Should we refuse relationship work on principle and instead sharpen our dialectics on an impending Situation?
“Men use relationships to get sex, and women use sex to get relationships.” This aphorism, like its cousin from the kitchen, “There’s a lid for every pot,” conjures a dating scene that works according to some variation of Say’s Law: the market for hetero partners automatically clears, and sexual supply and demand settle into natural equilibrium. Little effort is required in the macro scheme of things: Single guys and gals just need to hang in there until the invisible hand arranges the romantic cookware to every party’s satisfaction and relief.
Yet in scurrying toward coupledom, singles may not realize that they may clear the market to their detriment; “making it official” ends the sometimes discouraging but often delightful aleatorics of single life. Many solitary Saturday nights watching the Spice Channel find later reward in a boon onenight stand, but constancy repays only in its own coin.
As if skeptical of the single life’s unexpected pleasures, some reject its intensive singularities for a caldera of eternal recurrence, for a monogamy whose signal activity consists of rolling a stone up one side of its cavity only to watch it roll toward the other. That stone goes by the name “romance.” Whereas more or less random encounters are readily charged by sexual attraction, a relationship must draw its energy from resources accumulated over its course. Couples must drill ever deeper to tap dwindling stores of the ancient sunshine of their love. Sexual attraction may take a few drinks, in other words, but a relationship takes “work.”
It should come as no surprise that romance produces fewer enthusiastic workers than furtive shirkers. In her 2004 book Against Love, antifidelity firebrand Laura Kipnis notes that most of the effort of relationships goes to supporting an unsupportable contradiction: “A ‘happy’ state of monogamy would be defined as a state you don’t have to work at maintaining,” she writes. From this she concludes that “the demand for fidelity beyond the duration of desire” takes on the aura of capitalist labor; namely, it is “alienated, routinized, deadening.” Given these characteristics, is it any wonder, Kipnis asks, that working on a relationship is “not something you would choose to do if you actually had a choice in the matter?”
Distaste for the work of coupledom makes a bit of shop discipline necessary. Kipnis observes that “the well-publicized desperation of single life — early death for men; statistical improbability of ever finding mates for women — is forever wielded against reformminded discontented couple-members.” Tales of the ravages of bachelors’ or spinsters’ quixotic bid for existential autarky serve merely to distract, however, from the fact that “couple economies too are governed ... by scarcity, threat, and internalized prohibitions, held in place by those incessant assurances that there are ‘no viable alternatives.’” Given that Hobson’s choice, most couples prefer to keep their hard-won place at the emotional grindstone.
That people have no choice but couplehood recalls Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “There is no alternative” or TINA, as it came to be known. But this slogan, which encapsulated the idea that only deregulated markets could increase the wealth and wellbeing of humankind, implied a break from the conservative tradition of sanctifying relationship drudgery. Rather than take refuge in the couple form, individuals must get with the TINA program by forming an “entrepreneurial self,” organizing their lives around an ethos of personal responsibility rather than state dependency. Cued by this flipped script to rework their act, ambitious players on the stage of neoliberal life find it necessary to abandon the comfort and safety of their community troupe (or their monogamous unit) for transnational corporate capitalism’s theater of cruelty. Erstwhile pathologies get recast as positive virtues, and social life’s degeneration into a Realpolitik of ends-based pragmatism allows for the consolidation of what Michel Foucault called “microphysics of power”: a seasonability to opportunity from the moment this opportunity arises until it is arbitraged out of existence. As stock traders know, there’s money to be made on the way up as well as on the way down.
Entrepreneurial selves must stay attuned to this kairotic flux, while those in relationships must reckon with how they rack up opportunity costs. According to Paolo Virno, contemporary subjects “confront a flow of ever-interchangeable possibilities” not to try to slow or divert it but to make themselves “available to the greatest number of these [possibilities], yielding to the nearest one, and then quickly swerving from one to the other.” (A Grammar of the Multitude). This anxious searching for possibilities has become, Virno argues, a “homogeneous ethos” based on “the universal opportunism demanded by the urban experience.”
