Language Is Material: A Conversation with Simon(e) van Saarloos

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I discovered Simon(e) van Saarloos, coincidentally, through an Instagram post from Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks, who has written the foreword to van Saarloos’s Playing Monogamy, translated to English by Liz Waters. I knew that it would resonate with me because my own book on non-monogamy and open marriage, Tracing the Desire Line, was forthcoming. How could I deepen my own thinking about monogamy and love? I’m also very interested in philosophy, and based on the publisher’s brief description of the book and its emphasis on a multi-layered perspective on monogamy, I knew I would devour its contents.

Playing Monogamy is a short, poetic, philosophical treatise on how to live, but more, how to love. While van Saarloos might push back against categorizing this book as a “how to live” book, as you’ll see from our conversation, I do think many of the concepts presented by van Saarloos—safety, the anti-fragile, intimacy, love—challenge conventional norms and makes us think a little harder about the way we interact in relationships and with each other.

Recently, van Saarloos and I discussed intimacy, chaos, normative structures, writing from the body, multi-love, and partnership, among other subjects.

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The Rumpus: How did you come to write Playing Monogamy? What was your intellectual process? How did it become both a critical perspective and a personal narrative?

Simon(e) van Saarloos: It’s been super interesting to revisit the book through the translation, after its original publication in 2015. It’s interesting to see how the book circles back, almost makes a ribbon around my other work. I was in a non-monogamous relationship situation, or multiple situations, and while I was living that, I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and what I think I was missing during this time was an embodied perspective. When you are studying the history of philosophy, you almost have to negate your own presence. You’re speaking, but where does the body go? Coming from the university, I had some trouble with that, that is, the way we are supposed to negate our bodies, but also, I was having this realization that everyone here is coming from a bed or some sort of living situation that is then marked as “private” and it’s not being shared at the moment. That’s a form of pretense. Does this not influence our thinking? I was also leaping toward the question: what would happen if we implemented non-monogamy not on just the level of who are we seeing romantically, but also how we categorize every aspect of our life—what is considered valuable and what is not? To whom are we speaking and when do we feel comfortable to do so? How are we taught about the way we love? And the way that we communicate?

While looking at and listening to the way people were speaking about their love feelings, romantic relationships, or their interpersonal contact, I was not recognizing much. It was this constant feeling of: Am I not feeling any love? Am I not recognizing myself because I’m not feeling any love? Let’s start with the idea that I also feel love, but I’m mostly hindered by the way we talk about it, by the words we use to describe love, or the words we use to confine it. My feelings of estrangement often result from the way we talk about something. Though there are many ways to express oneself, the way we talk shows how we assume to know something. There is so much language around love. That may be why I interweave personal anecdotes, pop culture, and philosophy: it’s all dependent on our use of words. And for me, words and thoughts are feelings, too. Language is material. To me, words feel tangible in space. That’s why it’s not just important to “say the right thing,” but to feel the effect of what you express. It’s not just about avoiding sexist or racist language and behavior, it’s about feeling the avoidance of it, about sensing what it does and creates.

Thinking back on it, I was also working with performance and in theater and that allowed me to think about play and performance and take that as an element of how we could look at love. Romantic gestures, dating, acts of love, living together as a couple—it can all be seen as a series of performances. Not to negate it as something that’s not real, but to actually see the realness of the performance. What are the elements that allow such a performance to exist, how is it created, why is it so believable that we claim the performance, the ritual, to be the real and only expression of love.

Rumpus: This makes me think about a part of the book in which you write, “Monogamy is a performance even though it is often believed to be the very definition of love.” Could you speak to that idea, draw it out a bit more?

van Saarloos: There are all different performance rules and regimes out there and some performances—the most normative ones—are never questioned and seen as artificial, therefore they are naturalized. And then of course, it’s important to tie in the capitalistic aspect of what love looks like. Love is not this mysterious, romantic cloudy stuff that’s invisible or hidden. Love needs to be shown, displayed, so that we strive for something similar. We learn how to recognize love by the images out there. Striving for the same ideal, or at least one subculture’s ideal, makes us nicely vulnerable to commodification. We can buy (into) an image of love and be lured by it. Being lured is not the problem, it’s that we tend to claim it as real. Which then includes other possibilities of real, just because our use of language and categorization aimed to portray the “real” as a scarce good, exclusive—authenticity as specialty.

