Romance and Flensing at Boskone

Boston’s still snowed in, with drifts reaching my front window from the ground, but while I haven’t managed to take that snowbird vacation, Steph and I did spend much of this President’s Day weekend at Boskone 52. As always, Boskone was a seed and prompt for great conversations and weird stories. I was on a funny cover pose panel with Bruce Coville (!). And many other excellent people, of course, but I read Bruce Coville when I lived in Ohio, age seven, back when there seemed an impassable gulf between me and the Adult World where people made decisions and wrote books.

One of the weekend’s stand-out conversations for me was a panel discussion with Ada Palmer, Debra Doyle, and Chris Jackson about romance in genre. Ada and I spun off into theory land for a bit, and I’d like to take this post to at least map some of the territory we explored, since this is my blog and I can use it as an ideological scratchpad if I want. Everything I’m about to write is filtered through considerable sleep debt; many weeks’ worth of coffee has been consumed in the interim. Failures of logic are of course mine.

Ada observed that the modern romance, in which two people meet one another, grow infatuated, and celebrate and affirm that attachment through marriage, thereby ending the story, emerges for the first time in the early nineteenth century. Before that, romances tended to be extramarital stories. Debra Doyle, also on the panel, observed that passion in the middle ages was seen as a primarily extramarital phenomenon, since marriage (at least among ruling classes) tended to be a matter of settling property and fealty rights. Passion and romance were directed outside marriage, and seen as dangerous natural phenomena.

Theodora Goss, on the previous night’s panel about parents in folklore and genre fiction, mentioned that the concept of motherhood also emerged in the early nineteenth century, and it’s a truism of college literature classes that the notion of Delightful Childhood Innocence takes shape in the Victorian era.

It seems to me, I said on the panel, though I have no basis for this point beyond correlation and intuition, that these broad transformations of myth might have roots in the societal and economic transformations taking place due to the industrial revolution.

I’m about to butcher economic history, but in pre-industrial times, property and biology seem to have been linked. Accumulation of wealth happened through blood: cows give birth, wheat grew, married couples produced children to inherit. The whole King is the Land myth structure emerges from this: in a society where blood is the store and vector of value, the spilling of that blood, or the failure to respect it, leads to chaos and disorder.

(Insert parallels to the Mandate of Heaven and the bureaucratic failures of dynasties’ late emperors here.)

During and after the industrial revolution, a capitalist pattern emerges: wealth transforms into goods the ownership of which passes between people based on contract. Blood’s significance fades. Relations between people begin to matter less, in terms of wealth development and transfer, than relations between contracting entities that may or may not correspond to people. Marriage ceases to be the fundamental unit of society, and childbearing is no longer a principle form of wealth accumulation.

All the flesh-and-blood stuff, it seems, gets flensed from the wealth-and-power stuff. (I’d say ‘workers get alienated from their labor,’ but I don’t want this to become a purely Marxist conversation and anyways ‘flense’ is a nice word.) The people with their wobbly bits are “free” to develop new, more satisfying relationships to one another, while the contracting entities (which may or may not be people) take on the societal business of wealth transfer. When your child is not an heir or heiress or peaceweaver in waiting (to steal Nicola Griffith’s excellent term), what is she? “Innocent”? Well, maybe. At least, that meme has currency in C19 English society. When you’re no longer required to marry for the advancement of your family’s political and economic goals, what should you marry for? Well, what about this “love” thing over here? Maybe the realignment of romance, motherhood, childhood, and (I suspect) fatherhood emerges from this fundamental systematic shift.

(As I write all this out, I see interesting parallels between the relationships of what I’m calling ‘contracting entities’ and ‘flesh-and-blood persons,’ and the relationships of human minds and hypothetical postsingularity AI minds, in the realm of responsibility-offloading—maybe the development of the human mind post-singularity, if we still are pre-singularity, will parallel in some ways this romantic transformation?)

If we have hit on something here, if marriage and romance really did play different roles for most of (western?) human history until some of their “responsibilities” shifted to the capitalist system, then it explains some interesting artifacts in modern fiction.

