Interviews on Solitude in “The Atlantic” and “Azione”

In two recent articles on the meaning and benefits of solitude, I was interviewed by Brent Crane for The Atlantic, and Stefania Prandi for Azione [“Action,” a Swiss magazine]. There is some discussion in these articles of my work.

The essays, entitled “The Virtues of Isolation,” and “I benefici della solitudine” are available online at the links just above.

Transcripts of the interviews are available below.

Transcript of Interview on ‘the Virtues of Isolation’ with The Atlantic’s Brent Crane

Brent Crane:

Based on your hikikomori example…

[Hikikomori is extreme and lasting self-isolation, predominantly but not exclusively studied in Japan and analyzed in some of my (Bowker’s) recent publications, including my (2016) book, Ideologies of Experience and my paper, “Hikikomori as Disfigured Desire.”]

… solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering/self-harm, it seems, is split by a thin line.

Are you able to say what that line is? For example, is it simply intention: escaping the world out of fear vs. escaping the world in order to improve oneself?

Matthew H. Bowker:

Well, I agree that it is a thin line, one that can very obscure. And maybe this means that solitude is always multi-faceted: Maybe there is always a bit of escape and a bit of rejuvenation and a bit of defensiveness and a bit of healthy self-contact in solitude, and these things are always mixed up. Nevertheless, I think it is still possible to talk meaningfully about the relative presence or absence of these factors, or about degrees, and to distinguish if not absolute categories of solitude, different emphases in solitude.

So, if I were pressed to define the “line” you refer to, I would not say that it is about intention, since it may be the case that a person seeks solitude for the “wrong” reasons, but finds something of value in it nonetheless, or vice versa. One’s intention may be to go on a solitary self-improvement retreat, but one may or may not engage in any meaningful solitude there. Or, to push matters a little further, insofar as we believe in the unconscious, it is not always clear, even to ourselves, what our true intentions are.

Instead, the psychological value of solitude really depends on the quality of the self-experience one can generate in a solitary state. That is, the value of solitude depends on whether an individual can find an interior solitude in which he or she can make meaningful contact with himself or herself.

This is something we discussed a lot in our conversation, I think. Focusing our attention on the interior aspect of solitude, the ability of the self to contact or communicate with itself in a free and safe way, depends less on the proximity of the individual to other individuals and more on what is going on inside the individual’s mind or psyche. So, for example, we could occupy ourselves with questions like “How far away from others does one have to be to be ‘solitary’?” or “Do we need to be locked behind closed doors to be solitary?” etc. But these questions are (obviously) a bit wrong-headed, since what is really at issue in solitude is not finding a geographical space in which others are out of sight, but rather finding an interior space where others are, to a great extent, out of mind, so one can focus on one’s self.

B. Crane:

The solitude that you refer to, is it solitude while not doing anything, just sitting with your thoughts, or is it solitude in the sense of being alone but you can still do stuff, like reading or listening to a podcast? Or is it both? Are they different? And if both, then is it possible to clarify what are the psychological effects of each or which is more beneficial?

M.H. Bowker: 

These are good questions. But here I would say, again, that the question of what type or level of “activity” can be involved with solitude begs a more fundamental question, which is: “How much and what kinds of solitary activities promote rich self-experience (that is: self-contact and self-communication, etc.) for the individual?” And the answer to this question will likely vary considerably, depending on the individual.

Maybe I can say all of this more plainly: There are some things that some people can do in solitude that facilitate or enhance meaningful self-experience. (“Self-experience” is just what it sounds like: the self’s experience of itself, its “being” itself, and its contact with itself). Some people can go for a walk or listen to music and feel that they are deeply “in touch with” themselves. Others cannot.

This is a bit of  an over-simplification, but we can take an easy example: I like music a lot, but listening to music, for me, is not a great choice for a solitary activity precisely because I get a little too distracted by the particulars of the music I am listening to, I get caught up in it, I think about it, I feel it, and in all of that I forget to be in touch with myself because I am, instead, in touch with the music.