Rumpus: Your book feels like it’s not static, like it’s part of a movement. It finds its place within a trajectory. I don’t think that it will lose its power in any way. I’ve grabbed on to some of your really fascinating ideas about the single as anti-fragile (applying Nicholas Taleb’s concept of the artist as anti-fragile) and how the anti-fragile single person thrives on unpredictability. This idea feels subversive. Can you speak to this as it relates to monogamy and non-monogamy?

van Saarloos: I think it’s a stepping stone towards a collective living, in a way. It’s not a plea for individualism, but it is shining a light on the precarity of one person and living with that precarity instead of defying that precarity or trying to cover it up by living in couple form, where indeed, there is this period of safety. I’m saying period instead of a “till death do us part” because serial monogamy is most common. A monogamous bond is threatened by outside forces, because it exists on the idea that it keeps safe from and protects against external influences. A monogamous bond either continues or it breaks; it, ideally, does not change into a different kind of intimacy. That’s partly caused by what we talked about earlier: the naturalized performance. Monogamy is quite rule-based, but the play of monogamy isn’t seen as such. It’s just normal, it’s just love, it just is.

I think that, not tending towards monogamy and maybe living as a single, even if you are constantly in relation, opens you up toward not classifying the dependencies in your life in a sort of hierarchical way. In a utopic way, I’d wish to not speak about the individual at all. I actually do think that the single is a stepping stone to a sort of interdependency or intra-relating. But I think for now it’s a good step to go towards this idea of the anti-fragile single because it, indeed, raises high awareness of being continuously dependent of others and having to centralize that dependency in a plural way. To fit a certain role is often seen as safe because of how we learn to value through hierarchy, selection, distinction, and familiarity. I think that the family structure or the couple structure ties into that. Because in a way, it also creates this idea that you should not bother anybody else. You should not bother your neighbor when you’re crying because you should have a partner who’s taking care of your shit. In so many ways, we are told we are to blame for precarity and unhappiness. Monogamy and coupled-ness feeds into that “you should have” language.

Rumpus: That builds on the other idea of alternative family structures. You write “a family with an alternative composition is inherently complicated and as a result anti-fragile because it is based on a volatile and predictable way of being together.” Can you talk about that aspect in terms of romantic co-habitation?

van Saarloos: There’s an element of role play again, where if a role is naturalized—I don’t think that any role can be wrong in itself—but if a role becomes naturalized, a certain amount of expectations and prerequisites are established and proposed. It is tempting to claim and fulfill a role, because the expectations and rewards are rather clear. A role can be fulfilled, while play, ideally, can only be played. When ascribing to a role, people can either succeed or fail: you can fit a role and succeed and everything that spills outside of that is marked as failure. I think with cohabitation or non-nuclear families and same-sex families, there is already an attendance as to how to structure the family. Because the structure is not normative, even though you do a lot more thinking about the structure, the structure is still in a way more fragile, what I would say anti-fragile eventually because it’s a structure that’s not normatively supported. And the fact that it’s not normatively supported is, in a way, terrible. It’s a violation because it’s also a legal problem. Very often, if it’s multiple parents for example, you can have a lot of legal issues, but on the other hand, if you want to ascribe positive notions to this difficulty, it also has potential because it does not fit the legal categories. You incorporate the knowledge of it getting messy.

When I’m describing this though, I’m also realizing that it still presupposes this idea of being able to choose between normative and messy. I think that for so many people, just the fact that they inhabit a certain body or inhabit a certain sexuality or speak language in a certain way, they will already be perceived as messy. This element of choice between messy and non-messy, or normative and messy, I think has a danger in it where it’s not always something you can choose to be perceived as. I actually think that there is an element of solidarity when you are able to choose a non-normative life. It’s also a way to coincide with those people who are not necessarily judged on how they act, but who by the effect of who they are, are being subjected to an outside gaze of: “Oh, are you taking care of your family, your children, in the right way?”

How do you appear safe? I think part of appearing safe is to have a partner, is to be legible and to be noticeable as a partnered person. I think there’s even more work to be done when it comes to the way that we talk about children and safety and the expectations that go with it. What we expect of parents is to have a certain idea of a stable love life and if they do not have that, then immediately this child would be in danger. Just look at the way single mothers, especially Black single mothers, are portrayed. Often the category “single” isn’t even applicable. Single is just the only other available category in a society that expects monogamous, nuclear families.

