The Null Device

Romantic love considered harmful

The Graun has turned what was meant to be a review of the latest Hollywood romantic comedy into a critique of this culture's emphasis on romantic love:
Romcoms don't merely provide an evening's harmless escapism. They help underpin one of the most potent doctrines of our culture: the sanctity of romantic love. It's a doctrine in which many find relief from the materialism, apathy and banality of a society no longer hallowed by religious transcendence. Yet it comes at a price.
The involuntary cognitive state that Jennifer Aniston finds herself depicting so frequently is real enough, but not particularly mystical. Brain scans show it to be generated by the frisky interaction of chemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine. If this hubbub's triggered by recognition of genetic quality, as now seems to be assumed, that would explain why Aniston and her ilk have to be so annoyingly good-looking.
What we call love induces some of the worst behaviour that we're likely to encounter. Yet when this occurs, it usually invites no censure, let alone punishment. Romantic love is a get-out-of-jail-free card that legitimises actions which would otherwise be thought contemptible. Home-wreckers steal something cherished far more deeply than money or possessions. Nonetheless, they go on to build their happiness on the misery of others without having to endure the slightest disapproval. After all, they had no choice but to do what they did: they were in love.
In other cultures, romantic love enjoys no comparable status. Our own ancestors might find our veneration of it as puzzling as we find their worship of pagan gods. In our otherwise disrespectful age, the persistence of its dominion is rather remarkable. Would it have proved so enduring without the big screen's relentless promotion of its supposedly limitless benefits?
I have been wondering whether the emphasis on romantic love in popular culture (a significant proportion of mainstream pop songs seem to be about the transitions into and out of the state of being in love, for example) and the sexualisation of the media are not two sides of the same coin, namely a focus on relations between people as being a marketplace of potential partners, rather than less glamorous and less dynamic forms of relations. Could this be a sort of social Reaganism/Thatcherism, the ideological assertion that "everything is a market" translated into the realm of interpersonal relations?

There are 2 comments on "Romantic love considered harmful":

Posted by: Greg Tue Oct 13 10:07:59 2009

That's a great article. I like that the author discusses the real damage that is often done in the pursuit of romantic love. The modern obsession with love is like religion in a number of ways, one of which is that it involves a subjective feeling akin to conviction, so that if a skeptic denies that the feeling is real, a believer can reply "well, you just haven't experienced it like others have", and one can't really argue with that. (I could list a few other things which are "like religion" in this way, but I'll spare your blog and write it up myself later. Sex is one popular example: it is of course not precisely the same thing as love.) In the feminist era it was normal to dismiss romantic love as an invention of 19th century novelists; now this position is regarded as impossibly cynical. But it's true. Our brains adopt passion in order to get us through the process of producing children: after that, seeking to mask one's problems with romantic love is dereliction of duty. Let's get over it.

Posted by: Greg Thu Oct 15 20:55:43 2009

spam received today: "Romance? Get 20% off at Borders."

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