Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On Overcoming Loneliness

Last week I left you all with the issues of call-outs and how to making our voices heard amidst an culture of criticism and culture war. I also left you with a random Coriolanus connection which, I assure you, is actually somewhat related to the topic at hand (and fuel for an essay I'm going to write for no good reason, YAY).

Coriolanus, blogging troubles, and culture war quandaries can all be tied together by one amazing theorist: Hannah Arendt. I first encountered Arendt's writing in my sophomore year and probably had my life changed by the short excerpt I read, dealing with loneliness from The Origins of Totalitarianism. One of the lines from it that made the biggest impression on me was, "Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in the company with others" (Arendt 476). Not only was someone writing about something I had felt for a large part of my life, but she was writing an academic approach to it, which was incredibly comforting for me. Slowly, unknowingly until relatively recently, Arendt's theories on loneliness have wriggled their way into my work. I knew that when I was studying fandoms, I was interested in how people bond together over cultural objects and how this could help fight loneliness. I've been most drawn to Shakespeare's tragedies, seeing how his characters are divided between public and private affairs and seeing how often their own separation from others is their undoing (ex: in the case of Hamlet, his feelings that the world has gone mad and his enacted madness to deal with it. And there's good reason as to why Coriolanus is called a lonely dragon...). Not to mention my own personal struggles and dealings with such feelings.

Arendt takes an approach associating such feelings with our political structure and culture, creating an environment that makes such feelings "everyday experiences of the evergrowing masses of our century." We're gripped by loneliness "in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon" and trying to figure out where to go from here (Arendt 478).

So what do we do when we feel lonely? I for one either mope about on the couch and surf Tumblr, or try to hang out with people I know will make me feel less lonely (though as Arendt mentions, that often doesn't combat loneliness but merely makes it more noticeable). Regardless, the reaction is to go to people - whether virtually or in person - that will help negate the loneliness. But Arendt has another important point - "organized loneliness is considerably more dangerous than the unorganized impotence of all those who are ruled by the tyrannical and arbitrary will of a single man" (Arendt 478). She's speaking here from more of a political position - that when groups bound together by loneliness (likely unknowing that this has bonded them together) have large influence and sway, this is more dangerous than a single person who has a lot of influence.

This becomes a sort of difficult theory juggle for me. Generally from my vantage, rampant individualism (not so much the kind that asserts we're all unique individuals yet we have much in common, but the kind that asserts that we are such separate special snowflakes that we are sort of isolationists that should have no influence or bearing with anyone else and bases itself deeply on a hierarchy of some people being "naturally" better than others) is kind of depressing and scary. I don't want to be so much of my own individual that I can't connect with anyone else or want no help/support/influence by/from other people. But this idea of a large mass of people who are dangerous because of what brings them together would appear to harken back to the fear of masses expressed in many places and theorized by Linebaugh and Rediker through the idea of the many-headed hydra. This is generally something my area of study doesn't view with fear but celebration - organization, collaboration, and bringing people together is regarded as a way to fight oppression, resist loneliness, and better people. So it's interesting to see a perspective in which Arendt has a different view.

Unfortunately for me and all of you, I haven't read more of Arendt's work to know how she parses this out further (her books are on my to-read list; hopefully I'll be pouring over them this summer. But given the historical situation she was writing in, this makes a lot of sense). But based on what I have in front of me, I disagree slightly with Arendt and my thoughts drift towards what Ben discussed in his defense and what I personally believe - organizing, collaborating, working together is essential to work through and resist loneliness. But it's important to recognize how we're working together. Are we pitting each other into an "us vs. them" realm where we side with people who have the same opinions as ourselves and hate those who don't, or are we working together with people in order to bridge gaps, rather than creating them?

These issues are huge for someone like me who struggles to cope with the culture wars, especially in an academic setting. I may say I don't like arguments, but my God, will I take part in one. I try to keep an open mind and work with people even if we have different opinions and perspectives, but I can't help wanting to smack people who express racist/homophobic/classist/sexist views. After dealing with a lot of this in high school, it felt great to find a part of college that was full of like-minded people that allowed me to express myself in ways I hadn't been able to before. In my senior year while hanging out with my friend Danielle, we discussed the idea of salons from the 18th and 19th centuries and how fantastic it would be if they could return in a more inclusive, accessible way. Wouldn't it be wonderful if groups of people could just get together and discuss topics for the fun of it? Wouldn't it be great if people wanted to get together and discuss Foucault or debate on local issues because you can?

