Wednesday, 8 May 2013
This is one of the only things I plan to say about marriage, same-sex marriage, etc. It should explain why so many conversations I've heard about marriage seem fundamentally misguided to me.
I tend to think of marriage as a social and cultural institution, but one that is nearly universal. So I first approach this problem anthropologically (though, really, it's lay-anthropology because I have done very little academic anthropology). This makes it very tricky to define marriage, because while marriages have similarities across cultures--enough similarities for us to reasonably think of them as belonging in the same category--they also differ in important ways. How long does a marriage last? Under what conditions can it be dissolved? Is it best seen as a personal transformation, a contract, a sacrament? How important is the community's acknowledgement of the marriage? How many people are involved in the marriage? Who can marry whom, in terms of sex, gender, ethnicity, social class, family group, religion, genetic relatedness, species, ontological nature? Is marriage about property, kin-groups, sexual availability, reproduction, love? Who must consent to the marriage in order for it to count? The answers vary from group to group.
As far as I can tell there are two ways of approaching this diversity. The first is to insist that a certain set of answers is the only legitimate set of answers. This insists on a specific definition of marriage and says that anything else isn't really marriage. The second is to say that marriage is a genus of which there are many species, of which in turn there are many individuals.
My trouble with the first answer, which insists on a narrow definition of marriage, is that it is linguistic nonsense. We can use the word marriage in the phrase "same-sex marriage" or "plural marriage," for instance, without being misunderstood. But there are obviously limits: if we talk about a marriage between mathematical concepts, it is clear that we are being metaphorical. If I were to insist that mathematical concepts were literally getting married, you would be right to tell me I'm using the word improperly. If you're talking about the definition of the word marriage, it must include all social relations for which people can use the word in a literal sense and be understood. If you want to talk about something more specific, then you're not talking about its definition but rather its ideal form or its only allowable form, for example. But that's no longer about what marriage is--what the word indexes, what's allowed in the conceptual category--but what limits you think we ought to impose on how people engage in the social form that the word indexes. So only the second way of approaching the diversity of marriage practices makes sense to me. The second approach does not preclude statements about how people should go about getting married (and who should go about getting married), but it does eschew ontological arguments for those preferences. (In the language of species and genus, you would argue for some species and against others, but you acknowledge that they are all part of the same genus.)
But I'm also suspicious of statements about why you should get married and who should marry, questions about what marriage is for. I like the analogy of marriage as genre. I wrote already about how genres do not determine content but they do alter whatever content is put into them. You can deliver a lot of different belief-content in a given genre (say, a mystery), but you'd best consider how the format of a mystery novel will adjust your belief-content and whether a mystery novel is really the best form for that content. Perhaps an action-thriller or, alternately, a romance novel would be better. Similarly, there are multiple things that you could do with a marriage: maybe you want to express a pre-existing romantic state, or maybe you want to create a situation that would be good for child-rearing, or maybe you want to indicate to you community that your sexual/romantic availability has changed. Marriage could suit any of these ends. But you need to think about how marriage constrains whatever you want it to do for you, how it alters your relationships, and so on. And you need to think about how it does those things in the context of your particular community. Surely there are good and bad ways to use the genre, but the reason I prefer this framing is that it does not allow claims that marriage has a single intrinsic goal or a single set of best practices.
That said, I do agree that marriage should be somehow generative, whatever it is generates, because it needs to be worth its costs, and I've been hinting that obliquely by using cognates of "generate" as my main analogies: genus and genre.
In case you want to know whether this is compatible with a religious worldview, I think it is. If God works in us, then God does that work through the cultural forms we have made. God need not have invented marriage to have made it sacramental; for that matter, God need not have invented sacramental marriage in order to use it as a sacrament. It is interesting to note, after all, that the Bible says nowhere that Adam and Eve got married. (I'm sure I'm deluding myself if I think that this will forestall Bible-quoting objections.)
Posted by Christian H at 18:43
I've written about imagining other people's epics and other people's mysteries. That's fun, but the real work--and I do this less often--is imagining through which genre another person's worldview would best be expressed.
