A review of Carrie Jenkins’ What Love Is: And What It Could Be (Basic Books: NY. 2017).
“Romantic love”, Carrie Jenkins writes near the end of her book, “cannot continue to be something we just stumble into and accept.” This is true, and Jenkins’ book does instigate questioning after the truth of what romantic love is or ought to be. The implication is questionable, however, that there might be other things into which we, having stumbled into them, can or ought to accept; such as many of the presuppositions on which Jenkins builds the argument of What Love Is.
Her argument is deceptive because of its simplicity: “romantic love” (frequently abbreviated to “love”) “has a dual nature: it is ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role.” Thus, on the one hand, there is a reality independent of any human conception—the biological “machinery”—and on the other hand, a social construct entirely dependent upon what we think and believe, which varies from generation to generation and perhaps even individual to individual. Jenkins implicitly advocates for this latter idiosyncratic approach: the conventional idea of romantic love prevalent for most of history—which she calls the “one-true-forever” model of monogamy—is said to not fit her experience: namely, the experience of having a strong desire for polyamorous relationships. In other words, “what love is” for Jenkins in her personal lived experience is at odds with “what love has been” for most people, in most times. Since she is not alone in finding her lived experience contrary to the conventional norm, she believes that we ought, in order to “construct love’s social role… towards inclusion, expression, and equality,” and that we must “keep broadening the social role of love until it no longer imposes any substantive constraints.”
The conventional “exclusionary, repressive, and oppressive” norm of monogamy—which makes the present prevalent social construct of love a privileged possession of the few—belongs wholly to a socially-constructed moral normativity grown from patriarchal paternity rites: i.e., men wanted to be sure that their children were really their children, and so insisted upon their wives sleeping only with them. Consequently, “love”, as confined within heterosexual monogamous relations, “has always been intimately connected with the idea that people—especially women—are a kind of private property.” In other words, monogamous romantic love is the exclusive provenance of patriarchal possessiveness.
In contrast to the patriarchal construct of love’s social role, Jenkins believes we ought to construct one which better complements our biological nature. That is, since the biological material for romantic love—comprising the hormonal and neurochemical activity of testosterone (correlated roughly with sexual desire), dopamine (correlated with excitement and pleasure generally), and oxytocin and vasopressin (each correlated with attachment to a beloved)—indicates that we may lack the capacity for lifelong romantic interest in a single partner; suggested also, she claims by the high and rising divorce rates and the statistical commonality of “wants” which include extramarital sexual liaison. Without understanding this underlying biological nature—implicated not only by hormonal and neurochemical levels, but also by the frequency of divorce and expressed desires for infidelity—and “armed only with an understanding of love as a social construct, we would lack valuable insights into the kinds of changes that might actually work and represent a better fit, given the kinds of creatures we are.”
In other words, Jenkins advocates no limitations or borders upon whom or how anyone should express their loves—except, presumably, those expressions that involve manifest physical or psychological harm to oneself or others. The attainment of love, in other words, is the satisfaction of one’s desire for love: “My theory about love’s nature is ultimately a version of the old adage that ‘love is as love does.’”
The strongest but also the most difficult and complicated argument which can and ought to be mustered against Jenkins’ thesis is showing the error she makes in presupposing nature and society (or culture) are separate and innately unrelated chunks of being forced together by human machinations. In other words, there is a grave but deeply-imbued material fallacy of modern philosophy which undermines her argument: the fallacy of dualism. The history of this fallacy, including its uncritical, unrealized assumption in Western culture, goes back centuries and has roots in Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau. In this lattermost, especially, “nature” and “culture” are entirely separated, which postulate too few have successfully challenged since. In the meantime, the presupposed division is taken for granted not only in works such as Jenkins’, but subtly permeates much thinking in Western civilization for the past several hundred years. To succinctly illustrate the fallacy: if nature and culture are innately unrelated, and anything we do which attempts to bring them together is itself only a product of culture, then we can never truly bring them together but only bring ourselves under deceit. It is an unbridgeable chasm of our own making. A fuller account of this error would run into the length of a book itself.
But there is another and more accessible fault running beneath Jenkins’ argument: namely, that the only legitimate meaning of “nature” is the biological. (This line stems from the presupposed chasm of modernity.) But not only is our biology prone to error—material faults in genetic processes, disease, and so on—but also to deliberate human manipulation. Nowhere does Jenkins’ book address this; never does it seem to cross Jenkins’ mind that a multitude of biological aspects, and particularly highly variable neurochemical responses, are subject to change through enculturation. While too much has been made of neuroplasticity in recent decades, it is either willful ignorance or deceitful manipulation to pretend highly-contingent biological facts about individuals—even in large numbers—reveal universal truths about human nature.
Thus, although Jenkins scare quotes “nature” when used to signify any traditional use as a basis for human behavior, she continually appeals to contingent biological facts as suggestive of social and moral norms. She would like to eat her norm-bestowing nature, and have it too, to which she tips her hand when she acknowledges that attribution of norms to an independent basis gives them strength: “Social stability—including the maintenance of privilege by the privileged—is best served by mass unawareness of the deep core of the social machinery that structures our lives and our loves. It is even more effective if we can attribute these deep-core norms to ‘nature’ or ‘biology’ so that we’ll accept them as inevitable.” The implication, here, is that monogamous normativity has been deceitfully allied with natural or biological factors; and yet, it has to be asked, what alliance does Jenkins seek when she asserts that a change to non-monogamous norms “might actually work and represent a better fit, given the kinds of creatures we are”—namely, norms she suggests might better fit our “ancient biological machinery”?
Polyamory is far from a new idea. Many societies in the past have practiced polygynous (multiple-women) polygamy, and a few have even practiced polyandrous (multiple-men) polygamy. Jenkins’ thesis—releasing relationships from the restrictions of marriage—is only a new wrinkle. It is, moreover, difficult to read the book without seeing a motivation of ressentiment: accusations that the conventional view of love has left Jenkins and others like her out in the cold; that monogamous amatonormativity (that romantic relationships are an integral part of human fulfillment) is a hurtful attitude; that being heterosexually monogamous makes one societally privileged; that monogamous normativity is an active inhibition of love “becoming a better version of itself.” Jenkins even admits at the outset that her motivation in advocating polyamory—as well as her research into romantic love generally—comes from her own experience: “A more inclusive picture of love would make better sense of what’s happened in my own life than the image I grew up with, which made romantic love the property of straight monogamous couples only.”
Realizing the genesis of Jenkins’ interest, her book reads less like a philosophical inquiry or argument and more like a work of social activism. As she herself states: “once we start to see how we are responsible for romantic love’s social contours—we create and sustain them through the cultural norms we accept and reinforce—everything changes.”