On Rationalizing Love: Commodification, Individualism & Virtualization

I. PROLOGUE

Experiencing late capitalism and the turbulence of accelerated sociocultural, technological political and economic change, shifts – unparalleled in any other historical era – imbues nearly every aspect of human life with a particular set of psychosocial phenomena to navigate. These transformative conditions structure our emotional and social lives and little success can be found in compartmentalizing global consumer capitalism from the interiority of oneself. Modes of interaction and emotional experience are managed and produced through political and sociocultural conditions, thus, intimate relationships cannot be separated from the dominant economic structure in which they take place. Consumer capitalism and the subsequent commodification of both the object and subject shapes conceptions and experiences of romantic connection in its image. Our ability love and be loved must be interrogated in this context.

How is romantic love constructed in a commodity exchange economy? Do we, on explicit and implicit levels, employ a cost-benefit analysis in pursuit of an ambiguous and idealized qualitative phenomena? By mirroring capitalistic frameworks for assessment in maximizing rewards and minimizing costs we attempting to calculate and quantify the wholly qualitative experience of love. The deployment of social exchange theory in the field of love necessarily attempts to rationalize something seemingly irrational and complex. Does an exchange-based romantic rationality consequently attempt to commodify the experience of love and thereby commodify the lover himself?

This paper attempts to unfold the ways in which love and lovers themselves have been rationalized and commodified and how the relationship between capitalist values, virtualization and love intersect. To do this, I intend to analysis the virtual dating program, ‘LovePlus’ in Japan through the an analytical perspective centered on the rationalization of love. The limitations to this topic register as the inability to quantitatively measure love as it undergoes commodification. While an analysis of dating apps can suggest attempts to rationalize love, the experience of feeling commodified or exchangeable as a lover cannot be directly examined, only theorized and empathetically understood. 

As casual sex gains normative power and the pool of potential lovers grows ever more available and unattached, individuals who were socialized to understand sex and love in a specific way, are now coerced into a new structure of feeling and interaction, leaving them no match to the thousands of interested stranger’s at their lover’s fingertips. This, I believe is a symptom of the ‘tinder-industrial complex’, a mechanism that functions with legitimacy in the context of sexualized, consumptive-style capitalism. This is a topic should encourage one to critically employ a reflexivity with regards to love as the most fundamental elements of existence as it is experienced under late capitalism in order to fully grasp honest intentionality with love, ideals and reality. It is essential we begin articulating the psychosis of a life spent internalizing and participating in a capitalist value system by relating this experience to our current ability to love and be loved in post-modernity. We need to question how our motivates are shaped by hegemony and place ourselves as reflexive actors in this construction.

II. SYNTHESIS

In the West, a growing cultural trend within monogamous dyadic relationships is that of a love conceptualized on the basis of mutual attraction or romantic love (Buss: 1989, 496). This is a departure from traditional dyadic coupling as purely economic strategy. In the most explicit sense, this departure signals a shift away from commodification of the concept of love and the subject himself; a progression from a necessity-based pairing survival mechanism and perhaps predictive of a more authentic desire motive. However, romance as it is popularized and understood as an aspiration, theory or ideal, still exists as an mode of interaction imagined and undertaken in the context of capitalism. An interrogation of this ideal should deconstruct the components of romantic love as they reflect value systems under consumer capitalism. Therefore, love itself, or at least the idea of love must be understood in the context of capitalism.

With increasing individualism, accompanied by compulsive self-management developing alongside a pronounced emphasis on optics with ubiquitous modes of online expression dominating our perception of self and others, love is caught in between. In this psychosocial space, love is commodified and rationalized in a system that prioritizes self-interest and promotion and social meritocracy via reputation and performance.

How then, do we navigate the world of proximity dating apps, sacralized identity, and virtual lovers while grasping at an abstract ideal? [I argue that identity has been sacralized, at the unconscious level, as a means replicate the self as the form of the commodity, in order to signal status through hierarchical modes of being, ie. ‘identities’. The concept of identity has taken flight as one of the primary anxiety-controlling mechanisms necessary to cope in a hyper-individualized capitalist consumer culture.] When love resonates in collective consciousness as the highest of ideals, how do we pursue it outside of internalized consumeristic paradigms? How do we distinguish a genuine feeling of ‘love’ when it is presented almost exclusively as a means to an end?

