More than ever, we now need to think of love as ennobling resistance to what alreadyis, modeling the idea that difficult things are worth the effort. Love may be the last sanctuary for the idea that struggle can be rewarding.
In 1967, at the beginning of what would come to be known (with only slight irony) as the Summer of Love, the Beatles were commissioned to write a song to serve as Britain’s contribution to Our World, the first live TV program to be transmitted around the world by satellite. This broadcasting milestone presaged the era of globalization, which has made virtually everything available everywhere, yet at the same time has narrowed horizons and homogenized cultural difference to choices among cheaply made goods and multinational brands.
In retrospect, the song the Beatles came up with for the event is well-suited to that conundrum: “All You Need Is Love.”
At the level of form, the song clumsily assimilates a variety of touchstones in the Western musical tradition — from Bach to the Beatles’ own earlier hits — hinting at the sort of postmodernist appropriation and pastiche that neoliberalism has engendered everywhere. But its lyrics are what truly capture the coming global regime of distinctions without difference.
Consider its first verse, a study in tautologous nincompoopery:
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
In the footage of the Beatles’ performance, we get a foretaste of the prevailing mood of the West’s coming global hegemony, of love conquering all. One can sense the stoned apathy and cliquey celeb triumphalism that has intermingled with Our World’s official message of harmony and universal brotherhood. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison all laconically chew gum as they go through their motions, Mick Jagger smirks as he mouths the words for the camera, and several men wearing flea-market-caliber sandwich boards touting love for sale mill about the soundstage aimlessly as the song builds to its cacophonous conclusion. The finale evokes a sense of everything at once, the real-time collision of several different musical eras as the past collapses into the present and the already cluttered scene on camera goes entirely entropic.
In the song, “love” is the universal unguent that makes these empty propositions “true.” Its power resides in a generalized indifference. Love is reduced to an affirmative form of whateverism: “See that thing you already did? Look, you can do it. That’s the power of love.” This kind of love befits the particular kind of freedom we experience in postindustrial capitalism: learn to “play the game” and nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted, and it all adds up to narcissism: “Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time — it’s easy!”
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And it’s only been getting easier. The digital-information age has made it simple to discover new ways to be ourselves. Any curiosity or yearning need never linger or fade; we can act immediately on these impulses, querying the internet for answers or for markets to supply us with what we want. With the sort of access and connectivity we have now, we can seamlessly circumvent any resistance to our desire by pursuing a reasonably close substitute for what we were originally after, or by opening ourselves to something easier among the many alluring diversions begging for our attention. Such are the productive pleasures of convenience, translating inclinations into results without fuss or rumination. Who has the discipline to choose frustration?
But lurking beneath the surface of this fantasia of frictionless desire is a desperate fear of boredom, a sinking sense that surplus gratification is snuffing out our very capacity to conceive of wishes. We are in danger of conquering wishful thinking, leaving ourselves only a dull, insatiable hunger for distraction.
Since the period of yearning and wondering has become so truncated, the satiety afterward is correspondingly curtailed. Indulging our sense of satisfaction in any one achieved desire now has a palpable opportunity cost: Given the power of the our networks, any extra time we spend mooning over an already accomplished satisfaction could just as readily be spent quickly accumulating other new and different pleasures, which deepen our sense of self once we conceive it quantitatively, as the data-driven online realm encourages, as the sum of our choices. And the internet is nothing if not the illusion of infinite choices, homogenized into a browser-friendly format — the apotheosis of Our World.
The seemingly bottomless well of choice pressures us to keep dredging more things up to want and pursue, but satisfaction of these streamlined desires now moves almost at the speed of thought; conceiving a desire is virtually tantamount to extinguishing it. The pace of novelties and choices continues to accelerate, but they carry less and less joy. There is barely enough space in time to sigh and say, “Next.”
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In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher coins the term depressive hedonia to describe this phenomenon. “Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia,” he writes, “but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ — but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” Fisher worries that we are losing the capacity to move beyond pleasure, to elect frustration, to grasp the very possibility of difficulty. “Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger,” he explains, citing an example from his teaching experience. “They fail to grasp — and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension — that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.” That is, the essence of the things we long for and wish to understand are precisely the aspects that resist us.
Yet digital media promise immediate access and immediate assimilation; we can stamp ourselves on anything that circulates online, present it as a part of our profile, and pass that off as a kind of mastery. These media cater to the part of us that carefully displays the “right” books on our shelves, hoping visitors will be impressed, and extend it so that it threatens to become all there is. Then, poseurs against our will, we will have to struggle always to prove that we actually have wrestled with any ideas at all rather than blankly appropriating them as reified things.
