Love, Technology, and Dating
The 1990s saw the birth of a new trend: speed dating. Conceived by a California rabbi to help Jewish singles to meet and marry, the trend suggests that modern life moves fast, and that people no longer have the time to go through the codex of old-school courtship. Speed dating supersedes this codex by having its participants rotate on shorter dates, tête-à-tête, which last from three to eight minutes. After a complete rotation the organizer compiles a list of preferences, and ensures that those who match go on to exchange contact information. The result is just as brutal as its more languorous counterpart (am I really that unattractive?), yet true to the Zeitgeist of a life in company with high speed technology. Science confirms that this is how love works. According to a recent study, we generate lasting impressions of a potential love mate within the first three seconds of meeting him or her.1 If the first impressions stick, then why go through the trouble of outdated practices such as serenades, letters, messengers, and prolonged anxiety?
In his new book, Love and Other Technologies, cultural theorist Dominic Pettman does not address speed dating but instead dives into the issues that make it so emblematic of our time. In so doing, he aims at “retrofitting” love; that is, developing a “de-subjectivized, de-psychologized concept of love” understood as a “pure potentiality whose seductive power and rhetorical purpose would be diminished through the usual clumsy attempts at actualization” (30, 33). The concept serves two purposes: (1) it permits an analysis of love that discloses its traumas, paradoxes, and attractions, and (2) it cultivates a communal mode of attachment and belonging based on difference and singularity rather than identity and generality. Both purposes ask us to entertain questions such as: How does love define relationships in an age of not only speed dating but also pornography, gossip, and fashion? Might another love exceed the totalizing movement of post-industrial economy (read: capitalism)? If so, what would make this love possible, and what would be the implications for issues of politics and ethics?
Trafficking equally well in pop culture, in post-structuralist theory, and in avant-gardist literature, Pettman approaches these questions by way of a move as obvious as it is elegant. Love, he argues, does not signify the counter-pole of technology. Rather, in the same way that life is a techne, formed and expressed through communication and other tools, love comes about in conjunction with the hand-shakes, kisses, facial expressions, and libidinal economies that underpin romantic discourse. This argument owes much to the work of Bernard Stiegler, who shows how technology broadly conceived forms our understanding of humanity (17–19). Pettman uses this insight to de-romanticize love, and to liberate it from the nostalgia of a lost paradise, one that not even the fusion of two into one can recuperate: “when we speak of love, we are not discussing merely the primordial encounter between humans, which is only later coded through culture, but rather the inherent instrumentality which accompanies the emergence of the being that loves (or seeks love)” (24; emphasis in original).
The originality of Love and Other Technologies might be how it couples the move to technology with a second move -- one from thinking of love in a mode of fulfillment and interiority to one of trauma and exteriority. Here the works of Agamben, Deleuze, Nancy, and Zizek figure prominently. (I shall later return to whether this line-up needs further differentiation.) Working with and against these thinkers, Pettman discloses a love scene in which the two lovers never become fully transparent to each other. This nontransparency might be the very “essence” of love (136). For example, when a lover asks “why me and not an-other?” the partner, if honest, can only answer “because you are one of them.” Pettman explains this case through an extended engagement with literary exemplars such as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Nabokov's Lolita. On the one hand, love operates on the assumption that the lovers have no equals, an assumption they enact by trying to create a fold in which their mutual love can appear as eternal and, thus, outside of time (48). On the other hand, love also operates within a structure of self, other, and world in which each can occupy the position of the other. The latter breaks down the line between lover and loved, and makes them interchangeable: “love is...nothing more than the product of a given set of conditions” (29).
Pettman interprets the tension between these poles -- irreplaceability and interchangeability -- as exemplary of what Agamben calls “whatever being” (qualunque). This being stands out because it reflects the contingency of life, and yet resists processes of domestication through codes such as family, nationality, citizenship, gender, or ethnicity. Paradoxically, this means that “whatever being” can perform any identity; without prior commitments, without any specific history, it belongs to all and none. Indeed, it points to a difference beyond identity, which collapses the tension between a lover's irreplaceability and his or hers interchangeability into “the sheer generic potentiality of being” (9).
At one level then, Love and Other Technologies offers an original account of love as a technological experience. Speed dating seems here an obvious candidate, because it provides a technology that summons love in between irreplaceability and interchangeability. But Pettman pushes even further. Ultimately, his aim is to trace a movement whereby love connects whatever-being with “the emergent conceptions and amplifications of an anticipated coming community” (8). In other words, the aim is not merely to account for the technology of love, but to politicize this account, drawing us closer to an ethical mode of belonging based on features relevant to whatever-being. This aim hinges on Agamben's earlier work on a coming community, which takes difference as its starting point. First, it encourages us to keep the realm of experience open by exposing oneself to alterity (151). Second, it asks us to consider sources of resistance residing within even the most totalizing movements (131). Third, it directs us to a horizon in which being with others entails a pluralism based on singularity rather than commonality (143ff.).
