Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Trading Up

Several months ago, Simon Rich wrote a humor piece for The New Yorker in which he imagined that boyfriends are traded like ball players.  The male protagonist of the story is feeling pretty bummed about being traded to a new owner by his ex-grirlfriend when he arrives at his new owner's/girlfriend's apartment.  But when his new owner tells him that she engineered the deal because she thought he'd be a "good deal," his spirits lift.  Rich ends the piece thusly: "He wrapped his arms around her, laughing with relief.  There was nothing like joining a new team; there was nothing like Opening Day."  Which prompted me to write in the margin: "the excitement of the new, of possibility; of being desired."  And every time I think about our need or desire for another person's desire, I think of Kojeve.  And that invariably leads me to revisiting old haunts and setting out on new vistas.

Begin with our desire to be desired.  What is it that we wish to be desired for?  Some people have said, We wish to be desired for ourselves, and not for our specific attributes.  I wonder if that's true.  What does it mean to be desired for ourselves?  After all, we are not just an abstraction.  We exist (punning on the Heideggerian and non-Heideggerian senses of that word).  The people who say that we desire to be desired for ourselves put forward (implicitly or explicitly) the thesis that we are more and other than the sum of our specific attributes.  In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness and in that freedom by which he escapes."  In Heideggerian terms, to genuinely love someone means to love their existence.  On this basis, then, one might think to correct the error in Kojeve's statement, "man is loved solely because he is, and independently of what he does," by replacing the "is" with "exists."

But is it true that we love the existence of others?  Is Kojeve altogether wrong in saying that we love the being of others?  The father of existentialism, Heidegger himself, had seduced the young Arendt by (mis?)quoting Augustine and telling her, "I want you to be what you are."  We can grant straightaway that loving someone to some extent entails loving a mystery, an absence, a remainder, a trace, etc.  But to love someone means precisely to love someone, ie, to recognize someone in their particularity.  And that recognition is possible only on the basis of something other than "that freedom by which [another] escapes," which characterizes all others and so cannot serve as the basis for differentiating anyone from any other.  Ironically, the emphasis on existence renders the beloved into an anonymous One (das Man).  Anyone who has loved another creature has loved specific attributes of the beloved, without falling into the error of thinking that the beloved simply was the sum of some specific list of attributes.

The notion of identity I think nicely fuses the existence and being dimensions, and goes some way to answering what we wish to be loved/desired for.  "For ourselves" is indeed the place to start.

Now let us return to the Rich article.  Boyfriends are traded based upon what owners/girlfriends see on the stat sheets (though there is acknowledgement of intangibles such as "attitude" and "effort").  Is this world compatible or incomptaible with being loved "for ourselves"?  Discuss.  Be sure to include in your answer whether you think ballplayers in the real world are desired "for themselves."

Just kidding.

The keyword of modern social relationships is freedom.  We have choices today in who to be with that would not have been possible in previous times.  But what Rich's article shows is that from another angle, freedom means "commodification."  I do not mean that simply in a narrowly materialist sense.  Meaningful choice means the opportunity to avail oneself of different alternatives.  Where there are differential alternatives subject to choice, there exists a market.  In any market, sellers try to differentiate their product.  The market for paramours is different today from previous eras in that: (1) there are now different buyers (parents of marriageable-age women versus the women themselves) and (2) sellers can no longer be as certain as formerly that they will, eventually, be able to sell their product (true for both men and women).  This has all sorts of implications that have been discussed by various people that you can look up on your own because I need to sleep now.

1 comment:

  1. So good to read you on matters NOT-political (or not immediately)! I was also moved by that piece in the New Yorker which prompted similar reflections...

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