Shopping for Intimacy

by Jessica Kingdon

“Eroticism is silence, I have said; it is solitude. But not for people whose very presence in the world is a pure denial of silence, a chattering, a neglect of potential solitude.” (Bataille, 264)

This essay is not about love or intimacy, but the complexities of our search for them—the seemingly indefatigable chattering, and the path to solitude. Though the human condition drives us throughout time and space  to seek connections, it is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of intimacy or create a framework for its understanding.  The form and texture of the search can only be described as the product of so many cultural, social, historical, and familial influences.  But how can we describe the search when it lacks texture and form? Or perhaps, has become all form and no substance?  For in our world of technology-saturated global capitalism, the search for intimacy is a digitally mediated spree through an infinite shopping mall.  The “consumers” are given unprecedented choice and autonomy in their quest for an object of desire; they can customize their search, establish criteria, and curate their identity.  When faced with so many choices, the shoppers begin to feel that the “best” is out there, and become increasingly discerning as they peruse user profiles. In a world obsessed with social media, each individual must become a brand to promote his or herself.  We are clamoring to be heard over the voices of many, desperately seeking recognition.

In Zygmunt Bauman’s work Liquid Love, he theorizes how our “modern liquid world” lends itself to a general sense of disconnection within a community and encourages the disposability of individuals. The techno-gadget world in which we live today is the stage on which our neuroses are played out.   Bauman discusses the impact that gadgets and personal devices have on relationships.  He argues “the advent of virtual proximity renders human connections simultaneously more frequent and more shallow, more intense and more brief” (62).  It is as though the closer we are crammed together, the farther apart we grow, and the more portals of communication that are available, the less we see one another.  Because of the pace at which we begin and end communications – switching between ‘chat buddies’, rapidly firing text messages back and forth, responding to emails before the inbox overflows – lasting bonds are difficult to achieve.  The portable device allows for the transcendence of space and time, and so its users are no longer limited by location or events in real time. The result is that the here and now becomes less relevant, and each person with whom one converses is less valuable. Our openness to chance encounters diminishes as we become less receptive to our immediate surroundings.  The social interactions in online dating are no exception.

Online dating is a profile based matchmaking system.  Users create individual profiles in which they identify themselves through photographs as well as a standard set of attributes like age, gender, or location that are chosen from a template.  The format of the profile will vary from site to site, but generally, they use a question and answer format to allow the users to disclose information about themselves for a potential match to determine if there is compatibility.  The sections to be written may have broad and open-ended prompts (like a basic self-summary) or more specific questioning (like your favorite cuisines or preferred weekend activities).  Naturally, in these paragraphs people present themselves in a way they believe to be favorable.  They write these “self summaries” as mini-advertisements to attract a mate.  For example, here is what OKCupid user TV87 wrote in the section asking for favorite music, television shows, and movies:

I’m kind of a movie buff. I’m not going to make a list. Rest assured, I love that one Wes Anderson movie, too. I like highbrow film and lowbrow horror and comedy equally. Movies are one thing you can always get me talking about… I don’t watch cable anymore because I hate commercials.

This type of diction, casual and friendly, is ultimately self-promotional. There is a skill to turning one’s own qualities into something salable.  What is TV87 trying to tell us when he says he does not watch cable because he hates commercials? Perhaps he is trying to convey the message that he does not buy into the general consumer culture and is not gullible.  He tells us that he’s “kind of” a movie buff but likes both highbrow and lowbrow film. What does this suggest? That he is both culturally and intellectually sophisticated, yet is still able to enjoy the products of pop culture? When people present themselves with the expectation of judgment, they try to anticipate how another may read their profile.

The concept of ‘selling yourself’ as a commodity through dating agencies is not specific to the Internet era.  Epstein’s study of the personals section in the New York Herald in the Victorian era expounds on this.  During the 19th century, as individuals moved to densely populated industrial cities, a sense of isolation specific to urban living emerged.  Neighbors became strangers; it is difficult to find intimacy amongst a crowd.  There are several possible reasons for this.  Perhaps city living lends itself to a Darwinian kind of competitiveness that precludes acting in the interest of others. Perhaps choice breeds selectivity. Or perhaps people simply turn away from one another from the numbness of overstimulation.  In the Victorian era, personal ads grew popular because they “provided a way for people otherwise disconnected from the city around them to get a glimpse into the private lives of their neighbors […] it was a space of public intimacy, and it offered new opportunities for close, personal connections in an anonymous urban world” (Epstein, 16).   The concept of public and private spaces morphed as personal ads became a space in which private affairs were performed publicly.

