The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 2010)

Love and Its Discontents: Irony, Reason, Romance

Eva Illouz

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 12.1 (Spring 2010). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

…in my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.
Like falling in love. Do the young still fall in love, or is that mechanism obsolete by now, unnecessary, quaint, like steam locomotion?… Falling in love could have fallen out of fashion and come back again half a dozen times, for all he knows.1

—J. M. Coetzee

…for it is weakness not to be able to countenance the stern seriousness of our fateful times.2

—Max Weber

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2010

(Volume 12 | Issue 1)

Reflecting on the impact of the French Revolution on social mores, Edmund Burke mused on what was in store for humanity:

All the pleasing illusions that made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life…are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.3

Burke anticipates what would become one of the chief sources of the dynamism and discontent of modernity, namely the fact that beliefs—in transcendence and authority—become accountable to Reason. And, for Burke, far from auguring a progress in our condition, “the Empire of light and reason” exposes us to truths we cannot bear. For, Burke says, as power withers away, our illusions will also fade, and this new nakedness will leave us immensely vulnerable, exposing and revealing both to ourselves and to others the true ugliness of our condition. The scrutinizing of social relations by the implacable gaze of Reason can only tear down the harmonious web of meanings and relationships on which traditional power, obedience, and fealty rested. For only lies and illusions can make the violence of social relationships bearable. To be tolerable, human existence requires a modicum of myths, illusions, and lies. Put differently, Reason’s indefatigable attempts to unmask and track down the fallacies of our beliefs will leave us shivering in the cold, for only beautiful stories—not truth—can console us.

Marx, the most forceful heir and defender of the Enlightenment, curiously concurred with the ultra-conservative views of Burke in his famous dictum: “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”4 Marx, like Burke, views modernity as a “sobering of the senses,” as a violent arousal from a pleasant if numbing slumber and a confrontation with the naked, bare, and barren conditions of social relationships. This sobering realization may make us more clever and less likely to be lulled by the fanciful and vain promises of the Church and of the Aristocracy, but it also empties our lives of charm and mystery, and of a sense of the sacred. Knowledge comes at the price of desecrating that which we revered. Thus Marx, like Burke, seems to think that cultural fantasies—not truth—make our lives meaningfully connected to others and committed to a higher good. Although Marx neither rejected the new empire of light nor longed to return to the defunct rituals of the past, we can detect in him the same Burkean dread of what lies ahead for a humanity in which nothing is holy and everything is profane.

What makes Marx distinctly and profoundly modernist was not his endorsement of modernity (progress, technology, reason, economic abundance), but precisely his ambivalence toward it. From the start, modernity involved the uneasy and simultaneous acknowledgement of the extraordinary energies unleashed by Reason and of the danger such exercise of Reason may entail. At the very same time that moderns declared themselves free of the shackles that had fogged the mind and consciousness, they longed for that from which they had proudly claimed to release themselves: a sense of the sacred and transcendent and the very capacity to believe. The triumphant call of Reason dissecting myths and beliefs became properly modern when it was intertwined with the mournful longing for transcendent objects to believe in and be swayed by. Modernity is defined by its ambivalence toward its legitimating cultural core, by a sense of dread of the powers it may unleash.

Max Weber famously lent this ambivalence its most poignant pathos with his famous view of modernity as characterized by “disenchantment.” Disenchantment does not mean simply that the world is no longer filled with angels and demons, witches and fairies, but that the very category of “mystery” comes to be disparaged: for, in their impulse to control the natural and social world, the various modern institutions of science, technology, and the market, which aim at solving human problems, relieving suffering, and increasing wellbeing, also dissolve our sense of mystery. The vocation of scientific work is to solve and conquer mysteries, not to be under their spell. Similarly, capitalists whose principal wish is to maximize their gains, often disregard and undermine those values—religious or aesthetic—that limit economic activity. Precisely because science and economics have considerably expanded the limits of our material world, helping us to resolve the problem of scarcity and making Nature yield to human needs, the gods have deserted us. What in an earlier age was governed by faith, personal fealty, and charismatic heroes, becomes a matter of calculable means. But this process toward rationalization does not eliminate all manifestations of passion; rather, it generates attempts to restore, even if vicariously, orders of experience dominated by fervor and passion.

