Today, on Radio Q, the CBC arts and culture show I love/hate, the Q Panel was to debate the question: "Is Monogamy an outdated institution?" Following this, an exploration of the topic: "Sex with Robots: what are the downsides?"
Happy Valentine's Day, Canada.
When host Jian Ghomeshi asks such questions with his smooth and charming voice, they sound almost reasonable. I must confess that I turned the radio off. How unsophisticated of me. But the dishes were done, the house was tidied, and what's more, Jenn and I had it to ourselves (thanks, Dad). So we forwent our education on the new choices available to us in the post-monogamous, robot-sex world, and celebrated Valentine's Day in the most traditional way humans have. That's right, girls: Mom and Dad exchanged pink and red construction paper cards and after that, we ate heart-shaped chocolates.
Consequently, I missed the rest of Q, so I cannot comment on the content of the debates. What struck me in the intro, however, was that the questioning of monogamy, and the exploration of the sexual potential and pitfalls of (literally!) robotic partners, both exist on the same continuum: that of the industrialization of our lives, to the point of absurdity.
Sex has the power both to bind and to loose. It can be the reason to stay home, or the reason one has to leave it; it can be the cause of home's unmaking. The predominant industrial economy, in which we now all live, move, and try to retain our being has been "incentivizing" the abandonment of home for a good while now. The Boom and Bust engine that drives the "global" economy requires highly mobile labour units, ready to be dispatched and displaced quickly, to wherever the market says. Who are families and communities to quibble with the free market's wisdom?
And so, we have obediently learned to define our freedom in precisely the way most convenient to the global economy: Our freedom equals our atomization, the breaking of bonds to place, to inherited identities and traditions, and to deeply rooted relationships.
I am trying to live in a place. Or, should I say, in a place that is trying to become a place. Ploughshares Community Farm, as elusive as it remains to pin down with a narrative or a meaning, is becoming a place. A place where three families are sharing land, growing food, building homes cooperatively - or at least, more cooperatively than is typical in the placeless, atomizing culture we are resisting at least a little bit, by choosing to be here, together.
This is the context in which Jenn and I practice monogamy. And I can say this much about its importance here, in community: If the bonds of marriage were not sacrosanct is this place, it would poison the waters.
I am a man. I am not immune to covetous and unfaithful thoughts. But such thoughts are easily doused when I begin to imagine the hellish jealousies, bitterness and enmity we would call upon ourselves if we were to start "fooling around" here.
Perhaps at the level of mass society, monogamy is "an outdated institution." But here, at the level of neighbourhood, fidelity to married life safeguards not only the peace and well-being of family, but of the whole community. Here no relationship is uni-functional, as they are in the industrial economy. Our connections are complex and interwoven. Business partner is friend is workmate is wife's friend is friend's wife. There is no one here with whom I could possibly have "casual" sex. Here, in this place, infidelity would blow us apart like an atom bomb. Here, I know without a doubt, that to (agape) love my neighbour means to (eros) love my wife, and her alone.
Maybe in a world where no one belongs anyplace anymore, where careers are consuming and brief and hypermobile; where advancement begets separation and separation begets advancement; where you can have a thousand online "friends" whom you do not actually know; where you can see a girl take off her clothes for you, and you can stare at her all you like without making eye contact; where the heralds of freedom disciple us into attachment disorder; maybe in that world monogamy is irrelevant.
But I don't want to live in that world. I am trying, albeit inconsistently and hamfistedly, to free myself and my family from the most dis-integrating influences of that world. That's why I live here. That's why I stay home and teach my children at home. That's why I stay in the home I've made with Jenn.
I know there are a great many people who are not as free as I have been to pull away from a world that makes stable, life-long unions terribly difficult to sustain. Can I blame any of my friends who have split up? Can I judge divorce as the moral failure of couples, in an economy fueled by discontentment and mobilized by displacement? Can I judge the craving for touch, for warmth, addressed in brief and transitory encounters between increasingly homeless humans, or the relieving of those urges through sexual facsimiles?
I dare not judge. I know my own frailties well enough. There but for the grace of God go I.
I cannot judge, but on this day I do want to celebrate: St. Valentine.
According to one tradition, Valentine was martyred for an odd crime against Empire: performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers. The Roman military knew all about the encumbrances of monogamous unions. Marriage was forbidden for soldiers, unattached men being more efficient and single-minded in their conquest and pillaging of foreign lands. Sex robots were not yet invented, but practitioners of the world's oldest profession could be found at the frontiers to relieve men's urges without the inefficiencies brought on by home leave.
In this context, binding soldiers in the Christian sacrament of holy matrimony was not only countercultural; it was treasonous.
It turns out that what is good for mass society and mass culture is rarely good for localized relationships.
And the reverse is also true: the more rooted one becomes with a particular life-mate, in a particular neighbourhood, in a particular tradition, the more one becomes a troublesome, non-mobile, non-interchangable consumer/labour unit for the global economy. Jenn and I move less dollars through the Canadian economy now than we ever have. Sorry Stevie. Homegrown food and a stay-at-home parent works good for us, not so good for you. Maybe I should buy some shiny new machines so I'll have more incentive to get an off-farm job and be "productive."
Sex robots are but the latest, and an astonishingly bald advance in the age of the machine, in its campaign to subvert the blessed ties that would bind us uniquely to each other and support lifelong pairings, which beget families, which beget communities, which resist displacement.
The logic of sex with robots is the final and fascist logic of total mechanization: Be a unit. Engage and disengage with other units as opportunity and economy suggest. Network; plug in; swipe and withdraw your card, thank you.
No, thank you, very much.