A friend of mine called last week. He hadn’t been in touch for a bit. Apparently, he had fallen in love with a woman he only sees on weekends. He's in New York. She's in Chicago. When he's not with her, all he does is think about her.
“It’s amazing how powerful a hold she has,” he told me. “I’m out having beer with friends and all I can do is wonder what she’s doing when I’m not around. I catch a scent of a perfume that reminds me of her and I’m completely undone.”
A magazine sales guy whose one marriage ended quickly almost 15 years ago, he’s fairly sophisticated but also fairly cynical. Now he is walking around considering that phrases like “true love” might not be hype.
“When she’s here, we stay in bed, like it seems for hours," he said. "But it’s not the sex. It’s something bigger. I hate to use this word but it’s “deep” but then she goes back to Chicago and doesn’t call and I feel like a… like a woman. It makes me want to hit someone. Or hide underneath the bed. This is insane.”
In poet’s terms, my friend has momentarily gone mad. In evolutionary psychology’s terms, he is experiencing limerance. A state of being which mixes sexual and emotional longing, it’s what makes being around obsessed lovers so annoying.
When not in each other’s arms, they’re “neither here nor there.” Visible to the eyes, such lovers are emotionally unavailable outside their “couplet.” Not simply blind to all around them, they actually demand an exhausting type of attention – intense periodic acknowledgments about the heights of their state of being. Or, equally annoying, the lows.
According to evolutionary psychologists, limerance is composed of equal measures of pain and pleasure – the balance creating a sense of the sublime. The pleasure is the promise of feeling as if you are merging with another being, becoming one. The pain is the dread of rejection, humiliation not just in another’s eyes but those of the community. The merging is not quite there, and perpetually in threat of coming to completion.
It’s an intoxicating brew, and anyone within its orbit will either feel a sense of transcendence or as if they’d fallen into a black hole. Regardless, in both cases there’s a sense of losing agency. The gods of passion guide you.
It's as if romance has a life of its own. And though we don't admit it, that's often that what makes it so thrilling. Whether you’re a participant or simply concerned friend, entering limerance gives the sense of being in thrall to powers beyond individual control.
After repeated reminders to my friend that he lives a charmed life, and that if it doesn’t work out that he was fine before he met this woman, I ended up hanging up on him during a long harangue from him that “nobody understands.” I felt bad but limerance is a game space where if you’re not a player, don’t step into the ring.
The way to “get a grip” over limerance? Send them emails. Buy flowers. Or tough it out... go to the gym and sweat it out. As with all difficult or powerful human emotions, people control it through creating rituals. Behaviors that can give shape to shapeless feelings. Limerance, like any strong emotion, has spawned its own markets around particular rituals, from reading love stories to romantic get-aways.
Humans create rituals, in general, to create order from chaos. Think of a family’s Sunday meal, where everyone sits together to break bread. That meal is the flag that family flies to say, “this dinner together is who we are,” even if the rest of the week they rush around as if they barely know each other.
Rituals are particularly fertile in areas like romance, where conditions are apt to change at any moment, leaving a lot of vulnerability in its wake. Markets depend on ritual behavior, feeding needs that are constant yet always susceptible to the threat of unstable forces (i.e. energy supplies, hurricanes, war, etc.).
Indeed, markets serve rituals. They exist to create stability in an unstable world, whether around food, education, whatever. Commerce allows us to survive, not simply in the short run for day to day supplies, but psychically, delivering us the emotional security that there are others who share our needs and can help us serve them.
Money is the DNA of commerce, providing the symbols of stability. But at core, money itself is a bit like romance, something that is in perpetual and uncontrollable formation. Mark Taylor, who we interviewed here at That’s Capital, writes in his book Confidence Games that money is, itself, liminal, a state of being “betwixt and between.”
If that seems abstract, consider the whirl of emotions around getting a monetary gift, the lovely imagined possibilities it inspires along with the accompanying tensions of wanting to maximize its value.
Money may seem fixed in coin or paper, but within it swim a set of “in between” forces whose shapelessness (and perpetual movement) give them a power that will influence all those who come in to contact. Like romance, it too seems to have a life of its own. Which again, like romance, makes it attractive and dangerous.
The liminal space around money is geography that resounds with contradictions. There's a perpetual sense that money can either deliver cause for dread… or cheer. Booyah! Whether winning or losing, a small object like a coin or a bill has so much power over the course of our lives. An object whose value can go up or down, the logic not always clear.
Facilitating commerce, money allows us to transcend limitations of time and space, literally and figuratively. It both symbolizes (reflects back to us) and generates (storing it for later use) different types of value – moral, social and physical. As much as we want these values to be permanent, they are by their nature temporary. Always in flux. Reflecting a world that is similarly unstable.
