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.

Josh: word.

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

7 thoughts on “A Conversation About Polyamory

    • Or conversely one might argue that upon embarking, polyamorously speaking, that you are embarking alone to the point of being purely self-conscious of your need for sexual fulfillment and in of the sexual fulfillment of others to the exclusion of other forms of fulfillment. These being many, not even biblically speaking, various experiences of joy-one should not seek a purely cloistered experience of pleasure but to deny an element of sexual freedom one is inhibiting one form of expression to achieve a greater expression of passion in other forms. Of course it depends upon what one desires in depth of experience vs. breadth of experience. Both will come with time. Both have their follies. Both can be exquisite and exquisitely painful.

  1. Happy Anniversary!

    I think that monogamy and polyamory are not necessarily or strictly at odds. I think we can have what appears as monogamy, but in the form of a polyamorous love. Often enough, so it seems, polyamory is practiced with monogamous intentions/attitudes, which do not work and is why it fails.

    To understand this failure, we have to think through a homology I believe exists between monogamy/polyamory and ego-libido/object-libido and narcissism/love, though I have not worked out how to articulate it. The point would be to carry it through to Zizek’s lauding of Christian-love and critique of Buddhist-love and his analogues for it, but for the sake of illustrating how a relationship whose content appears monogamous can really be polyamorous in form.

    At any rate, the crucial step to take is away from the view that these discussions are merely about naughty-bits and how they dance, for which I think Freud gives us the basic outline when he analyzes (material) civilization according to libido-investment. In other words, polyamory does not simply designate having multiple conventional sex-partners, but a bottom up love that attends to all beings. You could also look to empty- and full-speech for this homology. To counter Zizek’s complaints about “love for the world” and to take into account the problem Lacan encounters with full-speech, full-love is never something we do all at once, like we don’t speak the truth of our desire all at once. This is a practical, conventional consideration though. Only in the most experimental of polyamorist networks do all partners attend to each other simultaneously, which is the caricature of universal love and altruism that Ayn Rand picks up on and rejects, but without thinking it through. I can think of at least one example of the far-reaching implications of love beyond narcissism (or Randian egotism). You guessed it: 1 Kings 3:16-28.

    The face-value love we see is the mother’s for the child, and it would not be hard to go Ayn Rand on this story and say that she only does it for the child because she’s only protecting what she values for herself (to the exclusion of others). I think we can go further and see in this fidelity to the child a universal love. Couldn’t we say that the true mother acts out of love for everyone (for her child, who she saves; for the false mother, who would have a child; for of Solomon, whose word she engages beyond the false-mother’s parroting) while the false mother narcissistically and perversely identifies with Solomon and his judgement (a self-defeating love that robs the true mother and herself of the child, and convert’s Solomon into caricature of the Law)?

    Or take Mumon’s comment about how Joshu would have dealt with Nansen and the cat he cut in two. Mumon says that if Joshu had been there, he would have snatched Nansen’s sword and enforced the edict oppositely (precisely what the true mother of the bible-story does). What’s the point? Love truly given, like Nansen’s sword, does not belong to anyone in particular, but also like Nansen’s sword and Lacan’s full-speech, there is contingency involved such that we have what we call conventions and practical considerations. In this sense, Nansen’s sword has to go from Nansen to Joshu before the latter can use it against the former; as an act of universal love, the mother makes a decision about an individual; and per Evans quoted in Subjectivity and Otherness (45) “full speech is not the articulation in speech of the whole truth about the subject’s desire, but the speech which articulates this truth as fully as possible at a particular time.”

  2. About your first paragraph; I’ve watch and paticipated in seeing my wife change over and over again through the years into a new person. I this sense, maybe, I’ve in fact loved many wives, yes?

  3. Absolutely. That’s one way in which I envision “polyamorous monogamy” to work. However, I bet most polys would point out that this is not the same as loving multiple partners at the same time. Likewise, your ideal-ego is projected anew on all the changing things of your world, but falling in love with yourself everywhere (or over and over again in the same person) does not sound like what we want.

