During his speech in Plato’s The Symposium, Aristophanes explains that humans were originally round, composed of two people joined together in a perfect sphere with four arms, four legs, and two faces. Unfortunately, humans grew arrogant and ambitious; as a result, Zeus punished them by cleaving them in two. Now altered from their natural form, humans yearn for their former selves: “It is from this situation, then, that love for one another developed in human beings. Love collects the halves of our original nature, and tries to make a single thing out of the two parts so as to restore our natural condition. Thus, each of us is the matching half of a human being, since we have been severed like a flatfish, two coming from one, and each part is always seeking its other half” (191d). So it is that what we call “love” is but the “desire for wholeness” (193a). Love is not, for Aristophanes, a union but a re-union/reuniting.
While Aristophanes’ account is simultaneously comedic and horrific, and consequently also absurdly ridiculous, there persists an undercurrent of some nebulous tickle, a recognition of something tangibly familiar in his myth, even now. Were space-time not linear and Plato could have Barbara Streisand speak next at that Athenian table (though of course he wouldn’t, as she’s a woman), he would undoubtedly have her sing “People”: “Lovers are very special people. They’re the luckiest people in the world. With one person, one very special person, a feeling deep in your soul, says you were half, now you’re whole.” “You complete me,” Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) says to Dorothy (played by Renée Zellweger) in the movie Jerry Maguire. How many lovers today claim their relationship with their beloved was meant to be? Even in a postmodern world, we seemingly have not strayed far from the Platonic ideal in which “lovers are incomplete halves of a single puzzle, searching for each other in order to become whole” (Ackerman 95).
Implied by this model—described by Irving Singer as the “idealist tradition” (Modern 12)—is an uncomplicated conception of self. A self posited as fundamentally incomplete must be viewed as fixed and virtually invariable; otherwise, a multiplicity of ways in addition to a soul mate might be found to give the impoverished self what it needs. Viewed as yearning for his or her “other half,” the individual is positioned outside of/separated from the wider culture because only the “one true love” can make the person “whole.” Even biological impulses and psychological factors can be dismissed as irrelevant or possibly even dangerous distractions when all that truly matters is finding one’s “better half.”
A self thus conceived also suggests a rather simplistic view of romantic love, which becomes merely the desire to achieve wholeness by connecting—or reconnecting, as Plato’s Aristophanes would have it—with a complementary lover. Unfortunately, the idealist model’s emphasis on deficiency codifies an ontology of lack that tends to foster omissions, oversimplifications, and misinterpretations.
But, as numerous influential thinkers have convincingly argued, identity is neither uniform nor stable—nor even uncontested. Subjectivity is more accurately characterised by complexity and multiplicity than by simplicity and singularity. What, then, of romantic love? Is romantic love in contemporary Western cultures similarly complex, and if so, so what? How would (re)conceptualising romantic love as complex extend our knowledge and understanding of complex systems?
I want to contribute to this themed issue of M/C Journal on complex by approaching romantic love as a point of departure, as an analytical methodology. I maintain that a critical study of romantic love—one that begins rather than concludes with romantic love’s complexity—helps illustrate the productive nature of complex and the utility of employing complex as a conceptual/theoretical point of origin and inquiry.
Crucially, my formulation configures complex as a productive process that is itself a product. In other words, complex can be usefully defined as an effect that produces other effects—including potentially subversive ones. While other definitions are certainly valid, conceiving complex as an outcome that generates further outcomes not only emphasises the dynamic, multifaceted nature of systems but also helps to explain that multifaceted dynamism. Romantic love illustrates well this conception of complex (as productive product) because romantic love only has meaning, only works, because it is complex to begin with. In this manner, romantic love is a process of creating complexity from complexity.
An examination that begins from a point of complexity gains much, I feel, by beginning with a historicisation of that complexity, for complex, as outcome/effect, is always already contextualised, situated, and diachronic. Historicising romantic love is particularly crucial because the idealist model tends to dismiss the past (what matters the past once one has finally met the love of one’s life?) and confuse history—especially its own—with nature (as with the supposedly natural passivity of the feminine).
According to Singer, the idealist tradition, first codified by Plato, was taken up by medieval theologians who, drawn by the tradition’s ideal of merging, sought to produce a mystical oneness with the divine (Courtly 23). Emphasis eventually moved from merging to the experience of merging, a move that facilitated the rise of courtly love. Transmuting religious reverence into human devotion, courtly love introduced such revolutionary and potentially heretical notions as the belief that “love is an intense, passionate relationship that establishes a holy oneness between man and woman” (23). The desire for oneness appears even more prominently in the Romanticism of the 19th century (288). Importantly, erotic love becomes for the first time conjoined with romantic love in a causal rather than antithetical or consequential relation: “To the Romantic, sexual desire is usually more than just a vehicle or concomitant of love; it is a prerequisite” (Modern 10).
Little wonder, given such a trajectory, that romantic love today has virtually no meaning independent of sexual love (though sexual desire may or may not be linked to romantic love). Little wonder as well that romantic love is so complex. But there’s more. As Stephanie Coontz explains, marriage in the West was until only about two centuries ago a political and economic institution having little or nothing to do with romantic love (33). Anthony Giddens also points out the relatively recent shift from an economic to a romantic basis for marriage (26). Giddens associates this shift with the emergence of what he terms “plastic sexuality”: “decentered sexuality, freed from the needs of reproduction” (2). Plastic sexuality resulted from a combination of factors, most notably societal trends toward limiting family size coupled with advances in contraceptive and reproductive technologies (27). Allowing for greater freedom and pleasure (especially for women), plastic sexuality is for Giddens linked not only to romantic love but also, intrinsically, to self-identity (2, 40).
This connection—along with the plastic sexuality that undergirds it—creates narratives of self (and other) that can project “a course of future development” (45), lead to greater reflexivity for the body and the self (31), and transform intimacy in ways potentially subversive and emancipative (3, 194).
In any case, our (inter)personal existence is currently undergoing active transfiguration, Giddens asserts, to the point that “personal life has become an open project, creating new demands and anxieties” (8). My reading of Giddens places this continuous, reflexive project of self (what one might alternatively term the ongoing production of selves-in-process) against the plastic sexuality and pure relationships that engendered the project. Only a view of romantic love as productive, evolving, and full—in other words, complex—can account for the complex transformations of intimacy and self described by Giddens.
Viewed more broadly, romantic love corresponds—in both the analogous and communicative meanings of the term—to/with the very poststructural/postmodern subject it helps to enact. Tamsin Lorraine’s lucid articulation of embodied subjectivity is worth quoting at length in this context:
I assume that the selves we experience as our own are the product of a historically conditioned process involving both corporeal and psychic aspects of existence, that this process needs to be instituted and continually reiterated in a social context in order to give birth to and maintain the subject at the corporeal level of embodiment as well as the psychic level of self, and that language and social positioning within a larger social field play a crucial role in this process. In taking up a position in the social field as a speaker of language, a human being takes up a perspective from which to develop a narrative of self. (ix-x)
Others have theorised identity as a narrative construct (Holstein and Gubrium; Rosenwald and Ochberg). What is significant here in reading Lorraine’s embodied subjectivity through the interpretative lens provided by Giddens is the particular kind of narrative suggested by such a reading. After all, not just any narrative will do. The “perspective” taken up by the reflexive subject (as described by Giddens) in the process of constructing a storied self necessarily requires a productive integration of the many “aspects of existence.” Otherwise, no such “position” could be taken, no agency established; the particular self would not even be. As such, the perspective is a product of complexity even as it attempts to compose its own complex product (a narrative identity).
Additionally, romantic love conceived as complex, as a productive force, opens up possibilities for new stories and new selves, even when, as in Lacanian theory, desire is correlated with lack. Lacan maintains that “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference which results from the subtraction of the first from the second—the very phenomenon of their splitting” (287). Lack presented thusly is positive inasmuch as lack causes desire, which in turn produces the subject as a subjectivity. “Without lack,” Bruce Fink asserts, “the subject can never come into being, and the whole efflorescence of the dialectic of desire is squashed” (103). For clarification, Fink provides a simple illustration: “Why would a child even bother to learn to speak if all its needs were anticipated?” (103). Desire here is correlated with lack in a manner that suggests movement and change, bringing to mind Anne Carson’s famous quip, “Desire moves. Eros is a verb” (17). Keeping in mind that romantic love has become inextricably entwined with sexual desire in the West, designs that interrogate desire vis-à-vis lack (a strategy that also characterises the approaches taken by Hegel and Sartre) operate equally well in regards to self-identities formed via romantic love.
Certainly, then, if desire constituted as lack can produce complexity by remaining unsatisfied and unfilled, what then of an approach that configures desire itself as production? Such a theoretical grounding is central to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. For them, “everything is production” (Anti-Oedipus 4). In this view, life, the self, and even the body are not unified things but rather processes characterised by flow and multiplicity. Deleuze and Guattari emphasise the dynamic process of various sorts of “becoming” (Thousand 279). Becoming, in relation to romantic love and to other processes, involves not just individuals but assemblages. In this, Deleuze and Guattari present a collaborative conception of self involving the multiplicity of the two selves as well as the multiplicity “formed through the collaboration” (Lorraine 134). As Deleuze and Guattari explain, multiplicity “is continually transforming itself into a string of other multiplicities” (Thousand 249). To my mind, this “string” of multiplicities directly parallels the complex.
