Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: What Love Is

[Carrie Jenkins. What Love Is: And What it Could Be. New York: Basic Books, 2017.]

A philosophical examination of romantic love aimed at a lay audience. Some good stuff, but I didin’t like it as much as I’d hoped. It takes a critical, feminist, queer, non-monogamy-friendly approach, all of which is good; I think I’d quite like the author if we met socially; and it says some interesting, thoughtful, useful things. But there were a number of aspects of its approach that I was more ambivalent about. I’m pretty sure a lot of them are connected to the fact that it is a work of analytic philosophy, and that carries with it certain expectations – I don’t know enough about it to be certain, but I think that’s what’s going on. Some of those expectations are good things, like the admirable emphasis on clear thought and clear language. But others of them have more mixed implications.

So, for instance, there’s a valuing of going back to first principles when putting together an argument. There are good reasons for this, and it is connected to the emphasis on clarity I mention above. But sometimes it feels excessive. So, for instance, this book took two or three chapters methodically working up to one of its central points: that we need to take seriously both the cutting edge of biological research as well as social organization when we are thinking about romantic love, and we need to approach both sides rigorously and critically. Which is great – I think the specific model the book ends up at is perhaps a bit simplistic and is certainly only one possibility for thinking biology and the social together, but it’s at least in the same general area as my understanding. Except when considered from a how-did-I-enjoy-this-book perspective, the fact that I started there means I found those two-to-three chapters working up to it to be kind of tedious and could’ve done without them.

And then there is the tendency in analytic philosophy towards thought experiments and hypotheticals, including some that seem quite ridiculous on their face, and others that might appear odious at first glance. This can be useful, and in some cases it can even be entertaining, and it is part of the valuing of clarity and rigour. But it also imposes a very uneven relationship to context. Sometimes context and history are clearly considered; other times, whether it is in the name of not pre-judging or whether it is about maintaining the clarity of an illustrative example, they just aren't. So, for instance, in the chapter towards the end of the book when it actually considers what it might mean in the future to intervene biologically in processes related to “love,” it point towards at least some of the cautionary histories and many of the caveats and concerns that I think such a prospect deserves. But it mentions the possibility multiple times earlier in the book, saying it’ll be explored later, and in those instances it does so without a word of caution and even, at times, with a tone of excitement and possibility. And to my mind, thinking about how I would write about such things myself, I think the highly troubling character of intervening biologically in how people experience love deserves attention at first mention.

And then you have things like speculations about the future of love. While the book does eventually come around to recognizing that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about it as if we can collectively and rationally decide how we are going to encourage the development of romantic love in the future, it does so after talking about it that way rather a lot. Though it recognizes the role of past struggle in shaping romantic love today, it doesn’t frame future changes as clearly as I think is warranted in terms of power and struggle. And, honestly, I don’t think you can speculate about what romantic love might look like in the future without explicitly considering how the social world, including but not limited to social relations of neoliberal capitalism, will shape the pressures and demands we face in how we relate to one another -- for me, this isn't just an arbitrary "well what about X" consideration, but is absolutely central to thinking about how our relationships and our narratives of relationship will be able to evolve.

And even beyond that, whether it is talking about the past or speculating about the future, the book mostly doesn’t talk in an explicit way about whole vast areas of literature where smart people have done important work in thinking about how norms and normalization and normativity function socially, and how those relate to power and struggle. Not, I think, because the author doesn’t know about them – I would guess she knows way more about them than I do, and certainly the approach to the social world in the book is grounded in recognizing the power of socially enforced norms. But how do you talk about that, and how do you relate to literature that is often opaque and confusing and built on layers and layers of specialist language? Again, I admire the commitment to clarity, but I’m not convinced that not building more explicitly on what others have built before is necessarily the best trade-off, especially when what is being lost (as I would argue to be the case here) is a certain degree of incisive edge in understanding how romantic love and power and struggle are bound together. Not that this book ignores that intertwining – it definitely recognizes it – but it feels like it just doesn’t pick up certain tools that could make that side of the conversation richer and stronger.

So...yeah. There’s some sharp thinking and good ideas, but there’s lots about the approach that didn’t quite work for me. If it's a topic that interests you, and particularly if you're keen to find some rigorous thinking that refuses to exclude counter-normative ways of experiencing and doing romantic love, maybe don't be too put off by my reservations and check it out anyway.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

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