Virtual Love

‘And when I knew… when I realized… it was too late. My life was broken. I was in love.’ (Anna, 39, comemo3’s translation from Catalan)

An interviewee used these words to tell us about her love story with a work colleague who lived miles away, and with whom she had started to chat and exchange emails on a regular basis. Those messages that had once been plain work messages turned slowly and half unconsciously into more and more private emails in which both parties seductively exposed themselves, letting more and more personal issues, fears, hopes, experiences and desires come to the foreground. The emotions that moulded and were moulded by this process evolved from surprise, to joy, to expectation, to dependency, to love; the shifts between them were subtle, quick, uncontrolled. The realization that, at the other end of the line, someone special was holding one’s existence culminated a process by which our interviewee went from that initial positive surprise after guessing the human side of that work colleague to a nervous e-mail checking every two minutes and being skype online at 4 am just for the case he happened to be awake.

‘I couldn’t sit down in the office without checking my email and my skype every two minutes just to see if he had said anything. (…) I was well aware that things had gone a bit too far, but the ‘virtuality’ of the whole thing made it feel safer. What could an internet ghost do to me? To my life? To my family? Nothing. It was up to me. Just up to me. And if somebody had to be hurt in the process, it would only be my heart that would be damaged. I took it into account without giving it too much of an importance. My life was boring, meaningless to a certain extent. And I used those moments to feel magic, to feel magical myself, but also to feel the magic I had long forgotten. My whole body vibrated with every line I wrote to him, with each one of his replies. (…) I got lost and when I found myself again I couldn’t believe where all that had led me to.’ (Anna, 39, comemo3’s translation from Catalan)

Anna insisted throughout the interview upon the fact that she had somehow assumed that the Finnish guy working for the same company but living so far away could never have a real impact on her life. ‘At the beginning it felt like a game’, she said, ‘like a test… can I still seduce someone? Even if it is only with my words… even if my body is not twenty anymore… does it still work?’ She claimed not to have realised it when ‘the game’ became serious, and felt shocked and betrayed (she couldn’t tell by what) when she realised that she did not have a ‘virtual heart’, and that she had not virtually fallen in love, but that what she felt was as real as it gets.

Anna structured her narration in the interview upon the realisation that there is not an online and an offline world, but just one ‘world’ with different kinds of forms of communication, with different kinds of possibilities (and obligations) for webbing social relationships, and that the idea that one of these channels, or medias, is less real than the other can, all of a sudden, be proven wrong. From all our interviewees (up until the moment) Anna has best described this process: the process of the sudden and yet slow realisation (as paradoxical as that may sound) of the reality of ‘the virtual world’ (the name itself is a trick already in a way), but the topic is a recurrent topic in our interviews… The impossibility of touching the other, of smelling, of tasting the other’s skin does not make our relationship with that other person any less real, and any less intense. Is it the longing, the impossibility of fully sensing the other that which makes it so magic? Or can we actually touch and sense just with our minds? The question that remains… and which our interviewees did not (could not?) answer is: Are we ‘touching’ the other? Are we experiencing the other… or is it just a narcissistic game with our imagination? And … if it were so… does it change if we are facing one another ? Do we ever touch, feel, sense… ‘the other’?

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The “Cirque du Soleil” and melancholy

Last week I was walking through the city of Barcelona. On one of the public busses, I (comemo3) saw the advertisement for one of the latest attractions having arrived in Barcelona – the Cirque du Soleil with their show “Corteo”. The images used for advertising the spectacle presented a face of a clown. I have to confess that this face really started to catch my attention. I started thinking about what this face tells me, about this clown, looking sadly down from the bus, about his meaning as a figure in the show, about the spectacle. When the bus had left I started thinking about the reasons why I was so impressed by this face or better this mask (or façade) on the ad photo. Thinking about it I quickly realised that all this face expressed was nothing more than a touch of a somehow sad emotion.

Searching for other Cirque du Soleil advertisements on city buses it became obvious for me that all images played with similar emotions and they did it in a similar way. The different characters from the advertised show had either sad or melancholic expressions and furthermore the emotional expressions where not clear, not overexpressed like we are used to it from some other circus shows but they were natural, soft, nearly invisible, touching much more from the inside than through the eye.

