Non-Monogamy Letter #1
The Non-Monogamy Letters (1/4)

Non-Monogamy Letter #1

In this introductory letter from Simon(e) van Saarloos to Kim TallBear, Simon(e) explores where their perspectives on monogamy intersect, and where they might diverge.

August 19, 2020

Dear Kim TallBear,

I wish I had found your work earlier in life. When you started The Critical Polyamorist blog in 2013, I was twenty-three and I don’t think I would have felt the need to write about non-monogamy if I had encountered your work back then. The references I did know when writing Playing Monogamy (published in The Netherlands in 2015, translated to English in 2019) described polyamory, introducing multi-love as an individual lifestyle choice. Most books and discussion groups seemed to focus on doing romantic love and sex differently, not on fundamentally shifting hegemonic understandings of life and power. Your work—at The Critical Polyamorist, in podcasts and talks—addresses monogamy in North America as a settler colonial practice, an imposed structure of intimacy that links to questions of property, consent, hierarchical thinking and cosmology. With this letter, I hope to invite you for an exchange on non-monogamy as a form of resistance.

Had I known your work, I might have written Playing Monogamy very differently. While I believe that to be true, it complies with a linear timeline, assuming chronological and causal growth. Non-monogamy precisely challenges this linearity, mandating all action—every gesture of affection; every good conversation; each personal detail in “getting to know each other better”—to serve progress.

Linear time flows in one direction and in one speed, similar to the so-called “relationship escalator” of a monogamous partnership: dating is followed by exclusivity, marriage, buying a house, having kids. Do you know the Black Quantum Futurism collective? They describe linear time as asymmetrical. Each unique, singular step builds towards the next. Black Quantum Futurism proposes non-linear understandings of time. Like quantum particles, time is entangled, meaning that what is happening now or here is connected to, symmetrical with, another time and place. Linear, asymmetrical time allows for final ends: a break like divorce creates a total loss, because the line—and thereby everything built up to that point—is broken and progression has stopped.

How do we relate in sustainable ways without measuring connection in terms of duration or igniting commitment through preconceived roles (partner, wife, law abiding citizen—all claims of innocence and sanity)? My personal intergenerational intimacies with lovers and friends of all ages affirm the possibility of crossing the assumed roles and expectations assigned with age. I try to refrain from asking any questions that propagate value through time, such as “how long have you known each other?” However, I have also found that this “current” Covid moment makes me slip: I suddenly talk about a period of time being “over,” or I suddenly hope for a closed chapter. Where in Herdenken herdacht, a short book published last year in Dutch, I strongly argue against any notion of closed or finished time (inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s speculative history writing), Covid confronts me with my white and ableist attachment to hope, expecting access, assuming things will have to be somehow more “normalized” than this.

I imagine that, if you’d accept my invitation to exchange letters, we’d have much to discuss about “current” though longstanding ideas concerning safety, care and nuclear living. While the premier of Quebec in Canada advised monogamy “at this time” (as if the state doesn’t always, in explicit and subtle ways, advise citizens to practice monogamy), the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment advised singles to find one, exclusive and faithful “corona sex buddy” against touch deprivation and “skin hunger.” The compulsory, possibly non-consensual aspects of nuclear family life, depriving people of broader kinship and care, was thus not discussed. 

Because of your work (thank you, and thanks to everyone and everything making work possible for you) I sense the possibility to meet in a dense and full place.[i] Thus, I don’t wish to dwell on that which polyamory is not. But I do believe there is generative energy in the not, or the non-, which is why I still prefer “non-monogamy” over any other term I have encountered so far (including Relationship Anarchy). There is an imaginative, speculative space in the non- that I cannot imagine replacing with a positive—yet.

Every so often, I receive a message from a reader who happily announces that they’ve ended their relationship after reading Playing Monogamy. It feels a bit uncomfortable, because I always just wish to argue for added intimacy, plus plus plus. When I learned that you receive similar messages about glorious break-ups from readers, I started to wonder whether these celebrated ends simply signify the overwhelming presence of compulsory monogamy. Commercials aim to make you buy a product and self-help guides affirm a way of living: if you follow rule x, y, z (eating healthily, regular exercise, working in slots of twenty-five minutes), you’ll feel better. You’ll cope better, living within the system. If instead you desire to resist the structures that surround us, you are at best affirmed in the potential of refusal.

Everything you write about settler-colonialism in the US and in Canada, feels fully applicable to The Netherlands. The suppression of extended kinships through monogamous marriage relates to the current views of Dutch politicians, commenting on “large” migrant families, or displaying white conceptions of nuclear loyalty and responsibility in judging Caribbean-Dutch men and single moms.[ii] While settler colonialism in North America traces back to European colonizing countries like The Netherlands, it feels hard to contextualize settler colonial monogamy in the Netherlands itself.

Besides Gloria Wekker’s wonderful writing on afro-Surinamese matti work in The Politics of Passion (as well as her analysis in White Innocence of the Islamophobic politician Pim Fortuyn and his desire for Moroccan-Dutch men in the dark room), Ann Laura Stoler’s work on eroticism and embodiment in the Dutch Indies (Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power. Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule) and the current scholarship of Wigbertson Julian Isenia on sexual citizenship in the Dutch Caribbean, I have not (yet?) encountered an analysis or study of colonial sexuality in The Netherlands itself. 

