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Personhood, Romantic Love and the 3rd world.

By Elleni Centime Zeleke,

My interlocutors seem angry and defensive about my claim that romantic love in north America is sinister. Let me respond to their anger with a few more points.

So, we think of ourselves in the West as having unique attributes, and we define ourselves through the exercise of our individual free will upon those unique attributes.

Indeed our idea of what it means to be free is to be a person who can exercise her free will so as to produce whatever outcome she desires. As a result, we think of alienation as the separation of our will from our creativity such that we cannot recognize ourselves in the things that we make.

But one of the things that I have been arguing is that this notion of the self has been historically produced, which is to say that what we imagine to be an individual is not common to all times and spaces.

On the other hand, the doubly free subject of capitalist social relations is a good way to conceptualize the newly formed modern subject that has free will. This is a subject that is free from social obligations and free to move about and sell their labour where ever they please. But in this sense then the doubly free subject has no corporate identity, instead he or she must rely entirely on his or her own wit and will power in order to survive.

But what we also know is that the doubly free subject is created by economic and social processes. Thus, through the process of establishing capitalist social relations you get new forms of freedom and new ways of being a person. But there is nothing inevitable or foreseen in the social processes that led to the establishment of capitalism in England, Western Europe and North America.

Thus one of the things that I have been arguing is that even as you have capitalism developing in the 3rd world at the same time as it develops in Europe, the creation of the doubly free subject was never complete in the 3rd world.

Indeed, typical of the 3rd world economy is that you have people labouring under a number of different social arrangements in order to make goods for the capitalist market but who have not been transformed by capitalism as such.

On the other-hand the transformation into modern individuals in NA is utterly complete. Thus in NA life is organized around the nuclear family, and the nuclear family assumes that two people out of their own free will can choose each other and so form a family. But the nuclear family is “the gendered family par excellence” (Oyewumi, Oyeronke 2002). It consists of husband and wife who are defined by their gender and sexuality rather than a corporate identity derived from the community. But as such the nuclear family operationalizes and takes for granted the idea of being double free– it assumes a certain historically specific institution related to modernity as its base and its ideal.

On the other hand in the 3rd world people make a living in the informal economy, or through combinations of wage labouring with farming that over laps with remittances and migration. The point is that as capitalism travelled around the world it needed a much smaller labour force when it expanded industrialization (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Thus capitalism promotes a world proletariat but cannot accommodate a generalized living wage (Bernstein, Henry 2004). Reproduction happens under insecure and oppressive conditions, and most often in the informal sector. Here kinship structures, and lineage systems become modernized and adapted to urban spaces and even trans-national spaces as a means to survival (Cooper, Fredrick 2001).

Now, as we have been saying westernized folks tend to take the nuclear family for granted and they define freedom as being doubly free. This produces a number of conceptual problems: 1) It assumes the individual is the bases for organizing society, 2) even when western feminists produce critiques of the family it is based on the fact that in the context of the nuclear family women are subordinated, 3)produces a universal feminist project based on the fact that the nuclear family is universally oppressive, therefore all women must be oppressed, 4)advocates a liberated form of romantic love where the doubly free subject is granted freedom such that he or she can have the kind of the free choice that is exercised between two doubly free subjects.

But what we know is that in real life the nuclear family was never really instituted outside of western Europe and NA. And as I have been arguing a lot of this has to do with the fact that well paid, regular, and routinized wage labour was never commonly available outside of the West and still is not.

On the other hand, what we also know is that under these oppressive economic and historical conditions 3rd world nationalism often calls upon supposedly primordial identities as a way to construct feelings of belonging. Race is often used in this way but ideas of what it means to be a woman is also mobilized in this regard. Indeed, one of the things that is common to the formerly colonized countries is how the modern nation-state mobilizes “invented tradition” as a way to give people a sense of identity and belonging, for example, Tutsi vs Hutu, etc. But in many ways Tutsi and Hutu are entirely modern identities even if formally they are based on a pre-colonial past. This is because the fixing of customary law and ethnic affiliations are actually based on the invented colonial law that was administered through native authorities and native courts (Mamdani, Mahmood 1996).