Just as urban centers drew their strength from the foundations of capitalism and the market mentality, the search for love adopted the logic of the market as well.  As Epstein observes, “Not only did men and women refer to money – both their own and their ideal spouse’s – but they themselves were on the market” (69).   The “advertisers” were unabashedly self-promotional in the listing of their own assets to attract a certain type of person.  A century later, personal ads were still in use, but with a savvier consumer market, the “advertisers” became increasingly self-conscious of the ways in which they represented themselves. People referred to themselves as items to be bought, commodities for sale. In a 1996 study, Coupland studies the written advertisements in dating agencies.  Epstein and Coupland use similar terms to describe the way daters present themselves.  Coupland writes, “This packaging process results in a text genre closely allied in its formal characteristics to media advertisements for the selling and buying of houses, cars, or second-hand furniture” (188).  She also identifies the same form of self-promotion as observed in the Victorian era, as “dating ads blur the distinction between the authentic and the promotional” (202).

The difference today is that the post-modern population is intuitively more familiar with identity reconstruction: “[K]nowing how to act and how to represent the self is seen as a mediated process, under the influence of sources such as images (usually narrativized) in advertising and media entertainment” (Coupland, 189).  Individuals are more aware of the ways in which identity is created and translated through different mediums. Because the process of identity construction goes largely unnoticed when practiced on a day to day basis, the generation that grew up using social networking sites like Facebook take for granted the ubiquity of mediated communication.  Before social networking sites were built into the fabric of our social reality it was possible to live without the pressure to translate life experiences into digestible bits for public consumption.  But we live in a world where participation in the social sphere often necessitates self-construction through a meditated platform.

The market metaphor becomes even more apt for dating services with the introduction of the Web.  Online dating platforms offer an increase in volume of the “product” available, as well as more tools for evaluating potential partners.  The sites provide a multitude of classifications for judging another person’s appeal.  For example, OKCupid users may perform a custom search that allows them to specify a particular type of profile based off of various filters.   The search filters include criteria that range from physical attributes (such as height or body type) to larger personal questions (ethnicity, education, income, religion).  This encourages judging other people’s profiles based off of a set of discrete characteristics, which prohibits a more holistic experience of a person.

With the abundance of choice, users grow increasingly systematic in their approach to targeting potential lovers.  In a study from 2010, Heino et. al find “these strategies of translating the profile and triangulating among various information sources were ways of assessing the “market worth” of others, similar to the way in which savvy consumers learn to treat marketing campaigns with skepticism” (435).  No longer are consumers so credulous to the seductions of advertisements as these have become a part of our daily existence. When confronted with advertisers vying for attention with visual tricks and slogans, people build defenses and are more difficult to persuade; they require more sophisticated wooing.  Customers look out for new signals to determine the worth of a product, and the same goes with online dating. People develop methods to analyze other profiles.  In the age of photoshop, images cannot be taken as pure documentation.  Simple software programs enhance appearance. As such, a single attractive picture on a profile will be less likely to convince viewers that the person associated with the image is, indeed, attractive.  The ubiquity of social media websites like Facebook promote a culture of constant surveillance.  Facebook users tend to post photos liberally on their profiles, often adding images of even the most banal activities, like consuming meals, throughout the day.  Consequently we come to expect a plethora of information from the person’s profile. It can appear odd or suspicious to see just one photo, as if the person has something to hide.

What does it mean if a candidate posts a photo where he or she is posing for the camera versus a spontaneous photo of him or her caught unawares? Does this mean it was candid, and therefore more authentic? Or are they the type of person who wants to come across as authentic in order to hide how affected they truly are? Is the candidness simply a way of hiding their posturing? One can also look into the quantity and quality of text written into profiles.  What if someone writes a large volume to describe themselves?  Are they overeager, trying to make up for some inadequacy or an inherent dullness? Or are they simply open and willing to share? And if they are too forthcoming, too honest online, does this speak to a lack of social filter? The mapping of another person’s image becomes increasingly complex in the face of a constantly growing social network.

Part of the appeal of online dating is the promise of the control we may exert with our choices.  While it is true that we are free to choose what to share about ourselves and who we choose to make contact with, it is important to be aware that we are operating within a larger network created by the developers.  Speaking of power, Foucault writes how “[i]ts success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (86).  Power operates best when it acts invisibly.  Online dating sites hide their mechanisms as we have this perceived sense of control.

