A Conversation About Polyamory
This is a transcribed conversation over instant-messenger with a friend of mine, Josh.
Me: So a polyamorous person I know put their position to me this way: do you have more friends than just your best-friend; does your best friend fulfill all your friend-needs? Well, then why would you expect the same with one lover?
Josh: I suppose there is something to be said for that, but I think for many people, the answer to the question is that one lover does fulfill their sex needs.
Me: I think it’s more than it seems. While I can see one person satisfying another’s genital erotic needs, the basic lesson Freud gives us about civilization and libido is that the former is built through domesticating (i.e. harnessing) the latter. That is to say, for those people some other aspect of their life is eroticized in a sufficient way to what they need – be that people, socially-necessary work or art (including religious devotion). What we can at least say today is that the way the developed world paradoxically eroticizes the whole world actually de-eroticizes it. This is why Zizek rants about safe-sex as “sex without sex” in the way he calls the media’s white-washing of war (or green-washing of [ecologically exploitive] capitalism) “war without war.” Zizek also likes to say that given permissive norms now, a “traditional” marriage is truly subversive, not because it plays the same game of out-transgressing the previous way of doing things, but because it creates a short-circuit in the way we view human relations as perpetual pissing contests and domination.
Compare the crazy sex manuals of India, China and Japan and their traditions of intense contemplation and discipline (Zen especially).
Part of what I was trying to say is that the way that Marx described [in "The Communist Manifesto] how under Capitalism “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” How this can be thought in terms of this dissolution of normative monogamy. This sounds like the end of the world, or at least a very bad thing, but what it could mean is the emergence of a form of love whose content is monogamous (we only relate to one person at a time), but whose form is universal.
You can think of Christ’s event (arguably the Judeo-Christian event) as a form of this simultaneously dissolving and universalizing love, because only through Him, this individual human, is God accessible. The content is the same, but the form is radically different. Polyamory cannot be forced of course, but it does not arise spontaneously and without a material base. Like Marx also said, men make history, but not under the conditions they choose. What polyamory might mean is a form of love beyond the alienating failure of our first love (i.e. ourself).
Josh: I think you just proved why you would be a good academic and why I would not.
Me: Why’s that?
Josh: Because you just used Marx, Freud, and Jesus to make a case for polyamory. That, to be blunt, is some academic shit!
Me: Bullshit or no? I don’t think Freud and company are inaccessible as much as they are not popular. I think a lot of resentment at what gets called condescension operates according to this mechanism, where an unpopular view is taken as a threat (what a great way to think about xenophobia too) rather than something to be engaged for what it is. I think Zizek’s life for the last 25 years has been a stunning example of why these remain relevant figures and theories.
Thanks for what I’ll take as a compliment though.
Josh: It is a compliment. I wasn’t trying to infer that you were using irrelevant or obscure references. I was just saying that you take an academic approach to argumentation. Using preexisting writings to do cross analyses and draw conclusions that support your point of view.
Josh: I tend just to think about what makes sense and then say it.
Me: Hrmm, that’s what I thought I was doing.
Josh: That’s why you are naturally an academic. It’s a good thing.
Me: haha okay
I think it would be a mistake to say I made a case for polyamory, as in making a case for why we should go left rather than right. What interests me with polyamory – which I have been thinking of for a while but most intensely lately – is the way it can be used to think of economic and other concrete relations and transformations. So, it would be a mistake to say that people were only monogamous in the 19th century, but that the structure of social and economic relations (i.e. relations established by positive law) were such that polyamory could not flourish or work right. Today, we are encountering places in society (literally geographic spaces if we think of how the most liberal places are our urban centers) that do not support “traditional” monogamy as well as polyamory and the like. I affirm polyamory, but ultimately I believe there are forms of monogamy (“traditional” even) that engage the same selfless love (i.e. love beyond narcissism). I can’t make a case for polyamory through Christ without visiting both the fact that he endorsed conventional marital relations and said the only way to him was through “hating” (i.e. letting go of) all your family (i.e. your identity as a sibling/parent/spouse*).
Josh: I suppose I’m not trying to make the case for monogamy, but it seems that polyamory is more of a selfish act, and that once you go down that path you will only be seeking the next experience in a quest for something that you will never find.
Sorry for the long time between responses. I’ve been brewing.
Me: If you want to think of it economically: strict monogamy functions best where you do not have a strong support (i.e. support of material needs) structure in the form of a state or otherwise public institution (arguably corporations attempt to be such public bodies, but deeply perverted kind**). When public society starts to dissolve the old needs for hierarchy and control to provide us with what we need, strict monogamy loses its ability to stabilize our sense of belonging amidst those conditions that make our life possible. So, polyamory arises as an ethical way to manage our affectively-charged relations[---a response to our mode of material reproduction].
In the same way that as the business grows bigger, you can no longer have one guy run the show. It takes a bottom-up approach to really get things done. Polyamory is potentially love from the bottom up.
I should qualify that what is usually thought of as the private sector, is still in large part socialized. What remains private about it are literally paper thin legal definitions.
So, it’s not just a kind of a socialist state in which traditional, strict monogamy loses its efficiency.
Josh: I would argue that it is actually the opposite. Polyamory creates a marketplace for love in which one chooses the best products/lovers. When you are constantly shopping for better and better experiences you become alienate from the act of making love for the sake of the perfect orgasm.
Me: Brilliant. I absolutely agree.
This is why Zizek can get away with arguing for traditional, strict monogamy as subversive in light of permissive norms.
Do you think it would fly with the right wingers if we proved to them that capitalism is responsible for the destruction of the family?
Me: That is not a critique of polyamory as such though, anymore than what I was saying in the first place was a critique of monogamy as such, but view into concrete-social and economic relations through the ideological lens of how we relate to (and regulate) our sexual partners.
Some, yes. I mean, you have to remember that the fascists were, at least in Germany, national socialists
Questions of love are always, in the end, about identity – and vice versa.
Josh: True. I bet the Taliban would be pretty supportive of that critique
Me: They would, but for the wrong reasons.
Josh: I’m listening to a recording of an a capella group with Ray Charles. It’s fucking awesome.
Me: Namely the “I was only following orders” sort of enjoyment those fucks get out of abusing the symbolic order for their imaginary ends.
* Precisely, I think, in the way the mother of 1 Kings 3:16-28 gave up her identity as a mother in order to love/save her son from Solomon’s sword.
** Literally in the sense that Lacan doubly alludes to when he pronounces “perversion” “pere-version,” or “version of the Father,” where Father here could be a kind of Heavenly Father or symbolic guarantor of things