“Bad Faith: The Worst First Date of an OKCupid Moderator,” by Christopher Kempf

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nonfiction by Christopher Kempf, excerpted from MQR 53:2, Spring 2014

 

As part of its effort to minimize fraudulent activity, OkCupid—currently the third most popular online dating site, behind Plenty of Fish and Match.com—invites its particularly active users “to moderate the many reports of misbehavior that we receive daily,” including, the site explains, “trolls, spammers, and people who just don’t follow directions.” Those directions, as is standard for dating websites, prohibit nudity, close-ups, baby photos, and artwork, as well as photos in which the user has been retroactively inserted into the shot via Photoshop or, as I’ve seen on my own moderation page, MS Paint’s spray-can utensil.

The most provocative stipulation, however, is that, “You must be in the photo.” Precisely who this “you” is remains unqualified. On more than one occasion, usually while browsing through flagged photos in an attempt to ignore some actual assignment due the next day, I’ve found myself wondering whether a selfie of a user’s abs meets the qualifications laid out by OkCupid’s assiduous team of overseers. Is a blurred photo of a user’s face, I’ve wondered, an accurate reflection of their subjectivity? Does a shot of a recently inked tattoo constitute identity?

In the site’s moderation section, users’ comments often stretch for several pages as moderators haggle over what does and does not meet the standards of personhood. “No face = no user!” one of them writes. “The body matters,” writes another.

This uneasy relationship—between body and self, performance and identity—has long had important implications for the world of philosophy; Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum was, after all, an attempt to locate identity in the act of cognition itself, and before him Plato maintained that the human soul—what he called an “intelligence”—was neither identical with nor explained by the physical body.

But the increasingly virtual quality of our bodies today, in selfies and sexts, OkCupid profiles and Grindr accounts, also prompts with renewed immediacy the question of what does and does not constitute an authentic sexual self. For despite OkCupid’s effort to enforce a consistency between our virtual and embodied identities, we continue to exist online in unadulterated virtuality, our actions and their consequences screened behind anonymous profiles which, as we are sometimes reminded by shows like Catfish and To Catch a Predator, need not have any significant basis in reality.

What this discrepancy between selves ultimately produces, particularly when OkCupid users forego the virtual and decide to meet each other in the “real world,” is an experience which Jean-Paul Sartre calls “bad faith,” a form of mutual alienation in which the existence of the self is threatened by the radically separate embodiment of the Other. Thus, in order to avoid acknowledging the Other’s embodiment—and to avoid, too, what Sartre calls the “shame” in recognizing that one is no longer the center of the world—the self acts toward the Other as toward an object, denying in him or her that full range of human emotion and thought which the self apprehends in its own being.

Illustrating bad faith, Sartre describes nothing other than a woman on a first date, constructing a somewhat indulgent narrative—one imagines him really getting into it, penning furiously in some bohemian, railroad-style apartment on the Left Bank—in which the woman “knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes,” but concerns herself, as Sartre says, “only with what is respectful and discreet in the attitude of her companion.”

Like Freud before him, and like his fellow Parisian philosophes, Sartre is somewhat guilty here of partaking in continental philosophy’s longue durée of unacknowledged misogyny, insinuating that it requires the male philosopher to interpret female desire, to translate, in a sense, the woman’s body back to her. Although I don’t want to defend Sartre from this critique, I do want to extend his understanding of bad faith to men as well; for it is both men and women—and, for that matter, men and men, and women and women—whose behavior, on the archetypal first date, is governed by the form of alienation he describes. Both man and woman, that is, understand though suppress the fact that on the first date the ultimate question, beyond personal histories and occupation, beyond innocuous questions about our favorite films and our undergraduate majors, is that question which has, above all others, fascinated humans throughout their existence, that oldest, most enigmatic of questions—the question of sex.

 

———

 

I discover her tweet on the BART ride back to Oakland:

 

Had an OkCupid date tonight where I heard all about how the world is ending so why would you want to bring kids into that.

 

And okay, I think to myself, sure, I had said those things—that by 2050 the westernmost blocks of San Francisco would be underwater; that at current fertility levels, I’d told her, the world population would reach 200 billion in ninety years. I might even, looking back on it, have used the word “unconscionable” somewhere in there. But it was all, I’d thought, in good fun. She was the one, after all, who’d brought up the Duggar family. It wasn’t as if I’d suddenly gone on some Bill O’Reilly–style screed against mothers everywhere; I was simply making conversation, I’d thought, simply responding in kind to the topic that she, not I, had proposed in the first place.