Considering online dating sites through a business perspective explains several of its modes of functioning.  When people subscribe to online dating services, they are customers of a business.  In order for dating agencies to remain financially viable, to maintain their very existence, they must necessarily keep people on the search for love – otherwise, they become irrelevant.  Once love is found, their services are useless.  In his article Love Doctor, Dan Slater discusses how online dating businesses attempt to keep their singles interested in them even after they find partners.  The magazine Fast Talk provides insights from matchmakers in the dating business who “share ideas for engineering better relationships” (Slater, 53).  They want the relationship to remain within the context of their dating website. Aaron Schildkrout, CEO of HowAboutWe, identifies a problem in the business: “From a profit-perspective, the online dating business is like psychiatry: When you succeed, you lose. Why? A happy customer is a lost user.” The solution his business proposes is “a service that sells curated dating experiences.” 

The inherent profit-driven nature of the dating agencies operates to keep customers wanting instead of finding satisfaction in their own relationship.  Schildkrout explains, “We want to figure out how to remain relevant for couples over the 5, 10, or 50 years of their lives together. Through a periodic digital catalog, we’ll sell a variety of pre-packaged, offline experiences for you two.” An example for purchase is a pre-planned night out, including the restaurant, babysitter, and transportation. By “crafting innovative date experiences,” HowAboutWe will help the happy couples find things to do based on their “date-worthiness” (55).  This model is intended to keep the couple’s relationship within the context of the website through which they found one another.  Ideally, the couple becomes dependent upon the site for their future experiences together.  This model eliminates the spontaneity from an experience, and replaces it with a well curated activity, left in the hands of “experts” to decide just what is “date worthy.”

Barraket and Henry-Waring observe that “online dating is not simply mediated by the technology, but by the designers of that technology and the market interests they represent. In this sense, technology is not simply an instrument by which interaction is facilitated” (158).  Online dating sites are designed so that users have a sense of agency in that they choose how to represent themselves, and who to seek out.  But users are unaware of everything that goes into the interaction: “the level of interactivity and ‘self-administration’ inherent in online technology use means most online dating sites provide users with a significantly greater level of transparency about the levels and types of use by others than more traditional commercial dating services, suggesting a greater level of perceived agency for participants in this form of purposeful dating activity” (158).  The key word is perceived.  Dating sites encourage users to create and analyze profiles based on a set of predetermined categories.  While the categories themselves seem harmless enough – favorite books and movies, past time activities,  occupations, etc. – they reinforce the judgment of another human being through categories on paper which may not translate to offline life.  The type of reductionist thinking that online dating encourages may carry over to  encounters with people experienced in off line, “real life” situations.   

Re-conceiving the idea of power, Foucault explains it as something that exists invisibly within a network rather than operating through an identifiable authority figure.  Modern institutions are structured such that the social order is reinforced from within.  He explains power as “the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” (Foucault, 92).  Power is not exercised through a singular source but through a series of discrete and fluid relations.  The way we think of sexuality is determined by these forces of power.  Online dating works this way in that it is a social network where people may gaze at one another.  The way people judge one another online is a mode of power operating in its own right.

The possibility to transcend the circumstances we find ourselves in is one of the more liberating experiences that online dating can offer.  Meeting people online grants access to types of people you may never meet in your everyday life.  However, the irony is that online dating still functions through basic classifications that reduce individuals to a series of predetermined attributes.  OkCupid’s “details” section covers the following categories which one may select from a drop down menu. The following choices: Ethnicity, Height, Body Type, Diet, Smokes, Drinks, Drugs, Religion, Sign, Education, Job, Income, Offspring, Pets, Speaks.  There is also a “Looking for” section where one may identify the desired type of relationship.  OKCupid user TV87 is looking for: “Girls who like guys; Ages 22-34; Near me; Single; New friends, short-term dating, activity partners.” 

Some dating sites are marketed for individuals to connect through categories such as religion, race, sexual orientation, and so forth.  For example, there are sites like JDate for Jews; Black People Meet for the black community; The Right Stuff for those who have attended Ivy League universities; Grindr for the gay community.   Through these sites, one may access a pool of candidates who fall into a specific demographic.  One appeal is the convenience factor of knowing the individuals within the group fit a certain criterion.  While these platforms may save time for those who seeks partners with the same background, they still reinforce divisions which may otherwise be overlooked.  Niche dating sites eliminate the challenges of navigating a multi-cultural world.  Perhaps they make dating too convenient.  The active choice of specifying the nature of the relationship to seek out promotes a hyper rational way of acting.  The problem is that relationships are not always rational.  Personal growth often happens in unexpected alleys.