This little finding made me search for more information about the Cirque du Soleil and about its other spectacles. Looking through material on their webpage I found further evidence that in many advertisements for their shows, like Alegria, Saltimbanco, Mistère … , there is played with a soft expression of melancholy (or at least expressions without smiling and open happiness). This is also true for most of their videos (http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/es-es/home.aspx#/es-es/home/europe/spain.aspx). There are very little moments when a character smiles openly, and even if this happens, these smiles are that small and that fragile that they rather seem to enforce the impression of sadness and melancholy.

‘But however’, I thought, ‘it seems to work’. This small sad or melancholic emotional touch stimulates silently somehow our imaginary universes. We feel moved by the pictures (something that I experienced myself and that I could see in the face of other people looking at the same bus advertisements).

I found out from the Cirque du Soleil webpage that since 1984 the Cirque du Soleil has constantly searched for ways to stimulate, work upon (or manipulate) and create imaginary worlds of the audience, searching for ways to touch our senses and to invoke emotions that can then become part of the spectacle. The people from Cirque du Soleil are experts in moving us, our imaginary and emotional universes, like a shaman might have been for societies long time ago. We can see their competency well reflected in the millions of visitors (their webpage talks about 100 million people) they have had in their different spectacles all around the globe. (http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/es-es/home.aspx#/es-ES/home/about.aspx)

But our little analysis wants to go a step further: How is it possible that in contrast to most advertisement and to what marketing tells about selling a product, Cirque du Soleil without expressions of happiness, comfortable ambient and hedonistic moments motivates such a big number of people to spend a quite high amount of money for seeing a spectacle advertised by melancholic faces and an uninviting soft sadness? How is it possible that the visitors are attracted by the idea to enter and disappear in “a world that is theatrical and mysterious, that represents a place between heaven and earth, mixing entertainment, the comedy, and spontaneity” that is neither promising happiness nor satisfaction? How do their ads create the emotional energy to motivate us for participating in a collective ritual initiated by and performed with the Cirque du Soleil?

For answering these questions we have to understand first that there is a crucial difference between two different forms of advertisement, on the one hand there is an advertisement for specific consumption objects, for products if we want to say so, on the other hand there is advertisement for the participation in a public ritual. In the first case an ad usually provokes a positive imagination in relation to a product, it links the product to a positive emotion and embeds it in a positive, enjoyable environment that is then slowly parallelised with the emotional and imaginary world of the consumer. Everything is about creating a narcissistic and self-oriented imagination about the moment of consumption wherein and wherefrom the individual has at least the impression to come a step closer to happiness and satisfaction. The object fills something we are lacking.

In the second case it is nearly the other way round, advertisement’s aim is the erasure of individuality and the sensation of individual happiness in the moment of consumption. It is rather an ad for a place where we can desire to disappear – in society, in the collective ritual. The collective ritual comes to us as a world where we can connect to old emotional energies that do not completely belong to us, and thereof we are able to construct new emotional worlds. The ritual is like a spring of renewal. The circus of these ads tells us and reflects the myth of an origin, an origin wherein happiness, sadness, fear, passion are not yet differentiated but are born out of an emotional undifferentiatedness. That is the magic about it. The sad emotional undifferentiatedness on the picture, the myth of origin hidden behind the picture’s meaning and the advertisement of a collective ritual belong together. Overexpressed emotions would destroy this impression. For collective rituals emotions work much better when they are mild, nearly invisible like in the ads of the bus.

The characters in this circus present something like archetypes of emotions, not yet there but at the point of appearing, also not yet differentiated, caught in a undefined melancholy. The characters their performance gives birth to the emotions as something social, nothing the characters carry inside themselves but that they create in Wechselwirkung (interrelation) with each other and the audience whose sympathy they have to win by webbing these emotional bonds. The clown is the example per excellence -always between laughing and crying, moving us to laugh with him, about him, creating identificatory and distancing moments at the same time, webbing an emotional complicity between us and him.

