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Swipe Right for Happiness

by Shaun Rouser

When brief courtships that were started online come to an end, the only lasting artifact is usually the unneeded number in your contacts, that bit of forgotten data listed between dawn and denouement. Oddly permanent, those little tombstones mark every beginning and ending. That coffee date, that night of pool, that final dinner with a “genuine connection,” as a weeks-later exchange of texts described it. But somewhere, in a metaphysical sense, they remain present, not as a “democracy of ghosts” attending to destinies, but as a forum of spirits discussing vagaries of the past. And there, for me, they would have remained, rarely accessed as digital or human memory, if not for a conversation with a friend. January, a Saturday afternoon, we discussed his reluctance about moving in with his girlfriend, his inclination to break up—they’d met online—and during that conversation I called online dating “contrived,” though in the moment, I was unable to explain what I meant. It was, I suspect, offered as an act of consolation, for him and, to be honest, me as well, a sort of, “Buck up, meaningful connections aren’t found online.” But the more I considered our talk, and my experience of online dating, the contrivance of attraction via swipe became a bit clearer to me.

Most profiles are forgettable, if not worthy of being forgotten: common(places) abound. Familiar scenes depict hilltops and mountainsides, sunny and nondescript; tourist attractions in the background—Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal; rock climbing, bikes held above heads, samba sessions, yoga poses, wings-wall photos, which I dimly assumed were being taken in the same trendy place that I didn’t know about. A profile I saw recently, however, was so good, spoke to my relationship to bodiedness so distinctly that I sent a screenshot to another friend. My possible life mate is holding a plate of food—sausage, bacon, eggs, bread, and something resembling an orange angled towards the camera like a low-budget restaurant commercial. Above her head, the a-few-words-about-yourself prompt, “The world would be a better place…,” beneath which is her answer, “… if we were closed systems and there were never any bodily functions.” Regretfully, this kindred neurotic must have swiped left, but the pictures and text of dating profiles prompt obvious, unvoiced questions: What should I think of this person, and necessarily, what should I think of myself? In The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media, Nathan Jurgenson terms “everyday images taken to be shared” social photos, adding that such images aren’t merely reflections of oneself and their world but are creations of “your self and your world. It is a primary way we now learn to recognize ourselves as selves, our reality as reality.” Whatever the platform, Bumble or Tinder, Instagram or Facebook, images of ourselves as selves are posted—though “published” may be the more appropriate word—in the service of curating versions of self. And these selves are not only created within societal norms and expectations but in response to the norms and expectations of those platforms as well, thus illuminating the multiple expressions of self marching under the flag “I.” One example, is the performer you meet on LinkedIn and the performer you meet on Facebook. Or think, for instance, of meeting in person for the first time someone you’ve only followed on social media and having to resolve your impressions. The sociable recorder of their everyday—meals, commutes, outings with friends, moody pets, etcetera—carries themselves in person with an unalterable reticence. But making sense of the superficially senseless is less problematic than that distinction should imply. Reconciling these images doesn’t produce dissonance but might even heighten the feeling of “knowing” another. A vital part of social-intimacy is that who you are can’t be explained in total by who you say you are, which is inarguable in any context, such that a digital-social encounter and a real-life meeting are complements rather than contradictions. To borrow the language of love, it is to know different parts of someone else. Dating profiles should, therefore, be rich places to engage with these complicated relations to ourselves and other’s selves: Where better since we know love is not a state of complete, mutual knowledge and affection but is also a site of unknowing and displeasure? Love cannot exist without ambivalence—which, citing Adam Phillips, is not having mixed feelings but opposing feelings. (“Wherever there is an object of desire, in this account,” he writes in Unforbidden Pleasures, “there is ambivalence.”) Yet, though dating profiles take up this notion—they must in some form because of their residence in the digital—they ultimately reject it in favor of the contained and knowable.

Jurgenson’s notion of the social photo as creations of yourself and your world, that a selfie is, unlike a self-portrait, “less an accurate picture of me at this time in this place [but instead] a visual depiction of the idea of me” is indebted to, among others, Roland Barthes, who describes in Camera Lucida the objectifying, performative nature of the pose. He writes,

In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares). In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.

