August 14, 2007

Self-improvement as self-deception

On the plane ride to Chicago I read Neil Strauss' The Game, the bestselling account of life inside the pick-up artist (or seduction) community.

There's a lot written about the specific pick-up techniques detailed in the book, usually in the context of "How misogynistic is this?" A lot of the methods involve subtly insulting or rejecting the pick-up target (that's a lady), performing prepared routines specifically designed to build rapport (a lot of these are like Cosmo quizzes), or even forms of hypnotic suggestion.

I'm going to stipulate that these techniques work and that they are prima facie deceptive. The fact that both of these things are true raises some interesting questions about how men and women attract one another. But there's a more interesting seduction going on in the book.

It's not about sex

In many ways, The Game, and even pick-up itself, is not really about sex. Yes, that is an objective. But sex is just one way the pick-up artist measures success. Other objectives include: getting a woman to give you her phone number (known as number close) or kissing a woman (kiss close).

Referring to these acts as different types of closes is telling as this is also the language of salesmen. Extending the metaphor, one paradigm of pick-up is known as FMAC, an acronym for Find, Meet, Attract, Close. This recalls Baldwin's speech in Glengarry Glen Ross when he berates the salesmen with another 4-letter code, AIDA (Attention, Interest, Decision, Action).

The point is that power and manipulation are the fuel for this obsession. As with salesmen and their marks, there is an antagonistic relationship in which one person's will is pitted against the other.

The metaphor that Strauss uses more than once is that of a comedian. Comedians go out looking to 'kill' and, like salesman, use prepared routines to manipulate and seduce. As with comedians, the pick-up artist starts out being fearful of rejection and eventually becomes contemptuous of his targets (once he learns how easily manipulated they can be.)

The important point is that seduction is about the exercise of power and the manipulation of perception. So what are we, as readers of The Game, being led to perceive.

I want you to hit on me as hard as you can

One way to understand what's going on in the The Game is to look at the parallels between it and Fight Club. That there should be a connection between the two makes sense; superficially, both are perspectives on contemporary masculinity.

There are a number of explicit connections as well. One of the pick-up artists goes by the handle Tyler Durden. The pickup artist commune in LA is branded Project Hollywood; a conscious echo of Fight Club's Project Mayhem. Project Hollywood becomes home to an ever-increasing number of apprentice pick-up artists who live in barracks-like conditions. And the whole situation takes on a destructive momentum of its own that confounds the expectation of the narrator.

Parallels also exist at the thematic level. Fight Club is a work of seduction. The reader is seduced by Tyler Durden who declares "I look like you want to look. I fuck like you want to fuck. I am smart, capable, and more importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not."

In Fight Club we are seduced by nihilism. But those who mistakenly portray Fight Club as a valentine to ultra-violence miss the crucial point: the reader has been deceived. Tyler is not an external antagonist at all. We are told from the outset "I realize all of this — the gun, the bombs, the revolution — is really about Marla Singer." As Palahniuk has stated, "the whole story is about a man reaching the point where he can commit to a woman."

In a way, so is The Game. After spending two years climbing his way to the top of the pick-up scene, Strauss finds a woman who is resistant to his seduction techniques. So, of course, he must have her.

The important difference is that the collapse of Project Hollywood (and Strauss' pick-up lifestyle) seems to happen to Strauss rather than because of him. The pick-up artist known as Tyler Durden turns out to be a borderline personality who ends up deriving more satisfaction from manipulating the apprentice corps than in actually picking-up women. Mystery, Strauss' closest ally in the community, falls apart from a combination of heartbreak and what seems like manic depression.

As things unwind, Strauss carefully portrays himself as being adjacent to the downfall. Mystery is suicidal, Tyler is manipulating the other guys, Courtney Love is a mess (she's a house guest at one point).

In Fight Club, the antagonist-narrator is responsible for the inevitable collapse of the male fantasy world he created. In the Game, Neil Strauss portrays himself as almost a victim of the community he helped nurture.