What makes Weber’s diagnosis of modernity so full of pathos is the fact that he did not think moderns could ever overcome their longing for meaning and fervor. That is why modernity would offer occasional flights from the realm of Reason, but these flights would remain just that, temporary, partial, and thus could not open up to wholeness and the totality of transcendence.5 This is why Weber’s epistemology was a reflection of the only recourse left to Reason: that of Stoic neutrality in the face of the warring gods of values. Contrary to the “prophets of the classroom,” he could not and would not take a position, and preferred to adopt the stoic and self-abnegating heroism of the modern man of science, who observed the loss entailed by modernity yet forbade himself to mourn it; who contemplated the lost fervor of the past and the glorious promises of the future, yet refused to be either a prophet of doom or a clarion for utopias. Rejecting the left-wing, liberal, un-ambivalent endorsement of progress and emancipation, as well as any conservative longing for the past, Weber offered a position of intellectual stoicism in which one had to forego the urge to take sides, and one had only to take stock of the irreconcilable, self contradictory, and even self-defeating tendencies at work in modernity.

It is intellectual stoicism we may have to adopt when evaluating the drastic transformation and rationalization of love in modernity. Indeed, the history of love is far from being a story of progressive emancipation from the shackles of economic rationality. Instead of assuming—as historians have—that modernity simply “liberated” the romantic sentiment from the economic necessity of merging and expanding capital and property, love—both as a cultural ideal and as a cultural practice—has incorporated the very aporias of modernity, its built-in contradictions, which do not allow us to trumpet victories or mourn the past.

Disenchanting Love

A widely accepted view opposes premodern marriage—determined according to criteria of social rank, status, and wealth—to the modern mode of mate selection, in which love as a spontaneous emotion presumably now plays a primordial role in mate selection. Yet, while more emancipated and more egalitarian, and thus, more free and unconstrained, modern love is also counter-intuitively more rationalized than its premodern counterpart. The modern romantic condition more often resembles the process of “sobering up” described by Marx than the fervor and frenzy of premodern lovers. This change is paradoxically caused by—or at least concomitant with—the fact that there is no longer a strong institutional distinction between interest-driven and purely romantic decisions, indeed because these two modes of action have become closely intertwined.

The cultural model of “love at first sight” provides the most ready illustration of what might be dubbed an “enchanted” version of love, a view of love as an intensely meaningful experience that opens up the self to a quasi-religious sense of transcendence. “Love at first sight” contains a few consistent characteristics: It is experienced as a unique event, unexpectedly erupting in one’s life. It is inexplicable and irrational. It is incited upon the first encounter and therefore not based on cognitive and cumulative knowledge of the other; rather, it derives from a holistic and intuitive form of experience. It disturbs one’s daily life and provokes a deep commotion of the soul. The metaphors used to describe that state of mind often indicate a force that is overwhelming and overpowering (heat, magnet, thunder, electricity). The object of love elicits overwhelming sentiments beyond the control of the lover; the value of the object of love is so high that he or she becomes incommensurable, and it is impossible to substitute another for the loved one. The absoluteness and un-conditionality of the commitment are thus total.

