Ramble Review: Jenkins on “What Love Is”

What Love Is: And What It Could Be is a wild, cupid-dodging ride down the tunnel of love – when you reach the end, you’ll want to do it all over again.

What Love Is: And What It Could Be, a 2017 title from Hachette Book Group, unpacks the meandering, many-layered musings of mathematics philosopher Dr. Carrie Ishikawa Jenkins as she ponders what love is (and what it could be).

At the outset, Jenkins questions the nature of romantic love in modern Western culture. Being part of a polyamorous triad has no doubt fueled her curiosity on this subject, but the fact of the matter is that love has been a mystery to humankind for as long as we’ve had a way to write it down. In taking on the immense task of defining love, Jenkins uses a few different approaches: biological, cultural, and philosophical.

After exploring the biological theory of origin for romantic love, followed by the cultural theory, Jenkins expresses doubts about either of these being the sole way to explain love and its operations. The biological theory fails to recognize how our idea of love changes too rapidly to be evolutionary. On the other hand, the cultural theory doesn’t take into account the many ways in which love affects our body’s chemistry– and vice versa. 

Finally, she proposes a new theory: Love has a dual nature, with ancient biological mechanics working through current social context. As a way of getting us to understand this new theory, Jenkins compares it to an actor playing a role: the actor is the biological form of love, with impulses and bodily responses that dictate how the character will appear; the role they play is how the audience identifies with the character, similar to how the social function of love allows a person to dictate their responses through the current social norms of the time. When you look at Tom Holland playing Peter Parker, the voice, face, and movements are Tom, but the role he plays is Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is also Peter Parker. The biological “actor” is different, but they express the same social “character.” Trippy, I know!

Throughout this book, Jenkins explores the dimensions of love, its origins, and its impact. In addition to these things, she also shows the ways in which love (romantic love, that is) can be used as a form of exclusion. Amatonormativity is defined by Jenkins as saying that “romantic love is the normal or ideal condition for human life, so lives that don’t include it are imperfect or abnormal.” This type of normative influence is present in many elements of modern Western culture, such as nursery rhymes, song lyrics, and the indomitable romantic comedy film. 

The grip of amatonormative and monogamous lifelong coupling on the public body of knowledge is strong enough to inspire humorous response: the “crazy old cat lady” stereotype is one; another is the self-deprecating title of “forever alone” if one is uncoupled and estimates they will stay that way. Though seemingly innocent in nature, these titles bring with them the implicit stigma of choosing something other than monogamous romantic love. “Forever alone,” specifically, insinuates that without romantic love, the person in question will live an entirely solitary life, deprived not only of a romantic partner but also of any other meaningful human contact. Perhaps the assumption is that romantic partnership is the only form of meaningful human contact. Jenkins weighs in on monikers of this variety when she reflects, “only being able to describe your intimate feelings by passing negative judgment on yourself has psychological consequences.” Less inflammatory yet within the same vein is the term “single” itself. Actress and human rights activist Emma Watson has spoken up against this term and, when asked about her relationship status, chose to identify as “self-partnered.” This reclassification of relationship status into something that is empowering rather than a suggestion of incompleteness is likely something that author Carrie Jenkins would approve of. Throughout WLI, Jenkins brings up numerous examples of how the perception of certain varieties of relationship has changed, as well as how language reflects these changes. Take, for instance, Chapter 2, which Jenkins starts by pondering this exact idea: “Language is a great case study in how our mechanisms for transmitting socially significant information are simultaneously effective and invisible.”  

The conscious (and unconscious) formation of in-groups and out-groups is something humans do a lot, from the establishment of national borders to where a young person sits in their school cafeteria. Jenkins rightfully identifies language as a particularly dynamic element of these groupings. The privilege of love factors into this conversation when Jenkins references Maria Root’s Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Through her interviews with hundreds of people, Root discovered a common trait: they “were often dismissed as merely sexual, as a way to undermine their legitimacy and potential for success and happiness.” Rather than admit the privilege society puts on love, those who oppose certain pairings or forms of love will re-categorize the relationship to fit their own ideologies. Once love is defined as a certain set of social ideals, people and relationships who don’t fit these ideals are branded as “not really in love.”

