Talk of Love : How Culture Matters

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Talk of love surrounds us-in movies, talk shows, advice books, pop songs, and novels. But how do people find and sustain real love in the midst of all this talk? In “Talk of Love,” Ann Swidler speaks with Middle Americans about their loves, both triumphant and disappointing. She seeks to understand how the American culture of love shapes what people expect from love and what they actually find. The central problem, she argues, is that people do not face a single culture, but a diverse one with multiple perspectives and competing experts. American culture speaks of love that is perfect and instantaneous and yet also talks of the constant need to improve relationships. “Talk of Love” shows how people navigate between these discordant messages and learn to live with these contradictions.
In exploring how Americans engage the culture of love, Swidler also probes what it means to “have” a culture. We think of ourselves as being molded by our culture, its values or deep beliefs. But a culture includes platitudes and cliches as well; cynicism and disillusionment coexist with high ideals. And still, people manage to draw on these mixed messages to build and make sense of their lives: the Middle Americans Swidler interviews are not passive victims of a romantic myth. They treasure the Hollywood picture of a perfect and sudden love, but they also criticize it as an illusion. They believe that “real love” is built by commitment and compromise, by taking the bad with the good, and, above all, by communicating. But despite this wisdom, the romantic ideal remains. Even those who consciously reject it repeatedly invoke it nonetheless. This moving paradox between all-or-nothing romance and mature slow-growing partnerships leads Swidler to ask how and why contradictory cultural understandings of love persist. In the process, she discovers that culture gets organized differently inside the minds of individuals and outside the self as well in varying social contexts, codes, and institutions. In her penetrating analysis of love, then, Swidler demonstrates something even greater: what culture is and how it matters.

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