This review cannot do justice to the richness with which Love and Other Technologies develops these points. Suffice it to say that the book is at its best when it teases out the coming community through discussions of memory, singularity, cinema, essence, and faciality. Even so, I wonder whether Pettman overplays his hand when it comes to the models and characters embodying Agamben's community to-come. Consider here what might be the most controversial part of the book -- the turn to pornography. Prefacing this turn with a critique of the orgy as less than “the figure par excellence of a carnivalesque, popular sociality,” Pettman suggests that we “suspend the abundant problems associated with the industry” in order to see how “pornography deterritorializes love” (109, 113, 114). To make this point, he highlights the work of Andrew Blake, an award winning Los Angeles pornographer. Blake's movies stand out because they deploy cinematic elements such as 35mm film and sophisticated lightening, mixed with an absence of dialogue and close to no plot. Thus, a Blake movie typically involves a beautiful woman in an excess of natural light, satisfying herself with a toy of some sort while the viewer looks at a second woman looking at the first woman giving way “to the pleasures of onanism” (112). According to Pettman, the result of this decentered play on mirrors is exemplary of a whatever-being that exhausts sex as a commodity: “it is the very exhaustion of the discourse of sex which gives rise to the 'truth' of its form and function” (113). Moreover, by “severing the sign from the body, pornography has the potential to break with the interpellative power of the market” (116). It thus “beckons us toward a redefinition of community, one which emerges on the other side of reification, exploitation, sexual violence, and profit” (117; emphasis in original).
I do not deny that reiterating or even playing with highly structured codes or genres can produce insights or possibilities not captured by the intentions of their proponents. Indeed, a reiteration or play might be the most effective way of resisting the repressive dimensions of contemporary discourse. This goes for pornography as much as for discourses on civil rights, class struggle, and gender. That being said, I would want to press Pettman on the specificities of this strategy. Take his suspension of the problems of the porn industry. Whether we talk about the exploitation of actors, or the promise of eternal satisfaction, or the norms of what a sexually attractive woman looks like, these problems might very well be what cloud or suppress the potential of pornography such that it becomes less a site of affirmation and more a vehicle of capitalism. Without an active engagement with the problems indigenous to the industry, we risk rendering our reiteration less effective.
Along similar lines, I question the efficaciousness of reiteration by way of exhaustion. In the eyes of Pettman, Blake illuminates the other side of pornography by not following the rules of sweating men, dirty words, and springing fluids. In Blake, rather, there is “cool” desire, that is, “mechanic sex” invoking “the Body-without-Fluids of the high-AIDS era” (111). Here coolness and machine-like pleasure appear as the attributes of the whatever-beings from which a coming community would spring. But what kind of attachments and connections does this community forge? Pettman treads carefully when it comes to this question, since whatever-being is “irreducible to a political program” (117). It is not immediately clear how we should read this comment. One reading would put the emphasis on “program,” in which case the comment suggests a notion of politics that constitutes principles of order rather than implements an agenda of values and intentions. This reading would indeed be in accordance with the general drift of the thinkers invoked by Pettman. But one could also read the comment with an emphasis on “the political.” If we read it this way, the claim that whatever-being is “irreducible to a political program” suggests a mode of belonging that goes beyond the political. Not only does this suggestion contradict the notion of politics as constitution, it promises to free whatever-being from issues of contestation, representation, and power. As such, the suggestion may also posit the kind of non-technological being that Pettman wants to avoid from the outset.
I dwell on this reading because it goes hand-in-hand with Pettman's pursuit of a desire exhausted by and yet indifferent to the context from which it arises. Can this desire really inspire the transformations and attachments needed for a community to-come? Pettman may find this question futile, since a coming community of whatever-beings does not aim at something contextually recognizable. Indeed, according to Pettman's Agamben, “Whatever is a resemblance without archetype -- in order words, an Idea” (117; emphasis in original). But other thinkers equally important to Pettman seem to suggest otherwise. Take the example of Deleuze, a thinker Love and Other Technologies heralds as someone who deterritorializes love by locating it at the “crux of difference and repetition” (136). While this is true in one sense, Deleuze does not envision a desire beyond power, contestation, and representation. Such vision would in fact miss how every deterritorialization entails reterritorialization. That is, it would miss how the lines of flight within every signification -- moments of reiteration or play -- return back into the discursive milieu, and from this milieu creates new affections between the signifier and the signified. Power, contestation, and representation belong to these affections just as much as singularity, becoming, and difference do. In his Spinozistic moments, Deleuze deploys this insight to configure love in ways different from the ones anticipated by Love and Other Technologies. Here the issue is not so much whether love presupposes a fixed self pretending to be outside a chain of interchangeability. Neither Spinoza nor Deleuze holds this view. Rather, whereas Pettman sees love as enacting an excess expressed through a feeling of melancholia (53–55), Spinoza and Deleuze see the same excess expressed through a feeling of joy, which in turn enhances rather than diminishes the ability to be affected by others. As such, they invoke an affirmative love, one that has the potential to inspire transformations and attachments needed for a community to-come.
In a crucial way, the birth of the trend of speed dating suggests that the challenge of retrofitting love is not so much one of technology or otherness, since both are at play in most discourses on love, including for example the 500-year old La Celestina. Rather, the real challenge might be to grasp how the acceleration of speed affects our finite experiences of technology and otherness, and how these experiences change at the intersection of de- and reterritorialization: Does speed contribute to a sedimentation of some practices at the expense of others? What socio-economic contexts must we subvert before new forms of love can come into being? Would these forms affirm the acceleration of speed, or would they slow down or halt the frenzied search for love mates? Speed dating alerts us to the importance of these questions, and Deleuze equips us with some of the resources needed for a satisfying answer. Limited in its engagement with these resources, Love and Other Technologies points to the urgency of recovering them. This alone makes it an important book, one that elevates our discussions of community and belonging to a rhetorically higher (and far more seductive) level.
Lars Tønder is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is the co-editor of Radical Democracy: Politics between Abundance and Lack (2006), and is currently working on a book manuscript that rethinks tolerance in light of thinkers such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze.
1. Robert Kuzban and Jason Weeden, “HurryDate: Mate preferences in Action,” Evolution and Human Behavior, 26 (2005), pp. 227–244.