On Breaking Your Promises


In previous blog posts I have discussed the nature of ethical relationships in both theoretical and practical terms. Some of these posts were polemical. I have also critiqued both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. In other posts I found it useful to be more descriptive and locate the transitions and shifts and moments that define a relationship structurally and ethically. This piece follows the same method. The simple claim, perhaps very Bataillean, is that an ethical relationship partakes in an immoral behavior or, to be ethical one must be immoral.

I would also like to begin to develop a series of posts on popular misconceptions about ethical relationships, the confusion of ethics and morals as it pertains to the discussion, and the confusion of ethics and lifestyles. I break some of that ground at the end of this post.

Coming Home, Hal Ashby, 1978

Kant tells us that breaking a promise undermines the work of making promises. If the promise is continually broken, future promises will carry little weight and meaning, and eventually promise-making will stop being practiced (and this is a problem for morals and ethics).

Monogamy has two promises or two moral prescriptions. The first: “I promise that I will not cheat or, I promise that you are my one and only sexual partner (perhaps emotional partner too, but this part is a little trickier so let’s just stick with the concrete – feelings are messy).” This promise has an affect, probably two. What is more joyous than the proclamation to one another that you will both uphold this promise? This is an uncontentious claim. The ideal sexual union is filled with joy, thus our aspirations towards this type of exclusive and meaningful relationship, namely, that you both matter to each other more than anyone else in the world. But isn’t there also an affect of anxiety, the open expanse of the nothing? “How long do I keep this up and how long will my partner keep their promise?”

Monogamy’s second promise or moral attempts to minimize anxiety and it is also a more implicit promise in the contract (marriage might also minimize this anxiety): “I promise to breakup with you if you cannot keep promise #1.” This moral seems to found the relationship. Logically this has to be the case – without the implicit promise we would then have something like an unmonogamous monogamous relationship. But this promise is also routinely broken. Why is this the case? For convenience – it’s easier to stay together; out of fear perhaps – no one wants to be alone; most importantly, because of love. Love trumps the rule or, love is the exception to the rule.

Why is the first broken promise the topic of so much discussion and popular culture? Why is the second broken promise not as grave? If all promises must be kept because not upholding them undermines the whole process of promise-making, why allow this exception to the rule?

We know the answer: relationships are already non-monogamous or, there is no such structure or feeling as a oneness apart from the imperatives of world – we are already embedded and enmeshed in it and thrown into situations that work against the self-imposed exclusivity of the monogamous couple.[1] I discovered this some months ago while putting together another blog post –  an ethical monogamy must necessarily be polyamorous. Put differently, the promise that founds the relationship (If you cheat we break up!) is often quashed with love. Thus non-monogamy is not the direct opposition to monogamy; love, strangely enough, can be the latter’s enemy. If we love too much, promise #2 won’t stand a chance. Alternatively, in my thought experiment here the monogamist’s choice is between the abstract idea of the monogamous structure (including all its promises) and the concrete experience of love.

Monogamy wants love and the two promises/morals; however, if we believe what I’ve said, it is impossible to hold both. Sometimes promises are better off broken or, we’re ready to make better ones: “I promise to love you even if…”[2] One version of sexual and romantic relationship tries to impose morals (the two promises). What I think we already do is work against morality in both large and small ways – I call this ethics.

The popular misconception is that an individual who practices an alternative to monogamy does so because of the first promise/moral. In this reading, non-monogamy becomes a lifestyle, as in practicing yoga or preferring one type of outfit to another (I recently saw a clothing store named Lifestyle). Indeed, my desire for a wide selection of clothing and my freedom to change at whim according to my tastes, seems to apply to one’s sexual and emotional desires. Like clothing, it is imperative that I enjoy as many partners as much as possible. Thus the popular misconception that the non-monogamist refuses the first promise firstly; they would rather switch partners like changing outfits. This is what I would call lifestyle non-monogamy. (This is already a problematic concept, albeit commonly practiced and discussed. If we use the term lifestyle for our interpersonal relationships, monogamy is also a lifestyle; however, we rarely say such a thing. Traditions aren’t lifestyles.)