Now we just have to answer a last question: Why is this undifferentiatedness represented by an expression of melancholy? Melancholy is a very important and very present emotion in modernity (let’s just remember l’Spleen of Baudelaire). One of the reasons might be on the basis of this emotion we have learned to relate with our origin, with our myths in modernity. Whilst in other times the relation to our mythological centre might have been webbed with emotions of shame, or guilt, in modernity our myth tells us that we have lost the contact with our myths, leaving us as a society with nothing more than an empty melancholy. Therefore, melancholy represents the most original emotion for us as social beings in modern society. Melancholy serves best for representing and identifying with the myth of our modern world. It is from the primary – emotion of melancholy that we learn again and feel with the others the modern myth of the birth of emotions and of society.

The Cirque du Soleil might be or at least presents itself as a place where this experience is possible. That is why melancholy is the best emotion for advertising their collective rituals. The people Cirque du Soleil know what they do. Melancholy is everywhere, in the costumes, in the faces of the characters and also in the music that carries us through the celebration of this ritual of initiation and durability. All this turns the spectacle of the Cirque du Soleil in a part of our late modern magic, showing us a finite universe full of meaning, touching us through emotions – like a dream, a movie, a fairy-tale or a bolero. Whether this magic is true or just a simulation of capitalism stays open…

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Music
Music often transports me like a sea!
Toward my pale star,
Under a ceiling of fog or a vast ether,
I get under sail;
My chest thrust out and my lungs filled
Like the canvas,
I scale the slopes of wave on wave
That the night obscures;
I feel vibrating within me all the passions
Of ships in distress;
The good wind and the tempest with its convulsions
Over the vast gulf
Cradle me. At other times, dead calm, great mirror
Of my despair!
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

La musique
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

La musique souvent me prend comme une mer!
Vers ma pâle étoile,
Sous un plafond de brume ou dans un vaste éther,
Je mets à la voile;

La poitrine en avant et les poumons gonflés
Comme de la toile
J’escalade le dos des flots amoncelés
Que la nuit me voile;

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions
D’un vaisseau qui souffre;
Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions

Sur l’immense gouffre
Me bercent. D’autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon désespoir!

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Social tears and (per-) formed sadness – The “truth” about North Korea’s reaction regarding the death of their political leader Kim – Jong – Il

Last month, international politics has been shaken by a situation that might contribute to a transformation in, or even the fall of one of the last “socialist” dictatorships of the world – the death of Kim-Jong-Il, the political leader of North Korea. A few hours after his death, we have been able to see first pictures, first reactions by the North Korean population. But these pictures have been a surprise for many of us. Many might have had expected people to be happy about Kim Jong-Il’s death, to be relieved, to be overjoyed similar to the people in Egypt had been when Mubarak declared his withdrawal, or when the people in Libya finally killed Gaddafi. But the contrary was the case. In many online newspapers and on “youtube” we could see the pictures of people crying publically in front of Kim Jong-Il statues, in front of important monuments, or simply in the Street. We saw people tossing and turning on the floor moved by attacks of sadness, of consternation and shock. We could watch the political and military leaders of North Korea crying in a communitarian dining room – deeply touched.


 

Knowing at least a little bit about North Korea and its latest history, about the scarcities that had shaken the country, the reasons for them and the consequences for the population, knowing something about the iron rule Kim Jong- Il had held over the country, many people started to ask themselves whether and how this can be really the reaction on the death of a man like Kim Jong-Il. How is it possible that people are not happy, how can they really cry, why are they really sad? The unbelievability of the crude fact that someone could have really liked this cruel man opened the space for wild speculations, speculations about the “realness” of the images. Journalists reacted  with strong scepticism, questioning the sincerity and realness of the emotions shown and tears dropped by the North Koreans, concluding that the people shown must be bought actors or extremely pressured people who had to perform the scenes, or that these people must be brainwashed. Accordingly, in the comments on “youtube”, people either made jokes and were extremely ironic about the North Koreans, or they doubted the “realness of the tears, if not of the whole videos”. They found the idea that this could be “real” unbearable, a fist in the face of democracy, contradicting the belief that we all desire the same political system.