So one of the things we need to be vigilant about is how so called traditional identities get used to foster a contemporary sense of identity, i.e. a sense of what it means to be African or Indian or whatever, and yet these traditions really have no historical base.

That said we also need to be cognizant of the multiple ways that colonialism and nationalism coupled with the more general transition to capitalist property relations in the colonies has not only transformed the nature of the family, kinship ties and lineage systems, it has also entrenched patriarchal rule.

Here we see that gender does not simply shape a person’s life; rather gender itself is produced and reworked through changes to the governing structures of social and economic conditions. But more importantly, gender is a concept that is increasingly fought over and contested as a means through which people can both shape their own lives but also satisfy certain interests.

For example, the West gazes upon the colonial subject and then claims that the way the colonized subject loves or the way he treats women is backward (and it is always a he that is being addressed in that gaze, after all “the women” are too veiled or too passive and cannot be addressed). But what follows from this is that the West makes policies to reform the backward subject, and as such codifies tradition on the one hand but also introduces new ways of being a man or a woman. Then the colonial subject internalize those ideas of what it means to be both traditional, as well as a modern man or a woman, but since these modes of being can never match up to European expectations, precisely because social relations are organized differently than under fully formed capitalist social relations in the West, the colonial subject still gets called barbaric and backward. But now the colonial subject holds on to the new definition of manhood inherited from the codification of tradition, and says no, look, I am not backwards, but he does this at the expense of making himself more static and more fixed.

How to solve this conundrum? Well, here, the question of hope or liberty clearly is not about individualizing the subject in the vein of fortifying a miniature homo economicus. Rather, the question is how can we take on our already existing collective projects at the level of the nation and also at the level of the transnational. Now, of course the future cannot be predicted, but at least we can say that in this scenario love is established through becoming companions in struggle and supporting the other in the freedom to find a form for that struggle. But here, what we also witness is that love is a sediment that arises from knowing that history and our collective formations are the condition from which to reach out to someone.

This kind of companionship is exactly the opposite of what is encouraged by the doubly free subject. After all romantic coupledom as it is practised in the West is the expression of a doubly free subject, but that expression is the privilege of the richest group of people in the international division of labour. It simply is not available to most people.

On other hand, my interlocutors seem to think that romantic love might give them hope for what ultimately is a dissatisfied existence in the advanced capitalist countries, but as Walter Benjamin has warned, “hope is for the hopeless”. In the end romantic love in North America is about disavowal and retreat from the world, because people are privileged enough to do just that. It is the longing for ahistorical stasis, and a frozen image of reality. Marx also called this animality.

Back in 1844 Marx also knew that freedom as it is expressed by the doubly free subject was the ultimate form of alienation. In opposition to the modern subject he wrote “suffering humanely conceived is the enjoyment of self for man.” I urge my friends that are so firmly committed to romantic love to enter the circle of suffering with their fellow human-beings. My interlocutors might find that they will finally enjoy being in the world so much more.

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21 thoughts on “Personhood, Romantic Love and the 3rd world.

  1. I find the phrase “doubly free subject” rather confusing (as in I am confused). In the classic marxian lexicon to be doubly freed is to note that the freedom of the freed labourer is has its positive moment as in freed from political bondage but at the cost of being freed from their means of production thus at the same time achieving economic bondage via the necessity of access to paid labour markets. If you were to relate the transformation of the household from a primary to secondary institution of economic importance then it might help clarify the ideological role that the idea of Romantic Love has come play in the at once more affluent but less important role of the household as institution in contemporary capitalism.

  2. Given the status of informal labour in the development of capitalist social relation in the rest of the world, I would question the positive aspect of becoming doubly free. Or at any rate I would question the kind of immanent quality that this freedom was supposed to be mean for some marxists, since most simply do not have access to that kind of freedom and it is not because they are in some kind of transition towards capitalism. On the other hand the transformation of the household from a primary to secondary institution of economic importance is not an ideological fact, it is an economic fact. It means people’s personhood becomes substantially different, and differentiated. Romantic love is ideological in so much as it takes this transformation as something innate to human beings, when really it is a specific cultural moment that glosses over what it means to become this kind of highly individuated person..