Perhaps having a history packed with colonial activity allows us to believe that sexual morality and Christian beliefs were exported, enforced elsewhere, while somehow getting rid of a specific and strong ideology in the homeland. Since LGBT rights and an “open-minded” moral are proud export products of The Netherlands, I wonder about the imperial boomerang effect of Dutch colonial sexuality.

The “false promise of genetic science” that you describe in your mind-blowing book Native American DNA reminds me of the essentialist brain-claims by the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab. He declares to have identified homosexuality in the brain, seeing heterosexuality as the hormonal norm and homosexuality as a less common but natural flux of hormones in the womb.[iii] Swaab is not against homosexuality. His famous study promotes acceptance of LGBT people, in some way. He is currently committed to explain “transsexuality” as a quality in the brain. I suspect he doesn’t care about the fact that the binary gender system is a violent and reductive colonial imposition. I fear he believes “two spirit” could be easily identified with his hormonal measure, considering it as simply a matter of time before people “elsewhere” will accurately narrow their cultural understanding of gender to the western binary one.

Swaab’s conclusions became popular in the nineties, when I was a toddler. You write about growing up around non-monogamy without naming it as such, as the settler ideal of monogamy reigned. I grew up in the presence of homosexuality and intersex, legible and illegible. It was all “normal,” but only in the scientific, rational sense. Everything is possible, as long as it can be studied and explained. The scientist’s colonial demand to know—legitimizing existence through visibility and classification—is in my “DNA.”[iv]

DNA testing could offer multiplicity, insofar as it shows an individual’s wide range of ancestry (which culturally still doesn’t have to mean anything, as you argue). However, the lineages traced depend on limited sampling and contemporary geography. Roots become measured percentages and scientists project the expectation that one day—when all data is available—ancestry becomes one hundred percent legible. This genetic research promises a sense of clear origin, and completion. Which brings me back to monogamy: to be loved by one person should complete you, and to love one person makes the origin of love clear.

Illustration of a hand holding a flower in front of a face with a swollen eye.

Reading about the false promise of genetic science, I kept thinking about the promise of monogamy as a safety measure. Monogamy makes reproduction a clear case, DNA wise: if both “male and female” are monogamous, no doubts are raised about the child’s origin and belonging. Hence, the push for settler colonial monogamy and the importance of DNA interweave as a biological argument for a woman’s safety. Since the woman is assumed to bear children, it is said, in evolutionary terms, that knowing the father of the child is important for her well-being. That way she can keep him accountable. That way her offspring will inherit his property. Monogamy promises soothingly clear and legible DNA—a straitlaced way to avoid further pain in a patriarchal world.

This false promise of safety is beautifully described by Spanish activist and writer Brigitte Vasallo who, in “Monogamous Mind, Polyamorous Terror,” shows how monogamy is used to produce islamophobia in Europe. Christian colonialists marked polygamy as uncivilized because of the number of wives, offering monogamous marriage as a “female-friendly” option instead. By focusing on the number, the institution of marriage was left unquestioned and Christian monogamy was further stabilized as the morally higher way of life.

Reading all of your blogs again in one go while quarantined in Amsterdam, I’ve stuck to “Routedness, not rootedness in geography and desire.” Your description of needing expansive plains and skies, instead of mountains or coastal cities, lingers. I once took a road trip with a lover from New York City to her parents’ home in North Dakota, lured by the promise of open skies. We have only ever spent those few nights on the road, while she was finalizing a legal divorce. Besides sharing six breakfasts together, she showed me those amazing skies.

Hoping you are well.

Simon(e)


Endnotes

[i] In “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality” Evelynn Hammonds writes: “the observer outside of the hole sees it as a void, an empty place in space. However, it is not empty; it is a dense and full place in space.” Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6.2+3 (1994): 138.

[ii] So much more could be said about this, but let me just link to Cathy Cohen’s analysis of policed intimacies in the US context: “Whose Black Lives Matter? The Politics of Black Love and Violence”, March 6, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfO4AViCgZ8

[iii] D. F. Swaab and M. A. Hofman, “An enlarged suprachiasmatic nucleus in homosexual men,” Brain Research, vol. 537, no. 1–2 (December 1990): 141-148.

[iv] I make this DNA statement only in relation to your reflection on the complex meanings blood and DNA references can have. You write: “The references to blood might involve not strictly biological aspects but also (or rather) ‘spiritual’ understandings of blood’s power that, as Melissa Meyer reminds us, all cultures exhibit over time. To reject such understandings as automatically biologically essentialist is to miss that some blood meanings indeed emerge from a nonscientific ethic (I do not mean unscientific). Furthermore, using the ‘science stick,’ as I’ve come to think of it, to beat back all blood talk as baseless (it may indeed be essentialist, but perhaps that reflects important cultural ideas) seems ironically to dictate that indigenous peoples live according to biological knowledges that we critical scholars have already claimed they should not be defined and restricted by.” Kim TallBear, Native American DNA. Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 178.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Simon(e) van Saarloos is a writer and artist. They have published several books, including Playing Monogamy and Take ‘Em Down. Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting. They are also the host of *The Asterisk Conversations podcast and recently started a PhD in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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