3 words: I love you. [part 2]

Hollway argues, see first part of 3 words: I love you , that gender-differentiated subjectivities are built upon subject positions which are made available for the category ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but they remain unequally available. This strikes me as quite ‘mid-1980s’, and as a particularly ‘British Feminist’ perspective. I want to find out how much things have changed, and how a less UK-centric view and experiences look like in 2010.

In the late 1960s England had about 2,000 single-sex schools, at the end of the 20th century there were still 400 of them. The first single-sex school was founded in 1440, that was famous Eaton. In stark contrast, in today’s Finland there is not one single single-sex school in the entire country. Iceland introduced (!) single-sex kindergarten in the late 1980s, France and Germany think co-education the most successful way towards socialisation based on equality between sexes.

No doubt, understanding differences in sex and gender requires a thorough look into cultural differences. Living in a place, London, where every second person is foreign-born has made me even more of that. Language itself tells us a lot about a population’s notions of sex and gender. In Finnish, for instance, only one first person singular pronoun exists: han [hän, hAn]. It is sex-neutral, gender does not play that large a role in this linguistic sense. Nevertheless, Finland is a pioneer in gender equality – in 1906 its National Assembly was the first in the world that adopted full gender equality. Finnish women were the first who gained the right to vote.

The German language does not have a direct translation for the English term ‘gender’. The concept that denotes the socially constructed and learned traits of what it means to be male or female in contrast to the biologically determined characteristics (i.e. the English term ‘sex’)was only introduced by help of European policies (gender mainstreaming). On an everyday basis, however, the German language is obsessed with gender: every noun requires categorisation: neutral, female and male grammatical genders specify things: a tomato is female, a chair is male, your breakfast remains neutral. Problematic are [new] terms such as ‘Email’ which have been adopted from the English. Some people obsess over the question whether ‘Email’ (all nouns are capitalised in German) is female or neutral.

In 1984, when Hollway constructed her argument, sex education in mixed classes was standard in German secondary schools which even then included lessons on contraception (N.B. home schooling is illegal in Germany, so there was and is no opt-out). This makes me wonder to what extent a discursive analysis that does not take into account any cultural or national differences can be convincing.

I recall a Californian friend of mine, about twice my age, stating a few years back in Berlin that ‘Americans do love their family but they like their friends’. I argued the opposite to be holding true for Germans. I remembered my experience as a holiday language student in the late 1990s in Malta where we had English conversation classes and were asked to debate controversial topics to ensure we would practice our language skills. Hot buttons were abortion, HIV/AIDS and love. One male student in his early 20s from catholic Munich, Bavaria, vehemently refused to state he would ‘love’ his sister – but he confirmed he’d like her, very much so. Love in this cultural context has a distinct sexual undertone, which is why ‘like’ is the preferred and socially accepted norm.

A purely linguistic focus seems to miss the subtleties that are embedded in language: social practices, taboos, age-related awkwardness etc. They cannot be captured in the concept of power – which certainly holds true for some cases (parent-child for instance) but not necessarily in all peer-to-peer cases. Hollway did not seem to perceive women and men as genuine peers or agents who hold potential to negotiate the terms of being or becoming peers.

One of the interview excerpts she quotes is quite thought-provoking. Sam is a man who was in hope of living with Jane. He tried to live with three other women before and he does not want to live on his own.

He says that “[t]here’s too many things all wrapped up in coupling […] too many needs it potentially meets, and there are too many things it frustrates. I do want to have a close, a central-person relationship, but in the past, the negative aspect outweighed the positive dramatically. Or my inability to work through them has led me to run.”

“I’m frightened of getting in deep […] a lot of these things aren’t really to do with sexuality. They’re to do with responsibility.”

“When I say to somebody, who I’m making love to – I’m close to, when I say, ‘I love you, I love you’ it’s a word that symbolises letting go. […] What frightens me is that word, it’s an act of commitment. Somebody suddenly, expects something of me. They’ve said something, that’s the first word in a long rotten line towards marriage. That’s when you fall in love, you’re caught up in the institution.”

“And it’s been an act of principle for me, that I can love somebody, and feel loved, without feeling any responsibility. That I can be free to say that I love somebody if I love them. Be free to feel.”

I have no idea how old Sam was when he gave this interview and talked about the power of the meaning of ‘I love you’. Would a man beyond retirement age who had all his life spent with one woman hold a similar view? Is the utterance ‘I love you’ itself related to social markers such as age, gender – or social class? Has ‘I love you’ become so value-laden or invested with connotations that fear is a near ‘natural’ response?

