Marriage and family, inasmuch as they form a social economy, appear to provide an alternative site for social reproduction. If sex in late capitalism is "sex without ends," the meaning of sex is constantly negotiated. Often, sexual encounters are assumed to imply certain ends, by the nature of their context and the signals of a common script. For instance, I can narrow the possible meanings of a sexual interchange if I take an acquaintance home to my bed as a stranger. Sex among friends and companions, on the other hand, will bring a host of ambiguities that will need to be explicitly negotiated. Marriage and family, insofar as they imply binding commitments, seem to present an entirely different (non-negotiable) set of sexual practices. Within the dominant cultural code, they are means to constrict the "natural" reproduction of desire and the free self-determination of the sexual self. From a common theological angle, settling into commitments and setting up a home are conceived as alternatives to the dominant reproduction of desire.
When discussing love and the ideology of reproduction, Niklas Luhmann notes that "the increasing differentiation of the economy on the one hand as the sector of production, and the family on the other . . . led to the family being relieved of having to fulfill any role over and above its immediate concerns" (Luhmann 1986: 145). In other words, family replaces the ancient and medieval household. Affective kinship replaces the household as an economy and as a medium of social duty and political rule (Shorter 1975). In effect, the purpose of family, within the modern economy, is to reproduce itself through emotional ties. Family will continue to convey social and economic benefit, but these forms of distribution are instruments of family's more basic distribution of love (Walzer 1983). Luhmann adds "that, while the stratified order and family systems remained intact, a semantics for love developed to accommodate extra-marital relationships, and was then transferred back into marriage itself" (Luhman 1986: 5-6). Family has become a site for the reproduction of love, but love takes its antecedent or native form from outside family.
The same can be said about sex, particularly as it appears as an expression of love, or as "love-making." Marriage continues to be understood as a basic site for reproducing a sexual relationship, but it is invested with an extra-marital code of desire. Within the dominant reproduction of desire, binding relationships, partnerships, and marriage are understood to be individualist, pre-social contracts, that are, nevertheless, clothed in social dress - like splendid church-weddings, morning coats, and flowing white gowns. Social trappings amount to a matter of style, and the value of sex will be judged in the usual terms - whether or not the sexual relationship generates desire, whether or not the natural sexual self is enlivened. To be justified, binding sexual relationships must mediate an antecedent sexuality that originates and flourishes outside of family. Marriage must reproduce native desire.
These questions of social mediation present the key problematic for recent developments in the theology of conjugal union and sex. The character of family as a mediating institution is consistent with traditional conceptions of the household, whether in the household codes of the New Testament, the role of the Roman citizen-family, or Catholic social teaching of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In obviously different ways, household is understood to replicate or to convey the social body or the polis. When the household is relieved (in Luhmann's terms) of its political and economic functions, marriage and family begin to be conceived as interpersonal alternatives to basic political institutions and structures of economic exchange (Lasch 1977). Soon marriage becomes the interpersonal foundation of family. By the mid-twentieth century, it is considered a community of two in itself without reference to the social functions of the household or to a larger whole at all. Marriage now mediates the person.
In Dietrich von Hildebrand's groundbreaking book on marriage, conjugal union is assumed to be unique, with no social antecedents (Hildebrand 1984). Spousal love is presented as original, as emerging through the inter-subjectivity of two in order to establish a foundation for a new community. This inter-subjective or personalist interpretation of marriage gives new, romantic meaning to marital companionship. The companions turn their relationship inward. According to Hildebrand, "conjugal love in itself constitutes a completely new kind of love. It involves a unique mutual giving of one's self, which is the outstanding characteristic of this type of love. It is true that in every kind of love one gives oneself in one way or another. But here the giving is literally complete and ultimate. Not only the heart but the entire personality is given up to the other" (Hildebrand 1984: 5). Hildebrand is fond of Martin Buber's language of "I and Thou," but rather than use it to distinguish a personal encounter from the objectifying "I-It," Hildebrand uses the concept as a contrast to "We." If friendship, traditionally defined, is walking "side by side, hand in hand," marriage is gazing "face to face," an I-Thou. If friendship is oriented to common social goods and the good, the marriage partnership is unique because, unlike typical partnerships that are based in common work or an outward vocation, the marital union is self-directed. It is an exclusive inter-subjectivity of two. Conjugal love "tends to ... a community where two persons constitute a closed union ... a relationship in which the regard of each one of the two parties is turned exclusively upon the other" (Hildebrand 1984: 5-6).
This inter-subjective account of conjugal love is romantic in its refusal to define partnership in terms of the virtues or character of the beloved. Love is conceived as a formal interchange of subjectivity without reference to whether or not a good partner is needed for a good partnership. Without reference to the selves that are given and received, Hildebrand's personalism romantically appeals to the formal qualities of "total" self-giving. The marriage would have to be so heroic as to carry the weight of a total self, or the self would have to be shallow and one dimensional, so that it could be completely unveiled in a single relationship. Otherwise, total self-giving is merely a hyperbolic way of saying "we do all that we can." In any case, Hildebrand's understanding of nuptial union resonates more with private moments of passion than washing the dishes, dinner with the in-laws, cooperating with neighbors, and managing a home. His account is romantic in its apparent otherness from the everyday world.
