Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.

All the feels

This poster drew my attention while I was working in the library of Cambridge University a couple of weeks ago:

lovethelib

 

For a while now, I have been fascinated with the way in which the language of emotions, or affect, has penetrated public discourse. People ‘love’ all sorts of things: the way a film uses interior light, the icing on a cake, their friend’s new hairstyle. They ‘hate’ Donald Trump, the weather, next door neighbours’ music. More often than not, conversations involving emotions would not be complete without mentioning online expressions of affect, such as ‘likes’ or ‘loves’ on Facebook or on Twitter.

Of course, the presence of emotions in human communication is nothing new. Even ‘ordinary’ statements – such as, for instance, “it’s going to rain tomorrow” – frequently entail an affective dimension (most people would tend to get at least slightly disappointed at the announcement). Yet, what I find peculiar is that the language of affect is becoming increasingly present not only in non-human-mediated communication, but also in relation to non-human entities. Can you really ‘love’ a library? Or be ‘friends’ with your local coffee place?

This isn’t to in any way concede ground to techno-pessimists who blame social media for ‘declining’ standards in human communication, nor even to express concern over the ways in which affective ‘reaction’ buttons allow tracking online behaviour (privacy is always a problem, and ‘unmediated’ communication largely a fiction). Even if face-to-face is qualitatively different from online interaction, there is nothing to support the claim that makes it inherently more valuable, or, indeed, ‘real’ (see: “IRL fetish[i]). It is the social and cultural framing of these emotions, and, especially, the way social sciences think about it – the social theory of affect, if you wish – that concerns me here.

Fetishism and feeling

So what is different about ‘loving’ your library as opposed to, say, ‘loving’ another human being? One possible way of going about this is to interpret expressions of emotion directed at or through non-human entities as ‘shorthand’ for those aimed at other human beings. The kernel of this idea is contained in Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism: emotion, or affect, directed at an object obscures the all-too-human (in his case, capital) relationship behind it. In this sense, ‘liking’ your local coffee place would be an expression of appreciation for the people who work there, for the way they make double macchiato, or just for the times you spent there with friends or other significant others. In human-to-human communication, things would be even more straightforward: generally speaking, ‘liking’ someone’s status updates, photos, or Tweets would signify appreciation of/for the person, agreement with, or general interest in, what they’re saying.

But what if it is actually the inverse? What if, in ‘liking’ something on Facebook or on Twitter, the human-to-human relationship is, in fact, epiphenomenal to the act? The prime currency of online communication is thus the expenditure of (emotional) energy, not the relationship that it may (or may not) establish or signify. In this sense, it is entirely irrelevant whether one is liking an inanimate object (or concept), or a person. Likes or other forms of affective engagement do not constitute any sort of human relationship; the only thing they ‘feed’ is the network itself. The network, at the same time, is not an expression, reflection, or (even) simulation of human relationships: it is the primary structure of feeling.

All hail…

Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus, puts the issue of emotions at the centre of the discussion of the relationship between human and AI. In a review in The Guardian, David Runciman writes:

“Human nature will be transformed in the 21st century because intelligence is uncoupling from consciousness. We are not going to build machines any time soon that have feelings like we have feelings: that’s consciousness. Robots won’t be falling in love with each other (which doesn’t mean we are incapable of falling in love with robots). But we have already built machines – vast data-processing networks – that can know our feelings better than we know them ourselves: that’s intelligence. Google – the search engine, not the company – doesn’t have beliefs and desires of its own. It doesn’t care what we search for and it won’t feel hurt by our behaviour. But it can process our behaviour to know what we want before we know it ourselves. That fact has the potential to change what it means to be human.”

On the surface level, this makes sense. Algorithms can measure our ‘likes’ and other emotional reactions and combine them into ‘meaningful’ patterns – e.g., correlate them with specific background data (age, gender, location), time of day, etc., and, on the basis of this, predict how you will act (click, shop) in specific situations. However, does this amount to ‘knowledge’? In other words, if machines cannot have feelings – and Harari seems adamant that they cannot – how can they actually ‘know’ them?

Frege on Facebook

This comes close to a philosophical problem I’ve  been trying to get a grip on recently: the Frege-Geach (alternatively, the embedding, or Frege-Geach-Searle) problem. It is comprised of two steps. The first is to claim that there is a qualitative difference between moral and descriptive statements – for instance, between saying “It is wrong to kill” and “It is raining”. Most humans, I believe, would agree with this. The second is to observe that there is no basis for claiming this sort of difference based on sentence structure alone, which then leads to the problem of explaining its source – how do we know there is one? In other words, how it could be that moral and descriptive terms have exactly the same sort of semantic properties in complex sentences, even though they have different kinds of meaning? Where does this difference stem from?

The argument can be extended to feelings: how do we know that there is a qualitative difference between statements such as “I love you” and “I eat apples”? Or loving someone and ‘liking’ an online status? From a formal (syntactic) perspective, there isn’t. More interestingly, however, there is no reason why machines should not be capable of such a form of expression. In this sense, there is no way to reliably establish that likes coming from a ‘real’ person and, say, a Twitterbot, are qualitatively different. As humans, of course, we would claim to know the difference, or at least be able to spot it. But machines cannot. There is nothing inherent in the expression of online affect that would allow algorithms to distinguish between, say, the act of ‘loving’ the library and the act of loving a person. Knowledge of emotions, in other words, is not reducible to counting, even if counting takes increasingly sophisticated forms.

How do you know what you do not know?