When a relationship is considered as part of one’s everyday ethical practices, the appeal and imperative of non-monogamy begins to take a stronger form. In fact, it is more accurate to say that the ethical non-monogamist does not feel the need to work against the first promise because of their wild and uncontrolled sexual desire. Rather, the ethical individual is unable to perform the second promise. Instead, the implicit promise of monogamy (#2) is made explicit and subsequently rendered meaningless – a partner can “cheat” and is encouraged to do so because the desire to impose one’s own needs upon another is relinquished. This is what Foucault observed as the fascist tendencies in us all. If this fascism is part of our ontology (conditioned as it is by contemporary social and cultural imperatives, such as enjoyment), our task is to identify and struggle against precisely what those fascist tendencies are. Rather than turning the non-monogamist into a sexual and emotional hero as most monogamists do – “I agree with the structure in principle, but I could never do that” –  I have hopefully demonstrated that we are already primed to not be monogamists and, in fact, already practice this kind of immoral behavior in our loving relationships.

Thus we see that an ethics that fosters and encourages sexual, emotional, and intellectual relationships apart from the exclusivity of the couple differs greatly from the morality that founds the traditional romance. Morality partakes in particular sets of traditions, social and cultural practices, and institutions with the aim of maintaining those sets with a minimal amount of harm done to others in the process. Ethics, on the other hand, confronts us with imperatives: what does this person need from me, what do they want, how can I help them get there even at the expense of my own physical and emotional well-being. Morality contains nothing of the word sacrifice while ethics certainly does when pushed to its limits. So we see that an ethical relationship, as I argued and described above,  cannot keep promise #2. The ethical non-monogamist, contra the lifestyle non-monogamist, founds their relationship upon the destruction of the second promise to thereby directly engage with the imperatives their partner(s) demand.

[1] A strange thing to write given my thought experiment involves a cheating partner. The topic of cheating is for another time.

[2] In the hypothetical relationship/situation put forward here, it would be impossible to say the reverse of “I promise to love you even if you have other partners.” “I promise to love you even if you want to be monogamous” is again countered with love. This latter promise does nothing for the relationship because, hypothetically, promise #2 might very well pose a challenge when cheating (or a desire for flirtation, whatever) happens. Promise #2 and individuals’ frequent inability to keep it confronts the individuals with the greater and more difficult promise, i.e., “I promise to love you even if….” But this promise is also idealized by the monogamist, thus my efforts to here describe the fact that monogamy does not exist. This “even if…”, “through sickness and health” and so on, implies non-monogamy. Monogamy undermines itself by the demands it places upon itself.

Language and Practice: An Etymological Study of Monogamy, Non-Monogamy, and Polyamory


I am not an etymologist and I know nothing about linguistics. This is not a careful study, but a fun trip through Webster’s (2001) aided by dictionary.com, subsequently verified by the OED (although using the terms found in Webster’s). An experiment in argumentation? Probably not. I do not always list each derivative.

The prefix mono- derives from the Greek mono-, monos = single, alone; from the Indo-European base men– = small, single. The current definition is one, alone, single.

-Gamy is from the Greek –gamia, gamos = marriage; the Greek from the Indo-European base ĝem-, to marry, be related. The English definition is marriage, sexual union.

Monogamy, from the French monogamie, derived from Ecclesiastical Late Latin monogamia, derived from the Greek mono– and –gamia: 1. the practice or state of being married to only one person at a time (circa 1770). 2. [Rare] the practice of marrying only once during life (the Greek definition).

Marriage, a Middle English term, carries nothing of love in its etymology or definition (the state of being married, the act of marrying). The Indo-European derivative is meri, young wife, related to meryo, young man; the Indo-European word finds its source in the Sanskrit márya-: man, young man, suitor. To marry is therefore an action that individuals conduct when young, i.e., two individuals form a sexual union while young. As part of the English definition, matrimony, also deriving from Middle English, has its origin in the Latin mater, Mother. The Old French seems the most correct, property inherited from one’s mother, so the following claim is a stretch: Marriage is the action of a young man who takes a young wife (not a young woman! Woman=wife in the Indo-European?) to bear his children.

