This article is derived from Episode #006 of the Bad Philosopher Podcast.

Have you ever wondered where our modern ideal of love comes from? I mean, there's something about love that can whisk us off to another dimension and imbue our lives with a sense of meaning that we wouldn't otherwise get from a solo existence without love.

And yet, there's an undeniable element to this modern ideal: that it's totally made up. That 'romantic love' is a social convention that's become pre-eminent in our culture only relatively recently in history. And that this form of love is an enduring co-created myth that we've all chosen to believe in and perpetuate as a society.

So, where did this 'romantic love' myth come from? Well, before we can explore how love originated, we need to investigate how ideas, symbols, and images have come to dominate our culture in the first place.

The Simulacra of Reality

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard discusses how, in our lives, we tend to replace objective reality with symbols and images. These are essentially ideas in our own minds that are layered on top of our reality.

At best their worst, these representations add color and richness to reality. At their worst, they obscure and conceal reality.

Baudrillard even goes so far as to say that, at a certain point, our entire society and culture becomes made up of what he calls simulacra (singular: simulacrum)—these representations of the world become more 'real' than the real itself.

In his view, all of us take part in this simulacra. In doing so, we become simulators. Because we can't see the real world through the simulacra being layered on top of it, or distinguish between what's real and non-real, we behave in such a way that our actions, ideas, and beliefs all mimic the world as it appears in this simulacra.

If you're lost, feel free to take a few minutes to re-read the above. Because to me, understanding the concept of the simulacra is crucial to understanding our social conventions around romantic love.

Ready to continue?

For me, I think of internet meme culture as a prime example how the simulacra interfaces with the real world. In this case we use memes, which are these non-real concepts, to comment on concepts that we derive from the world as we see it.

Let's look at how this process works:

  • First, there's an initial idea that gets presented, or this could even be some event that happens.
  • This idea or event is presented to us through the medium of the internet: so in this way, there's already been a layer of distortion before it even gets to our eyes (Like the idea that "the medium is the message," but in this case, "the medium alters the message").
  • From there, someone takes a totally unrelated image of a person or animal, and layers some text on top of that image that in some way is referential to the initial idea being presented.
  • This image & text combination is posted as a response to the initial idea or event that was initially being portrayed.
  • Sometimes, this posted meme can end up totally capturing the attention and essentially subverting and replacing the initial idea: the meme becomes the topic.

Now, lets look at how Baudrillard explains the different stages of the simulacra—of our symbols and images. As defined by Baudrillard, the four stages are:

  1. "It is the reflection of a profound reality;" (ie. an image or a video of an event)
  2. "It masks and denatures a profound reality;" (ie. the commentary or editing of an image or video of a real event)
  3. "It masks the absence of a profound reality;" (ie. posting an image or video that claims to portray something real, but doesn't—could even be a meme)
  4. "It has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum." (ie. the image or video is a pure fabrication that creates its own truth) [1]

Another way to think about this, and a better one, is to look at how Baudrillard describes a map being used by a kingdom.

In the first stage, a map is created that's supposed to accurately reflect the reality of the kingdom.

In the second stage, the map is used and altered—things can be moved around, renamed, borders re-drawn—and reality is made to follow suit. So while you started off with a map as a reflection of reality, you immediately start using the map to start organizing reality—you use the map to determine how things should be organized and the map becomes your blueprint.

In the third stage, you modify and 'fill in' the outer areas of the map that represent unknown territory. You might draw mountain ranges, oceans, or continents where you think they might be on the outskirts of this map. Mappers in ancient times sometimes put a big continent right where Antarctica is hundreds of years before Antarctica was ever actually seen and known to exist. So here the map is modified to sort of fill in the blanks of our knowledge; we mask our ignorance by putting something there!

And finally, in the fourth stage, the map bears no relation to reality whatsoever. Imagine a king looking over his paper kingdom on this detailed map, but never actually venturing out of his castle to see the kingdom with his own eyes. In this way, his life is essentially reduced to ruling over a map. And who even knows whether or not the map itself reflects reality or not? By now the map has established itself as the foremost image, the primary symbol, the simulacrum of the kingdom. For all intents and purposes, the map is the kingdom.

But this kind of process goes far beyond memes and maps. It also finds its way into the more fundamental aspects of our society.

Think of law, for example. Law is not a concept that exists in reality. Law is an invented concept. Law is a simulacrum of our own creation that's supposed to guide human interactions and govern our society.

As for us, we act as simulators when we behave as law-abiding citizens. And it's through our act of simulating law and order that we give legitimacy to the concept of Law. It's only through our collective act of simulating Law that it can have any sort of legitimacy at all.

