Friday, August 6, 2010

the institution of marriage

From my vantage point, the institution of marriage is a morass of loosely related social, cultural, judicial, political, and religious rituals and power structures that function primarily to bestow legitimacy on particular types of contractual unions. Of course, the very notion of legitimacy is dependent upon its obverse, illegitimacy, for its coherence and strength. Since the function of this hodgepodge of structures is to sanction, which is in essence a matter of including and excluding, it is not so difficult or strange to find oneself in opposition to it. Power is like "force" in physics: it is necessarily relational and the relation that appertains is naturally bilateral; in other words, mutual resistance is an integral aspect of power. Thus, marriage is not a static thing but an ever mutable conglomeration of beliefs, practices, etc. that are perpetually contested. To find oneself in opposition to this institution is hardly radical. But these juridical and religious practices of domination are merely a veneer finish covering a much more potent and extensive power structure: that of the conceptual matrices which organizes and makes sense of our world.

We understand the meaning, value, and significance of things by lining them up along conceptual grids or matrices. These grids of intelligibility according to which we make sense of our world, however, are hardly "God given." They are nothing more than historical constructs: the happy accidents of cultural and institutional collisions. We are docile people precisely to the degree in which our ideas conform to those matrices. No legislation moral prescription/proscription is needed where people are already convinced that they should act in such and such a way because it is natural, valuable, meaningful, significant, right, fulfilling, etc. However, we are often mistaken about genuine happiness or wellbeing and its sources. What are we supposed to do when the conceptual grid across which we make sense of our world compels us to conceive of things in a way that is harmful?

So the institution of marriage, for me, is an unworthy object of attention. From the embedded meanings, both archaic and refigured, of the symbols and rituals (white = purity = virginity = untouched by another man; vows = promises to God = intention to fulfill God's command to be fruitful and multiply; etc.), to the lopsided and outmoded gendered aspects (the daughter/bride is an object bequeathed by one man unto another), to the state's function of sanctioning only certain unions which it will then bless with a privileged status and concomitant rewards… all of these are easy targets. But even those who've soured over the institution of marriage, who've attacked it or shunned it, maintain abject loyalty (however unwittingly) to the conceptual structure which undergirds it. Seemingly unable to discern the source of their misery, countless couples, despite coming together with the most praiseworthy and admirable intentions, cause irrevocable harm to the one whom they love the most. With or without marriage, people appear as though doomed to inflict pain upon one another. But much of this pain is, in my mind, a direct consequence of poisonous ideas about love. The object of my ire is thus not marriage per se but 21st century American monogamy.

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