Friday, December 28, 2012

Singular Thinking

A colleague at work recommended Michael Cobb's Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (2012), and although this book is probably the last thing I need to read (after all, Cobb had me at "hello"), I picked it up.

Cobb is a specialist in queer theory and gay and lesbian studies, but his book explores the concept of "the couple" in American culture at large. It was inspired by his own experience after the death of a friend from brain cancer. As Cobb writes in the acknowledgements,
If writing this book has taught me anything, it's that a single person doesn't have to be lonely, which matters because sometimes we'll each have to confront the worst heartbreak, in our own solitary way. When that happens and when you need to literally regroup, you're lucky if you can see and embrace the wide world of friendship, interest, work, pleasure, and love that might just help you not collapse.
Cobb examines the extent to which American culture as a whole renders that "regrouping" and solitariness inordinately difficult. We've become a culture premised on "the couple," a society that operates on the assumption that, if you're not someone's "better half," you're no one.

And we all act accordingly. In my own experience as a happily, permanently single woman (yes, I'm sayin' it), I've been surprised by the lengths to which people will go to insist that I must be quite unhappy, really, deep down. That I must be putting a brave face on it, but really, don't I just wish that...

And then comes the fairy-tale. The mythological "guy" who is like no guy anyone has ever seen before, except in fiction and cinema. The Jane-Austen hero-guy.

For the record, Jane Austen never married. She was happily single her entire life. She did get engaged for all of about 15 minutes at one point, but then she woke up one morning about 2 weeks later, had a full-blown freak-out, and called it off.

So even she knew that such guys were fictional. She momentarily caved to the social pressure, but then she got a grip and articulated the shape of her own life.

And we all benefitted as a result.

Cobb attempts to examine and deconstruct the hegemony of the couple as an ideological value, an exclusive and exclusionary way of viewing the world that shapes the way so many people think of themselves and their lives.

The sad irony is, even in the throes of a misery that was patently obvious to absolutely everyone who comes within half a mile of them, many couples repeatedly express--for the most part angrily and spitefully, but occasionally pityingly--their assurances that their experience together is inherently "better" than singleness could ever be, and that singletons must be "jealous" and "envious" of "what they have."

They are "a couple," after all.

Actually, couples like this do appear in Jane Austen's novels, but we frequently give them no airtime and no notice. One of the reasons we fail to do so is because we prefer to pose "the couple" as the "solution" to a state of singleness that is predeterminedly configured as "lonely" and "unhappy."

As Cobb points out, however, this figuration assumes that the state of being "single" is both inscrutable and incomprehensible. The assumption of a necessary state of "Coupledom" creates a sociological blindspot that locates "singleness" at its center.

As Cobb notes, "Lurking within the logic of these worries is the notion that the development of a self has a particular goal: relationships with others." On the surface, such a logic initially makes sense.

How else can one develop feelings of empathy, compassion, kindness, and love, if not in interactions with others?

And yet, the logic that assumes that such self-development can only flourish in the form of the dyad or the couple is inherently flawed. Many couples demonstrate a total lack of empathy, compassion and kindness--both towards each other and towards the world at large.

Examining Hannah Arendt's linking of loneliness with totalitarianism and terror, Cobb notes that "The loneliest of us are not necessarily those of us who are actually alone but rather those of us trying our hardest not to be alone."

"Solitude" and "abandonment" are in no way the same thing. Yet we have constructed a social logic that presumes that they are and that defines a state of "aloneness" as necessarily a state of "loneliness." As Cobb argues, "relationship status turns us into characters, into forms, that have dramatic impacts on our lived experiences and self-understandings."

What would it mean to find out who we are, individually, without the assumption of the couple guiding our thoughts about the logic of our lives and its ultimate destiny? What would this look like? Cobb suggests,
I want to think about the isolated figures of the "single" who are misconstrued as lonely and pathetic figures but who are actually much more. They may not be lonely--they may just want to be antisocial, or they may just want to relate to others outside of the supreme logic of the couple, which has become the way one binds oneself to the social, otherwise known as the crowd.
Such an examination goes beyond the trite, popular, self-help cliche of "learning to love yourself first," a process that, as Cobb points out, always assumes as its end result the idea that one will be better able to become part of a couple.

In the end, this change in perception will require a very singular kind of thinking, something unlike anything we currently possess.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."