A Code for Dating (?)

On the continuum of thinking that we are rational, self-controlled beings to acting like instinctual evolutionary creatures, I think we are deluded about thinking we are the former and clueless about how much we are indeed the latter.

My assertion rises from a newspaper article this morning about contemporary dating doldrums and about the ongoing failure of social conventions and their regularly updated “rules” to get us past the normal dating confusion and challenges and onto the path of successful, healthy, long-term connubial bliss.

I suppose there have always been cultural schema for initiating and developing long-lasting intimate reproductive relations:

  • Generally speaking, most patriarchal cultures have enforced monogamous pairings despite the fact that extramarital relations (same or opposite gender) have always paralleled heterosexual marriage;
  • Old men with clear social power in pre-modern cultural groups have often been able to decide to marry multiple young women not only to display their power culturally but to genetically propagate themselves over space and time (polygamy);
  • Women under specific kinds of conditions of scarcity, most often, where they have greater power over reproductive decision-making have been able to take on multiple men as reproductive partners (polyandry); and
  • Same gender relationships, especially male-centered ones, while rarely officially sanctioned culturally and politically, have always served an important ideological and organizing homosocial bonding function in most cultural groups.

These might have had their cultural codices or divinely delivered mandates detailing do’s and don’ts of heterosexual comingling, but the rules might just as well have been transmitted orally through traditional narratives and lessons that taught exemplary gender roles and sexual practices.

Any given culture’s effective literacy, rituals and technologies for transmitting information to the general population effectively determined how a child would learn about his or her body, about the limits and possibilities of sexual desire, about the meaning of an intimate, long-term reproductive relationship with a stranger.

In modern state/societies that have been under the influence of capitalist, corporate, industrial ideology and production, the notions of relationships as part of a larger, sacred social contract that was often divinely ordered and sanctioned, devolved into atomistic, individualist, secular relationships that were imagined as distanced, self-determining and rationally defined.

I’m not arguing that this devolution is a bad thing. Indeed, I think the rise of the “individual” both as an idea/ideology is one of the supreme achievements of the age of enlightenment, scientific thinking, capitalism, and religious reform against the tyrannies of despotic religious, cultural, economic, and political feudalism and monarchy.

But I’m not arguing either that the notion of the individual, despite its successful entrenchment as a cultural ideal (gradually replacing for the past three or so centuries the canard of the ancien regime, that holy state embodiment of the divine which its subjects would merely consecrate themselves to), successfully teaches us how to find love in the endless dating instruction manuals and relationship technicians with their therapeutic instruction and to do lists.

What these experts and their success-oriented mythologies perpetuate is the abstract notion of the individual, the idea of a social actor/agent that is always rational, self-contained, and discrete.

This ahistorical, non-evolutionary, individual agent/contractor is imagined outside of time and space. Indeed, s/he is a fiction. (In Buddhist and post-structuralist terms, the individual is illusory because it is a cultural construct.)

The pre-modern, feudalistic, irrational actor at least understood him/herself, I would guess, as primordially sexual and fecund. (That, perhaps, was part of his/her cultural construct?) The stories of birth and death that were deeply collective in character were charged with sexuality in bodies (the earth being seeded and giving birth to life) and desire.

If there was an individual in these stories it was only as part of a larger meaning which was not necessarily at its heart rational or didactic.  To be human meant being not just rational, all forethought and logic and planning, but acknowledging and engaging and developing the fullness of one’s physical passions, the irrationality and unpredictability of the body.

(For there is knowledge and wisdom and power in the chaos and messiness of the body unleashed in its biological, evolutionary drives.)

The agent simply was part of the active process of being and becoming, embodied desire to renew itself and the other, together.

So when I read from my monkish perspective about the ongoing struggles of those who wish to let go of their rational inhibitions with that special someone and be more embodied sexually—this is really what all this suppressed sex talk is about, you know, getting one’s freak on!—I think we need to somehow rethink the whole “dating” thing in evolutionary and historical terms, remove our mythological individualistic blinders—we will always be unhappy if we wait  for someone else is to make us complete or happy–and accept more fully our sexuality as integral to our self and cultural definitions.

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