 

Apart from knowing from other countries that our Western democracy might not be the solution and the desired political system for all people in the world. And without saying whether this political variety is good or bad, it is something else that is interesting for us. It is the question about the “realness” of the emotions that we can follow on the screen, and what we mean by that. Looking again through comments on youtube and articles on the subject, we can see that what people mainly meant by real emotions and “realness” is that the tears and screams, the crying and breaking down are and have to be an expression of the inner individual self. We see emotions as something extremely personal, their presentation as an insight into someone’s inner life. The emotions we see on the video are then personal expressions regarding Kim-Jong-Il’s death – spontaneous and uncontrolled, showing a deep personal love to their leader. That is why it seems so striking. But the whole question about the “realness of emotions” is wrong. There are no real emotions. Emotions and their performance are always at least to a great part learned and performed.  And it is in social rituals, like the moment of Kim-Jong-Il’s death were a society learns to perform and performs how it has learned emotions. But this process of learning has nothing to do with brainwashing or with the dictatorship, there is no society were emotions are not performed/learned in rituals.

 

If we just follow the definition of an ritual in Wikipedia we are able to reinterpret the situation. “A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual) It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The form, contents, and durations of a ritual are prescribed and not spontaneous at all. The performance of emotions follows clear rules for how strong and long they have to be performed. Their performance is strictly regulated. Rituals and emotions in rituals have to be performed individually or in groups when it is socially necessary. They help to show, perform and reinforce the social relations of those involved in the ritual. In the case of the people in North Korea, we are just seeing one of these social rituals – a ritual in the moment of death wherein all social members perform and demonstrate their respect regarding Kim-Jong-Il by breaking into tears, by shouting and screaming and where they perform and show their bond with their society as a whole.

What they are doing is then not to show their inner soul but in contrast to nivell out all individualism for performing a social ritual, to reinforce their social bonds in a moment of social weakness, in a moment when they as society as a whole are facing death. The question whether their performance is real or fake can just arise to us who believe that emotions are something deeply private and individual and who have forgotten how much the emotions we feel and the way we perform them are dependent on the contexts and well learned in social rituals of various kinds.

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After Geneva – ESA Conference

A week ago, some researchers from our research group GRECS, and the whole team behind this blog on sociology of emotions (Francesc Núñez, Swen Seebach & Natàlia Cantó-Milà) travelled to Geneva, to the biannual conference of the European Sociological Association, to present seven papers (five oral presentations, one round table and a poster) that contained the results of this year’s work. Since we would like to share the work that we presented there, we will be publishing everyday one of the abstracts of the presentations held – which we have already started to turn into articles.
It was a lovely experience, and it is always wonderful to be able to share one’s work with dear colleagues, who are always prepared to listen to your thoughts, give you some pieces of advice and critique, and greet you with a smile!

Here comes the first abstract:

TOUCHED BY YOUR WORDS, SEDUCED BY YOUR IMAGE – SEDUCTION AND THE BODY IN TIMES OF INTERNET (Pau Alsina, Natàlia Cantó-Milà, Francesc Núñez & Swen Seebach) – Presented at the Sexualities Research Network

Abstract: New forms of electronic communication (such as mobile texting, internet, emailing) are becoming increasingly relevant in our everyday lives – not only for organisational matters, but also in the webbing of the most intimate relationships between people in love, people searching for love or people for some fun in the cyberspace. Sex in written or spoken form, exchanged intimate pictures, are crucial in the webbing of those invisible threads that bind people together – seducing and being seduced – also in the net. But what happens with the body when it becomes a written description or the sum of scattered pictures over the computer screen? Is the body thus transformed or has it disappeared? And in which ways can a sexual relation take place, how is it possible to seduce and to be seduced, when the body, which was thought to be the basis of seduction, eroticism and sexuality, is turned into a series of ones and zeros? This paper seeks to explore the paths opened by these questions through an analysis of 35 autobiographical interviews in which the interviewees have reported the ways in which they relate to their current and past partners – online and offline. Through the analyses of these interviews we will attempt to depict the attraction felt by the virtual love relationship online, and, at the same time, that which happens when that which happened online is brought (back) offline.

