«One of the main transformations of sexual relationships in modernity consists in the tight intertwinement of desire with economics and with the question of value and one’s worth…. By this, I mean that generalized sexual competition transforms the very structure of the will and desire, and that desire takes on the properties of economic exchange: that is, that it becomes regulated by the laws of supply and demand, scarcity, and oversupply.»
«Ultimately, my aim is to do to love what Marx did to commodities: to show that it is shaped and produced by concrete social relations…»
Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts. A Sociological Explanation, Cambridge: Polity, 2013, pp. 58, 6.
She knows what she is talking about
The Israeli-French sociologist Eva Illouz, born in 1961, teaches both in Jerusalem and in Paris. In an ironic, spirited, witty, and thoroughly amusing approach, she explores and explains the subject of love. Without ever lapsing into socio-scientific jargon, she delivers a convincing appeal to take a look at love from a sociological perspective. In her proficient, scientifically balanced, and, not least, elegantly written, sociological explanation of love, Illouz takes all possible universes of meaning seriously. She integrates the multitude of our individual everyday realities into her observations, thus lending them credibility. She simply gives us the feeling that she knows what she is talking about.
Love, a sociological category
That she is entirely justified in claiming love as a sociological subject is pinpointed in her thoughts on the limitations of psychology. The discipline people commonly turn to for help in matters of love is by no means always useful: «While for sociologists, dependence is the unavoidable outcome of the fact that we are social creatures, and thus is not a pathological condition, for psychologists, dependence should be excised…» (p. 148). Or: «… what is wrong in contemporary relationships … are not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but the set of social and cultural tensions and contradictions that have come to structure modern selves and identities.» (p. 4)
How beauty became a commodity
Among the issues illuminated in the chapter «The Great Transformation of Love» is the capitalist emancipation of body and sexuality at the beginning of the 20th century. With the former austere ethic of work loosening in favor of emerging consumerism, the aesthetization of the body moved into the focus of the rising fashion and cosmetics industries. The previous Victorian ideal of inner or moral beauty gave way to physical beauty: cosmetics, «femininity», consumption, and sexuality were instrumental in the construction of the eroticized female bodies, and with the first Playboy magazine published in 1953, of men’s bodies too.
«The foregrounding of the body in US culture and the intense commodification of sex and sexuality made ‹sexual attractiveness› a cultural category in itself, detached from moral value per se. The cult of beauty, and later of fitness, and the definition of masculinity and femininity in terms of erotic and sexual attributes were relentlessly promoted by the cultural industries and had the effect of progressively transforming sexual attraction and sexiness into positive cultural categories in their own right, making sexual desirability one of the central criteria for choosing a mate and for shaping one’s own personhood. The commodification of sex and sexuality—their penetration into the very heart of the capitalist engine—made sexuality into an attribute and experience increasingly detached from reproduction, marriage, long-lasting bonds, and even emotionality.» (p. 45)
Suffering or self-interest?
Whereas the notions of romantic suffering or pain were normal and integral to 19th century relationships of love, they turned into unacceptable symptoms of an immature psyche in the 20th century. In light of our self-optimization, notions such as self-sacrifice, let alone self-abandonment, have become downright ridiculous and obsolete. «To love well means to love according to one’s self-interest. The emotional experience of love increasingly contains and displays a utilitarian project of the self, in which one has to secure maximum pleasure and well-being. Suffering is progressively foreign to this new cultural idiom of love. This in turn meant that if love was a source of suffering, it was a ‹mistake›, a wrong evaluation.» (pp. 164–165)
Part 2 to follow in 2 weeks!