“Modern Love” is The New York Times’ most widely read cultural column in both English and Spanish. It is also one of the paper’s most-listened-to podcasts and since 2019 a series on Prime with luxury casts that will premiere its second season this August. In the form of “life stories” and with exquisite editing of the texts, the 17 years of “Modern Love” are not just television material, but a true prospective of the evolution of American morality and bourgeois culture, its lacunae and its aftermath.
Table of Contents
- The blank spots and slips of Modern Love
- The real drama of Modern Love
- Modern Love and capitalist morality
The blank spots and slips of Modern Love
Make no mistake, “Modern Love” is to “This American Life” what a romantic comedy is to an ethnography course, but it also can’t be said to have dodged the important issues over the years. Storylines have reflected, among other things, the global rise in suicide numbers or, in the latest installment of the podcast, without going any further, the brutal helplessness in which legal persecution leaves the undocumented in the US.
The various narratives have been progressing in a choral vintage tale, sometimes hesitantly, like a tightrope walker hovering between the meat grinder and the sappiness. As a result, there are episodes with a background of threatening acrimony and a haze of permanent loneliness. And many lacunae, many things are left untold, taken for granted but nevertheless lie at the heart of what we’re being told.
Blank spots. The woman with a prosthetic leg who complains about the matches she finds on Tinder deciding to get in touch after seeing the photos featuring her face but never noticing the ones she posts on the profile in which her prosthesis can be seen.
Blank spots. The woman who after 12 years of summer flings with the same guy, to which she gives no consideration because she wants a partner to live up to her expectations of social advancement, decides to give him a chance. She reconsiders, but learns: being unemployed with no career ahead of her – rather than her emotional experience – is what leads her to give a chance to the lover whom she feels socially inferior.
Blank spots. The woman who really gets fed up with her partner when he becomes lame and becomes dependent on her to get around town. The main character ratchets up the tension until they rent an apartment in a Melrose Place type building in which a large shared kitchen serves as a place for them to meet other people who are willing to help. She calls that sparse sharing a Commune and pats herself on the back for doing so.
First clue: these three narrators, archetypal of Modern Love discourse, recount such stories hoping for applause, for recognition, at the end. They are far from the only ones.
Other blank spots. Where on earth is the family of the bipolar girl played by Anne Hathaway during her breakdowns? They aren’t around. It’s simply not there. The family in most of the stories is a childhood and adolescent reference. It is no community, nor does it serve as a source of support. When they say family they mean having children, not having parents, siblings, cousins, and relatives – blood relatives or not – forming a material and emotional safety net.
The closing scene of this latest story — third episode in the first season of Prime’s series — is quite a confession, too. Did the character need a partner or did she need a friend? That slide hovers over practically half the episodes throughout these 17 years of Modern Love. Reading some of the most significant ones from this past year it’s inevitable to wonder whether this is a series about love and friendship or really about the absence of communal relationships and the inability to internalize and develop non-commodified commitments.
The real drama of Modern Love
At first reading, the real subject of Modern Love seems to be loneliness. In the TV series the mise-en-scènes and the lighting effects underline this. But in reality, as a whole, the Modern Love universe is a collective mural of the contradictions and selective blindnesses of individualism. Like those photos in which, when zooming in, we discover that the pixels are actually close-ups of people of all kinds.
The great void, the isolated individual, is the starting point of Modern Love. The individual usually perceives his problem to be the partner. He may seek a new one – and if he gets one he will portray this as a triumph/finding – or he may want his partner to meet original expectations frustrated or worn out over time. After reading a dozen stories it is clear what that expectation is: the partner, and eventually the children you have with him/her, have to deliver both belonging and meaning.
But individualism prevents any real belonging. The main characters in the stories measure belonging in a perverse accounting where what they contribute carries a negative sign. In reality things go the other way around, in any human community belonging appears and becomes satisfactory because it allows one to contribute to previously existing common goals. Contributing to that which does not even need to be explained because it is a shared goal is what creates a sense of meaning, of going somewhere in that relationship among many.
There is no Modern Love story without its anticlimax. Frustration, and with it the threat of loneliness, appears in every tale. The appeal of the series lies in what the narrator does next. In the purest TED talk style, when it ends, in 80% of the stories, the final tone will be desperately asking for applause, for recognition. This is a bad symptom, recognition is asked for precisely because they feel frustrated when they contribute. If you feel that you have contributed to others in something shared by all you get satisfaction, not anguish to be recognized.
And that’s the key point. Change, the famous and inevitable “personal growth” of the narrator of a Modern Love story rarely touches the core issue.
When it does, as in episode 4 of the first season of the TV series, based on a story published in 2013, it appears as the result of a surrender and a “begging for forgiveness” that precedes accepting a certain loss, a certain individual deficit in favor of the interpersonal relationship. The perverse emotional accounting that was the starting problem is still there: what you receive scores positively, what you contribute negatively. And the bleak individualistic message is reinforced: human relationships are built on sacrifices for something that, in the end, is a mercantile exchange based on exploitation and surplus value (usually symbolic but not always).
Modern Love and capitalist morality
Since its origins, capitalism has known how to detect in communitarian aspects and relationships a focus of resistance: capitalism could only be implanted after razing communal-based agrarian communities and proletarianizing the hitherto poor peasants into day laborers and factory workers.
Capitalism soon discovered in the bonds of solidarity that emerged during workers’ strikes and struggles a formidable barrier. The communitarian aspect of the workers went beyond the extended peasant family. It fed and reproduced itself in a true class organizational fabric that through a thousand institutions, collectivities and groupings laid the foundation of that worker democracy which was the true strength of the Second International and which the Third International struggled to turn into a fundamental basis for the global revolutionary movement.
Not only does capitalist morality, based on the commodity religion, depend on the affirmation of the individual as an atomized being in confrontation with the social and the collective. The fact is that any expression of communitarian morality among workers was bound to be viewed with suspicion and, in the end, ideologically attacked with the full force of the opinion industry.
But Modern Love is no longer even that. It is the display of the results of such ideological attack in a city and a social environment where the hegemonic message, that of the individualistic morality of the bourgeoisie and its accounting affections, has long since been practically the only one voiced aloud.
Thus it is also the story of a permanent shipwreck, of a vital frustration that has become tiresome and omnipresent, of a loneliness that is taken for granted and of a solution, the mythology of romantic love as a union of unique and isolated beings against the world, in which one partakes but does not believe.
Modern Love has been around for over 850 installments now, 850 ways of telling the same universe. Sometimes it does so thrillingly, sometimes informatively, never satisfyingly. 850 flavors of the same unsatisfied restlessness but never a single step forward. No, the problem does not lie with the Modern Love contributors. The stagnation lies elsewhere. A society stagnant for human beings can only distill a poisonous morality.