Two things to draw from this.

  1. Monogamy defines itself by sexual intercourse. To be monogamous is to have one sexual union and to be a Mother, as the etymology suggests. To practice monogamy today is to carry on the traditional definitions, particularly #2 above, whether we like it or not. The practice or state of monogamy occurs when two individuals have sexual union, and ends when one or both individuals have more than one mate (the zoological definition of monogamy is the practice of having one mate). Thus, when individuals come together under the banner of monogamy and marriage, they come together, foundationally, on an agreement as to what acts are appropriate and inappropriate for their respective genitals. The promise or vow (rite or sacrament) is to reserve the use of the participants’ genitals for the purposes of becoming-Mother.

Monogamy, marriage, and matrimony, as noted, mention nothing of love or ethics in their definitions or etymology, although the rite or sacrament of marriage may say something about love, as in the Christian tradition and its contemporary secular form. Yet, the definition of matrimony, to be husband and wife, does not necessarily require love in its rite or sacrament of marriage, e.g., in arranged marriages or marriages of convenience. Neither are qualitatively lesser or less authentic forms of marriage (as per the definition).

The prefix non- derives from the Latin non, not. The contemporary uses of non-: not, the opposite of, and refusal or failure: used to give a negative or privative force, esp. to nouns. Based on what was written above, non-monogamy (not yet in a dictionary) would be the practice or state of not having one marriage, sexual union, or mate; the opposite of the practice of oneness; removing the quality of oneness from a relationship; and each of these definitions would keep their distances from a marriage or sexual union in which the young wife, by definition, is to become a Mother. However, retaining monogamy, even with the prefix non-, still suggests that the practice or state is defined by sexual union, thus, what the participants do with their genitals (sexual union with more than one mate).[1]

  1. If we take the etymology seriously, we might be able to say monogamy is the practice or state of having one marriage or sexual union which is singular, exclusive, and small. This implies that there is One perspective amongst a union of two individuals. Rather than coming together to build multiple perspectives, or have multiple perspectives on truth, life, experience, participants within monogamy remain trapped within a singular, and therefore small, view of how the world can be taken up. The most obviously example, held by many even today that the goal of monogamous marriage is for the wife to become a Mother, as implied by the etymological links. Both participants are alone because they are not Two, but One. This is what we mean by alone together. Monogamy, rather than engaging with the world, is a unit of two folding into One to the exclusion of others (romantic attachments and ideas to be sure, but we frequently see the exclusion of friends, family, etc.) and alternative practices of intimacy, closeness, and bonding.

So there is something very wrong with the word (non-)monogamy. We have adopted a word with a suspect definition and etymology. Perhaps a word (and practice) that has love (ethics) as its foundation might be better suited to our loving relationships.

The combining form poly-, from the Modern Latin, derived from the Greek poly-, polos = much, many, derived from the Indo-European pelu, large amount, whose base is pel-, to pour, fill. Pel– is naturally related to the current use of Full. The definitions of poly-: 1. much, many, more than one; 2. More than usual, excessive. Non-monogamy and polygamy are therefore the same practice or state by definition, although there is no dictionary definition of the former – the latter is a plurality of marriage.

Since we have seen the ills of (the word) marriage, any combing form with gamos will not suffice. We still need a better word to describe our loving and ethical practices and states.

Amorous, from the Middle English, root in the Latin amor = love, and amare = to love. Full of love, but also, albeit not exclusively, full of sexual love. Full of love echoes the Indo-European pelu and the base pel-. Polyamorous: a new English word circa 1972, pertaining to participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships. Thus we add poly- to amorous and have much, many, more than one, more than usual, an excessive amount of love to be poured until full.

Is this not what we want for ourselves and for our friends, family, and romantic partners? In the latter, do we not want them to pour their love into an excessive number of intellectual, emotional, familial, romantic, and sexual attachments? The first three to be sure, albeit begrudgingly in the average sexually exclusive relationship.

