Impersonal Intimacy and E-Dating

INTRODUCTION

Online dating technologies have transformed traditional modes of relationship formation and intimacy.  As the Hallmark version of romance gets reconfigured by the web and attraction becomes a question of algorithms, what impact does mediated romance have on the nature of intimacy?  Is this medium of interaction fundamentally  altering  contemporary dating norms?   When the territory changes so does the strategy, thus romance continues to reinvent itself according to the media scape. The code has evolved in tandem to the new mode of communication brought on by the technologies of the web.   In the age of postmodernity, the complicity lacing compatibility necessitates an algorithm, or a “flirtation device” like Eharmony, that digitally determines matches through similarities stipulated via surveys. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, ‘the medium is the message’.

The codification of love is one of semantics.  However, according to Niklas Luhman, love is destroyed by communication. Technology offers a realm of communication where the high probability of miscommunication renders a mutation in the discourse.  A “new sentimental order” (Bawin-Legros 249)  emerges from these different textures of longing. “The dominant theoretical frameworks for understanding intimacy in the global era is predicated on a shared belief that we exist in a period of detraditionalization, where socio-cultural traditions are being abandoned or reconfigured” (Gross 287).

“We exist in an era of ‘liquid modernity’, where desire is privileged over intimacy” (Bauman 43).  The superficial nature of online relationships is rooted in the interchangeability of identities and relationships based on appearances that cannot be verified. Furthermore, the spatial possibilities of the internet usurps the habitus as the basis to find one’s significant other.  Yet, love is always virtual in some respect and not necessarily a question of whether the person is present or absent.  If one’s mind is not present, can one argue that the proximity of their physical manifestation is irrelevant?   The virtual has obscured communication and rendered identities interchangeable.  The perpetual mutability of the code has reconfigured intimacy  and reified relationships.

WEB AS MEDIATOR…………………………………………………………………………….

The lie of spontaneous desire is formatted- at the birth of every desire a third mediator is present. To bridge the gap between people, love has always relied on a form of mediation or technology

. Mediators can manifest as friends, magazines, the media or one’s upbringing and habitus.  In the case of e-dating, however, it is an algorithm that stipulates a ‘match’ and mediates desire.   Although this present phenomenon strays from traditional forms of interactivity, its popularity is growing at an unprecedented rate- approximately forty million Americans currently resort to e-dating sites to meet people (Peters 16).  These new patterns of social connectivity and mediation are transforming “socio-cultural norms in the formation, erosion and reformation of intimate relationships” (Barraket 159).  “Spies and criminals are invariably among the first to take advantage of new modes of communication. But lovers are never far behind” (Standage 127).  The boundaries between physical and virtual has blurred to the point where the ambiguity is best described as neo-sexuality.  With that said, could one argue that online dating is “fulfilling the rational choice conditions of the era?” (Bauman)

HISTORICAL TRAJECTORY…………………………………………………………………..

Love is figured differently in variant cultures and époques. “We would not fall in love if we never heard of it” (Barthes 46).  With that said, one must look to the past to understand the present. Every few generations, we recalibrate the notion of love. This discursive deconstruction is best understood through a post-structuralist lens.  Michel Foucault divides history into three discontinuous episteme- the Renaissance, the Classical Age, and the modern era- to show how each is a constructed artifact of the era.  If to trace it’s historical trajectory, the discourse on love would seem peculiar if decontextualized from its specific episteme.  For instance, in this day and age it would be strange to woo a woman with a dove and poem. The rules of engagement are hinged on the socio-cultural norms of the epoch.

The genesis of love can be traced back as early as 385 BC to Plato.  Platonic love, as described in “Symposium”,  came about after Zeus divided the four legged androgynous person.  The blacksmith Hephaestus was called upon to fuse lovers back together.  This unnatural intervention unveils how love has relied on technology from its very conception.  In tandem, courtly love emerged in the medieval ages where virtue was hinged on nobility  and love letters served as mediators.  These merits bred romantic love which in the 18th century was codified and subsumed into the discourse of modern love and the semantics of marriage.  Ergo, the lover’s discourse is built on backwards compatibility with each model deriving from its predecessor.

