Saturday, August 6, 2011

Polyamory and Sustainability: Synchronicity with the World

Polyamory and Sustainability: Synchronicity with the World
            Polyamory has seen a phenomenal growth of attention since the turn of the century, with a slew of literature and cultural analysis having developed in that time (Barker & Langdridge, 2010). Yet, most of the attention is in explaining, qualifying and/or justifying the non-normative behavior in polyamory. Is this just a transitory culture, or does it have the staying power to sustain itself in the modern world? To answer this question, the concepts of cultural and social sustainability will be used to help identify what unique challenges that the polyamorous community faces to help determine the potential staying power of he culture of polyamory.
Identifying Social & Cultural Sustainability
            There is no existing standard of social and cultural sustainability for this kind of analysis, so this paper will be borrowing elements from Enyedi (2002) and Kong (2005) in their assessments of the social and cultural sustainability of cities to form a functional analytical framework, in addition to Kallstrom & Ljung’s (2005) analysis of social sustainability on farmers.
Kong’s (2009) identification of how cultural product sustains city culture provides the foundation for this analysis, with the production and proliferation of in-group cultural product as a key element to cultural sustainability. It is with cultural product that culture is given the opportunity to integrate into individual behavior, routine and lives. By becoming a part of individual lived experience, cultural product helps sustain culture. The proliferation of Shakespeare in the modern discourse of dramatic theater is an example of this.
            Kong’s (2009) cultural sustainability also ties in with social sustainability, forming the beginning of the model of socio/cultural sustainability that this paper will be using. Kong (2009) describes social sustainability as the sustained social interaction that holds community together both within and without, and is often expressed through physical locations that cater to social engagement. Additionally, to connect social and cultural sustainability together, these spaces must be cultural epicenters as well, where socialization can occur both between members of a group, and between individuals outside of the group to those within it. In much the same way that theaters help produce cultural product by providing space for theatrical performances, coffee shops help produce social product by providing space for social interaction, and both will often cater to particular cultures, providing the necessary cultural conglomeration of in-group and access by out-group individuals to create a sustained space for supporting larger social and cultural product.
            Kong (2009) also hints at an inverse correlation between economic sustainability and cultural sustainability. Kong (2009) identifies that a lack of local cultural product can occur due to the higher economic value of having more internationally mainstream product instead. This hurts local cultural production, and limits cultural sustainability. The implication is that to be fully culturally sustainable, a group must constantly balance the economic viability of their product with the cultural value of their product.
Moving from cultural product to how that product is distributed and integrated nto individual lived experience, Enyedi (2002) identifies social and cultural sustainability through the interactions not just between the in-group and out-group, but also between individuals within the in-group to the in-group as a whole, as well as individuals within the in-group and the out-group. In addition these interactions are analyzed with a perspective on how the in-group affects the out-groups sustainability, as well as vice versa. The inter-relatedness of this system is observed through issues of access by asking the question ‘How does where in-group individuals live/work/eat/play/etc. affect their access to cultural product?’ Through this, we can begin to ask, in what way do the spaces that polyamorous individuals use, support them in the distribution and accessibility of their cultural product.
            Access alone, however, cannot fully explain the interaction between the individual, the in-group and the out-group. By incorporating Kallstrom & Ljung’s (2005) individual-to-group relation model, it is possible to complete the socio/cultural sustainability model. Kallstrom & Ljung (2005) identify a category of three needs for social sustainability within any group. Care: is there unconditional value placed on the group? Rights: does the group have the ability to have input on decisions that affect them? And solidarity: is the group recognized for their accomplishments? The more these needs are provided for, for both the group and the individuals within the group, the more involved the group, and the individuals within, will be in the production of the group’s social and cultural product, and the more those individuals will themselves be socially and culturally sustainable.
We can close the cycle of socio/cultural sustainability here, by arguing that with the acquisition of care, rights and solidarity, a group will generate more cultural product, since they are afforded enough regard by out-groups to do so. That regard also makes the cultural product more economically viable, and as economic viability increases the mass saturation of cultural product increases. The added regard also allows for easier creation of dedicated socio/cultural spaces that allow for in-group members to interact, and for out-group members to socially engage with in-group members. These interactions serve to reinforce the existing care, rights and solidarity already afforded to the in-group, thus closing the cycle.
Identifying Cultural & Social Sustainability within Polyamory
            In looking specifically at the polyamorous community through the socio/cultural sustainability system that has been described, it can be pointed out that the amount of cultural product that is made by the polyamorous community is limited. There is a slew of self-help literature on polyamory (Easton & Hardy, 2009; Linssen & Wik, 2010; Simpere, 2011; Taromino, 2008) and a small but growing amount of media coverage in the form of documentaries (Finch & Marovitch, 2002) and news media coverage (Barawacz & Fleszar, 2011; MTV, 2009), however production and/or integration into mainstream entertainment media has been limited at best, with the chief example being HBO’s recently ended series Big Love (Knoller et al., 2006) despite Big Love being about polygamy and not polyamory.
            Due to a lack of comprehensive academic research on polyamory (Barker, 2005; Barker & Langdridge, 2010; Haritaworn, Lin & Kleese, 2006; Noël, 2006) it is currently not possible to conclusively identify the specific cause of this lack of cultural product. However, there is sufficient information to make a fair conjecture. As exampled by Ernie Joseph’s experience (Wagner, 2009), there is a mainstream resistance to incorporating any association with polyamory in the media, thus denying the polyamorous community access to a mass cultural outlet. This is crucial because there is no specifically identified forum for polyamorists to create cultural product. Though there are polyamorous artists, actors and singers, there are no polyamory galleries, theaters or music halls. This mainstream resistance combined with a lack of poly-specific localities for producing cultural product force the community to production along the existing line available: self-help literature.
            This self-help literature does have the potential to positively impact polyamory socio/cultural sustainability. As socio/cultural sustainability includes creating spaces for social interaction both inter- and intra-group, the polyamory self-help books can serve both these functions by allowing for cultural producers to create dialog with other members of the poly community, while simultaneously, because of the mass market distribution of these books, have a dialog with the outside culture. This is not fully equivalent to a dedicated space where polyamorous individuals can interact with each other and with the outside culture, but it does provide a limited means of dialog. It is worth noting that the polyamory community also has internal social spaces that are temporarily created and dismantled in the form of conferences and workshops. Though not usually exclusive to the polyamorous community, these events do not possess the same level of accessibility that self-help literature has to allow for effective in-group to out-group interaction in these venues.