Sinking lower in BART’s famously urine-soaked seats, shamed and embarrassed, I wonder what, exactly, she’d objected to in my comments—whether I sounded like some apocalyptic, tin-foil-hatted paranoiac, whether, as in so many single-mother rom-coms, the first date was for her an auditioning of potential fathers. Had she been, the entire time, imagining me building sandcastles with the little ones? Or passing out orange slices at halftime of the soccer game? Maybe, it might have seemed to her, I simply lacked the social wherewithal to limit myself to the typical first-date pleasantries. “What do you do?” I might properly have asked her. “Where are you from?” Or, in the Bay Area, “What’s your rent?”

I’ve been misunderstood, I think to myself as the train rises from the Transbay Tube, rocketing past the iconic white cranes of the Port of Oakland. But it’s not necessarily the tweet itself—that 140-character slap in the face—that’s left me staring, nonplussed, at my phone’s glowing window. Two hours earlier I’d sat in Terry’s Lodge on Fifteenth and Irving waiting for her to show up. She was late, but she was, according to her profile, beautiful, and so I’d sipped my Budweiser quietly and watched with the rest of the bar as Tim Lincecum took a no-hitter against Saint Louis into the fifth inning. It was then, thirty minutes after we’d agreed to meet, that she’d walked in. Her strawberry-blonde hair, of which I’d been so enamored in her profile, shimmered in the breeze from the street. Her brown eyes reflected back to me the bar’s neon signage, but it was there, I’d been saddened to discover, that the similarities ended. She wasn’t Motownfilly85, or at least she hadn’t been in several years. She wasn’t, in at least one sense, herself.

“Hi, I’m Aubrey,” she said.

“I’m Chris,” I told her. “It’s really great to meet you.”

 

———

 

“Do you think,” OkCupid asks me one night, a week or so after my date with Aubrey, “that you could be comfortable masturbating in front of a partner?” I think about it for a second and then click “Yes.” “Do you enjoy receiving anal sex?” “Yes,” I click, beginning to sound to myself like Molly Bloom. “Do you (even if it’s secret) have a desire to take part in sexual activities involving bondage?” “Do you enjoy being sworn at?” “Did you join OkCupid for sex?” “Could you respect someone,” another questions asks, “for having sex on the first date?”

Despite the battery of sophisticated, personality-based questions to which users are subjected, OkCupid produces not, I think, a more refined dating experience but a more libidinal one, an experience in which our cultural squeamishness about sex and the body is replaced, through the internet’s anonymity, by a liberated, unself-conscious sexuality operating, for the most part, irrespective of taboo. Nine times out of ten it’s questions like these—filterable by selecting the “About sex” tab—along with photos of prospective dates by which users make their decisions. “Do you like to have your hair pulled?” OkCupid asks. “Do you take pleasure in being humiliated?”

And here, a dozen or so questions in, I pause. I’m thinking not, as I probably should be, about leashes and golden showers, scat-play and servitude, but about the rest of my date with Aubrey. In the barlight of Terry’s Lodge, resolved to make the most of an evening for which I admittedly had no other plans, I began to understand by the second beer that I’d been misled in more than mere appearances. Aubrey was not, as she suggested in the “What I’m doing with my life” section of her profile, “petting every single dog she saw” for a living, but was, like so many young San Franciscan hipsters I’d been trying to avoid, working for a tech start-up in the Financial District. She hadn’t, as she claimed in her “Favorite books,” read Atwood at all, nor, when I’d brought it up, did she have much to offer on Russell’s Logical Atomism, a theory she’d mentioned on her profile and about which I’d known nothing prior to Googling it in an effort to impress her, an effort indicative, admittedly, of my own bad faith.

Still, I’d done my best to be an engaging conversation partner; I had, as they’ve been saying out here in Silicon Valley, “leaned in,” laughing at her jokes and admitting, when it came up, that I was both a Shoshanna and a Charlotte. When I got up to use the bathroom I’d left a ten on the table and asked her to order another round. It was gone when I came back. So was she.

I stare for another minute or so at the question. “Do you take pleasure”—and the screen seems mockingly radiant with it now—“in being humiliated?”