The contemporary expression of love is informed not only by the traditions and technologies of platonic, courtly and modern love, but also by the hyper-accelerated experience of the postmodern episteme. The rhythm of socioeconomic exchanges and omnipresent surge of technology has drastically changed the dynamics of communicability and notion of time.  The commodification of experience increasingly comes to define contemporary culture.  Consumerism, branding and virtual avatars gives an aura to the nonhuman, bringing us to a state of neo-sexuality- which blurs the boundaries of what can be loved and how and how much.  The nature of the libido is to connect, yet the digital realm renders this connectivity complicit. “The rapid advancement of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has had significant sociological impacts” (Barraket 149) on how relationships are formed.

CODIFICATION OF LOVE……………………………………………………………………

Love is the catalyst to symbolically express meaning through action.  It is a model of behavior acted out, an internalized set of codes within a cultural operating system.  Unlike attraction, the semantics of love are not innate- but rather learned through social practice.  Simply put, it’s a historical and cultural construction used to interpret attraction.  The codification of love is achieved through language. The eighteenth century marked the “end of the technical faith in communication” (Luhmann 125). Communicability and incommunicability  structure the social arrangement of marriage and the notion of ‘love’. If people can be conceived as communication devices, than love can be perceived as a “privileged form of communication” (Pettman).

It is said that, “love can be damaged by explicit communication, by discreet questions and answers, because such openness would indicate that something had not been understood as a matter of course” (Luhmann 25). In other words, what is said is just as important as what is not said.  “One knows from the outset how things will go and then hesitates to set something in motion that will be difficult to control once part of the communication” (Luhmann 124) .  Thus, the role of non-verbal communication is an essential attribute of social connectivity.  This is lost in the digital realm, unless of course the relationship grows intimate enough to be experienced on an interface such as Skype.   Interestingly enough, e-dating sites attempt to atone for this non-communicative void.  The image below is one of many bizarre survey questions that try to compensate for the digital alienation-  asking its user to decipher which amalgamation of pixels appears sincere enough to buy a ‘car’ from.

INTERPERSONAL INTERPENETRATION AND MISCOMMUNICATION…………..

Interpersonal interpenetration is based on a coding program of ‘understanding, which is reinforced by the practice and increased communication of the code.  With that said, the characteristics of ‘communication’ are being reconfigured by the digital medium.   Due to the linguistic limitations of computer mediated communication, the likelihood of being misunderstood is far greater than in the case of other forms of social interaction.  Although “the experience of incommunicability is one aspect of the differentiation of social systems of intimacy” (Luhmann 123),  it is really mis-communication that dominates the realm of technology.  The characteristics of the medium are of greater influence than the content itself.  “All communication rests on a clearly localized difference, namely that between information and utterance” (Luhman 122).  Meaning is destroyed once made the object of an utterance- which once transcribed into written language it is no longer an utterance, but rather a representation of one. Ultimately the virtual becomes a realm of romantic hermeneutics- if you look for signs you will read meaning into everything.

SELF-REFLEXIVITY: PLAGIARISM OF EMOTIONS……………………………………..

The risk of being misunderstood is further exacerbated by the inability to express one’s emotions virtually.  Self-reflexivity relies on signs for emotional representation.  There are primal emotions, yet how they are carried out is a matter of mimesis and mediation. What triggers them and how one reacts is internalized through social convention.  Emotions are a crystallization of borrowed feelings. The environment give you the cues that elicit a reaction learned through countless years of  cultural conditioning.  Thus, happiness is a copy-write.   Life is a performance insofar as one cries solely to validate one’s grief.  Tears are signifiers not emotions, just as crying is a signal to the world rather than an expression.  Yet how does this translate in the digital age?  When technology enters the equation, the ‘rules of engagement’ are compromised by the fact that one can’t whisper or express emotions. Is it possible for an “arbitrary reconstruction of our programming” (Kidd 12)?   What new forms of self-reflexivity have emerged for emotional representation?  Has happiness been degraded to   “ :)“?  If so, is this any less honest than its physical manifestation?

