Joy Brooke Fairfield’s “POLY THEORY: Making Meaning and Re-making Culture through Rhizomatic Intimacy”
As a preliminary case study for poly theory, I want to look at this specific practice that non-monogamous people do. What do poly people do? They learn how to deal with feelings of jealousy. Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge this as a skill, or what in performance studies we call technique. Within non-monogamous culture, there are a variety of resources (books, workshops, therapists, etc) that offer practical advice on what to do when this inevitable human emotion arises. Not theoretical concepts, but physical tools: take deep breaths, ask for reassurance, treat yourself to something special, etc. Very few other contemporary social practices encourage learning how to dismantle jealousy. Certain apparatuses have been developed to help deal with other difficult emotions of contemporary life; we have pills for depression and anxiety, classes for anger management, but jealousy is rarely addressed.
This is because, unlike sadness or anger, jealousy is necessary for the smooth running of contemporary consumer society. The threat that jealousy levels to individual self-esteem generates a huge amount of shared, interpersonal, circulating competitiveness, which is the engine of consumer-based economics. Competition is the philosophy undergirding our failing global economic situation. When you feel jealous, you will compete, and in our society, competition has become almost synonymous with participation. We are sold on competition as a necessary hurdle for happiness: you must win to be successful, you must be successful to matter, you must matter to be loved. This worldview creates workers for a system that prioritizes the exchange of commodities over the exchange of human intimacy. Jealousy management is not taught in kindergarten because such techniques are fundamentally challenging to the status quo.
Personal feelings of jealousy spur commerce. The more people remain afraid that they are going to lose love, the more products can be sold to try to soothe those feelings. Advertisers attempt to stimulate jealousy through endless campaigns to buy more stuff. We are taught to feel jealous of the happiness of the rich and famous and encouraged to consume products in hopes of achieving the happiness that we’re not sure we deserve. Many of us conceptually understand this system of manipulation, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily protect us from its operation on our psyches…
In addition to techniques of jealousy management, rhizomatic relationships require the development of greater systemic awareness in which each person is attentive to the collective resources of the group. It becomes a shared task to assess if there are sufficient means to pursue new connections, or whether it’s more important to focus on enriching and strengthening what’s currently present. This is a practice of sustainability. Collective resource management is precisely the kind of consciousness that needs to be developed in our culture in order to slow down the environmental collapse that seems almost inevitable. Re-imagining systemic thinking as a social value and sign of civic participation can help shift our relationship with the planet away from the current abusive situation based on exploitation and objectification.
German philosopher Theodore Adorno called this multi-player, systemic awareness “constellational thinking.”