Again, this is an over-simplification because there are many different ways in which we can be “in touch” with the many different parts of ourselves, and not all of them require the same level of cognition or reflection or emotional availability or concentration. So, for instance, there are things people to do “lose themselves” that are, in a paradox that is only apparent, also about “finding themselves.” All this means is that they “lose touch with” a part of themselves to “get in touch with” another part.

An easy example here might be something like exercise: When I do really strenuous weight-lifting, I have to kind of turn off my brain, and that is part of what I like about it: It can be a nice relief, something that allows me to live in my body in a different way than I usually do, even if only for a little while. But, personally, I do not think of this as very “high-quality” solitary time for me, because, for me, I can have a far richer self-experience sitting and contemplating. Of course, others may differ.

So, whether or not we call an activity “solitary,” or whether we call it a “high-quality” or “low-quality” solitary activity depends not on whether a person lifts weight in a gym surrounded by others or alone in a basement, but on the quality of self-experience when engaged in the activity. There are, of course, people who, while lifting weights, even alone in their basements, are unable to escape the thoughts and anxieties of the day, who are mentally running through their to-do lists and re-living conversations that went badly and who are preoccupied with all sorts of associated concerns or worries, and this would mean that they are not really having a rich or meaningful solitary experience, even though they are alone in a physical sense.

So, no one should presume to be able to offer any sweeping conclusions about whether podcasts are good or bad for people. But I think we can say that various kinds of solitary activity have different effects on the quality of the self-experience available to a person seeking solitude.

B. Crane:

My editor was hoping to hear some clarification on this quote of yours regarding the link between campus ideological conflicts & our discounting of solitude that I’ve included: “[Today] we’re drawn to anything that can help us define us and fill us up by using others rather than filling ourselves up from something internal or from within,” Bowker says. In other words, true individualism. “Separating from the group, I would argue, is one thing that universities should be facilitating more.”

Here is my editor’s response: “I’m not sure about this. Individualism is a very American value! And there’s also a lot of stories that argue the default mode today is actually being very connected on social media and whatnot, but being physically alone more, and more lonely. So I don’t know that we are drawn into groups more, at least not groups where you’re interacting in person.”

What are your thoughts on her response?

M.H. Bowker:

Well, I have several thoughts.

1. If I could amend the quotation a bit just to clarify, I would prefer to say:

“We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define us or ‘fill us up,’ if you will. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within.”

2. I would really hesitate to summarize this idea as “true individualism” because “individualism” is a very complex concept, which is something I think your editor is alluding to in her comment.

I can explain this a little and I think you may find it relevant for your piece. Alexis de Tocqueville, still perhaps the greatest cultural observer of America, remarked (in the mid-19th century) in his great work “Democracy in America” that American “individualism” is actually very group-ish. That is, the creature that America had built was both lonely and drawn to associations with others, was both isolated and almost obsessively oriented toward popular opinion and social trends, fashion, and the like. Basically, what Tocqueville was describing was an ironic if not paradoxical situation in which individuals are both cut off from their ancestors and their sense of belonging and yet, because of that feeling of smallness and relative singularity, enthralled to the will of the majority and the opinions of the masses.

The dangerous consequence of this kind of empty individualism, for Tocqueville, could hardly be overstated. It gave to “the people,” he thought, an inordinate amount of power to control not only the course of individual lives but even our innermost  thoughts and feelings. He wrote that, whereas a king “has only a material power that acts on actions and cannot reach wills, the majority is vested with a force … that acts on the will as much as on actions, and which at the same time prevents the deed and the desire to do it. I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America. (Tocqueville 2000, pp. 243–244)

In such a society, “the public therefore has a singular power … the very idea of which aristocratic nations could not conceive. It does not persuade of its beliefs, it imposes them and makes them penetrate souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on the intellect of each.” (Tocqueville 2000, p. 409)

The power of the majority, vested in part in the American ideology of experience, condemned most Americans to unwitting conformism, agitation, and pursuit of social status and material wealth: busy yet trivial existences in which meaningful solitude could find no place. As American culture lost its capacity to facilitate being alone, Americans increasingly reverted to the kinds of activities that express not being a self, what Winnicott calls “the doing that arises out of [not] being … a whole life … built on the pattern of reacting to stimuli” (Winnicott 1986, p. 39).

