Friday, May 14, 2010

#38 Playa Haters

During the salad days of the Enlightenment, when whig powder and liberty was in the air, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau published a theory about the origins of culture and the theory was this: back in the beginning, before property laws and Christian dogma, when man was essential and wore loincloth, he wasn’t an a**hole. He was happy and thoughtful. And this, Rousseau then argued, was what humanity should be shooting for.

It was a populist philosophy if there ever was one, a moral license to drink, make free relations, and stop going to church, and was flawed only in so far as that, descriptively speaking (evolutionary biologists later learned), man at his purest is a colossal a**hole. Of course everyone suspected as much and so the focus went to the normative aspect of celebrating reason and pursuing happiness as the first order purposes of life, because who could argue with that?

By 2005, two centuries and change later, there’d been enough field testing to reveal a discrepancy between Rousseau’s ideas and behavorial patterns observed everywhere. People, even under the best of circumstances, didn’t act very interested in being happy. They acted interested in being popular. They were after prestigious jobs and better-looking lovers. And they’d surrender rational thinking and suffer all manner of miseries, like platform heels, pegged pants, and billable hour requirements, to achieve such. They might talk about yoga and picnics or whatever but year after year, as long as starvation and frostbite and wild wolves had been dealt with, they’d burn most of their calories on hair cuts, Prada bags, FB profile pics, identifying with trendy things (“I love [Caddyshack/Vampire Weekend/tapas]!”) and squeezing self-promotion into cocktail conversations. The rest was mere epiphenomena, like the poetry John Updike used to write for Playboy.

Thus in the year 2005 a vaguely employed guy in New York City named Paul Janka, having figured the preceding out, wrote a 17 page treatise on “Getting Laid in NYC” that went viral and made him an anonymous cult heroFN1 of sorts, to the point that “Paul Janka” became parlance for “player” for nearly every youngish single dude in Manhattan.

The appeal of "GLINYC" came from two related insights. First, Mr. Janka said that being successful with women required not cleverness or charm or even a job so much as a system (“Any successful business must follow a blueprint if it hopes to achieve significant results; the same applies to shagging women, believe it or not. Do not leave your sex life up to chance”). Second, that system, at least in Manhattan, was predicated on two basic ideas: a) meeting girls at night (especially weekend nights) at bars or clubs is futile (“No matter how suave, clever, funny or good-looking you are, I’m here to tell you that you’ll look rather dull next to New York Fucking City going off on a Saturday night”), b) dinner dates benefit no one (“the usual end game ... is a fat bill, a bloated stomach, some yawns and a peck on the cheek, with the guy standing foolishly by as the girl steps into a cab waving good-bye”).

For any dude on the make this was enticing stuff, partly because the human brain, and especially the male mind, is obsessed with systematizing or ordering a structure out of the ostensible chaos and ineffability of raw experience, and partly because Mr. Janka was exactly right, so right that ex post facto his theories seemed obvious. No normal guy likes clubbing and damn right, dinner dates are awkward and costly and just kind of suck.

Like all compelling heroes, Mr. Janka was more legend than fact, until 2008 or so when a magazine, some gossip sites, and then Dr. Phil, and then the Today Show, pulled him into the media’s lime light and the world discovered that Paul Janka was the real thing: a devastatingly handsome, Harvard educated lothario with no real income and a tiny, 0 bath apartment who stalked the streets of Manhattan chatting up, and being really, really, really enthusiastically received by, random girls he approached on the subway, at book stores, at Starbucks.

This isn't to suggest Mr. Janka's lifestyle has special cultural significance, at least any more so than John Mayer's or Tiger Woods'. His minor celebrity, like almost everything the media (the New Yorker and New York Times and a few others somewhat excepted) celebrates, is largely motivated by shallow sensationalism (and the Goldman Sachsesque capitalism its serves). What is interesting, and possibly significant, however, is the secondary and complex reason for the sensation: not Mr. Janka's lifestyle but his opinion of his lifestyle.

Mr. Janka is outspoken about the fact he TRIES to be a player. He feels it is his job as a single man. It’s not - as the theory of Mr. Janka goes - an externality of his other successes (financial or social). He strategizes it. He talks about “tightening” his game and analogizes the girls in his love life to loans in a portfolio (poorly performing loans are cut loose). Mr. Janka’s argument is that being successful with women, and he’s indisputably correct on this point, takes analysis, hard work, and learning from his mistakes, and further, that men fail themselves and, implicitly, fail women's expectations of them, when they don't make this a priority.

Some people find Mr. Janka's opinions a tenacious vexation. They feel about Mr. Janka the subtle way King Edward I felt about William Wallace. The basis for this vexation is almost always expressed through an emotionally charged, weirdly personal argument that seems somewhat divorced from the logic of discussion. The usual charges focus on: 1) an alleged personality disorder, 2) the emotional harm Janka has inflicted on others, 3) how pathetic he is and how he's stupid jerk who's going to die loveless and lonely, and doesn't deserve them and still owes them $70 from the festival thing, no they don’t even want the money, take it back [flinging currency, sobbing].

But this isn't entirely crazy. Mr. Janka's opinions can mess with your worldview, disorient you precisely in the manner a romantic break-up does, and this is because everyone's worldview has as part of its construction an answer to a very particular question: is there an intrinsic meaning in consensual sexual success?FN2 And though the answer to this question tends to fall, in tangent with people's opinions on Mr. Janka's opinions, straight down gender lines, it's way more complicated and fundamental and ultimately provocative than we generally think.

