Love, Technê & Cybernetic Affairs

January 2, 2013

Dream Club, D3 Publisher, 2010

by Joel Gn

Dating simulations, or dating ‘sims’ are a category of video games that require players to date and establish a romantic relationship with a character in a virtual world. In a typical simulation, the player is given a series of options when interacting with other characters, with specific conversational lines and actions leading to pre-determined effects that will elevate the positive sentiments, or ‘love-meter ratings’ of the character. For most of these games, which are extremely popular in a wired society such as Japan, the objective will be to either marry, or have ‘sexual intercourse’ with one of the characters.

Despite their disembodied engagement, dating simulations nevertheless underscore an affective interaction with the artificial intelligence (AI) of the game engine. As Dominic Pettman contends in his paper, Love in The Time of Tamatgotchi, these are moments whereupon the most “‘human’ of experiences — intimacy or love — is increasingly being mediated by the technologies which link one agent to another’. From the digital pet to the virtual girlfriend, these cute yet pixelated objects do not merely breach the divide between the biological and the technological, but continue to invoke the question concerning the phenomenology of love itself.

There has been considerable criticism against the individualisation of technology and how it displaces the subject from older structures of community and belonging. Indeed, one reason why the dating sim might be accused of being a narcotic for Japan’s asocial youth is that it completely translates the physical intimacy of a romantic relationship into a rather impersonal computer program. Rather than interact with another human being, one can now simply purchase an algorithm from a video game store. The alleged danger of the dating sim is less the propensity to addiction than it is the attachment to a false love object, given that the presence of the partner can be conveyed digitally. In other words, our Romantic frame of mind has led us to assume that the love shared between two humans should be lauded, while everything else is a deviation from that relationship, a simulation that should not be taken seriously since it entails the possibility of social isolation and dehumanised objectification. The problematic assumption here is that love, despite being a communicative expression, is actually qualified and ascertained via the character of its participants, as if it only has value if and when it is shared between humans.

In Dream Club, players aim to achieve a blissful conclusion with one of the female club hostesses (pictured above) by visiting and spending time with them.

As such, to dismiss the dating sim as ‘mere simulation’ based on who or what experiences love would be to conveniently overlook the experience and communication of love itself. A starting point to this inquiry can be derived from Catherine Osborne’s Eros Unveiled, where she contends that love is first predicated on the ‘I and thou’, a relationship that can be read only in terms of the lover and the beloved. The famous three words, ‘I love you’ is a speech act which implicates both the speaker and the one spoken to. Taken reductively, such a statement is used to elicit, produce or bring forth a response, while at the same time determining the subject positions of the lover and the beloved.

If we have to experience love through a confession, then it is the confession, and not the confessor that reveals it to us. Similar to the Turing Test, in which the determination of identity, (whether human or machine) is premised on the form of interaction that ensues between the participants, the language of love — manifested in nurturing, flirtation, courtship and marriage — is in the words of Niklas Luhmann, ‘a code of communication’. The dating simulation clearly exemplifies this, for it is always the player who must, via various acts of kindness, complete the appropriate tasks in order to for the virtual character to reciprocate his or her ‘affections’. At times, the attachment to the virtual character could be intense enough for outsiders to see the player’s behaviour as asocial, but do not enraptured lovers, or ‘honeymoon couples’ replicate such actions by shutting themselves away from all that was once familiar to them? To again quote Pettman, love in all its manifestations ‘becomes a cybernetic imperative of regulating the positive and negative feedback loops of libidinal information’.

For love to be understood, it has to be repeatedly expressed. It can even be argued that repetition is essential to an epistemology of love, for love would not be recognisable if it was enacted only once. What then inhabits the differentiation between real and virtual love is a situation where the social is creolised and even extended by the prostheses of the dating simulation (Knorr Cetina 7). That is to say, there is a repetition of discourses from the physical to the virtual domains, even as one differentiates itself from the other. From a broader perspective, repetition denotes that there is nothing which can set the beloved apart from the crowd, because the very same words and actions employed in the objectification of the beloved can equally be applied to anyone, or even anything. With the ubiquity of flickering signifiers in contemporary society, such a phenomenon points to the movement of affect across boundaries of organic flesh and inorganic hardware. As a corollary, all that is performed, from the warmth of a parent’s embrace to the passionate kiss of a lover, is no less trivial or substantial than the playable options on the console screen. If love can be interchanged infinitely, then it follows that we are, quite simply, surrounded by sweet-nothings.