It seems wise to drop the word monogamy. We no longer define our relationships by what we do with our genitals; we define ourselves and our relationships by the large amount of love we receive and give in return; we want our partners to receive and give the same. Monogamy, etymologically, does not capture the love we feel and provide within and outside of sexually exclusive relationships. An ethical monogamy is, in fact, polyamorous. We will get to the “more than one” mate part of the definition in time. For now, let us use this correct word, a much more inspiring word that aptly captures the foundation of our romances and our lives – let us define our already ethical practices and states appropriately.

[1] Bigamy (Latin bi– = two, see –gamy above), polyandry (from the Greek polyandria, having many husbands; see below on poly-, and anēr = man), and polygyny (from the Greek polygýn, having many wives; see poly– below, and the Greek gunē = woman) similarly define themselves by sexual intercourse by being practices or states of marriage. The former, no doubt carrying over the religious offenses from its Middle English root, is a criminal offense when done knowingly.

Non-monogamy is for commies


After a short conversation at the bar last night, I started to reformulate, and shorten, something I’ve already said.

It seems that monogamist logic leads to ethical aporia. It goes something like:

“I want this (monogamy).”
Don’t you require another individual with whom to form a couple?
“Yes, I want this (monogamy) with a person (who can complete the wished for relationship).”
Shouldn’t you decide on the nature and form of the relationship together?
“If the person doesn’t want what I want, then they are not worth having a relationship with.”

So the relationship is for yourself, regardless of the needs and wants of the other?

“I want this (monogamy) with another person in so far as their needs and wants match my own (and their wants and needs should match my own since I want this [monogamy]).”

The person has value and worth when their views match yours only (or are forced to match yours)?

“No, but… I want…”

Non-monogamist logic is aware of this idea of One perspective (on a world that should otherwise be understood and experienced as containing multiple and oftentimes conflicting perspectives). This logic can be understood as:

“I don’t know what you want (and you don’t know what I want), and neither of us knows what we want from each other), so the structure of the romance should parallel these changing modes of desires and needs.”

There is something more ethical in this logic; it recognizes and attempts to negotiate the ambiguity of existence.

I would claim that monogamy is logically impossible if we hold the latter as an ethical principle. A claim to a static form of wants and needs makes an effort to predict, and perhaps negate (although not always – how dramatic and exciting are the affairs!), future encounters. The shape of an encounter, logically, cannot be stated in advance; or, if it can, it cannot logically (fully) consider the other participant in the encounter because they have not yet been encountered and therefore, the formulations about ourselves and the other person are unnecessary and incorrect abstractions.

In different words, even if two participants agree upon monogamy in perfect harmony, this is something of a false consciousness: you can’t agree on a future encounter, i.e., the same monogamist logic will play itself out when new intellectual, emotional, romantic, and sexual encounters take place. This is why serial monogamy is the dominant practice today. What is implied, therefore, is the flux of desires and needs. Non-monogamist logic thus works alongside this ambiguity as a principle based on ethically encountering other individuals, not the solipsist logic of personal happiness at any cost. (Is it surprising that monogamy and the capitalist ethos follow a similar logic? Both suggest that what matters first and foremost is the individual prior to encounter with the other: e.g., I want monogamy and will do whatever I can to achieve it; I will be successful in the marketplace and will do whatever I can to achieve it.)

Non-monogamy is communist love, and I think this is something Alain Badiou wanted to say in In Praise of Love, but he lacked the courage to name it. I agree with the monogamists’ uncritical dismissal of non-monogamy then: it is a good theory and difficult to implement in practice. (Monogamy, on the other hand, is an unethical theory and the repercussions have been extremely violent.) Being a good person is hard work. We should try to oust ourselves, and our partners, from the false consciousness of monogamy. It is not enough to say that we can be ethical within a poorly structured arrangement. As Duane Rousselle frequently writes, although with reference to capitalism and via Badiou, we need a radical change and should not be satisfied with incremental change. Non-monogamy is for communists; if we agree with leftist principles, why do we our radical politics stop before love?

