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Academic Alert! Michael Cobb’s “Lonely” June 24, 2009

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Academic Alert!, Essay review, Food for Thought, Reviews, single and happy, Singles Resource, We like. . ..
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academicWe here at Onely–as well as our Copious Readership– have always known that society’s obsession with coupling is “toxic” and a form of “terrorism”.  But now we’ve found an established literary theorist who has expressed this idea using those very words, albeit articulated in academic language.

As most of our regular readers know, I am currently working on a Ph.D. in a Rhetoric and Composition. This summer, one of my major tasks is to compose proposals and reading lists for two of the three exams I will take in the fall. One of my exams will focus on feminist and queer theory — and as I was doing research for the reading list last week, I came across an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly called “Lonely,” written by Michael Cobb. Cobb, who specializes in queer and critical theory, is interested, as the title indicates, in the effects of American culture’s stigmatization of singles.

So, I thought I’d share some of Cobb’s finer points (my apologies to Cobb for not raising ALL of his fine points — limitations of time, space, and audience attention prevail):

As I mentioned above, Cobb is interested, first, in how (or if) singles might fit into queer theory. Here’s how he puts it:

Not too long ago, at a queer conference, I toyed with the notion of attaching the letter S to the LGBTQ acronym (LGBTQS) so I could affiliate those who are “single” with the ever-elongating list of nonmajority sexualities. I was hoping to provoke serious reflection on why “relationships” and “coupledom” were often the most important objects of my fields of study. I wanted to inquire why there was always the demand to be oriented toward sustained, intimate relationships, especially since the single felt (and still feels) like one of the most despised sexual minority positions one could be (446).

Cobb then relates the reactions of his audience at the conference, noticing especially how hung up on “sex” their responses tend to be. So, he wonders, what would it mean to get rid of the sex issue/angle altogether?

I want to suspend questions of sex and sexuality altogether, at least for a few moments, to start asking other questions about what it means to be alone, to be in solitude, and whether or not that is now permitted when the world wants people to feel desperate, lonely, and ready for toxic forms of sociality (447).

These “toxic forms of sociality,” Cobbs goes on to argue, may make humans more vulnerable to oppressive cultural and legal structures. Using Hannah Arendt‘s The Origins of Totalitarianism to ground his argument, here’s how he explains it:

But, and here’s the strange twist my work after sex has taken, this “being together” is one of the primary totalitarian logics that accelerate the feelings of alienation and dislocation. The loneliest of us are not necessarily those who are actually alone but rather those of us trying our hardest not to be alone (449).

For the remainder of the article, Cobb considers the following questions: To what extent does culture’s obsession with loneliness have to do with social alienation?  How does culture’s perpetuation of the ideology of the couple — “the logical leap away from loneliness” — work, in some senses, to “terrorize” us and lead to further isolation/alienation?

So, Copious Readers, how might you answer the above questions?

— Lisa

PS: If you’re wondering how queer theory fits into what we’re doing here at Onely, check out our “About Onely” page and also our definition of “heteronormative” (a term made popular in feminist and [later] queer theory by Adrienne Rich).


1. Alan - June 24, 2009

Interesting…”toxic forms of sociality” can lead to oppressive social systems…does he mean something like a dictatorship? I’m not sure how that’d work, but it’s an interesting thesis.

I can see how lonliness can be caused by a frantic need to socialize…if you’re not desperately trying to be part of a couple, you’re probably not the kind of person who feels lonely when they’re alone (kind of like me).

2. Special K - June 24, 2009

I think most Americans assume that when they feel lonely that they feel undervalued, unknown, un-important. We prize fame, popularity and recognition. Even I ruffle my feathers when people try my break up brownies (like me, like me, like me!). That’s the toxicity of it, because feeling lonely is inevitable, in couple hood, in singlehood, in BEING HUMAN. It does not indicate failure, it indicates desire. We need not to escape it, but to step further into it.

3. singlutionary - June 24, 2009

Ahhhh Lisa, once again you remind me of the comfort and comprehension I found in academics! I think that more than the ideal of a couple, the ideal of the (straight parented) nuclear family is particularly alienating. I think this works in two directions: Ideal (the stereotype–not the real thing) nuclear familys live in single family homes with white picket fences and only interact with other nuclear families in single family homes in the same suburban subdivision. When the family is isolated from the greater community and from folks who are in any way different it causes a sense of isolation and magnifies any differences an individual may experience, espeically to the children.