While it seems somehow wrong to call Aubrey’s humiliation of me that night an act of “good faith,” by absconding in the middle of our date—while I, oblivious, checked my breath and adjusted my hair in the bathroom mirror—she nonetheless made clear that she would rather violate what I, at least, had come to think of as fairly standard online-dating rules than spend another minute with me at the bar. In this, her actions ran counter to the typical OkCupid experience, an experience in which users acting in bad faith screen their desire—whether for sex or, as in Aubrey’s case, for solitude—behind polite first-date conversations about where they went to college, which hostel they stayed in during their trip to Berlin, and whether Wes Anderson is or is not a great American auteur.

Despite its ostensible liberation of human sexuality, that is, OkCupid has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the very social mores it supposedly does away with; bad faith, after all, is predicated on the assumption that those enacting it—and we should remember, here, the word’s performative connotations—do exactly that: enact, as Aubrey preferred not to, a polite, pre-established social role which is ultimately a disingenuous one. Desire, in other words, is liberated in the virtual world only to be restrained in the real.

There are, to be sure, plenty of online cultures in which bad faith is not the norm, cultures dedicated, for example, to casual and sexually explicit meetups, particularly prominent here in the Bay Area where underground networks of gloryholes and fetish clubs function as a kind of shadow market to the more official online dating scene. Out with some friends at a karaoke bar in downtown San Francisco one night, I stumbled down a long hallway, climbed some dark, circuitous staircase and parted a set of red velvet curtains—it’s almost too Freudian to make up—to discover beyond the curtains a cavernous room filled with dozens of couples in bondage gear, the women moaning in ecstasy as older men had at them with paddles, whips, and assorted accoutrement too medieval for my own, comparatively vanilla, sexual practices.

As a pair of refrigerator-sized bouncers descended on me from the shadows of the room, I ducked back behind the yonic curtains and scrambled down the staircase, but I’d had for a moment a glimpse of the diverse sexual cultures that do, however clandestinely, exist out here. Still, these cultures, frank in their acknowledgment of sex and unashamed by “divergent” sexual practices, are far less prevalent than traditional online-dating cultures in which bad faith—our pretension that we don’t, in fact, want to bend each other over tables and chairs or, more simply, end the night with a goodbye kiss—seems much more the norm.

In such “traditional” cultures, users enter into bad faith in an attempt to avoid what Sartre saw as the shame involved in acknowledging the body of the Other. Shakespeare, too, was similarly attuned to the embodied workings of shame. It’s shame, for example, which Lear feels when he realizes he’s been wandering naked and delirious across the countryside, scorning, in his madness, the love of those closest to him. In his essay on the play, David Denby calls shame “the most basic emotion,” that gut-level sensation we feel more palpably and more profoundly than almost any other. It’s shame we feel rereading our undergraduate poetry—“to feel the might of an ocean,” I’d written my sophomore year, “and dance a kaleidoscope dream”—and it’s shame that leaves us wanting, more than anything, to turn ourselves inside out and disappear. Shame is a wincing, a cringing of the soul, a feeling of absolute, unmitigated humility. (It’s no accident, incidentally, that that word, “humility,” comes from the Latin root humus, meaning “mud”; one feels like just that.) And it’s shame I feel again tonight, toggling between OkCupid questions and this essay, recalling not Aubrey’s tweet but that moment at the bar an hour before it, that moment when she’d left, the door flung open, the other patrons staring straight at me, wondering, as I was, what exactly had happened.

 

——

 

I’d heard about this kind of thing before. A few months earlier, I’d woken up to a voicemail from a friend in Brooklyn out on her own OkCupid date. “Yeah, I know you’re asleep right now,” she’d spat into the phone, “but you need to hear the rage in my voice.” The rest of it probably deserves a block quote:

 

I mean, mitigated rage obviously, because I’m still in public, but this fucking dick, holy shit.First, he cancels on Friday and now he leaves after half an hour. “Sorry, couldn’t find an ATM,” he texted me, “and I realized it wasn’t going well enough for me to come back.” Fucking shitting on two of my weekend nights. Oh my God. Alright, I just needed an outlet. I’ll…I’ll talk to you in the morning. Bye.”

