Thursday, March 23, 2017

Of Carpenter's Squares, Property, and Love in the Time of the Great Derangement[1]

 For your entertainment (and edification) this month, we've been asked to weigh in on the institution of the modern family: what might this curious phenomenon look like? What do we understand by 'normal' in the 21st century? 

Before attempting to think-write my way through the first part of this editorial prompt, I have to deconstruct the second part of it, because what is 'normal' anyway?

Semiotics demonstrates, convincingly to my mind, that there is no such thing as absolute meaning; all meaning is contextual, and endlessly deferred besides (every word you read alters your understanding of what preceded it). What therefore, I ask in a second rhetorical flourish, is 'normal'? A dictionary definition might suggest that it means conforming to a standard; encountering only the expected. If you trace its etymology, you'll see that it was derived from the Latin for 'norma', a carpenter's square, in the 17th century. I like this. A carpenter's square; a measure of sorts, to establish right angles. Nothing uncommon, untoward or acute about 'normal' then.

However, I put to you that 'normal' is a relative measure, not an absolute one - more a band, really - and it is an entirely contextual construct, prone to change. Slavery was once 'normal' lest we forget, as was the idea that the earth was squarely (hah) the centre of the known universe; burning women at the stake for practicing 'witchcraft' and infant-marriage have been the norm too. Change has almost always come from a challenging of the normative, not compliance with it.

With that out of the way, I can now focus my attention on the other part of the editorial prompt: who or what is/makes a modern family? Setting aside the 'modern' for a moment, let's decode 'family' first: families are the building blocks (the kind delineated with a carpenter's square so that they're just 'right')  societies are made of. The historian in me cringes at playing so fast and loose with 'broad-stroke' tellings, but it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to trace back the institution we call 'family' to the beginnings of settled communities practicing agriculture, and the concept of 'ownership' which seems to have come with this development. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engles holds that the monogamous family "is founded on male supremacy for the pronounced purpose of breeding children of indisputable paternal lineage...(which) is required, because these children shall later on inherit the fortune of their father. The monogamous family is distinguished from the pairing family by the far greater durability of wedlock, which can no longer be dissolved at the pleasure of either party. As a rule, it is only the man who can still dissolve it and cast off his wife," (1908, 76). For this society to perpetuate itself, heterosexual monogamous coupling has to be the norm. And this is almost certainly one of the most important reasons why any sort of challenge to this creed - whether from the women's movement or from the LGBTQIA space - has been rabidly lampooned and dismissed. Here: have a neat little 'vintage'  poster that ties in misogyny, homophobia and general all-round bigotry in equal parts. Never say I give you nothing.


Not to sound like too much of a wet blanket, but to me, the modern family looks a whole lot like its predecessor, the one rooted in power relations which place the patriarch squarely at the heart of its structure, with this structure itself serving as just another brick in the wall that capitalism and consumer culture have together built around us all. But what of the gains made by the LGBTQIA movement you ask? The legalisation of same sex marriage in America (and a host of other countries) or the recognition of same sex civil unions elsewhere? Sure, this is a victory that cannot - should not - be understated. However, it comes at a time when fewer people are getting married at all (and divorce rates are higher among the people who do)[2], suggesting to my mind, a last-ditch effort to raise flagging numbers for a system of societal organisation which is finding less takers than it ever has within its historically traditional demographic (read: heterosexual couples).

What bearing marriage has - and will continue to have - on the societal building block we call the family, only time will tell. In the meantime, more power to them each and all, who seek to design the size, shape and origin story for their choices and couplings; for their ability to create communities premised on love, understanding, compassion and the possibility of happiness in a world intent on destroying itself whole. Family, to me, is what you make. Family, to me, is what you choose to be a part of. So much more powerful than the double-bind of blood (birth) and ownership (right), no?     


[1] See last month's post on climate change for more on what Amitav Ghosh calls the 'Great Derangement'.
[2] See the 2016 OECD report on Marriage and Divorce Rates for more details:

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