INNATE ATTRACTION………………………………………………………………………

Although there is virtually built into every relationship, technology and social connectivity is mediated in a way that transforms social interaction completely.  Disintegrating normative modes of relationship formation, the virtual realm has reconfigured intimacy so that the beloved is determined by an algorithm, rather than innate attraction.  The constellation of matches renders the illusion of agency as one surveys the myriad of ‘significant other’ options.  As I mentioned before, attraction is an intrinsic trait, whereas love is learned through social practice.  It is a cultural construct used to interpret ‘chemistry’, pheromones, an inexplicable inclination towards another. I apologize for fumbling with the term, however attempting to articulate ‘attraction’ is as difficult as trying to nail pudding to the wall.  Interpersonal attraction has been framed by discourses in evolution, biology, reproduction and socialization, yet despite all this- it remains an inexplicable impulse that cannot be codified as a technology.

VIRTUAL MEDIATION……………………………………………………………………….

Online dating, however, denies that one decisive moment outside the realm of technology  when the love object is- for one fleeting moment- free from mediation.  In the traditional paradigm, desire becomes triangular in tandem to attraction.  The mediator sweeps in to either confirmed or extinguished the ‘irrational’ lure of another.  Once struck by the presence of another, one’s interest can be within an instant swiftly stifled by the disapproval of  a family member or friend.  Yet, with online dating sites there is an absence of the physical presence, the pheromones, the inexplicable ‘spark‘ we scaffold meaning around.  The ‘other’ manifest as a profile page of listed interests and a photograph void of any promised validity.  The question of representation becomes increasingly problematic in light of the fact that selfhood is constructed in a realm where the potential for deceit is endless.

EGO IDEAL…………………………………………………………………………………………

Online identities are often beguiling constructions of selfhood.   The arbitrary notion of identity manifests as an affect of the spectacle.  The architecture of your profile page is scaffolded around the ego-ideal.  In a sense, one can parallel the profile paradigm to the Freudian ‘mirror phase’.  When a child first recognizes itself in the mirror, there is mistaken identification that links the ego to a reflection.  Thus from infancy, identity is perceived as an outside entity-  an illusory identification that feeds narcissism.  Through transference, we inevitably place the object of our affection in the same position as our ‘ideal-ego’. In short, love can be hypothesized as two mirrors facing each other: both parties seeing their ego-ideal reflected in the other.  Being in love is to “to internalize another person’s subjectively systematized view of the world” (Luhmann 26). Given that matches are based on similarities,  the assumption that one’s inner experience mirrors that of your lovers reinforces the “reflexivity of reciprocal desire” (Luhmann 28). The frighteningly intelligent poet Ann Carsen once remarked that the “beloved is a forgery of our need”.

IDEAL OTHER……………………………………………………………………………………

Finding your ‘ideal other’ in the virtual realm is facilitated by the disillusions flooding the void of their physical absence. A profile page is a pretension of personal illusion projected out into the world-wide-web with aspirations in finding a prototype of your ideal ego. There are a set of realities that subsist in lover’s mind regarding his or her relatIonship.  This image-repertoire is not rooted in truth, but rather the fabricated reality of a lover in reflection of the relationship at hand. Surveying e-dating sites like Eharmony,  I came across questions such as :”which one of the following images most closely resembles your right hand?” (eharmory.com)   As if having your Index finger shorter than your ring has any implications on compatibility!  “Fitting individuals into your erotic template” (Carsen 18), these emerging forms of connectivity reveal a colossal shift in the code.  Furthermore, the architecture of these sites invite much room for ambiguity, exaggeration and fantastical deviations from the truth in the construction of one’s online avatar. Thus, the self is subject to endless (re)invention in the realm of the virtual.