“Enchanted” love is simultaneously spontaneous and unconditional, overwhelming and eternal, unique and total. This approach to romantic love thus affirms the radical uniqueness of the object of love, the impossibility of substituting one object of love for another, the incommensurability of its object, the refusal (or impossibility) to submit feelings to calculation and Reason, and the total surrender of the self to the loved person. Such a view of love has traversed the cultural history of the West, but it has several secular cultural variants. For example, in the Middle Ages, religious rhetoric was often mixed with amorous rhetoric, presenting the loved one as a divinity, which had the effect of strengthening further the view of love as a total experience, in which the lover aims to fuse with and even be absorbed in and by the object of love. Compare this model with the following quip by Candace Bushnell—the celebrated author of the column that inspired the worldwide famous television series Sex and the City:

When was the last time you heard someone say, “I love you!” without tagging on the inevitable (if unspoken) “as a friend.” When was the last time you saw two people gazing into each other’s eyes without thinking, Yeah right? When was the last time you heard someone announce, “I am truly, madly in love,” without thinking, Just wait until Monday morning?6

Candace Bushnell expresses here a thoroughly self-conscious, supremely ironic, and disenchanted approach to love. As witnessed by the emergence of the genre of “chick-lit”—literature geared to women about the difficulties of relationships—modern love has become the privileged site for the trope of irony. The rationalization of love is at the heart of the new ironic structure of romantic feeling, which marks the move from an “enchanted” to a disenchanted cultural definition of love.

Structures of feeling, the highly felicitous expression coined by Raymond Williams, designate social and structural aspects of feelings and the feelings of social structures. They are “social experiences in solutions.”7 An ironic structure of feeling has come to pervade romantic relationships because of the “disenchantment” or “rationalization” of love.

What is disenchantment? Weber was never entirely clear about it, but we may grasp it a contrario, by reflecting on what enchantment is. An enchanted experience is mediated by powerful collective symbols that key one to a sense of the sacred. It is based on beliefs and feelings that involve and mobilize the totality of the self; these beliefs and feelings are not processed in second-order cognitive systems and are ultimately unjustifiable. These symbols constitute and overwhelm the experiential reality of the believer. In enchanted experiences, there is no strong distinction between the subject and object. Thus, the object of the belief has an ontological status for the believer that cannot be put into question. Disenchantment is both a property of belief that becomes organized by knowledge systems and expert cultures (as opposed to hot symbols), and a difficulty in believing. This is because both the cognitions and emotions organizing belief become rationalized.

According to Weber, what makes conduct rational is the fact that it is “methodical,” that it is systematic, that it calculates means to achieve ends, and is in Weber’s words, “controlled by the intellect.” Rational action is consciously regulated, not random, habitual, or impulsive. A rational attitude undermines enchantment because in order to know and approach an object it uses systematic rules and codes, independent of the subject and object of knowledge, thus separating the subject and object of knowledge and delegitimizing knowledge gained in an epiphanic, intuitive, or irruptive mode. A number of massively powerful cultural forces can be said to have refashioned the sentiment and experience of love, and to have contributed to its rationalization and thus to a profound change in the way in which we experience it: science, technologies of choice, and political values. The convergence and confluence of these three forces, I argue, have been responsible for the creation of an ironic structure of feeling in the romantic experience.

Making Love into a Science

First, and perhaps foremost, is the prevalence of scientific explanations of love, which have been disseminated widely through the institutions of the university and the mass media. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, and evolutionary psychology have explained the feeling of love by subsuming it under such categories as “the unconscious,” “sex drive,” “hormones,” “survival of species,” or “brain chemistry.” Under the aegis of scientific explanations, these frameworks undermine the view of love as an ineffable, unique, and quasi-mystical experience, ultimately undermining both its absoluteness and uniqueness.

Although psychoanalysis and dynamic psychology put love at the center of the constitution of the self, they undermine its cultural status by viewing it as the result of psychic processes, such as those of “psychic trauma,” “Oedipal conflict,” or “repetition compulsion.” The Freudian popular culture in which most modern polities have become steeped has made the forceful claim that love is a reenactment of early childhood conflicts and that it is often nothing but the repetition of a drama with other early protagonists who are the true origin, and even the cause, of the present object of love.