As all relationships are a constant series of overt or less overt negotiations, even while we use money to create stability, its stability is constantly undercut by the ongoing negotiation within these relationships, a bit like the value of flowers within romance. Think of week old roses looming there after a lover's quarrel. The stability that money creates is always temporary. Its direction can always turn.
Taylor’s Confidence Games is named for the trickster aspects of money and commerce. But reading the book you don’t get the sense that Taylor feels betrayed by money. Rather, for him the delusions of stability that money feeds may nurture fundamental spiritual as well as physical needs.
A currency’s value hides forces that are as powerful as they are abstract. Within solid-looking paper bills flow forces that are eternally liquid and often impossible to understand, mirroring the mystery of life.
It's not only that we can't always understand things such as why or when it's going to rain; neither can we fathom all the reasons people do things that impact us. As in romance, where we are rarely clear
about why we are in love or why someone loves us, the forces that
determine monetary value are often terrifyingly incomprehensible.
While humans may fear such mystery, we also probably cherish a vessel like money to contain it. Money captures the mystery which we don't want to acknowledge as basic to life. And yet it also exists, to some extent, to remind us of that mystery. It's a safe space to consider creative forces that impact us and almost seem to have their own intelligence.
Capturing those forces, money generates responses that are in a dance of constant opposition. First, again like romance, money demands enormous faith. A trust in the permanence of its existence. A suspension of disbelief, precisely because its operating in a place that suggest rules even as it subverts them.
But second, as in any area of liminality, money also breeds lots of obsessive thought. Thinking (like this post), which sometimes lead to profound intellectual breakthroughs (can't promise that here, but think of figures from Calvin to Karl Marx), that give us new takes on life and how we should live it.
Okay, let’s back up. My last post explored the way recent social and economic changes are reflected in entertainment shifts, specifically the ritual of "going to the movies" has been eclipsed by playing games, at least so far as revenues and involvement.
The game space is far from liminal. In fact, it’s rule and structure bound. Actually, so are movies. But the difference between the two suggests something to do with limerance and the liminal, as well as our present and future.
Movies focus on emotional catharsis. The pleasure is about watching a hero move towards forming some new psychic or emotional state. Heroes transform fixed situations (places, people, things), and in the process are transformed and elevated themselves.
The pleasure of games has little to do with the emotional catharsis of watching someone else’s journey. The joy is found in the pleasure and obsession of identifying patterns, leveraging them, and creating new ones. And unlike the movie space, where the stories are seamless and big, the game space is about perpetually short-term engagements.
To win means a momentary transformation. Nobody wins forever. And this is where the liminal emerges as a cloudy presence. Games demand a sense of liminality, because they focus so much on rules. By telling us what we need to do, they suggest a lack of rules (or changing rules) outside their boundaries.
Here's a thought. The popularity of games may reflect a deep philosophic shift within our culture. Namely this: the millennial world has moved beyond beliefs in the absolute reality posed by most religions. The rise of religious fundamentalism, itself, acknowledges a terror of this shift, a desire for a return to stable values. Which probably were never all that stable.
But humans can't live without values. Meaning is what makes us human. For the past century, modernism and faith in scientific progress propelled the development of government institutions, but also the organization of business (things like brands). Then very briefly, and to a much lesser extent, post-modernism emerged, a sense that reality is inherently corrupt because all meaning is tightly controlled by those in power.
Gaming reflects a world-view that is simultaneously less trusting in ultimate answers but also less gloomy about their absence. The gaming attitude suggests that life is best lived by provisional truths. And lived within a reality that, like games, take place in shaped spaces. These spaces may periodically change, but participants within the space can agree upon provisional rules to change them.
And it’s here that games share similar qualities with romance and money, at least around the “liminal.” Because, while humans may act as if they have control in these spheres, there’s an unspoken acceptance that these spaces will morph.
Unlike a movie world, where we sign off with an ominipotent “the end” (as if God has signaled it) a game world is a series of humanly-shaped rules and spaces. The rules may seem fixed, but we can change them, play differently, or we can always move on.
Encouraging immersive as opposed to voyeuristic experiences, games assume an experience is only provisionally real. Outside of the territory of the game’s space, its rules are irrelevant. You either stay in one game space, enter others, or accept chaos.
Not surprisingly, games are a place where faith is almost as important as skill, at least in those where “lady luck” has a hand. As opposed to a movie era where stability focused on the promise of something eternal (like a job that lasted one’s life, or a community that stood strong), what it takes to win is frequently shaky. Difficult to decipher.
At the same time, games are more accepting of failure. If you lose, you go on to another game. Recently, a column by Maureen Dowd satirized Harvard students flocking to classes about happiness. But in a game world, happiness is a critical value. Because if you’re not happy on the journey, the destination promises no ultimate reward. The joy is brief, taking up time than it took to get there.
This post, like the previous four others, is part of a longer examination of infrastructure, exploring how things like national transportation systems or business organizations like brands are impacted by technological and social shifts. Ultimately, I’m looking at how we live impacts… how we live.
