The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.

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4 thoughts on “The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

  1. It sounds like you’re talking about Plato here? I don’t hear many people talk about “the” good! Also, you’ve got the idea of “participating” in the good.

    As far as market care substitution goes, I can’t imagine dividing myself in that way. Oddly, I’d rather just not have that strangeness hanging over both of our heads and to just “pay for services.” I wouldn’t want to be guessing whether or not someone is acting, but I suppose that probably happens anyways.

    On the other hand, a lot of people have sex without love, and this is all made explicit. As a substitution for real love, it’s pretty sad, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Sex can be good in-itself, I think. Even paid sex can be good in-itself…I was about to say something else, but I think I’ll stop now. 🙂

    • You are right that the language of speaking of “the good” and participating in the good is taken from Plato. But I was not specifically thinking of Plato but rather of any understanding of goods that does not see them as objects that we possess like material objects, but something that is integrally part of a particular person’s being, but also is wider than that individual taken in isolation from the rest of the world. The use of Platonic language here is more related to my admiration for the power of his rhetoric than using his specific thought as a counterpoint against market care substitution.

      The division you speak of is an interesting one and I definitely mirror your thoughts on market care substitution as I too prefer the authenticity of the notion of paying for services rather than paying to have the appearance of a caring relation.

      I think I agree with your thoughts on sex without love. Although, I personally have a difficult time imagining that paid sex or sex taken out of the context of love and affection is something people can genuinely want to build a life upon. In the background of this post is the idea that when we relate to goods instrumentally as we have to in all market relations, we are never be fully involved in a relation with the good we are seeking as it always stands as an object held separate from us.

      Now this does not mean purchased objects are not valuable, and perhaps intrinsically valuable, but I do think the good of purchasing an intrinsically valuable thing lacks quality that other modes of relating goods like friendship, love, creativity and arguably the life of the mind possess. That lacking quality is the relation of participation fully with and through a good rather than to a good as an estranged object. All other things equal I think goods that lack this quality are less important to human flourishing than goods that have this quality as I can imagine a good life without buying or selling, but not without friendship or love. However, I know this is a contentious belief and I don’t have a knockdown argument in favour of it, so I recognize that it can be plausibly contested.

      Thanks for your comment.:)

      • “Although, I personally have a difficult time imagining that paid sex or sex taken out of the context of love and affection is something people can genuinely want to build a life upon.”

        I totally agree. I think we all want the real thing.

        I guess what I have in mind is a peculiar circumstance that many people are unable to truly navigate…sex without what I might call “real love” can be quite good, but sex tends to immediately bring out feelings of love and it’s hard to separate the two. Even when it’s clear that the sex is nothing more than a service, there’s sometimes the need for more, the need for something deeper, and sometimes that never happens. It’s a sad thing when people don’t know the difference, don’t know what it is they truly want, and conversely, when they draw too sharp of a line between the two and think that sex and love have nothing to do with one another.

        In the case of a paid service, I’d want to know that the other person is not acting so that any good moment that we shared was genuine. I’ve had moments where I shared a genuine connection with someone I knew I was simply having sex with, and those moments were not negated by the mutual understanding that this was not a relationship that would continue. (Not saying I paid for sex!) 🙂

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