I’m McLovin It: Sexuality in the Age of Advertising
(x-posted to The Valve)
The setting is a mojitos-and-burgers place in the Lower East Side: shaded, pricey, with outdoor seating and fresh guacamole. I’m there with two friends, two other women I’ve just met, and a guy who isn’t quite place-able: he may be on a date with one of the two women. The guy, who we’ll call Roger (courtesy of Roger Dodger), sees our waitress arrive, throws one arm around her waist, and says, “If I wasn’t gay, you’d be so mine.” Roger is not gay.
Shortly afterwards, almost without a segue, Roger launches into his own version of the “blonde” scene in A Beautiful Mind. The original is the epiphany that leads Russell Crowe’s John Nash to the “game theory” that will eventually earn him a Nobel Prize. In the film, a bunch of men are huddled around a table, trying to figure out how to approach a gorgeous blonde woman at the bar. Nash, generally clueless about socializing, suddenly realizes that the blonde is making everyone else feel inferior. If his friends chat up everyone else, they all walk away with a date. Nash tells everyone to opt-out of the sexual competition, albeit in a way guaranteed to make the blonde woman miserable.
The epiphany is foreshadowed earlier in the film, when Nash loses a game of go. “I played a perfect game,” he fumes. His opponent, laughing, disagrees, since if Nash had played perfectly, Nash would have won. Nash responds by sweeping the pieces onto the ground and shouting that the game is flawed.
Back to Roger. In his version, the story ends like this: “But then, if you see that the blonde is getting interested, then you have to figure out how to lose the brunette.” So long, game theory! It will turn out that Roger also doesn’t know A Beautiful Mind, having gotten all this elsewhere. The waitress comes back, and Roger says, “I’m sorry, I always get in this mood when we’re out together.” Like what?, the waitress asks, and Roger says, “Oh, so obnoxious and funny.”
Obnoxious and funny do not go together, and they’re not supposed to. Whoever came up with that line — almost certainly not Roger — is using the superstitious quality of moods, which are perpetually so ill-defined that they can mean anything, to set up the boast about being funny. I’m funny is defused by I’m obnoxious, just as you’d be mine was defused by I’m gay. Since obnoxious is an ambivalent term, used almost affectionately to describe people who compel attention and don’t mince words, it appears to be self-deprecating, but isn’t. Oh, and as for the first line, which cheerfully and cynically makes use of the stereotype of gay men as non-threatening:
Then turn to the girl you want and add, ‘If I wasn’t gay, you’d be so mine.’ -Neil Strauss, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists, page 22
In a lot of social circles, over the next few years, the majority of straight guys will simply turn into Roger, who is already a sort of photocopy. To a lesser extent, so will the gay guys and the women. One of the catalysts, though not the only one, will be The Game and the forthcoming movie based on it. (For those of you living under a rock: The Game is about a nerdy music journalist, Neil Strauss, who learned from a series of for-hire gurus how to be a seducer.) There will be a backlash — and frankly, it can’t come quickly enough — when everybody learns the new lines, and they become turn-offs. But this isn’t about lines per se: it’s about the evolution of sexuality in the context of economics and culture. Nor am I out to cheapen the discussion from the get-go with a lot of manufactured moral outrage. Roger’s not a terrible guy — the game is flawed, in ways that go far beyond Strauss’s book.
In the course of writing for The Valve and The Kugelmass Episodes, I’ve returned frequently to the cultural effects of a very practical problem: the expanding work week in the United States, the wage freeze, and the concomitant “Protestant work ethic” that has made it so difficult for the U.S. to achieve parity with Europe in terms of the impact of employment on quality of life.
In “Sexuality, Pop Culture, and Magic,” I wrote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the strange equations at its heart. Buffy puts reason and work on the side of life, and magic and sex on the side of death — or would, were it not for the fact that life needs its opposites. Life without death is the undeath of vampirism, and life without enchantment or desire is also undeath, as dry as dust. Magic comes to stand for the secret kinship (steeped in Freud) between irrational lusts for sex and blood, and the irrational core of love and passionate commitment. Life needs the irrational, the passionate, even if that has its secret springs in death. It needs the music as well as the words.
