“That comment had 98,201 smiles and almost as many frowns, 80,198. But overall, as Mae scrolled through the messages, there was—as always when people were asked for their feelings—love.” –from The Circle, by Dave Eggers
I love a good dystopia. Her is not necessarily presented as such, it’s less judgmental than I am about the relationships people (including me) have with their devices and systems, but the when I saw it the month before last it made me see (but didn’t make me stop) the danger of disembodied love.
As everyone knows, Her is about a guy who falls in love with an operating system. You see him happily walking through the streets interacting with her, oblivious to the people present, many of whom are doing the same thing with their devices. We’ve all heard the lecture about technology making us too detached, but when it became a love story, I started to see the real horror in it. But the bad guy is not the technology; the bad guy is the void inside us that fuels the abstraction itself.
One of the saddest parts of Her to me was when the OS, feeling bad about not having a body, strikes up a relationship with a “surrogate,” a woman whose dream it is to help human/Os couples consummate their love. The scene is unicorn-familiar, especially when the plan backfires and the surrogate is rushed to a cab and dismissed, more human than the love interest but already irrelevant to the story, even as she professes to love both of them forever. That scene made me ashamed of every attachment I’ve formed to what is not and will never be mine just because I don’t feel good enough to just go ahead and have my own stuff.
Eventually, he finds out that the OS, being as expansive and superhuman as she is, has something like 693 other love relationships going. This has been praised elsewhere as a happy poly moment, but to me it was a real horror. This man was right to realize that he wasn’t special, that he wasn’t really loved. She was, as he and the audience had nearly forgotten, a machine, and it didn’t mean the same thing to her as it did to him. It couldn’t have “meant” anything—he was loving a thing that couldn’t truly feel.
All of this takes place in an emotional landscape familiar to me: divorce grief. Like my own love-simulacra of late, I think he was making a way to find love in the midst of grief, a place that is (to me, at least) essentially isolating. To be able to be both in love and alone, to have a love we could turn off at night and who would be there every time we log on, would be such a gorgeous risk-free solution, but the proximity-craving realities of love just don’t allow it, and aloneness has to prevail, even if it feels horrible. Grief from a lost relationship feels a little like death, and death is necessarily a one-person affair.
When, at the end of a movie, the OS is gone and he finds himself on a rooftop with a real-life friend, we feel relieved for him. He may be lonely and sad, but he is embodied, and the opposite of embodied is dead.
The Circle is not so gentle and kind. It’s set in a not-too distant world where social networking has been taken to the most absurd degree. The main character works for some totalitarian version of Google and as her job progresses, she goes further and further away from authentic experience and her life is more consumed by an oppressive “sharing” that both fuels her and opens up a tear in her soul. She says that making her life “transparent” and letting her every moment be filmed, she is assuring herself that she is seen and therefore has proof that she exists, but who she is eroded and shaped by the ever-present audience.
In the end (SPOILER ALERT) she gives up her last chance at a real physical connection and really any kind of physical life at all, all to preserve the thread of comments that follows her everywhere she goes.
Though I’m still trying to understand the pain of being told I’m not “real life,” of being wanted but not wanted as a physical thing (and therefore really not wanted at all) what I’m writing about here is not the internet, but grief itself. Those two stories so perfectly mirrored my story, the way I used internet “love” and “support” to cope with the emptiness inside me and then was devastated to find that the love itself was empty. Though I am still very ashamed of what I went through with the Mystery Family, I can forgive myself—grief is very hard to face. Like the Valentine chocolate I’m still kicking, it sucks to be without those admittedly false prop-ups, the illusion of relationship I got from peering in at somebody else’s, the insincere stream of love-chemicals pulsing through me with no real release.
The worst part of facing grief is the feeling that I no longer have anything to offer. I’m not hot, or cute, or entertaining. Just as I couldn’t really serve the Mystery Man’s life in any meaningful or vital way, I worry that I no longer serve my readers. I have nothing to offer you some weeks but pain and boredom, and I miss bringing you something fun and good. I want to have something to offer and share, and dealing with The Bad Thing feels supremely selfish, this project feels so far up its own ass sometimes I could scream. For so long I’ve found a sense of purpose and worth in being fun and sex-positive, and when I’m not I feel I’m not serving the world in the way I want to. Though it’s not the way I want to live my life, I want to only be something you’d want to read, and that’s really, really hard to let go of.
The point here, I think, is not that social networking “love” is evil or bad, but that being embodied hurts and I see the appeal of trying to escape from it. As much as it’s been my quest to settle in to my own skin, to live as close to home as I can, sometimes the pain is too much. But always, at its core, disembodiedness feels very much like sneaking a peek at what the world would look like if I weren’t here, and that, because for all my depression I do love life, is terrifying.
I’ve given a lot of thought in the last month to the meaning of love, and here’s what I’ve got so far: it’s nothing if not a physical, holistic emotion, putting real arms around a flawed, broken, sometimes unavailable human being. Real love is about farts, and tears, and dirty dishes, about joy and mess, mistakes and shame, sparkling revelations and lazy Sundays. Right now, that kind of love may be too far away to contemplate without being knocked-senseless by what I’ve lost, but, as a friend or romantically, love is in the body, where, from now on, I would like all of my experiences (Even the typed and posted ones) to take place.