An indulgence: On Weddings, Fantasies, and the Performativity of Modern Subjectivity

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Yesterday I celebrated a cousin’s wedding.  Next weekend I celebrate another cousin’s wedding.  And this morning I opened up the Styles section to Matt Richtel’s “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part.”  This.

My feelings on the subject are endlessly complex.  As I live and work, I am surrounded by marriages, successful marriages, enduring marriages, tense marriages, wandering marriages, broken marriages.  The cohort of incoming faculty at my SLAC is perhaps an apt microcosm of marriage patterns in my professional and personal demographic.  In a cohort of three men and three women (all white with advanced graduate degrees), we were two married men, one married woman, a man in a long-term partnership, and two single women.  I’m not going to attempt any exegesis on reasons for gender disparity in marriage patterns, except to direct any and all partisans of Hanna Rosin’s idiotic “End of Men” arguments to an exceptional counterargument, also in this weekend’s NYT, by the historian Stephanie Coontz, “The Myth of Male Decline.”

Instead, I’m going to ruminate in a somewhat personal vein on the problem and persistence of the marriage myth in our culture….especially given the high likelihood of divorce among our families and friends.  I’ve seen it in my own family and am arriving at the age when statistically a high percentage of marriages may slowly start to crumble — or have already crumbled.

Divorce is messy.  The fallout is a long and winding road.  We can’t make our exes disappear in a puff of smoke, regardless the convenience of the fantasy that if the relatives don’t invite my ex to the wedding, the funeral, the bar mitzvah, s/he doesn’t exist.  Alas, even in our globalized world, we cannot escape from the ties of our failed relationships.  Nor is a divorce the end of a relationship.  Rather, it is a reconstitution of a relationship originally codified in marriage.  It is in this messy context that I look upon the events of a wedding and am convinced that in 2012, the expression of sentiments like “for the rest of my life” are naive at best, and certainly foolhardy.

But should we stop saying these things?  Do we need to say these things to articulate a love and a partnership and commitment?  Perhaps we should examine more carefully why we feel the need to say these things about our relationships.  “Forever” in a world of divorces performs some powerful cultural work.  Is it a persistence of youthful idealism despite a sea of evidence to the contrary?  Perhaps this is a good thing, the foolhardy idealism of youth, not cowed by the disappointments of our parents.

Not so fast.  There is more going on, and much of it has to do with the privilege, both economic as well as social and cultural, that we continue to confer on the married.

Young married folk like to express sentiments to young non married folk on the order of “it completely changes your relationship” and “you won’t understand until you’re married.”  Such statements are baldfaced in their invocation of privilege.  Understanding is predicated on experience, thus precluding deniability.  You can’t challenge the claim, unless you too join the ranks of the foolhardy married.  Motherhood has a similar aura of unapproachable privilege wrapped around it, in that no woman in our culture is allowed to speak authoritatively about motherhood unless she has become a mother herself.  Ah! the tyranny of personal experience to confer privilege.  I face my 30s with a mounting frustration with the realization that if I choose not to marry, or still yet, have children, I will never really be regarded a full adult.  Yes, yes, cue the trombones and piccolo to commence this misshapen swan song.

I recently had a blistering fight with a close friend about the relative choices that let to our relative relationship status.  She cohabits with a boyfriend of several years.  I’m single and frustrated with the lack of dating prospects.  The comment that set us on a tear?  “I guess I just got lucky.”  Everyone who is single despises the condescension captured in that statement.  Luck does have something to do with many of these life choices, but emphasizing luck at the expense of choice obscures a much more significant fact that the kinds of relationships we are in owe a great deal to choice.  I’m sick of hearing about waiting to be lucky.  It smacks as much of privilege as “you won’t understand until you’re married.”

(Amended to add: Then again, as a friend and reader has pointed out to me, too often the discourse of choice is used to shame single people for our BAD choices, instead of acknowledging our lack of options.  Well.  Perhaps those coupled up could apply the discourse of choice to their own circumstances a bit more, because you don’t fall into a relationship, after all.  You a lucky and you make choices.)