It's all in the game

This, ultimately, is the real manipulation in The Game. The author gets to be both a vehicle of hetero-male wish fulfillment and the guy who leaves with the girl when others wreck the party.

That Strauss is able to pull off this maneuver is illuminating if somewhat unsurprising.

At one point, the dysfunctional Tyler coins the term "stylemog" (after Strauss' pick-up handle Style) and defines it as "a subtle set of tactics, mannerisms, backhanded compliments and responses used to keep a pickup artist dominant in a group." So, too, does Strauss put himself in a position of power over the reader while feigning vulnerability.

On one hand he confesses that "a sequence of maneuvers and a system of behaviors would never fix what was broken inside. Nothing would fix what was broken inside. All we could do was embrace the damage." However, whatever Strauss considers broken inside himself is never really explored.

The more important part of this quote is at the end. By ending up with the perfect girl, Strauss has embraced his unnamed damage and treats his journey through pick-up culture as a path that had to be followed. He never would have had the courage to approach his girl without the lessons learned from pick-up.

This sort of weak-sauce Nietzschism, in which the past is justified as it led to the present, feeds into the idea of pick-up as self-improvement. Rather than seduction or manipulation, learning pick-up is a way to overcome one's limitations.

But passing off pick-up as self-improvement is highly disingenuous and purposefully manipulative. It's a way of disguising power obsession in the same way that greed can be disguised as "Jesus wants you to be rich" Christianity.

In the course of The Game, Strauss impressively manipulates women, his fellow pick-up artists and the reader of his book.

Wouldn't you be disappointed with less?


timoni said...

Your post reminded me of a conclusion I made while reading Bridget Jones' Diary: there seems to be an overarching theme of justification in a lot of popular fiction, as if any sort of behavior can be excused as long as the protagonist ends up a bit better than he started. So while Strauss is successfully using his own techniques on his readers, his conclusions are probably that much more palatable because most readers are expecting him to improve, and so have already justified his actions.

(Frankly, there doesn't seem to be much of a point in reading books about protagonists we can't really be pleased with, although most of the popular fiction I've read seems to forget this until about the last hundred pages--The Nanny Diaries, in fact, forgot to make the heroine likable at all. My theory is that publishers assume we enjoy books more when we feel superior to the characters.)

goldman said...

That's really interesting - I hadn't considered the larger manipulation that might be at work. Of course, the point is with The Game that I don't think Strauss actually ends up in a better place than where he starts. While it seems he's giving up pick-up forever, he actually opened a pick-up school this year in NYC.

But what can you expect. The guy included a paragraph in the book where he was typing while having sex with an characterless woman. And he included a footnote to explain that the typos were reproduced verbatim to preserve historical accuracy.

Adam Rugel said...

I had to stop because I haven't finished the book. Will return for more. Party.

Adam Rugel said...

Living in Los Angeles for a year or two is probably something you have to do to understand where Strauss is coming from, and why his brand of “weak-sauce Nietzschism” isn’t a cop-out, but a real path to legitimacy in that town. Status for a man in LA is pretty clearly defined by some combination of: 1) your status in The Business; 2) how hot your date/girlfriend/wife is; 3) how much money you have. Everything else is secondary. Pickup techniques helped Strauss with all three.

In our Bay Area tech subculture, #2 is definitely not part of the equation, but #1 and #3 certainly are. And to get status and money here, there does seem to be a similar kind of gamesmanship. In the startup/VC/angel world, don’t you think this line fits right in: “seduction is about the exercise of power and the manipulation of perception?”

Yes, Strauss seems shallow at times, but he’s playing by the rules of his town—and winning. As the great William James once said, “Don't hate the playa, hate the game.”

goldman said...

An interesting perspective but I very much disagree. We choose the games we play.

If you see a system of status that needs to be manipulated in order to succeed, then that will be true for you. But I don't agree that this is how it works even within the more game-y tech world.

And even if that were true, applying those rules to personal relationships seems like a destructive leap. Why would you want to apply the same framework to your girlfriend as you do to you venture capitalist?

