“Just as there are mental states only possible in crowds, there are mental states only possible in privacy.”
Those are the words of Sarah Perry from Luxuriating in Privacy. I came across the quote from a David Chapman tweet. He then asks, “Loneliness epidemic—or a golden age of privacy?” With that lure, I couldn’t help but bite.
I’m already familiar with Sarah Perry’s writings at Ribbonfarm. There is even an earlier comment by me at the piece the quote comes from, although I had forgotten about it. In the post, she begins with links to some of her previous commentary, the first one (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture) having been my introduction to her work. I referenced it in my post Music and Dance on the Mind and it does indeed connect to the above thought on privacy.
In that other post by Perry, she discusses Keeping Together in Time by William H. McNeill. His central idea is “muscular bonding” that creates, maintains, and expresses a visceral sense of group-feeling and fellow-feeling. This can happen through marching, dancing, rhythmic movements, drumming, chanting, choral singing, etc (for example, see: Choral Singing and Self-Identity). McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).
The individual is lost, at least temporarily, an experience humans are drawn to in many forms. Individuality is tiresome and we moderns feel compelled to take a vacation from it. Having forgotten earlier ways of being, maybe privacy is the closest most of us get to lowering our stressful defenses of hyper-individualistic pose and performance. The problem is privacy so easily reinforces the very individualistic isolation that drains us of energy.
This might create the addictive cycle that Johann Hari discussed in Chasing the Scream and would relate to the topic of depression in his most recent book, Lost Connections. He makes a strong argument about the importance of relationships of intimacy, bonding, and caring (some communities have begun to take seriously this issue; others deem what is required are even higher levels of change, radical and revolutionary). In particular, the rat park research is fascinating. The problem with addiction is that it simultaneously relieves the pain of our isolation while further isolating us. Or at least this is what happens in a punitive society with weak community and culture of trust. For that reason, we should look to other cultures for comparison. In some traditional societies, there is a greater balance and freedom to choose. I specifically had the Piraha in mind, as described by Daniel Everett.
The Piraha are a prime example of how not all cultures have a dualistic conflict between self and community, between privacy and performance. Their communities are loosely structured and the individual is largely autonomous in how and with whom they use their time. They lack much in the way of formal social structure, since there are no permanent positions of hierarchical authority (e.g., no tribal council of elders), although any given individual might temporarily take a leadership position in order to help accomplish an immediate task. Nor do they have much in the way of ritual or religion. It isn’t an oppressive society.
Accordingly, Everett observes how laid back, relaxed, and happy they seem. Depression, anxiety, and suicide appear foreign to them. When he told them about a depressed family member who killed herself, the Piraha laughed because assumed he was joking. There was no known case of suicide in the tribe. Even more interesting is that, growing up, the Piraha don’t exhibit transitional periods such as the terrible twos or teenage rebelliousness. They simply go from being weaned to joining adult activities with no one telling them to what to do.
The modern perceived conflict between group and individual might not be a universal and intrinsic aspect of human society. But it does seem a major issue for WEIRD societies, in particular. Maybe has to do with how ego-bound is our sense of identity. The other thing the Piraha lack is a permanent, unchanging self-identity because such as a meeting with a spirit in the jungle might lead to a change of name and, to the Piraha, the person who went by the previous name no longer is there. They feel no need to defend their individuality because any given individual self can be set aside.
It is hard for Westerners and Americans most of all to imagine a society that is this far different. It is outside of the mainstream capacity of imagining what is humanly possible. It’s similar to why so many people reject out of hand such theories as Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind. Such worldviews simply don’t fit into what we know. But maybe this sense of conflict we cling to is entirely unnecessary. If so, why do we feel such conflict is inevitable? And so why do we value privacy so highly? What is it that we seek from being isolated and alone? What is it that we think we have lost that needs to be regained? To help answer these questions, I’ll present a quote by Julian Jaynes that I included in writing Music and Dance On the Mind — from his book that Perry is familiar with:
“Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.”
Considering that, it could be argued that privacy is part of the same social order, ideological paradigm, and reality tunnel that tires us out so much in the first place. Endlessly without respite, we feel socially compelled to perform our individuality. And even in retreating into privacy, we go on performing our individuality for our own private audience, as played out on the internalized stage of self-consciousness that Jaynes describes. That said, even though the cost is high, it leads to great benefits for society as a whole. Modern civilization wouldn’t be possible without it. The question is whether the costs outweigh the benefits and also whether the costs are sustainable or self-destructive in the long term.
As Eli wrote in the comments section to Luxuriating in Privacy: “Privacy isn’t an unalloyed good. As you mention, we are getting ever-increasing levels of privacy to “luxuriate” in. But who’s to say we’re not just coping with the change modernity constantly imposes on us? Why should we elevate the coping mechanism, when it may well be merely a means to lessen the pain of an unnecessarily “alienating” constructed environment.” And “isn’t the tiresomeness of having to model the social environment itself contingent on the structural precariousness of one’s place in an ambiguous, constantly changing status hierarchy?”
Still, I do understand where Perry is coming from, as I’m very much an introvert who values my alone time and can be quite jealous of my privacy, although I can’t say that close and regular social contact “fills me with horror.” Having lived alone for years in apartments and barely knowing my neighbors, I spend little time at my ‘home’ and instead choose to regularly socialize with my family at my parents’ house. Decades of depression has caused me to be acutely aware of the double-edged sword of privacy.
Let me respond to some specifics of Perry’s argument. “Consider obesity,” she writes. “A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity.” There are some insightful comparisons of eating practices. Not all modern societies with equal access to food have equal levels of obesity. Among many other health problems, obesity can result from stress because our bodies prepare for challenging times by accumulating fat reserves. And if there is enough stress, studies have found this is epigenetically passed onto children.
