Aziz Ansari’s “Modern Romance” and Leninist Freedom

I’ve been searching for inspiration for something to write about and stumbled upon a topic that combines two of my most recent interests: #1 the late television show Parks and Recreation, of which I am currently watching the last season, and #2 the work of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in that I find his ideas interesting, provocative, containing a call to action (albeit a vague one) …

A very obscure reference, but I found it on the Internet and want it on a T-shirt now

Recently, Aziz Ansari (“Tom Haverford” on the show) released a book called Modern Romance, a piece that explores a topic featured prominently in his stand-up comedy: the challenges and dynamics of dating in the 21st century. While I have not read the book myself, I did read an interview of Ansari written by NPR (speaking of romances …). In the interview, Ansari talks about the problem of trying to actually meet people in light of the existence of a myriad of tools that purport to make modern dating so quick and easy, e.g. “OkCupid, Match, Tinder and the like” (1). The problem that vexes Ansari centers on the question of how dating can be so troublesome, unsatisfying, and downright depressing in light of the apparent opportunity to look for a significant other in a variety of ways. And central to this quandary is the question of freedom: what is the relationship between freedom and the modern dating experience?

In a certain sense, Ansari expresses in the article that freedom contributes to the negative feelings associated with dating. This meshes with his appeal to Barry Schwartz, a psychologist and author of the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Schwartz is widely known for his understanding of freedom as preventing personal well-being. In a paper on the same subject, Schwartz states that modern society values “self determination … as a sign of the psychological well-being of individuals and the moral well-being of the culture” (2). However, while some measure of freedom is important (and as Schwartz notes, no freedom whatsoever is completely abhorrent), too much freedom of choice in every day life can lead to “ a kind of misery-inducing tyranny” as “unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis” and stress pertaining to making consumer decisions (2). He cites the exorbitant number of commercial products available on the typical market, such as “285 varieties of cookies, 360 types of shampoo, conditioner, gel, and mousse, 230 soups,” etc. based on a trip to his local super market (2). All in all, his paper lays out the idea that whereas more options is thought to be better for a rational being, the studies conducted by him and his associates indicate just the opposite.

This is undoubtedly an interesting assessment of freedom, especially in the context of Ansari’s dating dilemma and the confusion and unhappiness associated with having to wade through the technological cacophony of modern dating tools, apps, websites, etc. However, I propose another critique of freedom in the context of the difficulties raised by Ansari, only this time it involves the philosophy of Zizek and his explication of what he calls “Leninist freedom” (since a major proponent of this notion of freedom was V.I. Lenin).

In his book “On Belief,” Zizek discusses the dynamics of freedom, particularly as they exist in the current socio-economic and political climate. He outlines two distinct types of freedom: ‘formal’ freedom and ‘actual’ freedom. Concerning the former, while it is not exactly the way he formulates it, Zizek generally divides formal freedom into ‘totalitarian’ and ‘liberal’ freedoms.

First, ‘totalitarian,’ which looks something like this:

The S subject operates withing a framework between the choice of a and b

In this context, the subject is offered the freedom to choose what he or she wishes, but there is an imposition towards one particular choice. In effect, the subject is faced with the pressure that “whatever your inclinations are, you have to follow my order for the sake of ,” e.g. “the higher Good,” nation, Party, etc. (3). Basically, a choice may appear to be present in a superficial sense but in reality the subject is most often aware that they lack any meaningful freedom. Rather, they are pressured or coerced into ‘making a decision’ to do something because it is perceived as being in their best interest to do so. In effect, this is a conception of freedom that, in the common understanding, is not actually freedom but forced ‘choice’ (note the contradiction).

The other subset of formal freedom is ‘liberal’ freedom, more closely associated with the colloquial understanding of freedom:

The illusion of choice is still present, but one appears as ‘better’ to the subject

In this context, there is no explicit pressure to make a decision; the subject is open to chose what they want to do. If I want to drink, I can drink. If I want to smoke, I can smoke. Small liberties are rampantly available to the subject. However, despite the ability to do whatever they want, most people choose to do what is in their best interest anyway. For example, I could take all the money in my pocket and buy ice cream cones until I passed out from a sugar overdose and had nothing left to my name (in a financial sense, though I’d have a lot more to my name in terms of body fat), but I won’t do this because it’s not in my best interest to do so.

Yet, as appealing as this liberal version of freedom may appear, it is more insidious than any other form of freedom for two important reasons:

  1. It masks lack of freedom in the guise of personal capacity. As Zizek writes, this form of ‘freedom’ is the worst of the two “since it NATURALIZES the reasons for obedience into the subject’s internal psychological structure [emphasis added by author]” (3). Even if the subject does not have the freedom it is presented with in actuality (as is the case in totalitarian freedom), they are often inclined to subconsciously justify their actions in terms of their own imagined personal freedom, i.e. they will claim that the action was what they would have chosen anyway even if they did not have a choice in the first place. E.g. if Jim and Bob are both running for president and I abjectly dislike Jim, I will likely support Bob and tell myself ‘well, Bob does stand for a number of issues I support, plus he’s much better than the alternative.’ I might not like either candidate, but by not choosing Jim I have to chose Bob and thus, I justify my decision to support Bob retroactively by “accepting what was IMPOSED on [me] as originating in [my] ‘nature,’ ” even if I am “no longer AWARE of [my] subordination” (3). Thus, liberal freedom masks my ‘unfreedom’ as freedom.
  2. It implicitly adheres to the ‘choices’ made available to the subject (this criticism pertains to totalitarian freedom as well).