Luce Irigaray’s project similarly views subjectivity as embodied, potentially collaborative, and creative. Specifically, however, Irigaray seeks to challenge the masculine specular subjectivity that fosters divisive dualisms and a sexual division of labour that privileges the masculine. She critiques the subject-object distinction that has always defined female sexuality “on the basis of masculine parameters” (This 204) and relegated the feminine to the role of other to the masculine subject. One of the more interesting aspects of Irigaray’s enterprise is her project of symbolic transformation, an attempt to symbolise an alternative feminine subjectivity: “Irigaray insists that we need to acknowledge two genders and work on providing the hitherto impoverished gender the symbolic support it needs to become more than the counterpart of masculinity. If the feminine were given the support of a gender in its own right, then feminine subjectivity could finally emerge” (Lorraine 91). What Irigaray advocates is a dialectical interaction between subjects that embraces both difference and corporeality, that is temporal, playful, reciprocal, and mutually nourishing (I Love 148).
Elizabeth Grosz’s refiguring of desire somewhat echoes Irigaray’s stance. Drawing upon Deleuze and Guattarai, Grosz also conceptualises desire as productive and full. She insists that in order to understand this expanded conception of desire we must first “abandon our habitual understanding of entities as the integrated totality of parts, and instead focus on the elements, the parts, outside their integration or organisation; we must look beyond the organism to the organs comprising it” (78). Totalities remain and must be recognised, but an understanding of the dynamics of those totalities is better accomplished through an investigation of the parts rather the whole. In her privileging of parts I see reflections of Irigaray’s respect for difference and dialectical creation.
Indeed, one can easily see themes of fluidity and multiplicity running through the work of the theorists we have examined. This thematic/analytical consistency, I would argue, is at least partially explained by their active engagement in the complexity of romantic love. How not to theorise subjectivities formed via narratives of romantic love in a manner that resists dualisms when romantic love itself overflows with multiplicities? This is not, of course, to downplay the role of other factors, contingencies, and motivations. Still, that some feminists are critical of certain aspects of Foucauldian theory (his failure to adequately account for unequal power relations; his seeming denial that one group or class may dominate another) strikes me as directly related to issues located (if not exclusively) within the contemporary concept of romantic love (see Hartsock; Ramazanoğlu; Sedgwick). That such is the case is, for me, no surprise.
Ultimately, in spite of its long history of repression and inequity, romantic love’s ever-increasing complexity points to possible future transformations (as Giddens details). My optimism stems from the fact that romantic love’s productive force can potentially open up whole new ranges of (complex) possibilities. In the theories of Giddens, Deleuze, Irigaray, Grosz, and numerous others, we witness some of these emerging possibilities.
Framing complex as an outcome that produces other complex outcomes allows me to envision the possibility of even more possibilities—something akin to Irigaray’s “expanding universe” (This 209). In the final (for now) analysis, let us follow Grosz’s lead and privilege parts over the whole. Viewed from this perspective, a given system cannot be considered as a complex thing, as though it were an isolated singularity. Focusing on the specific, the particular, and the concrete serves to highlight the contingencies, fragments, flows, shifts, multiplicities, instabilities, and relations that constitute and produce the complex. In saying this, I am not simply asserting a tautology: the complex is complex. Because the components of something complex interact in ways both provisional and productive, the complex must inevitably produce new components, parts that constitute and change the system, as well as other parts that eventually form and/or alter other complex systems. Put another way, the individual parts of a complex are themselves complex. Consequently, a deeper understanding can be gained by stepping back and re-visioning the parts-to-the-whole paradigm as complex
Romantic love, I believe, is such an example, and an especially ubiquitous and influential one at that. Only by beginning with an understanding of love as complex can we adequately explain how it operates and produces the kinds of effects that it does. Nothing simple could produce such profoundly complex effects as identities, discourses, and material objects. Something simple may very well produce simple outcomes that eventually conjoin into something complex, a whole composed of many individual parts. But only something already complex (i.e., an existing outcome of outcomes) can produce complex outcomes instantly and automatically as a matter of course in an intricate unfolding of relationships that, like love, circulate, bond, motivate, and potentially transform.