Hildebrand's conception of companionship is otherworldly. His view of conjugal love is not invested with erotic passion, but he does sustain a romantic ideal of the transparent private self, where "he is different with me than he is with any one else" or "we get connected only when we have time alone." The unique face-to-face love of Hildebrand's I-Thou has no clear connection to the side-by-side nature of quotidian endeavors. His story of love implies a typical trial of modern romance. Although we have cultivated our I-Thou throughout our courtship, through gazing into each other's eyes under a moonlit sky, we may not be able to sustain the side by side of sharing a household, working for each other's good, and sustaining the goods of common life with friends and neighbors. Great lovers do not necessarily make for good housekeeping. In the dominant mode of desire, it is likely that our focus outward (beyond the face to face) will be experienced as a dissipation of the intersubjective love we once shared. Love and passion die once partners settle in at home.
Sex, as well, is oriented inwardly. Recent personalists consider inter-subjective union as the primary end of conjugal intercourse. Although Hildebrand considers love and communion to be the meaning of sexual intercourse, he continues to speak of procreation as an intrinsic end of marriage. His account of marriage, it could be argued, is made more consistent when sexual acts are freed from procreation, which is best conceived as an extrinsic end rather than one internal to sexual intercourse. Arguing for the procreative character of sex, as it is understood from the personalist view, depends upon archaic notions of human sexuality and is sustained by retrograde fronts within Roman Catholicism. As the personalist argument goes, we ought to speak of marriage, rather than sex, as procreative and open to procreation. Sexual acts are understood to establish and sustain a sexual relationship as the key expression of nuptial unity. Families raise children, while sex cultivates intimacy and is a basic sign of total self-giving.
When all is said and done, holding to the primacy of nuptial unity is considered, by liberal and conservative proponents alike, to be a counter-cultural position. The dominant cultural code of desire sets good sex apart from marriage. Good sex is judged in a variety of ways, according to standards of passion, emotional investment, personal happiness, novelty, technique, and frequency. Each of these criteria may exist in or outside of marriage. In contrast, personalists argue that sex is intrinsically unifying, and that true sexual relationships integrate physical aspects of sexuality with the "whole person." Their arguments give more credibility to lifelong commitments insofar as the "whole person" and his or her "integration" are matters of a lifetime, but the necessity of sexual-unity-as-marriage is hardly secure.
This theological personalism attempts to outrun (that is, out-subjectify) extra-marital sex on its own terms. If modern sex is an inter-subjective affair, modern personalists try to narrow the sexual context, by giving sexual subjectivity profound meaning and by arguing that marriage is the only context able to sustain it. Heterosexual intercourse is understood, in line with Hildebrand, as a total unity, integrating physical and psychological aspects of the person. Sex, then, becomes a basic sign of our humanity, created in the image of God as male and female. It is conceived as a sacrament of human community as such, a unique but still paradigmatic two-in-one flesh. Eros is celebrated as a natural (pre-social) drive to communion that transforms an otherwise isolated self. Sex is considered a foundational experience, basic to the true and social self.
Consider an example from a prominent writer (and Catholic-cultural icon) in the United States of America. Andrew Greeley, in cooperation with his sister, Mary Greeley Durkin, provides a good inter-subjective description of falling victim to love. While developing the idea that sex is a sacramental experience, Greeley and Durkin hold that falling in love is a humanizing encounter. "We feel a call to move beyond ourselves. Our beloved becomes the focus of our attention. Our self-complacency is shattered. Our independence is threatened. Yet we make no effort to resist the attraction" (Greeley and Durkin 1984: 115; see also Durkin 1983). Such passion moves us beyond reason, beyond our principles of autonomy, and beyond our need for security. Sexual desire moves two to become one flesh. "We delight in the discovery of this other person and experience a desire to be with her or him for the rest of our lives." With this natural movement, sex and our sexual relationship become sacramental. "Though we might not even be aware of it, when we fall in love we are involved in a deeply religious experience. Falling in love reveals for us the exciting possibilities in human existence. We are like Adam and Eve when they discover each other in the garden and are called to be the image (revelation) of God in Creation" (Greeley and Durkin 1984: 115).
While they focus on eros, Greeley and Durkin include personalist elements common to those who conceive of conjugal love in less passionate terms of companionship. Before Greeley and Durkin's lovers meet, they are self-complacent and independent, but love enters as an irresistible force that creates a community of two. Built into this narrative of love is a story of the "normal" or impersonal self. This self, pre-passion, is impersonal inasmuch as he or she is constrained by things as they are, by dominant forces of our impersonal world. Greeley and Durkin assume that self-contentment (complacent satisfaction) must be overturned by passion, by a force that comes from outside of our everyday world. The sexual self is the true social self, enlivened and made transparent in private moments of desire. Likewise, sexual desire must reproduce itself in order to sustain the sexual self. Although desire has the end of "self-giving," the self is a formal category with no identifiable content except its indomitable desire. Greeley and Durkin offer no account of how passion and their binary conception of the social self are, themselves, reproduced within an economy of desire. Love is set against the everyday; yet it creates the true social self from within. The personalist account sustains a dominant economy of desire, and insofar as it does, it reproduces the desire of its own undoing.
Was this article helpful?