Subtly, this conflates work with reason: for Americans, and perhaps for Westerners more generally, the profitable is the rational. Should it turn out that productivity demands leisure, and romance, and feelings of enchantment, no problem: we’ll roll up our sleeves and figure out how to produce those things. Also at stake is the determination of unevenly privileged people, such as white male nerds and workaholics, to bring their social lives up to par with their professional success. Tomemos put it in terms of the difference between “those who use popular culture to supplement and enrich their lives and personalities, and those who use popular culture as their personalities,” with Strauss and his ilk falling squarely in the latter category, whether or not we inveigh against such acts of mimicry and experimentation. Whatever is impossible or imprudent, and thus can’t be produced, can be simulated. For a long time, the empire of advertising has been precisely that necessary bridge between the good life — vitality, pleasure, power, and diversion — and the world of the working stiff — exhaustion, duty, and routine. Starting now, however, advertising is poised to make a big acquisition: it will become not only the way that corporations speak to consumers, but also the paradigm for how people represent themselves to one another in private life.
One way in which the work ethic has historically entered private life is through the self-help book. Books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, or Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, posited absolutely no difference between personal and professional environments: what worked in one would work in the other. But, because Carnegie and Covey were both unwilling to grapple with advertising, they had little to say about the good life. Carnegie advised taking a keen interest in other people’s avocations, because that greased the wheels of business; Covey dismissed this with a shudder, and recommended a sort of New Age, “spiritual” leisure that he called “sharpening the saw.”
For the most part, then, your leisure was still up to you. Meanwhile, Carnegie and Covey are the absolute rulers of the workplace. When you read them now, there is an eerie feeling of recollecting every poster in every office, every excessively promoted “mission statement,” every injunction to smile. Covey has a funny sort of anxiety of influence where Carnegie is concerned. Like Carnegie, he wants sincerity over flattery, the genuine instead of the fake, and he sees Carnegie as a man employing “tricks” because he sees the other man more clearly than he sees himself. Both of them use tricks that, as a whole, constitute systems. Modern businesses effortlessly combine these systems: Carnegie’s bland politeness is the model for handling inter-corporate relations, while Covey’s contractual “stakeholder” model influences intra-corporate management and the rhetoric of success: Our company finds proactive ways to expand our effectiveness while remaining in harmony with our core values of honesty, responsibility, and mayonnaise. So, lest anyone read too darkly into the following discussions of private life, it is worth remembering that human interaction in the workplace is already standardized to the extent currently possible, and that the workplace determines what kinds of social products will be offered for consumption after hours.
“Your leisure is up to you” — what a terrible mistake. Nothing should be left up the consumer, because on the small scale, people don’t know what they want. If they did, there wouldn’t be terribly much for advertisers to do. On a larger scale, everyone knows exactly what they want: an entirely new life. So Dale Carnegie proclaims: “I’m talking about a new way of life” (27). On the new VH1 show The Pick-Up Artist, Neil Strauss’s friend Mystery tells his disciples, “This is about building a life.” (All competitive reality shows, and all makeover-style reality shows, are based on this craving for a new life via deus ex machina.) But on the small scale, product by product, interaction by interaction, there is no new life. There is a promise, a glimpse: enough of an interruption of normal life that the world stands still. That’s the soul of the advertisement.
In the pilot for the new advertising show Mad Men, which is (not coincidentally) also a sexist tour de force, the characters begin discussing Freud with an uptight German expert, and finally one adman says: “So we’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite?” The star of the agency throws her out of his office, but by the end of the show we learn that he feels eternally disappointed in life, eternally at sea. He’s Lord Byron, in truth, and that’s why his advertisements are so good.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy anyhow: it’s nice to be secretly thinking like a rebel, to have unsatisfied longings. It helps to be Byronic. Otherwise, no depth — and yet the depths are all the same, or else Don Draper’s ads could never work.
