Is it possible to tell a compelling love story any longer? Romantic love is of course fascinating to the couple involved, but from the outside it seems difficult to portray without recourse to stale clichés and contrived conflicts — all the more so given the excessive overgrown of romantic stories in Western culture from the late middle ages into modernity. Romantic plotlines are increasingly called upon to do work they cannot do: to lend emotional credibility and investment to action films, for instance, or to introduce a level of humanity into television shows that are fundamentally about “the job” (the many variations on police procedurals, including medical and defense attorney procedurals).
In part, this evacuation of romantic love stems from the fact that contemporary characters love the job above all and have no emotional room for anything else. Brief affairs are possible as a kind of release valve for the pressure of the job, but settling into coupledom is portrayed as ultimately impossible for someone in love with their job. Surprisingly, even having children — surely a more demanding task in terms of time and emotional energy — is somehow more compatible with the demands of a job than is romantic love. Is this because parenting itself is a job of a kind, with clear outputs and legible markers of success? Or is it because the normative vocational striver on television is increasingly the professional woman (cf. The Good Wife, Scandal, etc.), and we must have the ideological satisfaction of watching a woman succeed in “having it all”?
One can see the drawbacks of romantic love — its all-consuming nature, its unsustainability, its seemingly unavoidable dissolution, either into a break-up or into the indifference of formal marriage. Popular culture seems unable to show us a “normal” married couple who simply love each other, have sex regularly though perhaps not as often as when they were younger, etc. The “Bill and Hillary”-style marriage of careerist strivers, the facade marriage of the serial adulterer, the quiet desperation of the couple entrapped — are these really more believable than a “normal” marriage, of the kinds of “normal” couples we all presumably know? Is it just that “normal” marriages are boring and we need conflict in order to have a story? That can’t be it, since the long tradition of sitcoms shows us that marriage can generate endlessly varied conflicts even without endangering the overall stability of the relationship.
I wonder if there’s a deeper ideological stake here. We must see marriage only and always as endangered or broken, because that is the only reliable way to enshrine it as valuable and important. If people are fighting to preserve it, if its hollowing out is felt as a loss — well, then, it must be something very precious! If people who seem predisposed to devote their life to some particular profession spend their time in the pursuit of romance, if they are conflicted over their inability to encouple, then coupling must be deeply meaningful in a way that even the job (who could credit it?) cannot achieve.
The existential stakes of work are hyperbolically elevated even as the real economy requires less and less work from us — and yet they can’t have us really giving everything to our job, because society needs us to form households and, of course, an overly identified worker might become angry and ask impertinent questions when they are inevitably let go. What better strategy, in this precarious situation, than to load the worker down with impossible, conflicting demands, which inevitably make the worker feel like a failure? “I’ve lost my job, but perhaps it’s for the best, because I’ve been neglecting my family, which is the real source of meaning in life.” Ideology hasn’t failed us — we’ve always already failed it.
There’s something liberating, then, in the Law and Order franchise, where the job — coldly and nihilistically pursued by characters we have the option of identifying with but mostly don’t — consists overwhelmingly in mopping up the destructive consequences of the afterlife of romantic love. Murder, rape, extortion, secret affairs that plunge people into the desperation of crime — love is always already broken, always burning the fool who presumed to believe in it.
Love has become a zombie, slow and stupid and dangerous only to the willfully blind. However destructive it becomes, the job can fix whatever it has broken. Watching it, always half-attentively, always in marathon form, becomes a kind of job in itself, as we half-heartedly try to anticipate what romance has managed to destroy this time, and in what precise way. It’s relaxing, a relief — ideology is giving us the option of vicariously enacting the very forces of dissolution that are draining our lives of anything recognizable as meaning or purpose. Is it ideology at its very purest, or is it the messianic suspension of ideology?