Here is Tocqueville again:

“[T]here is nothing less fit for meditation than the interior of a democratic society. … Everyone is agitated: some want to attain power, others to take possession of wealth. In the midst of this universal tumult, the repeated collision of contrary interests, the continual advance of men toward fortune, where does one find the calm necessary to the profound combinations of the intellect? How does each man bring his thought to a stop at such and such a point, when everything moves around him and he himself is carried along and tossed about every day in the impetuous current that swirls all things along?” (Tocqueville 2000, p. 434)

Feel free to quote me quoting this, or quote it directly, or use the quotations that appear in my book, “Ideologies of Experience.”

3. I think your editor’s comments raise some interesting points. Let me take them one at a time:

a. “Individualism is a very American value!

 Yes, I think that is true, but we have to understand better what “individualism” means and we have to consider the possibility that our “individualism” is not opposed to or at odds with our groupishness. The brief discussion of Tocqueville above is directly relevant to this.

b. “… the default mode today is actually being very connected on social media and whatnot, but being physically alone more, and more lonely …”

Here, we have returned to the distinction between physical aloneness and psychological solitude, which is really at the heart of the matter. But the “stories” that have been written in the popular press on isolation and aloneness are not terribly sophisticated, and I think they lack the kind of subtle, nuanced understanding we need if we are to understand what is really going on.

The view encapsulated here is, in my view, incorrect. That view is that if we are “physically alone,” then we are “lonely.”  I do not think that is true, or at least I think its truth would depend on a fairly questionable definition of the term “lonely.” Loneliness is a state of being that is neither connected with others nor solitary. That is, to the extent that one feels lonely, one is missing a kind of connection. It is an open question for me whether the connection that lonely people really miss is a connection with others, or if it is not (at least in part) a connection with themselves. Put another way: A person who can find a rich self-experience in a solitary state is far less likely to feel lonely when alone.

So, your editor may be right that we are very connected on social media and in other ways, but that does not necessarily mean that people are more lonely.

c. “So I don’t know that we are drawn into groups more, at least not groups where you’re interacting in person.”

Groups and others do not have to be physical to be meaningful sources of social connection – people can connect with others in dozens of other ways, and here I mean not just the internet or social media or online gaming, but imaginatively, vicariously, psychologically. We can identify with people we see on television or read about in a book: this is a kind of connection.

While I would be very hesitant to say, as you can see from my slight alterations to the quotation of me above, that it is only or primarily “today” that people are drawn to groups. If we were to take a very broad historical look, we would certainly see that there were some periods of time in the past when people really had little choice but to be group-creatures, that genuine autonomy was, in some sense, less possible and maybe even less conceivable.

At the same time, however, I think it is naïve to assume, as so many people do, that just because we (Americans in particular, but Westerners in general) say we are individualistic and independent and modern, and remind ourselves that have the freedom to choose how we dress or what we post on Twitter or whatever, that we are truly, meaningfully, autonomous and independent. There is still a lot of groupishness in our culture, and, on a shorter historical timeline, I would even argue that, with respect to the past few decades, our groupishness seems to be on the rise. This trend is nowhere more evident than in the domination of our political and cultural discourses by “identity politics.”

On this matter, people do not necessarily have to go to groups or meetings in person to feel that their identity is shaped by the groups to which they belong, and, in the context of that quotation and the issue of campus conflict, this means that even if people are connecting differently than in the past (virtually, through communication technology, etc.) they are still drawn to groups and, sometimes, locked into group behavior, which often demands that individuals never be truly alone, that their thoughts always go to the group, and that their identities always feature the group’s qualities first and foremost.

