Loneliness and the Loss of the Common World05-07-2020
Until recently, I had not left my apartment for 33 days. I did not touch another human being—not even the members of my family with whom I live—for even longer. The virus has been mild in my case. It is nearly gone. Physically, I am fine. I am one of the lucky ones; I never had to make a decision whether to go to a hospital, alone, not knowing whether I would see family and friends ever again. And yet, I did isolate myself, as recommended by my doctor. I thus lived a bit of an semi-extreme version of the social distancing regime that has cut off so many of us from corporeal nearness. Such isolation has psychic consequences. Deprived of touch and presence, the world we share with family, friends, and strangers begins to waver. The feeling that we are losing the routines and presence that stabilize and enrich our common social and political being-together is now common to us all.
As have so many others, I sought to fill the loss of shared physical togetherness with virtual connections. Zoom brings me and students together to talk about the Hong Kong protests. It allows my extended family around the world to celebrate Passover together. HouseParty allows me, my children, and their grandparents to laugh and play games together as we are isolated in different rooms and different states. Skype is useful for interviews and meetings. I use Facetime for physical therapy and workouts. And every Friday I gather with 80 people from five continents to read Hannah Arendt together on BlueJeans in the Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group. The yearning for meaningful and shared togetherness is powerful.
The seduction of Zoom classes and HouseParty game nights is that we can live happily and well in this new online world. And no doubt we can. There is real joy to seeing students pop up on my screen from around the world and engage in serious thought. I have taught an online reading group for six years and watched as a diverse group from four continents and many time zones has emerged as a lasting community; we largely communicate over video, through emails, in a Slack room, but some of us also gather in person meets at Arendt Center events. Now teaching my Bard students online, I am convinced that education online is possible and has untapped potential; but that does not mean it is wise or that it comes without real costs.
As necessary and surprisingly exciting as Zoom classes have become, they are now a pale substitute for connection in a physical world. Emma Planic argues that when we teach over Zoom, we begin to live in a dematerialized world: “What no longer exists is a concrete, shared world, and we all feel this acutely in trying to reach each other through the spaceless chasms that divide us between our computer screens.” Planic is right—at least at this moment, online learning is lacking in its ability to reflect and enrich our common world.
One must imagine, however, that Zoom is only the very beginning of online meetings and classes. It cannot be long before my students and I are sitting not in front of clunky and outdated computers, but are wearing Virtual Reality goggles and sitting, virtually, in classrooms, looking each other in our virtual eyes, and moving around the classroom as we did until just a few months ago in a physical universe. There is every possibility and probability that the lockdowns and social distancing rules have brought us to the verge of a leap into a virtual reality that will have what seem to be concrete and shared worlds. While the physical world around us is undeniably losing its shared richness and vitality, it is imaginable and likely that we are watching emerge, slowly and with great disruption, multiple new virtual worlds of increasing density and meaning.
No new world will be birthed without the dislocation and destruction of the old. The rise of new worlds in some emergent virtual reality carries with it the flickering of the physical and human world, the world in which we see physical faces on the street, where we hug and touch our friends and even our acquaintances, and where we feel the physical presence, confusion, and excitement in our students, colleagues, and friends. There is little doubt that the common world that we humans have shared for millennia is undergoing a seismic shift. Such a transition from a human earthly world to a not-yet-understood virtual world will be neither seamless nor safe—it will be unpredictable, exciting, and dangerous.
To think what we are doing means neither to resist nor to welcome the change, but to understand and face up to what is—and to resist or respond to that reality as necessary. The common world—the world we share together—is being challenged as at no time in human history. Hannah Arendt saw this in 1958 when she wrote The Human Condition. The human world is composed of things that last: tables around which we sit, families and friends who join us for dinner, houses and public spaces where we form memories, institutions we build, and stories that weave us together in a web of relations. While humanity needs change and innovation, we humans also need the permanence that only a home can provide. At the center of the human condition is the need for stability and lastingness provided by the world that we share, a world in which we live and that will outlast us. It is this common world that provides the home for mankind. There is no certainty at this point that a new virtual world—or more likely ever-changing and multiple virtual worlds—can provide such a home.
Arendt’s worry about the rise of the modern scientific worldview is not driven by a luddite fear of change; her entire thinking is predicated on the human capacity for newness and innovation. Her worry is that the scientific perspective leads humans to view the things of the world from a universal, unworldly, and thus inhuman perspective. Seen from the universal viewpoint of science, all things including humans become mere data to be analyzed, rationalized, and perfected. People become populations, to be protected, surveilled, and improved. We become alienated from the human world of our senses that retreats behind the rationalized world that can be grasped only by some imagined artificial intelligence in the sky; it is ever harder to love the world and instead we seek to change and to master it. World alienation threatens to drain human life of meaning. All that remains for man to care about is to stay alive, the victory of what Arendt calls man as a mere animal.