While thinking this, I began increasing my social circle and having more experiences like this. I'd wind up in coffee shops with friends, prattling on about cultural issues for hours. I heard about the Current's "Policy and a Pint" sessions. I took more discussion-oriented classes rather than lecture-based. I was studying fandoms (and having good experiences with it). I found myself ending up in conversations with random people that I'd never expected before. My roommate Sarah and I hosted a Dead Writer's Party which felt a lot like the sort of social experience I'd been going for, turning our living room into a cozy little parlor to discuss writing and other adventures. Then there was the defense event itself and, shortly after, my friend Jordyn told me about a group that met in a local bar to have discussions as well. It felt great to know that this idea of sort of modern salon, a place of discussion and collaboration, was more alive than I thought it was (and was far more inclusive than the salons of the past).

This realization came with two other after thoughts: the continued cultural battles still fought amongst these sort of groups, and how much I owed to those I'd surrounded myself with. Despite being in collaborative environments, there was still the issue of who was there and who wasn't there. Let me unpack that. First, who was there. I'd like to think the groups I interact with are, for the most part, pretty good about inclusivity and breaking down barriers. This will be discussed more in Friday's post, but for example, the dissertation defense was intellectual but not "ivory tower academic" (as some would say), putting academia in a higher, elitist sort of tier. It was intellectual and intelligent but also presented in a way that anyone off the street could walk in an participate (and this became a factor. But that's Friday. Or this post will be a billion words long). However, this isn't always the case. Some groups inadvertently - or purposely - keep people out. I think back to the issues I've seen people express about the LGBT community and how basing definitions for group membership on certain ideas can be troubling at times. On Monday, I saw an argument about asexuality groups on Tumblr and how they're excluding what asexuality really means by focusing too much on those who are interested in relationships as apposed to those who aren't. The problem I've come to see with Tumblr is in its attempts to be more inclusive is that it sometimes focuses on a very narrow view of what something is rather than its various, expansive variations. This happens in other outlets as well. What being an academic means gets narrowed down into certain signifiers, being a feminist, being an American - all of these have similar issues, due to struggles with labels and the issues of culture. Once you proclaim yourself as something, there's a recognition that there must be a lot of things you aren't and, because our funny little brains like heuristics, we turn to those. But there's also the issue that certain groups are created out of "us vs. them" issues and that they create more divides than mending them. Some groups work more towards perpetuating the rampant individualist view instead of bringing people together. And it's a problem.

But, to deal with who wasn't there, it's important to consider that some gaps do exist and whether or not they can be dealt with. Sometimes, people won't collaborate because the entire idea of what your collaborating about is a disinterest to them. While we want to collaborate with as many people as possible, we can't make people collaborate. But there's another issue of getting people to collaborate but letting your differences divide you. It's a struggle to deal with different opinions. I found this quote online a while ago and I think it does a good job expressing why this is so hard: "It's exciting to find a part of yourself in someone else." We like working with people who are really similar to us because they reaffirm who we are as people. As Arendt says, "For the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people" (476). Confirming our personalities and perspectives by seeing them embraced and supported by other people helps us overcome loneliness. So isn't that the point of collaboration, to work with like-minded people, because seeing so much disagreement and unbridgeable difference divides us?

Yes, but... there's more to it than that. If we work only with people who think the same things as us, we're back to that narrow category and possibly an "us vs. them" mentality. But it's also important to know that not everyone is going to have the same opinion and might react in a defensive manner. The trick here would seem to be focusing on working through the disagreement or problem rather than going to an "I'm right, you're wrong" sort of stance. Sometimes this isn't always possible - sometimes you can't work through issues with people, and this sucks. But it seems like an emphasis more driven more to collaborate than defensively debate might be more beneficial.

(FYI, that picture from the TV show Community was seriously the best community/collaboration/organization picture Google images would find for me. But it works.)