This has the simple effect of countering the idea that love is ineffable and mystical. Instead, psychoanalysis claims, love is caused by the ways in which we form attachments to early parental figures, and by the ways in which our psyche faces and processes the Oedipus complex. Love is thus reduced to a universal psychic structure.

In creating a straight narrative line and coherence between childhood and adult romantic experiences, psychological culture encourages an ongoing process of self-understanding and careful self-monitoring of the psyche, and an intellectualization of romantic relationships, through the systematic labeling of emotions, and their regulation and monitoring by techniques of self-awareness and self-transformation. Moreover, in prescribing models of intimacy based on negotiation, communication, and reciprocity, the psy- sciences make intimate relationships highly plastic, to be fashioned out of the design and reflexive monitoring of an autonomous will and tailored to the particular needs and psychological make-up of an individual, thus liquidating the association of love with an absolute form of transcendence. Love becomes an emotion to be tailored to the needs of individuals, and in its affirmation of individual wellbeing, psychology defuses the ideals of sacrifice and self-abandonment. Autonomy is at the center of the model of selfhood advocated by psychology, and the practice of autonomy transforms the ideal of emotional fusion into an ideal of negotiation between two fully mature selves. Finally, psychology also makes the experience of romantic suffering into yet another symptom of an insufficiently mature psyche. In psychological culture, suffering does not signal an emotional experience stretching above and beyond the boundaries of the self. Romantic suffering is no longer the sign of selfless devotion or of an elevated soul; such love—based on self-sacrifice, fusion, and longing for absoluteness—is viewed as the symptom of an emotional dysfunction. The former cultural equation of love with suffering—with a kind of consummatory, self-wasting experience in which the self can affirm its love in its ostentatious display of self-loss—becomes deeply suspicious in the new therapeutic culture.8

The model of health that massively penetrates intimate relationships demands that love be aligned along definitions of wellbeing and happiness and submitted to the iron law of utility. For example, unreciprocated love is reinterpreted as a sign that the individual needs to repeat an experience of abandonment. The emotional experience of love becomes harnessed to a utilitarian project of the self, a project in which one has to secure maximum pleasure and wellbeing, thus making love into an experience in which one should count his/her utilities.

Biology has had a slightly different impact on the cultural frames through which love is understood. Biologists typically explain love through chemical processes that, even more than psychology, reduce love to factors that are entirely extraneous to the sentiment of love itself. Studies in neuroscience have suggested that a consistent number of chemicals are present in the brain when people testify to feeling love. These chemicals include: Testosterone, Estrogen, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Vasopressin. For example, a dramatic increase in the amount of Dopamine and Norepinephrine is said to be present in the brain when one is infatuated with another person. More specifically, higher levels of Testosterone and Estrogen are present during the lustful phase of a relationship. Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin are more commonly found during the attraction phase of a relationship. The Serotonin effects of being in love have a similar chemical appearance to obsessive-compulsive disorder, which in turn would explain why we seem not to be able to think of anyone else when we are in love. Serotonin levels are also significantly higher in the brains of people who have recently fallen in love than in the brains of others. Oxytocin and Vasopressin seem to be more closely linked to long-term bonding and relationships characterized by strong attachments. In the February 2006 issue of National Geographic, Lauren Slater’s cover page article “Love: The Chemical Reaction” discusses love strictly as a chemical reaction. Both attraction and attachment are viewed as being triggered by different chemical components. The euphoria or exaltation we may feel as a result of being in love are nothing but a chemical and involuntary reaction of the brain. Research also emphasizes that these symptoms tend to disappear after two years on average. The result of this reduction of love to brain chemistry is to dispose of a mystical and spiritual view of love and to substitute for it a new form of materialism that has the effect of discounting the intensity and feeling of uniqueness when falling in love.

