Distant Love, by Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim

Les Gofton on ‘world families’ and globalisation

November 28, 2013

Like Groucho Marx, the authors of this intriguing study see marriage, and not politics, making strange bedfellows. Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim continue an exploration of relationships under globalisation that they began in their 1995 book The Normal Chaos of Love, and it is clear that some dramatic changes are afoot. We are first introduced to the phenomenon of “world families” – those brought together by partners selected as a consequence of “distant love” via migration, travel or the increased contacts between disparate cultural and national groups. It is not an unalloyed boon or unitary trend; in some senses, the world families born of globalisation are its winners, but there are some losers and many victims, too.

Some relationships struggle. Cultural glitches, the “toothpaste-tube-squeezing” conflicts familiar to almost every cohabitee, are unsurprisingly more diverse and frequent among world families. If culture is up for grabs, there is no such thing as a culture-free identity, and our previous belief in love that conquers all withers in the face of irritations that grow into sores. Even the tiniest apparently well-intentioned custom can invoke near-homicidal reactions. “North Americans and other extraverts [sic] on the planet are just intruding into the private lives of ordinary Germans, and thus restricting their individual freedom,” one of their victims suggests, on the subject of unsolicited cheerfulness and casual greetings. The Greek mother of one of my postgraduates confessed that she disliked our part of Britain because the men laughed too loudly. Humans are indeed fashioned from crooked timber, as Immanuel Kant observed, and relationships turn out to be less impervious to these tics than our idealised versions of love would allow, for some world families at least.

From this beginning, Distant Love explores a range of surprising areas. Aside from those migrating and setting up house together, world families are also those skyping, emailing or telecomming their relationships. The internet becomes a medium for everyone from courting couples to doting grandparents. A recent US study cited here reveals that a third of all contacts that lead to firm relationships for 30- to 50-year-olds start online. The authors see this as a cultural outcrop, rather than a radical shift, however; since love has always been primarily in the mind, an imaginary experience, internet love is different in that it takes place only in the mind. The authors note that intimacy for many involves fantasy and an experience that is virtual rather than physical, with the consequence that, for many people, idealisation and outright delusion play a dominant role in courtship or married life. The internet, they argue, implants in people’s minds “the idea of unlimited possibilities”, and romance is accentuated here by anonymity and the absence of the body.

The pachyderm in the parlour is, of course, globalisation, and here, as everywhere, the consequences vary according to who and where you are. Inequity provides much of the dynamic within this system. Distant love, the authors conclude, is a direct product of the labour market, and there is an “elective affinity” between capital, as it overrides borders and national states, and distant love breaking free of the conventions of family life and homemaking previously founded on nations and their cultural integrity. Globalised capital itself “penetrates” the realms of intimacy and sexuality. Phew! Distant love is “the flexible love of flexible human beings”, in Richard Sennett’s formulation, but it has very different implications according to your marketable assets and cultural capital. The digital revolution may have spawned an “infinite loop of unquenchable desire for happiness”, but for different cultures, many of the desires and expectations of affluent Westerners make little or no sense. Love may be an absolute in our mythic structures, but it may not always have a place in other cultures – and have little or nothing to do with marriage or family relations.

Motherhood here becomes commerce. Latina mothers feed their offspring back home in the barrio by servicing the nurseries of Californian plutocrats; one in three Filipino children have “mobile phone moms” who opt to provide money and food for their families by caring, in often strongly emotional terms, for the children of rich strangers. The authors argue that in some senses children have become commodities, and in à deux, internet-based relationships not conducive to raising families, they may even be replaced by hobbies.

Meanwhile, caring for the old or young has also been delegated to those lower down the pecking order. As the position of women has changed in affluent Western societies, with individualism taking its place alongside emancipation, care is contracted out, first to lower classes and then to client states. Gains are, however, also asymmetric: Western women see their position weaken as globalisation introduces turbulence into the intimacies of private life and relationships, while female migrants see their position and life chances improve with alternatives to the limited horizons of traditional societies.

The institution of the family dissolves in the affluent West, and morphs in the face of increasing individualism and the transformation of the intimate being of the institutions – love, parenthood, family, household, careers – that buttress and form the provinces of its existence.

In some cases, the very poor have only their bodies to trade. Organs become a source of income for populations with little else to sell, and in some instances a medical and legal framework is created within which this becomes a tourist industry. Fresh kidneys as a commodity, the authors judge, are the embodiment of global inequality.

