KAMPALA – Before I move on to unrelated topics, I want to make a few notes in a two-part series on how, in my view, consumerism (which was an overarching theme in the last two series) is translated into an aspect of daily life most of us (both my male and female readers) are perhaps more familiar with and feel more empathy towards, than you might do when it comes to my laments on Modernity. This two-part series is about love and relationships.
In my two case studies (read here and here), I argued that gender relations have been commercialised. A gaping divide between how we define masculinity contrasted to femininity is enlarged by the continuous stream of advertising and beauty ideals we are confronted with.
How, I wonder, do all these issues affect relationships? French philosopher Yann Dall’Aglio once said that consumerism has turned love into a market with desire as its currency. He coined the phrase “seduction capital” to be a separate resource comparable with social- or cultural capital. He argued that this capital is not actual capital, as in material resources, although it might involve (and often does) consumption of products. After all,
nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental, than a teenager buying brand new jeans and tearing them at the knees, because he wants to please Jennifer.
he goes on:
Consumerism is not materialism. It is rather what is swallowed up and sacrificed in the name of the god of love, or rather in the name of seduction capital. This post-materialist seduction capital is gained through consumption (of ideology). Everyone is scrambling and measuring their seduction capital, which is always in relation to someone else’s. It’s like a mating market.
This individualised “mating market” is a relatively new phenomenon, Yann argues:
But a phenomenon started in the 13th century, mainly in the Renaissance, in the West, that caused the biggest identity crisis in the history of humankind. This phenomenon is modernity. We can basically summarize it through a triple process. First, a process of rationalization of scientific research, which has accelerated technical progress. Next, a process of political democratization, which has fostered individual rights. And finally, a process of rationalization of economic production and of trade liberalization.
These three intertwined processes have completely annihilated all the traditional bearings of Western societies, with radical consequences for the individual. Now individuals are free to value or disvalue any attitude, any choice, any object. But as a result, they are themselves confronted with this same freedom that others have to value or disvalue them. In other words, my value was once ensured by submitting myself to the traditional authorities. Now it is quoted in the stock exchange.
Consumerism has captured relationships and has commercialised it. Although seemingly, sometimes it escapes its grasp when love is defined as a deep emotional bond no consumption can touch. However, like in the case of beauty ideals, consumerism has people create unrealistic expectations of their partner. There are so many examples of perfect relationships (movies, advertisements, books) that are often too good to be true.
Now, I have not seen the Notebook myself (see above), it just came to mind when I was thinking about the ultimate romantic sob movie. Noah and Allie are fated lovers who were meant to be. However inspiring, movie relationships leave viewers in awe of the love on screen. Like with all consumerist visions, comparison seems inevitable.
And I am not talking about wanting someone ripped, thin but with curves in all the right places, and beautiful, and loving, and witty, and intelligent, and ambitious, and funny, playful, but loves discussion. Someone passionate, and self-assured. These are also expectations, but we mostly have those when we’re single. The moment you meet someone, it is rarely (read: never) the case that they live up to all of these expectations that define our perfect partner, but a checklist is not how falling in love works. I think anyone who has ever fallen in love can attest to that. This is where consumerism ultimately has to give up its influence,-for a moment.
Yann Dall’Aglio says that this is the moment where the market of desire shows its fundamental truth: if everyone’s desirability is only defined by how attractive you are on the market, the inevitable conclusion is that we in and of ourselves, have no value. I am only desirable when someone desires me. Without that someone, I have no value; I am useless, as Yann humorously says. It is from the realisation of our uselessness we can realise what he calls “tender love”:
I think that becoming aware of this general imposture that concerns all of us would ease our love relationships. It is because I want to be loved from head to toe, justified in my every choice, that the seduction hysteria exists. And therefore I want to seem perfect so that another can love me. I want them to be perfect so that I can be reassured of my value. It leads to couples obsessed with performance who will break up, just like that, at the slightest underachievement.
In contrast to this attitude, I call upon tenderness — love as tenderness. What is tenderness? To be tender is to accept the loved one’s weaknesses. It’s not about becoming a sad couple of orderlies. That’s pretty bad. On the contrary, there’s plenty of charm and happiness in tenderness. I refer specifically to a kind of humor that is unfortunately underused. It is a sort of poetry of deliberate awkwardness.
What Dall’Aglio touches upon here are the high expectations, the obsession with performance, as he puts it, that I imagine at least some of us have (had) in relationships. More on these expectations in part II.