Deconstructing the family

One of the cultural influences most destructive of marriage and family has been the social philosophy of postmodernism and deconstructionism associated with the French critics Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The destruction of marriage and the family is not merely a consequence of their radical social philosophy; it is at its heart.

According to Professor Foucault, there is no objective truth upon which to base social structures, such as marriage and family. Rejecting reason, he argued that knowledge is a set of beliefs constructed to justify power relationships:

Sexuality (and social structures depending on sexuality like marriage and family) is something we ourselves create – it is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret (unchangeable) side of desire. We have to understand what with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality: it is a (formless) possibility for creative life. 

For Foucault, marriage and family are not fixed concepts. They have no meaning beyond the context in which they exist. Foucault’s student, Jacques Derrida, regarded as the founder of deconstructionism, combined Marxist social analysis and Freudian psychological techniques to "deconstruct" the pillars of western civilisation, including marriage and the family. In Glas, Professor Derrida deconstructs the concept of family by affirming the power of sexuality, while at the same time denying sexual difference is truly essential to human existence. Sexual difference does not belong to the existential structure of fundamental human existence (Dasein), according to the French philosopher:

If Dasein as such belongs to neither of the sexes, that does not mean that its being is deprived of sex. On the contrary: here one must think of a predifferential (non-sexually differentiated), or rather a predual (non-male/female), sexuality . . . a matter here of the positive and powerful source of every possible sexuality. 

While Derrida relied, in part, on “Freud’s theory that civilisations are essentially neurotic and destroy themselves by restricting sex too much,” the British social scientist, Joseph Unwin, later discredited it. Surveying the major civilisations and societies over 5,000 years of history, Unwin reached the opposite conclusion:

In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence.

Regardless of their historical legitimacy, the influence of the deconstructionists is evident in writings about modern "pure" relationships. Beginning in the 1960s, some social scientists published negative views about marriage and family. An example well-known to scholars of the family is Edmund Leach’s 1967 Reith Lectures A Runaway World? in which he suggested that “far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.” Indeed, the nuclear family “is the most unusual kind of organisation and I would predict that it is only a transient phase of our society,” said Leach. Children “needed to grow up in larger, more relaxed domestic groups centred on the community rather than in mother’s kitchen, something like an Israeli kibbutz, or a Chinese commune.”

Despite the historical evidence that most people in Britain generally lived in nuclear families and births outside marriage were historically low by today’s rates, Leach was not alone in his distaste for marriage and family life. David Cooper and RD Laing saw the intense privacy of the family, with its network of introverted, intense and compulsory relationships as destructive of the individual’s self. Cooper described the nuclear family as “the ultimately perfected form of non-meeting;” and Laing claimed that the “initial act of brutality against the average child is the mother’s first kiss.”

Three decades later, the appeal of the Israeli kibbutz and the Chinese commune have diminished somewhat. Evidence has also continued to mount about the benefits for the health and well-being of stable family life. Despite this, Leach’s views continued to be recycled, for example by Anthony Giddens in his 1999 Reith Lectures. Not only are Gidden’s ideas reminiscent of Leach’s tilt against the family, even the title of his lecture series, Runaway World, is familiar.

In words similar to Leach, Professor Giddens asserts that “what most of its defenders in western countries call the traditional family was in fact a late transitional phase in family developments in the 1950s.” By defining the traditional family as “both parents living together with their children of the marriage, where the mother is full time housewife, and the father the breadwinner,” Giddens constructs a straw man against which to rail. For most families in the western world, two incomes is the norm.

“Romantic love is a modern invention,” writes the professor. “Marriage was never in the past based on intimacy.” This ignores thousands of years of history. From the Book of Songs to Shakespeare and since, authors and poets have written about romantic love and intimacy.Professor Giddens would replace marriage with “coupling” and “uncoupling” – all done in a “democracy of the emotions.” As for children, parents in the past had them only for economic reasons: “One could say that children weren’t recognised as individuals.” In the end, Giddens is inconsistent. On one page, he refers to “coupling” and “uncoupling” and then to marriage “as a ritual commitment can help stabilise otherwise fragile relationships.” But why bother if serial coupling is the path to individual happiness?

Amidst this re-characterisation of relationships, the place of children has been jettisoned. They are seen as ‘stressors’ on the relationship and a threat to the bond between adults. Instead, the concentration of those theorising about relationships has been on love styles. Analysing this new world of relationships, Professor Dan Cere observes five main ideas:

First, the distinction between marriage and other intimate relationships is all but eliminated. . . Second the new story tells us of basic human attachment and intimacy needs that must be satisfied. But it also insists that we privately choose the specific ‘love styles’ with which we seek to gratify those needs … Third, the new world is very small. It is only big enough for the ‘dyad,’ the couple … Children are essentially screened out … Fourth, the new dyadic relationships are not measured by their capacity to foster any of the traditional virtues, such as courage and self-sacrifice, but instead solely by their capacity to meet what the self views as the self’s needs … Finally … romantic relationships replace marriage and religion as life’s main arenas for the discovery of personal meaning.

Marriage, children and family life are to be replaced by the loving interactions of ever-changing dyad partners. This may reflect life for more people today, but as the social science evidence clearly demonstrates, it is fanciful that such transient relationships provide the base upon which most adults and children will flourish.

This is an edited extract from Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness, published by Connor Court. Andrews is the MHR for Menzies

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