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‘I now pronounce you…’

Before the advent of modernism at the turn of the 20th Century, narratives usually ended with an engagement, a wedding, or a death. The protagonists of the relatively new novel form would find themselves paired off at the altar, or suffering their own demise. This narrative move demonstrates the power of marriage as a kind of full stop, a solution, a smoothing-over, the point that a relationship should be headed, even if it may fail on the way. It’s significant that although writers have since cast aside marriage as the standard form of plot resolution, marriage itself still remains a potent cultural force in the 21st century.

I want to make it clear that I’m talking about a Western cultural understanding of marriage, which over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries has become a predominantly secular affair, where subjects are able to freely choose their own spouses, and virginity and chastity are no longer prerequisites. This is based on current marriage trends, although there will always be specificities and areas of difference. It’s also important to recognise that the concept of marriage has an array of different meanings and traditions in other cultures, both secular and religious, which are far too vast for me to even attempt to discuss here.

What I want to take up is the way in which the idea of marriage, and the wedding ceremony itself, is a powerful play of language, that it is in its essence an act of naming, an act which legitimises a relationship in the eyes of the Other and the State. Marriage is a discourse that cannot be separated from language, from the naming of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’: subject states are proscribed and inscribed in vows, in narrative, a naming that attempts to map out, fix and contain the subject. I am suggesting here that marriage discourse fundamentally highlights Jacques Lacan’s notion that there can be no outside of language: marriage is a specific move in language (and in some ways narrative) that suggests authenticity and legitimacy, an inscription that carries with it the traditions of church and state. The very nature of the wedding ceremony itself suggests this – it is a rhetorical play that binds the couple through vows.

Whether the ceremony is religious or secular, the couple avows their love and commitment to a public group, to the Other, to an authority: they ‘promise’, they are asked whether they understand the seriousness of the commitment, whether there is any lawful cause why they shouldn’t be married and finally they are pronounced husband and wife. The subjects are categorised, labeled and inscribed new roles. Most importantly the modern wedding ceremony is performative in much the same way that gender roles have been described as performative. This is made all the more pronounced in the way most brides still wear white dresses, the symbol for virginity, despite often having been in numerous previous relationships, and in most cases, having already had sex with their future husband.

But fundamentally there is a concealment here. This language, the promises and the commitment of the modern wedding ceremony, hides what Slavoj Zizek labels the ‘bureaucratic formalism’ that marriage actually is, but also, more importantly, marriage as an agreement entered into with ‘the big Other’. (Zizek, ‘Hegel on Marriage’, 2012) That is, the ceremony is metonymic; it is only a part of the whole, the whole being the mechanisms of the state, the interpellation of the subjects in law, operating within the system of late capitalism, and playing out bourgeois anxieties. But, returning to this Lacanian construct of language, there is also an absence at the centre of this concealment. Modern marriage discourse operates as a signifying chain that conceals its inherent fragility: that these vows and rhetoric can easily be undone/divorced from the previous annunciation, the uneasy notion that behind this signifier there is only the endless of deferral of meaning, that the inscription of marriage does not necessarily bring with it life-long commitment and fidelity. Lacan describes this as an inherent aspect of language, the way in which ‘the ring of meaning flees from our grasp along the verbal thread.’ (Lacan, ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’, 1957) Perhaps Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ 72-day marriage caused such outrage and scorn because it opened up this frailty with the full-force of modern media exposure, the ease with which the ceremony, the authenticity, the agreement with the Other could be absolved.

And yet marriage still remains the benchmark for legitimacy in terms of modern relationships. Why? Because even though there is the prospect of divorce, or infidelity, marriage itself is perceived as fixed, whilst the object of love is considered changeable. Marriage has such power as a signifier that it sees all other words describing relationships (boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, lover) seem somehow illegitimate, not serious, not professing any lengthy commitment. This is evident in the way long-term couples struggle to find an adequate name to describe their relationship state, or when experiencing relationship problems they resort to the phrase ‘it’s like a marriage’ or ‘it’s like getting a divorce’, once again drawing on a specific language discourse to inscribe a certain level of authenticity and authority. It’s evident in the way that previously divorced subjects return (sometimes more than once) to the wedding altar, and perhaps most importantly, it’s evident in the way same-sex couple want to claim, and be given access to this language, to this ceremony.

