Whither Romantic Love
David Mertz

Richard White, in an APA conference paper on which I had the opportunity to comment, discusses, "The Future of Romantic Love" (1995). White's point in this paper is that romantic love presents a false alternative to the normatively autonomous subject of our post-Kantian societies. Romantic love, White believes, quite contrary to its pretense of erasing the boundaries of subjects is actually one of the puzzle pieces in the construction of this same post-Kantian subjectivity. This much seems true enough.

When one thinks a bit about just what romantic love does in support of an overtly contrary autonomous subject, I think one reaches a few points where White does not really specify an answer; at least not in the mentioned paper. In particular, at least two rather different paradigms for understanding the joint social function of overt contraries come to my mind. Readers will, no doubt, think of some more beyond these two.

One sort of support for autonomous subjectivity which romantic love might provide is as a sort of "release valve" for the excessive pressure in the demands of subjectivity. White makes several remarks that come close to this kind of metaphor for the relation of subjectivity and romantic love. Under this metaphor, and keeping in mind White's insistence on an historical conditioning, one might then place romantic love as another element within a parallel series of "disciplinary techniques" such as prisons and hospitals, which Foucault, for example, examines. One might here imagine that each twist and turn of historically and politically determined normative subjectivity produces both its inherent resistances and a set of techniques for controlling those resistances. Romantic love might then be one technique for the diffusion of anti-autonomous rebellion against bourgeois subjectivity.

The thing to notice in the above account is that it places both a temporal and causal priority on subjectivity over romantic love. Subjectivity is the hot political topic and the contested terrain, while romantic love is merely one ideological weapon used in the campaign. Another story one might tell, which seems equally hinted at by White, is a more structuralist tale, in which romantic abandon becomes the very symbolic flip-side of subjective autonomy. In this story, subjectivity and romantic love are both coeval and co-causal. In one variation of the story, romantic love belongs to a Saussurian chain of oppositions for autonomous subjectivity, so that the meaning itself of subjectivity depends on its opposite marker, romantic love. This variation demands neither that there are not also other important defining opposites for romantic love, nor that either subjectivity or romantic love do not participate in social mechanisms beyond semantics. But the Saussurian version of the structuralist tale of romance and subjects certainly demands a rather closer linking of the two than one could allow in the Foucauldian description of romantic love as a disciplinary technique. In the Saussurian narrative, one can neither wrest the monological centrality of subjectivity nor the loose teleology that the Foucauldian mechanism might allow.

There is, it seems to me, another possible variation on our structuralist tale. Rather than as an indifferent opposition, romantic love might function as a sort of "dark side" or "necessary repression" for the emergence of a particular type of bourgeois subjectivity. Whether one finds convenient a metaphor of Jekyll and Hyde, or one of a Freudian ego emergent from the conflict of id with superego, one could tell a certain structuralist story in which what made up bourgeois subjectivity was neither pure autonomy nor romantic abandon, but rather the overtly unworkable conjoining of the two.

I am not much committed to any of these stories in particular. No doubt it should be possible to give additional accounts of the way romantic love and autonomous subjectivity relate. I think my concern is that I cannot really become convinced of the necessary sublation, or forgetting, or overthrow, of romantic love until I have a bit more specific theory of how romantic love relates to bourgeois subjectivity in the first place than White has really given us. I quite heartily endorse his observation that the two really support each other. I agree that romantic notions of "abandonment of self in a beloved" are facile at best, and more likely a socially significant ruse. But more needs to be said here.

Several things raise my suspicion about White's account, and prompt me to ask for a more specific theorization. First, and perhaps foremost of these is the seemingly Panglossian sentiment White espouses regarding romantic love's successor(s). Let us grant some not uncommon wisdom that modernist subjectivity is on the outs; and grant further that whither goes subjectivity thither romantic love. We are assured at several points that "the decline of romantic love must inevitably open up the space for new and more authentic forms of relationship and the like." But why on earth should this be the case? Why not assume, quite the contrary, that, with the dissolution of bourgeois ideologies of autonomy, yet more inauthentic forms of human relationship will replace or succeed romantic love? Perhaps White and I are merely temperamentally differently inclined, but I have no trouble envisioning a world in which the primary basis for adult affective relations becomes an economic necessity for pooled wages. As much of the infrastructural reality of (heterosexual) romantic love has rested on economic battles over a male family wage earner (and female domesticity), much of it might rest, in the future, on the inadequacy of falling wages to support this model. Such (not so) hypothetical relations might certainly involve focused affection and concern, as White requires of love. I would certainly maintain that this new type of "love" would be different from a past romantic love, but it is not clear what might make it thereby "more authentic."

To be clear: I do not wish to suggest that a wage-driven model of "postmodern" love is the only possible one. There might well be others to replace romantic love, which are genuinely more authentic, rewarding, and liberatory. But even given the correctness of critiques of romantic love, a diagnosis of the downfall of one form of oppression hardly in itself clears the path to a liberated future. Bad sometimes goes to worse, and only sometimes to better.

