A few passages from Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts

Below are some passages clipped from Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts, a book I thought was hamstrung by its attempt to access the self-help publishing market as well as critique it. Its basic argument seemed incontestable: that structures of feeling exist. What we desire is constrained by social conditions, and the ideology of romantic love supports male supremacy and has been shaped by it. Sociological, not psychological or biological, explanations must be enlisted to explain social relations and social behavior.

Sexual and romantic freedom is not an abstract practice, but rather is institutionalized and embedded in a contested but still powerful patriarchy. This has generated new forms of suffering in the shape of inequalities arising from the different ways that men and women feel, experience, and monitor their sexual freedom in competitive sexual fields.

I’m on board with all of that, even if it’s a bit old news. Laura Kipnis’s Against Love in many ways covers that territory more persuasively for a popular audience. What I found most unconvincing about Illlouz’s book (aside from the fact that it frequently quoted Maureen Dowd and Modern Love columns from the New York Times as evidence) was its explanation for why women were somehow more dependent on love and relationships for self-esteem than men are. I don’t think self-esteem is the relevant analytical principle for this asymmetry (think both genders suffer an equal lack of self-esteem, though for varying reasons); instead “emotional labor” or “shadow work” seems more useful — men leverage their power to make women do more of this work, which manifests as a fixation on relationships. Often I had the sense Illouz was arguing backward from received wisdom about what men and women want (i.e. what Modern Love describes), taking as fact what is actually the ideological product worth explaining.

Illouz claims that we experience disappointment because our actual relationships don’t live up to the ones we vicariously experience through media, but what makes us susceptible to vicariousness? Is that kind of pleasure in stories, in identification and fantasy, evenly distributed across genders? Who gets taught that skill, and where do they acquire it? Is it a habitus? My sense is that the possibility of enjoying vicarious experience develops as compensation for other forms of oppression and marginalization, various denials of autonomy.

Not that autonomy is everything, though. Illouz is too quick to oppose autonomy to attachment in order to explain “commitment phobia” as an overvaluing of autonomy. But autonomy and attachment are not necessarily zero-sum opposites. You can increase attachment to increase a sense of autonomy within a pertinent field of action. Again, the question is what set of ideological forces persuades us that these are zero sum, that “freedom of choice” is both an untrammeled good and should be extended to personal relationships. The book is good at illustrating how choice is often a positive spin on imposed insecurity. Only sometimes Illouz seems to neglect how that insecurity gets imposed (capitalism) and just vaguely attributes it to “modernity.”  (Seems like invoking “modernity” is often a way of depoliticizing capitalism.)

Anyway, I’m getting carried away with this off-the-cuff and not entirely fair critique, when all I wanted to do was save the passages for later use (as if I’ll ever stop finding things for later use and actually start using them).

Consumer culture put desire at the center of subjectivity, and sexuality became a sort of generalized metaphor of desire.

I agree with how this formulation decenters sexuality, makes it contingent on the economic. Desire emerges from the economic organization of a community or society, not from some overwhelming biological urge that demands a certain form of social organization.

Women were incorporated in consumer culture as sexed and sexual agents through the ideal of sexualized beauty that was aggressively promoted by the conjunction of economic sectors that solicited and constructed a self based on eroticism.

The gist here is that emerging capitalist order seized on the power asymmetries it inherited from the patriarchal feudal order to anchor its new framework of desire in objectified women. The vague language at the end of that sentence presumably refers to “the romantic self” that can define itself, and is encouraged to do so in terms of the endless pursuit of quantifiable objectified pleasure.

Such acts of explicit political will stand in contrast to traditional codes and symbols of love, which, because they are not explicitly formulated, seem to be more spontaneous and natural. Spontaneity, however, is indeed nothing but an effect of both the force and the invisibility of social scripts.

Fate can be the only way to explain love, because it accounts for feelings without explaining them.

These are both good reminders of the way “authenticity” and “destiny” are constructed in context, and indicate not the uniqueness of one’s soul or feelings but the degree to which they have been ideologically conditioned, prepared. The spontaneity of the love one experiences measures how well-conditioned by ideology one is. Like art, love is a realm we have set aside as being above examination and beyond articulation, and thus these are where the deepest ideological inculcation occurs. Our desires and our tastes must seem inherent and unquestionable for them to successfully perform the work of conditioning what we desire and what boundaries we won’t cross. So “love” has been liberated into a field of greater choice only to make the decision-making process underlying it more mysterious and ineffable, more subtly conducive of ideological propositions about who belongs where.


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