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On the nature-convention divide

With aromanticism as a case study

You posited that one can love a partner erotically or not without being romantic. Your thesis rests on discerning the factors of differentiation between affection or physical attraction and the values associated with such love. The former category is fundamentally understood as a biochemical process. While the significations attached to the construct of romantic subjectivity are culturally enforced. We assume that one feels carnal desire regardless of social expectations, while they are encouraged or compelled to express themselves in certain ways that are formulated along normative lines. The distinction between the two loosely maps to the nature-convention divide.

Let us note here the observation that the line we draw between the physical and the cultural domains, what we could also call pragmata and chrēmata (hrEEmata) respectively, is indicative of the analytical constructs we assume. Nature is placed on one side, the human world on the other. There are clear delineations between the two; clear in our mind, that is. What happens, however, if our kind’s experience exists as a continuum, where it would be highly likely that what outwardly stands as chrēmatic has pragmatic underpinnings or, perhaps, that there exists a cycle of mutual invigoration between these two magnitudes? Could that which is conventional be an elucidation of underlying natural propensities, such as the basic conception of property rights being an extension of innate possessive behavioural patterns, rather than the antithesis of all that is natural?

At the conceptual level, it is interesting and fecund to distinguish between the world as-is and the world as made by human institution: it forms the basis of many of our theories. In practice though, we face difficulties when tasked with studying phenomena that stand at the intersection between those two worlds. Human nature in particular is a case where distinguishing between pragmata and chrēmata poses considerable challenges.

For the sake of concreteness, reconsider the topic of physical attraction: imagine the possibility that rather than it occurring regardless of social norms, it draws its force from prior experiences and expectations imprinted upon one’s personhood to the effect that behavioural patterns reveal learnt preferences. The hypothesis is that cultural associations provide stimuli which act as incentives or disincentives for underlying physical mechanisms. One’s body is effectively conditioned by their environment to act in a programmed fashion.

The programmability of the sort here considered is the hypothetical outcome of years of training the body to react in predetermined ways to some stimuli, while ignoring or being less responsive to others. If such reaction is not chrēmatic in itself, then we must entertain the possibility that convention can affect nature to a degree, while nature does inform convention.

What constitutes “the environment” that may contribute to one’s programmability is a combination of natural forces as well as other people, given the social nature of our species. Others also operate in accordance with the biochemistry we already alluded to, while they themselves are framed by the social whole’s emergent culture, including the rules and institutions that regulate their inter-subjective experience.

It then follows that on the topic of human nature the analytical extremes of pragmata and chrēmata can find themselves in complex arrangements of interaction, where there exist feedback loops whose original cause is unclear, yet the interplay between their factors strongly suggests the convergence of said constructs towards a singularity where the attributes associated with each of them, and which otherwise contribute to their distinction, are altogether dissolved. We can fathom scenaria in which these analytical extremes are just that: analytical.

Following this train of thought leads me to believe that this neat typology of ours, where nature is presented as partially exogenous to the human condition, does not describe our reality. I grant you that convention does not have any obvious connection to nature, with “obvious” being the operative term . Through workings that remain obscure, though of no apparent immediate interest to our inquiry, we arrive at states of affairs that seem too withdrawn from what we would associate with ‘nature’, say, biochemistry. So we proclaim that they must have no connection to underlying mechanics and must thus be purely chrēmatic. Why though should we perceive of the natural order as merely foundational? What if every action of ours is framed, influenced, determined, or otherwise informed by circles of feedback between underlying drives and external forces of an inter-personal as well as non-human sort?

Take a step back and return to our point about physical attraction being a natural impulse, while romantic notions stand at the opposite end as conventional. We may have built-in inclinations to feel or act in accordance with what we understand as love, including its manifestation as physical attraction. Yet we have been immersed in an environment consisting of human-specific and human-independent factors which amplifies some aspects of our constitution while suppressing others. It seems reasonable to think of things that way. However, we ought to scrutinise the heuristic of the purely natural condition, the one that could presumably retain its ‘true’ presence in the absence of such an environment. Does such a decontextualised human exist? Can there be a human agent whose actions are not in any way influenced by either prior experiences or present forces, whose origin is extrinsic or which interface with intrinsic sub-systems of the human organism? Is there some ‘true human’ that operates in a vacuum and whom we may study without inadvertently influencing them? If not, are we putting too much faith in this tidy system of ours?

More broadly, I am sceptical of the ontological claims on the distinction between an object and its environment. Can there be experience in itself, without an agent that experiences and a source from whence the stimulus stems from? How can we truly separate intrinsic from extrinsic properties for objects whose actuality is couched in terms of the set of factors we conceptualise as “their environment”?