The collective constructs of  online identities have been swayed and shaped by mass communication technologies and the acceleration of circulating information. The acceleration in the rate  people try on new social identities unveils the superficiality lacing the illusion of selfhood.    “The construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of the self online have been the focus of significant theoretical debate within sociology”  (Barraket 150).  Truth be told-  in realm of online dating, it’s much better to be interesting than to be true. The disappearance of the face and disembodied selves renders the web a “site for the formation of multiple and heterogeneous online selves” (Barraket 154). As cultural role are assumed and internalized through ‘broken-record’ narratives, the self becomes nothing more than ‘a plagiarized notion of affect’.

DIGITAL SEDUCTION………………………………………………………………………….

Online dating offers new communicative forms of social interaction, which due to its visual and linguistic limitations paves new avenues for romance and semiotics for seduction.  Executed through the exchange of gestures and signs, seduction’s a technology that obscures communications.  The  communicative void of  the virtual allows one to construct a fallacious narrative in the absence of information.  In the e-dating realm, one could be married with four kids and assume the role of a single good-looking guy in his twenties.  Yet, the corrupt politics of identity are, by and large, understood in the virtual realm, which renders intimacy even more impersonal. However, in this respect, virtual relationships are built on a sheer seduction, which is ultimately more honest than love insofar as both parties are agreeing to be dishonest.  Seduction is transparent, whereas love is opaque and layered with hypocritical expectations and empty promises.  Seduction does not know the territorial jealousy that goes by the name of love – especially in the realm of e-dating where the terrain is virtual and identities are interchangeable.

ASYMPTOTES……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

According to a pervious user of Eharmony , ‘there’s no passion in Internet dating, a lot of the girls on the Internet are very much focused on getting married. There’s nothing personal there. It’s lacking that intimacy’” (Lohnes).  Whereas, on the contrary, Rios has used e-dating for three years and said it’s a good way to meet people,” insofar as “it still leaves something to be desired” (Lohnes).  On one hand, the argument could be made that online relationships render the absolute asymptote, on the other it can be said that it’s an explicitly obvious asymptote.  Stemming from the Greek term ‘asymptotos’- which means “not falling together,  an asymptote basically signifies the inability to merge, to obtain the other. It’s the idea of incessantly approaching but never possessing the beloved. The joy is in the pursuit rather than the realization. Satisfaction is the death of desire, thus love thrives in face of obstacles.

From Plato to Freud, love has since its conception been framed in terms of lack. As if a compartment waiting to be filled, people are psychologically programmed to seek their “other half” in life.  Love would not exist without this lack. Yet,  paradoxically, disappointment ensues possession and offense is provoked by the recognition of  lack in another.  Yet given the spatial dynamics of the virtual domain,  the physical and tangible manifestation of the ‘other’ is denied.  This begs the question as to whether the love object can be usurped by the love vector.  Can we be digitally completed?  Are online relationships just another form of self-sabotage that prevents us from ever having the “real life” love that we’re conditioned to need?   Easing the horror of happily-ever-after, the ‘other’ becomes a generative catalytic presence that cannot be met through anything physical.  Could this be the appeal?   Is knowingly embracing the unattainable its own form of rapture?  After all, the joy is rooted the pursuit rather than the realization.

CONFLATING THE CONTINUUM………………………………………………………….

Love & technology have a paradoxical relationship with the time/space continuum: time is an enemy of love and technology accelerates time. So where does that leave us?  To quote Humbert, “the idea of time plays such a magical part in this matter”  (Nabokov 17).  The rhythm of socioeconomic exchanges has had to adapt to the implications of this omnipresent surge of technological innovation, which has ultimately transformed the dynamics of communicability and notion of time. The “growing pressures of career and time are reducing opportunities for social activity and meeting new people” (Barraket 155).  Thus, social networking sites have become the mecca for those who don’t have the spare time to mingle outside work.  “Annihilating space and time,”  the virtual realm brings “together different parties…as near to each other as though they were in the same room, although actually separated by hundreds of miles” (Standage 133).  In the age of postmodernity and technologically mediated relationships, love is e(x)ternal.

USURPING THE HABITUS………………………………………………………………….