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Love and other Demons in the Age of the Internet

On Thursday 26 May, we have started a cycle of conferences with the title: “Taming digital technologies” in the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Valencia (Center October) (http://www.octubre.cat/activ_cat.php?id_categoria=3).

The first presentation, ” Love and other demons in the Age of the Internet”, by Francisco Nunez, focused on some of the changes experienced by people in love during the last decades.

The image of platonic Eros, as a being that intermediates between the sensitive and the intellectual world allows us to focus on the theme of love from a sociological perspevtive, emotions in love relationships are neither just sensitve, nor intellectual but a mix. They are social emotions: Emotions are a set of mechanisms of perceptions, interpretation processes and physiological responses to certain stimuli. This means, following the ideas of E. Illouz on the topic, that emotions occupy a borderland between body and culture, they mediate within a place where body, cognition and culture are mixed.

The triangular theory of love by R. Sternberg, which describe the diversity of feelings of love as a combination of intimacy, passion and commitment, helped to us to focus especially on the transformations within these three spheres: transformations of intimacy, transformation of passion and transformation in commitment.

Following the paths of M Foessel’s book La privation de l’intim (Seuil, 2008), we explained how the inclusion of intimacy in the sphere of privacy opened the door to an increasing rationalisation and calculability of and within intimate relationships, especially in loving relationships. By rationalisation and calcuability we mean the ability to exchange, sell, buy and decide using a rational cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, the processes and interactions of the two people in love became increasingly regulated by love contracts created by the two people in love.

The imprisonment of intimacy in the sphere of privacy, is perfectly consistent with the changes in our thinking about passion (as Eva Illouz shows us in her researches): We confuse passion with interest (economic interest), we associate passion with the pursuit of equality and personal satisfaction. The reason might be found within the new contexts we web our love relationships in: The power of control we experience (especially when people are looking for love in the Internet) satisfies us and we get the impression that we are transported from an experience of “blindness and infinity” to a circumstantially passionate and desirable love by the means of our power to control.

This idea is close to the concept of confluent love and pure relationship by Anthony Giddens. From Giddens’ perspective, love is a social relationship that individuals establish with each other and that will work as long as both parties feel sufficiently satisfied.

Moreover, Holschild, in an article published in 1995 (“The sociology of emotion as a way of feeling”) highlights the tension between the desire for the unconditional, on the one hand, and the uncertainty of the link, on the other. The result is that people in love start to follow the strategy of capitalist capital.(mobile and changing) to manage all their emotions. In this way they limit their emotional ties and adapt them to the culture of capitalism. The result is then a similar kind of emotions within capitalist culture. As Holschild remind us, “In managing feeling, we partly create it”.

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LOVE

I, comemo3, was checking the internet looking for some references for a research proposal I was writing on one of these topics that move us (couples in love and new technologies of communication) and, tired, I just googled the word “love”. I was astonished when I saw the first entry for the word love was:

Without taking it too seriously, I must admit to have been shocked by the representativity of this very first entry: a love calculator! A web page which, given the name of the two potential partners, transforms their two names into a single number; concretely: into a percentage, which offers the interested viewer an indicator about the compatibility of the two names given, and thus, of the two people involved.
Is it significant that the very first website that catches our eye on the top of the list when we type the word love is one that gives indexes of compatibility: The compatibility between two human beings as a number you can compare with others. Thus, in less than five minutes, you can type the name of all those people you ever fancied and find out which one would have been the perfect match.
This reminds us of Simmel’s analyses in The Philosophy of Money. In this work written more than a century ago, Simmel emphasised the ways in which, through the generalisation of money as a means of exchange, the values bestowed upon objects could be immediately related and compared, and thus, the values of objects as different as apples, pears, books, and baby clothes, can be immediately compared despite of the incomparability of their use values. Simmel argued that this generalisation of money as a means of exchange thus led to an increasingly economisation and calculability of values. A similar tendency could be seen when we turn human love relationships into indexes and numbers to be compared, and thus we can end a visit to our love calculator knowing that you would have had 15% more chance of a successful relationship with your brother-in-law than with your actual husband.

