South Africans have woken up each morning for the past month to the intimate politics of love (and loss) on their television screens and newspapers pages. The death of Reeva Steenkamp and the ongoing trial has placed questions of love and how we love at the centre of the social consciousness. Although unrelated from the facts of the trial, these questions are actually central to the way in which we approach one another, understand each other and live together — as men and women.
There are thousands of websites and books that promise to guide us towards an understanding of love. The consumption of these texts, whether useful or not, is prolific. There’s a never-ending need to understand lost love, unhappiness, failed unions and the (often elusive) keys to success in these relationships. When magazines aren’t telling us how to have better sex they’re telling us how we can love better.
But we’re struggling to love, and be loved.
Our collective experience of love seems lacklustre. This collective experience is one of relationships built on what legal theorist Karin van Marle calls the “archaic structures of our desire”. People are accustomed to relationships built on a tradition of sexism and heterosexism. The way people engage with each other and live with one another is influenced by this impossible way of loving; an impossibility because there is always suppression of the feminine in the relationship. The impossibility of love is grounded upon a loss of difference, where the woman lives in a way which is defined and structured by her male partner and the male world at large. And where homosexual love exists, our society has sought to restrict these arrangements and in doing so even further limit the possibility of love.
Van Marle goes on to say: “To truly love another person the archaic structures of our desire must be confronted, that what seems natural questioned, fixed certainties displaced. This is true for our capacity to love as gay men, lesbians, transgender people and heterosexual women and men.”
This alternative way of loving represents a critique of arrangements built on sexism, but also the natural ways in which we love and the stubborn pursuit of certainty at all costs. Love is an exercise in uncertainty and vulnerability. But in marriage we find a kind of stilling of our desire, and a certainty and usefulness, which provides security. The modern mind is very much a creature of utility and thus pursues the useful safety that longstanding traditions such as marriage provide. Marriage is no longer seen as a mere property arrangement negotiated by men but there is still an element of control and utility present in modern conceptions of marriage. We enter a marriage because it is a useful arrangement, because it is “natural”, and because it allows us to exercise a kind of control over our partner — we are now legally bound to our partners and there is thus greater certainty in the relationship.
This means we aren’t just caught up in a system that makes love impossible at times — we’re also disenchanted. Disenchantment is a symptom of modernity, and it affects our capacity to love too. Love cannot exist in utilitarian arrangements where people share their lives simply because it is useful to do so at that moment in time. No one would pretend love exists in one-night stands, and that’s why it doesn’t exist where people are only with each other because it is easy, certain and proves beneficial to be together.
The modern mind can love if it pursues an alternative where we think about love in a different way, re-instilling enchantment and desire that is neither destructive nor oppressive. We can discover love only when we actively change the way we live our lives and see the world. Without these changes we remain caught in the illusion of a love, which will remain impossible, oppressive and narrow.
The politics of love are powerful and incredibly important. Love is not just personal; love is political and the way we love affects our interactions with the world. Through an alternative view of love we affirm the possibility of equality for women and gay people, a more enchanted approach to human interactions, and more authentic societal arrangements.
Love isn’t impossible, and love is critically important if we’re to live in a world where violence, inequality, unhappiness and disenchantment are not the norm.