Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Rewriting the Rules


[Meg Barker. Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.]

I think the fact that I would have related to this book in quite different ways at different times in my life, but nonetheless would have reacted positively at each of those times, is a testament to its cleverness and quality. Billed as an "anti-self-help book" (7), it resolutely refuses to give recipes for living and instead offers insights into the contexts and constraints in which living occurs and explores various ways that people choose to relate to them.

Part of what is so appealing about this book to present-day me is that it is an instance of intellectual work, of writing craft, that I think is well worth learning from in both its aim and its execution. A hint that it is not a typical relationship book is, perhaps, given away by the name of the publisher -- Routledge is a major academic press. And what this book does is translate the core insights from certain scholarly writing about social organization and social power in the last few decades into a very readable plain-language account of norms, normalization, discipline, and social regulation -- Barker uses the language of "the rules" rather than any of those terms -- that govern our everyday lives. It does this in a completely accessible way that avoids alienating language and casts it all in terms of how such things are experienced in everyday life. As well, it combines this attention to social power (while seldom using that language) with good-sense insights into how human beings work in various contexts that have been extracted from psychological research and practice.

Most of the chapters are put together in the same way: They start off by looking at the dominant norms/rules around a particular set of experiences or practices, then they transition into examining various alternative norms/rules that might operate in various communities or subcultural niches or clusters of lives, and finally they end with thoughts on moving through the world in a way that loosens the hold of any rules, dominant or alternative, and embracing uncertainty. Barker quite sensibly emphasizes throughout the book that while it is understandable for people who do things in ways that are counter to dominant norms to hold tightly onto their own differently formulated rules for doing things, that can have its own set of problems and can mirror in its own way the exclusions and hierarchies enforced by dominant norms. She is also clear that she is not advocating any one particular way of navigating all of these manifestations of social power as we go about our lives -- there is no judgement for living a very conventional life, nor is there judgement for living a uniquely counter-normative life, though neither does she pretend that she doesn't write from a particular vantage. And she argues, I think quite convincingly, that understanding "the rules" (the norms, the social organization, the power) in the territory covered by the book is useful whether you follow them in a given area or whether you flout them. She is quite clear that her goal is to encourage a combination of good relationship process and critical thinking about the social landscape in which we make choices about living, rather than any particular outcome to those choices. This approach is applied over the course of the book's chapters to self, attraction, love, sex, gender, monogamy, conflict, break-up, and commitment, and the book ends with a chapter exploring what it can mean in practice (including much emphasis on the costs and risks) to strike out in counter-normative directions.

I probably don't know enough to identify all of the influences in her take on the social world, particularly since the whole thing is written to resonate with ordinary readers rather than to meet the name-dropping needs of scholars. Certainly the terms I used above (that she does not use) point towards various traditions that could have something to do with her approach: moral regulation, social regulation, social organization, discipline, norms, normalization. Though she only names Foucault once, in the very last chapter of the book, it was actually in the earliest chapters -- I suppose while I was still getting used to the book's approach -- that I felt most reminded of some of Foucault's thoughts on cultivation of self and practices of freedom as explored in some of his later work and in Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization.

As I said at the start, I think this book can prove valuable to people with a range of ways of relating to the dominant norms it describes and critiques. Of course, there are plenty of people who are aggressively disinterested in giving even cursory respect to ways of living that are in some sense not-normal, and this book is unlikely to hold their attention long enough to challenge them. But many people who do things in quite conventional ways will still get a lot out of this book. For instance, I know that in the earliest period of my own adult life I was very tightly in the grip of dominant norms, to the extent that it would never even have occurred to me that learning about counter-normative ways of doing self and relationships and sexuality might ever have any practical relevance to me. Nonetheless, some of what the book has to say about (relatively non-threatening) ideas of good relationship process would have resonated. And even though none of the rest would've been read as directly relevant to my own life and choices, I still would've been rather taken by it, I think. Its interweaving of plain-language social analysis and insights into the living of life, its consciousness of power, and its respectful description of ways of living far beyond my own fairly sheltered experience at the time would have been something I related to in an intellectualized way. It would have expanded my understanding of the range of ways in which other people do things and of the social context in which all of us exist, and it would've been welcome for those reasons.

Then came a sort of (mostly) joyful crisis that resulted in certain counter-normative ways of doing things related to monogamy/non-monogamy going from something I had heard of and thought were politically interesting but were irrelevant to me turning into embodied practice in rather short order. It rapidly became evident after this that, for me at least, living a highly normative life, even with an intellectual curiosity for and openness to learning about other ways of doing things, had been a very effective way of not thinking at all in certain key ways about my own life and practices and desires. This transition forced me into such practical, embodied reflection in ways that unavoidably spread from the initial questions that confronted me to a much broader series of explorations around things like (to use some of Barker's categories) self, sexuality, gender, conflict, and the sudden necessity for a middle-class white man to navigate potential consequences of social regulation in a way that had not previously been the case. At this stage, I would have cathected to this book very intensely, and seized on it for affirmation and to wring from it every possible shred of insight. I would especially recommend it for people in this kind of transitional period.

That is long past, though what lingers might be described as that in slow motion -- counter-normative practices in a few distinct but overlapping respects, a slower but ongoing pace of exploration and reflection and change, and a still fairly significant lack of clarity and confidence in responding to social regulation (combined with ambivalence towards so-called communities organized around various counter-normative practices and identities) and therefore relative silence and invisibility. The analysis of the social world that this book brings is not new to me, nor is sustained, embodied, critical reflection on practices of self and relationships, so my emotional response to the book was not as intense as it once would have been. Once I understood the book's approach, much of what it had to say became fairly predictable. Nonetheless, I still find it quite affirming -- I don't know about other people, but encountering such affirmation in print is still quite useful to me. It contains plenty of specific insights and pieces of practical advice that I will benefit from and return to, and I think its overall approach will also be a useful tool for framing my own ongoing journey through the challenges of navigating social regulation and oppressive normalization. Moreover, there is value to having all of this breadth in a single book in terms of at least pointing towards (if not necessarily exploring in depth) how very differently experienced forms of normative discipline are potentially related and intersecting, and in terms of encouraging a practical and grounded set of conceptual tools for thinking about it all.

Of course there is lots that it doesn't do. It is certainly a more critical understanding of the social world than the liberal-democratic assumptions that fill most books that talk about relationships, whether their bias is towards the end of the spectrum conventionally labelled "conservative" or towards the end labelled "liberal," but it still does focus on the level of individual navigation of norms rather than collective efforts to create change. There is some attention in the final chapter towards engaging with social change in some of these areas, but it is short and not in much depth. There are a whole host of questions that we need to ask about how to do that work. There is also a related set of discussions about political pitfalls that are often part of individual and collective challenges to the various norms discussed in this book -- for instance, queer challenges to dominant norms, even quite self-reflective and radical ones, are often infused with whiteness, contribute in both everyday and social relational ways to the marginalization of racialized people, and can indirectly bolster neoliberal capitalism. And we need to talk about that. Along those lines, though Barker does gesture towards a recognition that experience of norms and rules differ with culture and social location in other respects, the book does relatively little with that insight. At the very least, I think it should challenge privileged people to recognize our responsibility to navigate/oppose the norms that regulate us in ways that do not further marginalize (and, hopefully, that are in solidarity with) people who face the rough end of white supremacy, colonization, and capital.

That said, this is a book that is both practically useful, whether you do things in counter-normative ways or not, and it is worth emulating as an example of making critical scholarly ideas practically relevant to ordinary lives. Read it, reflect on it, talk about it, apply it!

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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