Bitterness!  The bitterness of the single woman, you say.

Perhaps.

(Now the gratuitous turn to the personal.)  But I think it is important to separate the reasons that I am single from the reasons that I am not married.  (And granted, my friend is not married either, nor does she profess a strong investment in becoming so.  But she has committed to a relationship that is as imperfect as my singleness or as imperfect as any other relationship.)  When I reflect on my singleness, I am convinced that I am single because I have not found the right person to be in a relationship with at this time in my life, but unmarried because marriage was never a major goal for me.

I have always wanted to be in relationships, to meet and connect with and love another person, deeply and fundamentally.  But I have only recently realized that for much of my 20s, I did not assume that these relationships should lead to marriage, that this was the goal for which I was striving.  Maybe I was just a cynical child of an ugly divorce.  Or maybe I’m doing revisionist history.  And perhaps many of my friends — married and unmarried, in long term committed relationships both — were equally vague about their long-term goals for their relationships.  But this is not the narrative that emerges in the choreographed nostalgia of a wedding.  This is what gives me pause, and makes me feel that my conflicted feelings about weddings and marriage must be separated from my feelings about committed romantic partnerships.

The irony of all weddings that I attend, no matter how much they reshape tradition to suit contemporary visions of a “non-traditional” wedding, whether couples write their own vows or recite an edited version of the traditional vows, whether the wedding is outside or in, whether the bride wears a veil or not, walks out to Bruce Springsteen or Antonio Vivaldi, hangs out with guests before the ceremony or only appears at the end of the processional in a fantasy cloud of tulle — whatever the architecture of the affair, all involve a teleological narrative rife with the expectations of nostalgia.  All road lead to Rome. We are creating memories of a story foretold.  The wedding is the ultimate nostalgic performance, the epitome of our culture’s hyped-up sense of performativity.

Permit me a momentary diversion.

At a recent student-led discussion of The Hunger Games at my SLAC, we commented on the unique feature of Katniss’s negotiation of the games, unprecedented in all dystopian literature: Katniss becomes a good competitor not only because she is an exceptional shot and a skilled survivalist, but because Katniss learns — almost a minute too late, but in that moment, uncannily well — the ability to perform herself, to play to the cameras, to choreograph and perform every emotion and decision.   In order to win the Hunger Games, Katniss must not only compete, but perform herself for millions of viewers.  In the process, Katniss begins to question the terms of her own reality, her own subjectivity, the nature of her “true” feelings.  She begins to lose “herself” to the game.

This is far more complex than the usual shorthand that Collins is writing a critique of reality TV.  Reality TV is a device here used to reveal a larger point about contemporary subjectivity.  As one professor at the discussion pointed out, The Hunger Games is so appealing to this generation of readers because Collins has captured the defining feature of our modernity: our lives are lived through a hyper-awareness of our own participation in elaborate performances of self.  We watch ourselves regardless of whether we are ourselves aware of being watched by another.  This is not only because of the possibility that we might in fact be surveiled but also because subjectivity and knowing the self occurs through the performativity of self.  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether we are or are not being watched.  It is the performance that matters.  This is not the invention of the early 21st century, but the result of a long evolution in modern subjectivity that began sometime in the 19th century.

Indeed, our culture exists in a strange counter-poise — like a glove turned inside out — to construction of subjectivity and performativity — the relationship between external and internal character — in early-19th-century society.  In the early 19th century, scholars like Karen Halttunen and John Kasson have argued, middle-class evangelical strivers embraced a cult of sincerity, grounded in the belief that the body was the visible and unmediated manifestation of internal character.  This culture was deeply ambivalent about performativity, even as it engaged in highly choreographed rituals to convey that the exterior appearance was a transparent reflection of inner character.

