Shopping for love on the meat market


‘The boundless giving of oneself is as radical as possible in its opposition to all functionality, rationality, and generality’ – Max Weber


In Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, the ever-present, inescapable hand of the North Korean state reaches into the most intimate corners of its citizens’ lives:

Around Sun Moon, blossoms open, the petals spreading wide to reveal hidden pollen pots. Commander Ga dripped with sweat, and in his honor, groping stamens emanated their scent in clouds of sweet spoor that coated our lovers bodies with the sticky seed of socialism. Sun Moon offered her Juche [‘self-reliance’, the official state ideology of North Korea] to him, and he gave her all he had of Songun [‘military first’] policy.

The cliché is that totalitarian societies are totalising; a world so unfree that even involuntary bodily functions are political – fucking isn’t even an escape. It’s a dystopian vision where love can never exist because, as Hannah Arendt put it, ‘love … is not only apolitical, but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.’

Having spent the last few years navigating the online hellscape of dating apps, Arendt’s notion feels uncharacteristically sentimental. If love is anti-political, then the modern mechanism for finding it is certainly not. In dating apps the hegemonic force of capitalism has finally engulfed intimate relationships. Tinder, for instance, is a veritable meat market: potential partners are ‘liked’ or ‘not liked’ based chiefly on their physical appearance; ‘swiping’ feels like a transactional act because you – in the space of a few seconds and with almost no information – ascribe each stranger that pops up before you an arbitrary value.

It’s like shopping for a mate and the fact that it’s been normalised is a testament to the dominance of the consumerist society.

As technology plays a more significant role in our daily lives, championed by digital prophets and tech evangelists heady with the infinite potential to ‘optimise’, ‘innovate’ and ‘disrupt’, we rarely pause to consider the consequences of this changing world. The impending tech utopia/dystopia (depending on your view) and the charge towards a fully automated future can often feel inevitable. But how much autonomy are we prepared to give up in the name of ‘progress’? And what does love look like in such a world?

For Zygmunt Bauman, one of the characteristics of modernity is that people’s lives are increasingly divided between online and offline worlds and their online life is designedly risk-free. People surround themselves with like-minded individuals – euphemistically termed ‘communities’ – and wilfully cut themselves off from people of different faiths, class or race or, more commonly, people who simply have a different worldview to theirs. This kind of atomisation fractures existing communities, often in tragic ways as the recent Toronto van attack, carried out by a member of the ‘incel’ movement, demonstrates.

It’s this absence of risk – love without the fall – that Alain Badiou sees as the defining feature of internet dating. For Badiou, such relationships can never constitute love in the truest sense of the word; ‘love’, in his formulation, ‘cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.’

Implicit in much of this analysis is that the explosion of dating apps is the by-product of the atomisation of society; a further attestation that we are, in the neoliberal age, first and foremost consumers. Badiou’s definition of love – experiencing the world from the point of view of two and not one; living from the point of view of difference and not identity – is messy, disordered and often irrational. It is, in other words, everything the market claims not to be.

Dating apps – the rationalisation of intimate relationships – are anathema to love. That’s not to deny that people have fallen in love with someone they met online; instead, one needs to draw a distinction between personal experiences and the structures dating apps perpetuated.

I’ve never had any particularly bad experiences with them. But the longer I go on using them the more disillusioned I become. It’s not that the people I meet are any less interesting or the dates more unenjoyable, but the encounters have become more tedious because they increasingly feel formulaic. This is in some ways, of course, a reflection on me – the only common denominator in all these encounters. But it has more to do, I think, with the fact that, in polite society, there are certain social norms we observe when meeting someone for the first time: you ask their name, maybe speak about a little about their work, compare hobbies and interests, etc. Dating apps have made setting up these encounters easier than it’s ever been before, but this ease comes at a cost. The more dates I go on the more I feel that I’m having the same conversation over and over again, which unfairly and unconsciously reflects back on the person sitting across the table from me.

These dating apps are, in many ways, an extension of the ‘gig’ economy and many of the same critiques hold: while some individuals do well and succeed in ways they otherwise hadn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t have, the net loss to society as a whole is what’s more significant. In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle writes:

Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result as a decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.

Her point is no less pertinent if ‘a decline of monogamy’ is replaced with ‘a rise in the use of dating apps’. It is, essentially, the same argument made by those suspicious of the ‘gig’ economy – that it increases inequality. But if this is the ‘economic’ argument against dating apps, the social and cultural ones are more consequential.

Paradoxically, dating apps are isolating; they perpetuate a market-orientated worldview and a culture that glorifies the individual and celebrates and rewards narcissism. But like the market’s thrall over society more broadly, dating apps feel increasingly like the only way to meet anyone. On several dates, usually between the fourth and fifth beer, my companion and I have found common ground over our mutual disdain for the whole hellish ritual of online dating, only for one of us to ask resignedly, ‘But how else do you meet someone these days?’ It feels impossible to stave off the inexorable force of the ever-encroaching market. And opting-out, where even possible, often involves significant personal sacrifice.

