Loneliness without privacy: on isolation under lockdown

this solitude is not really my own
Eliza Burke, ‘A Measure of Distance’

I have been waiting for the experience of isolation under lockdown to articulate itself, as though someone would telepathically read my thoughts and, crucially, resolve them in a piece of writing. Yet all our lockdowns are different versions of the same restrictions, from flats ringed with police to suburban houses and beyond. We’re trapped with each other without the possibility of solitude. As the online world takes over many of our social rituals, we are also lonely without privacy.

Our loneliness is one of observed isolation; we float in the aquarium of our screens. We are seen without seeing and, waiting for the virus to disappear, acted upon without acting. There is a peculiar temporality to the lockdown as well. News is urgent, the consequences are punitive or deadly, but there persists the sense that there is nothing we can do but wait and be watched. We are being told constantly to stay in place, giving the repeated message and the monotony of our surroundings a daily sense of déjà vu.

Loneliness under neoliberal lockdown is the inability to contribute to decisions that affect us all. As Rahel Jaeggi puts it, in her recent book with Nancy Fraser Capitalism (2018), under financial capitalism ‘we can’t be part of the most important decisions that affect our individual and collective lives.’ Jaeggi and Fraser attribute this to inherent qualities in capitalism, such as the private appropriation of social surplus, which ‘restricts our autonomy, our collective ability to take up an active role as the joint authors of our collective life process.’

Under the condition of enforced isolation, there is what Eliza Burke calls a ‘tension between community and immunity creating new boundaries of language and being.’ This tension, however, is a lived contradiction of the most vulnerable people and poorly paid frontline workers who have remained exposed, crossing back and forth across borders. The crisis of care is one marked by the tension between people and profit, which Lucy Schiller describes in the case of privately run aged care homes, so badly affected by the virus.


Modern loneliness and the need for company

In A Biography of Loneliness (2019), Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as a specifically modern condition, ‘a feeling of estrangement’ coeval with the development of modern capitalism, industrialisation and urbanisation. Olivia Laing describes the way it ‘centres on the act of [not] being seen. When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure.’

Our isolation has turned us all into exhibitionists and voyeurs, paranoid about curating our background bookshelves to appear intelligent to some big Other.

Before modern loneliness, there was sublime solitude. Count Xavier de Maistre, arrested for dueling, was confined to his house for forty-two days. He wrote ‘Voyage Around My Room’ (1794) to prove his mastery of this enforced isolation. His work is a self-proclaimed ‘antidote to boredom’ that invites us to share the ‘pleasure of travelling around one’s room’ which he insists ‘depends not on one’s material circumstance.’ He recommends lounging in bed, ‘relinquishing one’s thoughts to some pleasant meditation.’

De Maistre’s imprisoned flights of imagination lead him to ‘rapt ecstasy’ and yet he finds himself distracted.

What idea is not effaced by that idea? … Let him appeal to the angel who distributes thoughts and request that he ceases mixing in the images of this little hill with the other host of disconnected thoughts that he throws my way at every moment.

The next chapter, echoing Laurence Sterne’s famous motley page in Tristram Shandy (1759-67), consists of a patchwork of ellipses surrounding ‘… … … … the little hill… … … …’, an attempt to concentrate our attention.

In this moment, de Maistre wanders from the late eighteenth century into our own rooms, irrevocably connected to the palimpsest of distraction called the internet where each motley page is hyperlinked to the next … and the next, so that you cannot, Sterne writes, ‘unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil.’ In a 2013 essay, Rebecca Solnit lamented the coming of the internet age, and imagined that ‘the young will go further and establish rebel camps where they will lead the lives of 1957, if not 1857, when it comes to the quality of time and technology. Perhaps.’ Solnit meditates on whether the ‘richer, more expansive quality of time and attention and connection’ has been lost.

Solnit’s essay indulges in a romantic conception of thoughtful solitude reminiscent of the ‘wizards of loneliness’ exemplified – as Lucy Schiller writes – by Edvard Munch. In the gift shop of an exhibition of his works, Schiller notes ‘the way individual loneliness sells, these days. At the same time as we are told to stay positive … about the state of a rapidly disintegrating world, we are also told that loneliness is inescapable and that it has a kind of aching fragrance to it that’s pleasant to dab on.’ Or, as Eliza Burke has recently observed, ‘the romance of writerly seclusion that I have depended upon and sought out as needed, has become a moral performance of social regulation and civil obedience.’

Romantic solitude has a long tradition in Australian letters, measured by Burke in the metaphors of the moat and the fortress used to celebrate Tasmania’s successful isolation from the virus. It is represented by dated classics of imperialist fantasy such as Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance (1966) or Ernestine Hill’s The Great Australian Loneliness (1940). Hill’s continent-wide travelogue is written ‘to all who take up the white man’s burden in the lonely places.’ As well as being ‘a white supremacist and a patriot’, as Meaghan Morris writes in her essay ‘Panorama’, Hill is also melancholic about the spread of modern communication and transport. This melancholia is mixed, for Morris, with paranoia about the loss of borders. The ‘myth of the Loneliness’, she writes, is ‘a safety one in a hostile world’. It is the lost ‘reservoir of [white] Australian authenticity’ paradoxically broadcast with high-tech connectivity in the nationalist extravaganza Australia Live (1988).