Badiou contra Contemporary Romance


There is nothing controversial about the chain, Promiscuity > Dating > Monogamy > Serial Monogamy (or serial coupling).[1] In our committed relationships, however, we stress the differences between our monthly or yearly partners and those that receive only a few hours or days of our life. But both poles function in similar ways, what Badiou calls the One: a refusal to find Truth in difference, to commit to love, and to accede to love’s potential failures.

Now Badiou does not address the structural – or cultural – forms of contemporary romance. His is a philosophy without concrete examples (except for literature). In fact, if we take him at his word, employing the concept of ‘the scene of Two,’ then we may not see Badiou’s distance from the exemplary monogamist in Søren Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way. But where Kierkegaard’s married man and woman fold their lives into a One, an amorous fusion of lives – something Badiou wants us to eradicate -, Badiou claims love is an encounter between (or amongst as I’ll suggest) an immanent Two.

Let’s consider two ways of having love. Beauvoir describes inauthentic love as fusion: partners identifying with each other, or as each other. There is both a mysticism and a masochism at work here. On the one hand, an amorous ecstasy where Two become One in flesh and spirit. On the other, to annihilate oneself is also a masochistic desire in the sense of blending with the loved one at the expense of selfhood. Beauvoir sees this in the ‘woman in love,’ a woman so fueled by ecstatic union that she reduces herself to the man’s values and truths alone. There is nothing reciprocal between partners when Beauvoir writes:

The woman in love tries to see with his eyes; she reads the books he reads, prefers the pictures and the music he prefers; she is interested only in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friendships, his enmities, his opinions; when she questions herself, it is his reply she tries to hear; she wants to have in her lungs the air he has already breathed; the fruits and flowers that do not come from his hands have no taste and no fragrance…. ‘I am Heathcliffe,’ says Catherine in Wuthering Heights; that is the cry of every woman in love; she is another incarnation of her loved one, his reflection, his double: she is he. (The Second Sex)

Although this union is described from the situation of the woman in love, its resonances cut across genders.

So there is the Two as One. There is also the One as seen or included as part of the Three. Kierkegaard’s married couple shed their individualities for the divine; Two become One under the banner of God. This is the ethical stage for Kierkegaard (and similarly applicable today with marriage substituted for ‘serious relationship’): in marriage, religiosity is the guarantor of two bodies uniting, a union of two which can then posit and hold one perspective on being-in-the-world. ‘[T]ogether they stand more firm than either of them alone.’ For Kierkegaard and his ethical marriage, woman is still subsumed under the divine guidance of man, but today we might suggest that the financial situation or child-rearing situation solicits of fusion of Two into One regardless of gender/sex.

The marriage certificate operates as One seen by Three as does the Facebook archive: husband and wife, in a relationship with, are both pronouncements by a mediator. In these ways of performing love, one body is amorously linked with a second, mediated by a third, and quickly returned to One, i.e., one perspective on the world. Where does promiscuity fit into this and what is its relationship to serial monogamy? Promiscuity is the One extended across a number of sexual encounters. Non-amorous sex posits and re-posits one ego contra the valuation and recognition of the other(s). In serial monogamy, similarly, one ego initially fused with another, breaks its bond to find itself a newer/better romantic relationship which best suits its narcissism (cf. Beauvoir on narcissism).

Badiou speaks to the lack of duration in love these days; we have lost the sense of surviving ‘catastrophic existence’ in our partnerships (In Praise of Love). Commitment to love is absent. He speaks at length about the absence of risk – love is always an adventure and a risk: a declaration of love may fail. Yet with Promiscuity > Serial Monogamy, both collapse love into a casual indulgence; for relationships in this chain, duration is not a matter of time, but the degree of fusion. With the former it is easy to pull oneself from the sexual encounter because fusion has not yet occurred; when turning from one monogamous relationship to the next, two individuals fused into one perspective cannot so easily wrest themselves apart. This is why, Beauvoir writes of the woman in love, ‘the absence of her lover is always torture’ (The Second Sex). A break-up is therefore extremely dangerous: half of the world goes missing, thus a substitute is immediately found. It is this kind of epistemological framework which has generated various neuroses today, such as the woman who cannot prepare a meal without her/a partner, and caused Hannah Black to frighteningly share herself with readers, ‘Pared back to the mode of survival, I realised I had become a couple better than I thought: I had become a couple so successfully that I had forgotten how to be a person.’This man had a similar experience after his divorce.