Rules, Rules, Everywhere
The sea change began with the advent of rules, on both sides of the heteronormative gender divide. Remember the discussion in Swingers about how long to wait before calling for a date? Maybe that was the first time the rules hit the mainstream. It was certainly a great example of the comeuppance tale: at the end of the movie, Vince Vaughn is in a hysterical state of self-delusion, confusing a mother playing with a baby for somebody hitting on him, and dancing offensively on top of a diner table. Jon Favreaux, the ordinary schlub who can’t get over his ex-girlfriend, turns out to be much more mature, and ends up with better romantic prospects.
Rules and the how-to language of personal relations have seeped into culture because we constantly interact with strangers. Rules are a way of making the bewildering tide of new people and new relationships comprehensible, bounded. If one were to try to deal with individuals on an individual basis, one would quickly drown. Rules are also nothing new: guides to etiquette and social success have been around a long time, but history casts its changing light on them. We are emerging out of a period when, through the influence of the counterculture, universality was inflected differently. Rather than taking shape as a set of rules for individual interactions, solidarity was founded radically, on divisions between old communities and new ones: screen romances, like The Graduate, or Bonnie and Clyde, or The Hustler, or even Rebel Without a Cause, portrayed two people who helped each other take shelter against the world. The scene in The Graduate where Benjamin Braddock bolts the church doors shut with a crucifix, imprisoning the adults inside, is much more unequivocal than the scene following, where he and Elaine Robinson sit nervously at the back of a bus. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas begins by looking for her late ex-boyfriend Pierce Invararity, and ends up discovering a secret society.
In short, the new comportment guides and the new flourishing of rules are signs of the retreat back to a more conservative world, constructed of smaller pieces: surviving daily social interaction, and trying at all costs to avoid permanent bachelorhood or spinsterhood. It is a world that lacks the political conscience of the original culture of rebellion. In the context of a longer working day, as well as a disruptive and predictable series of physical moves for middle- and upper-class Americans — college, first jobs, second jobs, and so on — it is very difficult to factor in the wishes of more than one other person. So contemporary sexuality is deep-dyed by the fact that for some people (male and female), having a committed relationship is not at all desirable, while for others, it is the only kind of relationship they can expect to remain consistent during their 20s and 30s. Even the worlds of swinging and “polyamory” are outgrowths of this renewed emphasis on the nuclear family model of caregiving, to the extent that caregiving and co-habitation can be separated from sexual monogamy. (For more on the romance of caregiving, I recommend the outstanding post on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” at Irrelevant Narcissism.)
However, we have a bad conscience about returning to rules, because it means downplaying the role of difference and individuality in social interactions. As a result, as I mentioned earlier, rules culture is steeped in fantasies of failure or punishment, and there are often echoes of the Commendatore punishing Don Giovanni. In The Tao of Steve, the main character eventually learns that his seducer’s rules stand between him and love, and the film ends happily with him in more “genuine” romantic pursuit. In real life, the film’s creator, Duncan North, made no such discovery, and the relationship failed. However, the plot arc of films like The Tao of Steve, Rodger Dodger, and Hitch do exactly what they are supposed to do: they reassure people that the rules don’t work when you’re really in love, even if the cost of making that point is sliding into territory so conventional that it would horrify Nora Ephron. It becomes possible for a blogger like thinkinggirl to write, after reading about a pick-up artist clone, “Didn’t these people see Hitch?” The modern climate is so retributory that Jude Law’s Alfie, who is mostly guilty of being an opportunist, is treated with vastly more anger than Michael Caine’s actually loathsome original.
In Wedding Crashers, also about rules and scams, the punishment plot doesn’t even cohere. In his supposed speech of apology, Owen Wilson can’t stop himself from calling the original scammer, now a funeral crasher, a “genius,” and the film ends with all the principals crashing weddings, in a big sentimental celebration of sameness.
The worst offender in this new series of morality tales is actually The Game, since Strauss is the one who appears to have stuck the match and lit the powder keg when it comes to new scams. The Game begins with Strauss’s guru Mystery on the verge of committing suicide, and throughout the book Strauss tries as hard as he can to portray Mystery (who now has his own TV show) and the other “pick-up artists” as too steeped in darkness to thrive. Strauss himself, on the other hand, is just a nice guy who has trouble with the ladies, and after he learns the rules of the game, he then abandons all of them in order to have a truly meaningful relationship with Courtney Love’s bassist. All of this is well and good, except for the fact that Strauss’s girlfriend now helps him promote the book, claiming that Strauss’s journey of self-transformation was probably a necessary pre-requisite for their relationship. The real people use the rules to intrigue us about the book, and the book uses a conventional ending, starring those same folks, to reassure us that the rules don’t matter.