Reason 1 provides a compelling criticism of liberal freedom in that it ‘rats out’ unfreedom that pretends to be ultimate freedom, but what do I mean by Reason 2? Allow me to explain by returning to the subject at hand, the issues of modern dating. In the article, Ansari touches on some of the facets of dating in the technologically-driven 21st century and the stresses associated with them. For example, he discusses texting and the apprehension caused by an individual not responding, responding in a confusing or unorthodox way (“does the fact s/he didn’t include a smiley face mean s/he doesn’t like me?”), etc. He also talks about the frustration of simply trying to arrange a date:

And there’s other people who are like, “Ugh, trying to schedule stuff over text to go on a date — it’s exhausting. People are so flakey. They tell you, ‘Hey, let’s meet on Wednesday.’ Then you text them on Wednesday and it’s like, ‘Oh, something came up. Can we meet on Friday?’ That kind of stuff is exhausting.” And people do kind of reach a breaking point, I think, and they kind of change up what they’re doing (1)

However, the problem stemming from the anxiety and disillusionment surrounding the experience of modern dating pertains to the fact that all of these facets of dating (and the corresponding choices as such) fit neatly into pre-determined ‘ways that you date.’ In effect, the modern dater can chose what sites they want to create accounts for, what bars they want to swing by to meet and mingle, who to text, where to get coffee or eat lunch as a first date. But the fact remains: they must (according to the conventions of dating), #1 create online accounts, #2 go to bars, #3, text, #4 mingle over coffee or lunch, etc. They might have a small manner of choice to determine how they go about these activities, but their freedom runs short when choosing if they want to actually make any of these choices in the first place. It’s almost like a choose-your-own adventure book: you can pick your literary path, but there are only so many outcomes and so many pages to flip to in the interim.

To contextualize this dilemma by reference to Zizek, the dating scene (as is the case with many facets of modern life) only allows for “freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations [emphasis added by author]” (3). One can choose who they date and the particularity of how they go about finding an individual to date, but these choices are conditioned by social pressure and only allow for certain choices. Thus, what might appear as freedom to do whatever one might wish to do is actually controlled freedom and thus unfreedom, i.e. an individual may believe they can pick options A-Z (and beyond in a weird, metaphysical way I suppose) but in reality, only A-E are available to them. If so-called freedom only allows one to make certain decisions, can it rightfully be called freedom at all?

This is where the other form of freedom enters, ‘actual’ freedom. It is this freedom that is actually free in a meaningful rather than superficial way in that one actually exercises “the capacity to ‘transcend’ the coordinates of a given situation, to ‘posit the presuppositions’ of one’s activity,” and “redefine the very situation within which one is active” (3). Thus, instead of operating within an invisible box whose walls we cannot see, actual freedom more accurately looks like this:

The subject rejects the old coordinates of choice in favor of a new set of coordinates of their choosing — thus exercising real freedom

Here, the paradigm of choice (itself an oxymoron still — how can one have choice if such choices inhabit a paradigm?) is rejected and the subject can chose a new set of parameters by which decisions can be made (the variety of such parameters represented visually above by a variety of shapes, like big squares, large squares, rectangles, etc.). It is this choice which is the ultimately and actually free one, the “site of an intervention which undermines [the] coordinates” under which the individual was forced to make a decision and duped into thinking they were free (3).

In the context of Ansari’s interview, the radical option outside the paradigm of modern dating ‘procedure’ might contribute to greater satisfaction and success in the activity. A desire to break with the old framework of false freedom can be seen in the article; e.g. Ansari explains the opinion of some that successful dating requires a more hand-on approach:

There’s another attitude of like, “You know, we kind of just went for coffee. I’m not going to like judge them on just a coffee. Let’s do some more stuff together and see if they grow on me.” There [are] so many studies that show the more time we spend with people, the more we grow to like them. That’s just the way people are, you know? (1)

‘Changing the rules of the game,’ as it were, is not easy to do; if it were, people would be willing and able to do so all the time and the symptoms of dissatisfaction would be less prevalent. However, realizing that one’s disillusionment with something like dating might stem not from a self-perception of bad luck of lack of personal worth, but rather being forced to make decisions not conducive to their own success, might contribute to a furthering desire to redefine a social convention like dating to be more efficacious for all. This is the actual, radical exercise of freedom.

See? He’s already thinking outside the box