While offering a different view, evolutionary psychologists similarly attribute the feeling of love to an extraneous factor that serves the human species. According to Dylan Evans, in evolutionary terms, emotions like love (or guilt or jealousy) are thought to have helped resolve the “problem of commitment.”9 Given that people must cooperate with each other, how will they commit themselves to another and/or insure another’s commitment? The answer, evolutionary psychologists say, is through emotions. Romantic love in particular may have served the purpose of instilling a desire to reproduce and to ensure that men and women will not walk out on each other on a whim. Here again, the interpretive shift operated by evolutionary psychology has had the effect of deflating the felt uniqueness and transcendent character of love, making it a mere functional necessity to insure cooperation at the level of the species. Love becomes nothing more than the blind necessity of nature and of the social group.

Scientific modes of explanation—psychological, biological, evolutionary—by their nature tend to be abstract and extraneous to the categories of felt and lived experience. In contrast, premodern religious explanations that viewed intense love as the manifestation of spirit possession or as a temporary loss of Reason still resonated with the felt experience of the subject. Scientific explanations reduce love to an epiphenomenon, a mere effect of prior causes that are unseen and unfelt by the subject, and that are neither mystical nor singular but rather located in involuntary and almost mechanical—psychic or chemical—processes. With the prevalence of scientific modes of explanation, it is difficult to hold onto the view of love as a unique, mystical, and ineffable feeling. In that sense, love has undergone the same process of disenchantment as Nature: it is no longer viewed as inspired by mysterious and grand forces but rather as a phenomenon in need of explanation and control, as a reaction determined by psychological, evolutionary, and biological laws.10

Scientific interpretations of love do not replace traditional romantic conceptions of love, but rather compete with them, and in fact undermine them. Science tends to subsume particular experiences under general and abstract categories, thus doing away with their particularity. Because scientific frameworks aim to explain and find causes, they naturally undermine any experience based on the ineffable and the irrational. The overall effect of scientific interpretive frameworks on love is both deflationary and reflexive. They dethrone love of its transcendental status, making it instead a psychological or physical force, working beyond and beneath the concrete particular experiences of specific individuals. They also create a strong “unreality effect,” making actors doubt love’s reality and explicitly attend to the underlying “real” causes for their love.

Weber did not think that an increase in scientific understanding brought about a greater understanding of the concrete conditions of our lives. In a lecture, he noted:

When we spend money today I bet that even if there are colleagues of political economy here in the hall, almost every one of them will hold a different answer in readiness to the question: How does it happen that one can buy something for money—sometimes more and sometimes less? The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit. The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.11

More than that, as Nicolas Gane suggests, non-scientific explanations might be superior to the scientific ones because they account for the totality of our lived experience.12 Nonscientific explanations are superior to the scientific ones in that they are holistic and more organically connected to the totality of our experiences. Scientific explanations of our experience make us more distant from that experience, both cognitively and emotionally. According to Weber, there is a way in which science makes our experience less intelligible, for there is an incompatibility between existential frames of meaning and abstract, systematic ones.

Technologies of Choice

Another cultural force that has contributed to the rationalization of love has been the overlap of internet technology with psychological knowledge and the ideology of choice that derives from the market.13 That the choice of a mate has become more rational than ever before has often been misperceived because love as a pure emotion has become a far more important dimension in mate selection than ever before in history.

What was a premodern rationality? A premodern actor looking for a mate was notoriously rational: s/he typically considered criteria such as dowry size, a candidate’s personal or family wealth and reputation, education, and family politics.14 But what is often omitted in these discussions is the observation that the calculation stopped here. Given the limited options, beyond general and rudimentary requirements of character and appearance, actors made very few demands from prospective partners, and more often than not, settled for the first available satisfactory good enough marriage prospect. Thus, in arranged marriage, choice involved little reflexive calculation as people had few emotional, educational, and lifestyle prerequisites.