There is the potential for the effectiveness of polyamory literature to plateau in sustaining this social function, as a key dependency in the literature to sustain itself is its economic viability. After enough market saturation, it is likely that the interest in polyamory literature will decline, leaving the ability to publish new material for mass distribution limited. This would harm one of the essential components of socio/cultural sustainability by cutting off the interaction between in-group and out-group, as well as reducing the amount of cultural product that is generated by the polyamorous community.
Inter-related Systems: How Helping Poly’s Sustainability Helps Everyone
            The deficiency of polyamorists access to mainstream cultural product outlets is harmful to the polyamorous community as well as the larger culture. With an inter-relation between the poly community, the larger outside community and individual’s ability to create cultural product, a denial in one area begins a segregative process between the poly community and the larger society. The denial of access to means of cultural production and distribution communicates to the polyamorous community a lack of care from the larger culture, effectively the larger culture telling the polyamorous community that it lacks anything of value to contribute. This hampers the ability for the larger culture to provide effective rights and solidarity to the polyamorous community. Because the polyamorous community is receiving this ‘push back’ message from the larger culture, cultural product is distributed more exclusively within the polyamorous community, and not within the larger culture. This removes the benefits to the larger culture that the polyamorous community can provide, namely in the realm of self-reflection, communication and emotional processing skills (Whitehouse, 2010).
            Because there is little-to-no physical separation between the polyamorous community and the larger culture, understanding polyamorous socio/cultural sustainability becomes even more complex. Returning to the question of what the effect of where the in-group (polyamorous individuals, in this case) live/eat/work/play/etc. has on sustainability; because the polyamorous community is intertwined within larger society, a full cultural separation becomes impossible. The poly community doesn’t provide any easily recognizable and economically valuable resource. Though self-reflection, communication and emotional processing skills are valuable in their own right, and can be a valuable commodity to the larger cultural market, these contributions end up taking a sideline to resources such as food. Because of this diminished public value of what the polyamorous community offers, the ability for the polyamorous community to produce cultural product is completely dependent on the outer economic viability of their product. Through this is their capacity to receive care, rights and solidarity. Yet since the community cannot extricate itself from the larger culture, it ends up in a self-defeating cycle of receiving a constant push-back from the larger culture that de-values polyamory, thus dissuading polyamorists from creating cultural product, such as poly theater, TV, movies, etc. What ends up being sustained is not the polyamorous culture, but instead a larger cultural resistance to the polyamorous culture. What then would a culture that supports polyamorous sustainability look like?
Signs of a Sustainable Polyamory
            Starting with cultural product, a socio/culturally sustainable polyamorous community would include a reversal on the block-out that polyamorous individuals and the culture at-large have on cultural product distribution. Polyamory would become integrated into the larger culture and be included in mainstream cultural product distributories (theaters, cinema, literature, cultural events, etc.). The ability for all polyamorous cultural producers to produce and distribute would mimic what is currently only available to authors of polyamory self-help literature.
Economics ends up being an interesting regulating factor in this situation, forcing the poly community to incorporate in cultural product from the larger culture in order to economically sustain the polyamorous cultural product. This has the advantage of allowing for a co-relatability between the polyamorous culture and the larger culture, thus encouraging social interaction within social venues of polyamorous discussion. Without the economic pressures, the polyamorous community could potentially become self-absorbed and culturally segregative from the larger culture. This would end up de-valuing polyamorous cultural product and would produce the same negative result as if the polyamorous community had been cut off from cultural production.
With cultural production and distribution fully open to the polyamorous community, polyamorists then have the capacity to share their cultural talents (the aforementioned self-reflection, communication and emotional processing skills) with the larger culture in a way that is valued. If the larger culture does denote a value to the polyamorous community then this opens up room for both care-based and solidaritous interactions between the polyamorous community and the larger culture. This, in turn, opens up the potential for rights to develop for polyamorists by giving the poly community a fair commodity to exchange for their rights. Because care, solidarity and rights needs are being met in these circumstances, polyamorists are encouraged to be engaged in the production and sustainment of the polyamorous socio/cultural interaction.
Creating Social & Cultural Sustainability for Polyamory
            The process of moving from a socially and culturally stifling environment for polyamory to the ideal environment described previously is, to say the least, a challenge. However, a few feasible objectives can be identified. First and foremost, in order to open up cultural production and distribution to polyamorists, there needs to be an economic viability in what polyamorists can contribute to the larger culture. This could mean either re-framing the existing resources of the community by ‘marketing’ self-reflection, communication and emotional processing skills to the larger culture, or by developing new resources that can contribute to the larger culture. Once there is a sustainable economic incentive for the outside culture to invest in the polyamorous cultural product, the polyamorous community can begin to build cultural production that blends poly cultural product with mainstream product, thus promoting cultural sustainability and encouraging the creation of social interaction between polyamorists and the larger culture. At this point polyamorists would want to start forming places of poly-to-poly and poly-to-mainstream social interaction, thus encouraging socio/cultural sustainability.
            During this process, because of the interconnectedness of cultural product and social interaction, the levels of care, solidarity and rights that exist between polyamorists and the larger culture will be growing. It is important to see this process not as a ‘step A to step B to step C to conclusion’ but instead as a continuous cycle. As the larger culture sees more value in what the polyamorous community can provide, the economic incentive will grow, which will increase polyamorous access to create and sustain cultural production, which will increase the level of care, solidarity and rights between polyamorists and the larger culture.
            This is an ongoing process which is reflected in the production of self-help literature. The danger in this, as mentioned previously, is that the production of self-help literature alone is not sustainable enough to keep this cycle going for an adequate amount of time to allow for other avenues of cultural product distribution to open up more naturally in the process. To remedy this, additional avenues of cultural production need to open up now, or additional areas of value need to be identified by the larger culture in order for the economic viability of polyamorous cultural product to be enough to actually reach a point to allow for socio/cultural sustainability.

