Productivity of loneliness

a diagram of two personalities

Nothing is more prone to make me feel lonely than looking at social media. Yet when I feel lonely, looking at social media is one of the first things I do.

That is a little too neatly formulated, though; I’m often not aware that “loneliness” is the affect I am experiencing. It registers in different ways — obscure feelings of dread, ambient shame, a nagging feeling of having forgotten something, a dull sulkiness when confronted with evidence of other people’s joy. It’s never that I am thinking, “Hey, I’m lonely, I think I will go online!” Admitting loneliness feels like such a mark of failure to me that I usually have to be deep into my coping strategies before acknowledging it to myself.

I wonder whether this reluctance to admit loneliness makes my coping strategies for dealing with it into instances of cruel optimism, accommodations that don’t resolve the problem but rather ensure it will persist as a suboptimal status quo. You like being lonely! Look at all the blogging you get done!

A comment by “Tumblr princess” Molly Soda in this Cluster magazine conversation between her, Jesse Darling, and Rosemary Kirton started me thinking about this. Responding to a question about the kind of work she does on Tumblr, characterized by Kirton as “emotional or intimate labor for which there is a demand but no societal recognition,” Soda says:

Honestly, I’ve never thought of my Internet presence as a service. If anything, I’ve always seen it as selfish, or self-indulgent. The way I’ve interacted with the Internet has always been to secure some form of validation, and the reason I share so much is because I want to know that others feel the same way, or have been there, or can at least sympathize, or give me words of encouragement or I don’t know. I think a lot of people use the Internet—and specifically blogging platforms like Tumblr or Livejournal or Blogspot—as a way to combat loneliness. If anything I think my relationship with my readers/fans/other bloggers is symbiotic… they help me cope, just as I help them.

It seems like there is some performative humility in this and possibly some protective disavowal to shelter her work from a misrepresentative analysis or from being aggressively sociologized. But that she calls her relationship to the community she has helped catalyze as both “selfish” and “symbiotic” seems to reflect the way symbiosis on Tumblr is not a fusion of collaborative parties into a single organism but rather a matter of economistic exchanges among them — lonely people reciprocating, instead than leaving behind loneliness in a collective subjectivity. Yes, that is a lot to demand of a content-management system, I know, but nonetheless, Tumblr encourages alone-togetherness in the way it makes recognition take preformatted, quantifiable forms. The medium encourages seeing recognition as exchangeable currency, discrete trackable traces rather than a boundary-dissolving affect.

Tumblr posts are thus wagers for accumulating that currency, for gathering “strokes,” to use analyst Eric Berne’s terminology from Games People Play, his 1964 book that launched a fad for calling out other people’s manipulative behavior as “mind games.” (Darling mentions “strokes” and Berne’s “transactional analysis” in the conversation.) But when you’re gathering strokes, you’re also consenting to keep playing the game that seems to make it urgently necessary to get more and more strokes.

Berne argues in his book that we are saddled with an existential deficit of strokes stemming from childhood (Mamma don’t go!) and are doomed to be insatiable for all our lives. Molly Soda concurs: “I think everything human beings do boils down to insecurity,” she says.

When work is posted on social media sites, there seems to be little choice but to evaluate it in terms of attention, as if organizing a community of supporters and building up likes to ease the insecurity of abandonment is the entire purpose of making things, writing things, posting things. But that’s not true, is it? The medium imposes attention as evaluative mechanism on the work, which makes it seem like attention-seeking was the artist’s original intention retrospectively. The echo chambers of community boosterism online can reinforce this impression, as though work was created to send out ripples of mutual appreciation and nothing more. When the work is done by women, as in the “girlswarms” of producer/consumers on Tumblr discussed in the Cluster conversation, there is a sexist tendency to dismiss it as mere emo-narcissism. (I’ve certainly been guilty of this.)