Two main differences in the modern situation strike even the casual observer: the premodern actor looking for a mate seems a simpleton in comparison with today’s actors, who from adolescence to adulthood develop an elaborate set of criteria for the selection of a mate. Such criteria are not only social and educational, but also physical, sexual, and perhaps most of all emotional. Psychology, internet technology, and the logic of the capitalist market applied to mate selection have contributed to create a self-conscious, manipulable personality, who uses an increasingly refined and wide number of criteria, presumably conducive to greater compatibility. Psychology in particular has greatly contributed to defining persons as sets of psychological and emotional attributes, themselves submitted to the imperative of compatibility. Thus what has become a hyper-cognized, rational method of selecting a mate goes hand-in-hand with the expectation that love provide authentic, unmediated emotional experiences.

These characteristics of modern partner selection are most patently illustrated in the realm of online dating.15 Internet dating sites have become highly popular and profitable enterprises. According to researchers of digital technology at comScore Networks, in December 2006 the leading U.S. online dating site was Yahoo! Personals with over 4.5 million hits, and U.S. online dating sites received a total of 20 million hits from U.S. visitors per month. With monthly packages costing between $10 and $50, online dating is also a lucrative business.16 Indeed, in 2006 online dating was the second largest online, paid content category, with revenues of over $1 billion for the year.17 While market growth seems to be slowing down, Jupiter Research has predicted that revenues for U.S. online dating sites will be $932 million in 2011. Clearly online dating represents a significant trend in modern courtship.

By enabling users to investigate a vast number of options, the internet encourages the maximization of partner selection in unprecedented ways, in stark contrast to the methods of premodernity. Maximization of outcome has become a goal in and of itself.18 For example, many respondents to an open-ended questionnaire about the uses of Internet dating sites declared the choices available were so large that they would get in touch only with people who corresponded very precisely to their diverse aspirations. Moreover, the majority of respondents reported that their tastes changed in the course of their search and that they aspired to “more accomplished” people than they did at the beginning of the search. Clearly the case of online dating shows that actors use elaborate rational strategies to achieve their romantic desires, thus confirming Smelser’s and Alexander’s claims that computer technology has a strong rationalizing effect: “the gradual permeation of the computer into the pores of modern life deepened what Max Weber called the rationalization of the world.”19

Like no other technology, the internet has radicalized the notion of the self as a “chooser” and the idea that the romantic encounter should be the result of the best possible choice. That is, the virtual encounter has become hyper-cognized, the result of a rational method of gathering information to select a mate. It has literally become organized as a market, in which one can compare “values” attached to people, and opt for “the best bargain.” The internet places each person searching for another in an open market of open competition with others, thus radicalizing the notion that one can and should improve one’s romantic condition and that (potential or actual) partners are eminently interchangeable.

This marks the move to technologies of interchangeability, that is, technology that expands the pool of choices, enables the rapid move from one partner to another, and sets up criteria for comparing partners and for comparing oneself to others. The internet enables the development of a comparative mindset, made possible (or “afforded” in the language of sociologists of technology) by the fact that technology lays out choices and offers tools (such as “score cards”) to measure the relative merits of each potential partner. Partners become eminently interchangeable, and given they can be evaluated according to a certain metric, they can be improved on. That is, the internet, combined with the ideologies of psychology and the market, reinstitutes a process of commensuration between potential partners. Wendy Nelson Espeland and Mitchell L. Stevens define “commensuration” as follows: “Commensuration involves using numbers to create relations between things. Commensuration transforms qualitative distinctions into quantitative distinctions, where difference is precisely expressed as magnitude according to some shared metric.”20 The combined effects of psychology, the internet, and the capitalist market have the cultural effect of making potential partners commensurable, measurable, and comparable to each other according to new techniques and cognitive tools of evaluation. These cognitive tools constitute, one more time, new principles of equivalence.

