Writing against loneliness

A networked world produces new forms of loneliness, the mirror of its new forms of sociability: if there is a new kind of togetherness in contributing with other people to the same feed, there is also a new kind of deprivation in leaving the feed. Losing the feed’s clamor layers a previously unnoticed silence onto the existential isolation of being human in the world. The price of plugging your ears against the hubbub of the feed is to lose the sense that anyone is listening to you. For someone of my generation, who was raised in a networked society, not existing on the internet feels very much like not existing at all.

But what if you throw yourself into the feed — the feeds — on offer, and you pursue the online equivalent of a vibrant social life? Sadly, this doesn’t really offer an escape from loneliness either, it just introduces you to the other new form of loneliness enabled by a networked society: the loneliness of alienation from yourself. It comes from the evolution of feeling lonely in a crowd. Feeling lonely in a feed is not just possible, it’s the dominant feeling until, by your efforts to be interesting and provoke a response, you have reached a critical mass of followers such that everything you contribute to the feed provokes some kind of response. Even then, when you can be confident of engagement, loneliness mutates against your inoculation and drives you to worry about the reality and quality of the sociability you appear to have found. You find yourself performing the character who receives the attention you now need, to fill the ever-growing pit of loneliness inside you, and recognize that you have split yourself. You try to express something that belongs to what you think of as your real self and watch — because the feed’s response to your expression is a quantification of whether you have been heard — as the peep from your depths is ignored. You realize you have a popular brand which is not your self, and you begin to envy the social life of your brand, which intensifies the loneliness of your self.

Or maybe this is just the isolating consequence of writing in general? All networked sociability is a kind of writing, participation and interaction by the creation of artifacts which, loosed in the world, become alienated from their author. I was reading Blanchot’s The Space of Literature last night, and came across this passage early on: “To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself. It is to destroy the relation which, determining that I speak toward ‘you,’ gives me room to speak within the understanding which my word receives from you (for my word summons you, and is the summons that begins in me because it finishes in you). To write is to break this bond.” Blanchot is talking about writing that aims to be literature, about “the moment the work becomes the search for art,” and I am talking about posting to a feed; but that’s my point: successful participation in the feed has all the personal danger of writing literature with — let us be honest — none of the gratification of perhaps having produced literature.

The networked society, and the feed in particular — as opposed to the simpler network of the letter, for example — speeds up and dramatizes the breaking of the bond that unites the word with the self. The speed with which the post, once issued into the feed, is assimilated to the public flow of the feed, alienated from whomever authored it, is infinitesimal. It is so fast that participation in the feed appears as self-alienation in the instant, with no separation between the attempt to communicate and the realization that you have written something which exists not as a relation between you and someone else, but merely in itself, part of the feed.

In The Space of Literature, Blanchot goes on to say that the writer exposed to this process of alienation often seeks to preserve their sense of self by journaling. “The journal is not essentially confessional; it is not one’s own story. It is a memorial. What must the writer remember? Himself: who he is when he isn’t writing, when he lives daily life, when he is alive and true, not dying and bereft of truth.” Call this the pursuit of dailyness.

I have found that I and many of my friends who have passed through the same accumulation of new forms of loneliness in our experience of a networked society are drawn to projects of journaling and also to epistolary dailyness. I keep a journal of sensations, just to record the texture of my dailyness, writing about the micro-dramas of chores and errands, describing in the most particular words I can find the physicality of a moment, and I have many friends with whom I exchange letters (well, emails) that dwell upon dailyness in the same way. Indeed it is the friends with whom I share the most “elevated” or abstract discourse — arguing about philosophy, sharing notes on the books we are reading, discussing our grandiose intellectual and aesthetic projects — who feel (and to whom I feel) the greatest need to communicate dailyness.

Kate Zambreno’s recently published book, The Appendix Project, has glimpses of the kind of epistolary flight to dailyness that I am describing in her frequent allusion to the correspondence she shares with Sofia Samatar. “Sofia is taking German now, and she writes me of all the scribbled exercises in the workbooks you do when learning the language, and yet they don’t say anything. They hold time, they’re durational, you do them every day, at regular hours, she writes. And they’re full of errors. I remember, with Sofia writing me this” — and Zambreno moves on to her next thought, seamlessly integrating the shared dailiness of her correspondence into the formal movement of her thought on the page.

Anymore, this kind of writing — the epistolary communication of dailyness — is the only kind that feels like communication to me; it is the only kind of networked sociability, in other words, that works against loneliness. But the problem, the remaining deficiency, is the privacy of correspondence. Having known the sociability of the feed (and its loneliness), I have become obsessed with a loneliness which is a sense of loss for something never really possessed. There was never a time when participation in the feed was actually communication, but I miss that time anyway.

The closest you can get to it is still blogging. Blogging in its heyday was a public sharing of dailyness in the flow of thought and writing: it was writing against loneliness. I know this, because in the late aughts I was very lonely in a different way, at college, and the world of blogs by graduate students and writers and philosophers and readers and (back then) theologians was a reading against loneliness. As a medium for the promotion of real sociability, as, in other words, a way to communicate yourself, I really think the blog remains unsurpassed, even if it is no longer modish. I mean, what was the Web Log, originally, but a public journal? The networked form of the original writer’s escape — per Blanchot — the journal shared.

But I don’t know. Blogging these days is like singing in the empty hallway of a deserted highschool, with feral animals peering at your from moss-hung lockers and wind whistling through broken windows. Bloggers are squatters in abandoned buildings. They can hear the apparently joyful hubbub of the feed, a few streets away, while they rub sticks together to work up a fire to heat up their old cans of beans.

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