Barawacz, B. & Fleszar, C. (2011, May 26). Grand rapids news [Television broadcast]. Grand Rapids, MI: WZZM 13.
Barker, M. (2005). This is my partner, and this is my…partner’s partner: Constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world. Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 18, 75-88. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from EBSCOHost.
Barker, M. & Langdridge, D. (2010). Introduction. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.) Understanding non-monogamies (pp. 3-8). New York, NY: Routledge.
Easton, D. & Hardy, J. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships & other adventures (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
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Simpere, F. (2011). The art and etiquette of polyamory: A hands-on guide to open sexual relationships. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.
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  1. The odd thing about polyamorous self-help literature is that it is self-help, not society-help. There doesn't seem to be any polemical literature about the place of relationships in society. There are a couple books that critique marriage and monogamy, but not really in an academic or political way.

    The poly instinct tends to be to have more of the same kinds of relationships that people have always had, not to relate differently.

    There aren't any self-help books for single people to be single, healthy, happy, and non-monogamous in a sea of monogamous people.

    The word "polyamory" could cynically be read as "more of the same."

    But I think this also assumes one believes a sustainable subculture can exist within an unsustainable society. Or, put another way, that subcultures should be sustained, rather than normalized to the point of not being necessary.

    The discussion of "exchanging cultural products for rights" is intriguing. I wonder if the rights desired by some aren't actually just privileges in disguise, and that privilege is ultimately protected by assumptions that it's OK to deny rights to some in order to privilege others?

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