First, however, defining love may be useful. Love, in its ideal form, is “the constellation of behaviours, cognitions, and emotions associated with desire to enter and maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.” (Aron & Aron: 1996, 47) Literature on love as it exists in the context of capitalism spans the theoretical spectrum. However, studies which capture the particular relational dynamics of romantic dyads today, as they negotiate the rules of relatively new concepts like ‘hook-up culture’ ‘no-strings attached’, dating apps and dating simulations are limited. Thus, it is useful to determine the ways in which the conditions of social reality are reflected in our modes of accessing and expressing love. As Foucault describes, “discourses of relationships do in fact reflect and complement the sociopolitical discourse of an era”, and thus it is essential we uncover both. (1982, 171) Although the discourse on love may feel ahistorical through the naturalization of love as an intuitive, fixed concept, love, or at least our conceptualization of love and it’s function has shifted and continues to do so rapidly.

Research in evolutionary psychology suggests a significant cultural transformation in the order of priorities considered when individuals select a long-time partner wherein the increasing value of physical attractiveness and importance of good financial prospects suggests a reconfiguration of romance itself. (Buss: 1989, 499) Prioritizing beauty and wealth in the pursuit of romantic relationships points to values held at the sociopolitical realm as well. This, could perhaps we understood in the terms of rationalization; the rationalization of love. (Ionescu-Tugui: 2014, 331) Foucault understands that as society and culture becomes imbued with rationality, the subject himself undergoes a transition at the psychic level in which he sees himself and the other in terms of maximizing efficiency and reward. (1982, 171)

Through the theoretical lens of social exchange, value-based rationality centering on physical attractiveness and wealth, potentially undermines the multiplicity that the notion of love can contain. Ionescu-Tugui articulates this rationalization by stating that “there is a transition, from “moral, sentimental, localized, particular, intimate, ascribed, enduring, conventional, consistent, and based on intrinsic attachments to societal relations who are artificial, contractual, interested, partial, ego-focused, specialized, superficial, inconsistent, fluid, short-term and impersonal.” (2014, 326) Love, through this position, becomes fragmented and captured in the possibilities of pure self-interest and outcome maximization. Rationalizing love through the prism of the ego develops a narrow understanding of romance itself. Romantic love, a relatively new concept in human history, is directed towards a pattern that transfixes importance on the individual subject – it individualizes the process of romance and situates in the unstable process of self-service.

The ideological conditions under capitalism seeks to disarm collectivity and construct a society of individuals. What is this individualistic romanticism rooted in? Well, the “empowerment of romantic lovers was enabled by the emergence of capitalism and complementary changes in politics, economics, darwinian science and Christian-Protestantism, all of which functioned to construct a bounded, competitive, mobile individual.” (Barri: 2011, 15)

Development of a self-concept tied almost exclusively to an individualized awareness of the self, separate from the Other and the collective, yields concerning effects on romantic love. The growing dominance of the discourse of romantic love during the 19th and 20th centuries coincides with the emerging emphasis on the individual. (Barri: 2011: 11) The collision of individualist prerogatives under capitalism with an insistence on romantic mutual love, resting on the values of attractiveness and wealth, elicits a transactional approach to love, with the individual placed in the center. Barri suggests, that by “promoting the right-to-personal happiness over kinship obligations, romantic love endorsed the new individualism and undermined the power of the extended family. (2011, 15) Pronounced individualism and the “right” to pursue interests solely from within this framework develops in response to increasing affluence and expanding industrialization in the West that parallels rising divorce rates, support for later age marriage and a society of more single people. (Miller: 2014: 11)

In a society of single individuals, expected to seek romantic companionship, a new emphasis on self-expressivity and romance is accompanied by emphasis on seeking adventure in the new marketplace. (Turner: 1998, 115) Pulsing through these three components characterizing the current discourse on love: individualism, romance and the market, is an outcome almost unavoidable – the commodification of love, and subsequently the lover himself. Sociologist Eva Illouz suggests that we incessantly romanticise commodities and thus I propose that we unavoidably commodify romance. (2009)

