Material Love

On January 16, 2011 by admin


Nandini Chandra and Jesse Ross Knutson

Indeed, love is a many splendoured thing! Different categories of age and class appropriate romantic literature offer a guide to this tremendous variety. There is a virtual caste/class system operating in the love industry whereby some people feel real/authentic love in contrast to more debased others. But despite this hierarchy, love is for everyone, like in the Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding. What is shared across this class system is a desire for another human being for sure. But the sexual feeling aroused in romantic hetero-normative love is a specialized one not to be confused with sex qua sex. The sex here has to be constantly negotiated and differentiated to a point where it is no longer sex, but a suitably inflected synonym for it. So while the Valentine’s day lovers may relate to each other via loud commodities, like heart shaped balloons, Archies’ greeting cards and red roses that have been frozen for weeks before February 14-the magic date, our subdued low-profile love in defiance of this blatant commodification is no less a type in the many splendoured index file of the culture industry.

It was the Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno who pointed out that the dominant form of love under capitalism is romance. His exact words: love downgraded to romance! What is so debased about romance? Is there nothing beautiful or transgressive about it? How do we make sense of our defiance of love and, defiance in love in the same breath? One minute we are distancing ourselves from a love that needs the aids of the shopping plaza, and the next minute we are buying more things to shout to the world that we will love despite all the sri ram senas and the khap panchayats. Is that schizo or not? The answer must lie in the deep structure of alienated love that affects us all whether we like to acknowledge it or not.  By alienated love is meant a love that has been taken away and then sold back to us, a love appropriated from our bodies’ capacity for sensual pleasure and then returned as a mechanism to mediate that sensuality—ways of loving, ways of kissing, ways of fighting and ways of making up via the market place that any reader of Cosmo or popular ads can immediately appreciate. This is not merely a market place of things, but also a market place of ideas and we would do well to believe Marquez, when he reiterates that there is a lot of cross-fertilization between the high and the low.

At the same time, sexuality—the embodied experience of love—cannot be completely regulated by the moral police. The very fact that they are trying so hard must be reason to explore what it is that is getting their goat.  For one, when people feel pleasure, it is a dangerous thing because they allow their bodies to come out of fear and start questioning the repression that is cajoled into them. Who to love, how to love, who absolutely not to love are some of the edicts laid down by the enemies of love. But the defenders of love, the liberal bourgeoisie, who have surrendered to the lure of the market and allowed their daughters and sisters to enter dating sites, marriage bureaus, internet chat lines, are not so different either. These exchanges of love are rife with caste and gotra markers apart from an implicit injunction for class and religious inbreeding. It is therefore important see the defenders or tolerators of love and the enemies of love not as opposite camps, but allied (maybe disparate) units trying to come to grips with the new products of sexuality, inaugurated by advanced capital. While the fanatics are merely crying foul at the loss of their hold over the women who are daring to marry outside caste and religion, the more entrenched capitalist class, who embrace modernity with riders, want to teach women lessons in self-censorship, so that they know the boundaries within which their pleasure is permissible. After all, romantic love is not necessarily liberating. It works very much within the auspices of patriarchy and accepts women’s subservience to men. Given the uneven development of capitalism, what we have are different faces of the same thing, rather than modern love versus barbaric opposition to it. The sooner we understand the different encroachments upon our sexuality, the better we will be able to fight the constant attempts to incorporate it for the love industry. For ultimately we need love—not for happy little families who can watch telly on increasingly upgraded technology, serving up programmes that perpetually leave them on the brink of a promised pleasure so close and yet so far away—but instead to create a pleasure that can truly belong to us, and then to learn to mould the world in the image of this pleasure.      

The question is not the content of this pleasure, the alternately authentic or debased love that we started with, and whether one should love this way or that.  The question is the trajectory. The violence against those who would love in a socially unsanctioned or defiant way (which we can now begin to recognize as fascist) comes from precisely this: the uncharted territory where an economy of unpredictable, creative pleasure might lead.  It could lead to the demand for a world of pleasure, a world in the image of desire, with full stomachs and moist throats, with freely moving bodies, and social relations that we want and invent, instead of those that we suffer for lack of any other available option.  Sexual repression and frustration teach one to live with lack and invest one’s libidinal energies in the reproduction of lack that capitalism represents.  Socialism put simply would start with the reproduction of plenty, which the spark of pleasure in its unpredictable eddies might begin to capture in microcosm before the pigs are ready. 

Nandini Chandra is Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

Jesse Ross Knutson is Postdoctoral Fellow, South & South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

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