In this way, our sense of Law has become a simulacrum, and we've all chosen (as simulators) to believe in it. Because we believe in this shared myth and we propagate it through our actions, it becomes our reality.

The paradox here is that while Law is a simulacrum that only exists because we believe in it, it's not like we can just stop believing in it and have it go away. We've built our society upon this simulacrum, and now we're stuck with it.

The Ideology of Romantic Love

In her book What Love Is by Carrie Jenkins, she discusses how our modern concept of "romantic love" fulfills a very specific role in society. Particularly, romantic love upholds the ideal of the 'nuclear family': marry someone, buy a house, have kids, and a good chunk of the time, get a divorce too.

As she puts it,

"In a society that values romantic love as its primary model for a 'normal' life, powerful feelings of care and desire that one experiences for another person will tend to be focused toward the creation of a marriage-based, monogamous, lifelong, reproductive family unit with that person. Once formed, that nuclear unit can be locked in by providing social and legal benefits (such as tax breaks, social approbation, and hospital visiting rights) that incentivize staying together, while making the alternatives (separation and divorce) costly and complicated." [2]

Our economic system is built on the idea of this monogamous family unit, and as a result our entire society is structured in the way it is.

In modern developed countries, the idea of getting married and buying your own home is paramount. Homeownership is something that's rarely possible with only one income, so it almost forces this togetherness with one other person so that your combined resources can afford housing. And an important aspect of this is lifelong pair bonding: nobody is going to take on a decades-long mortgage if they don't expect to be together for the rest of their lives. Such as it is, this notion of romantic monogamous love with a single lifelong partner has become predominant in our society.

The trick here is that this entire monogamous arrangement helps keep the economic system running. Marriage costs money, and so does buying a home (and both of these things are increasing in price faster than inflation). This basically requires two people to work conventional 9-5 jobs, seeking higher and higher pay to afford this sort of life style.

And then try bringing kids into the mix: most people don't have the luxury of taking time off work to raise their own kids. Instead, they need to keep working to afford the house and kids, and instead send the kids to daycare for a large portion of the day.

Sounds like a totally rational way to arrange society, right?

Jenkins continues by describing how predominant this arrangement is:

"Romantic love... works so well that it becomes easy to forget that the default nuclear family is not the only way to structure social life. We could all live in larger communal groups. Or we could all live much more isolated lives. Or we could treat a wide range of social configurations as normal rather than seeing any one model as the 'default.' But we don’t. We (literally) romanticize romantic love, and in so doing we hand it the power to structure society—to direct us into nuclear family units. That is the real power of love." [2]

It is easy to see how different, alternative forms of love could make the traditional family unit less stable. It could result in less people buying houses or having kids. Or, god forbid, getting married! And who knows what any sort of deviation here would do to society!?

But maybe moving away from this conventional form of love being society's shared ideal would allow us all to live happier lives. Maybe some of us prefer to be polyamorous (loving multiple partners at once), or serial monogamists (ie. monogamous for a set period of time before moving on). Or maybe we just like the vanilla version of plain old lifelong monogamy with one person.

Don't get me wrong: society already includes all of these different arrangements. It's just that they're taboo and shunned because they fall outside of the norms.

For example, adultery is a common occurrence. But what if these people who are 'unfaithful' to their romantic partners would actually just be better off in an open, polyamorous relationship where their relations with others didn't represent an existential threat to their committed partner?

And we all probably know some serial monogamists out there: people who quickly fall into an intense, dedicated relationship with one person only to have it come crashing down later, and then they repeat. We might see this in people who are on, say, their 4th or 5th marriages.

Jenkins also mentions the concept of "amatonormativity:" the idea that romantic love is often treated as the normal and ideal condition for human life, and that lives that don't include romantic love are imperfect or abnormal. This is a bias that probably most of us reading this still hold today. Single people are often encouraged to find a romantic partner; failing to do so or even not wanting to do so is typically seen as abnormal. But the idea that people can't live fulfilling lives without loving another person is similar to the argument that people who choose not to have children are "missing out." Surely there are more good things in life than just love and child-rearing.

So, it seems there's a need to be a lot more inclusive regarding different forms of love practiced by individuals (or no even the idea of no love at all). We shouldn't be limited to the ideal of monogamous romantic love that's sold to us in movies, songs, and fairytales.

But herein lies the power of simulation. Once we've begun representing this idealized form of love in our symbols and images, it becomes its own self-sustaining simulacrum, as defined by Baudrillard.

The Simulacrum of Love

First, we should acknowledge the origins of love in our biological reality.

In the first stage, we begin with the feelings we get from love hormones swirling around through our bodies. These feelings are an expression of the profound reality that love arises out of biological necessity (the need to reproduce).