When the fusion of One is broken, the substitute partner in serial monogamy fills in the hole left by the absent partner. Thus, similar to promiscuity, no risk or commitment to love is present because the next partnership merely stands in for what has been lost – the process of fostering love, and its adventures, is foreclosed. This gap in existence is due, in part, to the myth of ‘true love,’ i.e., a ‘true’ feeling/attachment/whatever we believe ourselves capable of expressing prior to the process in which we may begin to express it. Put differently, the process is already standardized before another person is met. Indeed, this neglect of founding love together operates according to a fascist logic: love is ‘like this’ regardless of the other person’s desires, etc. This myth, which we all hold to varying degrees, pre-exists an individual with whom we may love (‘The Scene of Two’; IPL). Yet Badiou has said, ‘Just after the encounter you are seduced and you can not [sic] repeat the encounter. The initial encounter is lost. If you repeat the encounter, it is very artificial. Generally speaking, alas, it is impossible to repeat the encounter. If you do not do what was necessary from the encounter then you can not [sic] repeat the scene’ (The Subject of Change). Ultimately, serial monogamy shares promiscuity’s difficulties in founding an enduring love.

My contentious claim is that for Badiou’s philosophy of love promiscuity and serial monogamy are the same. Promiscuity is defined not merely as casual sex, but also as a lack of discrimination – this is what I’ve called the serial monogamist who fills in the gap left over by his/her departed lover with the first person to come along. I wrote about this at length in a review of Disney Frozen (2013). Thus an individual does not need to be promiscuous (in the participatory sense of casual sex) prior to dating, monogamy, and serial monogamy. The logic of promiscuity, as a lack of commitment, functions akin at the end of the chain. One partner is displaced and replaced. This is why our contemporary romances are of the off-and-on again variety; essentially one can be promiscuous in the sense of breaking up and getting back together indefinitely. We might go as far and say that promiscuity and serial monogamy are closely linked forms because two sexed bodies engage in non-amorous masturbation (‘What is Love?’). The failure of the chain, as I’ve outlined, is a failure to establish the scene of Two.

Two find love in a chance encounter; a declaration of love is performed to found a commitment, a fidelity to draw that encounter away from its randomness (IPL). Love does not pre-exist its process, Badiou argues (WL); it establishes the Truth of difference, the truth of Two unique subjectivities coming together to add another perspective to their being-in-the-world. For this reason, Badiou argues, love is a humanism and an ethics: ‘all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference’ (IPL). The key term here is endure, and I saw exemplary instances of love enduring in the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang and in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). [2]

Many love stories in contemporary film try to replicate the promiscuity of serial monogamy: a tragic event (cheating or whatever), followed by a tragic break, then a new but less fulfilling love affair, and finally ending with the ‘healthy’ reunion of the initial pair. But if we take the tragic event not as a destruction of the One, but as a claim to the Truth of difference between the two persons involved, with this partnership founded by a commitment to stay with an in love through catastrophic existence, love will endure and perhaps be stronger for gaining an additional experience to integrate into the Two scene.

On the Truth of difference, consider the raw materials of heterosexual romance, i.e., two sexed bodies marked by their differences. The coming together of two sexed bodies necessarily posits difference (ST). The Two cannot be One at the most basic level. We can expand this example of difference to ontology, epistemology, and politics. The universal, for Badiou, is the Truth of this difference whereby we experience the world from two perspectives and not that of One (or, the paradox of this sort of philosophy, the universal Truth is that there are many truths): ‘The truth of the situation insofar as there exists two disjunct positions’ (WL). Love grants us such access through its intimacy, contagion, contact, affects, and longevity.

