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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Social discovery vs. sociability

One of things Dan Slater reports on in Love in the Time of Algorithms is online dating’s evolution into “social discovery,” which is not a matter of algorithms and social media helping users find a romantic partner per se but about their helping users find people with common interests of any sort. In my review of the book, I argued that this was online-dating companies’ attempt to rationalize and subsume sociability in general. The implicit pitch of social discovery is this: You can’t just meet people in the wild for no preconceived reason at all, without corporate mediation — that would be inconvenient, possibly scary, and worst of all, unpredictably awkward. You should be able to choose the sort of social encounters you want the same way you choose the sort of food you want to eat. It should be a consumer choice driven by individual autonomy. Sociability should not be a social relation. Instead, social encounters should serve as an opportunity for individual consumers to express their uniqueness through their shopping-like choices of other individuals to be consumed as experiential goods.

Consumer capitalism relies on that sort of individualist ideology: freedom of choice as freedom in toto, consumer choices as necessary to express uniqueness and register socially as a discrete and significant being, etc. But there are competing conceptions of sociability that are less individualistic. In a 2002 essay called “Sociabilty and Cruising,” Leo Bersani begins by claiming that “sociability is a form of relationality uncontaminated by desire,” a definition he derives from a reading of Georg Simmel’s “The Sociology of Sociability” (1910). What makes sociability pleasurable, Bersani argues, is the surrender of individuality, not its reaffirmation — ” the particular pleasure gained from the restriction of the personal: the pleasure of the associative process itself, of a pure relationality which, beyond or before the satisfaction of particular needs or interests, may be at once the ground, the motive and the goal of all relations.” In other words, the point of social relations is that they have no point. “Relating” to people is its own end.

Extrapolating from this, Bersani describes sociability as “ascetic conduct” since it requires a self-diminishing, demanding that we “lay aside” our “interests and passions” in order to enjoy it properly — the precise opposite of what social discovery invites us to do. Social discovery assumes we need shared interests to induce us to relate, but sociability may be more of a self-forgetting, a rejection of the interests we have already furnished for ourselves as limits. Bersani writes that sociability is “a self-disciplining that yields pleasure,” to an “escaping from the frictions, the pain, even the tragedy endemic to social life. Once stripped of those interests, we discover a new type of being, as well as a new type of pleasure … intrinsic to a certain mode of existence, to self-subtracted being. A willingness to be less introduces us (perhaps reintroduces us) to the pleasure of rhythmed being.”

Bersani’s argument, admittedly, gets a bit abstract at this point. But that there is pleasure in self-forgetting makes more intuitive sense now, in the face of social-media real-names policies, extensive surveillance, and compulsory reputation management. All that social-media presence amounts to an intense ideological pressure to be overinvested in what we can signify about ourselves and to use sociability as an identity-construction tool. It posits the identities of others as competing goods on the shelf.

The ubiquitous self-broadcasting thus makes it very easily to bristle at the incomprehensible pleasures of others that can inexplicably seem to threaten our own, challenging us with irreducible difference. I can’t believe those people like House of Cards! What’s so great about the Lumineers? You can track the resulting cultural backlashes in real time online, with people expressing shock and disbelief and contempt for the pleasure others are taking in something, registering resentful contrary opinions as desperate attempts to preserve some misconceived version of their integrity, as well as the perceived “value” of their own identity-good. (If you prefer, you can go into the weeds of Lacanian theory and attribute this to the frightening mystery of the jouissance of the other; the threat created by the hard-to-absorb idea that others are subjects, and you might be their object, etc.)

Rather than defend the citadel of individuality and insist on expressing the inner truth of our desires as fully as possible, Bersani argues for the pleasure in the effort to not be ourselves:

The pleasure of sociability would not be merely that of a restful interlude in social life. Instead, it would be the consequence of our being less than what we really are. Simmel speaks of a lady who, while avoiding “extreme décolletage in a really personal, intimate situation with one or two men,” feels comfortable with it “in a large company.” “For she is,” he adds, “in the larger company, herself, to be sure, but not quite completely herself, since she is only an element in a formally constituted gathering.” It is as if there were a happiness inherent in not being entirely ourselves, in being “reduced” to an impersonal rhythm.

The ability to experience sociability lies in the ability to not be fully oneself at every public moment — it depends on the plausibility of personal anonymity, which is being eroded by social media. You have to believe you can pass unrecognized (regardless of whether this is the case or not); you have to believe that what you are doing does not automatically add to the archive of experiences that make up identity but can somehow subtract from it. We can do things that are not “like us,” we can do things that render us generic. That’s where the pleasure of self-forgetting, of sociability, surges.

Or maybe addition and subtraction are the wrong metaphors:  We must stop thinking of identity as something that can be enlarged quantitatively. Identity is not a quantity, despite the way social media is structured.

But our online activity doesn’t have to be dictated by the for-profit companies that seek to structure our experience of ubiquitous connectivity and determine the sort of subjectivity it can support for us. I think that is what Adrian Chen is basically arguing here. We can try to salvage sociability from social media, use online connectivity not to try to define ourselves perfectly (an impossible, endless endeavor that leads to frustration, anger, envy) but to undo ourselves over and over.


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