I got married a few weeks ago, and I feel compelled to blog about this because some students and colleagues have teased me a bit, saying something along the lines of, “Didn’t you once proclaim that you would never get married? Didn’t you teach a whole class that deconstructed that institution?” And yes, even on this very blog [here], [here], [here], [here], and [here], I have made arguments that not only suggest alternatives to marriage but also imply that getting married and buying a house might even be an unethical response to 21st century socio-economic conditions. So, I’ve decided to momentarily come out of my blog-o-sphere vacation to justify my ways to my students, colleagues, and friends. This blog post will take three steps. Step one will be to outline my problem with the institution of marriage. Step two will be to observe changing socio-economic conditions that put that institution in question and suggest other possible ways of living in the world. Step three will be a detour through some Christian theological discussions about marriage. And finally, I will come to my own philosophical conclusion.
Step One: Hegemony
In my view, the social pressure to get married actually prevents human beings from imagining a more ethical relationship with each other. Even more seriously, it prevents people from acting on their own imagination. Personally, I have for years felt pressured to get married, have children, and buy a house — a pressure that theorists call “hegemonic.” In this case, hegemonic means not merely that there are deep cultural pressures to do these things, but also the force of law, taxes, insurance, and various other privileges and rights, so that, in effect, when a colleague, family member, or friend teased me for not getting married, it was a teasing accompanied by some very sharp and very powerful teeth. In other words, it is not even possible to do a lot of things that, in my view, should be possible. The obvious example that the media talks about a lot is gay marriage, and in most of the world, a significant percentage of the population is barred from legal matrimony. Actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have famously said they would not get married until everyone acquired that right, a right that some might consider to be a basic human right, and I have a lot of respect for their taking such a strong and clear ethical position. But, as the gay-activist, literary theorist, and scholar Michael Warner has argued in The Trouble with Normal, we should be looking beyond that rigidly simple binary of married/not married towards other alternative relationships. For instance, Jane Juffer’s book Single Mother points out that single mothers might want to form cooperative living arrangements with other women in order to manage the challenges of raising children without a husband.
Lately, numerous novels, movies, and television shows have begun to imagine such alternative, cooperative living arrangements, but such arrangements are discouraged by laws about taxes, benefits, and even home ownership. For instance, there is a long contentious legal history about the definition of “family” for neighborhoods zoned for “single family homes” as you can read about [here] and [here]. Cities, suburbs, and towns have passed zoning laws deliberately to promote traditional nuclear families, but complicating the implementation of those laws, the national Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination against non-traditional families. For instance, the courts have ruled that a state’s law can’t define ”family” so narrowly that it excludes uncles, grandparents, and various sorts of dependents. Nevertheless, questions remain about whether the definition of family means biological, legal, or functional relationships. For instance, clearly two people who live together and raise children can be considered a “family” even if they aren’t legally married and even if the children aren’t their biological offspring. But what about five elderly women who want to live together and support each other? (This was a real case, Baer v. Town of Brookhaven, by the way.) Despite the obvious benefits, as we can see in the popular TV show The Golden Girls, this sort of living arrangement has been legally discouraged. In my view, it should be encouraged. (Notably, The Golden Girls show had four women living together, which is legal, and not five, which would put them over the legal limit asserted in the Baer v. Brookhaven case.) Moreover, home ownership is always tied to the market, and cultural assumptions about family affect the value of homes as does direct government policy that artificially manipulates the market. For instance, according to this article, so-called “multi-family homes” (e.g., a duplex) may be a more efficient and less expensive alternative to single-family homes, but they are also harder to sell. In addition, the recent ”Hope for Homeowners” government program created to boost the housing market targets traditional single family homes.
And all this is what I mean when I say that the traditional nuclear family is a “hegemonic” institution, supported by all sorts of laws, including laws that manipulate market conditions. And given the power behind this hegemony, it sometimes felt to me a little bit cruel when people would make remarks implying that I had problems with committment, that I hated children, or that I secretly wished my life were like theirs.
Step Two: Living in a Post-Fordist World
Now that I’ve discussed the hegemony of the nuclear family — a “tradition” arguably created in the early twentieth century alongside the modern industrial ”Fordist” economy, as historians have argued. See, for instance, [here]. The ideal for this economy was life-long employment at a single company such as Ford. I now turn to the twenty-first century socioeconomic conditions, which have been called “post-Fordist” because of the market demand that labor and capital be more flexible and mobile. An effect of this new economic world order was the demise of automobile manufacturing cities Detroit and Flint, Michigan, as documentary film maker Michael Moore famously narrated in his classic Roger and Me. Considering the destructive impact on families caused by such capital flight as well as the increased cost of living and the environmentally destructive effects of suburban sprawl, the old white-picket-fence image of the 1950s model for the nuclear family would seem at the very least out-of-step with the world we live in today, if not downright immoral. Such social conditions of our so-called post-Fordist world include heightened geographic mobility, civil rights for women and people of color, shocks to the labor market due to rapid capital flight, an increase in the cost of living, and the environmental effects of over-population and industrial capitalism.
