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Why (Most) Dorm Parties Make Love Impossible: The Communion of the Eyes

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Last week, in the blog for my class on the sacrament of marriage, I addressed how pornography has malformed the imagination of most Catholics, making it difficult for the gift of love intrinsic to the spousal relationship to take place. I also suggested that the Catholic sacramental theology of marriage, linked to narrative and practices, offers a renewal of the imagination for the pornographic age.

Yet, what is the pornographic imagination? And why is it such a problem?

I want to suggest that the pornographic imagination is not simply reducible to the media of pornography itself. Instead, it is the constant temptation to reduce the human being (my “beloved”) to an object of my personal experience. To turn them into an object simply existing for my personal delight.

Although Jean-Luc Marion, the French Catholic philosopher, does not talk about pornography per se, his account of love in Prolegomena to Charity is helpful for defining this imagination.

Love, for Marion, should be about the other. But that’s difficult. When I love someone, I have a deeply conscious, lived experience of the act of being in love. I see the other before me. I am attracted by the other. And for this reason, it becomes nearly impossible for me to determine whether I’m in love with that person as she exists or if I’m simply in love with the lived experience of that person. Marion asks the question: is all love really pornographic, about my own personal experience of such love?

For Marion, the answer to this question takes place as we consider the role of the eyes in the loving encounter. Think about every romantic comedy that one has seen (Marion, it should be said, does not talk often about romantic comedy). The key moment of the comedy is when the couple-to-be looks into each other’s eyes. What are they looking at? Why is this moment of the gaze so important to such films?

In some ways, the person is looking at nothing! To stare at someone’s eyes is simply to see a black pupil staring back. It’s not like looking at someone’s body where you can see their clothes, where you can smell their perfume or cologne, where you can see the beauty of the flesh.

Looking at someone’s eyes is not like any of these experiences. But importantly, these eyes become for me an encounter with someone’s very person. The gaze of the person looks back at me, making it nearly impossible for me to treat this person simply as flesh for my personal enjoyment. In some ways, what I look at when gazing at another’s eyes is not visible to me.

But, of course, this act of gazing is an experience. This experience is not simply another person’s eyes that gaze upon me (this is called creepiness). In love, I offer the return gaze of love in return. I give my person to another through looking. I share in this communion of the eyes.

In this communion of the eyes, this person becomes “a person” whom I’m obligated to, vowed to, through the act of this “gaze.” And the person becomes obligated to me. Marion writes:

To love would thus be defined as seeing the definitively invisible aim of my gaze nonetheless exposed by the aim of another invisible gaze; the two gazes, invisible forever, expose themselves each to the other in the crossing of their reciprocal aims. Loving no longer consists trivially in seeing or in being seen, nor in desiring or inciting desire, but in experiencing the crossing of the gazes within . . . the crossing of aims. (“The Intentionality of Love,” 87)

This gaze transforms me into a person. And in this sense, love is not about a fully conscious experience. It is instead an encounter with the other, who names me for what I am: a person in need of love. The person is not an object for my delight. Rather, “true love” is not something I even see. It is invisible because it is the tension that exists between these gazes. This tension commits me to this person, requiring me to offer a return gift of self based upon their gaze. We share a communion of need with one another.

Marion’s analysis of love shows us ultimately what’s wrong with dating at a university like Notre Dame. The primary place where underclassmen experience “dating” is at the dorm party (which at my college is not officially sanctioned but is part of campus culture). At this party, the gaze is rendered impossible. Lights are too low for anyone to see another person. Music is too loud for anyone to hear the voice of the beloved. Dancing is about grinding upon the body of another, rather than a face-to-face encounter. Alcohol eliminates the functioning of one’s senses, making it impossible to see the face of the other. The dorm party blinds us from seeing anything but the flesh to be consumed. It renders love impossible. It is formative of what I’m calling the pornographic imagination.

In this sense, one way that Catholic colleges and universities (such as my own) might foster relationships that lead to love is to eliminate the dorm party as it currently exists. Loud music, darkness, massive number of human beings, cheap beer. Get rid of it.

Instead, if undergraduates want to have parties, they should have to be small. They should not disturb their neighbor. They should foster conversation. They should lead to face-to-face encounters instead of rubbing one’s bodies against each other. They should have decent alcohol, expensive enough that it encourages conversation rather than binge drinking. In this way, authentic love becomes possible rather than simply an encounter of two bodies, looking to satiate their own desires. New practices renew the imagination.

Who ever thought that Jean-Luc Marion could help us shape residence life policy?

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.