Intimacy on sale – symbolic violence of electronic relationships

‘You can always press delete.’ (Zygmunt Bauman, in Liquid Love)

‘The shameless commodification and commercialisation of everything is, after all, one of the hallmarks of our times.’ (David Harvey, in ‘The Art of Rent: Globalisation, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture‘, Rebel Cities)

online-dating-sites mobile-dating-script

The purpose of this thought-provoking entry is to help my undergraduate students grasp one of the most difficult concepts in an elective course on social relationships: ‘symbolic violence‘. This controversial concept was developed by the late French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). I’m not a big fan of Bourdieu. I took issue with his argument that ‘all pedagogic action is, objectively, symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977, p.5). But since the syllabus requires me to cover this concept, I’d better use some more interesting and relevant topics to illustrate this point. Electronic dating is a good example.

Let’s get to grips with the very notion of ‘violence‘ first. If we strip all its variable meanings, the kernel of this concept remains: ‘that which harms‘ (Kirk-Duggan, 2006). It always involves a victim who suffers and a culprit who misuses his/her power and exercises this power upon someone else. (That’s the reason why social suffering in the contemporary, post-welfarist French society was featured in his book The Weight of the World, published in 1999.) The effects of violence can be physical as well as emotional, and they can be consciously and unconsciously experienced.

In Bourdieu’s term, the virtual reality of dating apps can be understood analytically as a field, i.e. ‘a network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions.’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p.97) This field or user network of dating apps is structured hierarchically where the dating apps users occupy dominant and subordinate positions in one symbolic form or another. One’s position depends on the relative amount of economic and social resources possessed compared with other agents. These resources are called ‘capital‘, which is simply defined as ‘the set of actually usable resources and powers’ (Bourdieu, 1984, p.114).

One can also convert economic capital into cultural capital, which may refer to an art object, knowledge, educational qualifications, cultural taste, appearance, fashion style, accent, etc. or any desirable, distinctive traits that can confer a higher status, and hence help in the pursuit of power in the field. In the case of electronic dating (such as mobile dating), a good appearance, age, occupation, social background, etc. are all symbolic forms of cultural capital. A cultural capital requires investment and therefore can help its owners secure a good return. In other words, cultural capital can also be transformed into economic capital.

Capital carries symbolic power – the ‘invisible power which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it’ (Bourdieu, 1991, p.164). Many users of dating apps would try their best to entrance other users or followers with nice pictures decorating themselves as celebrities. To do so, make-up, body weight, naked torso with six-pack abs, will definitely help. The users succumb to this form of symbolic power without being aware of it.

One’s position in this virtual field has no intrinsic justifications but has meaning only relationally. A user is an attractive, distinctive person only in relation to other more ‘vulgar’ users, who are probably fat, bald, old, etc. ‘It is the relation that makes the meaning’ (Moore, 2004, p.447), not necessarily the inner qualities or personality of that user.

In order to constitute a symbolic violence, there must be a misrecognition of such symbolic power or cultural capital in the field of electronic dating as practice, especially by those who are least resourceful in both cultural and economic capital. It represents the way in which individual users contribute towards their own subordination by gradually accepting and internalising those very ideas and structures that define who is attractive, beautiful, handsome and popular. Here, dating apps also categorise people into different groups which very often the users misrecognise as natural – e.g. race, age, weight, body height, etc. For example, some users on these dating apps blatantly state that they are into Asians only. It is a conspicuous form of racism camouflaged under the banner of ‘freedom of choice’ in economy, which again, is misrecognised on the Internet.

So how do people suffer from this form of symbolic violence? Here, there must be people who are hurt. It consists of both objective hardship and the subjective experience of self-blame, hesitation, self-censorship, the experience of feeling out of place, anxious, awkward, shamed, stupid, etc. as a result of subjecting themselves to the very rules of distinction that actually exclude them. Imagine: you date a girl, whose picture looks pretty nice on her Tinder profile. With the advent of web 2.0, everything is possible – the girl can photoshop her picture easily in order to attract followers, but once you meet her in real person, she doesn’t meet your expectations but actually looks horrible, according to your standard. The girl is rejected, probably questions herself about whether she is good enough or not, has heaps of self-doubt and self-blame, and her self-esteem mashed to a pulp, while not questioning the very problematic, social darwinist ideology of ‘survival for the fittest’ that distorts the very notion of interpersonal relationships in the world of online dating (I once gave an A to a student who can rightly point this out).

While I wouldn’t use the concept of symbolic violence for my research on curriculum studies, it invites us to look at certain social phenomena reflexively. I’m not delivering a moral criticism against the use of social media but when it is examined through the prisms of social theory, we know that although the Internet has opened up a lot of opportunities ahead, human relationships perhaps are perhaps more fragile than before. After all, as Zygmunt Bauman said, if you don’t like that person, ‘you can always press delete.’

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