I have pointed out previously in these Chronicles that the victimary critique of institutions that dominated the postmodern era has lost its epistemological power to discriminate between victims and persecutors. A key example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been prolonged in large measure by the ability of militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to arouse in Europe and elsewhere a knee-jerk reaction in favor of “victims,” with the perverse but deliberate consequence of making the lives of their fellow Palestinians all the more victim-like.
A less simplistic and only slightly less controversial application of latter-day victimary thinking–we might take our cue from the neo-Marxists and call it “late victimism”–is the movement urging the adoption of “gay marriage”–the colonization of the word “gay” by the homosexual community being an apparently definitive conquest of the victimary era. Is the exclusion of same-sex relationships from the financial and other advantages of marriage not a form of discrimination?
If marriage consists merely in the state’s recognition of a pairing of individuals, then nothing essential distinguishes a same-sex couple, or indeed a more numerous “polyamorous” grouping, from a traditional husband and wife. Once we consider marriage to be independent of gender, there is no point raising objections to gay marriage on the plane of love and fidelity, even if, statistically speaking, male–but not female–homosexual couples have been shown to tolerate and practice infidelity considerably more than heterosexual ones, as biology would lead us to expect. Put the other way around, in order to defend the traditional concept of marriage, it is necessary to consider heterosexual relationships–including sexuality and procreation, if not as an obligation, then as a thematically present option–as more legitimate than their homosexual counterparts. The legitimization of heterosexual relations is the purpose of marriage. In today’s victim-addled world, such discrimination in favor of a single variety of sexual partnership appears very nearly scandalous. Because of the private nature of sexual acts, there is an understandable reluctance to grant a superior status to one set over another. But this is to misunderstand the anthropology of the institution of marriage.
Although modern society no longer takes an official interest in whether marital relations take place at all, let alone in whether they are geared to procreation, marriage is a license to perform such acts. In order to affirm the traditional concept of marriage, one must affirm not merely the social value of restricting this license to heterosexual couples, but the conformity of this restriction with the moral model of reciprocity that all humans as language-users carry with them. In liberal-democratic polities, ethical laws that are felt to come into conflict with moral law generally end up by being discarded. The gay marriage case is a crux because it points up the necessity of defending as moral an arrangement that appears to violate the symmetrical reciprocity of the moral model. It obliges us to choose between simplifying this model to eliminate any element of sexual specificity and defending this specificity as not an exception but a necessary extension of the originary model. Intellectually speaking, the first course seems much the easier, because we define the moral model today in sex-neutral terms. The issue of homosexual marriage forces us to examine the universal appropriateness of such terms.
If (linguistic and ritual) representation originates as a means to defer violence, then the reciprocity of the originary scene must have operated exclusively among men, not between men and women. The subsequent extension of this reciprocity to women, which has only become definitive in our time (and still not universally) is rightly understood as a victory for the moral model, and, more specifically, as a major accomplishment of the postmodern victimary critique. But the entry of women into the public sphere is not the beginning of women’s role in human society; from the outset, women have been bound to men through the asymmetrical institution of marriage in its various forms.
In the context of the extension of public reciprocity to women, it is tempting to see the institution of marriage, within which men have traditionally exercised power over their wives, as a fundamentally oppressive one that should be retained only if it can be purged of its asymmetry, even where this asymmetry favors women (thus men have successfully challenged women’s exclusive right to maternity leave). Yet so long as women retain biological exclusivity in childbearing, sexual asymmetry will perforce persist. Asymmetry is not in itself a violation of the moral model, since asymmetry is not (and, despite appearances, never was) synonymous with domination.
Traditional marriage is not, and has never been understood as, a public relationship falling under the abstract model of moral reciprocity, but a publicly recognized private or “domestic” relationship founded on the biological asymmetry that makes possible human procreation. This point is independent of the specific origin of any given marriage/kinship system. Proponents of gay marriage often assert that if homosexuals should be denied marriage because their sexual relations cannot produce offspring, then childless heterosexual couples are equally illegitimate. But this polemical thrust is incompatible with the notion of marriage as a relationship between two individuals; if children were required to legitimate marriage, then marriage itself would be only a provisional bond. It is marriage that legitimates procreation, not the other way around. Marriage within a given society must institutionalize the asymmetric relationship of the two partners in child-production independently of the symmetrical reciprocity of the originary scene before it can provide legitimacy to child-rearing, an activity which even in our fragmented society involves an “extended family” of grandparents, uncles and aunts, and so on, coupled by the same asymmetric bond whether or not they have children of their own.
No institution is immune to change or even abolition. But women’s having achieved public equality with men does not imply that marriage has now become a contractual relationship between morally equivalent parties into which it would be discriminatory not to admit pairs of same-sex persons. Once we define, and we might as well say, define away, marriage as a form of civil contract between two abstractly defined individuals, its institutional specificity disappears; society has declared itself by default indifferent to the nature of child-producing and -rearing arrangements, if not to the welfare of the children themselves, which would have to be assured by new institutional means. Such a position, however unpalatable to most, has its own logic. But if marriage is merely a contract between individuals, then it becomes difficult to justify the state’s taking a special interest in promoting it through such means as tax relief. If any two–or perhaps three or ten–people can “marry,” then there is no obvious reason why the state should not deal with marriage in the same way as it deals with any other form of voluntary association; indeed, it becomes unclear in what sense “marriage” is a distinct form of voluntary association.
The foregoing analysis, although it refutes some arguments often put forth in favor of homosexual marriage, is not an argument against it but an attempt to make clear what is at stake in the debate. If it has a polemical element, it is a polemic in favor of originary anthropology, whose analytic power I have attempted to demonstrate.
Even in this respect, the content of the model I propose is open to revision. If there is a persuasive gender-indifferent model of the originary scene from which can be derived a concept of marriage as a contractual relation between a man and a woman, well and good; we need only determine which model accords better with the anthropological evidence. The primary point is that the establishment of a scenic model provides a heuristic for understanding the fundamental parameters of human institutions; conversely, this model can be modified in turn in order to fit more plausible sets of such parameters. The “hermeneutic circle” thus described is more rigorous than that attainable from textual analysis alone, the distance between cultural texts and fundamental anthropological categories being inevitably mediated by the same metaphysical presuppositions from which the analyst is, or at any rate claims to be, seeking to liberate himself.