Talk of Love: How Culture Matters.
What is romantic love? How do people know when they have found it? What cultural tools do they have at hand to shape their romantic expectations and perceptions? These are some of the central questions which sociologist Ann Swidler sets out to answer in Talk of Love: How Culture Matters.
The book is based largely on interviews which Swidler and her research assistants conducted with 88 middle-class Americans in and around San Jose, California in the early 1980s. Swidler combines these first-hand accounts of romance, marriage, and divorce with highly theoretical discussions of how culture operates to shape people's understandings of love.
Talk of Love is based on the idea that individuals use culture as a tool kit or "repertoire," choosing useful elements or strategies when they fit particular needs or circumstances. Culture helps people organize their actions. Rejecting the idea that these actions can be read to uncover a pervasive, coherent, and all-encompassing cultural ethos, Swidler argues instead that men and women rely on different strands of culture as the need arises. Not all parts of culture are consistent with each other; indeed some elements contradict others. Individuals deploy those that are useful at particular moments. Swidler argues that people are most likely to employ their cultural repertoire when they are at points of transition, when their lives are "unsettled."
With this understanding of culture established, Swidler sets to work examining how Americans use various understandings of love to interpret their own situations and beliefs. She examines why the Americans she interviewed continued to invoke a "mythic" or "Hollywood" understanding of love while simultaneously expressing skepticism about such an ideal. Briefly tracing the history of the idea of love, Swidler argues that from at least the eighteenth century on, romantic love has been idealized as "a clear, all-or-nothing choice ... of a unique other ... made in defiance of social forces ... and resolving the individual's destiny." [pp. 113-114] Many of Swidler's interview subjects drew upon this meaning of love and simultaneously used an alternative vision, which Swidler termed the "prosaic-realist" idea of love. "Prosaic-realism" contends that love is not "sudden or certain," but instead may be "ambivalent and confused." Rather than being apparent at first sight, it may develop gradually. The prosaic realist interpretation also maintains that "there is no 'one true love.'" And contrary to the image of romantic love presented by Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet, prosaic realism holds that the love that leads to marriage should not be based on the reckless "defiance of social conventions." [p. 114] Instead, the fewer obstacles there are to love, the better. Finally, prosaic realists acknowledge that love does not always last forever.
To explain how individuals can hold both of these understandings of love simultaneously, Swidler delves into the nature of marriage. Marriage, Swidler points out, is both an institution and a relationship. Because of its dual nature, Americans think about it in both mythic and prosaic ways. When her interview subjects spoke of marriage as an institution, they were more likely to use the language of mythic love. Swidler argues that this is because the institutional structure of marriage matches the myth: "... despite the prevalence of divorce, marriage still has this structure: One is either married or not (however ambivalent the underlying feelings may be); one cannot be married to more than one person at a time; marrying someone is a fateful, sometimes life-transforming choice; and despite divorce, marriages are still meant to last." [117-118] All of these features are congruent with the mythic ideal, with its focus on one true love, life-altering decisions, and permanent alliances. Thus, the structural realities of marriage match the Hollywood notion of love, even if individuals' internal emotional states do not always fit that mold. On the other hand, when Swidler's subjects spoke of marriage as an ongoing relationship rather than as an institution, they resorted to the language of prosaic realism. Prosaic realism--with its recognition of the fragility, mutability, and uncertainty of love, and its emphasis on the need for self-conscious efforts at communication and commitment--helped her subjects understand and function within their relationships on a day-to-day basis.
Swidler digs deeper in her investigation, trying to get at the shared assumptions which underly her subjects' diverse approaches to choosing and remaining with a partner. Whether they held utilitarian beliefs about their relationships or based their love on Christian or therapeutic ideals, common to all was a belief in love as a voluntary choice. The idea of voluntarism--of unfettered individual action--which guides so much of market and social behavior also permeates the culture of love.
Given the strong emphasis on voluntarism, and the equally strong if somewhat contradictory emphasis on the ideal of marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable commitment, Swidler's subjects had to work to keep their commitments pleasing to themselves, so that they would remain authentically voluntary choices. This is why the language and culture of prosaic realism have grown and flourished. Without strong communal sanctions keeping marriages together, it is up to individuals to strengthen their relationships. The couples Swidler interviewed often turned to "Marriage Encounter" groups, Leo Buscaglia books, and the like, all of which espouse a prosaic realist view of love. Swidler argues that the great (if prosaic) efforts her subjects often made to stay married had replaced the epic struggle to get married which the mythic vision of love traditionally celebrated.
Swidler's discussion of love and marriage is central to the book, but is not her only topic. She also devotes considerable energy and space to an exploration of competing theories of culture. Some of this is quite useful, particularly her early chapters on culture as repertoire and her descriptions of when and why people rely most on the tools of culture. At times, however, the highly theoretical and dense discussions of cultural codes, cultural logic, and institutions, seem a bit ungrounded, disconnected from any one particular historical context. From disparate examples--the English Civil War, the French Revolution, cultural practices of Morocco--she draws a number of broad and ahistorical conclusions about how culture works. These may prove more useful to her main audience of sociologists than they will to historians. Of greatest interest to all her readers will be the book's intriguing discussions of love.
Susan J. Matt
Weber State University
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|Author:||Matt, Susan J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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