  3. I think the idea that freedom is immanent to capitalist social relations because of the form individuation takes under such social relations is a bit of bollocks. It is more likely to lead to fascism than anything else. Poor Marx did last not long enough to see that, but Adorno and company did. I heed their warning, but not always for the same reasons as they.

  4. “On the other hand the transformation of the household from a primary to secondary institution of economic importance is not an ideological fact”

    Never said it was. Go re-read the comment.

    “Romantic love is ideological in so much as it takes this transformation as something innate to human beings, when really it is a specific cultural moment that glosses over what it means to become this kind of highly individuated person.”

    Back up a minute. Surely the transformation of the household from a primary to secondary institution of economic reproduction entails the alienation of the domestic means of (re)production. One of the consequences of this alienation is an individualisation both within and between families (community). Romantic Love tries to paper this over with a a celebration of this alienation (two against the world) with a romanization of the (now) shell that was the household as a primary institution of reproduction and then nonetheless reconstitutes both love and the household as primary sites of “false” recognition and accumulation. False in the sense that it is not the solution to alienation but its rationalized reproduction and in the sense that it is not capitalist accumulation proper either but a series of insurance, savings and consumption contracts. With the more progressive models embracing some kind of notion of bourgeois betterment.

    Romantic Love. It think for this conversation to go any further we need a historical account of the development of the idea of romantic love. Prior to your original post I always thought of romantic love as attraction + endorphins.

  5. I don’t think it is necessary to do a genealogy of romantic love to uncover the work that it does for our own society. In fact such a genealogical project might distract from making the simple point that romantic love is problematic because it celebrates choice, and makes an ideology out of free choice that inevitably fore sakes the community. Romantic love is different from religion as an opiate of the people because, even if religion falsely identifies where the origins of the community lie it still contains a notion of a collective whole that is beyond the individual. On the other hand, romantic love does not even insist on a notion of community. It simply says that free choice and individualism is what it means to be human.

  6. Well no Romatic love takes at least two. And in this sense part of the success of Romatic love as an ideological resourc ready to hand surely has something to do with our essentially social nature. Maybe if you cared to look at the rational kernel your interloppers would not be quite so “defensive.”

  7. Everything in the world, including fascism has something to do with our essential social nature. That is not very astute as an insight. My point is that romantic love takes two individuals indeed, where their individualism is foregrounded before anything else. My interlocuters have yet to describe the mechanism of romantic love as a specific social institution located in time and space. They just defend their right to express themselves as they wish. In that sense they demonstrate my point remarkably.

    • I suggest you read the context of Marx’ words again:

      http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm

      Romantic love isn’t just to be put in opposition to a wider “species love” (just as the individual isn’t simply to be put into opposition to “the community” [except in the very crudest forms of communism]) but is the means by which that wider love comes into being.

      Otherwise, you just get a jackbooting commissar demanding obedience to an abstract concept.

  8. Todd, you cannot just tell me to read, you need to engage the substance of my arguments now spread across three posts and many comments. You seems unable to really think through the idea of personhood as a historical residue of praxis. As I said before my interlocuters have yet to describe the mechanism of romantic love as a specific social institution located in time and space. They just defend their right to express themselves as they wish. In that sense they demonstrate my point remarkably.

    • “you need to engage the substance of my arguments now spread across three posts and many comments”

      I told you before that I don’t have a problem with what I see as your basic idea ie that the concept of romantic love is determined by time and space and that, now in the West, it serves as a distraction from other, more important forms of love.

      What I took issue with (and still take issue with) was what looks like an insistence on ignoring utterly the real conditions that create this form of love in the west at this time (which seems even more odd when you quite correctly point out why the colonial subject doesn’t act in this manner). This reminds me of other leftists of various stripes who write The Truth (even if it is the truth) about certain matters as if they expect people simply to “wake up” at the snap of the writer’s metaphorical fingers (Chomsky comes to mind).

