Professors tend to be introverts; at least, we are formed to be something like hermits for long stretches of time. Lately, though, I’ve been hearing from my academic friends that they are going a bit mad these days, and many add this phrase: even though I am an introvert.
It’s true. Even the introverts are losing it. My regular attitude toward leaving the house is toddler-like resistance. I once (way back in March) regularly and vocally begrudged my obligation to leave the house for campus. I did not want to close the door on my beloved cat, I did not want to leave my warm study, I did not want to leave all my books. Even now, as I approach the eighth week of voluntary house arrest, I am still mostly content. After all, my proclivities are basically feline: the sun arcs from rise to set, and my cat and I move from chair to chair to chair. She sleeps and stretches and eats and grooms; I read and write and eat and clean the house. Truly, I prefer not to be disturbed.
My head is foggy and my memory slow. I find my concentration hard to sustain and, sometimes, I find myself wandering around the rooms and peering out of the windows. I am prone to crankiness and feel a creeping ooze of meaninglessness. (Ok, more than usual.) The reasons for the things I do are no longer self-evident. My reading, research, and writing agenda, which is typically de facto and self-contained, now seems questionable and untethered, like a balloon that some loud noise startled out of my hands, and which I watch floating away from me with a curiosity both abstract and painful.
I miss the buzz and swirl of the world. I do not miss people, especially (I miss some specific persons), but I definitely miss the world. What can this possibly mean?
What immediately comes to mind in light of this question is the work of Lisa Guenther, a critical phenomenologist who writes with astuteness and care about the wrongness of solitary confinement. In her essay, “Subjects without a World: A Husserlian Analysis of Solitary Confinement” (Human Studies 34:3, 2011), Guenther gathers up a list of disturbing comments from prisoners about their experiences in solitary confinement, and concludes: “Deprived of everyday encounters with other people, and confined to a space with radically diminished sensory stimulus, many inmates come unhinged from reality.”
A little bit mad. Losing it. Unhinged from reality.
It must be said quickly that those of us observing “shelter-in-place” orders are not in solitary confinement–far from it. I am not attempting to make an equation here, or even an analogy between the two situations. Still, I am intrigued by the affective resonance I feel with Guenther’s words right now and I am inspired by her to turn to phenomenology to attempt to grasp what I’m experiencing in those fragile thought-holds we call words.
It seems to me that Guenther’s sentence contains three important elements. The first is “encounters with other people.” An encounter, as Marilyn Strathern might say, is a relation but not a relationship (Relations: An Anthropological Account); it occurs but may not have the pattern of recurring. Etymologically the term suggests conflict, it stems from a word that means coming up against one’s adversary. Encounter has lost this friction, I think, but it has retained movement. To encounter is “to come up against” or “to come across.” It is “to run into.” This is what I mean when I say I miss the buzz and swirl of the world. I mean that I am deprived right now of this coming across and running into. I am deprived of encounter–not just this encounter (my neighbors head out for a walk and wave to me as I sit in my rocking chair, reading) or that encounter (the mail carrier rings my doorbell and waves from afar when I open the door), but the entire social nexus of encounter and encountering, the entire nexus of sociality itself, that mass and flow of persons moving hither and yon, with my own gridded movements joining in the unplanned choreography, is lost to me.
Second, Guenther’s sentence qualifies “encounters with other people” by adding “everyday.” As we learn from Durkheim or Tarde or Goffman, “society” is a useful category for analysis not just because it holds together a number of social relationships that describe how people live among one another, but because these relationships and this heuristic “whole” of society form the ground, atmosphere, and backdrop to daily life. It’s always there. Except now it’s not. Not only are we deprived of the nexus of encounter, we are deprived of living out and into our sedimented habits of loving, hating, navigating, and negotiating our encounters with other people. When we lose the ability to act on a habit, we are lost. We feel anxious and unsettled. This is because a habit is not in us and not in the world but is, as Merleau-Ponty might put it, “geared in” to the world through our bodies. If the world changes, or if I change my world, the gears break, the habituated structure fails, even if the motor is still spinning and churning, primed to engage. That’s what it feels like to be deprived of the everyday encounters with other people.
Finally, Guenther juxtaposes confinement with “radically diminished sensory stimulus.” In this elegant and disturbing phrase, Guenther implies all the other relations of encounter that don’t necessarily include “other persons.” Sociologists may traditionally have focused on the sociality of human relationality but we know that these relations are embedded in and sustained by earth itself (to put it succinctly), by all things bright and beautiful (and dull and ugly), by all beings great and small. My neighborhood is walkable and pleasant, but I no longer feel the ability or right either to leave it or to relax into it, to linger and wallow, to wander and explore. If I dare to go for a drive, neon red signs encounter me (like an adversary!) with the dire commandment to stay home and flatten the curve. WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE? GO HOME. STAY.(stop, reduce, diminish).
You have no world.
I want to give Lisa Guenther more words here, the last words of her article and nearly the last of this post:
“If the world is the gift of the other, then the practice of solitary confinement amounts to withholding the gift of the world, withholding the gift of meaning, withholding the very conditions under which a full sense of concrete personhood emerges in relation to others in the context of a shared world.”
A full sense of who I am emerges in relation to others in the context of a shared world. This full sense of myself is a sense of meaning, a sense that is a gift given by the world and the encounters (human and non-human) that occur in it. This is not an anthropological gift that is part of a gift economy but the ontological gift of the “there is,” the “es gibt,” or what Marx, in a similar context, writes about as vorfinden–as that kind of finding that is a happening upon. A finding that is an encounter.