 

It had seemed, at the time, a bit of an overreaction, but as I stood at our empty table, the other patrons surreptitiously sneaking glances in my direction, I understood, I thought, the rage—and also, yes, the shame—which she’d felt then, that deep, unmistakable sense of having been wronged by a near-stranger. Devastated, I sunk into the booth’s broken upholstery. On the table, Aubrey’s half-finished Michelob Light stood like a smaller, amber version of those obelisks one sees in cemeteries or on famous battlegrounds, the kind of monument commemorating, say, the life of some robber-baron philanthropist or marking in silent witness the spot where Napoleon surrendered at last the dream of the Empire français. Here, the bottle seemed to say, here it had ended.

As I finished my beer, steeling myself for the hour-long trip back to the East Bay, I got a text from her:

 

hey sorry, just got a call that my dad is in the hospital down at stanford and i have to be down there right away

 

I suspected, of course, that she’d received no such call, that the text, like almost everything else that night, was just another untruth, though why she’d bothered to text at all—condemning her father to the hospital, of all things—I still don’t quite understand. Twenty minutes earlier she’d told me he worked as an Air Force colonel on Guam. Still, I told her that I hoped things worked out all right for him. It didn’t, after everything, seem quite worth the effort to call her out on it. I drank down the last of the beer, adding my own small obelisk next to hers, and walked out alone into the Inner Sunset’s midnight fog.

As I headed toward the BART station, the wind from the Pacific rushing down Market Street’s steel canyon, I wondered for a moment why she’d decided to leave. Did she think that I had—in the same way which I believed she had—misrepresented myself? Was she anticipating someone taller? Someone smarter? Someone with more muscles or a deeper voice? I noticed long-repressed anxieties about my masculinity surfacing again, and as I headed down the escalator into the station at Civic Center, I opened my OkCupid profile on my phone, conscious, for the first time, that maybe I had embellished it. There did seem—didn’t there?—a slightly more hardened tone to the profile, an over-exaggeration of my interest in baseball maybe, a somewhat disingenuous accounting of my sexual prowess. I hadn’t been aware of any of this when creating the profile, but it seemed to me now like my own bad faith effort to—as those Ron Jeremy sidebar ads so often promise—amplify my maleness.

But I also found myself wondering why I cared so much that Aubrey had left. Why wasn’t I relieved? And wasn’t my own effort to entertain her—and to please her and, yes, to seduce her—simply part of some selfish, bad faith scheme to prop up my own ego? I stood on the platform waiting for an Oakland-bound train and scrolling through my own “What I’m doing with my life” section. There was, I thought, some truth to it; I was indeed “doing a post-MFA fellowship in poetry” and I did—and do—“run marathons.” But I’d also written that “I swim and cook, explore the city and country, and do yoga,” things which were true, sometimes, at various points in my life, but which now seemed like the interests of a composite self, a hybrid of my best moments and qualities crafted—carefully, painstakingly—to appeal to the midtwenties, cosmopolitan set of well-read women which I hoped to attract.

Maybe, I thought to myself as the BART train screamed into the station, Aubrey hadn’t left for any reason at all having to do with my masculinity. Maybe it wasn’t about my biceps, or my voice, or my particular habit, which I myself despise, of ending every sentence by trailing nervously off into silence. The train whispered to a stop, the crowd pushing en masse toward the doors. Maybe, I thought to myself, it’s that I’m a sociopath.

 

———

 

As much as we might want to imagine those first, tentative texts between Sartre and Beauvoir, bad faith exists, of course, not only with respect to online dating but in countless real world situations as well. I am acting in bad faith, for example, when I treat my waiter as if he’s only a waiter, an object lacking selfhood in the form, say, of a spouse or hobbies or a childhood. So too is my waiter himself acting always in bad faith, merely playing, Sartre says, at being a waiter. “He bends forward a little too eagerly,” Sartre writes of his waiter; “his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.” My waiter is a waiter, Sartre says, only “as the actor is Hamlet,” miming the gestures which he imagines suggest to me those of a waiter.

And the same holds true for each socialized role we take on. “There is the dance of the grocer,” Sartre explains, “of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor.” His examples are carefully chosen, as both the tailor and the grocer are cited by Marx in his discussion of the commodity and the alienation of labor. What Sartre seems to be suggesting, though he nowhere makes explicit mention of Marx, is that bad faith is not merely a localized form of alienation between self and Other, but in fact characterizes an entire way of life under capitalism. It is perhaps not surprising then that OkCupid—so prominent in the heart of late capital’s tech culture—induces in us the bad faith symptomatic of that culture generally.

