Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Marriage as a Genus, Marriage as a Genre

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.)

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