Around the middle of the century, the rise of a new middle class culture shifted this relationship between performativity and character, such that theatricality was increasingly embraced as a positive value.  This shift also participated in a larger transformation in the relationship between middle-class culture and theater, the implications of which are far-reaching (and the subject of my own work).  The theater became what it had been in the eighteenth century, a site in which modern subjectivity was performed.  (This trajectory and shift is far more complex, but one way of periodizing this is to see the early 19thC as a kind of back-lash against the hyper-performativity of elite culture in the eighteenth century.  The late 19thC marked a democratization of the process of achieving subjectivity through performativity.  Now, a return to your regular scheduled program.)

If Americans two centuries ago imagined the outside as the transparent reflection of inner truth, in our culture we find the truth in the outside, and in turn view the inside as existing only through the truth of the outside.  This is not a moral judgement.  My observation is not intended as some armchair indictment of the shallowness of our culture.  To the contrary.  Our culture, like most, defines the relationship between truth and character and performance in its own particular way, which is both the beauty and the trap of our modernity.  We know ourselves through our performances.  And what better way to understand the enduring myths and dreams of self than through one of the last formal rituals that a majority of Americans, across boundaries of class, race, ethnicity and sexuality, increasingly embrace!

A long and perhaps unnecessary diversion to come to this, my final point:

I both love and despise weddings.  I love the pageantry and spectacle, the magic of getting dressed up — a rare treat in our casual and informal culture — of being surrounded by good friends and family and strangers drinking, dancing, and celebrating.  The performativity of the wedding appeals to me.  But it also disturbs me, deeply.  You see, I can’t pretend that I only like weddings for the red lipstick and silk chiffon.  I am not a cold cynic, but a deeply emotional one.  My friends tell me that I am not a cynic at all.  I am single because I am a deep romantic.  Case in point: my anxiety about weddings leads me to embrace the performativity and then wrap myself in a mantle of scotch and cynicism that ultimately proves a very fragile shell for the turgid emotions beneath.  At weddings, I frequently drink too much and cry.

I love and despise weddings because I am terrified of my own desires.  Because I secretly wonder, can I ever really know myself unless I too join in this lovely charade?

But it is this aspect of wedding culture, as Virgina Rutter radically asserts in Richtel’s article, that we must eliminate.  Our fetishization of all aspects of this performance prevent us from imagining something different in the architecture of our relationships, from finding our way into a new culture of partnership, family, and sexuality.  A wedding-less world that would discourage us from “buying into the fantasy” seems both shockingly bleak and fundamentally vital.  Without the fantasy of marriage as a nostalgic crutch to hang our choices upon, perhaps we would be increasingly pressured to continually redefine the meanings and terms of our partnerships, our commitments, and the arc of our futures.  Without finding our way to ourselves through our performances of nostalgia.  We know the choreography of the wedding, but it leaves us ill-equipped, in this day and age, to negotiate the improvisation of our relationships.

Next weekend I will walk joyously down the aisle before my cousin.  I will celebrate her marriage and I will cry.  A lot.  Writing this even now brings a knot into my stomach.  But find me at some point in the evening and ask me and I will tell you that deep down inside I am wondering, wondering, about the price of these, our deepest and most jealously guarded and highly performed fantasies.

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§ 2 Responses to An indulgence: On Weddings, Fantasies, and the Performativity of Modern Subjectivity

  • Mary says:

    “I face my 30s with a mounting frustration with the realization that if I choose not to marry, or still yet, have children, I will never really be regarded a full adult.” This frustrates me to no end!

    There was a guy at work who was talking about an attractive (female) coworker (in her thirties) and he said “there must be something wrong with her . . . to be her age and not married or even have a boyfriend . . .” I was fuming! I defended this woman (who I don’t even know) by saying “you know, it’s not everyone’s goal in life to get married and have kids “. Of course in his mind it should be every woman’s dream to get married to a man, have his kids and live in the suburbs. Uggh.

    This is just one of many, deplorable, double standards. Would this same coworker consider a young man in his early thirties maladjusted if he was living the bachelor life? I think not!

  • Indeed. I think there is also a subtext to that attitude that if a woman is single it’s not because she doesn’t have options from which to choose, but that men don’t choose her. Because of course she would prefer to be with a man who wants her! After all, women of a certain age can’t afford to be too picky… (That kind of attitude is RAGE inducing.)

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