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Love Machines and the Tinder Bot Bildungsroman


Generally, I do not write autobiography, especially on the subject of love, but in this case I will make a small exception. One Sunday, early last year, my boyfriend called from his mobile telephone. He had recently returned from Berlin and we were chatting quite generally when suddenly the conversation became strained and he announced that our relationship was over. Two days later, a packet was delivered to my house from Berlin. Inside was a small hand-carved deer from the Black Forest that was missing one leg; another had recently been repaired. A handwritten note from the same man accompanied the damaged deer. Evidently he had sent the package before the relationship’s recent and abrupt ending.

The story now developed two temporal dimensions: one proper to the mobile digital device, so prone to the fickle algorithms of its human user; the other embodied in the package delivered by post, whose passage had unfolded across space and time, oblivious to the closure of the place it was intended to hold. This series of events struck me as a poignant expression of two different technical systems of communication and their ability to execute our decisions. The older of these is a calculative regime: analog, probabilistic, and determining. The second is a computational regime, where temporal and spatial relations are expedited by digital processing, and these express contingency. I photographed the hand-carved deer and the handwritten note with my smartphone, using the same device to preserve the very tenderness it had cut short two days earlier.

I have elsewhere considered love from the point of view of two technical systems of delivery and distribution that reflect this split between a temporal, calculable, analog discourse, and an ultra-rapid, digital, and computational one. Friedrich Kittler might refer to these as discrete discourse machines, considered according to the technical devices and systems of communication they deploy. We can differentiate between a literary (predigital) and a computational (postdigital) discourse machine. Both participate in distributing love’s codes and behaviors through social systems. In the literary (often epistolary) system of predigital romantic narrative, longing and “repining from afar” were techniques of romantic calculation that testified to the resolve of the beloved in remaining true. “How I envy Valmont!” Laclos has the young Chevalier Danceny write in a letter to his beloved in Dangerous Liaisons. “It is he who will deliver this letter to you, while I, repining from afar, drag out my painful existence in longing and misery.” The love letter implies the separation of the lover and the beloved. Enduring the pain of this separation would guarantee the truth of a given instance of love. Romantic fiction distributed such romantic codes, promoting an idea that these referred to a natural state that precedes the thoughts that they, in fact, facilitate. In its definition of the true, the literary discourse machine relies on a wholly calculable logic and the continuity of the subject and their sentiment. “How do I love thee?” asks the poet. “Let me count the ways.” This logic of probabilistic calculation is a feature of the literary regime of love. Love and the lover must be continuous across space and time in order to demonstrate that they and their love remain true. Ironically, the importance of calculability in literary romantic truth is most evident in its desire to appear incalculable. In other words, truth, love, the subject, and even narrativity must demonstrate a disassociation from the very calculability whose standard it nevertheless accepts. Chevalier Danceny claims that only a “vile seductor can suit his plans to circumstances and calculate according to events; but the love which animates me permits me only two sentiments—courage and constancy.” Calculability is considered in terms of utility and deception, while love is the realm of ineffable incalculability that equates with constancy.

By way of devices such as the novel, the behaviors and thoughts associated with modern romantic love—longing; feverishness; obsession and the gendered overtures of seduction—become “felt” as elements of a natural condition, rather than understood as the result of a technical arrangement. This encoding takes place through machines of discourse. Speaking of Germany in the 1800s, Kittler argues that women in particular are beings indoctrinated into the naturalized power structures of love, in this case by way of poetry anthologies:

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