Super Sad Neoliberal Self

A review of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-6640-7

“[Capital] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, it has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — free trade.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto
From ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘Wall-E’, from ‘Snowpiercer’ to ‘The Road’ – we are living in an age of hegemonic dystopianism in which visions of a happier and more equitable future seem simply unthinkable. As a number of commentators have noted, is is an era in which it is ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ However, dispiriting as it may be, the apocalyptic imaginary of contemporary culture offers some useful clues as to what a future, absent a decisive rupture with neoliberal capitalism, might look like.

Set in a near future New York City, Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story is one such work. Shteyngart’s United States has lost its post 1945 dominance, and is in the grip of accelerating decline. Economic rivals, led by a bullish China, are outpacing the US. The dollar has lost its status as the international reserve currency, and is now pegged to the Yuan. Meanwhile China and the European Union are threatening to ‘decouple’ from the ailing American economy. Doubling down on its predilection for ill-conceived military interventions the ailing American empire invades Venezuela – only to meet its own Dien Bien Phu in Ciudad Bolivar. Angry and unpaid, veterans of the Venezuelan campaign roam the streets of NYC engaging in violent confrontations with the National Guard. And, in a development that will amuse those who believe that the differences between the Republicans and Democrat parties are heavily overplayed by the media punditry, the two parties now rule a fragmenting America together as ‘the Bipartisan Party’.

In spite of America’s economic eclipse, the contemporary marketization of every sphere of human life runs apace in Shteyngart’s dystopia. Using their “äppäräts” (advanced smart phones/tablets) Shteyngart’s characters can instantly acquire and co-create masses of data about friends, family, and acquaintances including personality scores, cholesterol levels, and ‘fuckability rankings’. Outside, ‘credit poles’ hang from street lamps and telephone poles, displaying credit scores of the passersby. No social engagement is complete without the event being live streamed by participants who namedrop corporate sponsors in hope of increasing the visibility of their stream. Whilst more fine-grained gradations exist, society is cleaved between HNWIs (high net worth individuals) and LNWIs (low net worth individuals.) With shades of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where even the years have corporate sponsors, England is now known as HSBC-London, and America’s favourite Middle Eastern client has been renamed ‘Security-State Israel’.

In this brave new world, both alien and familiar, Shteyngart charts the progress of Lenny Abramov (fuckability ranking mid 300s).  Lenny is a forty something American of Russian parentage who works for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation – a nod to the sinister Weyland-Yutani Corporation of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The Post-Human Services division is engaged in efforts to achieve immortality for those HNWIs rich enough to pay for it. Unlike his wealthy clients Lenny is of middling income, unattractive (his friends describe him as resembling a rhesus monkey) and embarrassed by his poor immigrant parents.

Lenny is also hopelessly in love. The object of Lenny’s affections is Eunice Park (fuckability ranking high 800s). Eunice is a highly attractive, confident and rather unfeeling Korean American in her early twenties. Their relationship illustrates how generation gaps are accentuated by technological change – Lenny likes to read physical books and has an embarrassingly limited text-speak vocabulary.  Whilst Eunice, whose gaze rarely strays from her äppärät, reminds the unfashionable Lenny what text acronyms such as JBF (Just Buttfucking With You) and TIMATOV’s (Think I’m About to Openly Vomit) stand for. Reflecting that contrast, the novel alternates between Lenny’s discursive entries in his physical diary and Eunice’s web chats on GlobalTeens, the social network du jour, with her friends and family.

It would be easy to view Shteyngart’s depiction of social media and smartphone technology in ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ as nothing more than another romantic indictment of the deleterious effects of social media and advanced technology in the vein of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. However, it is better interpreted as a protest against the foreclosure of the liberatory potential of technology under neoliberal capitalism and the corrosive effects of marketization on our most personal relationships. When the development of the now passé Google Glass was officially announced in 2012 much of the media reacted with a curious fatalism. An article in the tech-bible Wired struck a tone of grim forbearance instead of the breathless excitement one might expect from that quarter. The author acknowledged that while Glass might be life enhancing in certain respects, it would also contribute to the decline in face to face social interactions, further reduce our capacity for paying attention, and subject us to ever more intrusive marketing techniques.

