It’s intriguing that there is a whole day set aside for the celebration of romantic love. In fact, it’s as weird as the entire Australian nation voluntarily shutting down for half a day in November for a horse race.
Both of those events – Valentine’s Day and the Melbourne Cup – probably have more in common than a first glance might indicate. Both deal with an impossible demand and a certain structure of desire. And with each there can be a sense of making a bet that is not recoverable: we often pin everything we have on a romantic relationship.
Falling in love is usually described as some kind of inner communion with another. In this scenario, love is always extra-political. But it is very often the case that we see the desired other as a kind of mix of images that are more or less directly linked to our vision of our self. Which is a way of saying that you fall in love with yourself. Or an idea of what you’d like to be. Unfortunately, this also means that we tend to fall in love with characteristics or signs, not people. This is partly because of the developmental tasks we all have to overcome, and partly because the fabulous hypercapitalism with which we are all complicit privileges very specific modalities of desire.
Sexually, the developmental task can be stated in various ways, but one way to put it is that choosing a partner is partly a matter of finding someone who is a close enough image of one’s own image of the Oedipally desired parent. But not too close. Another way of framing it, if the Oedipus thing freaks you out too much, would be to say that everyone has an unspoken image of what desire is and what it is for and what it does, an image many years in the making, since we were infants in fact.
That dodgy mission of the fulfilment of desire doesn’t happen in outer space, floating free of political gravity. Capitalism’s desire structure says that your personal longings are of inestimable value. There is in fact nothing greater. To leave them unfulfilled is a spiritual disaster. And capitalism has many things to offer you to alleviate that yearning, of which romance is one.
Given that most of us have been fucked up beyond imagining by fraught childhood states, plugging capitalism’s desire machine into that dynamic is going to produce train-wrecks on a spectacular scale.
Falling for characteristics is much the same as saying that people fall in love primarily as a sexual activity, despite all our declarations to the contrary. The reasons we fall in love are rarely the reasons why we think we fall in love, so much about our own subjectivity being unavailable to us. It’s rare that we can make a full answer to questions about who we are, everything being so fractured with politics and all.
But the perilous search for familiar and comforting characteristics in another, when modified by capitalism’s fabulous propaganda of desire, a propaganda that reaches into a human being’s most intimate interactions, insists that there is something about the other’s body, or job, or gender, or money, or ethnicity, or family, or house, or car, or politics, or enthusiasm for death metal or literature, that will make the complete fulfilment of an intimate desire possible.
It is as if we become infatuated with an image that is slightly to the left or the right of the person who is actually there. Which might explain why lovers can become so infuriated with each other. Each is trying to wall up the other in a narcissistic prison. And they don’t want to go.
The more insanely we fall in love at the beginning, the more likely it is, as Freud pointed out, that we have engaged in an instance of mistaken identity. In other words the harder you fall for someone, the more likely it is that you’ve just initiated a disaster. In this reading, falling in love is more like a sudden delusional episode.
It’s interesting to think of falling in love that way, as a kind of psychotic event. A psychotic episode is not, as one might think, a breakdown happening. It can be read as an attempt to recover from a breakdown, an attempt at self-cure. As meaning begins to fall apart, or become more difficult to construct, the psychosis arises as the master plan to explain everything: Of course! It was the Muslims all along! Now things make sense.
Or: My life makes sense now that I have fallen in love with this person. Now I am complete, with my soulmate, my other half.
It’s true of many people in relationships that they rarely spend much time outside of one. And when they are on their own, they prefer not to be alone for long. The experience of being alone becomes very painful, almost as if it were a disability. One has to endure the consequences of one’s own breakdown.
Although literature has a long history of being obsessed with the experience of falling in love (see Dante, Shakespeare, Proust) it’s in popular music that the expression of romantic love has really gone nuts. Of all the songs you’ve ever heard, most of them are probably love songs. By this measure we seem desperately obsessed with romantic love, as if we are unable to think of anything else. David Byrne once said that if aliens were actually observing us, they may well mistake our soap operas for documentaries, and our TV news programs for soap operas. After all, soap operas record all the vicissitudes of our daily obsession with romantic love in all its impossibly inventive forms. Most TV news is not much more than fantasy.
In the love song people are usually either falling in love or still in love but betrayed and melancholy. Of course there have been some miraculous love songs (like this one and this one) and some amazing interpreters of love songs. There have been love songs bitter and humorous, songs semi-religious, love songs about things as well as people, and occasionally, even a song about romantic love’s cynical and narcissistic false image.
There don’t seem to have been too many love songs that have risen out of political events, love generally being a politically neutral zone, but in their great anti-love song ‘Love like Anthrax’, the Gang of Four – who are Marxists – have a spoken thread running behind their bitter, but highly perceptive lyrics:
Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about. ‘Cos most groups make most of their songs about falling in love or how happy they are to be in love, you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time …. Apparently everyone has or can love, or so they would have you believe anyway…I don’t think we’re saying there’sanything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.
We find so many excuses for love. When love goes wrong, we invest vast amounts of energy trying to repair the relationship, to make it work, rather than thinking that the problem might be love itself. So much violence results from love. It seems to be built into love’s structure, lurking there like a toad in a bog. Is romantic love just an example of violent misogyny? Is it the fantasy map of violence’s dominions, like a GPS that you set to drive you to Disneyland that instead takes you to Gaza during an Israeli shelling?