Well, honestly, I’m both near the end and far from it. Before I reconnect this back let me return to exploring the liminal aspects of money and commerce, or the patterns of which they're composed and, in turn, inspire.
History, in Taylor’s book Confidence Games, is an ongoing tango between man, money and commerce, the process binding us inextricably (and eternally) to a set of higher powers – whether “the gods,” “God,” or in modern times, things like “market forces” or “corporate capitalism.”
Taylor’s focus is on how we, at various points in history, have found ways to navigate our role in the dance. It follows how, in such navigation, we created powerful belief systems reflected in religion, art, and science. He looks at everything from Calvin’s liberation of bourgeoisie merchants to conduct business while remaining true to God, to modern arts’ impact on Wall Street.
The book points to the way commerce and money, and by extension technology, have always played an enormous part in evolving belief systems, for science as well as religion. In fact, reading this book, you get the sense that the most important belief systems are as frequently generated as tested within the sphere of commerce, money and technology.
In Taylor’s view, they create arenas that have historically been viewed as simultaneously liberating and dangerous. Tracing the emergence of markets, he points out that they were initially viewed not so much as neutral as special spaces, arenas to be approached with a sense of awe.
Set off at the edges of towns, they were accorded their own particular sets of rules and regulations. Market participants were required to express vows or prayers on entrance, and they were centers of ritual, both serious and festive.
Today markets and commerce have their own rituals vows and mystery. Think of trying to figure out real estate prices. Or the stock market. Money, as Taylor suggests, is becoming ever more ethereal or abstract.
Look at Wall Street, where so-called “traders” make a living “playing” stocks and derivatives based on anything from biotechnology companies making no profit to taking hedges on weather patterns like hurricanes.
In millennial America it would be more accurate than flippant to say that the only difference between an illegal and legal bookie is the different authorities who tax them, the former paying up to other mobsters and the latter to the IRS.
And regardless of which authority to whom you bow, the rules of transparency are cover for processes that are deeply opaque. Where once we depended upon the gods for guidance, today we have digital technology, capable of crunching numbers but also perpetually evaluating future scenarios.
Regardless, both the gods and our computers require the filtering of human mediation in whom we desperately want accountability but on whom we more usually simply ascribe faith. Equally important, as with romance and money, digital technology is itself in constant emergence. Like them, it has a generative power that suggests possessing a life force of its own.
At the moment when we think we have the ability to customize our lives through the seeming ability to personalize everything from how we shop to how we work (our constellation of "bytes), digital technology only reinforces our perception that there are forces much bigger us with whom we must co-exist.
The sense of mystery continues to surround us. Because the technology upon which we depend is doing great things, but we don't know how it does them. And even if you don't believe in evolution, as long as you use anything digital you live in a world that is evolving before your eyes.
Since infrastructure is the human effort to build stable systems, and our current technology as well as our belief systems are not just subject to liminal conditions, but reinforce them, well... pray there are no hurricanes in your neighborhood. Big government, a sector many of us once depended upon to save us, may be as much a relic of the 20th century as the movies. Or just irrelevant.
Rather than looking for leaders to lead us, it may be smarter to find collectives creating rituals that serve things in which you believe. From religious or political groups to your local book club to folks who play poker or Everquest. It won't solve the big problems like education or energy policy, but it may offer access to like-minded parties with whom to face shaky times.
And then again, can networks of mophing collectives really confront things like depletions of oil or global warming? More to come.
END OF FORMAL POST
by Jonathan Field
A few more notes: Thinking about rituals, movies from the beginning were immediately ritualistic. You went to a theater. You were part of a crowd. The ritual included a range of broader things (buying popcorn) to things that were personalized (sitting in a certain part of the theater, getting there for the previews, avoiding the previews, etc.). In times when we watch more movies via DVD, the mass ritual is disappearing. The game space has its own rituals, but because there are many more types of games, they are less easy to identify the patterns en masse.
For books on emergence, read Steven Johnson’s book by that name, or John H. Hollands'. More immediately, think of the way Amazon makes recommendations based upon past sales. This is bottom-up technology, constantly taking in algorithms to calibrate the way incremental movements will end up creating a new structure or pattern. A universe of real-time data is interesting, and very valuable to business or political organizations. But as individuals, without interface mediation, it's awfully difficult for humans to make sense of. Steven Johnson's book on the importance of interface design today is something anybody interested in business or politics should read. It's brilliant.
Finally, my phrase "provisional reality," and its importance were inspired by conversations with my brother-in-law Philip Simmons, who fought Lou Gehrig's disease for nine years before he died in 2002, beating odds that said he'd be dead within two. He also managed to write three books in that time, one of them - Learning to Fall - managed to win some critical acclaim. His book Deep Surfaces, which I believe is out of print, is worth grabbing if you ever find it.