By Elleni Centime Zeleke
What has always worried me about couples in North America is that they replace the work of belonging to the world with the work of belonging to JUST ONE. And as such they take some of the most banal markers of adult life to be markers of maturity and achievement. In my experience, this tends to make North Americans childish in the most sinister way possible.
Another way of putting it is that couples attempt to overcome humanity’s present day alienation from the world by obsessing over the One. But what this means is that they mistake duty to the One as an end in itself instead of a way to open themselves up to the problem of solving alienation. This happens whether the couple means to do so or not. In a consumer based society achievement gets packaged as being able to amass goods for the empire of two (the couple) since survival of the couple must come at all costs. People spend their lives playing house, and what it means to be an adult is to master the game of monopoly for the sake of playing house.
In this case, being an adult gets reduced to satisfying needs–buying a house, clothes, feeding children. But after satisfying basic nutrition and keeping warm, our needs are socially constructed. Instead of investigating the source of the need, couples act like animals, chasing the satisfaction of their apparent needs when those needs in fact arise from elsewhere than their self-critical self–and yet what it means to be human is to be self-critical. Thus, in the name of love they pursue their own alienation and their own animality.
But in this sense then couples agree to guarantee each other’s childishness. After all, in the standard hetero-normative relationship you do not force the partner to take responsibility for the world. Instead, you stare into the other’s eyes and guarantee for the other that while they may feel alienated from the world, in the context of the relationship they will feel bonded with the One. Coupledom as we live it in North America is always a disavowal of the world. The husband or wife might do charity work or even be involved in politics but the structure of the love relationship is already enfolded into immaturity because it centres around protecting the other from confronting the alienation inherent to the world.
It is for this reason that North Americans often confuse their pets with children and lovers. It is because to love here is fundamentally a narcissistic activity. The least thing you want is for the Other to really talk back, and so truly open you up to the world.
But, this reminds me of a time when as a young woman I went to visit a family friend who was a political prisoner in a third world country. The prisoner had been in and out of the prison hospital, and he had been subjected to mild forms of torture and was already quite old. The prisoner was a family friend and he had heard that I was a feminist. He thought gender was not a wise way to organize politically, but all the same he spent the hour we had together engaging me around this question. A few months later the prisoner passed away and in retrospect I realized that the prisoner must have known that he was gravely sick and about to die even when I went to visit him, but throughout the visit he never talked about himself, nor did he complain about his health. Instead we talked about a world that was greater than both him and I but that tied us together as one. In this way he opened himself up to a life of love and generosity that also questioned the alienation that brought us before the prison guard. In this way, too, he insisted on forcing maturity and responsibility onto me.
That romance could always be this touching! For this I would be grateful. On the contrary, when men ask me to marry them here in North America, it seems they mistake the mastery of playing house with love and responsibility. How banal, and sinisterly so.
What this says to me, however, is that romance is the obsessive but failed attempt to overcome the alienation from things we have already made with our ancestors (and can remake). But the ideology that accompanies the invisible hand of market politics insists upon this alienation. Thus, the accompanying cultural concept to the invisible hand is romance, and it is romance as such that is the opium of the people. But in this case, romance is pure political passivity for it hardly contains a whisper of protest against the world as it exists. More likely, it is accompanied by eternally unfulfilled personal relationships, which is probably why we cheat and divorce as often as we say “I love you”. It is also why I die a little death whenever I hear someone claim to love another, for sure enough the claim of love is soon to be accompanied by the violence of trying to full-fill what can never be fulfilled by romance through romancing some Other or becoming bored and depressed with the One. Turns out our expectations and experience of love tend to replicate our dissatisfaction with playing in the market, and yet we keep on looking for the One, playing make believe that this is the One, asking ourselves if this is the One, etc. All the while never really growing up to face the world that so desperately needs us to take responsibility for what we have made and need to remake together.