It starts with a couple. But not just any couple. A couple walking in a meadow. A couple holding hands. But not just any hands. Children’s hands. This is the unit of society: a couple; children; a meadow. Love. Labour. Nature.
The image comes from a video promoting the seventh World Meeting of Families, which is like the Catholic Olympics except it’s held every three years. My hometown hosted it this year and when I visited, a month or so before the event, preparations were at an advanced stage, by which I mean that I saw a lot of posters. Anyway, how do you even prepare for a Pope’s visit? Other than by sealing the manholes and placing marksmen along his planned route, I mean.
Milan hadn’t seen a Pope since John Paul II’s second visit, in 1984. On that occasion, Wojtyla met 80,000 factory workers. This year Ratzinger was met by one million pilgrims who had come together in the name of the family. That is how the Church is branding itself these days, and you really must try to pretend that all of these allegedly celibate men who make it their business to give advice and pass judgment on the sexual, reproductive and affective practices of everybody else, whether or not they believe in the same God as they, made sense somehow, because once you’ve moved past that initial hurdle, once you’ve removed that colossal boulder of irony from your path, you’ll see that the manner in which the Church defines, regulates and enforces the family is a matter of current ideological and political import, and by no means just in Catholic countries or amongst Catholics alone.
For the Catholic Church isn’t wholly retrograde or obsolete or unrepresentative, far from it. It has ancient institutions, this much is true, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger used to be the Prefect before becoming Pope, and that is best known to history with its old name of Tribunal for the Inquisition. The Congregation is charged to this day with promulgating the official position of the Church on a number of theological, moral and doctrinal issues, and has spoken on many occasions on the subject of the family, chiefly by censuring its aberrations: divorce unsanctioned by the Church, sex for purposes other than procreation, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality. On this last item the Congregation has produced over the last four decades some of its most often quoted documents, such as the Letter of 1986 or the Considerations of 1992 in defence of the right to discriminate against homosexuals in the selection of anything from foster parents to teachers, from athletics coaches (this item must have elicited some of the most vivid imaginings amongst the members) to soldiers or even tenants. However these since reiterated views, which are retrograde and seemingly, hopefully destined to be discarded by history, could lull us into thinking that the Church’s overall thinking about the family is also on the way out. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Love. Labour. Nature. The family as a microcosm of society, with its self-perpetuating internal hierarchy – the father/husband, who goes out into the world to earn the family’s keep and interprets that world on behalf of the family; the mother/wife, who regardless of whether she works or not is still charged with the domestic, unpaid labour of raising the family, and is therefore subservient; the children, who must grow secure in the knowledge that a family thus conceived is the sole and necessary state of being and thriving – all of this, which the Church preaches incessantly, is the privileged subject of contemporary Western politics, if not the only political subject left. And again sacrosanct struggles such as that for marriage equality might give us the illusion that this subject is contestable or in a state of flux, but it is not. Contrary to the Church’s protestations, the extension of the traditional instrument of marriage to LGBT couples would do nothing to disrupt the image of the family that it – the Church – crafts and promotes. On the contrary, it would strengthen it, making it more universal. Imagine if there were a range of couples on that meadow instead of just one. He/she. He/he. She/she. A conpiscuosly transgender person thrown into the mix. What you would be left with is a picture in which everyone is represented and nothing is missing. The family as universal totality, as epistemological key to a complex world, like in those dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History that Donna Haraway wrote about so famously and well.
What political subject could be more powerful than one that encompasses everyone, as well as everyone’s personal history and prehistory?
Last month Evan Calder Williams published in The New Inquiry his translation of ‘What the hell is the family’ (originally ‘Ma che cos’è la famiglia’), a text by the Study Group on the Family in collaboration with the workers’ committee of ALFA-FACE-IBM printed in the Communist Italian periodical Rosso in 1974. It’s a long text – a little under 5,000 words – and at the same time a short text, in terms of how it faces up to the problem of the family in its daunting entirety, proposing a vocabulary for its analysis and critique that strikes me today as refreshing in its clarity. The family, according to Rosso, is one of capital’s major agents for making the process of exploitation function, a machine for the production and reproduction of labour power and for the consumption of the products of that labour. Crucially, and in ways that simply haven’t gone away, it is an instrument for routing emotional need and desire within the bounds of what is proper and acceptable, and for conditioning its members to accept these norms as natural givens. Write the authors:
The familial organization furnishes capital, day after day, with workers regularly fed and dressed in a manner modest but decent, sexually satisfied but not too much, so as to not disturb the punctuality and rhythm of labor, organized and resigned in accord with the hierarchy of factory and beyond.
Would you say that this was true then? Is it true now? What has changed since 1974, since 1986? Has feminism succeeded in making women’s work recognised and the burden of domestic labour evenly shared? Have gay unions, gay families significantly altered the family understood as a form of ideology? Have social relations within society ceased to be mapped by the logic of exchange that is taught within the family? Or is it the case rather that all of these things have remained true but have been naturalised all over again?
That’s where the conspicuously out of its time, deeply strange figure of the Pope can assist, by turning the production of these ideological meanings into a visible spectacle. And nowhere is this more true than in the regulation of sexuality, in which this playacting is at its most theatrical. To the extent that the Church is out of step with most other institutions and societies, it is precisely in the degree that it obsesses over the self-replicating, autotelic nature of the family. Since the only proper drive is the drive to procreate (on this the Pope and Richard Dawkins are in complete agreement), the only acceptable union is the one between a he and a she, and whether they are actually straight counts a lot less than whether they are willing. Indeed the Church is just as much against artificial insemination as it is against what it calls the practice of homosexuality. This is because the family cannot be allowed to outsource its core function. It must simply manage by itself and within itself.
The Christian cult of the family is also, ultimately, the cult of individuality, of self-reliance. This too makes the family as the Pope understands it so perfectly compatible with our stage of capitalism and with its political language. That one word, Family, is as powerful as the family as a concrete subject is powerless. You can build an entire politics on that word, but when you do, when you set out to defend the Family, we know that you don’t mean actual families, much less actual people. What you are swearing to uphold is a form of organization. You might as well call it the corporation.
Not in a meadow, but on the runway of the airport in Bresso, in the northern outskirts of Milan, a crowd of over one million gathered to hear the Pope speak on Family Day 2012. Except they weren’t people: they were there as part of families or as representative of families. And families can never form a society, not even in their hundreds of thousands, because the ideology of the family demands that the needs of each individual in the crowd can be satisfied solely within the bounds of his or her own unit. (On this point too the writers at Rosso speak well.) Picture yourself in this crowd and look around you, at the others, all striving to be great fathers, perfect mothers, bright children, all united not by a cause but by a belief: that generations from now another million people will walk the same ground, identical to you, still practicing, still believing the hell of a thing that is the family.