As it exists, commodification of love is part of the American Dream, as it functions to sell tourism, leisure and pleasure through advertising. (Turner: 1998, 116) Love, in this sense, is envisaged by the language of consumption. (Heelas: 2008, 82) The language of consumption, characterized by value-maximization, self-expressivity, individual endeavour, and commodification tempts the subject to frame the romantic experience in these terms. The ideology and embrace of capitalism is couched in the comfort afforded through consumption – the ability to choose and place one at the center of each and every choice is undoubtedly enticing. When consumption becomes interpreted as not only a means to an end, but a central way of life, a paradigm through which each subject and object is viewed through, is takes on interpersonal consequences. Theorist Zygmunt Bauman contends that consumption is steadily becoming the moral focus of life. (1992) In these moral conditions, it is no wonder that the lover is compartmentalized as various ‘traits’ with associated potential rewards, and understood as an extension of the self, rather than another whole entity in itself.

Thus, it can be accounted for that capitalism and the commodification of love, induces a transient approach to finding love in which one individual essentially consumes the accumulation of values (beauty, wealth) within another. The deployment of choice in capitalism sees to it that each will choose on the basis of their own evaluations of their own subjectivities to satisfy their own preferences. (Ekstrom: 2004, 82) The dyad is, more often than not, a severed pair -a transactional joining of two subjectivities, separate and invested in “mutual-benefit” rather than, perhaps a more fluid and less consumptive self-conscious fuse.

According to cultural romantic scripts, “falling in love” is supposed to have no social or economic logic. (Turner: 1998, 116) And yet, the transactional nature of love in the modern era uses money as sign of emotional interest, imbuing the romantic psyche with notions of self ‘worth’ and mate-value fixed in currency. The language of romance, with axioms of “investing” in a lover to prove dedication, operates as to further commodify both love and the lover. In the confines of this language, the subject comes to understand their position in terms of exchange where the complexity, charm and synergy shared between two people can be reduced to a relation of reciprocity and currency. Theorists posit that partners operating through ‘rational-choice’, who weigh pros and cons of engaging in and maintaining certain relationships, are applying economic theory to social behaviour. Evidence of this dynamic flood research investigating cultural patterns in romantic relationships.

While attraction is typically the basis for instigating a relationship in the West, there is evidence to suggest that at large, women attend to resources and men to looks when seeking partners. (Miller: 2014, 101) Thus, the exchangeability of feminine beauty and youth for masculine status and resources demonstrates again, the rationalization of love as it works to measure and compare the value embedded in deeply complex and nuanced human beings. Indeed, research suggests “ugly men” needing to earn $186,000 more in annual income in order to attract as much attention from women as attractive men.” (Miller: 2014, 97)

So while romance is ideally perceived as naturally occurring, unrestrained and the expression of two agentic forces, the materiality of romance as it exists under late capitalism determines that cupid’s arrow is perhaps guided by socioeconomic factors instead.

Rationalizing love through an exchange approach, is arguably hollowing out the most intuitively dynamic, personal and mythicized elements of human experience. However, this process is further problematized by the virtualization of love occuring in only the last few years. With one in four couples meeting online in the U.S., cyber dating culture must interrogated as it exists in the juncture of consumer capitalism, and shifting cultural norms involved in the romantic trajectory. (Miller: 2014, 73)

Online dating takes the matching hypothesis, a tendency for human beings to match in overall attractiveness, and literalizes it (Miller: 2014, 88). As the ultimate expression of rationalizing love, websites like eHarmony sell clinical compatibility to  users. By taking inventory, quantifying virtues, characteristics, interests, desires, goals and social status to measurably account for the essence of an individual, online dating websites construct representations of the calculated human being and try to locate a compatible representation of somebody else.

Infusing objectivity into the realm of romance may afford users an experience of security, complemented by the assurance that the “one” is indeed out there, and complies with their personal desires and aspirations. According to social exchange theory, we seek to maximize rewards and minimize costs and online dating, in terms of time and energy, offers equal reward at minimal cost. It is not difficult to regard the influx of online dating in the discourse on romance as a positive evolution towards maximized happiness and compatibility.From another angle however, the necessary quantifiability of the self and subsequent representation as a list of facts, likes and dislikes, images and location, contributes to a fragmented self, and thus a deleterious basis from which one may form a romantic connection through.