There is, of course, another entire issue here that we have left uncovered, and that is the family. The important question to ask in that context is: Is the family helping the child to be his or her own person, or is the family asking that the child be a “good” family member?, i.e., a member of the “family group.” Families can teach their children to be relatively independent and autonomous selves, or families can teach their children to be group-members. This is discussed in more detail in my book with David Levine, entitled “A Dangerous Place to Be.”

I hope you find all of this helpful.

Transcript of Interview on ‘the Benefits of Solitude’ with Stefania Prandi of Azione Magazine (Switzerland)


Stefania Prandi: 

Why is solitude important?

Matthew H. Bowker:

The fundamental psychological value of solitude lies in its ability to offer a person a form of self-experience that is distinct from the experience of being with others. This kind of self-experience may be described as a kind of contact or communication between the self and itself. This kind of contact or communication forms the basis of thinking, feeling, and acting in authentic and meaningful ways.

What is hard for many people to understand, however, is that just being without other people, does not guarantee that this kind of self-contact will be made or that it will feel enriching. There need to be certain capacities developed in the self — one of them is a history in which solitude was not threatening or dangerous; another is familiarity and practice with solitude, itself — in order for a person to be able to find an interior solitude in which he or she can make meaningful contact with himself or herself.

Later, you ask why it is “bad” if students take their mobile phones with them to the bathroom. There are several ways to respond to this. Perhaps the simplest is to say that a society in which individuals do not know interior solitude is a society in which people are out of touch with themselves, even as they are in touch with each other, with the latest news or trends, and the like. Without real, interior solitude, a person can not think or feel or act from a place that is real or genuine to him or her – he or she is stuck re-acting, living in a state of stimulation-seeking and frenzied activity.

My book, Ideologies of Experience: Trauma, Failure, Deprivation, and the Abandonment of the Self, has a chapter (Chapter 6) devoted to solitude, its importance, and the threat of its decline.

S. Prandi:

You said that your students today tell you they can’t go to the bathroom without their phone on. Why does it happen? Why is it that bad?

M.H. Bowker:

On one hand, we might say that there are so many entertaining distractions available to us today that we have become addicted: We can not go two minutes without wanting to be stimulated or entertained in some way, so just staring at the wall or being alone with our own thoughts becomes relatively less interesting than texting, chatting, or playing video games.

The real issue here is that people find it hard to generate meaningful or pleasurable experiences of being without some sort of external stimulation, be it others or “virtual” people or avatars in video games or photos on Instagram. What that means is that people are not able to create an experience of themselves, by themselves, and with themselves. They can not “be” when they are alone. They are in this sense, far from independent or autonomous, even if they live alone or are alone often. They do not feel alive unless they are with others or doing something that distracts them from themselves.

On the other hand, I would like to draw attention to the fact that, both before and after the advent of the mobile phone, many people go to the bathroom (please excuse the rather crude example) and do not use that time to be solitary. Instead, they run through their to-do lists in their heads, they re-play the embarrassing moment at the party the night before, they wish they had fancier shoes, and so on. In an important sense, even while these people are physically alone, they are not really enjoying an interior solitude. They are not taking the moment to make self-contact. Their thoughts remain tangled up with the day-to-day, or with their social and professional lives.

Indeed, about 500 years ago Michel de Montaigne noted that, even when we do make good-faith attempts at solitude, there is no guarantee we will succeed, because, to be blunt, being solitary can be difficult. We can fail in solitude, he wrote, because “we take our chains along with us.” By this, he meant, we have to get away not only from the crowds but also from “the gregarious instincts that are inside us.” “Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust,” he continued, “often follow us even into the cloisters and the schools of philosophy.”

See above on why this is “bad.”

S. Prandi:

How could school help the new generations to deal with solitude? And families?

M.H. Bowker:

Two very important questions. And different questions as well. Here, I would recommend a closer look at my book with David Levine, A Dangerous Place to Be, that you mention below. We talk a lot about what families can do (and what they often fail to do) to give their children environments in which it is safe and pleasurable to be themselves, which involves being independent and, at times, being solitary.