Political Emancipation as Rationalization

The norms of equality, consensuality, and reciprocity, which have come to dominate the moral vocabulary of our polities, have rationalized love and profoundly transformed the terms within which relationships are negotiated. In his Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman suggests that “it is only in modern times that men [sic] have come to think of the self as a distinctly political problem.”21 Given the gender used by Berman, it is ironic that this sentence has been particularly and spectacularly applicable to women in the twentieth century. Indeed, feminism has exerted perhaps the single most significant influence on women’s subjectivity and on the relations between the sexes. Second-wave feminism has profoundly transformed our understanding of the emotion of love.22 More than any other political or cultural formation, feminism importantly influenced the cultural history of love because it tore down the veils of male chivalry and the feminine mystique. In calling on women and men to debunk power, feminism also called on them to adopt ideals of equality, reciprocity, and fairness; the feminist movement, as a cultural formation, introduced rules of conduct that rationalized love and sexual relations in two important ways: it called on women to become aware of power relations inside intimate bonds and thus fostered a new way of thinking reflexively about romantic practices, of attending to their rules and cultural presuppositions; it further instilled rules of interaction to secure symmetrical exchange, thus introducing greater predictability and uniformity in the romantic bond. From a sociological standpoint, “power” is a cultural frame that helps conceive, organize, and thereby generate social relationships. That is, if we suspend our commitment to gender equality, we may perceive the ways in which the cultural categories of “power,” “reciprocity,” and “equality” have reorganized romantic relationships, driving them to become predictable and controllable.

Moreover, the demand that language be neutral and purged of its gender biases, that sexual relationships be cleansed from the long shadow of power, that mutual consent and reciprocity be at the heart of intimate relationships, and finally that impersonal procedures secure such consent—all of these have had the effect of undermining the cultural practice of “seduction,” as a semi-conscious practice of playing with one’s body and language in order to arouse desire in another.

In characterizing the perfect seducer, Robert Greene indicates the importance of maintaining the incomplete nature of the romantic interaction, including increasing ambiguity, sending mixed signals, mastering the art of insinuation, confusing desire and reality, mixing pleasure and pain, stirring desire and confusion, toning down the sexual element without getting rid of it, refusing to conform to any standard, delaying satisfaction, and not offering total satisfaction.23 In other words, seduction requires a capacity to play with and twist the rules of ordinary interactions that require clarity and truthfulness. As Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer put it: “ambivalence is built into the erotic phenomenon.”24 Seduction is ambivalent, and it is their ambivalence that makes the prototypical seducers of Western culture exemplary of a certain form of freedom from morality. Don Juan, Casanova, and Cleopatra embody a kind of sovereignty and self-possession that are not easily bound by rules. In his/her desire to seduce without commitment, the seducer uses ambiguity. Ambiguity is essentially a way of maintaining uncertainty with regard to the meaning and intention of a speaker, it also enables both power and freedom, that is, the capacity to say something without meaning it, the capacity to imply several meanings at once, and most importantly, the capacity not to be accountable to moral principles. Such freedom, while always problematic from a moral and political standpoint, is also a precondition for playfulness because playfulness is synonymous with the crossing of boundaries, which in turn produces uncertain and ambiguous meanings. Thus, as the philosopher Robert Pippin suggests: “there is something about eros that cannot be accommodated easily within Christian or liberal-egalitarian humanism.”25

Indeed, I would argue that irony has replaced playfulness and has become the dominant trope and tone of our times. Irony is inimical to love and playfulness because, as David Halperin writes,

Some experiences…are incompatible with irony. In order to have them at all, it is necessary to banish any hint of irony. Conversely, the arrival of irony signals the end of the experience, or its diminution. Irony’s opposite is intensity. In moments of intense, overwhelming sensation, we have little awareness of context and no attention to spare for more than one set of meanings. In such states, we become literalists: we can experience only one kind of thing. The three cardinal experiences that demand the elimination of irony, or that cannot survive irony, are raw grief or suffering, religious transport, and sexual passion.26

Irony is a figure of speech that feigns ignorance; it feigns ignorance but counts, for its effect, on the knowledge of the hearer. It is the trope of the person who knows too much but refuses to take reality seriously. Modern romantic consciousness has the rhetorical structure of irony because it is saturated with knowledge, but it is a disenchanted knowledge that prevents full belief and commitment. Thus, if love is a modern religion, as has often been claimed, it is a peculiar one indeed, for it is a religion that cannot produce belief, faith, or commitment.