The pressure to become the self imagined through an online portal, as exacted through facts and figures, ultimately expresses the way in which the lover becomes commodified. Users on the other side of the interaction are incarcerated in a construction of a human being as imposed by the profile criteria of said website. Additionally, one’s “comparison levels of alternatives”, a theory that applies economic fundamentals to romantic life, which describes the outcomes you receive by leaving your current relationship and moving to the best alternative partnership or situation you have available, expands exponentially with the advent of online dating. (Miller: 2014, 178) Unrestricted by physical location, one’s perception of their comparison level of alternatives essentially expanded beyond comprehension with the virtualization of dating.

Not only do comparison levels of alternatives rise and the self-concepts experience fragmentation through the commodification of love, but the virtualization of love also works to produce people as data. Indeed, as Gilles Deleuze suggested, people are reduced to measurable units, codes, samples, data, markets or dividuals. (1992) Virtualization and capitalism can be interpreted as either dehumanizing the subject or order to otherwise visceral conditions and chaotic expressions of emotion. One way in which the humanity of a lover is entirely removed from a dyad occurs through simulation. With “Rinko”, deemed the “world’s most loving girlfriend”, the absent human lover is replaced with code. LovePlus, a dating simulator in Japan  places thousands of men into a relationship with a simulated girlfriend, Rinko, through interaction on a Nintendo DS device. Thousands of men are erasing the line between real and virtual love. Konami, the developer of LovePlus explains, “human beings are very selfish creatures. When we are by ourselves we become very lonely and we find it annoying when we are with someone else. We need to add 0.5 – an extension of ourselves. An extension of ourselves that is not another individual, but an object, a device. Maybe a person can experience real love without an actual person to feel love for.” (Kovachi, 2016: Dark Net) So perhaps the ultimate expression of rationalized love is simply a projection of love; a personalized expression of an idealized lover. Perhaps the easiest experience of love removes the complicating other half of a relationship and replaces it with systemized code. If it achieves the same end, relationship satisfaction, is it still love?

III. CONCLUSION

The relationship between romantic love and the forces capitalism may crystalize as an entirely unromantic development in the history of dyadic love as it has the potential to produce and naturalize a conceptualization of love situated in rational terms. Furthermore, the transactional approach to romance under capitalism works to erase the more irrational, synergistic, chaotic, passionate, fluid and humanistic elements of love in support of a more standardized and individualized idea of partnership. Viewing individual lovers as exchangeable or as a sum of rewards offered has always been romantically detrimental and psychological dangerous, only now does it feel slightly less harmful and significantly more practical. As the homage goes, it is not the technology that is the problem, but rather the way we use technology that becomes a problem. The process of psychically rationalizing love coincides with the development of dating apps and virtual lovers and thus it is easy to slip into an uncritical deployment of hyper-consumptive, exchange-based romance. By this, I mean it will not feel foreign to you or your peers if you choose to forgo contact with a current lover when a high-status, physically beautiful stranger expresses interest in the form of a 60 character text message. By embracing a rational-choice approach or social exchange. Pronounced individualism prompts us to wonder whether or not we use love for personal satisfaction, the interdependence between two separate individuals, or whether the option for synergistic dyadic mutuality, a merging of two persons, is still possible. This, perhaps would be a question posed to couples and single people through long-form interviews or even focus groups trying to understand the role and nature of love in our particular sociocultural context. It is worth asking, in an era fixed on the goal of eliminating inefficiency and maximizing benefits, can we extract ourselves from this mindset in the context of romance and steadfastly embrace the complexities of love?

IV. References

Barri, L, & Morgan, M. (2011). Soulmates, compatibility and intimacy: Allied discursive resources in the struggle for relationship satisfaction in the new millennium. New Ideas in Psychology, 29(1)

Bauman, Z. (1992). Mortality, immortality and other life strategies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. The MIT Press, 59

Ekström, K. M., & Brembeck, H. (2004). Elusive consumption. Oxford: Berg

Foucault, M. (1992). The Subject and Power. University of Chicago Press. Vol. 8, No. 4

Illouz, E. (1998). Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Social Forces, 77(1)

Ionescu-Tuggi, R. (2014). Building Communities: Personalized Relationships in Late Capitalism. Philobibon, XIX(2).

Kovachi, M.(2016). Crush, Dark Net. United States, Showtime.

Miller, R. (2014). Intimate Relationships (7th ed.). McGraw Hill.

Turner, J. H. (1998). The structure of sociological theory. Homewood, IL: Wadsworth Publications.

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