Morris notes that Hill’s romantic notions of isolation and hardship in the Australian outback were broken down by ‘the motor car, the wireless and the telephone’. Yet in Kylie Tennant’s social realist novel The Battlers (1941), it is the motor car that enables union organizers to reach the unemployed who were forced onto the track by punitive workfare systems and deliberately isolating dole payouts. Recipients were required to move from town to town at the mercy of the police with directives from Sydney to prevent organizing or demands for higher wages. Morris argues that ‘Travel writing becomes an allegory of the need for mobilisation’, but it is always melancholic, as though what we wanted was to travel into a romanticised past when travelling wasn’t just a symptom of corporate globalisation. What we need, Morris suggests, is critical distance; we need some air for our thoughts.

After succumbing to a fever, Patricia Lockwood tries to reconstruct her experience, ‘but when I opened the filed called “quarantine” I found it to be 158 words long and full of cryptic particles: “Masque of the Red Death. Statue of Pericles. Tigers.” Fine, whatever.’ Her camera roll does not help either:

photosets of obscene ceramics featuring Kermit going down on Miss Piggy … Texts, too, were useless … The tesserae failed to form a picture, merely sat in the sun and winked. It seemed to mirror the fracture of information that had led us here in the first place – hence the people who appear actually to believe that the virus is being spread by 5G. I understand it. It would make so much sense if the internet was the thing that gave me this.

Or perhaps it fails to form an image because, like a scratched DVD tauntingly grinding to a halt, our lives are in a state of semi-permanent glitch, as though our glasses – or our screens – are smudged and waiting to be cleaned.

Looking back at my own notes, I find a few hallucinatory observations and a series of elaborate plans for projects that only make sense when I can connect with the world, discuss them with people. As de Maistre wrote, my ‘brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform’, desperate like Schweblin’s characters for ‘the miraculous distraction of unfurling new cords from their neat coils’. All these fake solutions fueled by the desire for novelty end with ‘things that [we] claimed were essential in order to solve urgent problems that miraculously dissolved immediately after their acquisition.’ We live in an era of ‘cheap postponement and irresponsible acquisition’, as Michael Hofmann has written.

Our isolation is marked by all the themes of the modern age: boredom and distraction amidst the endless demand to work at superficial enjoyment like a job. Distracted attention leaves emptiness in its wake, like being submerged in YouTube for an hour and emerging from what Jenny Odell calls a ‘stupor’ with no recollection of how you clicked from your favourite music video to inane celebrity interviews that jostle one after the other up through the suggestion bar. And all the time the algorithm is both feeding you and itself so that, as Laing writes, ‘everything we do, from shopping in a supermarket to posting a photograph on Facebook, is mapped, and the gathered data used to predict, monetise, encourage or inhibit our future actions.’


The economy of loneliness

The pressure to keep working has incited a wave of techno-social modification; we’ve all leaped onto new platforms and sunk ourselves in screens. Our devices are like the playful voyeurs in Samantha Schweblin’s Little Eyes (2020), who ‘would always end up knowing more about [us] that [we] knew about [them]’.

For Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, in Re-Engineering Humanity (2019), privacy is only part of a broader issue in what they call the process of ‘techno-social engineering’ that is eroding our autonomy and freedom to be off. Panic about privacy is mainly the fear that others are learning something about us that we don’t want them to know. But what concerns them more is that the technology we rely on comes to limit our autonomy and ability to decide for ourselves.

Loneliness, too, is not simply a product of the technology we use, but of the fact that it is designed according to market logic to make us more dependent, consume more, and go out less. It is also a consequence, Fay Albert suggests, of austerity politics that have depleted public spaces, especially for working class people. Technology has replaced the social forms of care and communication enabled by public institutions. Far from being able to determine our shared future, we are told ‘that all the difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to a structural injustice,’ Laing writes.

Our devices have intensified their aura under lockdown, our last beacon of social contact, broadcasting our despair from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. They are what de Maistre called the ‘tuning fork according to which I adjust the variable and discordant assortment of sensations and perceptions that make up my existence.’ The value assigned to them is such that, as Schweblin writes of the kentuki, ‘you also had to think about whether you were worthy of having that object live with you or not.’ Do you entertain your devices enough? Do you feed them enough data? They’re always waiting for more.

The boss of my workplace sent an email with the subject heading ‘Flesh and Bone’, promising further cuts and ‘fast and unrelenting … changes.’ As Eliza Burke notes, ‘this biological agent brings with it an unmitigated sense of doom that quickly finds the limits of language.’ Like me, she loses sight of the blow-by-blow news and focuses on ‘observing metaphors’. We have to read between the lines because, as Sherine Al Shallah writes, ‘The masks hide our smiles. The masks muffle our words.’ This time it’s compulsory, as the second lockdown blankets us with an extra layer of gloom.


Image by Micaela Parente

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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  1. Striking in its texture of personal, intellectual, and existential, Robinson’s text makes me feel heard. This deeply compassionate examination of our strange new emotion forecasts the treasure trove of fresh new human experiences “lockdown” will usher in. There is so much more to think, write, and illuminate. Keep it up, Robinson!

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