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The question, then, is how do we keep alive the possibility of difficulty? How do we find resistance when digital media efface it? How do we shake the superficial self when it reaps more immediate rewards than ever?
A different sort of love than what the Beatles sang about might protect redemptive difficulty — something more akin to what Slavoj Žižek invokes in this recent essay in the New Left Review:
Love is a choice that is experienced as necessity. At a certain point, one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one already is in love, and that one cannot do otherwise. By definition, therefore, comparing qualities of respective candidates, deciding with whom to fall in love, cannot be love. This is the reason why dating agencies are an anti-love device par excellence.
This view has long been a commonplace: Love strikes as a compulsion, a divine madness, overwhelming our resistance and dislodging us from our comfortable, established ways. It forces us to be different, to go against our grain. But technological developments have pushed us to a point where we must now figure out how to choose this kind of love. We must learn how to choose to have no choice.
Žižek’s point about dating services evokes sociologist Eva Illouz’s claims in Cold Intimacies about “emotional competence” — the ability to analyze and manipulate emotion through “self-awareness, the ability to identify their feelings, talk about them, empathize with each other’s position and find solutions to a problem.” Such competence allow us to roll with the changes in the postindustrial work world, which demands flexible team players, but it comes at a cost. As Illouz puts it, this kind of control over feelings “instills a procedural quality to emotional life which makes emotions lose their indexicality, their capacity to orient us quickly and unself-reflectively in the web of our everyday relationships.” We consciously and purposefully process feelings rather than respond to them spontaneously. Emotional competence instrumentalizes that kind of sensitivity that generally makes a point of not instrumentalizing feelings.
This deeply contradictory position finds full expression in online dating, Illouz argues, which “has introduced to the realm of romantic encounters the principles of mass consumption based on an economy of abundance, endless choice, efficiency, rationalization, and standardization…. Romantic relations are not only organized within the market, but have themselves become commodities produced on an assembly line, to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply, and in great abundance.” In other words, as dating (or ersatz love) has migrated to the internet, it has undergone the same changes as everything else that has moved online: it has been remade by the ethic of convenience into something more solipsistic and disposable. The search for “love” has been adapted to the space-time of the internet, in which multiple tabs are opened at once; attention is intermittent, feeble and diffused; and the flood of real-time updates bury appeals and attractions from the past, which can be a matter of only a few moments ago.
Online dating forces candidates to present a sensitive and receptive self without reference to any specific acts of emotional recognition of any particular other person. One is simply emotionally competent, in the abstract. Thus online dating preconceives any potential intimacy as generic. But in reality, intimacy reveals itself in unpredictable moments that move us unexpectedly — when we suddenly sense that a partner has recognized something true about us we didn’t even know. Intimacy is earned in difficult stretches, in oblique confrontations that prompt fumbling attempts to articulate inchoate assumptions about the other. But we foreclose on those moments when we assimilate love to the internet’s niche-market, on-demand milieu.
In the face of these omnipresent siren songs of convenience, we must try to cling to a different and opposed conception of what love might be. Later in the New Left Review essay, Žižek offers an even better definition of love, under the auspices of glossing Lacan’s advice for overcoming ideological blinders: “An act is more than an intervention into the domain of the possible — an act changes the very coordinates of what is possible and thus retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility.”
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What else is falling in love if not such an act, a gesture in the face of impossibility? “We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations,” Žižek concludes. “We will have to reinvent aspects of the new.” This, Žižek’s prescription for blind revolution, is perhaps better understood as a standard for love, for the form desire must take to escape the internet unsquelched.
More than ever, we now need to think of love as ennobling resistance to what already is, modeling the idea that difficult things are worth the effort. Love may be the last sanctuary for the idea that struggle can be rewarding. If it vanishes, and love goes entirely the way of online dating, toward Facebook-style casual and thoughtless friending, we may lose the tenacity required to accomplish anything, including an identity worth having.
John Lennon seemed later to see the light. What could be more preposterous than his and Yoko’s love, conducted in public as a kind of ongoing absurdist protest? From allegedly breaking up the Beatles to conducting bed-ins for peace, to recording unlistenable found-noise albums, to commandeering the Mike Douglas Show (of all things), to enduring a separation after having long been inseparable, during which Lennon indulged in a drunken, lecherous “lost weekend” that lasted over a year, their relationship exemplified a love committed to impossibility. Only love like that is ludicrous and irrational enough to survive the digital era.