There is a big difference between a child who is treated like a person in himself and a child who is treated, first and foremost, like a family-member, like a member of a group, whose purpose is to serve the group. The family is the first and most important group a child encounters. From the experience of this group, he or she learns how to interact with other groups in the future: whether too obey them, whether he or she can defy them, whether he or she matters without them.

In school, we tend to see many of the patterns of home life repeated, such that students’ independence, creativity, and autonomy are not nurtured but are thwarted in order to produce compliant, obedient students who know how to memorize information and perform tasks, but who may not really know how to think, in the most important sense of that term. Thinking is closely related to solitude because to think, really, means to be able to think one’s own thoughts. And if one is always thinking about what one has to do or what is expected or what the correct answer is, then one is thinking someone else’s thoughts, and not one’s own.

S. Prandi:

Why are people so scared about solitude?

M. H. Bowker:

There is a long history of fearing solitary creatures and solitary villains. I think this is rooted in the bonds that first formed societies and that continues to hold sway over groups. Those who demonstrate a capacity to think or act outside of the norms (or boundaries) of the group represent threats to the way of life of the group, even if their thoughts or behaviors are not, in fact, gravely threatening.

Today we often imagine that people who are not in constant contact with others will “go crazy,” because, we think, they will just be stuck with their own thoughts, which we presume to be inherently vacuous or disturbing. We must think that is it society that is keeping us sane, keeping us “in line.” Without it, we presume, we would “go wild.” As a political theorist, I find these assumptions about the nature and function of groups and societies pretty fascinating and, basically, wrong.  That is, it has not been lone individuals who have done the most “crazy” and horrific things of recent memory: it has been groups. We could say that they all went collectively “mad,” but I am not sure that would be as meaningful as to say that groups think and feel differently than individuals. Often groups are more primitive; they function at a more basic level: us/them; in/out; kill/be killed, etc.

On a deeper level, I think many individuals are frightened of true solitude because they do not enjoy the experience of being alone with themselves or with their own thoughts and feelings. Once the various stimuli of life are removed, they are stuck with feeling and thoughts they made have been able to keep hidden away and quiet for a long time: maybe some sadness, or frustration, or anger, or lingering resentments. The easy thing to do is to run away from these experiences and go to a party or turn on the television or have a few drinks. The hard thing to do is to recognize that the relationship one has with oneself, like any relationship, is not always going to be perfect. Sometimes it is going to be painful and difficult. But, like any relationship, if we apply effort and patience and understanding to ourselves then we can sort things out, we can forgive ourselves, we can learn more about ourselves, we can make peace with those parts of ourselves we don’t like, and we can help that relationship grow.

S. Prandi:

In A Dangerous Place to Be, you trace a line between the devaluing of solitude and the ongoing ideological conflicts afflicting college campuses. Could you explain more about this study please?

M.H. Bowker:

Sure. In this study, we argue that individuals are driven toward identity groups and that these identity groups are behind much contemporary conflict. It is important to remember that groups do not have to be physical groups to be powerful. They can be “virtual” groups or even psychological groupings, i.e., the group or groups of which one considers oneself a part. People can connect with others in dozens of ways: not just the internet or social media or online gaming, but imaginatively, vicariously, psychologically. We identify with people we see on television or read about in a book: this, too, is a kind of group connection.

So, if a group’s identity becomes the defining characteristic of a person, then that means the person takes on the basic beliefs and assumptions and fantasies of the group as his or her own identity. Then, any real or perceived threat to the group, like an insult or a contradiction of its beliefs, appears to be a threat to the safety or well-being of the group and each of its members. This pervasive sense of threat, of danger, is what generates so much conflict on campuses today: Young people (and not so young people) feel that they are endangered by others’ speech or conduct if that speech does not accord with their most deeply-held values and beliefs. And, in a sense, they are. We do not seek to judge these people and groups in the book, only to understand them. While the book is not only concerned with solitude, I can say that one might draw the conclusion from the book that if more individuals had the capacity or the opportunity to achieve meaningful interior solitude, then the number and intensity of these conflicts would be reduced.

I hope this is helpful.

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