The problem, however, is that humans do not have superior knowledge of emotions, their own or other people’s. I am not referring to situations in which people are unsure or ‘confused’ about how they feel [ii], but rather to the limited language – forms of expression – available to us. The documentary “One More Time With Feeling”, which I saw last week, engages with this issue in a way I found incredibly resonant. Reflecting on the loss of his son, Nick Cave relates how the words that he or people around him could use to describe the emotions seemed equally misplaced, maladjusted and superfluous (until the film comes back into circulation, Amanda Palmer’s review which addresses a similar question is  here) – not because they couldn’t reflect it accurately, but because there was no necessary link between them and the structure of feeling at all.

Clearly, the idea that language does not reflect, but rather constructs  – and thus also constrains – human reality is hardly new: Wittgenstein, Lacan, and Rorty (to name but a few) have offered different interpretations of how and why this is the case. What I found particularly poignant about the way Cave frames it in the film is that it questions the whole ontology of emotional expression. It’s not just that language acts as a ‘barrier’ to the expression of grief; it is the idea of the continuity of the ‘self’ supposed to ‘have’ those feelings that’s shattered as well.

Love’s labour’s lost (?): between practice and theory

This brings back some of my fieldwork experiences from 2007 and 2008, when I was doing a PhD in anthropology, writing on the concept of romantic relationships. Whereas most of my ‘informants’ – research participants – could engage in lengthy elaboration of the criteria they use in choosing (‘romantic’) partners (as well as, frequently, the reasons why they wouldn’t designate someone as a partner), when it came to emotions their narratives could frequently be reduced to one word: love (it wasn’t for lack of expressive skills: most were highly educated). It was framed as a binary phenomenon: either there or not there. At the time, I was more interested in the way their (elaborated) narratives reflected or coded markers of social inequality – for instance, class or status. Recently, however, I have been going back more to their inability (or unwillingness) to elaborate on the emotion that supposedly underpins, or at least buttresses, those choices.

Theoretical language is not immune to these limitations. For instance, whereas social sciences have made significant steps in deconstructing notions such as ‘man’, ‘woman, ‘happiness’, ‘family’, we are still miles away from seriously examining concepts such as ‘love’, ‘hate’, or ‘fear’. Moira Weigel’s and Eva Illouz’ work are welcome exceptions to the rule: Weigel uses the feminist concept of emotional labour to show how the responsibility for maintaining relationships tends to be unequally distributed between men and women, and Illouz demonstrates how modern notions of dating come to define subjectivity and agency of persons in ways conducive to the reproduction of capitalism. Yet, while both do a great job in highlighting social aspects of love, they avoid engaging with its ontological basis. This leaves the back door open for an old-school dualism that either assumes there is an (a- or pre-social?) ‘basis’ to human emotions, which can  be exploited or ‘harvested’ through relationships of power; or, conversely, that all emotional expression is defined by language, and thus its social construction the only thing worth studying. It’s almost as if ‘love’ is the last construct left standing, and we’re all too afraid to disenchant it.

For a relational ontology

A relational ontology of human emotions could, in principle, aspire to de-throne this nominalist (or, possibly worse, truth-proceduralist) notion of love in favour of one that sees it as a by-product of relationality. This isn’t claiming that ‘love’ is epiphenomenal: to the degree to which it is framed as a motivating force, it becomes part and parcel of the relationship itself. However, not seeing it as central to this inquiry would hopefully allow us to work on the diversification of the language of emotions. Instead of using a single marker (even as polysemic as ‘love’) for the relationship with one’s library and one’s significant other, we could start thinking about ways in which they are (or are not) the same thing. This isn’t, of course, to sanctify ‘live’ human-to-human emotion: I am certain that people can feel ‘love’ for pets, places, or deceased ones. Yet, calling it all ‘love’ and leaving it at that is a pretty shoddy way of going about feelings.

Furthermore, a relational ontology of human emotions would mean treating all relationships as unique. This isn’t, to be clear, a pseudoanarchist attempt to deny standards of or responsibility for (inter)personal decency; and even less a default glorification of long-lasting relationships. Most relationships change over time (as do people inside them), and this frequently means they can no longer exist; some relationships cannot coexist with other relationships; some relationships are detrimental to those involved in them, which hopefully means they cease to exist. Equally, some relationships are superficial, trivial, or barely worth a mention. However, this does not make them, analytically speaking, any less special.

This also means they cannot be reduced to the same standard, nor measured against each other. This, of course, runs against one of capitalism’s dearly-held assumptions: that all humans are comparable and, thus, mutually replaceable. This assumption is vital not only for the reproduction of labour power, but also, for instance, for the practice of dating [iii], whether online or offline. Moving towards a relational concept of emotions would allow us to challenge this notion. In this sense, ‘loving’ a library is problematic not because the library is not a human being, but because ‘love’, just like other human concepts, is a relatively bad proxy. Contrary to what pop songs would have us believe, it’s never an answer, and, quite possibly, neither the question.

Some Twitter wisdom for the end….

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[i] Thanks go to Mark Carrigan who sent this to me.

[ii] While I am very interested in the question of self-knowledge (or self-ignorance), for some reason, I never found this particular aspect of the question analytically or personally intriguing.

[iii] Over the past couple of years, I’ve had numerous discussions on the topic of dating with friends, colleagues, but also acquaintances and (almost) strangers (the combination of having a theoretical interest in the topic and not being in a relationship seem to be particularly conducive to becoming involved in such conversations, regardless of whether one wants it or not). I feel compelled to say that my critique of dating (and the concomitant refusal to engage in it, at least as far as its dominant social forms go) does not, in any way, imply a criticism of people who do. There is quite a long list of people whom I should thank for helping me clarify this, but instead I promise to write another longer post on the topic, as well as, finally, develop that app  :).