Given Badiou’s arguments and remarks, it seems that Two is numerically two simply for theoretical discussion. To escape the chain of Promiscuity > Serial Monogamy, and push Badiou’s thought to its social, cultural, ethical, and political goal, love should look more like: Love of One Individual > Love of Two Individuals > Love of Three Individuals > n ‘One, Two, infinity’ (WL). This new chain does not foreclose the possibility of a one-partnered romantic relationship (although I suspect partners would not want monogamy if they adopted this philosophy of love); what is often foreclosed in contemporary monogamy is an openness to love as such.

Contemporary romance proceeds according to a serialization and substitution of loved individuals, thereby foreclosing love as Truth (and ethics). Indeed, Badiou has said that he still loves all those he had romances with (IPL). My argument is therefore not in opposition to monogamy but its recent incarnation that more closely resembles our practices of casual sex. For Badiou, against subjective and historical time and in favor of destiny (IPL), what matters is the commitment to love and Truth. This conclusion resonates with Deleuze’s philosophy of love in Anti-Oedipus much more than Badiou would perhaps be willing to grant (cf. The Clamor of Being), but I nevertheless believe it is the inevitable result of the philosopher’s hypotheses. In this new chain, what pre-exists the process of love is a commitment made to the Two scene and to ethics, then extended by lovers to a more firmly entrenched fidelity, and finally, to include Three, Four, and so on. What pre-exists love is not the will to true love or whatever, the anonymous person who fills the confabulated hole in existence. Love is a commitment to the Truth of difference, of disjunction and separation, of a multiplicity of vantage points.

[1] I’ll use the following definitions: ‘Monogamy was defined as reporting one sex partner over the course of the previous 12 months. Serial monogamy was defined as more than one sex partner over the past 12 months but with no overlap of first/ last sex dates of any other partners’ (Nield, Ph.D. dissertation, 2013). Although, what are called concurrent sexual relationships may also apply. The issue may be whether I’ve simply invented serial monogamy as the standard practice. Research suggests otherwise. It is the ‘normative pattern for sexual relationships among young people in Canada (Fisher & Boroditsky, 2000; Maticka-Tyndale, 1997)’ (Peterman, 2008).

[2] While clearly indebted to Badiou here, these arguments and claims had their initial developments after viewing three unrelated films: Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), Disney’s Frozen (2014), and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005).

We have never been ethical: Reflections on Freud, Bataille, and the New Monogamy


The commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the strongest defense against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfil. … What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it [the unshakable super-ego] can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! … [S]o long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic conception of human nature [namely, that the abolition of private property will eliminate difference that causes aggressiveness].

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, quoted in Stanley Cavell, “The World as Things”


I keep returning to Bataille’s work, less for its description or account of ontology, but for its status as a work of ethics. In a way Bataille engages in a dialogue with Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Bataille’s ethics is not prescriptive and it barely qualifies as descriptive – he mostly describes situations in which he does not know firsthand, e.g., Aztec sacrifices, potlatches, asceticism (not including eroticism, which he knew much about in practice). The (human) problem he is unraveling is the near impossibility of being ethical because, for him, to be ethical is to be a “madman [sic].” To be ethical is to sacrifice some part of a self, otherwise whole and impenetrable, for an other.

An impossibility because we are all a little bit conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (as a blockage to getting outside habits, safety, yourself – an anxiety about taking action in the world). Bataille, alongside Sade, asserts that there is no transgression of law or norm without recognition of that law or norm. One claims the existence of God to then destroy the claim, for instance. Ethics and transgression go hand in hand if we rigorously, and positively, consider Bataille’s philosophy. For Sade transgression was the surpassing of law for individual pleasure. What Bataille and Beauvoir discover, in her essay on the Marquis, is that within Sade’s own writing there is a definite lack of pleasure in sovereign transgression – pleasure is always better when shared.

