Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Fatal Strategies: Marriage and Meaning

In his book Fatal Strategies, Jean Baudrillard writes of the off-balance feeling we experience in the media-saturated society:

The reaction to this new state of things has not been a resigned abandonment of traditional values, but rather a crazy overdetermination, an exacerbation, of these values of reference, function, finality, and causality.

What Baudrillard is telling us is that, in this modern world in which all is in flux, people latch onto traditional values for their own sake. We value inertia for its own sake, if only to ward off the vertigo caused by a rapidly changing culture. The strategy adopted in response, then, is to make the object sancrosect at the expense of the subject.

This is precisely the same vertiginous logic that has seized the anti-gay rights movement. Time and time again, we see the argument that marriage ought not be 'redefined'. Why? Because the current version is pretty old. Rather than control our social institutions, we let social institutions control us.

Often, the opponents of redefinition point to the dire consequences that may follow if are allowed to arbitrarily redefine our social institutions. This is a slippery-slope argument: 'if we redefine marriage, then we're well on our way to a kind of semantic nihilism, where there'll be nothing to stop us from redefining tables as food, and pretty soon people will start choking on the legs of endtables, and you'll be sorry then that we redefined marriage!'

What troubles the proponent of this line of thinking is that, in a world in which gays can marry, we have lost control of meaning altogether.

I've always had quite an interest in legal formalism, which proceeds along a parallel track, so I'm not unsympathetic to the redefinition argument. As I see it, though, the argument from redefinition starts from an inadequate theory of meaning. At the risk of sounding Clintonian, it really does matter what meaning means. In fact, the redefinition argument turns on a particular theory of meaning.

This slippery slope concern is mitigated if we can show something internal to the meaning of meaning itself that limits arbitrary redefinition. The threshold inquiry, then, is how things come to mean. The anti-gay rights crowd would obviously have us believe that there are essential meanings; there's a 'Big Book of Meaning' somewhere that lays down the essence of things. This is referred to as semantic essentialism.

If this is how meaning is construed, though, it's clearly inadequate to account for the variety of marriage across the world and in history. An arab may be married to several women, which contravenes the meaning of marriage as understood here. If the semantic essentialist view is right, the sentence 'Mohammed had several wives' would literally be non-sense (it may be a metaphor, as in 'I'm married to my job', but it in the literal sense it's non/sense - in my case, though, the metaphor is also nonsense). Obviously, though, that proposition does make literal sense. The fact that semantic essentialism can't account for how it makes sense to us strongly suggests that its view of meaning is wrong.

So where does meaning come from? It's often said that marriage is a custom, and that we look to our customs to glean its meaning (hence the anti-gay rights emphasis on the history of marriage as the source of its meaning). This is a good insight, but it needs to be asked: whose custom? Different communities have different customs, so if we tie the meaning of marriage to its origin as practice, we ought to expect a range of meanings of marriage corresponding to the different communities from which the customs and practices of marriage arise. In this way, we can ditch the semantic essentialism that is unable to account for the different ways that marriage is seen, while granting it a kind of flexibility that still remains within boundaries. Marriage-as-practice, then, captures different senses of marriage while preventing wild-eyed redefinition of marriage as any old thing we want.

Obviously, this doesn't directly respond to the question of whether the government ought to recognize any given understanding of marriage, but it does redirect the focus back to where it should be ("should we have gay marriage?"), and away from the canard of the 'meaning of marriage'.