In this, Virno follows sociologist Georg Simmel, who in his 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” recognized how the money economy fosters an intellect that is “indifferent to all genuine individuality, because relationships and reactions result from it which cannot be exhausted with logical operations.” Wherever money achieves preeminence, i.e. cities, it radically reshapes the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of the people who use it to organize their social relations not as ties but exchanges. The minds of intellectually sophisticated metropolitans become quite literally minds of money, full of the thoughts and judgments money would have, if it could have them.
The frenzy of these money-minded metropolitans is such that every facet of life is trampled underfoot. “In the last decades urban and social communities progressively lost their interest, as they were reduced to empty containers of humanity and joy in the relations they foster,” writes Franco Berardi in The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. At the level of the social, “sexuality and conviviality have been transformed into standardized mechanisms, homologated and commodified,” while at the level of the individual, “an anxious need for identity progressively replaced the singular pleasures of the body.” Quelle fucking drag, fucking ...
The ennui and anxiety of the latter-day metropolitan are on conspicuous display even in such a reputedly lowbrow cultural product as MTV’s The Jersey Shore, which recently ended a six-season run. On the show, the hedonism of the six “Guido” and “Guidette” housemates, though intense and relentless, appears joyless, almost workmanlike. For instance, the conversations between Mike “the Situation” — a nickname that indiscriminately applies to (a) Mike, (b) Mike’s toned abs, and (c) just about any impending set of circumstances promising indeterminate pleasure — and Ronnie, two alphamale cast members whose musk-inflamed horn-locking drives the show’s first season, frequently turn to the subject of “pounding out” women they meet in nightclubs or on the boardwalk. Though piquant, this expression suggests activity undertaken more out of obligation than inclination.
The male cast’s approach to an evening’s clubbing closely resembles a contractor’s approach to hanging cabinets or a plumber’s to a stopped toilet; they come off as too detached, too pragmatic, too metacritical to persuade you that they are absorbed in the moment. For them, the thrill, at once nerve-wracking and exhilarating, of meeting an attractive someone seems beside the point. Getting a woman’s attention is just one stage in the night’s business of eventual pneumatics — like putting a sedan on a lift and poking its undercarriage. Mike, Ronnie, Pauly D., and Vinny seem wholly uninterested in courtship as lived experience. To them it’s a game or, perhaps more accurately, the expected work of leisure.
Less representatives of their particular American subculture than creatures of their historical moment, The Jersey Shore cast, in their unsentimental sexual pragmatism, embody the general human disposition under neoliberalism. According to David Harvey, neoliberalism “proposes that human well being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms.” If human well-being includes sexual fulfillment, then sexuality is in need of deregulation, so it may become more responsive to entrepreneurial initiative. The Situation is exemplary in this respect. He does not content himself merely with patrolling the boardwalk and nightclubs for willing women. Even after he has brought potential partners back to the beach house, he sneaks away to scan the boardwalk from the second-story balcony to try to spot more prospects to invite in.
The Situation employs this stratagem with good reason: He is trying to establish a hedge position. This presents some risk, as changing his position, if done too obviously or abruptly, could make his current assets disappear. But if the more appealing investments he spots on the boardwalk prove unpromising, he can always retreat to his original position. This risk-taking disposition, however, has cumulative consequences. As Richard Sennett notes in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, “inherent in all risk is regression to the mean.” Though risk-tasking may feel as if you have set sail in unchartered waters for a fabled faraway land, it is more like hurtling blindly through a frigid, undifferentiated void. As Sennett puts it, “risk-taking lacks mathematically the quality of narrative, in which one event leads to and conditions the next.” No causality necessarily links one adventurous act to another. Each dice roll is random. The human mind hastens to “deny the fact of regression” by imposing on it the body, consistency and purpose that these acts otherwise lack. “The gambler … talks as though the rolls of the dice are somehow connected, and the act of risking thereby takes on the qualities of a narrative,” Sennett writes. Cast adrift on a vast ocean of chance governed disutility, the risk taker believes himself on a personal odyssey. Every day in his gambles, The Situation writes the book, if for no other purpose than to keep its pages turning.