Another trait unique to dating on the web is the sheer volume of people one may access, as well as the efficiency of making (and breaking) communication.  For Bauman, love is rare [… ] in a consumer culture like ours, which favors products ready for instant use, quick fixes, instantaneous satisfaction, results calling for no protracted effort […] The promise to learn the art of loving as a (false, deceitful, yet keenly wished to be true) promise to make ‘love experience’ in the likeness of 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 (7).

Bauman believes love requires humility and courage.  These qualities are unnecessary in a consumer reality where value is placed on extracting the most reward with the least work.  A consumer culture projects the illusion that bonds may form and persist without first putting in the work to cultivate traits like trust and self-sacrifice.  Commitment has become unfashionable, somewhat of an anachronism. This is reflected in the belief that

In lasting commitments, liquid modern reason spies out oppression; in durable engagement, it sees incapacitating dependency […] Bindings and bonds make human relations ‘impure’- as they would do to any act of consumption that assumes instant satisfaction and similarly instant obsolescence of the consumed object” (Bauman, 47).

Beneath enduring bonds, lovers may fear an encroaching unhealthy attachment.  Perhaps they fear they are sinking into complacency or giving in to the seductive habituations of familiarity.  An ultimate allegiance to oneself and one’s own desires is privileged over all else.  In an age where we are ostensibly unlimited by social convention, identity becomes something of a construct for which we are solely responsible.  This responsibility to our own integrity at times may feel burdensome.  Bauman writes how

“There is always a suspicion […] that one is living a lie or a mistake; that something crucially important has been overlooked […] that a vital obligation to one’s own authentic self has not been met, or that some chances of unknown happiness completely different from any happiness experienced before have not been taken up in time and are bound to be lost forever if they continue to be neglected” (55).

Deciding upon a single partner becomes a question of settling or limiting the self.  There is the  romantic ideal of love to which we would like to remain faithful, while  simultaneously struggling to embody the age of sexual liberation.  Dating sites seduce us with the promise of romance, and then addict us with a plethora of choice.  We are left with an endless push-pull between romance and endless options that keep us coming back. 

The nostalgia for commitment and the liberation of choice pulls in two directions.  Blum writes, “this freedom to marry according to one’s heart, a romantic story we continue to treasure, can come into direct conflict with our putative “sexual liberation.”  Upon the commencement of the marriage, love becomes necessarily less “free”—inasmuch as it’s contractually binding ” (336).   In mainstream film and television, marriage continues to remain the ultimate ‘goal’ of love, and yet, “in the very heart of “commitment,” we find ourselves agonizing about finding someone better”  (Blum, 339).  The paradox of marriage is that it projects the image of both salvation and the end of freedom.  There are contradictory forces at play that guide contemporary dating behaviors.  On one hand, we feel the pressure to honor sexual liberation and respect our individual autonomy. Each mode of living becomes a choice rather than a passive acceptance of what is when convention is no longer a given. This choice we must make has produced a new kind of pressure, one where we need to curate our lives to reflect who we think we are or should be.

It is these forms of modern anxiety that the television sitcom Peep Show addresses.  The show’s protagonists are two male roommates in their late 20s who embody opposing lifestyles.  Mark, the more conventional roommate, works a corporate job and obsesses over finding a life partner.  Every girl he sees could be “the one” for him.  The unreliable roommate, Jeremy, is the carefree and irresponsible musician who owes Mark rent money.  Jeremy is always dating a new girl; his variety of girlfriends are just a natural part of the fluctuations inherent to his free floating lifestyle.  While the two approach life differently, the show makes no moral distinction between them; they are ultimately both on the same quest to feel fulfilled and connected to others.

The aesthetic of Peep Show is somewhat unusual in that the audience often hears Mark or Jeremy’s inner thoughts through voiceover narration. We also literally see the world from their point of view, as the camera switches to a point-of-view shot of one of the characters.  This is an interesting aesthetic choice that falls in line with the digital age, where exhibitionism, immediate intimacy and access are expected. The show is, in a sense, about voyeurism. The introduction video shows a series of quick clips through the point of view of Jeremy and Mark in their daily lives. In the last shot, Mark and Jeremy stand facing the glass window of a store, behind which are a series of televisions projecting their images back at them. This shows the hyper-reflective nature of the show where people are always being watched and attempting to construct identities in this atmosphere.

