Most reviews of Up In the Air work hard to locate it in a romantic comedy framework, such as David Cox’s review at The Guardian. It is not a romantic comedy. Similar in some ways to Punch-Drunk Love, Up In the Air uses a constellation of romantic comedy tropes as a critical tool. Instead of romance and isolationist social relations like in Punch-Drunk Love, Up In the Air uses the romantic comedy tropes to problematise ‘loyalty’ in our privileged late-capitalist and post-everything cultural landscape.
Loyalty is no longer something built on trust or expectations of trust forged through shared experience. The function of expectation in this traditional sense of loyalty is important, because it introduces a temporal logic whereby one’s trust is demonstrated now by proffering one’s future trustworthiness. Within capitalist relations of exchange loyalty was therefore experienced as the goodwill developed from already demonstrated positive service experiences and the expectation of continued good service.
What Up In the Air explores is the inversion of the burden of loyalty. A capitalist enterprise does not produce loyalty in its customers or in its workers in a traditional sense of goodwill through positive social relations and the expectation of positive social relations. Instead, enterprises now produce ‘loyalty’ as the accumulation of the debt of good service that the company owes a customer (or worker). The company wants to owe its customers ‘reward points’; it is in the customer’s debt: hence, the production of an expectation and a formalisation of process and time itself. This is naturalised as a ‘reward’ for the customer’s ‘loyal’ patronage.
There are a number of relations of actual (dis)loyalty in Up In the Air:
1) Between businesses and their workers, who for the most part of the film are about to be fired.
2) Between various romantic couplings.
3) Between enterprises and their consumer patrons.
The virtual relations of loyalty — what I described in a previous post as “the virtual feedforward loops that cultivate and then harness anticipation as an affective or â€˜felt tendencyâ€™ for guiding consumer behaviour” — are structurated by conventions of expectations. Beyond consumption is a mobile diffuse logic of expectation determined by capital, that exploits the affective conditions of trust that underpins loyalty.
Relations of actual loyalty have an inherent temporal dimension because loyalty is only ever actualised as a field of social possibility premised on assumed distributions of trust. I am loyal, because I trust, therefore my loyalty is trusted. The expectation emerges from affective relations of shared experiences as the world is endured together.
But we are increasingly atomised. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is absolutely solitary. He wants to inhabit a frictionless world; points of disjuncture are merely fulcra to propel himself further into the flow. He is the limit case of a process through which we are forced out into the world and alienated from solidarity only so we scrabble to consume formalised, ritualised cultural events together. Sport, the nation, the family. A spectator does not experience sport; ‘sport’ is the shared experience of another’s affective implication in the potentiality of an entirely contrived contigency (shared with yet another’s affective implication…). The poverty of the formal dimension of these experiences breeds the need to push beyond the surface affectivity. Violence, hatred, hooliganism produce real contingencies in the world that must be endured together. The economy of respect in masculinist sporting cultures is an index of trust and its distribution. Other peripheral cultures have the same generative capacity. The limit case is perfectly described by Paul Corrigan in his short piece ‘Doing Nothing’ about the way working class youth in 1970s Britain used the street as a space of potentiality.
In capitalist enterprises there is absolutely no trust. Instead of a distribution of trust, there is a distribution of naked expectation. A perverse and obscene expectation of the worst. And at worst it is the expectation of a ruthless ambition to satisfy self-interest. The profit motive is a shared belief that gives discursive form to this expectation. Workers (anyone who labours under the expectations of others) are continually at war with the received infrastructure of alienated expectations by using humour and the potentiality of the workplace itself to generate shared experiences. Such bonding is tolerated by those that impose their expectations as a necessary condition of lived labour. The expecters have their own weapons, by making expectation mobile, by controlling the expectation of expectation through distributions of risk. Risk introduces contingency into the workplace. This is what the workers fired in Up in the Air failed to recognise. Their fellow workers may have endured the world of the workplace together with them and felt like family, or they may have even worked extremely hard to assume and inculcate the imposed expectations of management into their daily experience of the workplace, but this is not loyalty. The expectation of expectations can not be trusted. Workers have to be at war with expectation and exploit the mechanism of imposition (reception, inculcation, expression).