  1. J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (New York: Penguin, 1999) 13.
  2. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 2001) 149.
  3. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1988) 109.
  4. Berman 95.
  5. Lawrence A. Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
  6. Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996) 2.
  7. Michael Payne, ed., Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory (Blackwell Reference Online, 1997): <>.
  8. As William Wordsworth put it in Influence of Natural Objects (unpublished, 1799) (emphasis added): “By day or star-light, thus from my first dawn / Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me / The passions that build up our human soul; / Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man; / But with high objects, with enduring things, / With life and nature; purifying thus / The elements of feeling and of thought, / And sanctifying by such discipline / Both pain and fear,—until we recognize / A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.”
  9. Dylan Evans, Emotion: The Science of Sentiment (New York: Oxford, 2001).
  10. One should perhaps nuance this claim because psychology still viewed the experience of love as singular, and somehow tried to explain it in terms of the private history of the subject.
  11. Quoted in Nicholas Gane, Max Weber and Postmodern Theory: Rationalization versus Re-enchantment (London: Palgrave, 2002) 53.
  12. See Gane, Max Weber and Postmodern Theory.
  13. Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).
  14. As the existing literature on modernization shows, it is difficult to define the parameters of socio-cultural periods such as “premodern” and “modern”—unlike periods of political history, they are not clearly marked by discrete events. For the purposes of this paper, I use “premodern” to refer to the period that extended roughly from the fifteenth century through the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. In contrast to Herman R. Lantz, in “Romantic Love in the Pre-Modern Period: A Sociological Commentary,” Journal of Social History 15.2 (1981): 349–70, I do not use the term “premodern” to mean “early modernity,” rather, to indicate the period immediately preceding modernity. As I see it, modernity began with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, but my discussion of the modern situation focuses specifically on developments within the past few decades. Further study of the intervening period, examining nineteenth-century English novels and early dating practices in the twentieth century might help to understand the gradual development of modal configurations.
  15. For examples of other rational methods of modern partner selection, see Richard Bulcroft, et al., “The Management and Production of Risk in Romantic Relationships: A Postmodern Paradox,” Journal of Family History 25.1 (January 2000): 63–92; Stanley B. Woll and Peter Young, “Looking for Mr. or Ms. Right: Self-Presentation in Videodating,” Journal of Marriage and Family 51.1 (February 1989): 483–8; and Aaron C. Ahuvia and Mara B. Adelman, “Formal Intermediaries in the Marriage Market: A Typology and Review,” Journal of Marriage and Family 54.1 (February 1992): 452–63.
  16. See <>.
  17. A. Wharton, “The Dating Game Assessed,” (May/June 2006).
  18. Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: Ecco, 2003); Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79.6 (December 2000): 995–1,006.
  19. Neil J. Smelser, Problematics of Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  20. Wendy Nelson Espeland, “Commensuration and Cognition,” Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition, ed. Karen A. Cerulo (New York: Routledge, 2002) 64. See also, Wendy Nelson Espeland and Mitchell L. Stevens, “Commensuration as a Social Process,” Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 313–43.
  21. Marshall Berman, The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society (New York: Atheneum, 1970) xvi.
  22. This paper deals with heterosexual love. Unless otherwise specified, our use of the term “love” should be understood in this sense.
  23. Robert Greene, The Art of Seduction (New York: Viking, 2001).
  24. Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer, “What Silent Love Hath Writ: An Introduction to Erotikon,” Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 7.
  25. Robert B. Pippin, “Vertigo: A Response to Tom Gunning,” Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 280.
  26. David M. Halperin, “Love’s Irony: Six Remarks on Platonic Eros,” Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, ed. Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 49.

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