Last but not least, it is important to realize that a certain sort of gap that can't be bridged are personal experiences. I saw an interesting summary of this on Tumblr as follows:


Aside from the ALL CAPS SHOUTY VOICE, the general idea behind this post is good. Pretending to be an oppressed group personally is not as affective as actually listening to the stories of said group. In a position of privilege, it's important to listen and support rather than try and speak for a group. Instead of creating divides by obscuring voices, it's better to try and bridge the gap by listening and show concern and support for these stories.

This is hugely important for my interest in dramaturgy. For example, if I'm working on a production of a play that deals a lot with race, I can provide information and research, but I can't speak from knowledge or experience. It would behoove me to partner with someone else - either in the production or in an outside source - that can support the production in a way I can't, rather than trying to pretend that I can fill a divide I can't and shouldn't fill.

Dramaturgy is what really ties all of this together for me and causes me to marvel at how lucky I am to know the people I know and to see how its all intertwined itself in my life and experiences. For too many years, I was surrounded by people who made me feel bad about myself and poisoned my mind more than they supported it. While it hurts to realize how badly I failed at bridging what divided us and cut them out instead, I've realized that 1) again, in what seems to be the mantra of my life, failure is how I learn and explore and, 2) sometimes it's really hard to bridge gaps. It may not be impossible, but it's really really hard. Especially when you can have the perspective of wanting to discuss and work through issues, but others are primed for argument and criticism. I like to try not to be too judgmental - Lord knows that, as an INFJ, I have enough judgment in my bones for the whole of the universe (INFJ on the Meyers-Briggs personality scale - I blame my own support of this result for sometimes letting my judgey-pants attitude run rampant). But when a similar judgment is expressed in society, it's hard not to react that way. Which is why I'm thankful for the people I've somehow managed to associate myself with. For the most part, I'd say the people I know are very accepting of difference and aren't judgmental about them (except for maybe some of my musical and entertainment likes. Yeah, I don't really get why I like Daft Punk so excessively either. Let it go). By meeting the people I've met and been where I've been, I've realized how much I owe to those around me and that there is no way I could have ever gotten here alone. I feel significantly less lonely by working with others, seeing how much I have in common with people who have had completely different lives than I have, and finding ways to talk about things that used to be difficult. What first allured me about Tumblr was all its potential and all that it could do - providing a space to talk and discuss and work that other places didn't. It still does this, though not as effectively here of late as it did when I wrote my undergraduate thesis. But I still believe it has potential. And I forever believe that collaborative work is the best way to overcome loneliness. And I can't wait to see where this will lead - and where I'll get lost along the way.
So basically Ben managed to synthesize a great deal of the things I've been working through into a dissertation and I'm super happy about that. I'll sum up the rest of my thoughts on this for Friday and hopefully keep the next post under a couple of thousand words :P

Citations from:
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. San Diego: Harvest Book, 1968. p. 474-479.


  1. So many important ideas here. Just want to share a few thoughts -- which by no means account for everything you've put forward. (Happy to discuss further, of course!)

    1) I think Arendt would very much AGREE that organized groups are the central movers of social change. (The reason I spend so much time with her in the dissertation is precisely because she's one of the political philosophers that broad-based organizers cite the most.) This isn't what she means by "organized loneliness." "Organized loneliness" is the crowd, the mob, the masses of people who have come together because otherwise (as per DeLillo) they'd be terrified of dying alone. What distinguishes this kind of "organization" from the other (good) kind is that in organized loneliness, people are primarily there as CONSUMERS. Whether it's a Hitler speech at a Nuremberg rally or a McDonald's ad on TV or a provocative video on Upworthy, or even the experience of state or corporate oppression, what brings them together is the common experience of consumption. They're united by something that's been done TO them, not something that's done BY them. That's it. There's no agency; people are not making their own stuff, their own community, their own world, as they are in healthy, agency-producing communities. That's organized loneliness. And it's not -- thankfully, and contrary to a lot of liberal and anarchist accounts -- the only way people are (or can be) organized.