Yet what is worth remarking on, I think, is that OkCupid’s bad faith is freely and willingly entered into and adopted by the site’s users, permeating every aspect of an experience meant, ostensibly, to help users find real and lasting partnerships. There seems to be a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here in which users, by dissembling, arrive or hope to arrive at an authentic, “truthful” experience of love. It’s a dissonance that extends beyond the site’s users, however, to OkCupid itself. On the site’s About page, users are informed that its algorithms are “extremely accurate, as long as (a) you’re honest, and (b) you know what you want.” Both qualifications imply a unified subject who not only understands his or her desires but agrees that “honesty” is the best policy by which to satisfy those desires; it’s a fairly naive proposition—one wonders if OkCupid’s founders, for all their mathematical sagacity, have read their Freud—from a site that relies on a veneer of postmodern hipness to distinguish it from more staid online dating sites like eHarmony and Match.

More accurate, and more reflective of our postmodern sexuality, is the statement directly below this: “We don’t claim to evaluate you perfectly, but we do claim to find someone who claims to fulfill your claimed requirements, exactly.” Despite its smug wordplay, or maybe because of it, this statement seems much more in line with a Sartrean understanding of the OkCupid experience, one in which what one “claims” to be or to desire need not have any basis in truth. The statement implies, instead, a set of free-floating “claims,” an objective data set, existing irrespective of the subject to which the site—“the best dating site on earth,” if one believes the copy—attaches them.

 

———

 

All of this is perhaps simply the dressing up of obvious fact with unnecessarily sophisticated theoretical jargon. But the contradictions of bad faith do, as is perhaps already obvious, go beyond the merely theoretical, structuring users’ OkCupid experiences in tangible and often quite personal ways. While sex, for example, may be the primary influence in determining which profiles users ultimately show interest in, users rarely ask one another out in the first message they exchange—as they might at a coffeeshop or on the bus—but rather screen their desire behind seemingly earnest questions about one another’s profiles. “What’s your favorite Beckett?” I asked one woman who listed him as a favorite. “Where do you teach?” I asked another.

What matters here is not, of course, where anyone teaches or whether Poetry_Is_Light prefers Waiting for Godot or Endgame, but that users’ initial messages convey interest, however duplicitous, in the Other as more than simply the sexualized object in his or her photos. The first OkCupid message, in other words, functions as pure form; its content, regardless of whether it addresses Beckett or baseball, God or Golden Gate Park, says the same thing in every message—I am sane enough to string together a syntactically complex, reasonably intelligent sentence; I am interested in your interests and in you, Panoramarama9, as a person; you should, therefore, look at my profile.

To that end, every first message I send takes an almost identical form. “A confession,” I begin, and follow this with some observation about the user’s profile which is, in fact, only nominally a confession. “A confession,” I wrote one woman:

 

…as I scrolled through your profile I had that feeling I get when reading some gorgeous passage from Fitzgerald or Benjamin or something, that sense that the prose—or in this case the profile—just keeps getting better and better, more interesting, more engaging. I think we’d get along.”

 

“A confession,” I wrote another, “I found your profile by searching for ‘poetry.’” “A confession: I can’t even finish the Monday crossword. Maybe you can help me?” Tagged as “a confession,” the message creates the illusion of an intimate disclosure, manufacturing through its form a sense of trust and of vulnerability that doesn’t really exist.

And it works. The average return-on-investment for a first message sent from a man to a woman—in other words, the likelihood that she will message him back—is roughly thirty percent, a figure which reflects, I think, the way in which real-world dating practices carry over into a virtual world where men still take on the more socially aggressive role. The ROI for my own “confessions” tends to be a bit higher, which I mention not to imply that I’m some Jake Gyllenhaal dating factory with a new OkCupid date every night—I’m not—but rather to demonstrate that, as with acting, there’s an artifice to OkCupid that can, like any craft, be mastered.

There are, of course, those first messages that attempt to cut through all this bad faith through their own, unique brand of honesty. One woman I know received a message that said “I’m not gonna lie to you

 

and pretend that I care about your interests or want to get coffee with you. I think you are gorgeous and I wanna grab you, make out, and fuck you hard against the wall till you cum all over me” [sic].

 

For perhaps obvious reasons, these kinds of messages are less effective, though they perhaps, despite their misogyny, attempt a sincerity typically suppressed on the site. As Sartre puts it, “Bad faith is possible only because sincerity is conscious of missing its goal inevitably.” The real pleasure to be had in the kinds of sex arranged via OkCupid, after all, lies in drawing it out as long as possible, in postponing the moment of consummation, that moment when bad faith, for all its sophisticated cunning, runs up at last against the hard reality of the body.