Adam Rugel said...

This reminds me of an argument I have with my parents on a regular basis about why I was a bad student and general miscreant in high school.

Most people (not everyone, but most) go through life trying to establish as much status as possible.

In my high school, being smart and getting good grades did not get you *A* status. Being a drunk and semi-criminal did. I took that prescribed route to *A* status. My younger brother didn't--but he never got *A* status in high school. So while it was possible to get through that high school without becoming a drunk and a semi-criminal, it was a lot easier to get *A* status if you did.

Strauss choose the prescribed route to *A* status.

One of the big systems of status in LA, hot girlfriend/wife, is something that needs to be manipulated--not for everyone, but for most people.

goldman said...

But is your takeaway from high school that being drunk and semi-criminal was a reasonable status structure to aspire to?

Isn't the lesson of high school that no one feels cool and we find out afterward that you need to define that for yourself?

I don't doubt that there's a big part of LA culture that operates on very similar rules to that of high school.

That's no reason to buy into that system.

Adam Rugel said...

the semi-criminal behavior was a path to *A* status, which would have been unachievable in any other way (at least by me--my mommy was a teacher at the school!).

we all buy into our own status systems; stauss' system, at least in LA, is pretty damn big.

may said...

I just finished reading this book and read your review. I'm so glad you posted it because it pretty much sums up what I thought after finishing it. I have a feeling the game Strauss has chosen to play is never going to fill that emotional hole in his life because he's in a world that doesn't value some of his better qualities (they made him ashamed to be a writer!) I grew up in LA and remember how hard it was to be myself - how I'd often pretend to be dumber than I actually was to fit in.

When I finally left LA and moved to the Bay Area, I was so happy to finally be among people who valued the same things I did ....people who got out and *rode* their bikes instead of sitting in tanning salons to *look* the part...people who wanted to make new things that would change the world. These were the people I wanted to play with.

When people say "Don't hate the player, hate the game..." they're assuming there's only one game. I totally agree with you, we all choose the games that we play.

goldman said...

Thanks for the comments, May. I just spend my first real weekend in LA a couple weeks back. It feels a little disappointing to go along with all the cliches about the place, but, man, LA is weird.

The status games that are played there are so nakedly transparent that it's a wonder folks aren't just a bundle of anxieties and insecurities. After spending 30 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get into a nightclub I was certainly questioning my self-worth/place in the universe.

Understanding The Game in the context of Los Angeles culture seems a really important point that both you and asruge have made (albeit in different ways).

Unknown said...

This really piqued my interest. Good thoughts everyone! As someone who has been intimately effected by the PUA community, I am the first to loudly scream from the rooftops that pick-up offers VERY dangerous potentials (as does anything that recommends using compliance techniques in everyday life). That doesn't negate the relevance of Strauss' presentation of social value judgments connected to the enigmatic land of attraction and attractiveness (as Mr. Jason's above comment re-enforces). This far from ONLY occurs in Los Angeles, tho LA/Hollywood might be considered a main hub. You might actually note similar behavior at a less sophisticated level in your local dog pound or jungle ape tribe. Good ole mammalian politics at their best (or worst?).

Of course, and unfortunately, most people who become involved in the manipulative world of Pick-up/seduction are indeed too immature to really overstand the consequences of what they are getting themselves into. Without further exploration and deep foundations of internal balance, the art of seduction is but a dead end.

Please, re-read Juggler's post printed in the book, 'The Seduction of Style'. Some PUAs DO know that you can't fill internal voids with external pursuits. I'm sure that makes them more attractive...

We are all fascinating individuals, but some of us are better at showing that side of ourselves than others. And, honestly, if anyone posting out there has never missed a chance at romance with someone they thought could be perfect for them, then please, tell me your secrets so I can steal your ideas and teach my own Pick-up seminars and sell millions of books.
and if you are still reading this far, i'm glad you enjoy me commenting in excess length of the original article...