Hollway argues that ‘I love you’ (as the signifier ‘letting go’) is “suppressed by its capture in the discourse which positions women as requiring commitment. Which means men need less commitment? The implication strikes me as simplified. Hollway quotes from an anti-sexist men’s magazine (Achilles Heel, 1979):

“For men (heterosexual) sex works out as a trap because it’s the only place where men can really get tenderness and warmth.”

“But they have no skills to evoke these things because there is nothing in the rest of our lives that trains us to do this.”

This would suggest men have been brought up and continue to live lives as islands. Does that ring true? Of course, as I mentioned above, single-sex education may have contributed significantly to some of these notions but on the other hand, men who were brought up by women must have had some exposure to their ‘skills’ in terms of tenderness and warmth (i.e. outside sexual encounter). Supposed, all women are tender and warm, all the time – a stereotype we need to question.

What Hollway seems to ignore altogether is the probability that men (and women) may be able to learn (by reflexivity, be encounter, by formal education) what it means to be tender, committed and warm – without ‘paying the price’ of a sexual relationship when what is desired is actually ‘only’ tenderness and warmth. What she seems to suggest is a biological reductionism somewhere embedded in the discourses that construct gender subjectivities. These subjectivities (or gender identities) seem to be static and fix over the life course – and, they seem to be focused on the heterosexual other. Trapped in the web of power and ‘unspeakable deeper needs’, that is also what Martin suggests:

“People’s needs for others are systematically denied in ordinary relationships. And in a love relationship you make the most fundamental admission about yourself – that you want somebody else. It seems to me that that is the greatest need, and the need which, in relationship to its power, is most strongly hidden and suppressed.”

This is about vulnerability, trust and feeling accepted – or rejected. The strong sense of insecurity Martin conveys makes we think about fear of rejection as a learned response. After all, most people share these feeling and a sense of insecurity when they open up to others and when they commit themselves to others.

Part of this is rooted in a sense of risk – but risk considerations become more dominant when we commit to people who make us feel insecure about being accepted. If we express our love (in an utterances or otherwise) and override the sense that the person may feel under pressure to commit too or that our partner holds high expectations as to what has to follow upon that 3-word utterance, we actually do not trust our own instincts. On the other hand, challenging the idea that there is a universal notion as to what ‘I love you’ implies and entails, is a healthy way to free oneself from the burden of literature, films and lyrics we grew up with, internalise and forget to review.

We may live in relationships that have never heard the ‘I love you’ and still, they are marked by deep commitment and love. On the other hand, there are numerous relationships that have established rituals, that resulted in obligatory phrases for both partners. For instance ending every phone call with ‘luv you, hon’. A routine that may make many Germans cringe, it’s not exactly a socially accepted practice outside the couple’s private space. There are also the film moments which make us cringe: Bette Midler’s CC Bloom in ‘Beaches’ (1988) offers her lover an ‘opt-in’ version similar to Stevie Wonder’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”. Although, Midler’s character adds an interesting question: “or was that part of your routine”? Finally, there is also Patrick Swayze’s ‘ditto’ (German: ‘dito’) in Ghost. Does it make you cringe or smile with pleasure – or does it appear to be so remote and constructed to you, it does not trigger any emotion?

There are our friends who offer us a deeply felt ‘I love you’ (German: ‘ich liebe dich’) which we can take, without a hint of doubt, in all its beauty and commitment. There are sexual partners who commit and still don’t have to panic over marriage and the ‘institution marriage’, they offer us the equally deep and committed ‘I like you’. Whatever we say as expression of our love, a lot depends on how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves is not static and fixed, rather, it is fluid dependent on a range of factors. One of these factors is the degree of exposure to different cultures, ideas different to those taken for granted in our environment as well as our ability and willingness to review them. But then, there are also factors such as illness or a plain hangover, which may undermine our sense of self and increase our vulnerability.

The extent, to which we buy into certain discourses, valid at a certain point in time and in a certain spatial context, is vital to the sense of rejection or acceptance we may experience. What it means to be a woman or a man (I do not discuss queer, gay and lesbian at this point because the paper that triggered my post was based on heterosexual relationships, but of course, I don’t mean to exclude these identities and perspectives) is not only determined by dominant discourses around us – say, men and women’s magazines such as Playboy or Cosmopolitan: it’s all about looks, sex and reinforcing stereotypes – but it is also about how we establish trust and communication with the other person. The way we negotiate meaning within a relationship is what creates the meaning of ‘I love you’ in our relationships. If we forget (or fear) to talk about our genuine needs, we may never get beyond mediated clichés.