 

———

 

For there are, despite my cynicism, nonetheless those fleeting moments in the OkCupid date in which the bad faith with which we relate to one another seems to fall away, replaced temporarily by something approaching honesty or sincerity between mutual subjectivities. The first is that moment, occurring in all but a handful of my own OkCupid dates, when the date “goes meta,” when OkCupid, as that medium which brought the date into existence, becomes itself the topic of conversation. While it’s come up, in my experience, for various reasons—lack of other stimulating conversation topics, or because, with every date, I at least have OkCupid in common—the real reason we so frequently steer our first-date conversations to OkCupid is because it fosters a sense of intimacy through the mutual acknowledgment of the elephant in the room, that site whose profiles, specter-like, haunt our real bodies.

It is not, that is, an ontology which characterizes the first OkCupid date but a “hauntology,” a mode of being existing between bodies perpetually haunted by their own virtual selves. What is acknowledged when the date goes meta is not so much the elephant in the room as it is the ghost in the machine, that virtual specter hovering just over our shoulders and, when spoken of, stepping fully into the light. In this way, the specter resembles not, as Sartre would have it, the actor playing Hamlet, but rather Hamlet’s father, that spirit

 

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night

And for the day confined to fast in fires

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away.

 

Only when Hamlet et al. speak to it is the ghost transformed from spectral Other to embodied Father. Only when OkCupid itself is spoken of do self and Other, on their first date, begin to exist toward each other in mutuality and respect rather than in bad faith; it is as if, halfway through the date, we decide to introduce to each other the ghosts that have all along been standing beside us.

A perhaps more profound moment of mutuality, however, occurs when users, out of their own, freely willing subjectivities, decide at the end of the night to go home with one another, or simply, sometime, to see each other again, moments which bring the entire OkCupid exchange to an embodied consummation finally free of the virtual. From the Latin for “to sum up,” “consummation” here suggests that the end of OkCupid’s complex mathematical modeling is a real-world encounter in which self and Other mutually forego the bad faith that was formerly their inoculation against the shame imposed by the Other. Whereas Sartre understood this consummation as an effort to capture and neutralize the Other’s antagonistic subjectivity, it is possible to read it, conversely, as an instance in which self and Other shed their bad faith and stand together as embodied, potentially shamed subjectivities. For sex, as our continued cultural discomfort with it suggests, carries with it always the risk of shame, the risk that we will not satisfy the Other, that our bodies will, as they do, sweat and stink and sag. In sex, we risk not only being seen but being seen through.

Perhaps real intimacy, then, requires subjecting oneself to the possibility, above all, that one will fail, that one will, in the face of the Other, be revealed not as some carefully constructed performance but as an authentic self with earnest, undisguised interest in that new, radically other—and therefore exciting and unknown and terrifying—human being across the table.

Perhaps real intimacy requires, to the Other, a kind of surrender not unlike the surrender of the devout to God, that ultimate Other, a kind of good faith to counter our bad. Perhaps then, too, there is the possibility of seeing every OkCupid date as charged with moments of potential intimacy, moments so charged with the risk of failure that our pretensions to nonchalance fall away entirely—those tentative minutes waiting in silence for our drinks, the date stretched out before us like a highway; that moment when we decide, in fact, not to go home with one another, but confide in each other anyway, giddily, conspiratorially, that we’d like to see each other again; the lingering stare; the goodnight hug. In these moments and countless others, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be exposed, risking our real, authentic selves in the pursuit of an affection that might very well go unreturned or be returned only on the level of mere performance.

There can be, of course, no real end to our performances in this age of technology, no banishing of the virtual ghosts by which we are haunted. We carry in our wake Instagram photos and Twitter accounts, sexts we shouldn’t have sent and profiles we shouldn’t have clicked on. Yet if we conceive of the first date, as Sartre did, as a theatrical production—a Hamlet say—in which users play out their socially acceptable roles for one another, these moments of intimacy function as a kind of coda or denouement to the main action, a small space in which both actors decide, simultaneously, to quit the stage. As Fortinbras, “with conquest come from Poland,” assumes control over Denmark, Hamlet speaks his final words to a stage littered with shamed and bleeding bodies. “The rest,” he says, “is silence.” And after every date it is.

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Spring 2014 issue

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