The emptiness that longs for fullness
Sociologist Eva Illouz presents a bleak but fascinating analysis of what the modern world has done to love
The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations
By Eva Illouz
TOxford University Press, 315pp, £22.99
he great French novelist Honoré de Balzac said he wanted to be the historian of the human heart. The Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz might be called the historian of human heartbreak. Though our culture has focused on love, she writes in the introduction to her new book, it is much more silent regarding “the no-less mysterious moment when we avoid falling in love, where we fall out of love” or grow indifferent.
Encounters in hyper-connected modernity are characterised by what Illouz calls unloving – the possibility of being unwilling or unable to form a relationship, or the ability to leave a relationship and move seamlessly to another.
Illouz draws a parallel with capitalism. Companies and employees were once tied by a bond of mutual responsibility, in which management provided healthcare and pensions. That has been replaced by flextime and outsourcing. Just as capitalism invented the disposable worker, the sexual revolution and the internet invented the disposable partner.
“If we, critical scholars, analyse the corrosive effects of freedom in the realm of economic action, there is no reason not to inquire about these effects in the personal, emotional and sexual realms,” Illouz writes.
Dating apps such as Tinder have brought sex into the free market economy. Vanity Fair magazine estimated in 2015 that nearly 100 million people use their smartphones “as a sort of all-day, everyday, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight”.
The US writer Erica Jong coined the term “zipless f**k” to mean sexual relations free of shame or guilt. Hookup, friends with benefits, f**k buddy, one-night stand and cyber-sex are synonyms. “Casual sex is a social script in reverse: a script for a non-relationship” which destabilises the entire hierarchy of male- female interaction, Illouz writes.
Illouz conducted 92 interviews in Europe, the Middle East and North America. A chemistry professor in Scandinavia coined the term fast romance, comparable to fast food or fast fashion. “It was common courtesy to end things explicitly,” she recalls. “You were supposed to give an explanation . . . With fast love, the dropping seems to be taken for granted ... Many people are .. .‘shopping’, picky consumers on a cheap global market of possible romantic or sexual relations. It’s the ultimate commodification.”
Longs for fullness
Illouz adopts Jacques Lacan’s definition of negativity: the self as an emptiness that longs for fullness. The goal of casual sex is “a negative bond . . . in which there is no attempt to find, know, appropriate, and conquer the subjectivity of another ... Others are means for self-expression and for the assertion of one’s autonomy – and not the object of recognition”.
A 49-year-old male professor in Paris complains of women who want to stay all night, then cuddle and have breakfast in the morning. “The ideal woman is the one who leaves in the middle of the night. She leaves on the table a goodbye note, saying it was great, without her phone number,” he says.
Ending a sexual relationship by simply cutting off all contact and ignoring messages from a partner, known as “ghosting”, is increasingly common. Illouz invents the term “situationship” to describe such tenuous, easily broken ties. She quotes a psychologist in an online advice column: “Dating is broken .. . You meet someone who seems very interested, but then his ardor for you rapidly vanishes – and he exits your life as quickly as he entered.”
Emotional uncertainty and self -doubt are the inevitable result of so much freedom and choice. “The lack of ritual structure and normative anchors leaves the subject struggling on her own to decipher another’s intentions, to devise a course of action, to create strategic responses to uncertainty, and to form clear and steady feelings,” Illouz writes.
Michel Houellebecq’s novels chronicle the sexual frustration of ageing men. Houellebecq, Illouz writes, has understood how obsession with sexual freedom has dislocated society. In Submission (2015), the promise of sex with multiple subservient wives leads the main character to convert to Islam. In Whatever (1994), the male lead takes his own life because he despairs of performing adequately in the highly competitive sexual market.
The End of Love is analytical and descriptive, not judgmental or prescriptive. But it is bleak. Illouz quotes Seneca in her concluding chapter: “I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.”
Illouz does not tell readers how to be happy in a world without love. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is her observation that “most of us still live or long for stable couplehood”. Perhaps, just as we are now seeing attempts to re-humanise capitalism, we will find a way to re-humanise love.