Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Romance Made Easy

Asexuals are constantly talking about romance. However, it has long been my bugaboo that I've never actually seen a definition of "romance" that makes sense to me. When people talk about it, they're almost certainly not talking about the same thing. But thanks to E. Kay Trimberger's The New Single Woman, I've finally found a definition that I can embrace. She writes:

Nor do I deny the attraction of romance, but let's expand our conceptions of it. I like what Barbara Lazear Ascher writes in Isn't It Romantic? Finding the Magic in Everyday Life. "Romance is structured yearning," she writes. "In the romantic moment, we gather and focus that yearning in order to connect with something outside ourselves, believing against all odds that such connection is possible." But Ascher has an expansive notion of romantic connection. "The romantic quest can be embarked upon solo," she writes. "It doesn't call for a significant other, great beauty, pulsating sexuality, a new dress, or complex planning. Its only requirements are the courage of an available heart and freedom of imagination." Ascher gives a wonderful description of the romance involved in bird-watching. (258)

Okay, that was long, but I think it was worth it. I don't know who Barbara Ascher is, but she's said exactly what I'd thought about romance but somehow couldn't put the words together to say. Most of this blog probably preaches to the choir, but I do have at least one controversial opinion: My great dislike of the romantic/aromantic distinction that many aces seem hellbent on figuring out. Especially when you use a definition like Ascher's, the distinction makes even less sense. I worry that when people usually discuss aromanticism, they're talking about romance in a very limited sense. Maybe you're not interested in romantic relationships, but if bird-watching sets your soul afire, are you really aromantic? Maybe I just take things too literally, but shouldn't personal labels be somewhat literal? The label "aromantic", I think, just privileges certain kinds of romance over others.

I think part of my perspective comes from writing poetry. When you write a poem, you have to develop some romantic feelings for whatever you're writing about, whether it's a human relationship or a train station. While Donald Hall's eulogies to Jane Kenyon are supremely romantic, so are David McFadden's odes to Canada. If you have a great passion for something non-human, I wouldn't sell it short. How else would we invent anything, discover anything? I remember reading an astronomy book that quoted a scientist that couldn't get to sleep because he was so thrilled that a comet was passing. Romance is, truly, wherever you find it. I'm not trying to replace "all people are sexual" (shudder) with "all people are romantic". But I do believe that redefining these sorts of concepts is "the asexual way". Rather than just responding to our culture's ideals of traditional "romance", we need to go beyond them.

Next time: An expanded idea of romance taken to the extreme? I try to understand a sexuality even rarer than ours.


Heidi said...

Hah, as an aromantic bird watcher, I must say that passions DO take a different form on occasion - there's something about freedom, inquisition, fresh air and curiosity that a wilting bunch of refrigerated cut flowers can't match. Beauty, suspense, it's outside. Sure, thoughtful things can come from people, but unless they truly know me.. eh.

gatto said...

You probably know I probably share your criticism of the romantic/aromantic distinction. If you look at poetry, literature, music that was originally described as "romantic", the term has very little to do with the modern concept of "romance" in the sense most people use it today (and on AVEN). I'm not saying that the modern sense (regarding intimate relationships) was necessarily not part of that (obviously Byron was well known for his varied and scandalous intimate relations), but that's just a part of a more general sensibility about sensation, passion... a lot of it had to do with nature. So, I tend to think more in those older fashioned terms. As far as I am concerned you can be romantic about birds, about cats, about music... philately... whatever. I guess to me romance just means caring deeply about things. But, I don't want to have to explain all this when people ask whether I'm "romantic" (usually; sometimes I have been up for it). I kind of dislike the tone of that particular discussion on AVEN, or in general the idea of reducing people to labels UNLESS the labels happen to mean something that everyone can agree upon. If people could agree that a label has very broad meaning, it might be easier to use that label... but people may prefer labels have narrower meanings because they want to know something very specific. That's the problem. If you make it broad enough to apply to anyone, it isn't useful; if you make it narrow, then it's tricky to define, and people disagree on the definition.

Ily said...

Yay, birdwatching! I want to try to find this "Isn't it Romantic?" book and see what else it has to say. No one's asked me if I'm "romantic", but my answer, which would probably be something like "yes and no", would probably be annoying to the asker. It would be interesting to know how and when this cultural shift in "romanticism" happened.

pretzelboy said...

Since in your followup to this, you mentioned being surprised that no one challenged your challenge to the romantic-aromanic split, I guess I'll take the bait.

To start with, I'm less than thrilled with the term 'aromantic.' But I'm also less thrilled with the term 'asexual' as well. I use it because I have a concept for which it would be useful to have a word. That's the word others use and I can't think of a better one. To me 'aromantic' is in a similar situation.

Some asexuals get romantic/affectional/emotional crushes on people and often this is going to be pattered according to gender . Consequently it is a.) useful to have some way to distinguish this kind of attraction from sexual attraction and b.) useful to have some way to refer to the gender tendency of these forms of nonsexual attractions.

The word asexual can have two possible derivations. One can mean 'not sexual.' The other is that if heterosexual is attracted to the other sex, homosexual to the same and and bi two both (or more), asexual seems to be the most natural paralell. I see the situation with homo/hetero/bi/aromantic being similar. 'Aromantic' could mean 'not romantic' but it could also mean, as it does in asexual discourse, not romantically/emotionally/affectionally/whatever-nonsexually attracted to others (i.e. not getting crushes on people.) It could be used to mean this without the meaning of 'not romantic' in the same way that some asexuals consider themselves asexual but not 'not sexual.' Because I think 'aromantic' sounds better than 'anemotinal' or 'anaffectual,' (shudders) I'll use it until someone proposes something better.