Of course, in addition to this, that, and the salsa teacher’s lessons in L’Auberge Espagnole, there are also the bestselling books that together comprise The Rules, a guide for young women trying to meet and marry “Mr. Right.” Slavoj Zizek, who never seems to miss an opportunity to analyze something, had this to say:
‘Rule Girls’ are heterosexual women who follow precise rules as to how they let themselves be seduced (accept a date only if you are asked at least three days in advance etc). Although the rules correspond to customs which used to regulate the behaviour of old-fashioned women actively pursued by old-fashioned men, the Rule Girls phenomenon does not involve a return to conservative values: women now freely choose their own rules – an instance of the ‘reflexivisation’ of everyday customs in today’s ‘risk society’.
What Zizek misses in his analysis is that The Rules is not an example of reflexive choosing. Instead, it is an example of the fundamentalist response to the perceived threat of nihilism, a phenomenon entirely familiar as the pattern of contemporary religious fundamentalism. With a full view of the supposedly crumbling edifices of courtship and marriage, the Rule Girl tries to cleave ever more perfectly to the old rituals because the alternative is chaos. This is not represented as a free choice; it is a personal necessity (unless you want to be an old maid) and a social responsibility (loose women are letting the whole sex down).
It’s a very bad idea to think of fundamentalism as ineffectual merely because it is short-sighted and hysterical. It’s also hard to know where to begin with The Rules, even if one leaves aside its faux-Victorian crimes against the English language: “After all, modern women aren’t to talk loudly about wanting to get married” (5). Advice like “On the date itself, be quiet and reserved” (37), is a form of deeply patriarchal silencing, and one that could very well have an effect opposite the one intended if the man likes expressive women. There is a lot of advice about how to conform: what magazines to read, what to wear, what kind of haircuts to get. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the book thinks of courtship and marriage as such totally different, practically unrelated things that it sets the stage for very unhappy marriages, brought down by revelation after unexpected revelation.
There are certain superficial resemblances with The Game. The Rules pretends to be the inspiration for an underground movement, and advises leaving ‘em wanting more, which as far as I can tell is advice that began with the vaudeville circuit. More important are the two paradoxes at its heart, paradoxes rooted in the painful and irritable aloneness that all modern people know, and the despairing preference for aloneness. The first is expressed here, in one of many representative sentences:
Act independent [...] Go to the movies, to the shopping mall. Just go. This will make him desperate to catch a minute of your time [...] Men love independent women because they leave them alone. (120, italics mine)
To love and be loved is to be absent and inattentive. It is hard to imagine, beneath the bubbly tone, a more desolate message. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider write, “A relationship with a man is different from a job” (11). Then they write, “We believe in treating dating like a job” (57). A riddle: what is and is not a job at the same time? Advertising, the collective dream chest. Or, as Fein and Schneider put it in a chapter heading:
But First the Product — You!
“But remember,” Mystery said sternly. “You are no longer Neil Strauss. When I see in you in there, I want you to be someone else. You need a seduction name.”
–Neil Strauss, The Game
EVAN: The guy’s either going to think ‘here’s another guy with a fake ID,’ or here’s McLovin, the 25-year-old Hawaiian organ donor.
FOGELL: I am McLovin.
“I’m Lovin’ It” is a single by Justin Timberlake. Released in 2003, the Neptunes-produced track was used as theme for McDonald’s same-titled advertising campaign.
The real glory of the McLovin character in Superbad is not so much that he thinks he’s a badass, despite being a dork. That’s a film cliché and an easy laugh; it was also true of two different characters in Can’t Hardly Wait, for example. The genius part is the name itself, “McLovin,” which conflates two different McDonald’s branding campaigns. The reason it has been so easy for people like Mystery to become gurus is that marketing was always already the paradigm for their invented selves.
