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THE END OF LOVE

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By Eva Lllouz

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The Montréal Review, October 2021

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THE END OF LOVE
A Sociology of Negative Relations
By Eva Illouz
(Polity Press, 2021)

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[T]o see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.                 
—       George Orwell, “In Front of Your Nose”

 

Western culture has endlessly represented the ways in which love miraculously erupts in people’s lives, the mythical moment in which one knows someone is destined to us; the feverish waiting for a phone call or an email, the thrill that runs our spine at the mere thought of him or her. To be in love is to become an adept of Plato, to see through a person an Idea, perfect and complete. Endless novels, poems, or movies teach us the art of becoming Plato’s disciples, loving the perfection manifested by the beloved. Yet, a culture that has so much to say about love is far more silent on the no-less- mysterious moment when we avoid falling in love, where we fall out of love, when the one who kept us awake at night now leaves us indifferent, when we hurry away from those who excited us a few months or even a few hours ago. This silence is all the more puzzling as the number of relationships that dissolve soon after their beginning or at some point down along their emotional line is staggering. Perhaps our culture does not know how to represent or think about this because we live in and through stories and dramas, and “unloving” is not a plot with a clear structure. More often than not it does not start with an inaugural moment, a revelation. On the contrary, some relationships fade or evaporate before or soon after they properly started, while others end with slow and incomprehensible death. And yet, “unloving” means a great deal from a sociological perspective as it is about the unmaking of social bonds, which, since Émile Durkheim’s seminal Suicide, we have to understand as perhaps the central topic of sociological inquiry. But in networked modernity, anomie—the breakdown of social relationships and social solidarity—does not primarily take the form of alienation or loneliness. On the contrary, the unmaking of bonds that are close and intimate (in potentiality or in reality) seems to be deeply connected to the increase of social networks, real or virtual, to technology, and to a formidable economic machinery of advice-giving or help-giving. Psychologists of all persuasions— as well as talk-show hosts, pornography and sex toy industries, the self-help industry, shopping and consumer venues—all of these cater to the perpetual process of making and unmaking social bonds. If sociology has tradition- ally framed anomie as the result of isolation and the lack of proper membership to community or religion, it now must account for a more elusive property of social bonds in hyper-connective modernity: their volatility despite and through intense social networks, technology, and consumption. This book inquires into the cultural and social conditions that explain what has become an ordinary feature of sexual and romantic relations: leaving them. “Unloving” is the privileged terrain to understand how the intersection between capitalism, sexuality, gender relations, and technology generates a new form of (non) sociality.

Psychologists have been entrusted with the task of repairing, shaping, and guiding our sexual and romantic life. While they have been, on the whole, remarkably successful in convincing us that their verbal and emotional techniques can help us live better lives, they have produced little or no under- standing of what plagues our romantic lives collectively. Surely the myriad stories heard in the privacy of psychological consultation have a recurring structure and common themes that transcend the particularity of their tellers. It is not even difficult to guess the recurring theme and structure of the complaints voiced in those settings: “Why do I have difficulties forming or maintaining intimate, loving relationships?” “Is this relationship good or bad for me?” “Should I stay in this marriage?” What is common to the questions endlessly reverberated throughout continual all-invasive therapeutic advice in the form of counseling, workshops, or self-help books used to guide our life is a deep, nagging uncertainty about emotional life, a difficulty to interpret our own and others’ feelings, knowing how and what to com- promise about, and a difficulty in knowing what we owe others and what they owe us. As psychotherapist Leslie Bell put it: “[I]n interviews and in my psychotherapy practice with young women, I have found them to be more confused than ever about not only how to get what they want, but what they want.” Such confusion, common inside and outside the office of psychologists, is often taken to be the result of the ambivalence of the human psyche, the effect of a delayed entry into adulthood, or of a psychological confusion produced by conflicting cultural messages about femininity. Yet,as I show in this book, emotional uncertainty in the realm of love, romance, and sex is the direct sociological effect of the ways in which the consumer market, therapeutic industry, and the technology of the Internet have been assembled and embedded by the ideology of individual choice that has become the main cultural frame organizing personal freedom. The type of uncertainty that plagues contemporary relationships is a sociological phenomenon: it did not always exist, or at least not to this extent; it was not as widespread, at least not to this extent; it did not have the content it has today for men and women; and it certainly did not command the systematic attention of experts and knowledge systems of all persuasions. The puzzles, difficulties, and elusiveness that are the characteristics of many relation- ships and the source of psychological gloss are nothing but an expression of what we may call a generalized “uncertainty” in relations. That so many modern lives display the same uncertainty does not point to the universality of a conflicted unconscious but rather to the globalization of the conditions of life.

This book is another installment in a two-decades-long study on the ways in which capitalism and the culture of modernity have transformed our emotional and romantic life. If there is a single tenet that my work on emotions has advocated for the last twenty years it is that the analysis of the disorganization of private, intimate life cannot come from psychology alone. Sociology has an immense contribution to make in its insistence that psychological experiences—needs, compulsions, inner conflicts, desires, or anxiety—play and replay the dramas of collective life, and that our subjective experience reflects and prolongs social structures, are, in fact, concrete, embodied, lived structures. A non-psychological analysis of the inner life is all the more urgent because the capitalist market and consumer culture compel actors to make their interiority into the only plane of existence that feels real, with autonomy, freedom, and pleasure in all its forms as guide- lines for such interiority. While we may experience our retreat to individuality, emotionality, and interiority as sites of self-empowerment, we are in fact ironically implementing and performing the very premises of an eco- nomic and capitalist subjectivity, which fragments the social world and makes its objectivity unreal. This is why a sociological critique of sexuality and emotions is crucial to a critique of capitalism itself.

I bring my inquiry into emotional life, capitalism, and modernity to a pre- liminary conclusion by engaging more forcefully with the question that has been put on the table of liberal philosophy since the nineteenth century: does freedom jeopardize the possibility of forming meaningful and binding bonds, more specifically romantic bonds? In its general form, this question has been insistently asked for the last two hundred years, in the context of the demise of community and the rise of market relations, but has been less frequently raised in the emotional realm, and this despite the fact that emotional freedom has entirely redefined the nature of subjectivity and inter- subjectivity and is no less central to modernity than other forms of freedom. Nor is it less fraught with ambiguities and aporias.

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 Eva Illouz is Directrice d’Etudes at the EHESS in Paris and Rose Isaac Chair of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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