The Situation’s hedging approach involves deceiving not only his potential partners but himself, the resulting fog of ignorance emblematic of capitalism in its current phase. The present economic order, as Michael Betancourt writes in “Theory Beyond Codes: Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism,” is one of “agnotologic capitalism” — that is, “a capitalism systemically based on the production and maintenance of ignorance.” Within such an order, ignorance occasions kairoi aplenty for microphysics-of-power-type opportunities, thanks to abundant “ideological blindness” and “the all-too-human desire to believe in positive scenarios such as the well known, but hypothetical ‘free lunch.’ ” At the same time, though, capitalism marshals ideological wishful thinking to create “limited horizons” that constrain “the range of potential solutions to those that reinforce the established dynamic.”
During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a futile act, because those who might hear you have already been persuaded to commit to a “biopolitical paradigm of distraction” that immerses them in “affective pursuits and fantasies of economic advancement.” Everyone is busy looking for or fantasizing about situations, for self-serving alternatives. Betancourt argues that “the creation of systemic unknowns where any potential ‘fact’ is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value renders engagement with the conditions of reality ... contentious and a source of confusion.” By way of such nihilistic sophistry “agnotology works to eliminate the potential for dissent.”
Daydream all you want, this ideology commands, only keep your feet moving on the hedonic treadmill. When compelled to pursue pleasure at any cost, pleasure becomes anything but. The sad economism of everyday life characterizes the Situation’s situation, and everyone else’s. Money is how you get rich, a lover how you get off. Markets in everything. Yet as the agnotological order becomes crippled by its aggravated contradictions, you receive an intimation, fragile as an onion’s skin and as slight as a whisper, of possibilities beyond any expectation, beyond any deception. “In reality, the decomposition of all social forms is a blessing,” announces the Invisible Committee in their 2008 manifesto, The Coming Insurrection, because it augurs “the ideal condition for a wild, massive experimentation with new arrangements, new fidelities.” Such experimentation may result in “the birth of troubling forms of collective affectivity,” all the more urgently needed “now that sex is all used up and masculinity and femininity parade around in such moth-eaten clothes, now that three decades of nonstop pornographic innovation have exhausted all the allure of transgression and liberation.”
But what forms can such experimentation take, when so much resistance is recuperated by capital as opportunistic hedging? Principled inaction seems to recommend itself as the course most impervious to the wheezing come-ons of a moribund order. In his book The Parallax View Slavoj Žižek presents Melville’s Bartleby as a worthy figure of resistance. The so-called Bartleby-parallax manages to avoid the whack-a-mole game of pseudo-negation, its programmatic “preferring-not-to’s” addressed to hegemonic and counterhegemonic practices alike. You must prefer neither to engage in alienated relationship work nor the self-defeating escapades of single life, or else remain ensnared in circuits of power that reinscribe prevailing sociopolitical relations. Bartleby and his emulators disrupt the proceedings by cultivating an inner disposition of refusal until possibilities arise that are not determined by the monogamy–promiscuity dialectic. This recommendation resembles Jean Baudrillard’s injunction to “be silent,” to choose mute obstinacy as means of refusal while consoling yourself that futility is inevitable until the possibility of true revolution messianically springs from the inchoate parallax gap of the Real.
This may put you in an uncomfortable situation — but what other choice do you have? Whether you fag on at flesh, forge ahead avowedly single, or labor through a relationship, you end up powering the standardized, homologated and commodified mechanisms that oppress you.
But if Guy Debord and his merry band had anything to teach the world, it is always to welcome impending situations, particularly those whose kairos may afford opportunity to rediscover the singular pleasures of the body in a way that doesn’t put money in someone else’s pocket.