Epics are pretty comprehensive; the protagonist should represent the community's values, but most of the ways it expresses worldview are historical and cosmological. It is sweeping. And epic is good for giving a whole image of a world. Mysteries, on the other hand, do not require that a single character embodies the values of a community. Instead, the workings of the community are itself on display. In a mystery, there is a sense that a social order can be ruptured and subsequently repaired through the business of justice. So in one narrow sense, mysteries are pretty conservative: they are about maintaining an existing order. They also have a preoccupation with epistemology. Meanwhile, epics are dedicated to a sense of change (though this change is normally placed in the past), since it is about the formation of something, whether the world or a gentleman or a scientific discipline.
In Shakespeare's day, poets got excited about metaphrasis, which is the process of re-writing an existing narrative in a different genres than the original. For instance, someone might re-write a prose romance as a play. The image they often used for metaphrasis was pouring water from one vessel into another. The vessels are genres and the water is content. However, this metaphor is not a perfect one because it obscures the extent to which the form changes the content. I sometimes say that forms aren't content-free, but even if they are, forms at least alter content in non-trivial ways. (This is why I find it annoying when people complain that a movie adaptation was different from the book. Of course it is. It's a different form.)
So if I'm thinking about a worldview or some other philosophical position, I not only think about what kind of epic a person could write for it or what kind of mystery a person could write for it, but also which genre would represent it best. If I'm a communist trying to improve my economic system's aesthetics, should I make a communist mystery novel, or a communist epic, or a Marxploitation flick, or a comromcom (communist romantic comedy)? (I made up those last two designations.) This is a question about the content's relation to form, but I mustn't forget that it's also a question about my audience. An exploitation flick might be insightful and critical to some but offensive to others; a romantic comedy might help one person understand but might alienate another. And so on.
I don't pretend that I actually come up with a definitive version of that worldview, or the best possible epic, mystery, etc. for that worldview. Ultimately I would far prefer to read a disability-theory epic (or a few different disability-theory epics) than imagine what one would look like because I think the possibilities for disability theory exceed my ability the imagine them on my own. But this kind of process helps me understand worldviews better by forcing me to ask specific questions about them (how would one solve a crime in this worldview? what would even count as crime? what virtues would an epic protagonist have? what is the shape of this worldview's world? which is more salient to this worldview--a comprehensive cosmology or a working epistemology?) and by forcing me to think it through on its own terms as much as possible. That, and I find it fun for its own sake!
Posted by Christian H at 18:25
Sunday, 5 May 2013
Saturday, 4 May 2013
I do not often write emotionally; as I've said before, I rarely feel the need to express my emotions to other people. But today my soul cries that its anguish be spoken and my soul's anguish happens to be on topic. I apologize in advance if this emotional display is unseemly.
Eve Tushnet suggests that I seriously underestimate the dangers of paralysis in the face of making a decision. Her concern with critical thinking is that it will keep you in the anteroom when you hate being in the anteroom. (Seriouly, go read the post.) This is a fair but false accusation. It is fair because, based on anything I've written, you wouldn't know how familiar I am with the agony of uncertainty. But the trouble is that, for me, it does not matter whether I've accepted or not, whatever that means; the doubts, as Eve notes, never go away. There are many many times that I would give anything--ANYTHING--for certainty. I feel lost, perpetually. I sometimes feel as though I have no purpose; this may come from the fact that I no longer know what career I want to pursue. I want a quest, you know? I want some sort of project that will give meaning to my decisions: I don't care whether I find a career or write a novel or take up a cause or fall in love or whatever. I am jealous of those children who stumbled upon Narnia, yes, but I am jealous even of Camus's Sisyphus; he may be faced with a meaningless task, but it is his meaningless task, and he knows he must do it and how it is to be done.
I know that my depression is making this worse right now. Stephen Greenblatt writes in "Invisible Bullets" that Shakespeare's Prince Hal is a reverse Midas, that everything he touches turns to dross. That is how I feel right now; any project to which I turn my hand appears worthless soon after I begin. But it's not just a recent thing. I've always felt this way, to an extent. In my undergraduate I met many people who believed that God had a special plan for them and they had some access to this plan; they claimed to feel the voice of God within the stillness of their souls. Try as I might, I could never hear this voice, but I wanted a special plan so badly (even though, really, I suspected that they were all fooling themselves). I convinced myself that my special plan was to develop a spirituality for those whose only experience of God was as a terrible and ringing silence, because such a task could only be completed by someone who had no personal experience of God but nonetheless believed (ie. me). In the end, though, I couldn't even believe that sorry sort of plan: if God has a plan for me, I do not presume to know what it is.
