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The Labour of Love in “The Love Makers”

The Labour of Love in “The Love Makers”

  • A review of Aifric Campbell's new book, "The Love Makers."

The Love Makers begins with a two-hundred-page novel by Aifric Campbell, Scarlett and the Gurl. Over the span of a day, on a road trip in the near future, the reader meets two archetypes: a bourgeoise woman named “Scarlett” and a poor woman who calls herself “Gurl,” honouring herself with the universality of gender. They drive through an unnamed country, a landscape ruined by secure and secretive tech-laboratories and offices; they talk to each other about their love affairs and sex, childbirth and care, and the effects of new automated technologies on their lives.

The novel, as well as the twelve short contributor essays that follow it, are presented as an exploration of gender, attachment, and the transformations of technology. These cross-disciplinary essays are thought-provoking considerations of human-machine interaction: its potentials, its limitations, and its pitfalls. Some commentaries are provocative, such as Kate Devlin’s “while (alive) {love me;},” while others, such as Margaret Rhee’s poem “Sweet, Robot”, are fascinating in its tenderness.

The novel is dialogue heavy, freewheeling between the uninhibited stories Gurl shares and Scarlett’s conversation prompts. While Gurl spins narratives, Scarlett hides, concealing the material truths of her life within fragments from philosophy and literature; she offers her opinions on Gurl’s theories of attachment and love and slips into memories. Playing off each other, both characters present perspectives that are partially concealed, the form unfolding through artifice and memory, lies and hypotheses, opinions and judgements. This narrative structure of exegesis and interpretation extends to the essays as well, since all of them are commentaries on varied themes and problematics within the novel—automation, attachment, the ethics of care, use of artificial intelligence, bias, even policy. The shape of The Love Makers is inventive, with thought and reflection contained within the speech of characters and commentators in the style of classical philosophical exchanges made anew.

However, this exchange also has its limits. Consider the two women’s differing opinions on two new forms of technology: the robot in its incarnation as a sex toy and the iMom, an automated machine that performs childcare. Scarlett, a tech worker and the older of the two, is afraid of being replaced by a Stepford wife, the iMom. She believes the machine will sever her connection to her child. Gurl, described as “childlike,” sees this scepticism as dated and argues against Scarlett’s need for control over her attachments. Simultaneously, Scarlett sees Gurl as a slave to her boyfriend’s control; after all, Gurl has formed an emotional bond with the sex robot he brought home. While Scarlett views the bond as Gurl’s complicity to her own debasement, Gurl values the relationship as something unconditional and rare—it isn’t bound up in the dismal heteronormative mores of romance and family life. Their exchanges continue, and despite many impasses, neither Scarlett nor Gurl considers the overlap between the sex toy and the iMom. They brush against the relationship between the maternal and the erotic, but they elide the connection between labour and care.

The essays that follow, focusing on hierarchies of power (Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal) or the marketing of “sex dolls” as “care robots” (Joanna J. Bryson and Ronny Bogani) share in this elision. The many feminists and almost-feminists in The Love Makers thus follow the path of their predecessors, such as Shulasmith Firestone, but do not go as far as to question the family (especially the nuclear family) as the very basis of women’s subjugation. They only share in Firestone’s forty-year-old optimism about technology’s empowering potential. As a tech worker, Scarlett considers technology’s transformations through the frame of scientific ethics—considering use and misuse, the humane juxtaposed to the “artifice” of technology—but this is an ethics without politics. Science, and by extension, technology, is naturalized within the order of things, as if hacked away from the breakneck machinery of capital.

Campbell, longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, mentions that “love” and “work” are foundational to the novel. The omission of labour (and capital) is glaring since it obscures both these tenets. The structures of oppression that determine the “love” both these women give and receive in the novel are not seen as structural economic processes. Their love is taken for granted, it is their anchor and tether, but it is never “work.” They do not account for their reproductive labour, the very work that produces the worker within capitalism. Their “work” is simply seen as their means of survival (in the case of Gurl) and slightly more intricately in Scarlett’s case, where it is an escape from fixed family roles and also her well-loved career. The essays only consider the relationship between automation and automated labour. Love and exploration of gender relations is thus reduced, as Shahrzad Mojab has said in her edited volume Marxism and Feminism, to “class relations” and “questions of culture”; the best interpretations in the essays examine only their differences in “lived experience” due to their class position.

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Scarlett and the Gurl depicts the relationship between “work” and “love” to some degree, but it refuses the relationship between labour and sex (it is telling that none of the contributors practice or mention sex work). Sex between humans is either a game, a conjugal necessity, a pleasure that comes with a social price, or a debasement, expressing the heterofatalism the two different women share. Gurl’s love for the sex-bot Roxanne isn’t quite the foray into queerness that she assumes it is. Hers is simply a rehearsal of her womanhood, a sorry solidarity that connects them both in patriarchal suffering, ignoring capitalism’s engendered exploitations. The Love Makers shares these attributes with many other novels, like Sally Rooney’s Normal People or Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, whose narrators force themselves to view alienation as loneliness, authors for whom identity is without its production and class is seen outside capital.

As I finished reading The Love Makers, I appreciated its concerns, ambiguities, and the fissures in the relationship between the two women, especially the well-plotted end. But, it offered feminism too little: I felt stranded within a manicured cultural change, a paradigm shift had simply arrived without a revolution.

The Love Makers
By Aifric Campbell
Goldsmiths Press
Published November 23, 2021

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