Women in abusive relationships have many reasons to remain in them, not least of which is the threat of escalating violence. But the very idea of ‘the relationship’ can play its part too. As one woman who had freed herself from an abusive relationship said to me, ‘Having anyone seemed better than having no-one.’ It’s very common for workers in the area of family violence to speak of the ‘cycle of violence’, where a series of abusive acts by a man toward his partner are followed by an explosive reconciliation, with the revival of romance and the starry-eyed fusion in which lovers specialise, a lot of make-up sex, and then a slow disintegration into jealousy, regimes of control and more abuse. And so on, over and over.
Looking at it this way, there seems to be a kind of continuum with violence and abuse at one end and romantic love at the other. Perhaps each can segue into the other because each can hold the seeds of the other. In the documentary Standard Operating Procedure, an investigation into the US military’s regimes of torture at Abu Ghraib and the subsequent scapegoating of a few low-ranked soldiers, Lynddie England tried to explain how she struggled to survive in a toxic, traumatising male-dominated environment: ‘I was blinded by being in love,’ she says bitterly, ‘with a man.’
Just recently I came across the concept of the Girlfriend Experience. I knew that ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ was the name of a film by Steven Soderbergh a film I hadn’t seen but that I assumed was something to do with maybe getting or having an actual girlfriend. It’s not.
So, this is what a Girlfriend Experience looks like: A man hires a young woman to pretend to be his new madly in-love girlfriend, both in public and in private. Naturally this includes having sex but also a lot of romancing. I found out what a Girlfriend Experience actually is via an article at Salon, that interviewed a US sex therapist who had surveyed 600 men who had paid for the Girlfriend Experience. The survey results were interesting and ran as follows:
- 85 per cent of the 600 men surveyed were white
- 66 per cent were married
- 50 per cent had a university education
- They were aged between 50 and 70
- Their average annual income was just over US$140k
- 40 per cent had fallen in love in with their ‘girlfriends’
- The 85 per cent who were white exclusively requested white girlfriends
- Nearly 80 per cent said that the main requirement of the girlfriend was that she be ‘romantic and tender’
- All requested that their girlfriend be aged between 25 and 35
And if you think of the narrative of a Girlfriend Experience, it sounds very much like a romantic comedy, that category of Hollywood offerings often known as chickflicks. It’s as if men are writing their own scripts for a romantic comedy starring themselves. Nearly half the men surveyed had actually fallen in love with their sex workers. This immediately gives us a narrative of the tired, wealthy, sensitive, mature but misunderstood man, who has given his best years selflessly to his family, and is suddenly smitten with a smart, beautiful younger woman. Alas, good-hearted girl though she is, their love is problematic as she is in fact a prostitute and he is married to a good woman that he no longer loves. Will their transgressive but pure love survive and bloom? And so on.
Rom-coms, of course, are generally targeted at women audiences. The male protagonist in a rom-com is either hapless but sweet, or a bit of an ogre but cruelly misunderstood. But rom-coms are not just films about what men would like women to be, but also about what men believe themselves to be, and what they believe love is, and where it comes from and what it can do. The Fifty Shades of Grey series is perhaps less about a man being in charge of a woman than it is about a man worshipping a woman, and we could probably say this about rom-coms and romantic love more generally. That worship is, of course, actually a demand, a type of extortion.
Romantic relationships are strange events as we can see, and each has its own weird and unsettling quality. If you’re in one and it looks normal perhaps you should be a little bit more worried than you are and start casting around for the weird unsettling violent bits. But the narrative of the Girlfriend Experience, suggests that educated white men are suckers for romance. It’s probably also the demographic that tends to get the kudos for writing fiction, which is a bit worrying. Or perhaps not surprising, depending on what you think of contemporary fiction.
About the time I discovered the concept of the Girlfriend Experience, I also came across the concept of the Cool Girl, via a review at The Guardian:
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’shosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Men actually think this girl exists.
Perhaps the Cool Girl fantasy is for those who can’t afford to buy the Girlfriend Experience.
In the film The Girlfriend Experience the sex worker in question falls for a client. The female protagonist is played by a real life porn star who plays a sex worker who offers her male clients the Girlfriend Experience, which becomes the real experience that she can tragically never have. The prostitute in a Hollywood film often has a heart of gold – and it either saves her life or dooms her.
The decision to become a sex worker, where it is a decision, might just be an economic choice, just as many of our choices are economic. It seems to me as though sex work is a kind of work that reveals the actual economic conditions under which we live. This is not to say that ‘we are all prostitutes’ but that sex work isn’t necessarily in a category of its own when it comes to selling one’s labour. Sex work is often invested with moral and political overtones that writing book reviews for News Corporation, or being a celebrity chef, isn’t.
Desire is always just beyond us, just out of reach. This is co-opted very neatly, or disastrously depending on how you look at it, by the structure of contemporary capitalism where our supposedly unproblematic and innate desires maintain a global industry of slaves. We know this, we can see this, but that doesn’t stop us driving ourselves to fulfil those desires. The transfiguration of fraught human interactions into a semi-religious quest for love is what capitalism specialises in. Instead of a transgressive engagement with the radical experience of reciprocity we are offered boyfriends and girlfriends and iToys and careers, and these we are happy to accept, whatever the trails of destruction they leave behind them.
Like writers who think that fiction is above politics, those of us who fall in love tend to ignore the sinister agendas hidden behind romantic love’s misty facade. In any work of creative prose, it is the thing not spoken that drives the narrative, or infuses the sentences with their distinct taste. In all our relationships with others there is always something unsaid that tries to be heard and that we continually misread. And even in our most intimate interactions, we struggle against the current of each other’s unheard desires, and the dreadful things we can mean when we tell someone we love them.