures amply equipped to engage one another on a limitless field of intimacy we are crippled wraiths, awkward and impotent. Prior generations’ notions of femininity and masculinity were torn asunder, inveighed against beyond all reckoning. No alternative conceptions filled the vacuum left in the wake of such a powerful uprising. Thus entire genders were left to amble about filled with uncertainty and trepidation. Similarly to the case of gender, previously held notions of chastity, modesty, destiny, eternity, and more were undone without alternative notions taking root. The co-mingling of bodies thusly became a highly problematic ordeal with no proper frame to fit within, only remnants. Hence casual sex is anything but casual, fraught as it is with land mines left behind by soldiers of a forgotten war. The anxiety that has become concomitant with sex, has fueled more than just a club culture of drugs and alcohol, it has fueled an entire economy. To be sure, women have not been liberated, sex has not been liberated, and both revolutions have been hijacked by the machine of capitalism’s weapon of choice: visual culture/advertising.

why harp?
The point of dwelling on recent and not so recent history, the point of deconstructing the zeitgeist of our times, is to cultivate a dissatisfaction. The current approach to love, sex, and intimacy leaves a lot to be desired and is lame compared to what is possible. As Joe Biden said to Sarah Palin, the past is the prologue to the future. We must know ourselves, our inner workings, what makes us tick. Then we must undo ourselves, loosing the cultural-historic moorings that ensnare us. Only then may we make ourselves anew.


Neil Fried said...

hey pii,

the first paragraph of your letter to a friend is about as good as i've ever seen you set up the problems inherent in bringing up the topic of eros as you outline it. the last paragraph about self re-creation also has a nice ring, and the sentence about land mines from forgotten wars is a great line.

most in the middle i thought was sweeping, and still too close to the accusatory tone that turns people off. perhaps self reinvention and renewal is some better window into this. also, the thousand pound gorilla that is always present--that normative behavior is likely hardwired to civilized society in some way, a kind of bedrock in which individual choice of expression has varying degrees of latitude at different times and places...taking stabs at (any)zeitgeist is a bit like shooting at king kong with a revolver.

the status quo (ostensibly non-buddhist and desiring to hold onto anything they have, a car, a house, a person, an idea that their lives might have made a difference when they shuffle off) probably don't consider themselves nearly as miserable as you make them out to be. what's more, without a status quo there would be no 'control group' from which to evolve.

piiopah said...

i love your feedback, neil. it is always well considered and well written.

the accusatory tone is difficult to avoid since i am not only trying to kneecap monogamy but am purposely trying to provoke people into defending their heretofore thoughtless approaches. i do mention the cultivation of dissatisfaction as a necessary precursor. but this comment (written four years ago!) did inspire me to begin trying to give voice to the positive content of what i am trying to say. thanks!

you are likely perfectly on target with your king kong analogy. i suppose i might be writing for an audience that does not even exist yet.

yes, the status quo likely do not see themselves as miserable as i claim them to be. but they have nearly all suffered through that misery at one point or another. and they continue to do so in cyclic fits and surges.

yes, without things being the way that they are, i would not have the grist for my project of doing it differently. um... yep.