So why the big fuss? Some people want to get married, others don’t, it’s a personal choice, don’t force your views on other people, I’m not married and it doesn’t bother me, I don’t really care whether I use the word boyfriend or partner. The answer can be found in the current debate surrounding same-sex marriage. In some ways the arguments for and against same-sex marriage, civil unions, and the legal consequences of these unions, opens up the very framework behind marriage, it questions what the ceremony and language represents, attempts to unravel the signifying chain. But this is itself difficult and possibly endless. Yet when a cultural structure systematically and deliberately denies legal rights to one group, whilst giving it to another, when a legal ceremony professes to advocate legitimacy and authenticity and therefore allows access to other legal rights (health care, super and so on), even when that ceremony may be annulled 72 days later, it must be opened up to questioning and examination. It is because of this, because of the inherent contradictions and failings of marriage discourse, that it should and must be interrogated.


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  1. 'I now pronounce you…' | HTMLGIANT | Love Advice

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  2. wuliao727
  3. Nick Mamatas

      How do narratives end now? With therapy, or with the main character considering some object?

  4. A D Jameson

      Narratives usually end with the resolution of a formal pattern, for instance A-B-A. Many tragedies and comedies (roughly) fit this pattern. For instance, in a comedy, a younger generation is subsumed into an older order, which is in turn be replenished or corrected by youth. So the order of things falls into disarray, but then that disarray is sorted out, and a marriage results. In tragedy, it’s death that instead restores order. But one can write narratives that follow this pattern and that don’t work that way. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for instance, follow A-B-A patterns: home (Shire), away (world at large), home (Shire). But the home encountered on the return is different from the home that was initially left. Bilbo returns with the Ring. Sam and Frodo return to find that Saruman has corrupted the Shire. And of course A-B-A is but one pattern that narratives can use. Narratives can also promise a pattern, then cut off the last part of that pattern, “the negative ending,” or ending a story at its climax (which is then left unresolved).

      Among other things. One of the beautiful things about narrative, though, is that it uses some very simple patterns, but can spin practically infinite variety out of them.

  5. deadgod

      I like the idea that the ‘comedy’ of Shakespeare and of Austen, for two examples, ends in marriage as a narrative fulfillment of this vision of reality: that the human world is regenerative beyond the fact of individual biological death by virtue of fertility, of participation in the (natural) cycle of generation which forms communal, social, and cultural re-birth. In other worlds, while a human life goes from birth to death, that life also is causative among the elements of re-birth, which cycle is not bounded by time (either before one’s own birth or after one’s death).

      No matter how darkly morbid the aspects or facets of a narrative are, when the vision dominant in the story as a whole is of participation in the rhythms of revitalization, that story is a ‘comedy’.

      –and no matter how much laughter is occasioned by the details of a narrative, when the vision dominant in the story as a whole is of the destruction of life–individual or the communal life that is condition for the possibility of an individual person–, that story is a ‘tragedy’.

      So actual stories are mixtures of ‘comic’ and ‘tragic’. In stories like The Great Gatsby and Macbeth, which have marriage–that is, legitimated sex–at their center, are tragic, because they’re about destruction and not about what’s human (that a person can live committed to) that persists beyond the destruction of individual (and communal) life. Stories like Much Ado about Nothing and Persuasion, while they have real grief and malice in them, end in weddings (or contain ‘marriage’ (The Optimist’s Daughter)) consonantly with a vision of individual participation in cycles of regeneration within which individual suffering and death intelligibly take part.

      Thinking this schematic way, “life” is a kind of or condition for an essence, and is an Everything Word. –but I think it’s a practical way of sorting one’s feelings in terms of sensitivity to some dominant tone or melody in a story (mixed as stories are).

  6. mimi

      i like how ‘the big lebowski’ ends with ‘a little lebowski’ on the way

  7. deadgod

      “Marriage”–legitimation of sex, of pregnancy, and of family–is a discourse, but so, too, are “rights” discursive.

      It sounds in this blogicle like that, in extending the “right” to marry to some and denying it to others, political-economic power–the State (?)–is imposing or discerning a difference which is essential.

      Is sexual orientation an “essence” where “marriage” is a culturally specific norm?

      If not–that is, if sexual orientation is not essential, but rather, is historically, culturally made and unmade–, then what’s wrong with discriminating for and against sexual orientation? I mean, if sexual orientation is a “discourse” or framework for “discourse”, on what grounds does one argue for marriage-equality justice and not for gay power?

  8. Alex Kalamaroff

      Dear Mr. A D Jameson,

      I never thought about narrative in such a, well, simple way of A-B-A.

      It’s delightful! Thanks for the post.

      Best, –Alex K.

  9. A D Jameson

      Thanks, Alex! It’s not that they necessarily go A-B-A, but that the ending usually resolves a formal patterns established by the rest of the narrative (and A-B-A is one common example). Once you see those patterns, you start seeing them everywhere—it’s why endings usually “feel like endings.” Although there are of course Exceptions. Cheers, Adam