So if my reaction to what pretty much anyone else is saying on this seems, I don't know, bitter, it's because I am a little bitter. Not toward God, who I don't think has an obligation to explain himself to me or anyone else, but toward anyone who has made me feel like I need to be certain of things (or, to anyone who has acted like I have an obligation to explain myself to them). Maybe there is something in our culture which reprimands people who are overly certain, I don't know, but our culture isn't homogenous and there absolutely is something in our culture which has no sympathy whatsoever for those in the anteroom or, for that matter, those like me who presume to be in the main chamber without having a clue what they're doing there or whether they are even in the right building. It's not just that that's an uncomfortable position to be in; quite a lot of people make it an uncomfortable position to be in. I don't begrudge anyone their certainty, but I have seen so many people use their certainty to shame others, or at least justify the shaming, that I fear certainty makes it easy to weaponize beliefs. So the thing behind my tentativism, maybe, is terror. Terror that I will be excommunicated for my heresy, terror that I will be steamrolled by someone else's special plan, terror that I might be the one trodding on another as I pursue my own glorious purpose, terror that someone might hallucinate the voice of God demanding my sacrifice. And horror too that many people are experiencing these things even when I am not. And maybe I'm wrong, but I cannot imagine that any of these things would happen if the perpetrators were just a little less sure of themselves.
So I say I would give anything for certainty, for a purpose, for a quest, but this is not true. If there is something I am certain of, it is that I cannot tell anyone else's story, that I have an obligation to do no harm (or at least as little as possible), that I have an obligation to empathy. I will take on whatever agony I must to maintain these principles, and so if this means that I suffer uncertainty--for there is suffering in uncertainty--so be it.
This is what I say when I feel brave. The other side of the coin is that uncertainty seems to be part of my disposition. It is not a thing I chose in the first place. Do I think I am a better person for my uncertainty? Yes: the less certain I am, the less of a jerk I am. (Though I take Eve Tushnet's point that uncertainty doesn't combat oppression very effectively, and it should be noted that I am certain about some things, especially w/r to feminism and environmentalism and other causes that don't have handy names.) Do I think the world would be a better place if pretty much everybody was more willing to concede that they might be wrong? Yes, I do. But I will not pretend to have chosen this for myself; all I have done is accepted it, or owned it as they say. And I really cannot blame people for abandoning an openness to truth as they grasp for certainty, because I know as well as anyone how miserable uncertainty can make you.
But I know I have also celebrated uncertainty and postmodernism and so forth in the past, and while I have trouble celebrating it at this moment I still know that it is worth celebrating. In a way I've written about it a bit already when writing about fantasy novels. There is a joy not just in discovery, but in knowing that there is more to find than can ever be found. And instability can be just plain fun; when things are open to change, you can play with them, you can create, you can experiment. There is suffering, and today my soul screams for the kind of certainty others have and I do not, but if the possibility for certainty was extended to me, I would be tempted to take it and I would still turn it down. And I shall try to remain the joy it can give to keep me through until I am better able to experience that joy again.
Now, look, other people can write all they want about this, but for the time being I'm utterly sick of the topic so unless I've already told you personally that I'll answer your questions, I reserve the right to ignore your question. I'm not saying I will ignore it, just that I reserve the right.
Note: When I say "certainty," I mean more than just certainty about particular facts. I mean something closer to "metanarrative," or "certainty in a worldview," or "an idea that you know how to live a good life." I don't mean "feeling like you know all of the answers," but I do mean more than the sense of certainty in saying, "I am certain that there is such a thing as gravity." So I acknowledge that I'm not even sure myself exactly what it is I'm objecting to, and I promise I'll think about it, but I don't promise that I'll come back with answers. I can't promise that at all.
Posted by Christian H at 21:59