  4. I disagree with the idea of a “selfless love” beyond narcissism. Using Lacanian terminology I would place this selfless love (along with all good intentions) in the realm of the Imaginary. Using the same Lacanian terminology I would call the polyamorous lifestyle either acting out (when it is addressed to others, like “hey you squares, look at how different I am”) or perhaps as perversion, which does not hold the negative connotation that colloquial usage of perversion holds. To Lacan, the structure of perversion is opposed to neurosis and psychosis as one of 3 possible outcomes, with neurosis being the “healthiest” and perhaps the most widespread. When I say perversion, I do not mean at all in the negative sense, just using Lacan’s concept of the structure of pervert, which is typified by disavowal. The neurotic uses repression, so I would place them in the monogamous structure. By repressing the fact that we are arbitrarily attracted to a person (and that there is nothing special about them to cause us to be attracted), by repressing the truth of the contingency of our attraction, the neurotic retains a “high ideal” of a single person as a God or Goddess in their life. This is considered healthier than perversion, and while the aims of analysis with a neurotic are to do away with symptoms by overcoming repression, the aims of analysis with a pervert are quite different: rather than doing away with symptoms, they are considered, if not desirable, at least “acceptable.” (That is, I am a pervert for music equipment, and anyone who fetishizes a certain thing, be it comic books or Japanese anime or baseball cards is a pervert in their own way). So, perversion should not be considered as a symptom we must try to do away with, or prevent from recurring. The pervert very much enjoys their perversion– in other words, the polyamorist very much enjoys their polyamory (and the gear slut like me very much enjoys the fetish for expensive music equipment). Same with filmmakers, musicians, creatives of all stripes. I would say that whereas the monogamist represses the fact that the object of their love is marked by lack/absence (and instead misrecognizes the object of their love as truly possessing something worthy of their love, thinking there is some indefinable x in their love object– the monogamist is deceived into believing that one person can provide them with everything they need all the time), the polyamorist disavows the fact by recognizing that one person cannot give them everything they need. They see the impossibility, but go on having relationships. But I suppose I should not generalize _all_ polyamorists because it is possible to have the neurotic structure instead: it is possible to just as “monogamous” in a polyamorous relationship (as you wrote, Joe, making it doomed to fail) because the same attitude of repression can be brought into it, namely the fascination with a given person and the focus, privilege and elevation of any one person to the status of God- or Goddess-like (by repressing the truth about the radical contingency of love).

  5. Another thought: when sadists, masochists or homosexuals are treated via Lacanian psychoanalysis, the goal is not to cure them of their perversion (yes, Lacan considered homosexuality a perversion, even when culturally/socially accepted as in ancient Greece– but this does not have any negative connotations). One of the aims of analysis is to simply get the subject to enunciate their desire, to slowly uncover their Shadow (to borrow Jung’s word for it) and to reveal the knowledge that the subject was unaware of. So, for a polyamorous person who is happy being poly to undergo Lacanian analysis would entail not attempting to change the behavior, but rather, to simply humble the subject by revealing to them all of their hidden ego drives, hidden narcissism, infantile fantasies and the like, or again, to reveal the Shadow. From my perspective on Lacanian analysis the poly type person would benefit most not by attempting to change their behavior (unless it is indeed acting out addressed to the Other, in which case the subject should not give in to their unconscious desire)– if the person is truly a pervert, they are better off not trying to “fix” the perversion but instead enjoying their symptom, to borrow from Zizek. In other words, I would distinguish between people who are poly for a phase of their life and people who are effectively “permanently” polyamorous. If it is a phase then it is acting out (see Freud’s case study of the homosexual woman who would meet her female lover on a busy street near her father’s work, as a way of subconsciously addressing a message to him). But if it is a more or less permanent structure of the subject’s psyche due to perversion then a radical change should not be attempted, but rather, the gradual revelation of all of the subject’s hidden “unknown knowns,” those attitudes we deny having.

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