My argument is not that we should dismiss all analytics as absurd because of universal inter-connectedness. It rather is to highlight the fact that we may be assigning disproportionate value to our devices, which may unwittingly obfuscate some facet of reality we should otherwise be researching. This is not to argue that there are no chrēmata whatsoever, for it is clear that, say, one can neither institute the Sun into becoming something other than it is, which in the case of the Earth broadly corresponds to the function of the life-giver, nor banish it from the sky by state fiat, cultural taboos, and the like. The basic distinction between pragmata and chrēmata still has its utility. As such, I must stress that I am interested in the peculiar case of human nature in light of human’s inter-subjective experience as a culturally-instituted social animal.

A derivative set of considerations related to what I consider the chimera of the decontextualised human is (i) whether there exists an asocial human, (ii) the extent to which such a being may be considered representative of human’s true nature, and (iii) the concomitant problématique of assessing the propriety of methods that will opine on such a matter. Following from there, we would have to apply the same rigour to the other hypothetical being of a social human that is not influenced by culture. Again, is our typology realistic?

Which brings us to the adaptability of the human organism. What we understand as “a human”, alias “the human body” or “the human organism”, is a super-system that emerges from the joint operation of numerous sub-systems, which themselves stand as emergent from sub-systems of their own. Every factor in each of those levels of emergence reveals patterns of behaviour that map to what we understand better from the ultimate emergent behaviour of humans, namely, their adaptation to stimuli. There is a basic binary of incentives versus disincentives that we could, of course, refashion as a spectrum with permutations in between the extremes. The exact instrument of measurement is of no import right now. It suffices that we appreciate the abstract structure of feedback loops that provide the impetus for certain outcomes, while acknowledging that they can foreshadow future expectations about stimuli that reinvigorate the loop.

An example is in order. Think of it this way. You eat a lot of sugar. Your body reacts in a manner that offers the impression of short-term satisfaction. A yearning for more sugar is gradually the new normal. You indulge in greater consumption of the same substance. Now your organism is adjusting to a new equilibrium of sugar intake and conditions its workings accordingly. The urge for more of the same is your sub-systems speaking. They exhibit a behaviour that clearly prioritises this state of affairs over other patterns that may have been adequate in the equilibrium ex ante.

I would describe this as “inertia”, the near-irresistible tendency of organisms to retain their state in the face of evolving circumstances. Understand, though, that such inertia is not inexorable, for there are counter forces that contribute to the dynamics of this notional equilibrium we are here examining. All because of inter-connectedness, which feeds into the multitude of feedback loops that generate diverging drives.

You may provide assent to the example I offered with sugar intake having an effect on the longer term normality of one’s body. You might, nonetheless, add the proviso that such a substance is of an outright biochemical sort, hence, the argument would go, it is to be expected that such conditioning occurs. Ideas, institutions, culture at-large are not of that kind. They are not substances per se, at least not that we know of. Does that mean that they have no effect on one’s biochemical static state at any one temporal point?

It appears that ideas are equally potent qua stimuli, for they trigger reactions. A reaction must be reducible to some underlying process impressed upon the conscious self as motion and/or emotion. Implying that there is an effect on this equilibrium we are now considering; an equilibrium that we admit to be dynamic and which itself is the end product of smaller scale equilibria at local areas of activity (e.g. the prevailing conditions in the liver and those in the heart contribute to a person’s overall health). Which in turn means that whatever may qualify as one’s environment, regardless of whether it belongs to either pragmata or chrēmata, must exert influence on the natural side of things.

This is likeness of outcome, without accounting for the exact mechanisms that may be in force, and with no reference to possible differences in degree. Empirical research may well discover that a substance has a far more pronounced effect on a person than, say, years of immersion in cultural narratives. Or that the means by which a reaction is created are different, which may require a classification of reactions, and so on. All good! The nuanced takeaway here is not whether pragmata and chrēmata are indistinguishable or that they are so in vitro, but only that there are inherent methodological challenges on how to distinguish between the two in the examination of human nature in vivo and, by extension, of human inter-subjective experience.

We are still considering the case of love for a partner that is erotic or not and which can be simplified as physical attraction. We initially attempted to distinguish from learnt preferences that we blithely grouped together as “romance” . We have now arrived at a point where it seems plausible to posit the tentative claim that insofar as human nature is concerned, there is no clear distinction between the human world and the natural world, casting doubt on our basic intuition about the ostensibly clear demarcation line between the two.

Couched in those terms, we can press on with our inquiry into the topic of cultural norms pertaining to love for a partner: what we consider romantic forms of affection and expression. As we have already elaborated on the difficulty of classifying in unambiguous terms a phenomenon as purely natural or conventional, we must apply our hypotheses to romanticism.