As a contrast, consider the French culture surrounding food. The French don’t eat much fast food, don’t tend to eat or drink on the go. It is more common for them sit down to enjoy their coffee in the morning, rather than putting it in a traveling mug to drink on the way to work. Also, they are more likely to take long lunches in order to eat leisurely and typically do so with others. For the French, the expectation is that meals are to be enjoyed as a social experience and so they organize their entire society accordingly. Even though they eat many foods that some consider unhealthy, they don’t have the same high rates of stress-related diseases as do Americans.
An even greater contrast comes from looking once again at the Piraha. They live in an environment of immense abundance. And it requires little work to attain sustenance. In a few hours of work, an individual could get enough food to feed an extended family for multiple meals. They don’t worry about going hungry and yet, for various reasons, will choose not to not eat for extended periods of time when they wish to spend their time in other ways such as relaxing or dancing. They impose a feast and fast lifestyle on themselves, a typical pattern for hunter-gatherers. As with the French, when the Piraha have a meal, it is very much a social event. Unsurprisingly, the Piraha are slim and trim, muscular and healthy. They don’t suffer from stress-related physical and mental conditions, certainly not obesity.
Perry argues that, “Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy.” Using Johan Hari’s perspective, I might rephrase it: Addiction is economically profitable within the hyper-individualism of capitalist realism, and people show a difficult to control craving that causes them to pay high costs to feed their addiction. Sure, temporarily alleviating the symptoms makes people feel better. But what is it a symptom of? That question is key to understanding. I’m persuaded that the issue at hand is disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. So much else follows from that.
Explaining the title of her post, Perry writes that: “One thing that people are said to do with privacy is to luxuriate in it. What are the determinants of this positive experience of privacy, of privacy experienced as a thing in itself, rather than through violation?” She goes on to describes on to describes the features of privacy, various forms of personal space and enclosure. Of course, Julian Jaynes argued that the ultimate privacy is the construction of individuality itself, the experience of space metaphorically internalized and interiorized. Further development of privacy, however, is a rather modern invention. For example, it wasn’t until recent centuries that private bedrooms became common, having been popularized in Anglo-American culture by Quakers. Before that, full privacy was a rare experience and far from having been considered a human necessity or human right.
But we have come to take privacy for granted, not talking about certain details is a central part of privacy itself. “Everybody knows that everybody poops. Still, you’re not supposed to poop in front of people. The domain of defecation is tacitly edited out of our interactions with other people: for most social purposes, we are expected to pretend that we neither produce nor dispose of bodily wastes, and to keep any evidence of such private. Polite social relations exclude parts of reality by tacit agreement; scatological humor is a reminder of common knowledge that is typically screened off by social agreement. Sex and masturbation are similar.”
Defecation is a great example. There is no universal experience about the privatization of the act of pooping. In early Europe, relieving oneself in public was common and considered well within social norms. It was a slow ‘civilizing’ process to teach people to be ashamed of bodily functions, even simple things like farting and belching in public (there are a number of interesting books on the topic). I was intrigued by Susan P. Mattern’s The Prince of Medicine. She describes how almost everything in the ancient world was a social experience. Even taking a shit was an opportunity to meet and chat with one’s family, friends, and neighbors. They apparently felt no drain of energy or need to perform in their social way of being in the world. It was relaxed and normal to them, simply how they lived and they knew nothing else.
Also, sex and masturbation haven’t always been exclusively private acts. We have little knowledge of sex in the archaic world. Jaynes noted that sexuality wasn’t treated as anything particularly concerning and worrisome during the bicameral era. Obsession with sex, positive or negative, more fully developed during the Axial Age. As late as Feudalism, heavily Christianized Europe offered little opportunity for privacy and maintained a relatively open attitude about sexuality during many public celebrations, specifically Carnival, and they spent an amazing amount of their time in public celebrations. Barbara Ehrenreich describes this ecstatic communality in Dancing in the Streets. Like the Piraha, these earlier Europeans had a more social and fluid sense of identity.
Let me finish by responding to Perry’s conclusion: “As I wrote in A Bad Carver, social interaction has increasingly become “unbundled” from other things. This may not be a coincidence: it may be that people have specifically desired more privacy, and the great unbundling took place along that axis especially, in response to demand. Modern people have more room, more autonomy, more time alone, and fewer social constraints than their ancestors had a hundred years ago. To scoff at this luxury, to call it “alienation,” is to ignore that it is the choices of those who are allegedly alienated that create this privacy-friendly social order.”
There is no doubt what people desire. In any given society, most people desire whatever they are acculturated to desire. Example after example of this can be found in social science research, the anthropological literature, and classical studies. It’s not obvious to me that there is any evidence that modern people have fewer social constraints. What is clear is that we have different social constraints and that difference seems to have led to immense stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses the rise in depression in particular, as have others such as Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism (I quote him and others here). The studies on WEIRD cultures are also telling (see: Urban Weirdness and Dark Triad Domination).
The issue isn’t simply what choices we make but what choices we are offered and denied, what choices we can and cannot perceive or even imagine. And that relates to how we lose contact with the human realities of other societies that embody other possibilities not chosen or even considered within the constraints of our own. We are disconnected not only from others within our society. Our WEIRD monocultural dominance has isolated us also from other expressions of human potential.
We luxuriate in privacy because our society offers us few other choices, like a choice between junk food or starvation, in which case junk food tastes delicious. For most modern Westerners, privacy is nothing more than a temporary escape from an overwhelming world. But what we most deeply hunger for is genuine connection.