Authenticity and Twee
For me, the happy medium is Twee: a return to the pleasures of holding hands, of shyness—but a shyness that is always one step away from hooking up. It’s conservative in its rejection of balls-out hedonism, but revolutionary in its rejection of the personal=political baloney. It gives us our relationships back wrapped in a light cloth of ethics: “be kind” is always the hidden message of Twee.
–Luther Blissett, comment to the Valve
Originally: ‘sweet’, dainty, chic. Now only in depreciatory use: affectedly dainty or quaint; over-nice, over-refined, precious, mawkish.
–OED definition of ‘twee’
Of course, there are many currents of reaction against all of these “manuals.” To my mind, the most significant reaction is not back towards some other ordinariness — what would that even mean? Cosmo? Maxim? — but towards a certain formulated sort of sweetness and awkwardness that pokes through everywhere in our culture. In pop music, it’s sometimes called twee or emo.
Thinking Girl writes:
Where is there any room for honesty, for authentic feeling (beyond sexual arousal)? With all the trickery going on here, we only distance ourselves further from the chance for anything genuine at all.
The question is what this romantic honesty will look like — what clothes, so to speak, it will wear. For the time being, we have our answer: it will resemble the films of Zach Braff and Wes Anderson, the music of Belle and Sebastian and Bright Eyes, and the continuing literary aftershocks of The Catcher in the Rye. There will be people who give up on clubs, bars, and what they tend to call “irony,” embracing gentler modes of interaction, slower and more tentative means of courtship.
I re-printed Luther’s comment because I still like it. Works of art, and ways of life, that put kindness and compassion first are moving, and have every right to be. Unlike The Rules, which are sad without realizing it, an unshakable melancholy runs through oeuvre of these new romantics, offering solace for unexpressed feelings, and a sort of respite from the pitiless march forward.
At the same time, this model is not a stable one; it is, at its best, a kind of mood. Let’s run with the work metaphor for a second: imagine you had a job where, in order to do it right, there had to be all kinds of delays, breakdowns, and failures. It would be unbearably confusing at first, and then it would turn into pure performance: the competent performance of incompetence. Nonetheless, this is the operative model for authenticity: EXPECT FREQUENT DELAYS. It produces paralysis. Some of you may have seen the new indie film Once, a romantic musical where, for no particular reason besides mutual indecision and awkwardness, the romance peters out and dies. Or look at the role of sex in The Catcher in the Rye: Holden has a lot of unsatisfied longing, but virtually nothing happens to him except a crash landing in a seedy hotel, where he watches a couple spurt water onto each other and gets into trouble with a prostitute and her pimp. We sympathize with his dislike of Stradlater and Ernie, but the truth is that all the while he’s dreaming of playing a woman’s body “like a violin.” He’s a confused teenager, and it’s distortive to reduce him down to his hatred of phonies.
When the paralyzed teenager matures into the paralyzed adult, the results are just nauseating. Everywhere Zach Braff shows up, he plays the same character: a hapless, sweet guy who needs one or several take-charge women to shape him up and help him resolve his issues. In Scrubs, the pain this causes is relieved by Dr. Cox, who, like Dr. Gregory House, is Humphrey Bogart rather than Holden Caulfield. In Garden State, nobody does show up to make things better, and Natalie Portman has to work so hard that, were it not for her epilepsy helmet, her head would probably explode.
The worst element of the new romantic movement is its regressive tendency. Even the “sweet” core of comedies like Superbad, Napoleon Dynamite or American Pie is inseparable from the emphasis on adolescence. Watching movies and television shows (i.e. The OC) about high school is reassuring because it makes us feel as though we’ve earned the right to look back with a knowing chuckle on when we were as naive as all that. But, as I suggested in my earlier post on reflexivity, this distance doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere: on its own, it isn’t capable of creating new content. Holding hands isn’t even something 12-year olds do that much; the omnipresence of hand-holding as an image of innocent childhood romance disguises the fact that, at least in terms of cultural representations, emotional dynamics don’t change that much between 18 and 28. What changes, out of necessity, is the level of concern with practical matters. There’s nothing particularly sweet about the romantic quest in Sex and the City, for example, and the message certainly isn’t “be kind.” Thus the nostalgia for adolescence is as desperate as it is superior, because what adolescence really represents is a period when there was enough time, and enough unknowns, that romances felt less arranged. In absence of that real slow time, we are back to simulation and the montage promises of the commercial.
