Of all the technological inventions of the nineteenth century, divorce is one of the most subtle. The power it grants is that of reneging on a promise, and that in itself is quite a capacity to want to invent, let alone implement in law, as the British parliament did in 1857. Of course, divorces did happen prior to this point, but only a few hundred between Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ (the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and the Matrimonial Causes Act. It may be noted that earlier cultures had divorces – the Romans frequently rearranged their political marriages – but these marriages were not founded upon an exchange of vows, as because the custom within Christianity. It was precisely because the Christian conception of marriage was based on oath-taking that it was necessary to develop new (legal) technology to permit open access to divorce.
I have to take care arguing against the cybervirtue of divorce… I should not want to be misconstrued as claiming we would be better without divorce law. It seems readily apparent that a great many disastrous situations were terminated by a divorce and that it would be cruel to suggest that, say, a wife being physically abused by her husband should not have the opportunity to end their disastrous marriage. But the question of cybervirtue is always about the cybernetic effects of a technological network – and in the case of divorce, there are some serious debilities to take into account.
Perhaps the greatest concern that I have in this regard is that too many people today don’t take seriously the implications of marriage vows precisely because in the back of their minds is the thought ‘if it goes wrong, I can just get a divorce’. But while the ongoing legal union is terminated by divorce proceedings, it would be a complete misunderstanding of both marriage and divorce to think that the possibility of divorce removed the need to take care in committing to marriage. The fact of the matter is, when two people enter into marriage, they’re lives are irrevocably changed by those events and divorce cannot undo that – it cannot magically unravel the emotional impact of trying to form a life together, and even less so can it simply hand-wave away any children.
Although none of my families have been involved in divorce, I have witnessed some ugly ones amongst my friends, and my country is currently engaged in a nasty ‘divorce’ from the commitments it made to the European Union, and quite possibly with Scotland too. In so much as the possibility of divorce may encourage people to take less care in committing to a vows in the first place, divorce could be accused of cyber-trivialising matrimony or (more generally) oath-taking. This is not to suggest that ‘divorce is wrong’, but it is to acknowledge that divorce is seldom good. It is typically awful. And this is also true when nations get ‘divorced’.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #13