July 2012

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Eva Illouz

Since reading Eva Illouz's Why Love Hurts, I have written about it endlessly, talked about it endlessly, pushed copies onto my friends endlessly. It's not that often that a massive book of theory sparks such a reaction in me, but I knew from about halfway through the book that I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with Eva Illouz.

Haven't you for years felt like you were being conned somehow in the realm of relationships? I'm not talking about the bad dates or the self help books or the way reality (crashingly) meets online profile. There was something fundamental about the story we were being told about how relationships should function that seemed off. Women are family oriented, they are just looking for a love that will complete them and fulfill them. Men, well, god, what to say about men? Stunted little boys is more like it. Unwilling to commit, you're going to have to manipulate them into a relationship. They control the playing field, and you have to know how to play the game in order to get what you want.

While it seems like obvious bullshit, it's a hard dynamic to break away from. Relationships in real life really did often play out like that, and it was difficult to see any alternative way of existing in the world. So you talk to your friends about your man, trying to figure out what's going on in that thick skull of his. And you talk to your therapist to figure out why your daddy issues are keeping you from the life and love you really want.

Eva Illouz presents a provocative explanation, which is that society has set up this situation, and what is being explained as natural is really just the structure we have chosen to live in. Illouz has been an insightful cultural critic for years now, with books on our self-help culture, our penchant for misery and Oprah Winfrey episodes, our equal sense of entitlement and victimhood in modern society. I exchanged emails with Illouz for most of June, as I tried to figure out why her book had stirred me so deeply.

I am addicted to reading those Modern Love columns, which you reference quite heavily in Why Love Hurts. Almost every single one illustrates these traps each gender falls into, the women wanting some sort of soul union, the man not knowing how to connect... They couldn't be a more perfect source of material for your thesis, it seems. How much of a guilty pleasure did they provide for you?

I have had more guilty pleasures. Actually, I was more struck by the constant attempt of their writers to show they were clever, not kitsch or ironic, self-aware. So it did not feel like I was reading something trashy at all. The pleasure I derived reading them was not guilty, but highly intellectual because they seemed to be uncannily suited illustrations for my thesis about the nature of the gender divide.

It's very sort of hip now, and you briefly refer to this in your book, to say that the reason the dating scene is the way it is is because of our hunter/gatherer genes. That men need to sleep around as much as possible, it's their caveman DNA calling to them. You make light of this theory. Can you explain why you think this theory has gained some traction, and why you think there are problems with it?

I confess I have never been able to take that theory very seriously, but that is probably because I do not understand or know enough the objections which evolutionary biologists bring to the mass of historical evidence that contradict their claims.

Think for example of the Christian ideal of monastic life and sexual asceticism: why would the post popular religion of history be so drastically against our genes? We are not talking about a minor religious sect. We are talking about the largest religious movement in history. Or take another example: European aristocracy - despite its power and privileges -- disappeared at a staggering rate from the 18th century onward. Why? Because the inheritance law did not enable many children to inherit enough land to marry a woman that would enable them to keep their patrimony. So more than a quarter of the nobility disappeared because they preferred to enter monasteries or to remain childless (and sexually abstinent). Why would the nobility adopt economic laws that were so evidently against the capacity of the nobles to reproduce their genes? I have no idea.

So I would say that much of these theories seem to me like a justification of the current state of masculinity than an explanation.

How much of this pressure that we put on our beloved to be our all, our best friend, our spouse, our co-parent, our lover, our fellow television watcher, is due to the weakening of our social groups? It seems that we used to be pretty tribal, and extended family and friends used to fill a lot of those needs for us, whereas now we just look to our spouse.

You are right to speak about "pressure" but I am not sure that the weakening of social groups is the problem. The problem has to do with modes of social recognition, that is, with the fact that our sense of social worth has become very much tied up with love and the family. Why? Because a) status does not "stick" to us anymore as it did in pre-modernity. Our worth is something we are constantly negotiating with others. It is thus established inter-personally; it is not given by our birth. and b) we live in a society that is both competitive and in which we are incessantly evaluated (school, university, performance as a writer, poet or businessman or sportsman). The only place where you hope to stop that evaluation is in love. In love you become the winner of the contest, the first and only. That is why there is so much pressure on love. it is because it carries now the responsibility of performing for us our sense of worth. It has a validation function it did not have before.

You mention in the book that one of the reasons women look to their relationships for their feelings of self-worth more than men do is because they have fewer outside sources of social reinforcement. Do you mean through outlets like work? And do you think that as women sort of break through with ambition and achievement, they'll put less pressure on their relationships to validate them?

I don't know if "work" or "career" is a valid and only source of validation. I think more like Hannah Arendt here, namely that self-worth is something that has to do with the public sphere, it is more having a voice and a role in the public sphere, being an active member of a community, defending values and standing for those values publicly. Rosa Luxemburg, more than Sheryl Sandberg.

I think that through feminism we should be careful not to reinforce those aspects of culture that are the uninteresting outcomes of a capitalist, highly competitive, reductive notion of self, all oriented toward a linear and narcissistic notion of self-accomplishment. Feminism has other strands and other aims than making women into the productive forces of capitalism: namely to make the public sphere a more ardent sphere of preoccupation for women. The idea is not to have work replace relationships -- that would be a vast distortion of feminism -- but to have both work and relationships more clearly oriented toward a sense of what we owe to each other.

