Co-Written by Bikash Sarma & Shruti Sharma

Rousseau in Solitude. National Endowment for the Humanities.  neh.gov.

Catherine Malabou’s recent reflections on the ‘psychic space’ under the lockdown makes one wonder about the socio-spatio-temporal nature of the very quarantined state as well as of quarantining oneself within it. The quarantine – that we have been dwelling in now for sometime – has been redeemed by Malabou through Rousseau’s ‘choice’, Foucault’s necessitated ‘ethics of the self’, and her ‘self’ sheltered-in-place. 

Even though, the two experiences of quarantine– Rousseau’s in Genoa due to the Plague epidemic and Malabou’s due to the outbreak of CoVid-19 – are separated by almost three centuries, they are connected by the debates on the possibility of a radical alterity. A close reading of Malabou’s idea and experience of radical alterity provides crucial insight into the immanent constraints of the same possibilities to ‘quarantine from/within quarantine’, as implicated upon and by differential bodies, spaces and times. This response to Malabou takes a cue from post-lockdown India and can be seen as an addition as well as a reaction to her piece.

For Rousseau the past is not an alien and detached memory but a continuation into his present –the quarantine in the Lazaretto. Rousseau’s normal or ‘inner companionship’ is evident in the usage of words like ‘amusement’, ‘liberty’, ‘ease’ and ‘commodious living’ to describe his experience of being the only person in the Lazaretto. It reminds the reader of the preservation of his ‘hermit existence’ rather than an abrupt disjuncture with anon-quarantined past. This can be juxtaposed with Malabou facing the “most difficult challenge” which is “extremely distressing” for her– the “incapacity to withdraw into myself”, as she confesses. Malabou seeks refuge in Rousseau’s normal to deal with the anxiety of the exceptional, although temporary loss of her normal –community and sociality. She is able to convert her anxiety into what Barbara Taylor wishes for us to attain – a “productive solitude”.[1]

Malabou acknowledges Karl Marx’s attitudes towards the ‘robinsonades’ like Rousseau – and had he been alive – would have included Foucault and Malabou into the list of “isolated [wo]men [who] finally come to meet and form a community”. She also feels that “this may be true”. Marx’s characterisation of solitude in the materialist sense as defining the state of nature can be placed into the philosophical discourse of the evolution of “wrong-headed” Hobbesian men into sociality. Sociality, thus, stands commendable in contradistinction to the ‘pathological’ solitude which was viewed as deprecating –creating a caricature of such a man and woman in the ‘polysemous’ discourse on solitude. However, the pathological universe of solitary existence and sociality were also made to witness a constant process of paradoxical rapprochement, via semantic innovations – of ‘philosolitude’ and ‘intermittent withdrawal’ – in eighteenth century Europe, at a time when Rousseau composed his autobiographical note.

Malabou’s as well as Rousseau’s (intermittent) withdrawal to the psychic space in all its differences expresses a similarity in its dialogic meaning mediated through the ‘subjected circumstance’ of the bacterial/viral exception, isolation from the social and reclamation of the self in/through the ‘quarantine within quarantine and from it.’ The possibility for reclaiming the self lies not in a response ‘in being alone’ or as the author contends not “even if one is already on one’s own” – to extend it a little further – within or without the epidemiological quarantine, but in stripping oneself “from what remains of the social”.

Stripped from the social, Rousseau confining himself to the Lazaretto and Malabou’s   insula/solitude within the space of the ‘present’ quarantine – as the philosopher underlines – opens up the possibility “to do something” – through dialogues with the self (or with others).For Hannah Arendt, this something to do “…is a solitary but not a lonely business…” Solitude is a human situation in which “I” keeps oneself company and loneliness comes “without being able to split up into the two-in-one”.[2]The possibility “to do something” that this insular point provides is – in Malabou’s case to (read and) write– within a similar psychic space of ‘choice’ and ‘intermittent withdrawal’ to and for the self.

But what happens to the possibility of doing ‘something’ when the radical psychic space is itself non-existent? Or that ‘something’ is always already subjected not just to ‘the circumstance’ – as is the case for Rousseau and Malabou – but to the subjection of the social that both Rousseau and Malabou may have successfully bracketed their selves from? Where does one go if they want to leave the felucca but there seems to be no possibility of choosing the Lazaretto?