New products seem to drop from the sky – fully formed and with no input from consumers as to how new product is purposed. We are simply left to make the best of whatever washes in on the technological tide. The injurious consequences of new technology are taken as part and parcel of economic advancement rather than as the result of the socio-economic structure within which advances are made. For instance, it is commonly noted that the internet pushes users to rapidly hop from page to page thereby reducing our capacity for reading at length. This is often seen as inhering the technology itself rather than, as it is, an orchestrated marketing ploy to expose users to as large a volume of online advertising as possible.

A fatalistic attitude, that ignores the context within which technology develops, easily shades into a romantic conservatism that views modern technology as the cause, in and of itself, of our ills. This romantic conservatism terminates in the ideology of primitivism and animates the portrayal of humanity as a sort of cancer upon the earth propagated by certain sectors of the environmental movement.

However, the problem in Lenny’s world, as in ours, is not technology per se but the absence of democratic input into economic decision-making.  While notionally democratic, the advanced western nations have insulated the most important questions (decisions regarding investment, production, and allocation) from popular control. Consequently, the public is presented with the stark choice of either using new technology that is designed to enlist citizens in the projects of capital accumulation and mass surveillance or give up on technological advances altogether. Unsurprisingly almost all of us choose the first option.  However, there is a third option – a democratised economy in which economic decision-making is done collectively.  Unfortunately, that third option, for the time being, is not on the table.

Modern Lovers

In a Staten Island bar drinking with his closest friends an inebriated Lenny is quizzed about his new girlfriend. During his live-streamed response he declaims:

‘she’s beautiful, and I’m the fortieth-ugliest man in this bar. But so what! So what! What if someday she lets me kiss each one of her freckles again? She has like a million. But every one of them means something to me. Isn’t this how people used to fall in love?’

Of course Lenny might want to consider why he has fallen in love with a woman who is so conspicuously cruel and who has few interests aside from shopping. Like many men before him Lenny appears to believe he can assuage his fear of aging with a younger partner. Yet Lenny’s lament also touches upon the increasingly brutal arithmetic of modern dating. Perhaps the most notorious example of the simplification of modern dating is the smartphone app, Tinder. Tinder allows users to display nothing more than a photograph of themselves and a line or two of text (in contrast to dating sites such as okcupid where much more detailed profiles can be constructed). Users swipe right to indicate interest in the profile they are viewing and left if they are not interested. Given the extremely limited information provided, users are effectively being encouraged to decide interest based strictly on physical appearance. In this context the possibility of developing attraction over time is severely diminished. Through using the app, the construction of brutal hierarchies becomes apparent – the user is made aware, through the degree of interest they elicit, where they rank in the pecking order.  It is not such a great step from this to Lenny Abramov being instantly able to gauge how fuckable, or not, the women in the bar he is drinking in find him.

The week before I read Shteyngart’s novel I found myself watching Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary ‘Looking for Love’ in which Theroux visits a Bangkok marriage agency which arranges for Thai women to meet Western men – typically followed by a hasty marriage. The documentary is a little discomforting to watch. The unease the viewer experiences is, on the surface, due to witnessing a parody of ‘real’ romance. It is all too apparent that we are seeing a rather brutal transaction – youth and beauty traded for security, money and a new passport. However, whilst watching the documentary I found myself wondering if we experience discomfort because our real romances involve far more worth estimation, commodification, and asset trading than we like to contemplate. I recalled a friend remarking that he felt anxious with his new girlfriend because she had a lot of ‘options’ – meaning that he felt she would be attractive to many other men because of the ‘basket of attributes’ she was able to bring to the market. I was also reminded me of a scene in a Kurt Vonnegut novel where a woman refers to a poor girl being swept off her feet by a wealthy man – another character comments: ‘where have you been living girl? I don’t think you’d even see that in the movies these days. The rich marry the rich.’

The view of romantic relationships as little more than market exchange presented in Shteyngart’s novel is something like the despairing worldview one encounters in the work of the French novelist Michel Houllebecq. In works such as The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an IslandHoullebecq depicts a world where nothing but looks matter, and presents it as an iron law of biology (like the depressive he dismisses any evidence that contradicts the complete certainty of his grim analysis). In his latest novel, Soumission, Houllebecq imagines a near future France in which Mohamed Ben Abbes, of the fictional Muslim Fraternity, is elected president. The new president immediately scraps women’s rights and institutes polygamy. Many expected the novel to be a screed against Islam, based on Houllebecq’s previously hostile comments. However, his central character is conspicuously relaxed about the new state of affairs. It seems that Houellebecq views the institution of a theocracy as preferable to the brutal logic of neoliberalism. Unable to imagine a better future, and rightly horrified by the present, he flees into a simulacrum of the past. Houellebecq, as with romantic critics of technology, is simply unable to imagine an alternative to romantic relationships subordinated to market principles and thus finds solace in religious fundamentalism. In both cases the problem lies in viewing current arrangements as eternal aspects of human nature rather than as historically contingent. Fundamentally, the problem with both Houllebecq and romantic critics of modern technology is that both lack a theory of political economy.