What actually prevents us from expressing our ideas about tenderness, warmth, commitment and all the fears and pain that seem to come along with it, is a whole different story. I wonder to what extent our activities on Twitter and Facebook, Flickr or Youtube help us to develop those skills. Do they offer us space to think about love and relationships?

Prior to these sites it used to be books, films and music that made us think or that shaped our wants and being wanted. Also, they shaped our silence and the way we found things to be ‘unspeakable’ – think about watching a steamy scene on TV – with your parents. In those decades between Hollway’s research and today’s social networking sites, what does not seem to have changed, though, is the many subtle shades those 3 words ‘I love you’ can acquire. I would love to your views on that.

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About be_b

I analyse, research, look beyond confines and connect dots. Focus: Social Sciences, Finance, Risk, AML/Fraud. Qualitative and quantitative data. Global, innovative, agile perspective, EN + DE.

7 responses to “3 words: I love you. [part 2]”

  1. Carina Westling says :

    Actions speak louder than words. As a Swedish person living in the UK, I find ‘love’ being a fairly flexible term with so many differed shades. It is not quite so easy to use casually in Swedish. As a result, I habitually take it with a pinch of salt, and look for other signs, actions and delivery instead to gauge a persons feelings/position in relation to myself.

    I also find “but I love you” the poorest excuse there is for questionable behaviour, especially as love means different things to different people – ranging from neediness through love of a construct, an idea of the object of desire, to love that may be ‘genuine’ but perhaps misused as a motivating force.

    I have also sometimes earnestly used the old truism “love makes the world go round”. There is a lot to be said about love.

  2. britbohlinger says :

    Casual use, as you say, can be amazing. I find myself being able to express love for food, films and other, rather trivial stuff, in English – but the phrase remains stuck in my throat when I try it in German. Ich liebe Schokolade sounds ridiculous, way too pompous.

    There are many shades or connotations to a phrase and the clues that come along with the utterance are equally important, no doubt. Declaring love in a cold voice can be suffocating, it can sound like a threat or a manipulative attempt to hail someone into a certain behaviour, act of omission – or ‘act of love’. The very use of one and the same phrase can become a routine pattern that requires the listening person to respond with the same phrase. If this is being refused (c.f. ‘ditto’ in Ghost) it may trigger doubt, or even a crisis. It’s beauty lies in voluntariness, forced reciprocity tastes bitter, yet, to some it is like a magic formula that re-assures in times of doubt.

    While I totally agree with the notion that ‘love makes the world go round’ I tend to think that language and verbal expression can make it ‘pear-shaped’. Love can be stated in a moment of silence (which may differ between online and real life, in times of confidence versus uncertainty etc.), a gaze or other variations of ‘shtum’ [i.e. quiet; stumm in German] body language.

    As bi-lingual or multi-lingual beings we become a lot more aware of language, initially due to the lack of understanding the words. What we understand without knowing the words, though, is often the tacit knowledge conveyed in the multitude of expressions. Nevertheless, the freedom that comes with a language that is not our first and native (that may be occupied with a huge number of taboos, unconscious links and memories etc.) is something I will continue to appreciate as gift of our modern times – having in mind Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ which allegorises the symbolism and mysticism of food as communicator of love and passion.

  3. troy says :

    You’re right about it being a pretty private state of mind and heart. As Carina mentioned too, actions are far superior indicators …and for whatever shade you care to express. The lack of discourse on the subject has to be rooted in the inadequacy of language to describe it. Emotions are beyond words and discussing them, while heartfelt on one level, is rather like “dancing about architecture” – and at worse we pigeon hole ourselves into things we are not. If words were all, I could write a 10,000 word letter to my Father expressing what he means to me …but without our prior relationship, it would essentially be meaningless for us or anyone else. Unusable. Even when we submit to the words and phrases we find in poetry, lyrics or story, we attach to that our very own conditions and physical sensations. A song is beautiful not because it’s a beautiful song but because the listener deems it so. Ditto for a personal object. A gesture, smile …touch.

    Casual use of the word love is only laziness in my opinion, a disservice to its importance. I have no second language, and the freedom you mention in one is, as you say, quite likely the result of that ‘personal-ness’ you are missing …unlike the personal-ness you have in your native language. Our language is an integral and physical part of who we are as a person, and talking about certain aspects of it, in a sense, removes us from the conversation.