Mark and Jeremy comment upon the nature of their modern world.  They often quip, “It’s the twenty-first century!” sometimes as if to justify acts of sexual promiscuity.  As Foucault argues, the attitude of celebrating contemporary sexual freedom is born of the belief that we are liberated from the past, where desire was stifled. This is problematic in that it creates the illusion that today everyone is free – or should be free – to act as they please.  There exists a false pressure.  In Season One, a woman Jeremy has romantic feelings for sleeps with one of his friends. When he tries to confront the woman, she replies, “We’re two single people having a great time. If you can’t handle that, then go back to the 50s!” This harshness of her reply makes Jeremy feel he is clinging to irrelevant values from the past instead of experiencing a valid emotional reaction. In another story line, a woman identified in the show as “the American girl” wants to marry Jeremy for his visa. He allows himself to believe her reasons are for love, though she makes it clear it is for practical reasons. The “American girl” embodies the ideals of the new age-y lifestyle of free love and non-attachment.  Jeremy wants her to himself, but plays along with her ideas in order to be attractive to her, though clearly his feelings of attachment for her provoke jealousy. At lunch together, she says to their friends, “We both know it’s an open relationship. That’s what we’re about, right Jeremy? Freedom?” Jeremy has no choice but to agree. If he asks for something more committed than an open relationship, he will appear unprogressive and “uncool” in her eyes.  His proving his belief in “freedom” relies on shunning all social conventions – specifically, monogamy.

Neil Gross argues that contemporary theorists overestimate the effects of detraditionalization on intimacy in contemporary society.  Speaking of love and intimacy, she argues “Childhood games, songs, fairy tales […] prepare American children to eventually step into the role of lover”  (Gross, 301).  From an early age, children are conditioned to the idea of love and romance as certain rites of passage.   The tradition of the ideal romantic couple continues to prevail.  Cultural influences shape so much of desire.  Gross later argues

“…love and intimacy […] remain sites where many Americans continue to experience the sacred […] there may simply be an anthropological limit to our capacity to view the world through the lens of an entirely disenchanted instrumental rationality.  Insofar as this is so, we would expect to find human beings engaging in efforts to imbue even the most rationalized aspects of their lives with existential meaning and coloring them with the patina of the sacred” (305-306).

When it comes to love, it is impossible to escape its grip through rationality.  But it is this kind of rationality that online dating espouses, which is why the signals become confused.

In Eroticism: Death & Sensuality, Bataille understands eroticism as something both transcendent and basic, that which exists beyond human understanding in its primacy.  Bataille’s belief in the prerequisite of solitude for eroticism brings the paradox of online dating into sharp relief; how is intimacy possible when the rituals surrounding it are performed in public?  With a constant need for chatter, we seek to fill the silence.  People often fall asleep with the TV on, lulled to a state of quiet passivity by the reassuring hum of continuous voices.  In the age of personal devices we have further perpetuated this addiction to communication, even if its content is essentially empty.  Solitude is avoided at all costs, even the destruction of deeper connections.

Online dating promotes a utilitarian method of finding love.  In this sense, an openness and sensitivity to respond to the realities of an unpredictable world is lost.  If you have pet allergies and decide pets are a “deal-breaker,” meaning you will not date someone with a cat or a dog, you may simply filter pet owners out of your search options. But, what if, while not on the search for the ideal mate, you meet someone who falls outside of your criteria — say, a cat owner — and they charm you? What if you fall in love with that person?  Do you turn down love because of their cat? Possibly — but possibly not! You might decide this relationship is important enough to make a compromise.  Love must make concessions.  Search filters disallow for the possibility of a change of mind or heart.  Love is messy and often inconvenient.  It spills over the sides.  Online dating, with its clean and convenient templates, provides the illusion that you can have it all with a partner.  This search for a mate with a systematic and deliberate approach stifles the possibility for any outside chance.  Love is ultimately something out of our control, larger than ourselves.  It implies seclusion, unpredictability, wildness — that which cannot be contained.  It is about opening up and allowing the self to become vulnerable to the joys and terrors of self-discovery with another soul.  In this sense, love is a threat to any dating agency.  Once love arrives, the agency that facilitated its existence becomes irrelevant.  Complete in and of itself, it takes on a life of its own.  Hence online dating can paradoxically work against love. 

We can become so obsessed with the mechanics of the search that we lose sight of what we were seeking in the first place.  Love necessitates dedication and hard work.  The convenience of online tools call less and less upon the users of these technologies to assert any kind of focus or discipline. It is easy to slip into a passive mentality and let the system of experts and search filters take over.  How might one approach love in the digital era?  I do not suggest the simple solution of forgoing online dating.  In order for love to exist in the digital age, its participants must remain conscious and aware of their intentions.