And in the other direction, this sense of ideal nuclear family being the be-all-end-all of life makes everyone who isn’t a straight, homeowning, married (to their first and only spouse for whom they are also the first and only spouse) and a parent feel isolated and out of sorts. Unless you’re under 25 in which case it is still permissible to be “finding your way” towards this ideal.

Fortunately, I was exposed to other communities, cultures, etc but I still feel that in general, there is an expectation that our lives all lead to the nuclear family. Divorced people, single parents and blended families have “screwed up” the idea and are making do.

In this case singles and homosexual couples would have an alliance because neither one fit into THIS limited and hurtful definition of family. Singles are not married and in most states homosexual couples can not marry. Right away we are at odds with the “ideal” life which begins with marriage and is followed by multiple children. And single people and homosexual couples (generally) can not produce biological offspring which is raised by both the biological parents in a closed environment. There tend to be other folks in the mix.

I think that having other folks in the mix when it comes to bearing and raising children is essential to helping the child become and intelligent, compassionate and well rounded individual.

And I hope that that intelligent, compassionate and well rounded individual doesn’t feel ashamed or lonely if they, in turn, decide not to have children of their own or decide not to marry, etc.

4. Nikki Sommermorgen - June 24, 2009

Hmm, what an interesting discussion. Loneliness is a very strange feeling.I don’t feel lonely very often, but when I do I think that – at least in my case – it often is a different feeling indisguise: Fear, envy, jealousy, helplessness… even boredom. If I have to make a big change/ decision in my life and there is noone I can ask for advice, I might feel lonely… but maybe it is actually just my fear of making the wrong decision. If a friend prefers to stay at home with her boyfriend instead of going out with me, my loneliness is actually jealousy. And when I lie in front of the tv at night and nothing is on and there is noone to talk to or go out with me, it’s boredom rather than loneliness. I don’t really think it is culture or society that “terrorize” me and causes my loneliness or social alienation in these situations.

Then, on the other hand… the one moment in my life, when I felt loneliest, was at my cousin’s wedding. When the pastor praised the holiness of marriage and how it is intended to be etc. She ended her sermon, by asking everyone in church to turn to their partner and tell that person how much s/he is loved. Everybody turned around to their partner…. everyone, except for me. I wasn’t bored, or fearful, and I definitely wasn’t jealous of my relatives who have mostly broken relationships with their partners. But I felt lonely. Maybe because I, as the only one who wouldn’t turn around to someone else and wisper the words “I love you”. But most likely I felt lonely, because I was “singled out” by the pastor. So, I’m sure there is some truth in M. Cobb’s theory.

Alan - June 25, 2009

For me too, it’s either fear of having made a mistake, or just plain boredom. Couseling has helped allieviate the former, and more activities the latter.

That pastor seemed pretty clueless, didn’t she realize there might be single/divorced/widowed people present?

Nikki Sommermorgen - June 25, 2009

I talked to the pastor afterwards during the reception and she was a very nice person. I think she got just so caught up in the whole wedding and marriage issue that she didn’t even think of unmarried people who might also attend the wedding. I briefly mentioned that I liked her sermon but that I was the only one who couldn’t turn to their partner. And she looked surprised and a little embarassed when I said that. I think she really hadn’t thought it all the way through and how it must feel to be single in that situation.

Lauri - June 26, 2009

Alan, I feel the same. I don’t really know what “lonely” feels like, but I think that when I get bored when I’m alone, I fear that I have a mistake somewhere in my life, that “successful” people are out “doing” something right now. Intelligently I know this isn’t the case, but I raised in household where having oodles of friends and social plans every weekend was the major measure of success, and though I realized back in junior high that I was not the same person as my uber-popular parents, it’s still faintly tattooed in my brain!

5. Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles - June 29, 2009

When is this Cobb fellow going to write a book? I want to be first in line for it!

Cobb is onto something. Loneliness is a negative, reactive state experienced in the absence of something. When you’re busy, who has time to be lonely?

Prolonged loneliness is like an obsession–an obsession with having a mate, more friends, more social invitations. Like any other obsession, the more you obsess about it, the more your anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Additionally, the more we idealize coupling as the solution to loneliness, the more those of us who don’t or can’t couple become ashamed, embarrassed, stigmatized. The more different we feel, the harder it is to connect with others on a meaningful level.

Such a sad, vicious circle…

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