The whole “back when men were real men, women were real women, and small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri” idea has been mocked rightly, but maybe it reflects a sense that love and marriage worked differently in The Old Days (in addition to its obvious infantilist yearning for the mighty and perfect parents some of us remember). Even moving away from that toxic image, authors as disparate as Connie Willis and Dan Simmons show us moments when the Postmodern Man confronts a Pre-modern Woman he recognizes as a being alien from the Postmodern Women with whom he’s familiar. (I’m thinking of the historian’s encounter with Helen in Ilium, and Ned’s first meeting with Tossie in To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

The separation of wealth-and-power stuff from love-and-sex stuff would have other consequences, too: on the one hand, a societal intimation that romance is only free and true between equals on the wealth-and-power level (the power-couple dream), and on the other hand, an eroticism of power and contracts, which billionaire romance in general and the Valentine’s Day release of 50 Shades of Grey in specific seem to support. The Kama Sutra discusses spanking people, yes, but the Marquis De Sade seems very much a creature of the transition we’re discussing here. When power and sex become (at least in theory) separate spheres, it makes perfect sense that each sphere should try to colonize, or subvert, the other. (Eddore vs. Arisia, anyone? Squishy shapeshifty biological stuff vs. abstract “higher” mental power stuff that just-so-happens to hinge on eugenics, law enforcement, and the politics of fear?) I wonder if power exchange fantasies as a modern would describe them were as common in the pre-industrial era? (To stem off the most obvious objection to this: I think there are some structural differences between modern power exchange fantasy and courtly love—though that’s an essay I probably won’t write because I’d like this site to stay at least sorta PG.)

Let’s wrap up with the usual slate of warnings: I recognize I’m making huge leaps of argument. I’m not positive I’d stand behind this theory—like I said, this is my ideological scratchpad. And, of course, contractual relationships existed in the pre-industrial world, corporations were formed, etc. etc.; to spin a phrase from Gibson, the future was always here, but it was never equally distributed. Now I’ve written all this out, I’ll have some notes to refer to as I read more, and learn. One of Steph’s div school books is called Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, which seems like a good place to start. (It has an ideological axe to grind, but, honestly, give me a scholar who’s obvious about their axe any day, over a scholar who tries to hide their axe or pretend said axe doesn’t exist. What, this old thing behind my back? It’s just hahaha a potato peeler.)

Anyway, that should give you a sense of Boskone. I just went on for 1450 words about a ten-minute conversation, and I didn’t even get into Ken Liu’s, Carrie Cuinn’s, and my back-and-forth on the folklore panel about authenticity, copyfighting, authority, cadastral mapping and text ownership, or the fantasy-and-vacation chat on the Fantasy Vacation panel, or how awesome it was to share an Urban Fantasy panel with Ginjer Buchanan (!!!!) and Leigh Perry. Or the rest of the convention’s running chat with Ada about authorial responsibility. Or how refreshing it was, after how much I worry about, you know, will the next book sell, do I have any hope, etc., to watch Jo Walton interview Steve Brust and first, realize just how much they love writing, and second, remember just how much I love it, too.

Good times.

14 Responses to “Romance and Flensing at Boskone”

  1. Paul Weimer

    Sounds a bit like 4th Street Fantasy 🙂

    Speaking of which, are you coming back this year, Max?

  2. Dave* Twiddy

    What we forget is close pre-industrial humanity flew to the level of subsistence. Individuals had to cling as closely as they could to their (generally-family based) economic units. There was little
    margin for error, and error was fatal. With the coming of modern economics and technology, those economic ties grew gradually
    looser, eroding and re-creating the theoretical ties that sustained the economic units, eventually dissolving them until it is now possible to live an entirely anonymous life, with the only personal
    ties being purely voluntary.

    (For instance, the pre-industrial equivalent of a recession was a famine. And frankly, it was a lot worse)

    This is an odd situation, and I’m honestly not sure how well it sits with the fundamentally band-primate based nature of the human animal. We’ll find out as time goes on.

    • max

      Oh, certainly! One point I didn’t make during my disclaimers was that the argument above may sound like I’m valorizing preindustrial society or something like that, which I really don’t intend. Modern life has its issues and particular psychological hangups, but fewer people are dying for stupid reasons than ever before, and we can feed everyone on the planet, even though we don’t.