      I agree with what you’re saying but not with how you’re saying it.

      “As I said before my interlocuters have yet to describe the mechanism of romantic love as a specific social institution located in time and space.”

      IIRC, Travis asked you to do this and you refused. As for me, I don’t really have the time, energy, or know-how to write something that in-depth.

      “I must also add that I have had a lot of positive feedback on these posts about romance.”

      >shrug For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.”

      • Crap. Didn’t know about the max length.

        What should’ve been added after the shrug was that I have no doubt there are people who would like what you wrote. But popularity isn’t the issue here.

        As for the stuff after that I was trying to make the point that Marx _doesn’t stop_ with merely stating that modern notions of the self make true knowledge impossible; one has to move through those modern notions to transcend them:

        “This material, immediately perceptible private property is the material perceptible expression of estranged human life. Its movement – production and consumption – is the perceptible revelation of the movement of all production until now, i.e., the realisation or the reality of man. Religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law. The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life, is therefore the positive transcendence of all estrangement – that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social, existence. Religious estrangement as such occurs only in the realm of consciousness, of man’s inner life, but economic estrangement is that of real life; its transcendence therefore embraces both aspects. It is evident that the initial stage of the movement amongst the various peoples depends on whether the true recognised life of the people manifests itself more in consciousness or in the external world – is more ideal or real.”

        and

        “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense.>” (after which comes the stuff posted above).

        In short, humanity has to go through the crap before it can get to the better stuff, but it’s only by going through the crap that we can get to the better stuff. It’s not enough that someone just yells at us to get out of the crap (logical though that order is).

  9. I must also add that I have had a lot of positive feedback on these posts about romance. But most of those comments came from folks who grew up or live in the 3rd world. And all commented via email.

  10. I have to say Centime you seem to be more interested in defending what you consider to be a definitive critique than exploring an idea / hypothesis.

  11. Not at all, I was interested in one of your comments that was actually engaging me at the substantive level. Most of the comments have been personal, formalistic and superficial. As a form of argument most of the comments resemble the individualism that I have been arguing against. Besides your one comment, all anyone has done is state ad nauseum their right to romantic love, without locating paying attention to its link with certain historically specific forms of personhood.

    Todd tells me to read. But the quote from Marx that I used in the last post is where Marx describes the conditions for knowledge and explains the ways in which modern notions of the self make true knowledge impossible. If Todd wants to engage me, he should be less imperial in tone and read me without dogmatically asserting his being over and above my substance. Who really needs to read here?

  12. From those who feel that they can COMMENT there has been minimal engagement with what I have been saying. There has been a DOGMATIC assertion that a social institution has a right to exist and that its existence is positive. That is not critique.

    I guess the 3rd world is not a space worthy of theory making. Yes to universal brotherhood, indeed.

    It appears Spivak was right when she said the sub-altern woman cannot speak.

  13. Which raises Spivak’s point, “Can the subaltern woman speak?”. It would seem that even on “Relentless Progressive/Collective Political Economy” that is not possible. Marx also reminds us that immanent critique is a way to begin to rescue love from alienating circumstances. Hence the story of Darwish, and the prisoner. The comments, on the other hand systematically deny that one can do such a critique of a specific social institution by dogmatically raising the institution to the heights of having sanctified status. In this way the comments cancel the possibility of the production of love. And in that cancelation all that is immanent but invisible to your beloved sociability is indeed silenced.

  14. “The comments, on the other hand systematically deny that one can do such a critique of a specific social institution by dogmatically raising the institution to the heights of having sanctified status.”

    I’d really like for you to explain how I secretly came to say all that, especially given that I said multiple times “I agree with you”.

  15. Todd, my last comment was released from the spam folder yesterday but was written days ago. I am beat from teaching and so on. Gonna peace out from this discussion for now.

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