  4. britbohlinger says :

    The idea that emotions are beyond words sounds probably right to many, but those who developed an approach called Discursive Psychology (c.f. Derek Edwards’s work; c.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discursive_psychology )

    argue this isn’t the case. They challenge the position which cognitive psychologists take and claim that emotions are constructed in interaction. To some degree this is a debate that aims to challenge biological determinism.

    Basically the idea is that emotions do not just ‘happen’ in an irrational manner, they are not just natural bodily experiences and expressions as cognitive psychologists would argue. Discursive psychologists perceive emotions as thoughts rather than feelings and as such they are constructed in language, deliberately in interactional encounters.

    If we take emotions as natural phenomena, constructions such as taboos would not exist. The way we are being made aware of taboos or sensitive issues are deeply embedded in culture which in turn are contingent upon time and space. What is unspeakable (think anger, shame or even love, as you said) in certain circumstances or in certain relationships is defined by discourse (discourse covers more than conversation itself, it encompasses practices, rules and tacit knowledge).

    This very discourse around love is tightly bound to ideas of the boundaries of public/private spaces. Take a pupil for instance whose mother enjoys to hear a declaration of love. If the same pupil walks up to his teacher in school and does the same it is deemed inappropriate (from a certain age onwards). That’s because the boy has to learn to restrict and control himself in his utterances from an early age on, resulting in the smooth functioning of larger groups (think corporate level) and societies at large. These very restrictions and internalised control mechanism are what make you walk around and declare love (hate, anger or other ‘inappropriate’ emotions) to people – or not. Michel Foucault’s volumes on the history of sexuality deliver a great genealogy in respect to such restrictions, enablers and beliefs. The broad discourse on sexuality, as he researched it, makes us also see why we have come to give up on questioning what appears to be taken for granted. Complex discourses are being played out in old and new media, in education, legislation and every cell of daily life. People produce and reproduce the beliefs and values.

    Labelling behaviour as spontaneous and natural is what Discursive Psychologist challenge, their idea is to look at emotions such as ‘anger’ from a constructionist perspective that enables the analyst / researcher to understand how events are being made sense of and how accountability is being managed.

    Personally, I do not fully agree with that approach, but I acknowledge that whether I respond with anger (for instance) in a certain situation or not has less to do with my physical reaction but rather whether that response is deemed appropriate in a certain cultural setting or not. So being angry while watching a football match is very different from getting angry in a corporate situation.

    In this sense, I entirely agree with your view that a song is beautiful because its beauty is perceived (the same accounts for art, fashion – even faces and body shapes). It is not beautiful per se – what makes a listener think the song is beautiful is quite heavily shaped by taste. And taste is socially constructed. Finding an opera beautiful is rather learned than inherent (ask some teenagers), similarly it is finding Finish punk metal beautiful (ask some grandparents, make sure they are not Finnish). Nowadays I love both (and on top also jazz, country, R’n’B and a lot more – but ‘eclectic’ is also an acquired taste) – and I even choose consciously the term ‘love’ as a way to express a subtle shade of an English term which would not available to me in this way in German language.

    Some fascinating work has been conducted by taste researcher Hugo Liu who looked into the construction of taste fabrics of social networking sites (Pierre Bourdieu’s earlier work is a great starting point for taste in relation to social class) http://larifari.org/writing/index.html.

    Having said that, love is not an acquired taste – but the way we talk about love and the ways we express love is deeply embedded in culture which finds its expression in language (including gestures and silence). Neither culture nor language are static, the term emotion itself has changed its meaning between 1603 and 1875 several times. The Oxford English Dictionary (1994) referred initially to it as ‘a moving out, transference from one place to another’, then, in 1579 as ‘tumult, popular disturbance’ and in 1842 to ‘emotions [as] perform[ing] their … involuntary functions’ which in 1875 were defined as ‘emotions of pity, wonder, sterness’. All these definition are illustrating the belief in an inner life of the psyche quite separate from social interaction and meaning created in social life.

    More than 130 years later the question remains: to what degree are we acting based on our biology, what degree influences our thoughts and resulting actions – consciously as well as unconsciously?

  5. troy says :

    That emotions are not some ‘inner islands’ secure from our social landscape makes perfect sense, and that they also are products of our language and culture certainly makes them fair game for discussion.

    I wonder though; if language is inextricably linked and shaped by our experiences can two people, based on words alone, ever arrive at a thorough and complete understanding?

    Lol, it appears not 😉

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