      I think the erosion you describe fits into the emergence of the contract-entity as in the essay—these days it’s possible to let love / fleshy stuff fade entirely and exist as homo contractum (maybe I’m conjugating wrong?), seeking erotic satisfaction through artificial stimuli, food through Grubhub, entertainment through WoW subscription.

      As you say—tiiii-iii-iii-ime is on our side. (Unless it’s not.)

  3. Dave* Twiddy

    Yes, although one relationship-the marriage relationship-has gotten less commidified over time. But, in proportion, also more tenuous, as readily available divorce allows it to be broken in ways it couldn’t in premodern times. The only relationship to continue strong is the responsibility of parents to children, and with modern birth control even that is easily avoided. The looseness, the voluntary nature, is key.

    it may be that we are homo contractum now, and the next step is not just virtual relationships, but virtual existence, where a person lives in an entirely artificial stimuli environment, perfectly suited to their desires.

    • Peter Erwin

      It may be worth noting that divorce *was* possible in many premodern societies; the medieval European/Christian absolute prohibition was something rather atypical (shared only by Hinduism, I think).

      The anthropologist Helen Fisher argues that, cross-culturally, marriages last an average of four years, and suggests this corresponds to a traditional time between births for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

  4. BDG

    This is close to something I’ve been thinking about recently because of school (the rise of corporate personhood in North America) and this was a very interesting read for me. Especially the idea biology and property were linked.

    If I may I would like a crack at the idea. I think outside of the cities of Western Europe no one actually owned property, in a sense not even the King, or Lord, or whoever did because they were a placeholder for God. The King’s blood was blessed by God to rule over his peers and to maintain this blessing one would need a very strict and controlling system of marriage. I think we first see this break down of style of marriage when the idea of private property arises, the Lords no longer are stand in for God, non-holy individuals can now control their own land, and thus their own wealth. So without this demand to continue the blessed bloodline one start marrying for other reason (if not similar reasons–to assure ‘good’ breeding and what not, basically imposing culture on biology through procreation). Love being a paramount (haha) amount them.

    So in a sense not only is it the connection of biology and property but also who has power, and how is the power is maintained that show us how marriage operates. This is of course for Western Europe only. I don’t know enough of history outside of that to comment.

  5. heresiarch (@heresiarch)

    You may find Haiyan Lee’s A Revolution of the Heart interesting here:

  6. Peter Erwin

    the Marquis De Sade seems very much a creature of the transition we’re discussing here.

    This article
    suggests that something like sadomasochism was known in the 1600s, and quite possibly in the Renaissance (if not in actual antiquity), so I’d be a little skeptical about claiming it’s a side effect of industrialization.

  7. James

    The time frame is a little more extended than just the Nineteenth Century. The mediaevals certainly have a romance tradition outside marriage (ignoring Eric et Eneide for the moment) but in the Sixteenth Century there is both Spenser’s Amoretti, using the poetic tropes associated with the love story within a framework of marriage, and the Shakespearean comedy, which inevitably ends in marriage). Of course, this doesn’t invalidate your general point (the period marks a transition from land-based wealth to mercantile fortunes.

  8. Ada Palmer

    This is Ada. My mind went back to this delightful conversation while re-watching a bunch of Shakespeare romances, which put my mind back on the question which launched the discussion, that being whether the modern popularity of romances with a super-rich man but a fairly poor woman are in part modern ways to approximate the pre-modern power dynamic in which romance came into its own as a genre, since, while romance was developing, there was an automatic power dynamic in which the male had power and authority over the female even if she was more powerful by birth (see Cymbeline – I’m trying to limit my examples to Shakespeare here so they will all come from one time snapshot). Since so many tropes and formulae of romance involve that pre-modern power inequality, in modern versions it’s hard to imitate the same structures and tensions without introducing a modern equivalent power inequality, which having the man be a billionaire achieves. The development of romances about young people seeking marriage is indeed older than the 19th c, rather (to clarify what Max was trying to summarize) the 19th c is where I date the point that pre-marital romance, with happy ending = marriage, finally becomes the most common standard form, the endpoint of a few centuries in which marriage-seeking romance grew from extremely rare, to rare, to one of many coequal common types, to the most common. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is marriage-seeking romance but Cymbeline is post-marriage fidelity-testing romance, and if R&J is now much more popular, it is, in a big way, because it is a kind of romance that became more popular in the 19th c when the cannon was being formed. But look, for example, at Dante (so c. 1330) when… Interruption, more soon…

