competition and abjection: the end of socializing

(Incredibly, when I opened WordPress to publish this, I saw a link to this blog post.)

And says Bloom:
What I meant about tennis, for example, is the agility and training of the eye.

–James Joyce, Ulysses

For most people, myself included, the notion of “the good life” remains solidly stuck in a previous century. After all, if we think of the good life as consisting of a spacious house, a moderate amount of property, a thriving circle of family and friends, and a stable and rewarding occupation, we are holding to a semi-aristocratic ideal that has existed since at least the 18th Century, and which has not adapted itself to history. The aristocratic ideal is not democratic or egalitarian; not everyone can simultaneously enjoy such a life, and many of its pleasantest conditions absolutely depend (labor and resources being what they are) on the oppression of somebody else, elsewhere in the world. It may seem frustrating that religious fundamentalism has enjoyed such popularity and status in the 21st Century, but it shouldn’t be surprising: it is the socio-political response to an ongoing problem of scarcity. Our situation demands something of us — what, exactly, we don’t know.

Nonetheless, this demand resonates everywhere, and I am struck by the extent to which it affects contemporary socializing. An oppressive sense of superficiality and purposelessness pervades modern socializing. I am not making the old, Romantic critique of socializing, which positions itself on the outside, and complains about the empty noises of the crowd, or the vacuous conversation at a dinner-party, comparing them to the rich rewards of contemplation and solitary labor. Within socializing itself, there is a restlessness and a drive toward essentially anti-social modes — competition and abjection — whenever people can’t find something on which they can collaborate.

Take, for example, the strange case of Settlers of Catan. (If you’ve never heard of it, forgive me; it’s a somewhat nerdy game, but it’s also amazing how mainstream such nerdiness has become.) First of all, it’s an incredibly new game, historically speaking. It is not an isolated phenomenon, either: if a group of friends got together every week, they could probably spend the better part of a year playing all sorts of highly developed, completely novel games, many of which already have expansion packs, without ever playing the same game twice. This is exciting for three reasons: first of all, it allows everyone to collaborate on learning the game and mastering its basic strategies. Second, it implies a level playing field — in theory, nobody has the advantage of experience, so everyone has a chance of winning. Finally, the novelty of the game lends a certain air of importance.

“Settlers” is one of the most anti-climactic games imaginable. It is a race between parallel construction projects: each player tries to build up a simplified version of an empire. When any player reaches a certain level of empire, they win and the game is over. As one would expect in a 21st Century game, the restrictions are all based on resources: players need certain resources to build things, and there is a commodity market that allows them to trade one resource for another. Players also cannot build their empires too close to one another, creating a feeling of crowding/claustrophobia (as well as one of isolation, simultaneously) that lasts throughout the game. There isn’t metaphorical combat, as in chess, or a psychological element of trust/distrust, as in poker; you basically lounge around and pray for sufficient sheep.

Even when there is metaphorical combat, however, as with two people playing Scrabble or Mortal Kombat, there is either too much at stake or too little. The game of Scrabble, as with poker and chess, has become a game where too much is at stake: how you do at Scrabble, relative to your friends and loved ones, demonstrates how literate you are. This is despite the fact that Scrabble is not only a randomized game, but a game that employs a highly specialized vocabulary of its own (hint: anything involving the letter ‘q’), and one in which cheating is easy and rampant (especially if by “Scrabble” one means “Words With Friends”). I almost never play Scrabble, and I still have had many conversations where I’ve had to console friends over tough losses or opponents cheating.

With a game like Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, nothing is at stake: there is no practical relevance or benefit to being skilled at the game, so it’s unclear what it means (if anything) to be better or worse than a friend. The pain this causes is reflected in many, many films, from The Last Starfighter to that Netflix streaming atrocity about beer pong. Regardless, everyone’s expected to be a good sport, but this is frankly pretty difficult, and I can think of at least one person in every social group I’ve passed through who just couldn’t remain chill. I don’t really think this is their fault; in fact, a whole new element of socializing has become managing who can/will play what, how to prevent or negotiate around acts of petty sabotage or people taking personal offense, and the like. If the game requires impractical skills, someone complains that it’s a waste of time, and if it requires practical ones, someone pushes for a switch from Game A to Game B, so they can prove that they’re not a complete idiot.

