Love: A Sketch. Niklas Luhmann. Polity, 2010.
In 1969, a German sociologist named Niklas Luhmann delivered a lecture at Bielefeld University in the year of its founding. He objective was to examine the social functions of love. The typescript was eventually found among Luhmann’s effects after he passed away in 1998 and was published in Germany in 2008. Kathleen Cross translated it into English for the Polity Press soon thereafter.
Many years later, Luhmann developed his thoughts more fully about social systems generally, in large and ponderous volumes (see e.g. Luhmann, Social Systems, 1996, at 486 pages). In these earlier lectures on love, however, one gets to witness the unfolding of that larger project, as it was being applied to a more specific phenomenon (love), in a style that proves to be more accessible. Elsewhere, Luhmann admitted that a subsequent treatment of love titled Love as Passion made a “highly demanding theoretical argument (1982/1986, preface).” In other words, in these earliest lectures Luhmann had avoided rendering both the subject matter too vast and the language too technical.
The professor made it clear at the outset of his talks that he was not addressing love as a psychological phenomenon, i.e. as a feeling or a choice. Instead, love is one among many solutions to a set of problems facing any society (2008/2010, p. 2). How then did he characterize that set of problems? It begins with the following observation about the human condition.
The general life situation of the human being is characterized by an excessively complex and contingent world. The world is complex insofar as it presents more possibilities of experience and action than can ever actually be realized. It is contingent insofar as these possibilities become apparent as something that could be or could become different (2008/2010, p. 4).
Individuals confronted with these conditions must somehow cope with the overwhelming range of possibilities. This means we desire a degree of stability. Our lives together depend on such stability.
Any stability that might obtain must reckon with the organic realities of being alive. One must do something about the bodily drives that depend desperately on an uncertain world for satisfaction. The organism is repeatedly hungry and uncomfortable and tired. It is also commandeered by sexual passions that do not always find an outlet. These organic vicissitudes introduce an element of instability. Luhmann stated bluntly that Eros is unstable and potentially destructive of society (2008/2010, p. 24). It might appear that he was about to make the unremarkable claim that marriage is one way to provide humans with an outlet for their sexual urges, and although he probably would have agreed with such a crude observation, his argument is more elaborate and sophisticated.
Stability of the social system requires a sense or feeling of solidarity among the participants. Members must express that solidarity (2008/2010, p. 22). Stability has become increasingly difficult in times of easy mobility and free choice. Stability depends on a durable social system that instead now appears to be whirling apart. Zygmunt Bauman would later describe this predicament as “Liquid Times” (2007). Whatever is constructed among people by choice in a given place and time can be undone readily. (One sees this for instance when families new to a community “shop” for a congregation to attend, auditioning worship services each week for some kind of compatibility and quitting membership later for superficial reasons.) Many popular books are attempting to address what Sarah Hampson refers to as individualistic and consumerist models of marriage (2012).
Marriage had been one way to build a relationship, a unit of solidarity (2008/2010, p. 24). As we know, however, modernity threatens this venerable institution, such that now many marriages end in divorce — to the extent couples bother to get married at all. (This is not to overlook the many who were not legally permitted to marry.) At its height, marriage had never guaranteed stability, given the incidence of abuse and infidelity (to name two examples), and it was an institution not available to everyone. In other words, it did have an important, yet limited role to play in stabilizing society. Over time, of course, the social system has to adapt to changing circumstances, yet love as the basis of marriage has been a remarkably durable solution that appears to have run its course. This at least is one hypothesis.
Luhmann is careful to note that by love, he does not mean some vague altruism or fellow feeling in which we are to love humankind, including our enemies as ourselves. Instead, he means the love of a finite person (e.g. spouse) or a finite group of persons (e.g. family) (2008/2010, p. 24). To the extent love builds durable relationships with discrete people, it constitutes society itself (2008/2010, p. 23). The exquisite cultural combination of love, marriage, and sex made this stabilizing institution a matter of free choice that entailed self-restraint — and most especially, sexual fidelity (2008/2010, p. 30). “I marry you because I love you, and I have sex with you because we are married.” Love, marriage, and sex became mutually reinforcing. By this means, the couple maintained the boundaries of their little system (1996, p. 17). It was, if anything, an aspiration that served a collective function, even if it didn’t always succeed.
As Luhmann wrote, anything based on free choice will be unstable, because tomorrow I may choose some other arrangement. The role of love, in part, was to introduce the notion that one is compelled to belong to another, as though it were fate or destiny, as in “finding one’s soul mate” and so forth. This cultural artifact of love’s imperative erases the conscious freedom of choosing one’s partner. “It had to be you, it had to be you/ I wandered around, and finally found – the somebody who… (Jones & Kahn, 1924).” To this supposed imperative, we relent happily (Hillman, 1996, pp. 140147). And in a highly mobile and increasingly egalitarian society, the opportunities to find such a partner actually increased. Every yearning teenager could hope and hoping, look around.
Then, once the couple resolves to be married, they invite the larger community to witness their vows and celebrate their good fortune. In this way, they express their solidarity with the encompassing social system and affirm their place in it. By way of contrast, marriages conducted at the courthouse or in Las Vegas – or those marriages that serve as a remote destination for some vacation cruise– consciously detach the ceremony from community, excepting a few witnesses with the time and the means and the loyalty to join them at the beach.
On the one hand, therefore, the lovers feel impelled and bind themselves formally, yet the institution to which they bind themselves encourages considerable freedom for them as a unit. By surrendering a degree of autonomy as individuals, they obtain considerable autonomy as a couple. Marriage was supposed to come with certain advantages. The spouses continuously recalibrate themselves, of course, adjusting and growing alongside one another. “All marriages are opaque,” writes Hampson (2012). The couple creates a little cosmion, to borrow a term, sharing experiences only with each other yet removed from public view, in a private domain they construct collaboratively (Luhmann, 2008/2010, pp. 9 & 40).