In other words, the problem isn’t honesty. From a certain smarmy point of view, it’s honest to go around telling people you want to sleep with them. The problem is that people are trying to meet perceived sexual and romantic needs in the midst of demanding, or else unsatisfying, waking lives, and doing so under conditions of continual unfamiliarity. You can hurry love, but not without changing it in the process.
This is not to say that honesty is impossible. There are lots of honest artists out there, if by that one means something like “articulate memoirists.” It’s just that our definitions of honesty are inseparable from our ideas about self-understanding: distinctively honest artists produce confessions and acts of self-therapy from inside their own private worlds. Their subject is still aloneness, and there’s nothing necessarily sexual about it, or even honest when it comes to other people:
Can’t you see I’m trying
I don’t even like it
I just lied to get to your apartment
Twee can be, as the saying goes, pulled off quite easily. It can be acted. One of the best twee songs out there, “We’re Going To Be Friends,” which was used during the opening credits for Napoleon Dynamite, was performed by the White Stripes, who are also heavy into sleazy, macho electric blues. And we’re still in a world of name brands: the White Stripes developed a color scheme (the same candy-cane motif as Target) and a gossip scheme (brother/sister? husband/wife?). As for Napoleon Dynamite, well, you’ve seen the T-shirts. We encourage you to vote for Pedro.
The Chickens Come Home To Roost: The Game
In the new world of advertising, the advertisers are, like you, alienated from their own mediums. They’re not corny, and they’re not trying to be plain-spoken. Gone are the days of the serious confidante with the sensible haircut, who looks straight at the camera and tells you how many doctors prefer Tylenol. Modern commercials are absurd and often extremely indirect; in order to know what the product is, you might have to go to the website (as with the Lincoln/beaver ads for sleeping pills, with the tagline “They miss you”), or you might have to wait until the final second of a 30-second ad. The new ad for Herbal Essences shampoo subverts the traditional image of a woman tossing her glossy hair with a grungy biker tossing his glossy hair. If a commercial is going to go vulgarly over-the-top, like the Axe deodorant ads where a thousand women rush one man spraying it on, there will be a ludicrous Ben Hur soundtrack to let you know that Axe Corp. also finds it all quite silly.
So our response to advertisements has softened. We resent them less, and periodically even recommend them to each other. In addition, we tend to act as though the matter of advertisement has been settled. We accept its omnipresence, and we accept that certain demographics (including politicians and performers) will always be on the hustle. For example, it is obvious to everyone that the “contest” between rappers 50 Cent and Kanye West over album sales is a sales ploy, but no-one resents them for putting on the pageant.
Now, of course, it’s irritating if somebody gives you the hard sell. Nobody wants another round of the Dale Carnegie school of aggressively friendly networking. But then nobody wants to see an old school, “trust 4 out of 5 experts” advertisement either. A guy like Mystery isn’t modeling himself after John D. Rockefeller. He’s modeling himself after Prince; who says other guys can’t change their names just because they don’t have recording contracts? Rock stars and movie stars don’t have the same names as other people, don’t dress like other people, and don’t act like other people; they fulfill all kinds of fantasies, most of which are on display on American Idol (not to mention America’s Next Top Model, from which Mystery’s show shamelessly cribs). But again, American Idol depends on a line drawn between contestants and non-contestants, winners and losers, which exists only through the show’s own arbitrary structure. There are no fixed limits on who gets to simulate being a rock star, and who doesn’t. So Mystery tells people to change their names, to dress like rock stars (“peacock theory”), and to act with the diffidence of a celebrity. At the end of Superbad, the cops pretend to be dragging McLovin off to jail so that he will have more cred.