    2) You're absolutely right that people form bonds based on the extent to which we see ourselves in others. That's pretty much human nature -- as talked about by Arendt, and by the object-relations psychoanalysts (Miller, Winnicott, Kohut) that Robin cites in "Beyond the Realm of Reason." It's not bad or wrong. And it doesn't preclude us from building relationships across all kinds of differences. In fact, it's what makes it possible. When I work with a recently-homeless person of color (real experience, not a hypothetical) and we discover we both used to live in Chicago and do a lot of theater (and have a deep desire to be onstage and have people cheer for us), that allows us to build a relationship...and, in the process, to understand and work through the differences between us. You can only build on what you share. And "common experience of oppression" is pretty flimsy -- again, you're sharing something done TO you, not done BY you.

    These have been great fun to read; thanks again for writing them. I'm looking forward to the third installment!

    1. Thank yo so much for sharing this, Ben!

      1) Glad to hear that my understanding of Arendt is based on a limited reading and that I agree with her, especially on the differences between the two types of organization. The creators vs. consumers makes that wonderfully clear (and reminds me of Theatre of the Oppressed by Boal - which was brilliant; thank you for recommending that!). And now I really should tackle fandoms again with this...

      2) Thank you for pointing out how we see ourselves in others can really help build across relationships; this is really important because too often I think I focused on how certain aspects of life have caused me to I think I'm too insulated by people who think the same as me, when really I'm actually surrounded by a lot of diverse people. If I thought back to when I first met the people I know, I'd remember that. I hope that I didn't make the idea of bonding based on shared experiences sound negative, because it is how we connect with people. I think I've unfortunately heard it used in various ways to point out how people aren't being inclusive enough (especially in critiques of academics surrounding themselves by "like-minded thinkers" who won't listen to people who disagree. This may be a problem, but not because of how we form bonds - it's something a lot more complicated and nuanced than that. It's a misunderstanding of this whole notion, and yet frightening to see how I've still maintained some anxiety about it in some respects.)

      Thanks again for sharing this; this is all super important and great stuff, and I'm glad you've enjoyed the posts! BTW, looking very forward to reading your dissertation (Emma sent me a copy) and congrats again!

    2. Agreed on all fronts. And yes, the Boal (and Freire) connection is important -- it all comes out of traditions of broad-based organizing.

      And I get the hangup about "not being inclusive enough." It's just important to remember, as we discussed (and experienced!) last Monday, that all communities have boundaries around them; they're imperfectly inclusive. In exactly the same way that we humans have boundaries around our own knowledge and experience and potential. We're not gods, and our communities are not heaven, and we shouldn't assume this means we're bad or wrong.

      Finally: if you're looking to do more Arendt reading, I'd strongly suggest THE HUMAN CONDITION. It's got all sorts of problems (I discuss some of them in the footnotes to Chapter Four), but it's an extremely important work of political theory. Read it in dialogue with the end of THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM (the part you've already read), and you pretty much get the point.

    3. Oh, and: judging from my very limited knowledge of fandoms (pretty much one evening spent with Anne Kustritz), I agree there are really important connections here. I'm especially interested in (and worried by) the ways corporate entities have tried to harness the Arendtian impulse to combat loneliness by building things together, in order to generate more value and make more profits (the whole "produsers" thing). Looking forward to learning more!

    4. I think I'm going to put the bit about we're not gods and our communities are not heaven on a fancy bit of paper and look at it every day to remind myself of that :) And I was thinking about adding The Human Condition along with the other Arendt to my to-read list, so I'll certainly do so now!

      And agreed about corporate entities getting into the Arendtian impulse. It's really messy when corporations try and produce material knowing that fans will respond to it or trying to get their hands into fandom stuff themselves (creating platforms for people to sell fanfiction on, trying to control what's fan merchandise and what's piracy, etc). But yes - that will totally be another post!

  2. Another wonderful post, Gina; very smart and engaging. Ben's comments are terrific as well. Another surprise link between us: I'm INFJ as well (though my J is pretty much "in the middle" of the scale). And I love the way you tie it all into dramaturgy--

    1. Thank you, Kit! Glad you enjoyed it. :) And yay for being an INFJ - I think you're only the second person I've met (not counting myself) who's one!