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Introspective Extimacy – Lady Gaga and the consumption of emotions

A few days ago a report concerning Lady Gaga and one of her fans was published in the Internet. Having a colleague, Eduard Minobis, writing his doctoral thesis on the transformations of the relationships between celebrities and their fans as well as the resulting consequences of these transformations for society, I (comemo3 that consists of actually more than one person) was interested in reading the report:

A little girl posted a video in youtube in which she performed Lady Gaga’s last song. Lady Gaga watched the video, and announced publically (over Twitter) that she was deeply touched by the little girl’s performance, and that she had cried while seeing the video. Furthermore, as a subsequent consequence, Gaga called the little girl (in front of cameras and microphones) to tell her how much she had liked her performance, and telling her that, while seeing her video, she had been reminded of the reasons why she actually makes music. Thereafter Gaga answered the girl’s questions, sang a part of her latest song, live, as a duet, via the telephone, and, finally, invited the little girl to perform with her, Lady Gaga, on stage in Toronto.

Here we’re facing a situation in which the boundaries between public and private cross and melt. Lady Gaga’s public life (Lady Gaga performing Lady Gaga in front of the cameras) becomes an echo of her private life (her telling about crying and about the emotions and thoughts she had). Lady Gaga thus plays a double game: by telling about her secret emotions on Twitter, by carefully publishing information concerning what she feels, she creates and affirms a boundary between her performing self and her authentic (inner) self. But this boundary is just erected for being overcome within the very same situation.

Presenting her feelings and thoughts, Gaga gives the impression (true or not) that her fans do not just give meaning to Gaga’s life because they support her but that they are meaningful because they touch Gaga’s inner self, because they remind her of what she really is, and have therefore a therapeutic function for her, as they correct what the public music market, the constant performances… do to her.

The emotional interaction with her fans appears then as something that closes the inner chasm between what Gaga really is and what she performs. Gaga is (according to her words) released from public deformation. Through fans like the little girl, she learns something about herself, and rediscovers her real personality hidden and suppressed by a layer of performance.

But (true or not) this release, this recovery of her real self leads to another public presentation, to her presenting (and performing) publically what she feels, to transforming another part of herself into a consumption object, connecting it to the discourses of the public and subjecting it to the rules of public performance.

The interplay of being forced to analyze herself by the little girl’s video, to confess what she has found and the trans-performance of the discovered (hidden) emotions into public objects appear as a process of coming closer to Gaga’s real self. And as Gaga finds herself, the audience has the possibility to watch and identify with her, and to comprehend the therapeutic move inwards, towards her – self, to feel themselves as if they would have come closer to Gaga and to learn from Gaga’s turn how to come closer to their own selves.

Isn’t that the perfect example for what prosumption really means, (the impression of) producing and consuming your (and others’) consumption object; and, by doing so, learning to convert yourself into an object for consumption. In fact, prosumption should be called hyper-consumption, as the production is just secondary to the produced wish of being consumed to create further consumption.

So what happened in the particular case we are discussing here? Did Lady Gaga use the little girl, who transformed herself into Lady Gaga for her performance, and who objectified herself in front of a camera to promote herself? Or did she by promoting herself (by performing Lady Gaga) challenge Lady Gaga to expose something of her personal life that, in exchange, helped Gaga to gain extra profit and new fans? Who has obsessed who? Gaga the girl? The girl Gaga?

However, Gaga returned the gift of being touched, of retrieving her true self by personally interacting with the little girl, delivering a perfect emotional end of this little story. The perfect play of mirrors -between her and the little girl, reflection and counter-reflection, consumption and counter-consumption. At the end both end up in a situation in which they have turned themselves and their emotions into consumption objects. Gaga’s and Maria’s tears crystalized to visual consumption value. They, as their little story, have become (even more) objects of late modern culture.


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