World alienation is not a destiny; Arendt always affirms the human capacity for freedom, our potential to start something new. She does not say the common world is lost; but she does tell us that world alienation is a threat to the human condition. Arendt poses a challenge, not to deny or rebel against the alienation of our world but to “think what we are doing.” When we recognize honestly what is happening, when we stop and think, and when we act with others in response to that thinking, the concrete reality of the human world is illuminated, even in its precarity. If the human condition is to persist, we must treasure and preserve the common world that binds us and offers hope that we are part of a worldly existence that is greater than ourselves. Or maybe we need to adapt and embrace a new human condition.
Amongst the many threats posed by the pandemic sweeping the world is the way the virus turns us from the world we share and risks pushing us into isolation and even loneliness. Loneliness is not isolation and is simply being alone. It is, as Arendt saw, the sense of utter abandonment. Loneliness emerges as a modern phenomenon when the common world recedes and individual humans face their utter meaningless and superfluousness. For those who, in the words of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, “live without feeling the country beneath our feet,” loneliness is, “the loss of sense of time and place, the disappearance of society and of any hope of being heard or seen.” Deprived of all connection, we lose what Arendt calls our common sense, that sense that ties us to the meaning-granting world that we share.
Mass loneliness, Arendt understood, is the precondition for totalitarianism and modern ideological movements. Lonely people—abandoned and left meaningless—crave the certainty and meaning that ideological fictions impose upon reality. It is no guarantee that lonely people will join murderous ideological movements. But it is undoubtedly the case the when traditions are broken, public bonds are loosened, families are weakened, institutions destroyed, and communities emptied, there will emerge a strong need for the logicality and intensity of movements that promise clarity and coherence.
As Kristian Blickle observes in a new working paper, there is a strong statistical correlation between those towns and cities in Germany that lost the most people to the Influenza pandemic of 1918 and the rise of extremist and fascist parties over the next two decades. Blickle shows that it was in those towns where the most people died that the common world connecting people snapped. And it was in those places where extremist ideologies found their most fertile grounds.
Masha Gessen, writing about the relation between loneliness and totalitarianism in the context of our social isolation and rising loneliness, argues that “Arendt’s observations on isolation and loneliness have a piercing resonance today that they didn’t have eight or twelve weeks ago.” Amidst the isolation of the pandemic and the turn to find connection through online connection, we are witnessing yet another challenge to our common world. The social and political implications of our wobbling world are real. Gessen tells us we must care for our common world. And that means we should be wary of the effort to ward off loneliness through online connections:
Gradually, though, the ground seems to be seeping out from under those conversations. Our common sense is wearing thin. Or perhaps it’s becoming too thick: what we experience during our weeks of isolation may be a matter of common sense in that we are experiencing similar things, but these things are internal, intimate, difficult to articulate—it’s difficult, too, to know whether they should be put into words. For the first few weeks, we traded news and impressions of our lives, updating one another on the speed and manner of the shutdowns in our respective cities. We traded notes on experiencing shock or nostalgia at the intrusion of a sound or a sight from life before the pandemic, such as hearing the voices of a few drunken men together out in the street. Then the world faded away.
What constitutes a new experience now? A man I barely know tells me, during a professional conversation over Zoom, that he has not touched anyone in weeks and that his sexuality is atrophying. Another acquaintance, the art curator Ruth Noack, posts, on Facebook, “I just realized that I have not touched another living being, nor have I been touched, for more than 4 weeks. I wonder whether we will later on have split humanity into those who were touched and those who were not.” Those who are self-isolating in the company of others, meanwhile, have fights, doubts, highs and lows in their relationships, clashes about child rearing—all of the ways in which happy, unhappy, and fluctuating families, following a finite number of patterns under quarantine, create what common sense we have. We have always had these fights, fears, and heartaches in the intimate sphere, but they were generally shielded from the eyes of others. Now private lives are the only ones we are living. What does this do to friendship, which always, in its many meanings, straddles the boundary between private and public? Where is the boundary now, when all communal space is gone?...
I am much more worried about lonely educators and lonely politicians, lonely writers and lonely economists, lonely architects and lonely filmmakers, lonely organizers and lonely artists, and all the other lonely people whose job it is to imagine the future. Arendt wrote that the only work that the mind can perform in a state of loneliness is “logical reasoning whose premise is the self-evident.” She meant the relentless, encapsulated logic of totalitarian thinking. Our common sense, such as it is, tells us that this intersection of social, political, economic, and public-health circumstances has never occurred before, and yet we are resorting to naked logic in our response. When we should be thinking about an interconnected world and shared resources, we hoard, individually and collectively, and reinforce the borders of the nation-state. When we should be thinking about the way we support one another’s lives and questioning the very assumption that there is a giant monolith called the economy that requires our commitment and our resources more than public health and individual well-being do, we are pouring unimaginable monetary and intellectual resources into trying to buy and sacrifice our way to the economic status quo ante.