Globalisation introduces the possibility of imagining new forms of family and relationship, rather than falling into pre-existing conventions. World families allow their members to “make comparisons” rather than simply accepting the sovereignty of their own nation state. Cultural referents are options, rather than givens; the uncoupling of the family household from the economy of the monocultural single nation in the process of economic and social development has been supplanted by families who are instead coupled to the global economy. Family takes precedence over loyalty and obedience to the state.

Distant Love is a rich and provocative book, and continues the unique contributions made by its authors to the analysis of globalisation and the culture of late modernity. However, at times the constant oscillation in the book’s focus – now detailing the psychology of internet love, next the consequences of the “elective affinity” between world capital and the markets for human organs, wombs for rent, high-tech medicine and the outsourcing of care and pregnancy – induces something like intellectual vertigo. There are some very big ideas here, and huge themes and issues are brought on from the wings to take a bow. From the intimate fantasies of the netsurfers to the struggles of what Zygmunt Bauman calls the amortisseurs, the “new poor” who are the shock absorbers of global capitalism, this is, from beginning to end, an invitation to open up research into the plethora of issues and areas it brings into the light. As a prologue, it offers a fascinating programme for subsequent research and debate.

The authors

Were he to be given the gift of a talent he does not now possess, Ulrich Beck says, he would “love to have the ability to create the world through language, like [essayist, novelist and poet] Gottfried Benn was able to do”.

He recalls: “From the age of 13 onwards I became absorbed by reading world literature. I read whatever I got in my hands: Goethe’s Faust, Kafka’s The Trial, Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man Without Qualities]. Frequently this was against my father’s will and led to conflicts between us. For me, it was a way of escaping what I perceived as a narrow-mindedness in his worldview.”

Of his collaborations with his wife and co-author Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Beck says: “It has really been Elisabeth’s comprehensive sociological work that made me realise the importance of the sociology of family, love and gender relations.”

“So, in many respects I have been the beneficiary of her thoughts. Elisabeth’s extraordinary sense for language has helped me to articulate my ideas in a way that reaches both scholars and a broader public. And with Elisabeth I am actually ‘forced’ to live the ‘cosmopolitan’ reality that I am writing about,” he adds.

Beck, who holds professorial posts at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the London School of Economics and the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, lives in Munich with his wife.

“One of the attractive things about it is its proximity to the Alps. We enjoy walking there in order to escape everyday life and ‘get distance’ from the world. For me, Munich has two faces. On the one hand, it feels like the most northern city of Italy, with the quality of life that comes with that; on the other hand, it is a fantastic place to forget about the problems of the world. But [engaging with the latter] is exactly why I love London and teach at the LSE.”

London also has a particular resonance for Beck-Gernsheim, who is professor in the Institute for Sociology at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.

“I was born in Freiburg, yet my origins are more widespread. Coming from a mixed (Jewish/non-Jewish) family, many of my relatives left Nazi Germany in the 1930s. So I have family in many parts of the world – as we say in the book, I am part of a ‘world family’ – and this has definitely influenced my outlook,” she says.

“During my early years at school, I sometimes felt very ‘special’ because my classmates’ grandparents, uncles and aunts lived close by – whereas my father’s brothers lived in London, and later on one of them moved to Florence. Just imagine: London! Florence! At the time, this was exotic and very exciting.”

Beck-Gernsheim recalls: “In later years at school, and when I began my studies,
I frequently visited my uncles. As they had no children of their own, they took a great interest in me, and helped me in many ways. Had it not been for these relationships, and my visits to London and Florence, my thinking would be much more narrowly
confined.

“When I had finished school, I visited my uncle in Florence. For many months I had not been able to make up my mind about what to study, and I had finally settled on becoming an interpreter (which was stupid, because I knew Latin and Greek, and was quite good at that, but I had very little knowledge of modern languages). My uncle listened to my plans. The next day he advised me to revise them, and to go to Munich and study psychology and sociology. The reason he gave was: ‘If you become an interpreter, you have to translate other people’s thoughts. But my guess is that you would rather have thoughts of your own than become the mouthpiece of other people’s thoughts’. Trusting my uncle‘s wisdom, I did as he said. This is how I got into sociology, and into an academic career,” Beck-Gernsheim says.

Asked if he thinks the world of scholarship has become an easier place for women to pursue research, Beck observes: “Certainly in terms of the rhetoric the academy today is more welcoming for female scholars. However, reality speaks a different language.

“From my point of view,” he continues, “at least two things are needed: first, major ‘excellence’ research grants need to be awarded on the basis that a certain percentage of female lead researchers are included. Second, established senior scholars need to understand and take up their responsibility in identifying excellence in junior female scholars and explicitly supporting them.”

Karen Shook

Distant Love

By Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim
Polity, 220pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745661803 and 1810
Published 29 November 2013

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