The concept of innate or “natural” qualities to humanity’s choices within society is masterfully examined by Jenkins when she explores the social constructionist theory of love. This concept of analyzing humans and Nature is not a new or unfamiliar one; it has been present within literary Ecocriticism for nearly 60 years. A common thing Ecocritics look at is when books and poems infer that a person’s behavior is “natural” rather than socially fabricated.  Similar to this is Jenkins’ observation of the public tendency to regard love and its contours as a biological phenomenon. As she aptly puts it, people claim that “Lovers Gonna Love.” Much like the impact of “forever alone” and “single,” referring to a socially constructed function as “natural” not only normalizes the behaviors mistakenly associated with it—it also presents a metaphorical washing of hands in regards to the impact this behavior has on others.  

Providing further reasoning against the “natural” excuse is Richard Prum, an ornithologist who tackles Darwin’s theory of the aesthetic and the pleasurable as factors of evolution in his book, The Evolution of Beauty

The most ironic bit of his reasoning against the natural evolutionary defense for certain behaviors is that just because something is natural, it does not make this thing evolutionarily or biologically advantageous. In some cases, as in the evolution of the club-winged manakin, the opposite proves true: manakins have evolved to have heavy, thick, and clumsy wings, all because the females find it attractive for males to have this. 

Another, more pointed argument Prum makes is in reference to one of the most common (and dangerous) examples of this biological determinist thinking: Male dominance and aggression. Contrary to the popular adage, “Boys will be boys,” Prum says the historical evidence suggests that “such ‘boys’ are more likely products of patriarchal culture than of human evolutionary history.” Despite this, the legal defense of “provocation” that Jenkins references in her book centers around ensuring leniency in sentencing for men who injure/kill their cheating wives. 

Men’s rights activist forums and terse Thanksgiving dinner conversations are one thing, but when a violent cultural adaptation is seen strongly enough as a biological trait that it is written into the judicial system to defend murder and physical assault, the results are not only damaging to the victims: they threaten society as a whole.  

A discussion on the cultural function of love would not be complete without a heady dose of gender roles. WLI is a trove of information in this topic, but something that continually appears is the figure of the woman in this grand love-game. 

A common perception, and one Jenkins voices at multiple points, is that women are “naturally” passive in love and not only less sexually desirous but also less amenable to hooking up with strangers. Recent studies by psychologists and other experts have found data that suggests the driving force behind these female behaviors isn’t a lack of desire as compared to their male peers, but a surplus of fear; fear of social stigma attached to casual sex, and fear for their own safety. 

In Chapter 3, Jenkins references the much-quoted findings of Margaret Atwood. Atwood famously asked her friends and students why other members of their own sex felt threatened by the opposite sex. The male response was, “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” while the female response was, “They’re afraid of being killed.” 

Though at points her outlook is grim, Jenkins never expresses a desire to eradicate love altogether. As someone who is in a loving polyamorous relationship, it seems she has no problems accepting love, despite the trouble it can bring. Love was never the problem in the first place—it is when humans get their ideas mixed about it that the danger surfaces. Throughout this text, Jenkins shows the ways that love has changed, the shape it takes in today’s world, and a hopeful projection for how it will look in the future. Humorously, she expresses that it will be fun to see what she’s proven wrong about. 

Considering Jenkins’ meticulous explanations for the myriad of things that contribute to what love is, it is striking that she leaves it up to the reader to decide for themselves what it could be.  


Sources Referenced:

Campbell, Donna M. “Naturalism in American Literature. ” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 2017. 

“Ecocriticism.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University.  

Jenkins, Carrie. What Love Is: And What It Could Be. Hachette Book Group, 2017.  

Prum, Richard O. The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us. Anchor Books, 2018.  

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