In the North Korea of The Orphan Master’s Son it’s easy to see how love could be a radical and liberating act. Indeed, the archetypal hero of dystopian literature, Winston Smith, embodies this mythos. But cocooned in our world of abundance, insulated by misconceptions about freedom and choice, the idea that love can still be a radical act seems anomalous. Instead, we venerate our chains and hold them up as a mark of our civilisation. But love in the Weberian sense can free us from the oppression of the market, although not if we put our intimate relationships out to tender.


Ed note: Overland is interested in publishing a series of perspectives about dating and technology. Check out the Pitch Page for more details.

Image: ‘Self-portrait – self obsession done right’ / Mattysflicks

Tim Robertson

Tim Roberson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12.

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  1. Brilliant piece Tim.

    This is it-so on point:

    “it’s this absence of risk – love without the fall – that Alain Badiou sees as the defining feature of internet dating. For Badiou, such relationships can never constitute love in the truest sense of the word; ‘love’, in his formulation, ‘cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.”

  2. Thank you for that article, Tim.

    As an older female, with much life-experience and a disdain for social media, I was interested in what you had to say. I learned a lot more than I will ever need to know about the app dating scene, being 68 years of age, and probably not in need of the devices you use. My current long-term relationship (serial monogamy) is with the same male partner of almost twenty years. I have much sympathy for young(er) people who are, it would seem, “looking for love in all the wrong places”. As you so eloquently point out, social media is “it”.

    The workplace was once a reliable way to meet a partner or date, but now that is closed off, mainly because of the need to assess “equality of power” and appropriate behaviour” (rightly so, of course.) Through workmates and their social networks, people had a wide circle of friends, acquaintances and social activities. I was interested to hear about “incel”, which you briefly touched on, which led to further research. I am not surprised at its ugliness and ability to prosper/fester on internet sites.

    As you point out, dating apps are it. I hope that you and your friends find happiness. Am I just too old-fashioned to suggest that you turn off your phones and step away from your technology? Go outside and do something which might be outer-related rather than inner-related. Put more plainly, what about doing something for others, the environment, the homeless, the poor and the lonely, rather than be so self-absorbed? The best friendships or relationships have a connection, or an interest in common. Or am I only further revealing my age and ancient philosophy? I once saw a slogan (on the internet, as it happens) – the following: “The best vitamin for having a friend is B1.”

    Good luck, Tim and friends.
    Best wishes from
    Merlene Abbott

  3. Hi Tim.
    As a dater and writer I found your article interesting and a different point of view. I view online to be a mechanism only – another channel to meet people I would never have met otherwise: from a climate change scientist, to a pilot, to an academic researcher, to name a few. For me, nothing is real online – it’s offline in the real world where we make the connection, get past the awkward first chat and see who is real, for real, and who isn’t. It’s tiring, slow going, funny, crazy and reminds me regularly that it’s ok to be single.

    I was interested in your comments ‘potential partners are ‘liked’ or ‘not liked’ based chiefly on their physical appearance; ‘swiping’ feels like a transactional act because you – in the space of a few seconds and with almost no information – ascribe each stranger that pops up before you an arbitrary value.’ This is real life, not just Tinder or Bumble or similar. And this is how many people’s parents may have met at a party, a bar, a community event, or through sports before Tinder came along – a glance, a quick judgement based purely on looks as to whether you want to chat or not. It’s physical and it’s fleeting but it’s only the start. Even pre-apps, the awkward first conversation had to happen too.

    Happy dating.

    1. Thanks Elaine. I’m not sure I agree that ‘swiping’ is analogous to meeting someone at a party, bar, community event, etc. In those instances there is a face-to-face, human interaction. You can glean so much more from those interactions than you can online.

  4. Enjoyed reading your article Tim. As a mature woman who recently joined a dating site (and seriously thinking of deleting it) I agree with what you’ve said. It’s a meat market and though Elaine (comment above) says the ‘like’ and ‘not like’ has been happening for aeons with the ‘quick glance’, online dating is more insidious because one ends up looking for what society deems to be the ‘perfect one’ which is a fallacy of course. My reason for joining? My children wanted me to try it as they’re getting concerned about my aging and my being on my own though I enjoy it. Maybe they’re concerned I’ll move in with them! Believe me that is not likely! Online connectedness (not just dating) is a lonely and self depriving existence and can lead to one living a life that is false. But where else does one go to connect? The ideas that Merlene put across are a start but these days a lot of people have little time due to work commitments hence the success of doing everything online, i.e. time is not wasted on those people or things you may think are inconsequential…and that’s when you miss out on something or someone that could change your life.

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