by Jacob Bruggeman
Over the past few weeks, Oliver Young and Jordan Poyner, two of my colleagues at The New Herald, wrote about dating, relationships, and the state of love in a digital age. In particular, they’ve argued with one another about the condition of love within the matrix of online apparatuses we currently use for finding it. Let’s be clear: love is fine. What’s at stake today are love’s ties to place, or how it is sparked and nourished within the bounds of physical space: a city, a bar, a small town, a resort, or in the workplace.
So where does love stand in all this? As one might expect, it’s complicated. I don’t think, as Oliver suggested in “Outsourcing Romance,” that we’ve outsourced love by submitting “to algorithms and analytics in order to offset the psychological burden of making decisions,” and I can’t agree that, in “resorting to apps and sites to find love, what is lost is the anxiety of the emotions and feelings that accompany love.” In fact, one of the characteristics of digitized modern love is a much greater degree of anxiety, engendered by today’s fast-paced, move-it-or-lose-it pressures and a culture that makes it seem like everyone has already found love. What Oliver misses is the critical fact that these apps abstract love from reality, and–through their abstraction–strip love of its embodied presence in physical place. In his reflection “Kiss Me Thru the Phone,” Jordan Poyner also pushed back against Oliver’s essay and its characterization of how we choose (or fail to choose) love today. Yet Jordan also fails to address love’s relationship to place.
When I speak of love’s embodied presence in place, I’m speaking of love’s roots in human action. For example, when two individuals flirt in a bar or club, they are brought into each other’s orbits–the consequence of which being that their actions and words take on an irrefutable presence in place. Unlike two individuals “meeting” online, if a woman approaches me in a bar, I cannot really ignore her. I am thus pulled into an acquaintanceship, and this unfolds regardless of my desires or wants on that particular evening, in that particular bar or club. In this situation, the possibilities of friendship, a romantic relationship, or a sexual encounter are embodied in the presence of the other. This is what is at stake in dating apps, for through these apps we distance ourselves from the decision-making that embodied presence requires of us.
In other words, in digitally filtering the possibility of love or a casual encounter, we lose the immediacy of embodied presence that is inherent in searching for love or sex in actual places. “Okay, Jacob,” you might say, “what about those of us who don’t like dragging ourselves out to bars or parties?” However, the bar is only one example, if a tired one, of a place in which two would-be lovers might meet. Art galleries, classes, community events, and theaters are a meager offering of other examples, all of which are places where people congregate, and thus places in which love might be found. For that matter, any place with people in it is fair game: once we begin to approach place as a possible point of contact with the beginnings of love, we can begin to think of places not just as, say, bars or buildings, but as spaces in which embodied presence can dare us to define love in human action, and just maybe change our lives.
Bringing oneself into contact with others is not easy, and neither are the many interpersonal challenges produced by embodied presence. In this way, dating apps have a real utility for introverts. (These apps also, of course, have the utility of connecting people and affording them the opportunity to consider acting on the connection.) For me, though, the best and realest romantic connections emerge from the trials of interpersonal interactions. It is through meeting this challenge that we can share in the kind of love recognized by John Keats in a letter written almost two centuries ago: “I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else.”
Jacob Bruggeman is a junior at Miami University studying history, political science, and English literature.