Another suspicion: White seems at points to not take his historicist and structuralist admonitions seriously. If romantic love's "conceptual analysis" really is "inseparable from [its] historical genealogy" then we really cannot hope to define romantic love in either phenomenological or psychological terms. Certainly, a strict historicism hardly prohibits phenomenological or psychological conjoins with romantic love as a social process. But it seems a bit off the mark to go on a definitional search for romantic love in epiphenomenal mental realms. At a sort of micro level, a passing remark by White seems well to illustrate this difference. He says, "when I say that I love my country or that I love my new car, it's not clear that my state of mind is directly analogous to the passion that I might feel for another person." Perhaps not. But if not, this is a question just of psychological statistics.

What if I do happen to feel identically towards my car as toward my lover? The pathological nature of such a feeling cannot, I think, be a question of its phenomenological quality. Rather, this is not "true" romantic love because of its failure of conformity with a normative socio-historical construction of romantic love. That is what a historicist perspective would tell us; and common sense would happen to concur on this. The point here is that if a social normativity can disqualify a phenomenologically genuine romantic love, than perhaps what makes romantic love is not mental, but social. White mostly agrees about this, but then does not quite pin down what romantic love really is in socio-historical terms.

I think White's early mention of Roland Barthes points in a helpful direction. For whatever critiques can and should be made of romantic love, my own feeling is that one is better off analyzing it more in terms of its internal semiotic system than by way of its function in covertly supporting bourgeois subjectivity. Lots of things support bourgeois subjectivity at various levels. Somehow that does not seem quite sufficient to really get at the quiddity of romantic love. What I would find preferable--no doubt after an acknowledgement of the ideological apparatus of romantic love--would be something more about the particular internal organization of romantic love. Certainly we all fall-in-love, and organize this experience, in remarkably similar ways, as White observes (following Barthes). But just what is the logic and structure of these ways of falling-in-love? What does this semiotic resemble? For example, are the various oppositions and structures which stereotype romantic love more like a language, like etiquette conventions, or like traffic signals, to name but a few other semiotic systems?

One consequence, I think, of asking about romantic love as a semiotic system is a possible separation of its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, although White eschews this. A semiotic has a history, but it also has a distinct momentary structure. I must confess here, that I have a guilty reason for trying to bring in a separation of synchronic dimension of romantic love: I have my own take, partial though it is, on a phenomenological centrality of certain "special" moments in the constitution of subjectivity. Falling-in-love can be one such moment.

I have tried elsewhere to take a certain inspiration from Walter Benjamin's division of homogeneous linear from messianic time, but to miniaturize this distinction onto a phenomenological level. What I have in mind is the notion that certain "saturated" moments of experience present themselves as outside of the normal temporal course of our lives by marking ontological changes in our being. At certain moments we go from being one type of person to another type, and the experience of those moments is not groundable with a causal continuity of experience. Mind you, most such moments are perfectly predictable, banal, and in most cases probably openly reactionary. But they have these qualities only from the social framework outside the transformed subject.

Consider, as an example of saturation, the moment when we "fall-in-love"--with all those grand particular nothings which have adhered to that moment since the Renaissance. We remember the every appearance of our beloved at that moment, the exact hue of the lighting, the song playing, the very second of the time at which it happened; the love adheres to our beloved in his every idiosyncrasy, his every particular feature becomes the very reason we love him. From the perspective of the symbolic/causal order, nothing in this moment is inexplicable or special. If the light was of just such a hue that is only because the sun was in that particular position behind the clouds, and anyway, had it been different that difference would have had the same personal significance. Our true love has just these particular features, but most of these could have been predicted perhaps years previously from our own class, family, language, appearance, etc.--and those few not so predictable features are ones for which we would have substituted others had they not been present. Still, none of its causal/symbolic predictability makes our moment of love any less personally saturated. Perhaps the light could have been different, but it wasn't! Perhaps our beloved could have been another, but he isn't! The saturation of that moment is visible only from within a perspective that includes the experience of that moment; the moment is invisible, or at least vacuous, from without.

My narrative, of course, sounds like a perfectly ordinary romantic eulogy to the splendors of love of the sort that concludes with love's liberatory grace. That is not at all the point I would like to make. These saturated moments so eulogized are reactionary at best, and trite at worst. But the very phenomenological specialness of these trite moments seems to have an importantly inevitable position in a bourgeois/Kantian subjectivity. My feeling is that rather than as the rather accidental "escape valve" of subjectivity, exceptional moments like those of falling-in-love are the rather necessary abscesses in the transcendental unity of apperception.

I am all with White in hoping for an end of romantic love, and in agreement that this end has something to do with an end of modernity. But I think that the change in subjectivity intertwined with these ends is greater than that White probably thinks. It is not just a matter of postmodern lovers valuating autonomy differently. It is likely a matter of the next subjects constituting the world in other than a Kantian causal order!

Work Cited

White, Richard. (1995) The Future of Romantic Love. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, New York, December. The present essay was presented as commentary on White's paper at the same session.