Tag Archives: isolation

Islands of Isolation

The present moment has created more self-isolation than most would like.  We know what it means to be alone with one’s own thoughts. Chatter with others may be in short supply. But our consciousness can easily take the chatter inside.  We may share a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but can our reservoirs of self-reflection ever be made transparent? 

Climate scientists warn that it will be just decades until areas of South Florida will become a watery archipelago. The level of the sea rises about one inch a year in Miami Beach, inundating streets that some residents continue to believe are flooded by water main breaks.  Even in denial, those residents must sense that a chain of islands makes continuous connection with the rest of the community an insurmountable problem.

Interestingly, communication scholar John Durham Peters makes the same observation about human communication (Speaking Into the Air, 1999).  We are, he says, our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the same culture, but we can never fully know another person’s world.

All of this is Peters’ way of reminding us that we have oversold our abilities to make things right through communication.  He notes that problems of connecting with others are “fundamentally intractable.”  Our attempts at doing so creates a “registry of modern longings” that can never be satisfied.  Disappointment is a natural part of the effort.  As Peters notes:

Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own.  My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours.  No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any “wireless” contact through which to transmit my experience of the world to you. . . .  In this view, humans are hardwired by the privacy of experience to have communication problems.

                    Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org

Of course the theme of humans physically together and psychologically apart is universal, reflected in everything from Edward Hopper’s lone figures in the painting, Nighthawks (1942),  to virtually any film or play that treats individuals and relationships in all of their complexities.  The tensions inherent in coupling and adapting are shot through most country ditties about loneliness as frequently as recurring film narratives of abandonment.

This perspective only seems pessimistic if we believe in a kind of communication that is so stipulative or stripped of complexity as to be uninteresting. I can say with great accuracy that the Ketchup in our household is in the refrigerator, and know I can be understood.  But who cares?  The things that usually matter–feelings, values, aspirations and needs–all hide more easily out of sight. Could it be otherwise when we engage with other living souls with different life histories, memories, fantasies and fears?

Another part of our common over-optimism about communication is that advances in technologies are themselves reasons to mitigate communication confusion. Our devices make it possible to talk or text through every waking hour.  But, if anything, opportunities for sending and receiving messages only increase the chances to see the differences between us that remain.

The trick here is to accept the challenges that human complexity creates, without descending into the view that the outside world is mostly a mental mirage. To fall into that trap is to deny the chances that are still possible when words, images and music make sometimes durable bridges to others.

The Necessity of Acknowledgement

Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia
Source: SHED-5-restaurant, Melbourne, Australia

The averted gaze preserves our isolation until an expectation of reciprocity forces us out. 

The Important Person has just turned the corner at the far end of the hall. She’s with an associate, walking in my direction. In another few seconds we will pass each other in the middle of this long narrow hall. Will the Important Person notice me? Will her glances to her associate give way to a glance in my direction?  In the Important Person’s world do I even exist?

The essential ritual of acknowledging another is a cornerstone of our sociality. “Communication” can mean transferring the most complex of ideas or feelings.  But stripped to its essential core, it usually includes simple gestures that confirm another person’s existence: their basic worth. This basic process of affirmation can be in real time, or communicated electronically. As with the example of the pending encounter with the Important Person, its most interesting to observe in the flesh. The body language is so clear.  We are in constant search of facial cues from others that we matter to them, that we have status, that we are an agent of potential value.

This ritual has its cultural rules that vary somewhat from society to society. In American life most of the work of affirming or denying recognition is done with the eyes, where looking in the direction of another is the signature act of recognition. The establishment of this plane of mutual eye contact is essential. Saying something to another simply doesn’t work very well if we can’t catch that person’s gaze.

Imagine another common but more complex scene. With another person I am eating dinner in a crowded New York restaurant. Its layout is a typical arrangement: a continuous banquette along one wall faces a series of small individual tables, as in the photo above. Spaces between the tables amount to little more than a few inches. In this series of “table for two” arrangements I am in the chair and my partner is seated on the banquette against the wall.

Here’s the challenge. This arrangement poses a problem for waitstaff. The server’s mandate for good service means she can’t fully engage people on my side without establishing a plane of direct eye contact.  But she will need to perform the physically uncomfortable task of specifically addressing us by leaning in to our sides so her face can be seen. As a customer I can make the task easier by turning my head in her direction, or next to impossible if I don’t. And I’m impressed, because doing this wrenching twist of the body to show deference must leave a server with at least a sore neck.

In a crowded place like Manhattan direct eye contact on the street provides the opportunity for more “communication” than most people want. It’s too much work and perhaps risky to try to acknowledge everyone whose personal space you invade, like those facing each other on a subway. In such circumstances we do look at people and their faces, but this gaze is usually stolen: timed to be more or less unseen by the other. This kind of stolen glance preserves our isolation until we are again among people where there is an expectation of reciprocity.

We sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one we know directly in front of us. The result can be its own small wound of rejection.

Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner
                Source: Cindy Chew, S.F. Examiner

If you are in an environment that might be broadly considered a community—for example, an office, a college campus, a faith community, a school—the averted gaze in another’s presence is increasingly common and usually off-putting. With those we know we expect an offer of acknowledgement through eye contact. This is the source of  the anxiety in the first example of encountering the Important Person. But communities must now also contend with competition for an individual’s attention from many sources, one of which is what I call “screen thrall:” the increasingly ubiquitous habit of community members to looking away from approaching others, shifting attention down to their cell-phones. It’s endemic in most settings, even when individuals are known to each other. My impression is that, for some people, it has turned into an automatic response: the equivalent of Bill Murray trying to avoid Groundhog Day’s insurance-selling Ned.

A practical and ironic effect of using a mobile device is that it now works as a tool not just for connection, but also isolation.  The stance characterized by screen thrall says “I’m not available.” It’s another case where we sometimes seem to prefer the electronic facsimile of another person over the one we know directly in front of us. The result can be its own small wound of rejection.

Comments:  woodward@tcnj.edu