With the gradual diminution in erotic insistence, as the partners grow older, the hope was that the couple will have developed into companions with parallel activities and common interests that prove to be more enduring than lust (2008/2010, p. 41). That is, they find things to do together when they are not having sex, and that gives them a chance at temporal stability (2008/2010, p. 44). In this way, lovers build an independent unit, fairly adaptable to their individual needs and wants, while domesticating their passions and ideally outlasting them (2008/2010, pp. 46 & 52). Society in turn can entrust many responsibilities to these relationships, so that the marriage and family arrogates to itself many tasks that somebody would have had to undertake anyway – tasks such as simple health care (2008/2010, p. 64). Today, we might see the rise in home schooling the same way. As a result, “the whole system [i.e. society] uses itself as environment in forming its own subsystems [e.g. marriage] (1996, p. 7).”
Marriage based on love is hardly foolproof. Luhmann acknowledged that the institution, to the extent it still survives, has its limits. Beyond that, he found the whole culture of beauty as a basis for choosing one’s mate troubling, from a sociological point of view. In a memorable phrase, he referred to the cult of beauty as “a syndrome of imagination… (2008/2010, p. 67).”
Writing for Toronto’s online Globe and Mail, Hampson put this concern in the mouth of one of popular culture’s foremost arbiters on matters of love and sex, i.e. Helen Gurley Brown: “‘Forget the charmer,’ she advised, wagging a finely manicured finger. ‘Go for the man who is your best friend’ (2012).” Beauty (like charm) has not always been the most propitious standard by which to select a mate, yet the culture has repeatedly celebrated an ideal in story and song.
In addition to the cult of beauty, which distorts the search for a stable partner, since beauty unreliably correlates with character and proverbially fades, Luhmann was also aware that as a practical matter not everyone finds love. This is a societal problem (2008/2010, p. 68). It might even be the most sobering insight from his entire book. We find this inability to find love acutely in sectors of India, for example, where the preference among parents for male offspring has led to a disproportion of young men. There are simply not enough marriageable young women to go around (Girish, 2005). Something in reverse has been happening in American universities, as female students increasingly outnumber males (Francis, 2007). In either case, without the opportunity for falling in love, society loses the not inconsiderable benefits of love-based marriage.
Whatever social arrangements we adopt going forward, Eros will continue to be a disturbing reality of guaranteed intensity. To the extent a culture discourages self-help, as ours does in matters of force and truth and economics (Luhmann, 2008/2010, p. 39), people will seek each other out for mutual gratification. And to the extent a culture promises freedom to seek beauty in the fulfillment of more than lust, society will find itself awash in frustration and alternative methods of gratification – not just of sexual desire, but also simple individual affirmation and companionship and mutual care.
Small wonder, therefore, that many young men who have not yet felt the economic need to “settle down” devote hours and hours to virtual exploits in porn-riddled games of instant gratification, in a seemingly consequence-free fraternity named by sociologist Michael Kimmel as Guyland (2008). They gratify incompletely and without building much toward a stable society, but we have to ask ourselves whether the traditional model is realistic any more.
If society is going to establish a degree of stability by means of free choice, what is the alternative to love and marriage? In what other way will individuals construct these little cosmions of mutual care? If in fact we are gradually detaching love and marriage and sex from one another, what will take their place as a building block of society? And where will these three aspects of our lives together migrate into? Is marriage as an institution doomed – becoming more of a legal right for a shrinking percentage of the population than a civic bond? Is sex becoming just another form of recreation, i.e. entertainment and sport? See for example Tom Wolfe’s lurid Hooking Up, which describes this tendency among young people (2001). And is love, the subject matter of Luhmann’s early lectures, vanishing behind a gauze of whimsy, nostalgia, and not a little bitterness?
More than the hopes and dreams of the lovelorn are at stake. Perhaps the very structure of society is being transformed. And in the process, like a crustacean recently shed of its carapace, perhaps society itself will be found vulnerable until we figure this all out.
Bauman Z. (2007). Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty. Polity.
Francis, D. (2007). “Why do women outnumber men in college?” The National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved 15 January 2012, from http://www.nber.org/digest/jan07/w12139.html.
Girish, U. (February 9, 2005). “For India’s daughters, a dark birth day: Infanticide and sex-selective abortion yield a more skewed gender ratio.” The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 15 January 2012 from http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0209/p11s01-wosc.html.
Hampson, S. (2012, Jan. 08). “The secret to a happy marriage? Small acts of kindness.” Monday’s Globe and Mail. Retrieved 15 January 2012 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/news-and-views/sarah-hampson/the-secret-to-a-happy-marriage-small-acts-of-kindness/article2294384/.
Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. Random House.
Jones, I. & Kahn, G. (1924). “It had to be you.” The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Retrieved 15 January 2012 from http://www.ascap.com/ace/search.cfm?requesttimeout=300&mode=results&searchstr=390148562&search_in=i&search_type=exact&search_det=t,s,w,p,b,v&results_pp=10&start=1.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. Harper.
Luhmann, N. (2008/2010). Love: A sketch (K. Cross, trans.). Polity.
Luhmann, N. (1982/1986). Love as passion (J. Gaines & D. Jones, trans.). Harvard University Press.
Luhmann, N. (1996). Social systems (J. Bednarz Jr. & D. Baecker, trans.). Stanford University Press.
Wolfe, T. (2001). Hooking up. Picador.