First comes the biological necessity to reproduce, and then comes the need to build up mental representations of this necessity. From here, our concepts of love, pair-bonding, and co-dependency become layered on top of this biological reality.

At its core, we have the raw feeling of desire that's being induced by hormones and love chemicals. And over top of this, we've built up our mental representations to mirror our biological processes: we develop the capacity to build complex, multi-faceted relationships with other human beings. This lays the groundwork for what will eventually become 'romantic love'.

In the second stage of representation, our symbols and images around love obscure the truth that love is an emergent phenomenon originating from our biological drive. We develop complex social conventions around love: society begins to organize itself in such a way where love becomes possession.

This possessive love stems from the rise of patriarchal societies with property rights. Women become the property of men. To fit this idea that love=property, our mental representations of love become intertwined with the idea of property, and so we invent the concept of marriage. Marriage and monogamy become important (at least in a one-sided way), because a man wants to ensure that his biological heir inherits his accumulated status. Wealth and property become intergenerational through the convention of marriage and the absolute fidelity of the child-bearing wife.

In the third stage, we see the rise of "romantic love" in society. And what's happening here is that romantic love is masking the absence of monogamous pair-bonding as a biological reality. Monogamy and marriage are cultural inventions, not natural biological truths. Our biology only cares that we reproduce, not who we reproduce with.

So here, romantic love is being used to mask the fact that monogamy isn't necessarily 'natural' for human beings, as hinted by the fact that alternative arrangements do exist (ie. if humans were naturally monogamous, why would polyamory or infidelity be so widespread?). We all take part in this ruse by simulating the ideal of romantic love through our actions, our cultural institutions, and our entertainment. As a result, we're all made to believe in this ideal of romantic love.

And in the fourth stage, romantic love supersedes reality and becomes its own 'true' reality. This is the romantic love that's marketed in movies, acted out on tv shows, and portrayed in advertisements. It's all-pervasive in our songs, our culture, and our media. Romantic love becomes the idealized reality that we all strive towards. And even our capitalist system becomes arrange towards this ideal, as can clearly be seen in the convention of Valentine's Day.

Here, romantic love transcends beyond the desire to reproduce and pass on wealth. Instead, romantic love becomes the predominant goal; reproduction becomes a side-effect of romantic love, rather than romantic love being a side-effect of reproduction. And this is where we are today.

The Flawed Idealism of Love

If we take a good hard look at society, we can see that this idealized form of romantic love isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be.

It's not like everyone in a committed, monogamous relationship is entirely happy with this arrangement. And how many families are started in the spirit of upholding this ideal, only to be split apart later on when things don't work out?

Jenkins points out several reasons why this idealized form of love could be a bad thing for us to try and blindly pursue:

"The problematic norm is that everyone should have one true love forever, with the important corollaries that (1) this entails sexual monogamy forever, and (2) it should be enforced for men as well as for women. It’s not hard to see that a huge head of steam has built up behind that idea. High and rising divorce rates suggest that the one-true-love-forever model is not sustainable as a universal norm. And the idea that one will eventually and inevitably lose sexual and/or romantic interest in one’s long-term partner has become so normalized as to be a rom com trope in its own right. Relationship therapist Esther Perel puts it this way: 'Everywhere romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire.' Yet, at the moment, we seem to be attempting to treat this problem at the individual level: with medical interventions like Viagra, with couples therapy, and with forlorn purchases of exciting lingerie." [2]

The question to ask here is: Who is this system really serving?

Jenkins concludes her book with the idea that we should all think about love for ourselves, and find a way to organize our relationships in ways that work for our particular needs, our particular brand of love.

I think this points out the fact that love might be better as an ideal than it is in practice. And this would explain the allure.

How often do people romanticize this idea of a 'perfect partner', only to end up being disappointed when they don't live up to that hype?

How often do people place expectations on their partner based on some cultural convention, only to have those expectations dashed?

How often do people pursue traditional forms of romantic love and marriage, only to decide later on that it doesn't actually work for them?

There's good reason to be skeptical about this idealized form of romantic love. But despite all this, love does seem to imbue our lives with a lot of meaning (in whichever form it is).

Rather than simply following along with this flawed ideal of romantic love, we should all strive to define what our own ideal form of love is. And if we do so, maybe we'll discover that our preferences in love and other areas of life don't match up with society's norms at all.

Of course, this is no easy task. These simulacra dominate our culture and society, either obscuring or replacing the real world with our human-made symbols and images. But by opening our minds, maybe we can build a more inclusive simulacra that encompasses more diverse ways of thinking, living, and loving.

Works Cited:

  1. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press 1994. Originally published in French in 1981.
  2. Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is: And What It Could Be. Basic Books 2017.