July 12, 2009
Romance, Manuscripts, and Cyborgs
Virginia Heffernan says that internet romances “are not romances between people at all. They’re affairs with the Internet” - like World of Warcraft, where you become your own avatar:
O Computer World! At its most elementary, it’s a marvelous place, filled with risk and surprises and novelty, unbounded by space and time, where you can be a teenager again, trade gossip, avoid your overseers, gab to friends and boyfriends — all while pretending to do homework. What a perfect realm for puppy love or love with that Sanford-patented “soul-mate feel” — unconsummated love, in other words. By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers’ discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual.
As Chapur wrote to Sanford, “I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages.”
Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself. But letters — the ink-on-paper kind, the kind Byron and Anaďs Nin wrote — had a dense materiality, with handwriting that always suggested the beloved’s hand and thus her body. Besides, wasn’t writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume? It’s not clear whether mp3 love songs or links to insightful blog posts, the value-adds that now come with love e-mail, contribute a sensory dimension or only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is.
The connection to communications technology — the connection to connection — has become part of what makes us human. In the idiom of those who are swooningly in love, it makes us “feel alive.” When we’re denied the connection to connection, it’s no wonder we lust for it. Probably the pundits are wrong: there’s no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now. Instead, our current bind is with offline reality — real life. We’ve been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot.
I wrote my college girlfriend love letters over two summers, when she was in Texas and I was in Michigan (and then London). It is completely different. But I fell in love with her, at least in part, not least because in our freshman year, she was my first constant email correspondent.
Manuscript is different. I disagree, though, about the total virtualization/dematerialization of the body with the internet - I think at one time, exchanging flirtatious glances on Friendster, or staring into a telnet terminal in your campus computer lab, that was true. There was something cold and immaterial about that world, where you had to wait hours for a response, when you couldn’t take an email with you without sheepishly printing it out on a dot-matrix.
But the ubiquity and intimacy of our net-connected objects have changed that. Heffernan’s friend hands her his Blackberry with a note from his mistress, and she recoils: “I didn’t like holding the device. It felt hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body. Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing.” It’s a secondary physicality, a different kind of fantasy of immediacy - a love letter that can reach your beloved wherever she is, finding her not at her office desktop but in her purse or pants pocket. And when your phone vibrates with her new message, you have received something real, something you can touch.