A great essay about what all this post-Fordist stuff means for college educated women that wonderfully rips apart the hegemony I discuss above is The Atlantic.com piece “All the Single Ladies,” but let me try to illustrate what it means for working class people through the following example. It has become increasingly easy for large corporations and investment banks to move large amounts of capital very quickly. For instance, as in the case of Ford and GM, a company might move an entire factory or simply outsource production to another country. Such “shocks” to the local economy would seem to demand a more mobile and flexible labor force. However, at the same time that the government permits such capital flight and encourages easy financial speculation, it also encourages individuals to buy homes even if they can’t really afford them. The recent housing bubble and subsequent recession has alerted everyone to this problem. As one economist has recently explained [here], the artificially propped up housing market has a negative impact on the labor market because it discourages individuals from moving to where there is a better job. Another example is the environment, as land once populated with wild animals is now “exurbs” of McMansions, and people drive great distances from their single-family homes to their place of work. Thus, in response to the vicissitudes of the new economy and to the foreseen dangers of global warming that contradict the ideal of the nuclear family, more and more people are forced to look for practical solutions to life’s problems, and these include more flexible, cooperative living arrangements. And for me, these arrangements are already being practiced by many different kinds of people, despite the ways in which they are discouraged by the hegemonic system I described above.
In my view, it seems more praiseworthy to aspire to something greater than mere marriage. And this is why, before she became my wife, she was my grrrl-comrade, not my girl friend — the name alluding to the feminist “riot grrrl” punk movement during the mid-1990s. Its “Riot Grrrl Manifesto“ aimed to foster a revolution of everyday life. This is what I believed in and tried to practice with my own grrrl-comrade, who was my political partner as well as my romantic partner. I have also discussed what this means with two of my colleagues who have made an even greater effort than I have to foster a broader sense of community and an expanded sense of what it meant to be responsible for the raising of children.
But now I’ve gotten married, so have I sold out? Have I succumbed to the incentives offered by insurance companies and the Internal Revenue Service? Have I given up the dream and settled for settling down? Are my friends and former students justified in making fun of me? What does it mean when my friends and family say things like “Finally!!!” as if I were merely a deluded fool for not getting married before. What does it mean when people now jokingly welcome me “to the club”?
Step Three: A Theology of Potential
Before I answer those questions, I want to step back a bit and address the Christian view of marriage. One of my students, a double theology and English major, recently pointed out to me that the Catholic church’s position on marriage has changed a lot over the course of history. I don’t know much about that, but since my wife and her family is Lutheran, I went to my bookshelf and took down a book I hadn’t read since I was a college student majoring in religious studies, around the same time the punk band Bikini Kill published its Riot Grrrl Manifesto. And that book is Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger. To my surprise, I discovered that Luther was quite the radical for his day and in many ways agreed with me. He argues that marriage and the need for humans to combine in various practical ways is a human mystery that historically predates church authority or any cultural instantiation of it, and thus, when the Catholic church (or any church) claims that marriage is a sacrament and that therefore it has the authority to decide who can and can’t marry, it is in effect acting like a pimp selling the “male and female pudenda” and therefore is the Antichrist (p. 331). Yes, he really does say that. In other words, to put Luther’s argument in the terms of literary theory, the so-called traditional nuclear family is an ideological social construct, and the human energy and potential for social combination can express itself in a multitude of forms. In less hyperbolic language, John Calvin makes a similar argument in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first book to systematically outline the entire protestant Christian faith. Luther goes further than Calvin, even arguing that bigamy/adultery are preferable to divorce, so if the husband turns out to be sexually impotent, it’s preferable that the wife have sex with someone else than they divorce, because marriage is a spiritual bond and practical work, not a sexual definition. And the real point of course is that marriage is not about sex (contrary to the constant harping on that subject by people who claim to be Christians), but about building community.
The particular passage of the Bible that Luther and Calvin focus on is when St. Paul talks about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Luther and Calvin argue for a reading of Ephesians that today most Catholic theologians also agree with — that Christ is speaking metaphorically, not literally, about husband and wife becoming one flesh. In Paul’s letter, marriage is a metaphor for the open potential of human beings to end warfare and suffering and become Christ-like (i.e., becoming one flesh metaphorically means the political body of Christ, not holy matrimony.) Understood metaphorically in this way, marriage is an opening to grow beyond the limits of one’s individual self. Ironically, this Christ-like understanding of marriage as an opening up of human potential is the opposite of the narrow definition of marriage usually endorsed by people claiming to be Christians, whose literal and stupid understanding of the Bible actually enforces limits on our Being.
My detour through some old theological statements was meant to reconcile my earlier critique of marriage with my decision to get married. It might seem that Luther’s theology of marriage has a little bit more in common with the Riot Grrrl Manifesto than most Lutherans and Bikini Kill fans would admit. So, in conclusion, what I believe in is the opening or unfolding of human potential in the context of complex conditions. Those complex conditions place very material demands on us that we can’t simply ignore or dismiss. We make our way in the world as best we can and ethically aim for something better than what is. My wife is my partner in this endeavor, and our marriage is, I hope, an opening up of both our individual potentials as well as our potential relationship with others and with the world we aim to change.