September 27, 2019

The deserted beach

In the midst of detailing how romantic love is both constructed and exploited by advertising, sociologist Eva Illouz, in her 1997 book Consuming the Romantic Utopia, analyzes the trope of “the deserted beach”:

While the beach is primarily a construct of the tourist industry, in advertising it is detached from the crowded and highly commercialized vacation resorts. In fact, in advertisements beaches are invariably deserted. The couples in such ads are absorbed in an intense gaze of nature as well as in each other, and the feelings their image evokes have a corresponding, ineffable weight and profundity.

Such images are still prevalent in ads, but when I think of idealized depictions of the beach I think more of social media — whether its vacation photos or the hyperstylized influencer images, like those described in Carina Chocano’s Vanity Fair story, “The Coast of Utopia.” In either case, though, the “utopia” is roughly the same. For Illouz, the deserted beach is a “liminal space that inverts the values of work and celebrates the wholesomeness of a fully recovered individualism, yet it presupposes the rental-car agencies, shopping areas, cafes, and restaurants that are now appendages of most beach resorts.” For Chocano, the Instagrammable beach depicts “a life lived in a sane, happy, slow-paced, sustainable, self-contained community of beautiful dreamers seeking refuge from the crass, materialistic, cruel world.” In both, similar contradictions about authenticity and spontaneity are being negotiated: The images try to negate their preconditions; they try to capture the sort of life for which such images would be superfluous.

Both seem to be talking about the same sorts of people. Illouz argued that the “deserted beach” imagery was targeted at the group that Pierre Bourdieu described as “cultural intermediaries,” those who, in Illouz’s description, have “substantial amounts of educational and economic capital,” but nonetheless “cultivate a rhetoric of opposition, subversion, and difference.” These are the sorts of people who were decried as “yuppies” in the 1980s and ’90s, and as “hipsters” in the 2000s, often by people who fit the stereotypes themselves. (Disavowing your status as a “hipster” was an important proof of being one.) Such people, Illouz writes, “lack cultural capital and are socially insecure, yet aspire to cultural legitimacy.” They “search for new and intense experiences and are obsessed with appearance, identity, and self.”

Writing in 1997, Illouz deems those qualities as “postmodern,” but we would probably now call them “neoliberal” — not because one trendy term can arbitrarily supplant an earlier one but because those traits have coalesced as employment conditions and are not merely markers of a lifestyle of rootless consumerism. Seeking new experiences and being obsessed with self-presentation are aspects of demonstrating one’s suitability for projects, one’s flexibility and entrepreneurial chutzpah, one’s willingness to self-brand and scramble to augment their human capital.

For Illouz, beach images are leisure fantasies, “a consummate rhetorical inversion of the world of service employees.”

The beach and the sun are visual and sensory inversions of the world of offices, which demand tight bodily control, clothing and manners governed by etiquette, delicate and controlled management of one’s and others’ feelings, bodily inactivity, and seclusion from the open air and the sun.

Linking romance to deserted beach scenes is part of an “equation of leisure” that “binds the self to the private sphere and puts feelings and self-disclosure at the center of this paradise regained.” This gets at Illouz’s central concern: the relation between romantic love and the consumerism it both depended on and was supposed to transcend. The deserted beach represented a sublimation of the consumerist infrastructure — the rental car agencies and shopping areas and resorts and so on — that romantic love now requires to be legible as such.

Chocano is describing the same sorts of people, but the contradiction they are trying to mediate is how to perform leisure professionally, how to make having a lifestyle into a job. “Feelings and self-disclosure” are no longer the fantasy means of articulating a “private sphere”; they have been widely mobilized as a form of work. The social media influencer — among the more pre-eminent “cultural intermediaries” of the current moment — offers beach images not as moments of leisure but of a life where public and private have fully merged. The risk is no longer that consumerism will corrupt some purer kind of life experience, but that consumerism itself is unattainable because of the duty to produce oneself as particular kind of consumer, with particular tastes and competencies. The romantic fantasy, then, would be to authentically enjoy consuming and not having to “prosume,” to love products (or people) for their own sake and not for how well they look in an image feed.

But if consumerism is now a lost oasis and not a corrupting force, that changes how we should understand its effects on romantic love. In the conclusion of Consuming the Romantic Utopia, Illouz worried that love had been “disenchanted” through its overexposure in consumer culture.

Because of the ubiquitous use of romance to sell commodities, romance in real life has become an empty form, acutely conscious of itself as code and cliché. We have become deeply aware that, in the privacy of our words and acts of love, we rehearse cultural scenarios that we did not write. The formulas of romance now compel the belief only of the culturally deprived.

The concern is that “real love” doesn’t spontaneously generate a unique idiom for itself — that all loves, no matter how special, are expressed in the same familiar ways derived from ads. Everyone is on the deserted beach together going through the same motions, pretending to be alone.

Without the advertising clichés and conventions to frame our expectations, love itself would be incomprehensible. Illouz quotes an epigram of La Rochefoucauld’s: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.” Presumably the problem with this is that such love that mimics the conventions is somehow inauthentic, or that we force what might have been an idiosyncratic and true love into false shapes that spoil it. Illouz suggests that modern romantic experience has a lot in common with tourist experiences: They are systematized in advance so that they may be readily desired, accessed, understood, consumed, disavowed. Tourists travel to see what they are supposed to while learning to forget how contrived it is. “Love” similarly becomes the process of disavowal itself, the suspension of disbelief required to forget the clichés that are formatting your romantic experience. Both love and tourism are less about specific experiences in certain places or with certain people and more about an encounter with a genre.

Illouz wonders whether the effort required for disavowal is becoming too much — that people fail to fall in love because the clichés are too salient. She inverts La Rochefoucauld, proposing that “many people doubt they are in love precisely because they have heard too much about it.”

But it may be that the burden of producing media out of one’s life changes our relationship to the clichés. They no longer need to be disavowed in order to differentiate love from consumption. Instead by producing our own versions of the clichés in our own name, we reinvigorate them for ourselves and are no longer embarrassed by them. We are instead grateful for the template that give us something to post that is readily legible and like-able by others. The clichés of romance cease to be ironic in the processes of our self-mediation.

In The Tourist (1976), Dean MacCannell claims that “touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences.” But authenticity doesn’t incite tourism; tourism produces authenticity by positing a position outside “real” everyday life from which it can be observed and consumed. So if one feels as though they are closing in on something authentic, what that means is they have become more and more of a tourist. They are perfecting their connoisseurship of experience.

Consumerism used to make experiences “inauthentic,” but social media have made us nostalgic for consumerism rather than troubled by it. Experiences are no longer any less “authentic” because they are bought or packaged; instead if they are more easily sharable, they are more desirable and more “real.” MacCannell’s claim should now be reversed: We seek out “authenticity” to inhabit a touristic consciousness at all times, and not merely when we are traveling. Seeking authenticity allows us to be tourists of everyday life. (Trying to find our authentic self lets us be tourists of our own psyche.)

“Tourist” in MacCannell’s time was probably like “hipster” was a few years ago, an insult that described a common aspiration, a familiar way of organizing one’s tastes and pursuits — a “way to begin to know the world.” But now being in tourist mode is more or less a permanent condition, which the “sharing” and “suggesting” on social media networks facilitates. Influencers have replaced hipsters. They have become tour guides of everyday life, showing us the way to our own deserted beach.