The outliers here are club sports. These are a little different because they actually help people stay fit, but I think it’s fair to assert that they are tough to afford, and dominated by an extremely intense masculine culture, particularly in the case of racquet sports. Entourage, which was recently awarded The Nobel Prize by Salman Rushdie, satirizes this perfectly in the “ping-pong” episode.

It is the odd adventure of training for some kind of leisure decathlon that will never arrive.

We’ve been raised by television to believe we’ll all be rock stars or movie gods…but we won’t. We’re slowly learning this fact. And we’re very, very pissed off about it.
–“Tyler Durden” in Fight Club

Naturally, a lot of social events aren’t competitive; instead, they’re built around entertainment. I don’t know exactly what it was like to watch a movie 50 years ago, but I do know that a lot of our contemporary encounters with media leave us feeling abject. It’s pretty banal to point out that movie stars look beautiful and experience interesting things in their fictional lives, but it is a little stunning to consider how central that has become to our experience of what are (after all) works of art. The art itself reflects this: Ryan Gosling seduces Emma Stone by re-creating a scene from Dirty Dancing, and Zooey Deschanel bonds with her new roommates when they consent to watching Dirty Dancing with her. In Crazy Stupid Love, the point is how unnerving it is to be seduced by something that everybody finds seductive in the same way; in The New Girl, the point is that Dirty Dancing turns everybody (male and female) into a woman.

The unifying effect of watching Dirty Dancing brings up another point: with college behind them, people share themselves less readily, especially now that the Internet is turning America into a shame society. Therefore we end up having to cry together over the very personal things we know about Swayze and Baby. How long did it take Spotify to start offering “private browsing”? Not long — all this sharing was getting intimidating, since you listen to such stupid music. (I mean, come on, Sublime is not good.) While I respect the intentions behind those flow charts that tell you what to share on Facebook, their real message concerns what you shouldn’t post. We live in a culture dominated by the twin messages “Don’t be that guy” and “Don’t be a crazy bitch.” But in the absence of a project, there’s actually no great reason to submerge the personal so much, especially when doing so produces such a vacuum.

Therefore, the problem with couples making their lists of celebrity exceptions — you know, those lists where couples decide it’s OK for one of them to have a one-night stand with Tim Riggins or Lady Gaga or etc — is not that it shows a lack of fidelity. It has no effect on fidelity or commitment at all. The problem is how powerfully it suggests that our whole lives are, in effect, derailed versions of some sort of celebrity existence we ought to have had.

The Internet facilitates this trend by making background information exponentially more accessible. It’s not just that people want to be Don Draper or Nancy from Weeds; it’s that they can watch a show where none of the characters are “aspirational” and still aspire to be the show’s creator. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by a desire to be David Simon. Part of the reason this will never happen is that David Simon isn’t what he seems to be: we attribute all sorts of things to him (i.e. The Wire) that were actually the result of a massive team effort.


Do people hold “Glee” theme nights? Of course they do. Not only are the actors pretty, the sets colorful, and the sexual tension palpable, but the characters on Glee are perpetually engaged in something larger than themselves, something that gives them an opportunity to work together: performing musical numbers. This gives them a reason to find common ground, even when their personalities conflict, and to devise creative ways of resolving those conflicts and making use of everyone’s talent. It’s a corny show, but that’s the core that makes it so strong. “Community” is equally revealing: early in the show, the idea of a “study group” starts to wear thin, and now most of the episodes consist of the characters desperately trying to have fun (“scary” storytelling, playing Yahtzee) and/or nearly coming to blows.

Naturally, I’ve been to a few social events where people tried to get me to do arts and crafts, to create paintings on the spot, and that sort of thing, and of course I found them overly precious. There isn’t an immediate, obvious solution to these trends, at least as far as I can see. The Occupy movement is meaningful and social, but it won’t last forever. Moneyball was about collaboration, but working together on the job isn’t necessarily anything new. I’m not going to wander into the next game of Catan or the next group viewing of The Office and demand reform. Still, I know that there must be a sea-change. I love watching my friends play music, give readings, present conference papers, even more (admittedly) when it’s something I can do myself. I feel something I never feel when I play Catan: settled.

Sorrow implores: Go! — but all joy wants eternity.