Once the beloved was one of a shared history, family, hometown, aspirations and common habitus- yet new patterns of connectivity have emerged in response to societal changes.  “Kristin Kelly, senior director of public relations at Match.com in Dallas, said technology has dramatically changed socializing. ‘When you look at our parents and grandparents, the way they met other people was by virtue of the town they grew up in,’ she said. ‘Now we’re much more transient than we used to be. People end up in new cities and places and they’re without a social circle.’  Both Kelly and Benson said today’s singles have much less free time than in the past.  “Everything we do with our time is much more compressed,” Kelly said.“ (Lohanes)  The commodification of experience increasingly comes to define contemporary culture. “We live in a time that is best described as a limbo of continually deferred expectations and anxieties. Everything is about to happen, or perhaps have already happened without our noticing it” (Mitchell 489).

ACCELERATED NOTION OF TIME………………………………………………………….

In postmodernity, “time is scarce, time can be exchanged for money. Time, an indispensable dimension of pleasure, is cut into fragments that can no longer be enjoyed” (Bifo 5). The onslaught of mass media denies the formation of memories, and thus denies a rooted sense of self.  The brevity of online relationships unveil their superficial nature.  Another adds that  it makes everything too easy, rendering everything even more impermanent, relationships even more fragile. It’s just too easy to meet people, too easy to cycle through people, so it kind of accelerates the disintegration of long-term relationships. (33-year-old single straight female)” (Barraket 161).  Furthermore, this form of relation emerges as a symptom of the schizophrenic phenomenology of “info-invasion, nervous overload, mass psychopharmacology, sedatives, stimulants and euphoric substances, of fractalization of working and existential time”(Bifo 3).

SPATIAL POSSIBILITIES………………………………………………………………………

“In the context of personal relationship formation, some psychological studies (Levine, 2000; Wildermuth, 2001) have suggested that relationships formed online challenge traditional relationship theory, because physical proximity is de-emphasized as a feature of significance in the relationship formation process” (Barraket 154). The spatial possibilities of interconnectivity on world wide web are endless. “The premise of online communication is to bypass physical space…instead of meeting someone in a random way through occupying the same space at the same time (bar, party, train, etc.)” (Barraket 157). Furthermore, the growth of online dating sites is “simultaneously providing opportunities for people to form intimate connections that cut across traditional social and spatial networks, while also facilitating more traditional patterns of relationship formation within specific groups. This suggests that online technologies are concurrently mediating new patterns of interactivity and reinforcing existing socio-cultural norms in the formation, erosion and reformation of intimate relationships” (Barraket 159).  Yet, despite  these emerging trends in social connectivity, the significance of face-to-face relationship is axiomatic.  As the internet usurps the habitus and identities become interchangeable, are reified relationships replacing real ones?

CONCLUSION

The lover’s discourse has been transformed by cybernetics.  The constellation of ‘matches’  determined by an algorithmic formula marks a giant shift in the code.  The protocols of engagement have transformed the anatomy social interactivity.  Love has become an over-coded form of communication submerged in semiotics. As digital seduction breeds impersonal intimacy, the realm of the virtual is increasingly becoming one of sterilized desire.  Bauman views online dating “as fulfilling the rational choice conditions of the era. He suggests the art of loving has been replaced by a commodified imitation, the ‘love experience’, which models ‘other commodities that allure and seduce by brandishing all such features and promise to take the waiting out of wanting, sweat out of effort and effort out of results’” (Bauman 7).

Could this shift towards reified relationships and interchangeability break the hyper ego?  Love encourages insecurities, as we are mortified if not elevated to the petal-still  of ‘significant other’.  The fetish of being the ‘one’ reinforces  narcissism, jealousy and possessiveness.  The absence of essence in the virtual realm broadens the possibilities for connectivity.  Liberated from identity and fixed subjectivity, the self becomes nothing more than a plagiarism of affect. Identity conflicts dissipate with interchangeability .  “Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is” (Agabem 27).  With that said, what the age of post-ego calls for is a self-reflexive interchangeability- the ability to perceive oneself as singular, rather than unique. At this point in our evolution, the mind seems to understand interchangeability, but the heart does not.  Ergo, the elusive nature of love.

BIBLIOGRAPHY …………………………………………………………………………………

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