Though the idea of feeling inauthentic in front of a camera is a little anachronistic, if not manifestly quaint, in the United States of the twenty-first century, this passage remains illuminating and is how we begin to answer the question, “What is the source of the contrivance?” particularly where Barthes writes of the subject who is “becoming an object.” A cynical interpretation would describe online dating as people selling themselves. We are undertaking individual, and individualistic, marketing campaigns for our possible soulmate’s choosing. You create a profile, you upload pictures, you come up with (hopefully) witty self-descriptions, you enter into the domain of the app to find a partner. Under these conditions, dating is the individual’s responsibility and the person-as-profile constitutes the sold and acquired object. But notwithstanding that people and personalities and what attracts us to another differ, the message of this object is consistent—the same call is being made and answered in the production of images and text. Turning, once more, to Barthes, in the essay “The Photographic Message” he describes the press photograph as “an object that has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic, or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation [and] not only perceived, received, it is read, connected more or less consciously by the public that consumes it to a traditional stock of signs.” As a guide, a means to think about the meaning, shape, and content of the profile-as-object, this passage argues the press photo reproduces a set of digestible cultural norms and identifications—and we can think of dating profiles as acting similarly. One is called to recognize some things in someones, which given our relationships to coupledom and desire, operate on the level of the unquestioned. We know, supposedly, what we want and only need to find it, with the curation of a good, i.e., recognizable, image the means to attract that partner.

As an example, Z is white, brunette, and the first picture shows her standing with a friend in a bar, each in St. Patrick-green t-shirts, flags of Ireland and the US hanging in the background. In the next, she’s standing behind a sign labeled “Montaña Machupiccu”: wearing sunglasses, her elbows calmly rest on the sign, her legs crossed at the ankles. In the third, at an upscale bar with a group of friends, stylishly dressed in skirts and heels. The next photo Z is seated with someone on a snow-covered field, snowboards strapped to their feet, and the last image shows her casually dressed in blue jeans with a friend—Z with a stein of beer and the friend with a glass of wine. Z, mid-thirties, a teacher, among other things describes herself as a sports enthusiast, a lover of good grammar and deep conversations, a fan of dive bars and whiskey, a liberal, a voter, a spiritual person, a devotee of yoga and meditation, someone who enjoys travelling, a person who says “fuck” a lot. Text “quickens” the image, in Barthes’s formulation, “amplifying a set of connotations already given in the [photographs].” Indeed. For Z, fun involves a variety of locations, an ability to enjoy high- and low-end settings, hot and cold climes, domestic and international places. She’s venturesome, comfortable almost anywhere. The sign of Machu Picchu signals an interest in and acceptance of, what are called, “other cultures.” Z is broad-minded, perhaps cosmopolitan, and this, moreover, should be seen as a challenge to, or broadening of, any ill-conceived ideas about what her love of athletics and dive bars says about her intellectually—mind and body are equally made use of to live a full, active life. This profile, like seemingly every other, also pushes against the very structure of the dating app to signal she can’t be reduced to the four corners of the profile itself: there’s, revealingly, an anxiety about misrecognition as a result of the thing you’ve created. Looking closer, too, another element of the dating profile reveals itself. Each of these objects carries an implicit, bidirectional lack that a match is supposed to fill. A mystifying part of online dating profiles is how happy and satisfied users appear in their pictures. Disconnected from the apps’ context, you’d think there was no need to search for companionship, though if the profiles’ existence says anything, it’s that an important aspect of life—to be loved, desired by, and connected with another person—is missing. And that tension between appearance and longing and choice is fundamental to apps’ lure.