The problem with sex from an existential perspective is that it's inherently awesome and it's inherently banal and cliche, and it's both things at the same time. Hardline religious prohibitions against recreational fornication, for example, seem insanely anachronistic but also, undeniably, are based on a valid point: sex for the purpose of sex somehow seems spiritually empty. Reality, however, makes it manifestly true that everything that occurs in adulthood, especially the stuff we admire and celebrate, like art, skyscrapers, and getting decent at guitar, exists as a semi-conscious ploy to win some girl or guy's favor. Studies consistently show significant negative correlations between sexual frustration and a more general existential frustration. And further, any acts that lack the promise of sexual reward - like say, attaching a solid fuel rocket to a car, moving to Montana, or becoming a Catholic priest - are not only pointless, they tend to make trouble.FN3

Further, if we press the inquiry, the less it seems specifically about sex so much as social success in general. If, for example, you disapprove of Mr. Janka's ideas, it's not likely due to antiquated notions about virginity. If Mr. Janka habitually picked up girls and inveigled them back to his apartment, but stopped just short of sexual congress, at the precise point she advertised her full intent to sleep with him, that wouldn't redeem him. That might even make him worse. And this demonstrates the essence of any objection to Mr. Janka: he convinces as many women as possible to think he is very, very cool, and that is not harmless action, because the acknowledgment of coolness requires a psychological surrender. You don't call someone cool unless they're more cool than you.

But trying to convince other people to think we're very, very cool is precisely what everyone does all the time. It's a quietly and universally shared ethic. We just aren't as systematic or direct or honest (nor, ultimately, successful) about it as Mr. Janka. We don't run a person-by-person guerrilla campaign. Maybe that makes a ethical difference but it’s difficult to articulate why.

In this regard, the moral value of Janka's philosophy, and diverging opinions on the matter, involve a really large question: what are we supposed to be doing with our lives? How do we reconcile the two and half century old Rousseauian quest for happiness and contemplation with our powerful, often conflicting desires for status enhancement and romantic glory. Why are we doing what we're doing? Working 55 hours a week, leasing an Audi, spin class, that $800 handbag, what’s the point? We aren’t waking every morning at 6:30 AM and playing this game to achieve flow. We know it. We could, each one of us goddam overeducated, super privileged San Franciscans, if we wanted, move to Eureka, find a secure job as a clerk at a grocery store, read books, contemplate Nature and get cozy with the local bumpkins. But we don’t. Because people who do that are losers.

Some groups acknowledge this aspect of our humanity more openly than others. An affecting part of being in NYC, for example, is that New Yorkers are interested in your business. Step onto the 6 line Subway and 50 odd pairs of eyes will check your sh*t out. The more you think about it the more it's unnerving, because this hyper vigilant social surveillance is fueled by selfish interest and unapologetic ambition. You're being evaluated for the purposes of hierarchical placement. Sometimes you'll come out of these evaluations the cool kid and sometimes, even if you’re Mr. Janka, you'll get ranked out. As DFW commented, in Manhattan you almost hear the "hiss" of egos in various stages of inflation and deflation.

There's a honesty to that ethos but it's the number one reason people hate NYC. Undisguised social strategizing is distasteful and, if you're on the wrong end of it, demoralizing. Take, for contrast, the more sophisticated social protocols of San Francisco MUNI bus transportation, which dictate, especially during commute hours, that all riders deny of the existence of extra personal human life. Riders so improvident as to lack an invisibility prop (iPhone, iPod, paperback) must dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge the obvious presence of others. They sprain their necks to avoid eye contact. They look past you if possible or through you if cornered. For fifteen minutes they're fifteen inches from your face but they don't blink. They sweat that sh*t out.

This brand of anti-socialism is socially equalizing and in a way high mindedly humanistic, perhaps the precise opposite of Mr. Janka's interventionist, chat, charm and conquer approach to existence, but it's also a cop out. It's a repression of an essential part of who we are. It's an excuse to be afraid. It's hatin'. It's WTANGISF.

Not that there are positivist truths when discussing this bullsh*t. Our minds can manufacture some damn clever abstractions and we can cleave to them in our books, our dinner arguments, our blogs, etc. but no matter what sh*t we talk or profess to believe we'll always be in the most intimate of things a little confused and a bit lonely, in no small part because we know in a very profound way we aren't going to live forever. Our animal faith in that cannot be shaken. And so in the absence of any divine guidance about what they're supposed to do before they die, people will always do the same thing: get out of the house, mix it up, and try to nab a pretty girl or two. And to us, that sounds like a Janka move. Like being a player. And it sounds pretty f*cking right. It doesn't sound like the most noble or sophisticated thing in the world, sure, but it still sounds like, well, life.

In the end, you may still think Mr. Janka and his opinions are way extreme. That he is messed up. A psychotic. And we're just saying, you may be correct. We're just saying that's precisely why we need him around. As DFW also said, "Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move."

FN1 "We do not require our heroes to be subtle, just to be big. Then we can depend on someone to make them subtle." D.J. Enright in 'The Marquis and the Madame', in Conspirators and Poets, 1966.

FN2 Let's note here that the terms of sexual success depend on your gender, which muddles things. Naked sexual success for a woman is more of a scenario than an act. It's an engagement ring. From the i-banker with a BMW. With a bit of snuggling. The rising phenomenon of the Cougar supplements this, but as a sort of risible Plan B, when hope for the good life has gone.

FN3 Adam Carolla, discussing the guys who, when ambushed on the TV show "Catch a Predator", claim they just intended to "hang out" with an underage girl, jokes, "If that is true ... if you're plan is to troll the Internet, exchange some pics, drive for nine hours, show up at the [14 yr old's] house in a wife beater, and then if your plan really is just go out to the batting cage, then something is profoundly wrong with you. I get the guy who wants to f*ck them. I don't agree with it but I understand it. I know what the motivation is. [But that] excuse is worse than the alleged crime in my book. Shooting pool with a strange 13 year old you met on the Internet, and just hanging out, penny for your thoughts, much wierder."