Bataille has a strong sense of community, or what I prefer to call it, interpersonal relations. The ethical moment, however brief, is between individuals, one opposed or against an other (the scary kind of other), and then the coming together of these two (or more) individuals to create something new. If law or norm is to retain or secure an individual’s status as whole, sovereign, independent, the law is the above: conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (and all three are linked I would argue). Dissolving my self, in belief or body, for the other is radical (abnormal), interpersonal (transgressive), intimate (ethical).

The degree to which we let ourselves divest from tradition, solipsism, neuroses is the ethical moment; before this moment, in order to transgress what is normal and habitual, our recourse to traditional ontological, social, and cultural modes must be firmly situated and assessed (and we should see Bataille’s affinity with Nietzsche’s thought here).

More concretely: Staking a future in a slightly left of center political party is in fact conservative, for it plays within the confines of the dominant political and economic system; a lucrative career, even in the arts, suggests the same. The dreaded statement, subtly a criticism of abnormal romantic and sexual situations, “That’s fine for them by I could never do that,” is fundamentally solipsistic and neurotic because it entrenches the individual in his/her beliefs over and against individuals who stand outside them, forces them not to act or change the conservative position.

But rather than berate such acts and statements as the above, Bataille suggests instead that ethical behaviour is a matter of degree. Depending on the individual, reading detective novels for the thrill of Thanatos is the same as a transgressive sexual encounter. The degrees to which we can stray from traditional behaviour and ideas, always briefly – we must return from the summit to work, regain our strength, etc., says Bataille (a ring of the inauthentic/authentic of Heidegger similarly applies) –, we can call ethics. A traditional and normative tendency acts as the ground for the ethical encounter. In a sense, then, we have never been ethical – the moment has passed and must be attempted anew each time.


I have been asked why I retained the coinage ‘non-monogamy’ to describe alternative practices to monogamy; these practices should stand on their own or something to that effect, the criticism suggests. But as I outlined in a previous entry, that opposition is not shrinking nor is the dismissiveness of alternative practices by popular media aiding the cause (Rolling Stone‘s “Millenials and Sex”). Despite the historical truth of romantic and sexual relationships, that we have never been monogamous[1] (and if we would like to think we have been then a new definition of love would then be necessary), I want to hold on to that radical and oppositional coinage precisely because of its inherency to confront. On the other hand I suggested that non-monogamy, as a term, signifies a range of differing practices which allow for a strong sense of the term polyamory (many or multiple loves), which is of course the more challenging task.

I’m growing more comfortable with the phrase the New Monogamy to describe contemporary romance in general. We like our long-term single partner relationships but we are more inclined to negotiate the terms of that relationship/contract rather than adhere to some common sense definition. New Monogamy: not better, not all that strange, just a little different. This would imply that we have much work left to do, i.e., in our attempts, valiant and lackluster, to not entirely adopt the normalcy of a two-partner relationship and the contemporary gender, social, and cultural ethos that comes along with it. (This ethos, I’d argue, is a concern for political equality – the fight to allow individuals to appear as individuals in public – while neglecting ethical equality – forgetting goodness and love as personal expressions for one or more persons at a time. We protest Avril Lavigne’s racism but don’t seem to care about our neighbours or that our partners treat us terribly [or vice versa]).

Non-monogamy, given what I’ve quickly noted about Bataille’s philosophy, retains the normalcy that we unfortunately live in and with while simultaneously overcoming it. In this way our traditional tendencies are acknowledged; acknowledgment would be the first step towards ethical behaviour.[2] Where we go from there is up to the individuals involved.


[1] Monogamy would be something like Aristotle’s good life. Monogamy is achieved when both individuals reach their deaths, but even then, since chance plays a large part in the concept of the good life, both partners would have to be entirely secure and confident in their encounters with others, which would more or less suggest that no other person takes a sexual or romantic interest in either partner. The good life, like monogamy, is painfully distant and perhaps impossible.

[2] I prefer to discuss and model a theory of ethics on observable behaviour or action rather than ideas or Western complacency (relativism or ‘meaning-well’). Action implies an engagement with others, a necessary component of ethical theory.