“Things become good, or acquire their value as goods, insofar as they point toward happiness. Objects become ‘happiness means,’” Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness. She continues, “If objects provide a means for making us happy, then in directing ourselves toward this or that object, we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow.” We should think of the profile as offering an aim and a means. I can, if enough people see—or, more aptly, if the right person sees—eliminate this want (many profiles include “jokey” pleas for a match that will allow the app to be deleted), so to accomplish that end, I construct myself as an object of desire. Moreover, acquiring the person this profile represents will make me happy and, perhaps, move me closer to happiness. This, paradoxically, empties individuals of the very uniqueness on which their profiles are constructed, but the emptying is telling: where consumerist ethos and romantic ideals collide—happiness is yours to obtain if there are enough options to choose from—dating apps sell infinite possibility. Borrowing Ahmed’s terminology, our profiles are gap fillers, circulating “even in the absence of happiness by filling a certain gap.” And that gap, that lack permeates us and our profiles, representing a perfect opportunity for the sale of something akin to a digital nostrum: a way to extinguish desire.

The profile is an attempt at self-description, representing its creator in brief as well as carrying with it the hope of reaching certain recognizable points of life that themselves also carry the “promise of happiness.” This promise takes the form of, Ahmed writes, “if you have this or that, or if you do this or do that, then happiness is what follows.” With romance, the promise typically entails coupledom and most often, particularly as we age, starting a family. This path is socially and culturally identifiable, linking one up with a lineage that grants access to a number of points marking one’s progress. “We arrive at some things because they point us toward happiness, as a means to this end,” Ahmed writes, later adding, “to inherit the family is to inherit the demand to reproduce its form.” In the romantic telling of the story, which is the direction we’re inculcated even as its attainment becomes ever more economically fantastic, in some order or another one finds a partner they love, marries them, has children, buys a home. Along this path, every measure of success and progress is readymade as an object of happiness, desired because it is what you should want. The call towards something is always, in actuality, a push towards it. Step one of the process is, of course, finding a partner, and the dating app facilitates this goal by connecting call and coercion with a bridge of choice. But in moving our focus from the general (relationships, homes, children) to the particular (this person, that person), we begin to see how, to rework a phrase, objects never survive contact with desire. The dating-app’s contrivance is that we can know the aims of our desire, that desire can be satiated, and the search for the satisfying object can be controlled and directed. All of which fits well under our current conditions in which a thing can be consumed—an image, a video, a commodity—seemingly anywhere, anytime to fill the inscrutable space between what I want and what I have. The added complication with the dating profile, however, is that obtaining the “happy object”—that which good feelings are oriented towards and provides a “shared horizon of experience,” according to Ahmed—means coming into contact with another person, someone who is also in search of a “happy object” and is as internally complex as you are. This object, unlike the item consumed elsewhere, isn’t safe or contained but bears a history, neuroses, desires, antagonisms, and most trickily, carries with them notions of what you will be when you and they meet. The fundamental assumption, without which there is no dating app, is through a series of filters and algorithms you can discover exactly what you seek.

I recall going to a social event during which someone joked that the end of the world would just be shitty cellphone connection, a world, in other words, of constant, banal annoyance. At the time we laughed, but afterwards this struck me as more insightful than he or the rest of us thought. That world, though in obvious ways unpleasurable, would be markedly different from ours, and in altering relations to our technologies, would offer different modes of being with each other. Technologies and the relationships nurtured by them are inseparable, and in finding and re-finding objects that should unsurprise us, we affirm and reaffirm the world as given to us. And online dating, in presenting the desires we’ll never be rid of while offering endless chances to do so, becomes a medium in which the individual and collective futures we imagine are, if not siblings, then first cousins to our present. These misgivings should not be misconstrued as a longing for a fictional past-perfect when communication wasn’t mediated by social media. I’ve known, and known of, people in long-term and, to my eyes, happy relationships who met online. Odds demand as much be true. The point, however, is to wonder aloud how this form of connecting shapes our notions of desire and possibility: In discovering that which we seek to find, what possibilities are lost for the unexpected, how does this curtail our horizons for different futures and ways of being with ourselves and others? Perhaps these are foremost political questions. But, in our time as well as every other, it could not be otherwise.

Shaun Rouser is a writer based in Chicago. His chapbook collection of short stories, Family Affair, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks, and more of his fiction has appeared in Colloquium, RIC Journal, The Rupture, and deLuge Journal. His one-act play, "American Meat," was published in Fleas on the Dog. He previously co-founded and served as co-editor-in-chief of online arts and humanities journal The Blackstone Review, where he also contributed fiction and non-fiction.

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