Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.

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12 Responses to “Marriage and modernity”

  1. David Says:

    You highlight why not all LGBTQ folks are supportive of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Speaking personally, I am all for celebrating same-sex marriage as a religious rite, but am wary of the state’s new role in legitimating same-sex relationships.

  2. Richard Says:

    “why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family?”

    Because reproduction.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, obviously. I imply as much with my reference to “biological necessity.” The emphasis is not on family as such, but on the specific form of the nuclear family.

    In short, please don’t be obnoxious.

  4. Charles R Says:

    At a low resolution assessment, this fits with the language of the time concerning why the United States was willing to fight a war to force the Mormon territories towards monogamy. I think getting into the details of that time period to form a high resolution assessment will bring out further insights into how this nation-state took on theological positions to secure socioeconomic ones—or, I suppose, reinforce what we already know firmly has been the case.

    But why marriage? Wouldn’t creating numerous orphanages and safe havens be an even more minimal concession to biological necessity, directly turning the products of sexuality over to state control for further refinement or (de)shaping? Or is keeping parents somehow economically and morally responsible for turning those products into operationally defined citizens itself an outsourcing, of sorts, of that control?

    I mean, perhaps it’s not so much that *everyone* is driven to become a monad, but rather all those who cannot afford uniqueness or self-assertion become fungible resources and products, along a continuum. The poorer we are, the less we’re able to retain some semblance of control over how our own legacies—possessions, memories, stories, wisdom, influence—become retained in others. Marriage provides an illusion of legacy for the middle class by allowing some room for shaping and refining children into being properly loyal to the family, even though the various ways the state subsidizes this illusion through public education, consumable culture, media representation and legal realities work to regulate this familial shaping and refining into predictable, manipulable and common patterns… so the parents take on the costs of the intimacy needed to shape vulnerable people, since the state is unable to affect intimacy or vulnerability —something that seems to be important to an enduring loyalty rather than loyalty that’s contractually negotiated through economic consideration. If you form a citizenry that’s inherently mercenary—we get paid to vote, participate in the civic discourse, deliberate on legislation and enforcement, &c—then they cannot really be trusted to continue working when the funding runs out, which is how the modern state works: it had already run out of funding and still operates through deficits. So the parents take on the emotional and psychological troubles of becoming vulnerable towards their children and work through the biological programming we have towards caretaking, but the framework through which this is done is organized in such a way to make those parenting *techniques* result in specific patterns conforming to expectations everyone else has about what properly civilized citizens do and are. And since parents always fail us, we’re habituated to accepting how the state will always fail us. The chance that some parents do the right thing and prepare their children for genuine freedom is small enough once the habituation takes over, and keeping those parents occupied through unredeeming work also decreases the likelihood those parents will have the opportunity to do much else than fail at parenting.

    Which, of course, requires some one to come in and address these chronic problems, offering solutions to the problems they themselves created, all under the regime of the election *cycle*, what we use to describe natural processes (water cycle, Krebs cycle, Calvin cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, &c). Theology becomes environmental for the state when the traditions the state needs to live get passed down as family values.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In short, the impersonal order of the state and capitalism needs some minimal supplement of personal loyalty to keep going?

  6. Charles R Says:

    Yeah, but how to maintain it at the minimum is an evolutionary question, and just because things evolve and converge.from wildly different directions doesn’t say anything about the necessity of the particular result, only about the attraction of one thing to another in such dynamic systems.

    Do you feel I was unnecessarily verbose or indulgent?

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, I didn’t mean to imply that.

  8. ambzone Says:

    Read your comment with interest Charles R.

  9. Richard Says:

    “Yes, obviously. I imply as much with my reference to “biological necessity.” The emphasis is not on family as such, but on the specific form of the nuclear family.

    In short, please don’t be obnoxious.”

    Er, no, not reproduction, as in “biological necessity”, but social reproduction. I wasn’t being obnoxious, but was merely baffled. I apologize for being curt. The state (and capital) needs the free labor the family does to reproduce itself. No doubt the family itself provides the loyalty/solidarity/whathaveyou needed to ensure that that labor take place.

    On the other hand, the outsourcing of care – to nursing homes, daycare centers, etc – has shown that there’s money to be made in reproduction, as the state/capital has tried to shed its reliance on the family (which is finding it harder and harder to reproduce itself), but it’s precarious.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Fine, but the point is still why the nuclear family as opposed to the many other forms the family has taken.

  11. Charles R Says:

    Perhaps the emphasis on ‘nuclear’ signals how the fabrication of that family structure was also part of a time where ‘nuclear’ and ‘atomic’ were signals of the technocratic control of universally dangerous but fundamental forces, forces whose deployment is so near being uncontrollable it takes very large and complexly interrelated systems of computational and hydraulic machines and governmental regulation/oversight to maintain those very fragile reactions in a sustained way.

    When did we start calling them ‘nuclear families’? Why are we still, when ‘nuclear’, after Chernobyl, does not inspire the kind of optimism about the future that it did when imagining a nuclear car was cool?

    Following up the metaphor: it’s the very large, unstable families who decay and produce dangerous radiation, casting out and disrupting other families. The more stable nuclear family (two parents, some small number of kids? So, helium?) is not likely to interact with other families in disrupting ways. Helium occurs naturally and everywhere, but in/on our planet only from the decay of those larger families. We’re running out of it, though, because it slips away so easily from the planet once released from the vaults of the earth, and there will soon (already) be a crisis of supply. The metaphor repeats itself.


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