Chapter 2: Romeo & Juliet University – Love as knowledge

E. Hopper, Summer Evening
E. Hopper, Summer Evening

 

Mr. Alfred Gell’s analysis (see part 1 first) is based on the notion that love is interlinked with, or grounded on, a secret, private sharing of information between the two partners. He starts way back, from chimpanzees:

“The exchange of these [precopulatory] messages (which consist of physical gestures, furtive genital displays etc.) must be covertly done, or more dominant animals will intervene. Here we do not just have communication between partners, but exclusive, ‘confidential’ communication. Then the copulation itself is conducted out of sight, a second type of socially strategic information control, and of course the phylogenetic origin of human unwillingness to indulge in public copulation except in special circumstances”

In any society, says Gell, ‘there is the stock of information everybody has, that most have, that only a few have, and that only one or two have’. It may be argued that there is an increasing value in information known by lesser people, and that a tie is formed between those people sharing it. In the case of Umedas who, as discussed, experience romantic love in adultery relations:

“Love consisted of the generation, at the margins of society (in the bush, away from other people) of lethal knowledge, and the creation of pacts between those who generated and exchanged this knowledge, to preserve secrecy and discretion.”

This may also be the case for adultery, or otherwise prohibited relationships in our society. The lovers are bonded, if anything else, by the very secret of their relationship. But what about standard, ‘lawful’ romantic love?

“In Umeda as Strathern (1990) has suggested in relation to Melanesian societies more generally, who you marry is part of your personal make up, just as much as your red hair or snub nose, or the fact that you have a brother called Amasu. [..] In the absence of this structural predestination, modern couples have to convert abstract, generic relations between categories of persons into specific, grounded, historically embedded relations which will bear the structural loadings that will be imposed on them. Courting and falling in love provide the means for endowing relationships with histories which make subsequent commitment to their consequences more or less secure. They obviate the spectrum of opportunity costs that choice of partners implies. A married B, while C and D were also possible partners. A must have access to a kind of knowledge that, in retrospect, shows that C and D were not really possible at all, were only generically possible, but not specifically possible. Through the reciprocal exchange of a graded series of indiscretions, the courting couple converts a relation for whose existence no particular reason exist, into one which must be preserved because knowledge has come into existence which necessitates the lover’s pact, not to be incontinent, sexually or verbally.”

If you ask me, so far so good. On  comparison, we Westerners have it much better than the Umedas. We get to create our own personal stories, our own histories to base our romantic relationships on. Despite randomness, despite the fact that B could as well have been C, given Romeo happened to be there first, we are at least then free to create a secret A-B universe that is unique. In other words, namely Lincoln’s words, A and B build a knowledge system of, by and for A and B.

Well, not so fast..says Mr. Gell. I’m not so sure I’m gonna agree with him this time though.

Coming up, the slavery of Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: (some) light in the tunnel.

 

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