There are also none of the usual guardrails up, that would otherwise make behavior predictable and boring. An opening line isn’t going to sound like an opening line, just like an ad won’t look like an ad. The line will be stolen from one of the woolgathering monologues in Sex and the City: “Is kissing cheating?” (from “The Cheating Curve”). Or it will be just random, about a barfight, or flossing, or something else left-field and non-sexual. A straightforward question, like “What do you do?”, will get an indirect, absurdist answer, because small talk is boring.
Since the pick-up artists in The Game have nothing to sell but themselves, they become cultural flypaper, gleefully adopting whatever language of connection and empathy they can get from self-help books, and then glazing the whole thing with irony: normally, I’d feel embarrassed to say this, but with you I can talk openly. There was a recent ad campaign for Bacardi where the drinker took a sip, and was (per usual) transported to a world of music, dancing, and gorgeous people. At the end of the ad, it turned out that this whole Xanadu was imaginary — the ad itself owned up to it. Bacardi can make you feel like there’s a party going on, even though there probably isn’t. So, too, a pick-up artist can talk to you about his dream of sipping ouzo in Corfu, and then, if somebody calls him on it, exclaim with ironic sophistication: “I know! It will probably never happen, but it’s nice to think about, isn’t it?”
When I talk about “the chickens coming home to roost,” I mean that every structure designed to compensate for the absence of real understanding can be appropriated. Strauss writes,
“I have to ask you guys: How long have you known each other?” I began.
“About six years,” one of the girls said.
“I could totally tell.”
“Rather than explain, I’ll give you two the best friends test.”
The girls leaned in toward me, thrilled by the idea of an innocuous test. Guys in the community have an expression for this phenomenon: I was giving them “chick crack.” Most women, they say, respond to routines involving tests, psychological games, fortune-telling, and cold-reading. (159)
Yes, how disgusting. But that’s not the only thing to take away from the anecdote. As a whole society, we are thrilled by personality tests and the like. You might not be into tarot, just like you might not be into Limp Bizkit, but in that case the Asperger’s Test could be right for you. The men in Strauss’s world aren’t going to go up to anyone and ask their sign — that’s both too obvious and too open-ended. But the wealth of superstition, and the intense hunger for easily obtained self-knowledge, are there waiting to be exploited. It’s just not true that one can play around with, “bracket,” a belief in the supernatural, magic, New Age speculation, or more rigorous-looking things that work like magic — personality tests, number games, and so on. Inevitably, in the equally bracketed world of the personal, all of it will reappear as someone’s deliberate creation. The British mentalist Derren Brown performed a trick where he obtained handprints, birthdates, and a personal object from people in New York, the UK, and Barcelona. He then gave them a personalized psychic reading, which many participants claimed was both highly specific and very accurate (90% or more). Brown gave all of them an identical reading.
Conclusion: Coming Soon To A Theater Near You
In the final instance, [love] amounts to modern society’s radicalization of the difference between personal and impersonal relationships. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that this difference can be experienced in every social relationship: impersonal relationships are ‘only’ impersonal relationships. Personal relationships are overburdened by the expectation that one will be in tune with the person, and this often dooms such relationships to failure — which in turn only serves to intensify the quest for them and makes the inadequacy of exclusively impersonal relationships all the more apparent.
…This could mean that, contrary to earlier claims, a deeper understanding of love is hardly a suitable guide nowadays to entering into or warming to an intimate relationship. Notions based on exchange that have been blocked out of the code of real love may be more suited to this task, although it is impossible to specify how selflessness and an orientation to the other person could become embedded in a broader and deeper understanding of exchange.
…Other approaches often question how it is even possible to initiate personal communication in public situations and given the brevity of contact which is to be expected in such cases.
-Niklas Luhmann, Love As Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, 161-162
As with the advertisement, the history of the film trailer has become more interesting in the last ten years than for fifty years preceding. Trailers are easily available: you can watch them from home, you can collect them (by downloading them to your computer or buying the film on DVD), and they have even developed their own logic of tension and fulfillment, over and above the tension and expectation they create for the film itself. The studio will release a “teaser” trailer, which creates an appetite for the full-length trailer. The notion of showing up on time to a movie has become showing up for around 20 minutes of trailers, including as a lead-up to feature presentations that might not be 90 minutes long.