Capital made Flesh

Lenny’s alpha male boss Joshie (‘never Josh’) is in his seventies yet looks younger than the forty something Lenny. His seniority allows him to undergo the age deferring technologies of the Post-Human Services Division. Joshie works out every day and, like Eunice, is obsessed with his diet – and disapproving of Lenny’s. To varying degrees all the main characters are deeply concerned by their appearance. Their efforts to transform their appearance seem less determined by their desire, but is rather presented as their duty to society – physical attractiveness in this world is less valued in and of itself, but rather as a form of social capital.

The performative aspect of the efforts of the characters to improve their physcial appearance recalls the work of Joanna Elfving-Hwang. In ‘Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture’ she discusses the normalisation of plastic surgery in South Korea (which has the highest number of cosmetic surgery procedures annually per capita). Increasingly, undertaking surgery is coming to be seen as a moral act; an effort to look better not just for oneself but also for others – and a way to forge one’s path in the modern workplace. As indicative of this shift she notes that whereas in the past Korean women would attempt to hide the fact that they had undergone surgery, it is now increasingly common for women to display their bandaged faces in a show of both relative affluence and their commitment to the beauty ideal. Regarding the Korean reality show, ‘Let Me In,’ in which unattractive contestants are transformed through plastic surgery, Elfving-Hwang comments:

‘In the studio, the contestants’ self-narratives emphasize that they are not vain, but simply unable to function in society ‘like other people’ because of their presumably offending appearance. The contestants declare that

’I wish to live like other people’, ‘not to become beautiful, just to be normal’ (Ep. 3, Season 1);

‘Compared to normal people, my face is huge’ (Ep. 13, Season 2)

‘Just for once, I’d like to live like a human being’ (Episode 13, Season 2)… we may soon have a situation in which patients routinely approach the surgeon in order to perform adequately in society, rather than wanting to undergo surgery in order to become something extraordinary.’

Elfving-Hwang locates specific causes of this development within the Neo-Confucianism of contemporary Korean culture but it seems reasonable to suppose that we will see such a shift in attitudes towards body augmentation and adaptation elsewhere in the decades to come. Certainly Shteyngart appears to be predicting something comparable.

The Prisoner-run Panopticon

Shteyngart has cited Orwell’s 1984 as an inspiration for his novel. Although Shteyngart’s imagined world is not the brutally efficient dictatorship of Orwell’s work, it is, like 1984, a world in which the citizen is under constant surveillance. In contrast to Orwell’s Airstrip One, in Shteyngart’s New York City far more of the surveilling and judging of citizens is done by ordinary people themselves. For instance, whilst Lenny’s credit rating may be the product of a rating agency – his ranking regarding his personality and sexual attractiveness are the co-creations of his contemporaries. It is a world that is panoptic, but one in which the jailed collaborate with their jailors to an unusual degree. In his introduction to Michel Foucault’s work Gary Gutting comments:

‘In the premodern period, the exercise of power was itself typically highly visible (military presence in towns, public executions), while those who were the objects of knowledge remained obscure. But in the modern age the exercise of power is typically invisible, but it controls its objects by making them highly visible.’

If this is true regarding ourselves it is even more true regarding Lenny Abramov. He experiences public judgement as a constant process, as if he were in a trial that lasted a lifetime. For the LNWI’s, who are continually shamed by their inadequacy, we might say that it is punishment that never ceases. Demonstrating the degree to which even the late adopter Lenny is adjusted to, and a collaborator with, the disciplinary regime in which he is embedded, he pines for the return of the never-ending trial when the cellular network temporarily shuts down as a result of civil disorder.

And perhaps, in the end, this is our biggest take-away. No matter our distaste for current arrangements there is no standing outside of neoliberalism. We are all Lenny Abramov.  If we do not want to find ourselves in a world resembling the one so effectively portrayed by Gary Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story we must take up the task, one that Lenny proves unequal to, of imagining, and then building, a future in which technology and our most personal relations are not subordinated to a destructive and archaic socio-economic system.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7

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