I’m no transactional analyst, but I don’t think we are always driven by insecurity. I think capitalism functions by manufacturing insecurity (or envy) and persuading us to call it desire. I believe that certain environments and practices make our attention hunger worse. I’ve tried to make the case in the past that social media make it worse, mainly by inserting users into an “attention economy” while alienating them from less combustible gratifications of routine social life. The apparent potential for sociality in social media renders routine social life inadequate; social media can also roil that social life with manufactured drama that feels more devastating, as the Internet makes it seemingly permanent and public.

Social media, however, certainly seem to assuage loneliness, even though they might only be harnessing it. The question is whether Tumblr work like Soda’s mitigates a pre-existing loneliness that people had already been experiencing and would have continued to experience without it, or does such work actually create demand for Molly Soda’s “product” (immediate loneliness relief) by exacerbating lonely feeling in the long-term? Performing affective labor seems to only create more demand for more affective labor; the load is never lessened.

If this labor is necessary, who is it necessary for? Does it reproduce a miserable status quo by helping people cope with it? To what degree is it producing gender as it is processing loneliness? The “Tumblr Teen-Girl Aesthetic” gets linked to Tiqqun’s Young-Girl (a intensely capitalistic subjectivity engendered to generate insecurity and desire and rationalize capitalism’s fetishization of youth, novelty, sexuality, etc.)  because of this suspicion, that the affective “intimate” labor that Molly Soda, et al., perform goes toward reproducing the conditions of female objecthood that make their recuperative work necessary. Viewed from the outside, “girl-swarm” Tumblr communities can seem to validate and redeem the “Young-Girl” subjectivity rather than dismantle it, as they often trade in the tropes of self-objectification, exhibitionism, seduction, self-diminution as means to evoke intensity, an overwhelmedness. A life less lonely.

Capitalism feeds on such intensities, appropriating them wherever it can find them. It is not restricted to female production. (The stereotypical male equivalent is possibly porn consumption/redistribution, or maybe the proliferation of discourse spawned by fantasy sports leagues.) Social media incubate these kind of intensities while rendering them productive, exploitable. Could they have been felt by any other means?

It’s a lot easier to feel lonely once you’ve had a feeling of belonging somewhere; all that’s necessary is for that belonging to seem fleeting, precarious. I think this is built in to online social media to a certain extent, because the sense of companionate presence is ghostly, elusive — it demands of people a ton of production in the form of likes and posts and comments to manifest itself, and even then it’s asynchronous. You remain alone in time, if not in space, or vice versa.

I sometimes am reminded to feel lonely by looking at Twitter. Then I feel terribly left out. This usually prompts me a powerful urge to want to Tweet things to relieve the pressure. But of course, if someone has tweeted at me, I feel disproportionately appreciated, cosmically significant. I’m lulled into thinking some quantity of attention will resolve loneliness once and for all. But I am not sure it works that way. Attention doesn’t solve loneliness, absorption in an activity does. Checking Twitter doesn’t quite rise to the level of “activity,” though writing blog posts like this one might.

I wonder whether my steady engagement with social media has made me develop a taste for oscillating between loneliness and transcendence that’s stronger than the wish to simply not be lonely. The rebounding between moods makes me feel productive, it prompts me to generate a trail, it makes me curious, voyeuristic; it keeps me scrolling. At times I think the productivity of loneliness is underappreciated. In the so-called social factory, modulating levels of loneliness can serve as a powerful productivity tool. Just as high-frequency traders thrive on volatility rather than steady upward growth, social-media producers thrive on chaotic mood swings rather than stable, ongoing contentment.

But maybe the affect at stake in Tumblr work like Soda’s isn’t the loneliness of the creators — that noble Romantic source of inspiration. It may make more sense to see it as an art practice that denies a privileged space for a detached observer — a space that men in particular are accustomed to occupying. That is, it incites loneliness in the viewers who approach it the wrong way, the passive viewers who are not at the same time producing something for the collective, who are not part of the swarm.

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One thought on “Productivity of loneliness

  1. Pingback: Conceptualism and populism | Marginal Utility Annex

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