But if these are indeed sweet-nothings, how should we consider the persistence of such feelings? While players are aware their virtual partner is an algorithm, it nonetheless does not prevent them from developing strong attachments to the software. Likewise, in the Romantic confession, we hear of lovers who choose to ignore the validity of the beloved’s character on the basis that their feelings are the ‘only thing that is real’, even if the beloved refuses to reciprocate them. To address the complexities of such amatory gestures, we may turn to the writings of Jacques Derrida, in which writing is both a technê of bringing forth and in a more visceral sense, a ‘fundamental synaesthesia’ that allows bodies to communicate and feel for one another (Of Grammatology 89).

In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida claims that the trace is both disappearance and absence of the origin and hence, there can be no ‘virginal text’ of desire (and for that matter, love) given that it is only brought into being after it is written, or left as trace (118). And it should also be noted that this trace is affective, because it is where—to borrow the language of Benedict Spinoza—‘the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped or hindered’.  This embodied transformation also means that love, impressed on the canvas of our skins, leads to an opening of possibilities, a movement of the trace between and out of fixed sensory perceptions. As Pettman would posit, ‘there is no such thing as a love object, but rather a love vector—distributed qualities, splashed across a multitude of people, characters, images and avatars—as opposed to a fixed fetish of the One: The Big Other’. We are therefore captured in this space between language and the transcendental love object, a space of longing and melancholia, but also of possibility and transformation.

And it is in this space that we can encounter the wound of Cupid’s arrow. This is not to refute objectification, but to probe further into the issue of objectifying something that may lack any qualities of value. This is the question the lover must confront when love is given regardless of what the beloved possesses: Why this person, and not anyone else? To phrase it differently, if love is a testament to the deterritorialisation of desire, how then does it converge upon the singularity of the other? At what point does a collection of tangible qualities—or the reasons for the beloved—become an irreducible object of one’s affections?  One has to remember that love is not innate, but is exchanged, communicated and more importantly brought forth between two or more agents. Love is thus both instrument and code, a site of openness as well as closure which begins with what the lover knows and does not know about the beloved. The paradox intrinsic to this relationship is the seduction of this absolute, essentialising code, which at once, opens the lover to the manifold possibilities of objectification (when all images and qualities of beauty are virtually attributed to the beloved) yet encloses and reterritorialises the subject with the essence of the beloved. This enclosure resonates with Jean Baudrillard’s argument that all content collapse into the medium, in which case the ‘short-circuit between poles of every differential system of meaning’ come to efface the distinct oppositions between essence and attribute (102). It is through this tension between the singular and the plural, that the lover is able to say, without contradiction, to the beloved, ‘You are everything, yet unlike anything.’

Returning to the dating sim, it becomes clear that the interactivity or feedback loop in the interface is also a definitive feature of the ‘dating game’ in general. So as much as the Romantics would lobby otherwise, everyone becomes a player in the game of love, a game that is, like writing—a form of technology. And similar to the Heidegerrian formulation that technology makes an ‘unreasonable demand’ on nature (14), love is inevitably an unreasonable intrusion into the nature of human relations, since one, either by being loved or falling in love, is not only captured in language, but also touched and transformed by it. If we should allude to the Pascalian cliché that love has reasons that Reason would fail to understand, then it is only because no one is privy to the direction or destination of Cupid’s arrow, until one feels its sting.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. In the shadow of the silent majorities. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston. New York: Semiotext(e), Foreign Agents Series, 1983. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.
—. Speech and Phenomena: And other essays on Husserl’s theory of signs. Trans. David B Allison and Newton Garver. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977. Print.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. “Sociality with objects: Social relations in postsocial knowledge societies.” Theory, Culture & Society 14.4 (1997): 1-30. Print.

Luhmann, Niklas. Love as passion: The codification of intimacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. Print.

Osborne, Catherine. Eros unveiled: Plato and the God of love. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.

Pettman, Dominic. “Love in the time of Tamagotchi.” Theory, Culture & Society 26.2-3 (2009): 189-208. Print.

Spinoza, Benedict. Ethics. Trans. W.H White and A.H Stirling. London: Wordsworth, 2001. Print.

About the Author:

Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.