Love at face value. Popular romance and the future of Critical Love Studies.

by Michael Gratzke, University of Hull

Popular Culture research in general and Popular Romance Studies in particular have been hampered by the aesthetic bias which constitutes traditional literary scholarship and related disciplines. As a researcher interested in Popular Romance one has to declare themselves as a closeted fan or to situate the research in a context which allegedly justifies the choice of primary material for the study of something which is assumed to sit outside the aesthetic form of Popular Romance. This may include sociological or psychological questions regarding changing social attitudes or mechanisms of disseminating a heteronormative mind-set. This bias is paralleled in love research where most love theories aim to explain something which is not love: Freud looks at love as a surface phenomenon to sexuality. Luhmann argues that love relationships translate social values into everyday behaviour. Bourdieu describes social monogamy as a stabilising mechanism in class society. When we study Popular Romance or love in its own right, we have to address the suspicion that we engage in something trivial, superficial or even frivolous.

The emphasis on an assumed lower aesthetic value of artefacts associated with Popular Culture is a truth regime which aims to isolate traditional literary scholarship from issues of consumer capitalism. By demonizing market forces and associating them only with “low-brow” mass culture, we prevent ourselves from looking at the productive and creative outcomes of consumer capitalism across the board. In love research very few authors, such as Eva Illouz, acknowledge that consumer capitalism from its beginnings in the 19th century has not just been a force which colonises some kind of original, authentic love but in fact a dispositf which produces love. No form of artistic expression operates outside the framework of consumer capitalism. The aesthetic bias has been to a degree overcome in the study of fan fiction which is sometimes deemed to be superior to Popular Romance because of the apparent creativity of non-professional writers who assemble texts as a bricolage from the vast array of characters, “universes” and story-lines available commercially. The ultra-low budget of online publication is on occasion cast as some kind of rebellion against the system.

We also need to query the assumption that a higher degree of aesthetic complexity magically stimulates a critical, subversive potential in readers or viewers. If we take a very famous novel of the early 19th century, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, we cannot help noticing that it reinforces a bourgeois and heteronormative agenda precisely by taking the protagonist and its readers through a bewildering journey involving crossdressing noblewomen, a hermaphrodite, incestuous love and the failure to get one’s finances in order. Wilhelm, cleansed of his homoerotic desires and dreams of running a theatre, finally decides to become respectable and to train as a surgeon.

The basic tenets of Critical Love Studies, as I understand them, can be expressed by the phrase: Love is what people say it is. First and foremost this means that we are open-minded, attentive and ready to embrace creativity, diversity and originality where ever they may be in evidence. You may be following a prescribed pattern if you buy a Valentine’s card and overpriced roses but this does not mean that I understand what these actions mean to you and the object of your affection. In order to find out I have to ask open-ended questions and to listen closely to your nuance. This attitude favours an inductive research methodology. Furthermore, the phrase above addresses love as something people say and do. Love is relational and it is performative. We have no direct access to the potentiality of all love. Love comes into being in the billions acts of loving which occur at all times. This includes the millions of words written about love and the hundreds of thousands of minutes spent engaging with them. Finally, love in its performativity is productive. We reproduce given patterns of loving behaviour and thus reinforce the truth regimes associated with them (love is supposed to be unconditional, love between two non-related adults is supposed to be exclusive, you are supposed to hate the person with whom you are breaking up etc.).

Still, changes in love occur in the uncountable acts of repetition in differance. Like changes to gender roles and gender relations, changes to experiences and representations of love are gradual. This why each episode of a hastily produced telenovela is as valuable to the study of Popular Romance as it is to Critical Love Studies.

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