The trailer has become reflexive; there are now trailers, like those for Comedian and The Ten, that are satires of other trailers. Trailer voice-overs are now subverted or used parodically. Also like advertisements, the medium has become respectable, and it is perfectly normal to recommend a trailer just as you would any other piece of media. In short, the trailer as a form has taken on its share of cultural significance, influencing culture in ways different from movies. What had to happen, happened with Grindhouse: numerous trailers for films that have not, nor will ever be, actually made. This is how seduction works in The Game. It is a series of calculated gestures towards something that isn’t there — brave, glamorous, emotional life, life anew.
Attempts to re-codify intimacy over the long run, like The Rules, can achieve only limited success. The project isn’t original, and in a society that (consciously, at least) resists codification, anybody who is trying to use rules of any sort will seem desperate and inauthentic. New pick-up lines will be used up and discarded, and even body language will perhaps become a contested and intentional field.
However, what Luhmann calls the “radicalization of the difference between personal and impersonal relationships” will continue, and the world of the personal “connection” will continue merging with the world of excess and spectacle, which has likewise been excluded from the impersonal world and its ethic of efficiency. The emotive pop star is already this synthesis.
What appears to Luhmann as the possibly insoluble question of “how it is even possible to initiate personal communication in public situations” has been solved by the romantic equivalent of the trailer: cold-readings, flights of fancy, and acts of comradely ironic distantiation that all serve to simulate commonality through the fantasy of a good life, a shared life…and not only to simulate it. There is real commonality in the fact that the world is increasingly standardized and interconnected — crashing a wedding is not only possible, but desirable in a world where the same things go over everywhere. The ecstasy of Wedding Crashers is in the fact that Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s characters do not merely blend in, sampling the caviar. They are at the center of the event, making toasts and balloon animals. It is imaginable that people would one day hire wedding crashers, just as they currently hire musicians and wedding planners. In a sense, Derren Brown’s marks were right to praise the accuracy of his psychic readings.
Considering the wretchedly lonely people who are picked as contestants for shows like The Pick-Up Artist, and considering the heartbreaking losses that cry out from every word of The Rules, it would be easy enough to end up on a note of wry sufferance, as Peter Guralnick does at the beginning of his exceptional study of Elvis, “In the end, there should be nothing shocking about human existence, because, in the end, whatever has occurred is simply human” (Last Train to Memphis xiv). But then I consider how well a pity party of this sort begs the question. After all, a survey of misogynistic male bloggers in the UK Observer ended like this: “I’m kind of wryly charmed. Maybe, once you get past the prostitutes and the posturing, even with these tough guys, all you need is love.” It reminds me of the useless psychologisms that dilute Strauss’s study of Mystery, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s study (in Magnolia) of Tom Cruise’s Frank Mackey: they weren’t loved enough as children, poor dears.
Or, on the other hand, I could side with conservative philosophers like Harry G. Frankfurt, who argued in On Bullshit that Americans are increasingly indifferent to the truth-value of discourse; inevitably, he would see seducers and rules-mongers as a monkey wrench gang that wants words and signifying acts to have power independent of the world, of the way things “really are.” But this betrays my own feeling that we do, in fact, inhabit fictions, and that the value of those fictions is determined in large part by our happiness, rather than by their fidelity to a vast and impersonal truth.
Instead, I will end by suggesting that the intertwined phenomena of individuality and intimacy are both vastly expensive fictions: expensive in time, and rich in failure. In the truest sense of the term, they are luxuries. Luhmann considered it “impossible to specify how selflessness and an orientation to the other person might become embedded in a broader and deeper understanding of exchange.” It isn’t enough to hold the line against seduction, or chicanery, or the irrational: the game is flawed. There is a chicken-and-egg problem here. I don’t see how we can embrace the larger fictions of selflessness and devotion without greater security, equality, and leisure, things one person cannot have at another’s expense. Nor do I see how, without that, we can hope to supplant the stingy, stagey drama of practiced interaction with something finer — as Yeats expressed it, with something wrought of high laughter, loveliness, and ease.