I don't think you can separate a transformation of personal relationships from a transformation of capitalist societies. Capitalism -- which has superposed two societies, a pre-modern one oriented toward the family, and a modern one oriented toward competitive individuals -- has left women deeply dissatisfied and has not resolved the deep inequalities that structure men's and women's existence. It is an old theme but we should revive it by taking stock of what capitalism has done to men and women's relationships.

One of your blurbers, Laura Kipnis, wrote in The Female Thing that capitalism took advantage of feminism, rerouting its goals into the patriarchal, capitalist structure. Suddenly one of the high ideals was to become more masculine, in that traditionally ambitious, consumerist kind of way. Is this something you agree with? And if so, how does that effect the way men and women interact?

Equality is a tricky business. That is because equality presupposes sameness. I want to be equal to you, thus in some ways, I want to be like you, similar to you. Feminism has struggled with this question from the start, and in claiming equality to men in the workplace, it has, by and large, been forced to adopt the same contractual logic and the same values of self-reliance, autonomy and rationality through which masculine authority and leadership had been defined.

But something also happened: the incredible intensification of sexuality and models of femininity through media, fashion and celebrity culture. This is why women are deeply androgynous, because they have become socialized to the masculine ethos in the capitalist worksphere, and highly feminized (even in an unprecedented way) by the beauty-sexiness industrial axis. But add to this a third dimension: some - or many -- heterosexual women are still defined by their desire to organize their lives around the family, which is now, for the first in history a non economic institution, only a purely emotional one. All of this - to say very quickly -- contributes to make relationships far more complex. When the family was aligned along economic imperatives, and when identity was aligned along the family, it makes for straightforward ways to meet, court, interact. But now because of the dissociation of economy from family, of sex from sentiments, of sentiments from family, of work and consumer identities, it all creates a very complex way to create commitment, rules of courtship.

You have some criticisms of the way feminism responded to romantic love. Now, feminism has been criticized for ages for destroying romance and chivalry, although I don't think those two words are interchangeable. But obviously some of these second wave writers like Firestone were responding to an imbalance of power in the marriage in their own time, and perhaps making too sweeping of conclusions about love from that. But what do you think is the lasting impact of second wave feminism on love and relationships?

I am not really critical of feminism at all! If anything I think that the problem is that we have not overhauled enough the whole thing.

The problem with feminism has to do with the fact that its gains were very partial, that it accommodated itself with capitalist social structure, that it did not find the way to make a more significant amount of men join its ranks, that it sometimes confused love and the family structure, that it celebrated too quickly a masculine model of sexuality. The interaction of the market of sexuality, sexual freedom, and the persistence of the family as the only valid model of women's identity and as a venue for women's economic existence has delivered a great deal of uncertainty, and emotional inequality. This is not an outcome that could have been foreseen.

In that sense I would not want to criticize second wave feminists, who were entirely committed to free women from the oppressiveness of the family structure. There was no other way I think. I think that one place to look at to think collectively of how to change the emotional imbalance between men and women is to look at gay communities. I have the sense that gay communities hold the key for people like me - straight -- to work out many of the conundrums that plague heterosexual relationships, precisely because the separation between family and love, and between reproduction and the family has been a central feature of the social organization of gay lives and communities. Straight relationships have been slowly and steadily moving toward a gay way of organizing relationships. Possibly, this is where we should look at, and this is the next stage so-to-speak of feminist theory for straight.

Perhaps then I'm projecting my own stuff onto your section about feminism? Because I read certain statements, like your response to Firestone's claims that love oppresses women, and the focus on sexual harassment and pure equality in relationships, as criticisms. Did I just read that section wrong?

No, you are right, I do. But i just wanted to make clear that this the criticism of someone who sees herself belonging to "the same side," to the same political family as Firestone. I want to stress this because I am perplexed and worried about the critiques of which feminism has been the object in the last decades. No one could think of criticizing anti-racist attitudes. But somehow, people feel they can criticize feminism.

So my critique is a critique from "within;" in the sense that it is a critique of someone deeply identified with feminism, and in the sense that I criticize not from above but from the horizon of people - women's desires and fantasies. That is, if we don't take very seriously the state of women's desires and fantasies, if we keep putting these fantasies down as figments of their ideological imagination, we will not be able to really understand how to make them grasp and change what they do. Moreover I also criticize the pathologization of men. This is entirely unnecessary and even counter-productive, I try to show that men are rationally reacting to a new ecology of sexual choice. If you look at men and women's relationships as the effect-result of a larger structure, it enables you to move away from the complacency with which some women view themselves and to move away from the pathologization of men.

What in your mind would a feminist relationship that did not play into capitalist structures look like? I ask also because I've been reading a lot of queer theory lately that criticizes the way gay relationships have assimilated into these heterosexual, capitalist lifestyles. Capitalism doesn't play fair, and it has a tendency to just subsume any alternatives.

Capitalism divides men and women around a) the fact that the market for sexuality has reshaped the vocabulary of sentiments, and b) in the fact that the family remains the prime institution to raise children and demands from women to be far more oriented to this institution than men are, and c) it makes "choice," maximization of utilities, into the new vocabularies of romantic sentiments.

A feminist relationship not based on capitalist structure would put back sentiments, commitment, responsibility where a disconnected sexuality reigns (note: I did not say pleasurable sexuality, but disconnected sexuality); it would find new strategies for women to have children without being in the somewhat humiliating position of having to wait for the good will of a man to thaw (by having these children through technologies raising them in strong urban communities of friends...) and by redefining the vocabulary of love, of sexual desire that does not depend on power but not on self-interest either.