Radical Monogamy

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


September 19, 2011

Radical Monogamy

Peter Watts published his wedding vows on his blog after marrying his wife despite his serious and apparently long-standing reservations about monogamy. His vows read almost as a protest designed to register the fact that he doesn’t take the ceremony very seriously and sees the chance of monogamy as quite remote due to “200 million years of natural selection.” Although he tries to steer it so that it ends on an upbeat note, he notes with faux-surprise (and perhaps secret delight) that the officiant was disapproving.

It’s an odd wedding announcement, as if Watts felt compelled to announce to his substantial blog readership that despite now being a married man, in his heart he still maintained internal doubts about it. His “fingers crossed” participation in the ceremony makes me wonder what the conversation that caused him to agree to get married was like.

“We know that monogamy is not the normal human state, the self-serving claims of various religious institutions notwithstanding,” says Watts, but this claim is difficult to sustain. Religion most often teaches us that people are naturally sinners, and non-monogamy is a type of sin that we are prone to. That is why we need an institution and a ceremony conducted before God – it’s a crutch. In reality, Watts’ view is far less distant from tradition than he claims, because he agrees with the dour assumptions about natural human tendencies.

But then I’m in the anti-marriage, pro-monogamy camp. What sort of commitment do you have when you feel that it has been made stronger by getting a stamp of approval from society, your friends and family, the state or the church? Marriage signals your belief that you aren’t really capable of being monogamous without the help of society because deep down, you really just want to cheat on your spouse. The ritual of the wedding ultimately registers the participants’ belief in the impossibility (or at least the difficulty) of monogamy.

In some sense I share Peter Watts’ negative feelings about ceremony, but from the perspective that we need to shed cultural scaffolding that is supposed to help us meet our commitments but in the end, prevents us from taking full responsibility for them.

Watts’ views are part of a trend of skepticism towards monogamy and marriage that also shows up as a huge spike in interest in polyamory as an alternative. In relationship discussions on internet forums and blogs, one doesn’t have to go far before running into activists educating other users about polyamory as a radical alternative or solution to the problem of infidelity and the more complete fulfillment of sexual desires within a marriage.

In the 19th century, Friedrich Engels wrote about monogamy as the original class oppression by mapping the bourgeoisie-proletariat antagonism as husband-wife, and declared that monogamy would be abolished under communism. More recently, in a column for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny declares the notion of One True Love illusory and praises “casual sex, polyamory, housing collectives and late nights drinking bad vodka with bisexual activists” as a viable choice in contrast to the conventional triad of marriage, mortgage and monogamy.

Without wishing to comment on what other people ought to be doing in their sex lives, it does seem difficult to sustain the notion of “have fun with the many” as Penny puts it, is a radical alternative. Žižek tells us that the superego injunction of today’s global capitalism is “Enjoy!”

enjoyment itself, which we experience as ‘transgression,’ is in its innermost status something imposed, ordered—when we enjoy, we never do it ‘spontaneously,’ we always follow a certain injunction

The pursuit of novelty and the unlocking of ever greater forms of enjoyment while discarding what has been exhausted underlies consumerism, but it is an idea that is well-represented among critics of monogamy. In some ways, they are correct to believe that passionate love, attachment to the One above all others is an obstacle to enjoyment, and it’s considered to be irrational and we should try to eliminate it. We are supposed to be “having fun,” not attaching ourselves to others by elevating them to the sublime One which interferes with their pleasure and our own.

This vision of interpersonal relationships seeks to maintain balance to ensure that we can maximize pleasurable sensations, against the destabilizing violent force of love. Maybe there is a homology to capitalist realism here – there is no alternative to capitalism, nothing that could disrupt it and nothing beyond the pleasure principle. Taking it as a positive idea to reanimate anti-capitalist struggle, Žižek defines Christian love as

a violent passion to introduce a Difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object at the expense of others.

It is possible to argue that monogamy as an egalitarian form not guaranteed by a Big Other is the true model for radical politics, representing not class division as Engels believed, but rather the solidarity of the proletariat. Our inability to see it as representing anything other than boring conventionality signals our acceptance of the capitalist prohibition on seeking an alternative.