Rumpus: The way you describe intimacy towards the end of the book is quite beautiful. You write, “As soon as you attempt to turn it into a constant state, you betray the capricious, multifarious, and momentary character of intimacy.” Can you elaborate on intimacy and what happens when we turn it into a constant state?

van Saarloos: In terms of intimacy, the attempt is to not lock it down. Intimacy also relates to the element of play, where play has a proposed beginning and end. When we say “all is play” it doesn’t mean that we cannot recognize and set boundaries for a certain moment to help us enter into play. I think it’s remarkable to see more elements of life as play. To say something like: “This intimacy was allowed to rise,” or, “it could manifest because of the context that we gave it.” Two bodies or three bodies in a room experiencing intimacy means that there has been a certain context in which this intimacy could arise.

And again, you take out the naturalized claim: This is real. This is all there is, and it had to be there. If you flip it more toward a non-static intimacy, you could repeat certain elements of intimacy in the past and see if it works again, but it might not work at all because there is also an element of a ghostly context—the appearance and presence of what you cannot possibly grasp. It’s both an opening up to the unknown as well as opening up to performance and context as important factors. Intimacy arises just as much from playing and sensing with your surrounding as it is dependent of the “click” with the other person. Intimacy, in that sense, becomes less dependent of the person’s acts and suitability and is more approached as an atmosphere, ephemeral, relational. The energy that comes with play is so important that it’s not necessarily something that can be reproduced. There is also an element of trial and error, where it’s not about having a certain outcome, but it’s about the play itself. And this of course, also comes back to the roles we inhabit and if you have a certain role that you need to fulfill. Sometimes the idea is that the only thing that can happen is that you succeed into the role or you fill into the role. But if such a role is not available, the only thing that you can do is play. I was reading Audre Lorde on intimacy and she also writes about the deep feelings of intimacy that one can have transgressing time. For example, feeling deep intimacy with ancestry or feeling deep intimacy amongst women. If intimacy is not static, we cannot mark intimacy as one kind of feeling or one moment or person. It can transgress categories of relationships. It could happen that you feel something in relationship to your child that you also feel in relationship to your partner. It stretches our notions of proximity and familiarity.

Rumpus: I’m curious how you came to structure the book and whether the content informed the structure? As well, can you talk about the process of weaving the philosophical with personal narrative?

van Saarloos: There’s definitely a feminist conviction here. There is a frustration with white male philosophy pretending not to be personal or to only have great thoughts exceeding experience and embodiment. As a writer, I actually experience writing as a very physical act. The relationality to the moment that you experience something and the moment that you try to craft that experience into a thought is a physical reliving of such a moment. At least for me it is—and it isn’t self-explanatory. I remember Masha Gessen told me she aimed for a disembodied writing because in the Soviet Union, it would be safer to disconnect your words from your body. If not, your body would be a target. So of course, there is political gain in writing in an opaque way.

But from my perspective, I think that constantly tying back to the body is very important because as womxn, queer, and PoC writers, the “I” is hyper-visible, the “I” can be read as obstruction. When we write from personal experience we’re just being small, we’re being quotidian, we’re not great thinkers. I actually think it’s a humbling practice because you’re also saying I’m aware of the fact that my body is positioned and therefore, my positionality is part of my thinking and I’m only I’m bringing forward one voice in a larger surround of voices. At the same time that it’s humbling, it’s also taking space. It’s saying: my experience matters.

Rumpus: That’s an interesting circling back to the beginning of our conversation in which you mentioned the body in the classroom, questioning the lack of an embodied perspective at the university.

van Saarloos: It’s necessary that we taste, and smell, and lick ideas instead of just having them on a pedestal. Language can do this, but we need to also taste language and if we want to draw political consequences from the way that we speak, if we want to change the way that we treat each other, then this is not just about doing it correctly, it’s about effectively feeling that doing it differently breaks with something that we naturalized as the norm.

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Photograph of Simon(e) van Saarlos by Mona van den Berg.


Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in Guernica, DIAGRAM, Longreads, American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, and <em.River Teeth, among other publications. She has been awarded an AWP Intro Journals award in creative nonfiction as well as residencies and scholarships to PLAYA, Art Smith, Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, and Tin House. She holds degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Montana, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, was published in 2019 from Split Lip Press. She teaches media studies at Southern Oregon University. More from this author →