Facing a similar anxiety as Malabou’s confession, at a time when we are cooped in and reflecting on our isolation and solitude, her piece on the Critical Inquiry appeared opening up new insights – a posteriori. The transcendence of the estrangement imposed by isolation/social confinement into solitude is an idea(l) that our individual selves have been able to associate with, since the arbitrary declaration of the lockdown in India – due to the CoVid-19 pandemic – from the midnight of 24 March 2020. In fact, even prior to the lockdown – under normal circumstances – we would ‘carve out a space’ for ‘intermittent withdrawal’ to do something – in our case too, to read and write. But the post-lockdown period seems to have quarantined off this ‘intermittent’ island from “I” leading to a bizarre estrangement. Unlike Malabou who has had to experience a ‘radical Robinson Crusoe’ in herself under the social distancing to counteract the effects of the social in distance, locked up at home with family now, many of us are going through a contrary experience, even as they write and the reader reads. Like other gendered bodies in India and elsewhere too, they have experienced an increase in the intensity of the social – the heteropatriarchal gender order – and scrutiny over their everyday life because of which they are having to make trivial negotiations for partaking (or wanting to) in the ‘wrong-headed’ activity of solitude. Multiple attempts at undressing the social have come back as Penelope’s undone tapestry every morning.

However, the problematic of transmuting subjection into solitude is probably more complicated than it appears in the personal narratives discussed till now. In this regard, from within the social location that the authors can relate to experientially – the urban upper/middle class savarna heteropatriarchal family[3] – the experience of the female homemakers become very telling, for they are subjected to a physical, material and ideological quarantine in the ‘felucca’ without the ‘choice’ of an escape. Subjection, here, is a reference not just to the quarantine but also to the always already existing – although intensified in the quarantine – heteropatriarchal gender order.

Under the neologism of ‘family time’ and ‘family bond’ – to be managed and strengthened by the homemaker – the quarantine has cooped in a renewed sociality within the family. In all of this, the homemaker’s estrangement has been made to appear endearing and insular (read as familial).Her self is undressed to “meaningless chattering” in intimate companionship. All the “coverings, clothes, and curtains” have become spectators of the estrangement in sociality.

The socio-spatio-temporal matrix that the homemaker finds herself in is one in which the social in social distance seems to be more powerful than ever. In such a subjected circumstance – physical, materially and ideological – would the “suspension” of the social by withdrawing to oneself be possible? In fact, the radical psychic space of withdrawal to one’s self would be held up as ‘wrong-headed’ and in derision, leading to the production of stigmatised and morbid bodies in the space delineated for ‘staying safe (and healthy)’ from the pandemic.

The immanent possibility of the space one (homemaker) had carved out for the self in the pre-lockdown normal within the home, has suddenly become a detached memory. Under the lockdown, the hope of its immanence is disappearing to nothingness. Though we are all well aware that these possibilities maybe tied to the family structure, what is distressing – in our re-reading of Malabou – is the realization that finding “a society within oneself” can never be an unambiguous bracketing of the social under these circumstances. Certainly, a tactical manoeuvre on the part of homemakers with the very social is possible; but could this tactical manoeuvring create an alternative psychic space (in the social) to that of Malabou’s? Would the consideration of a radical withdrawal to one self in the normal – pre-quarantine –within the social, lead to reworking Malabou’s solitude? Does this call for a more inclusive reading of solitude – in isolation and in the social?

But for now, as for the homemakers the chimera of being “my self” – a reminiscence of the non-quarantined space – is drifting away, we are frantically trying to drift away with the radical ‘robinsonades’ – Rousseau and Malabou – to the socially stripped island of “I”…

 

[1]Barbara Taylor (2020); “Philosophical Solitude: David Hume versus Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, History Workshop Journal, 89, p.14.

[2]Hannah Arendt (1978);The Life of the Mind, Florida;Harcourt, Inc., p.185.

[3]It is also to be kept in mind that the social location in question here is a relative position of privilege in the Indian context.Savarna is the term used to denote those persons who are born in one of the three privileged castes – Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya – in the hierarchical and discriminatory system of caste in the Hindu social order. As an idea it denotes Brahminical patriarchy.

Bikash Sarma recently submitted his Doctoral Thesis from Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently teaching at Salesian College, Siliguri.
Shruti Sharma completed her MPhil from Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta(CSSSC).

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