Illouz is an eminent Israeli sociologist who has filled half a shelf with volumes about how popular culture, social media, psychotherapy, and, not least, consumer capitalism influence modern forms of love, and modern subjectivity in general. In her first book, Consuming the Romantic Utopia (1997), one of my all-time favorite works of contemporary sociology because of its ambitious breadth, analytic insight, depth of scholarship, and expository clarity, Illouz argued that love is not only shaped by one’s class background but also serves as a cornerstone of modern Western economies. In that book, Illouz’s outlook was basically positive: love was an emotion that couples could revel in and, at least for the middle class, was supported by an economy of gift exchange and leisure activities. By contrast, her new book shifts focus and tone, with her views becoming much darker and riddled with moral ambiguity, if not outright contradiction.
Illouz cleaves to a well-worn declension narrative in The End of Love: Desire, during the 19th century and most of the 20th century, was channeled into norms, scripts, and symbols authorized by religion and elite society. These were, to be sure, patriarchal, but they nevertheless pointed young people in the direction of courtship practices and choices that led to marriage and family, not to mention national solidarity. Today, however, consumer capitalism, with its pervasive fetishization of the market, has led people to think of themselves as goods, commodities that inevitably become less profitable over time and must be replaced by new ones. Worse, sexual desire has come to be defined in terms of what Illouz calls a “scopic regime of action”: the fashion-cosmetics complex, the mass media, and, not least, pornography have turned desire into a visual performance. Exploited for profit, the display of eroticized bodies, particularly women’s bodies, has become a commonplace, in advertising and the workplace, and sexual desire has become an essential unit of the economy.
According to Illouz, the consumer economy has penetrated “the innermost crannies of subjectivity”; as a result, the private sphere has been distorted by an ideology of “radical personal freedom.” The result is what she calls “negative [social] relations,” which have replaced mature, companionate forms of love. Illouz draws examples of such “unloving” from literature and the mass media, but the bulk of her data comes from interviews she conducted with almost 100 subjects. These individuals were young and old, male and female, but predominantly heterosexual and staunchly middle class, from Europe, Israel, and the United States, and reading their stories stirs up the guilty pleasure of browsing magazines in a dentist’s office waiting room.
While consumer capitalism is largely to blame for the current situation, the real villain of The End of Love is sexual freedom, with its valuation of mutual “hedonic rights,” which separate emotion from marriage and intimacy. Sexual freedom killed the social rituals of courtship — calculations of eligibility, proper etiquette, and expectations of emotional transparency — and replaced them with the notion of “consent” given by a “true self” who knows her or his real desires and interests. In the broader capitalist context, consent is embedded in a metaphor of contractual relations, with lovers voluntarily entering into casual sex with the goal of accumulating pleasure while maintaining autonomy by insisting on no ongoing commitments. But such a contract metaphor, Illouz asserts, often fails to produce mutual consensus since lovers may have different goals and differing understandings of consent. In other words, while sexuality may be contractualized, emotions remain uncertain.
Although casual sex, facilitated by Tinder and other dating apps, is supposed to be based in egalitarian principles, the emotional detachment it promotes can be damaging, especially for women. Illouz stresses this point: men want sex with interchangeable partners while women seek personal recognition, the rejection of which devalues them and challenges their self-esteem. Moreover, the widespread practice of sexting tends to fragment the body, reducing it to specific body parts, and thus enhances the compartmentalization of identity. The body’s value becomes a market commodity in a way that, once again, devalues women in particular, because their bodies have a shorter “shelf life” than men’s. Men look at women’s bodies while ignoring the person, while women look at men more holistically. The masculine self uses the feminine other, just as modernity uses nature, as a “standing reserve” (a term Illouz borrows from Martin Heidegger).
In the past, legend has it, people began to have sex only after they had fallen in love. In earlier forms of dating, as Illouz argued in Consuming the Romantic Utopia, the tenor, accent, word choice, and topic of conversation attracted people who were unconsciously seeking to match their class backgrounds. Today, by contrast, the social evaluation of speech has been replaced, in internet communication, by instant binary appraisals of others, as either sexually attractive or not. At the same time, dating apps promote a fantasy of sexual abundance: the notion that someone new is always out there, ready and willing. The internet has facilitated the quick exit because it has made dating into shopping; breakups convert people into “outdated” goods; and the “rapid turnover of partners entails a capacity and desire to do short-term investments.”
Divorces, being more protracted, differ from breakups, requiring reasons and the mediation of social institutions. Divorces tend to be acrimonious, while breakups need not be. But divorce and breakups are affected by the same deterioration of norms that the valuation of emotional autonomy inspires. Today, when discussing their divorces, people tend to say they feel unloved, have lost or been subject to the loss of desire, or have grown apart. Women especially complain that men do not love them enough. Less likely to remarry, they nonetheless are more likely than men to instigate divorce proceedings, even though they want emotional commitment more than men do.
The landscape of contemporary love being what it is, Illouz condemns sexual freedom as “glib.” The pervasive atmosphere of uncommitment, instability, and betrayal contributes to the sexual exploitation of women. And, for people who are excluded from sexual access, it creates humiliation. Love requires norms and conventions, Illouz concludes. But then, in an odd move, she turns against her own call for a revival of a more formal kind of love. She denies opposing casual sexuality, denies that her book is championing a right-wing “return to family values, to community, or to a reduction of freedom.” And thus her book, which is nothing if not an absorbing and perceptive sociological account of love, or at least of one important contemporary dimension of it, ends in contradiction, leaving one to wonder why Illouz disowns what she so plainly advocates. In any event, this peculiar conclusion does not entirely invalidate the larger argument of The End of Love or seriously detract from the book’s many virtues.
David Lipset is professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.