Still, I have my hesitations about using a romantic/aromantic divide. For one think, there are those of us in the gray area between them who get crushes on people, but these may be few and far between. (My impression is that this isn't particularly uncommon for aces.) And asexuals who are 'romantic' in terms of affectional orientation may be functionally aromanitc (i.e. no significant other for long periods of time, possibly ever.) And some who are 'aromantic' may well be in a significant-other-relationship.

In fact, these issues seem surprisingly parallel to boundaries between asexual and sexual and the problems that exist there. But for me, as long as the terms represent concepts that I would like to express, I will continue to use them.

Sea said...

In much the same manner as pretzelboy, I figured I would come back here and say something that might or might not be interesting because of the line in your more recent post.

I consider myself aromantic even though I'd sort of consider myself to be "in love" (for lack of a better word) at the moment. The thing is, I consider the structure and system of romance in the modern world to be a big disaster, and I don't want to associate myself with it. I'm definitely with gatto -- I am quite happy to use romantic in the older sense when the occasion calls for it -- but when I'm talking to people about the kinds of relationships I am interested in forming, which is when I need the label anyway, I'm not going to assume that everyone has the same English-major-esque sensibilities as me.

I actually like the term aromantic and I use it even though I don't think I strictly fall into the category. Gray-aromantic is a better fit, I suppose, but it's much easier to tell people I'm aromantic than to tell them about this one time when I realized I felt this certain way about one person. I'd rather not muddy the waters too much when I'm introducing a new orientation they've never heard of before, which is what I find myself doing frequently.

Chris said...

Now that is controversial! Let me answer in the same vein.

Are you sure you're not trying to replace "all people are sexual" with "all people are romantic"?

By quoting that "the romantic quest can be embarked upon solo" and that it doesn't necessarily call "for a significant other" aren't you in effect saying that anybody experiencing a yearning towards anything (inanimate or animate) can be described as romantic?

I describe myself as aromantic and find it an incredibly useful term, not only when discussing my feelings with other asexuals but also with sexuals. I would be loathe to give it up just because I have the occasional passion for a certain piece of art or because of the feeling I sometimes experience when looking up at a clear night sky.

For me, identifying as aromantic means that I don't want a relationship with a "significant other" or "significant others". I don't fall in love. I don't develop crushes. I have no desire for a "soul mate" or "soul mates". I don't feel the need to share my life with a "special somebody" or "special somebodies". I'm not on a quest to find "my other half" or "other thirds"!

Looking back on my teenage years my peer group's lack of understanding around my aromantism caused me much more distress than their disbelief of my asexuality.

I surprised a couple of asexual friends last night when I said I would rather be sexual than romantic. And I sometimes think that I have more in common with aromantic sexuals than romantic asexuals.

Furthermore, by calling for an expansion of the definition of the term "romance" you risk sounding like someone who is ashamed of the way they feel. A change in the definition would mean that it would include your feelings. But what is wrong with admiting that you don't experience the same feelings that the majority of people on the planet do?

Many asexuals are pitied by sexuals for not being able to experience sexual feelings. Similarly, should aromantics be pitied by romantics for their lack of romantic feelings?

Ily said...

Hey, thanks for the comments...hee, Chris, I do try to keep things exciting around here. I just want to clarify that I'm not trying to push "romanticism" on anyone, but saying that if you want to, you can reject the whole romantic/aromantic "thing". I don't identify with either aromanticism or romanticism, so I'm not advocating one over the other. I've heard that before-- that aromantic asexual people have more in common with aromantic sexual people than romantic asexual people (in terms of forming relationships, at least). I can sort of understand this, but from a community-building perspective, I'm wary of these sorts of divisions. I don't want aromantic and romantic-identified aces to decide they have little in common and go off in their own groups. Don't get me wrong, people should identify as whatever they want. But I think that there is too much of an emphasis placed on "am I aromantic or romantic?" No matter what the definition of romance was, I still wouldn't ID as romantic or aromantic, and my point is to show that other people also have this choice. Maybe it comes from my interest in queer theory, but to me being queer is all about "rejecting dominant paradigms" and all that. In my ideal world, asexuals would reject many of the traditional concepts that divide aromantic and romantic people. (There will also be free pizza there.) People's visions will differ-- that's just mine.

Chris said...

Exciting is what it's all about! :)

Don't worry, I don't think the aromantic / romantic divide will be enough to split the asexual community -- although in some ways it would be great if there were enough of us to even contemplate a great schism!

I can understand why people are critical of the romantic / aromantic divide, especially folk who don't fall neatly into either category. The straight / gay and male / female binaries are frequently criticised in the same way.

Do we need more terms? Or perhaps we should stop expecting classification systems to neatly describe people using single terms. Aren't we more complex than that?

I don't think it's surprising why there is such an emphasis on the aromantic / romantic divide. In some ways romantic orientation for asexuals is analogous to sexual orientation for sexuals. Someone's orientation determines their most important relationships. The romantic asexuals I know are always keen to meet other romantics (for obvious reasons) while the aromantic asexuals I've met are usually keen to announce their aromanticism, just to make sure that I know where they stand!

Carsonspire said...

Unless it concerns electrical circuits, I am always wary of the binary. The a/romantic divide is no exception. I do have one question for you, though: If, according to Ascher, romantic feeling requires no significant other (or other entity that can reciprocate the feeling), then how do you differentiate passion (i.e. being passionate about something) from having "romantic feelings" toward it?

Ily said...

Rejecting that binary is definitely what I'm going for-- so thanks for saying it in those words! I think Ascher would probably say that romance is a more structured form of passion.