What is the brand of romance we are interested in? We could frame it as the kind of extravagant behaviour of outwardly evident affection, where an agent proceeds to act in ways that would otherwise appear out-of-the-ordinary, though opts to do so only vis-à-vis a reserved recipient of the action. The subjects will appear more inclined to follow modes of expression whose apparent feature is the exaltation of the loving other’s qualities in one’s mind. Exaggerations such as “I cannot live without you”, “you are my other half”, and the like.

Note though that I took the liberty to describe this as “extravagant”. That is not how it is perceived in a given culture that normalises such patterns as desirable.

Back to our point: should we take such claims literally? I doubt anyone can ever truly be a ‘half’ of another, in the sense of there being a strong dependency of mutual survival. We must, therefore, interpret romantic overtures as figures of speech, formulaic statements that are meant to embellish a basic claim such as “I love you”, or to prepare the grounds for the eventuality that is sought after once that message is communicated.

The exaggerated style of such statements can be mapped to cultural expectations of what counts as appropriate. It can further be discerned in the patterns of behaviour towards third parties that lovers must follow in order to conform with their respective instituted roles of them “being in love” .

I can read the expression on your face: perhaps we are one-sided here. Worry not, for we are fleshing out this notion in order to tackle it with full force.

Romance appears to have qualities of imposed outwardness, which implies a role-playing game where either side conforms with the expected patterns of action that society bestows upon them through gradual-yet-persistent indoctrination in the dominant culture. In other words, the set of significations and normative claims fastened upon the construct of love produce a form of hypocrisy whose ulterior motive is a good performance in the public eye by those involved, which itself may be a prerequisite for other benefits of a similar socially sanctioned type. In this scenario, the romantic lovers have an incentive to look as “romantically attached” as possible to reap the rewards that await them. Now there may be some underlying mechanism at play which fuels one’s quest for positive reinforcement, but our focus is on romance as such: in this case it would just be a shadow play.

While we could generalise every behavioural pattern in terms of its likelihood to produce positive reinforcement from the environment or cultural milieu, we must not be hasty to deliberate on the motives that underpin every form of expression.

We accepted that romanticism thrives on hyperbole and that it appears to be flamboyant. And then we focused on its cultural dimension, which we still could explore further. Yet we missed a crucial insight. Recall our earlier claims that on the peculiar case of human nature pragmata and chrēmata operate in feedback loops. It is thus pertinent to wonder whether romance is but an epiphenomenon of underlying mechanisms whose cumulative effect is a kind of fixation on the romantic lover. The person who suddenly takes a keen interest in the items we associate with romantic love, may in fact be sort of disoriented or reoriented by the influx of some chemical element and resulting biochemistry whose minimum necessary stimulus is the mere thought of the other side of romantic attraction. Recall the concept of the equilibrium that governs one’s normality: what if the impulse to be romantic reflects an adjustment of this sort?

It would thus follow that there may well be a multitude of factors at play. Some underlying process fuels or contributes to romantic affection, while institutions train or outright brainwash individuals into behaving in certain ways. The exact stylistic qualities or promised cultural benefits attached to the construct of romantic love may vary, yet they likely draw from a mechanism that is not instituted as such. The convergence between pragmata and chrēmata is rendered apparent. We are again finding ourselves in a position where we must question our initial typology of love being of a natural sort while romanticism derives from convention, with an unbridgeable gap in between those magnitudes.

That granted, let us examine the chrēmatic facets of romance. You object to the idealistic notions associated with romance on the grounds that they are fake or superfluous to the experience of love. Which suggests to me that you may not question the aforementioned case of ‘fixation’ per se, but rather stand in opposition to the institutions that are built around it; legal arrangements, traditions, rules of conduct, business practices, and so on, which combine into a certain power structure. By opposing this version of romance, you effectively raise your voice against the status quo that influences or outright formulates it.

What I want you to consider is whether this aromantic theory of yours is about the putative presence of romanticism as purely chrēmatic or if it is focused on the superstructure of power relations predicated on the concept of romance, without prejudice to the nature-convention divide we have documented herein.

If my hypothesis on the innate methodological constraints imposed upon our research about the demarcation line between pragmata and chrēmata in light of the peculiar case of human nature holds any merit, then I would expect from you to attempt to apply it assiduously on all your theories about the human condition. There is, nonetheless, a political argument to be made about the conventional qualities that are associated with a given state of affairs. My thesis remains confined to the abstract structure of claims on the ontic and modal qualities of our presence, which can, of course, have far-reaching implications on how certain discourses are framed.