Friday, August 14, 2009

Will you be my queer agony aunt in return for me being your non-normative research monkey? Do enlightened academics die happier?

It's me again. Regarding the issue of one's friends coupling off…

I was recently dumped by a friend due to the fact that he feels his emotional attachment to me is distracting him from making a proper go of things with his girlfriend. This is annoying, yes? A “proper go of things”?! So normative! Why does he (and most other normal people) want to have an emotional attachment to only one person at a time?

As I look to Buddhist philosophy to elucidate this situation, the following dilemma arises:

The idea that we should love without attachment vs. the idea that humans all want the same thing: to be free of pain.

It seems to me that my friend is attempting to reduce his suffering by trying to create something (a normative couple relationship) that he hopes will bring him happiness. I may have a different idea about what will make me happy, but in situations like this, no one is right or wrong, we are all just going through life doing the best we can to avoid suffering, right? There seems little point in believing that I have some great insight into his “inferior” (attachment-based) way of loving. In a way, I see Buddhism as inspiring an anti-theoretical position. But I am also wondering whether the idea that all humans want essentially the same thing (to be free of pain) can be reconciled with theoretical perspectives on love, which leads me to the following (sociological?) question:

What common ground is there between striving to love in normative and non-normative ways?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hmm I’m not sure I'd make a great queer agony aunt! Nor am I sure I want to be one! I suppose the question I’d ask you is why is it annoying for you that he wants to make a proper go of things with someone else? Which is the same question I keep having to ask myself when certain people I know decide to settle down.

    Although I do like the Buddhist ideas on love I think that the fact it can be seen as 'anti-theoretical' as you describe it, is both its strength and its weakness. If happiness is seen as an unquestionably good thing which we should aspire to then are we left with no ground on which to critique the norms of happiness?

    In many ways I see compulsory monogamy as very similar to, and often entwined with compulsory heterosexuality. So the same reasoning could be used for someone who decided to end a same-sex affair and make a proper go with their heterosexual partner- because heterosexuality is seen as an easier and therefore happier option. There are so many things that tell us that normative intimacy will make us happy, and deviations from this norm will leave us miserable. So here I’m thinking about Sara Ahmed's work on happy objects, where she argues that there is nothing inherently ‘good’ within an object, rather:

    To share such objects (or have a share in such objects) would simply mean you would share an orientation towards those objects as being good. The family for instance might be happy not because it causes happiness, but because of a shared orientation towards the family as being good (Ahmed, 2007)

    I think we can see compulsory monogamy and romantic love in a very similar light. Which sits somewhat uncomfortably with some of the Buddhist philosophy I’ve read. However, I suppose what is lacking in Ahmed’s critique is why some people turn towards these objects and why some people do not. Does it take a certain degree of economic / educational capital to be able to turn away from these happy objects? The issue of privilege is never really addressed in her work. And I think the Buddhist idea that people are just trying to find some sort of happiness and be free from pain is quite useful here. So although deconstructing happiness is vitally important I think it’s equally important not to condemn those who find happiness in normative happy objects. So there’s a fine balancing act between pointing out how the norms of happiness are maintained, yet also trying to understand the very real emotional investments people have in them.

    So the common ground between loving in normative and non-normative ways... i'm not sure i've really answered your question yet but will continue to have a think about it. Does anyone else have any thoughts? Although there may be common ground there can also be conflict. What if one person's happiness creates misery for another etc?