  9. Ada Palmer

    Sorry about that interruption. When Dante wrote the Commedia in 1330, the most ubiquitous romances in his culture, referenced in Inferno Canto III, were Lancelot and Guinevere, and Paolo & Francesca, another adulterous romance in which Francesca (married to a brute) reads about Guenivere in the company of the sweet young Paolo, which leads them to adultery, and then death when they are caught by her husband. Those kinds of romances, Courtly Love and their ilk, dominated romance in the Medieval and early Renaissance periods. Certainly romance-seeking stories, often tragic, were around since antiquity, but when you said “a romance” that wasn’t the default in the hearer’s mind – an adultery tale was.

    Even in the Shakespeare that is about marriage-seeking romance, the adultery-romance default is still extremely present. Think in things like “As You Like It” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” about how often everyone, especially women, make jokes about how sure the men are to be cuckolded if they wed, i.e. there is the threat/expectation of post-marital infidelity. Compare that to modern romances – it’s hard to imagine the women in a modern romance teasing the man about the probability that she will cheat on him. And similarly the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost (and, for that matter, Juliette in her “Swear not by the Moon, the inconstant Moon…” bit) are deeply worried that men are only interested in the pursuit and, after marriage, will suddenly not find the women appealing anymore, moving on to seek more traditional (extra-marital i.e. Courtly Love type) romances. Shakespeare, circa 1600, is mid-transition but still firmly in the space where adultery is expected and the idea of romance continuing in marriage is rare and exciting. Again I think of Cymbeline here, that rare story which BEGINS with marriage–between a princess and a pauper I might add but nonetheless she works hard on “serving” her “lord” faithfully, there’s our power dynamic. The central threat in Cymbeline comes when another man, being told that Cymbeline is a virtuous and chaste wife, chaste even in her husband’s absence, refuses to believe it, insists on testing it, and, when he finds it true, declares her to be as impossible and miraculous as a goddess. Is this poetic hyperbole? Yes, but it’s also a character marveling at this shocking counter-genre twist: a virtuous wife, aloof to the assails of Courtly Love. Shakespeare is mid-transition. The canon formation of Shakespeare–sorting the “great” plays from the “minor” and the “bad”–then happened later *as romance itself was changing*, so if Romeo and Juliet is now the most famous, along with Hamlet (and his long speeches about marital fidelity), while Cymbeline is minor, it is in part because we have made canonical the texts whose romances were the shape that later tastes prefer. Romeo and Juliet in the form Shakespeare gave it is not a very old story, really – Pyramus and Thisbe is but wasn’t really particularly popular so far as classical myths go until Shakespeare and post-Shakespeare-reception-of-Shakespeare’s-version made it so. The most famous romances of earlier periods–Zeus’s many conquests, Odysseus and Penelope, Aeneas and Dido, Venus and Mars, Paris and Helen, Catullus and Lesbia, later Lancelot and Guinevere, the Lady of Shallot, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura–I’m literally listing these in order as I get to them skimming along my shelves of European Lit and look at the complete absence of the two-young-people-happily-ever-after formula which has grown to the modern default. And if we’d developed differently, if cultural change between 1600 and 1850 had gone another way, maybe Cymbeline would now be the most famous romance in our canon, and Romeo & Juliet the obscure one we’re excited to see a Shakespeare troop put on.

    The causes of this transformation of the romance genre, the rise of marriage-seeking romance as the dominant (though certainly not only) form, are fascinating to think about (I think Reformation and Counter-Reformation discourse about virtues, along with new Enlightenment discussions of rationality, i.e. what Sade was discussing when he explored power vs. rationality in a philosophisexual context, were big contributors), but on the panel we were more interested in how the residue of pre-modern romance and its power dynamics might be, in echo, why we see so many romances about male billionaires and poorer women instead of the reverse, since it replicates pre-modern formula.

    Going to get back to work now, but, yes, wonderful panel! I should be at Boskone again this year, hope you will be too!!


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