Technology, Desire, and Cruel Optimism: MTV’s Catfish seminar, April 1st

Wednesday 1st April, 1-3 pm
University of Westminster, Room 106, 32-38 Wells Street, London W1T

“Technology, Desire, and Cruel Optimism: MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show
Dr Sam McBean, Queen Mary, University of London

Taking the seminar series’ invitation to ruminate ‘On Desire’, this paper will consider the affective textures of a contemporary digital moment, focused in particular on how fantasies of desire become entangled with technology, particularly social media. The paper argues that, increasingly, narratives of technology are being mobilized to speak the narrative failings of enduring love. To explore this convergence, I will focus on MTV’s Catfish: The TV Series. Each episode of Catfish sees the co-hosts, Nev and Max, come to the rescue of someone who has been engaged in an online relationship with a partner who has been resistant to meeting in person. As online detectives, the co-hosts uncover the “truth” about this relationship – more often than not revealing that the beloved is not who they say they are. Lauren Berlant understands desire as ‘a state of attachment to something or someone’ and similarly suggests that ‘[a]ll attachment is optimistic’. Attachment becomes ‘cruelly optimistic’ when rather than enabling the self-flourishing of an individual, it becomes a barrier. The paper will explore how an attachment to a narrative of love – desire’s reciprocated ideal – and to a narrative of technology’s ability to provide this, functions in Catfish despite the repetition (in each episode and across the series as a whole) of the likely failure of both narratives.

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