Love has been privatised, and it cannot be brought back into public ownership

There is a political dimension to the ghastly Valentine’s Day and it goes something like this. The political climate of late modernity is characterised by an emphasis on choice and individual responsibility. And, yes, much good has come of it. Those rules of social engagement that maintained a place for everything and everything in its place were, for the lucky ones, the scaffolding of meaningful lives, and for many more unfortunate others, the forces of repression.

Class is an obvious example. It structured social relationships and provided many with their role in life. Those of us who want to tear down class structures – and I still do – ought nonetheless to face the fact that this deconstruction, precisely because it wipes away a whole social matrix, creates in many an intense form of anxiety about who they are and what they are for. In other words, figuring out one’s role in life becomes an individual responsibility rather than a social given and this presents the individual with a set of pressures that are not uncomplicated.

Nowhere is this anxiety more prevalent than in the run up to Valentine’s Day. At least, that is what Israeli academic Eva Illouz contends. For, she argues, that slippery word love has become a nest of personal fretfulness because it has lost its social bearings. In the world of internet dating and more fluid domestic arrangements, a world where choice is the guiding star, fewer people are trapped in unhappy marriages, but more people are left to shoulder the successes and failures of their own love life, being thus obliged to look deeper into themselves and their own personal psychology for whatever romantic failures they encounter.

This has become, Illouz argues, a modern form of self-torture. When things don’t work out, or one is alone, or one doesn’t have a date for the big night, it becomes a personal failing, a matter of individual responsibility. Thus we easily get sucked into a therapeutic vortex of angst-ridden self-examination, internalising our romantic failures. This is Why Love Hurts – the title of her 2012 book – much more in the 21st century. It got privatised. There was some wisdom, she thinks, in the Jane Austen school of courtship, in the idea that there are some rules through which love is played out and contextualised.

This should not surprise us if we think of the malaise of late modernity as being one of deracination, rootlessness. In such a context – or should I say lack of context – love easily dwindles to some semi-inarticulate talk of personal chemistry. The idea that we might premise a relationship on so narrow a shelf as this may well account for the number of couples who will be out to dinner next week, furtively searching for something missing in each other’s eyes, and baffled by the fact that they don’t have anything to say to each other. Love requires a broader social infrastructure than the one provided by individual feelings. In other words, when it comes to understanding love, we need less psychology and more sociology. I guess this is why some still argue for the success of arranged marriages. After all, the success rate of love matches is hardly anything to write home about.

But here’s the thing. Though I nod along to all this intellectually, I don’t really believe a word of it emotionally. I’m not sure there is any way of taking love back into public ownership. Privatisation has been too successful. Yes, when we turn love into some sort of deregulated market then the failures of our romantic attachments inevitably point back to some personal failure within me – just like financial success.

But the idea that love is an intense form of subjectivity is now impossible to budge, even for those who recognise that subjectivity is itself constructed by social and historical forces. – By Giles Fraser

Twitter: @giles_fraser

© Guardian News and Media 2014

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