Love is irrational. Behind closed doors, its most physical manifestation – sex – is everybody’s own business. So why should science, let alone sociology, attempt to apply its cold, analytical logic to it? Well, for two reasons.
Firstly, love cannot be defined as an objective, historical constant. Along with everything else, its meaning is shaped by the culture that surrounds it. Secondly, love performs various social functions. Procreating may be the most obvious, but it is not the only one. Many functions of love go far beyond pure biological reproduction.
In the late 18th century Friedrich Schlegel came up with a revolutionary idea: Romantic Love. He and those within his scholarly circle (including his girlfriend) argued that there was more to love than just the Judeo-Christian concept of enlarging a man’s flock and lineage.
In his novel Lucinde, Schlegel draws a picture of love where the specifics of gender fade away, and where partnership and friendship are amalgamated into a free, singular, intimate love. In a marriage formed on this basis, the lovers view each other as androgynous individuals and not just as a product of their gender, class or religion.
Challenging the status quo as they did, Schlegel’s writings were ahead of their time, and it was only 200 years later when what was practised in Schlegel’s novels evolved into the widely popular Free Love movement of the 1960s.
As the 1960s came to a close, and with society’s lips not as tightly pursed as they were in the 18th century, Schlegel’s theories were developed, and taken much further. In 1969, German social scientist Niklas Luhmann not only disputed the idea that love’s only function was species propagation, but also refuted the idea that it could exist outside of social categories. Instead, he put forward the idea of love as one of the ways in which we are able to understand our lives.
In a world of increasing complexity, people need generalised symbols as guides to navigate through the otherwise incomprehensible mass of surrounding information. Luhmann extracts the leading symbols as power, money, truth, and love. Through these we are able to reduce our relationships with the world into easily understood categories. However, Luhmann singles out love as being completely unique amongst these guiding symbols. For example, while the concept of “truth” pervades many of our social circumstances, allowing us to build the idea of an objective and moral reality for ourselves, love does not. Instead, it only applies to intimate, unique relationships.
In the rest of modern society the individual is forced to stumble through life split into different social roles, atomised by a mesh of various structures. One person may be many things all at once: a student, a sibling, a parent and/or worker. Yet it is only in the realm of love that two individuals can enjoy the mutual acceptance of their undivided selves.
The world created by this intimate love is the only place where society has no control. As Ulrich Beck writes, it is a “Utopia of counter-individualisation which unlocks the cage of normality”. If this seems far-fetched, and more theoretical than practical, then you’re right – Beck has a reason to call it Utopia. Such a micro-society independently constructed by two equal persons sadly enough doesn’t exist.
A relationship based on this love is at this point in time only an idea, or an ideal. It would exist in a world apart from the rest, where social norms such as gender stereotypes or class bias cannot arrange individuals into marriage, but instead, where the process of who loves who and how we express our love is only constructed by ourselves: a non-society of lovers.