Being Alone Together: From Solidarity to Solitude in Urban Anthropology
Coleman, Leo, Anthropological Quarterly
The characteristic urban experience of solitude challenges traditional anthropological theories of urban life. This article surveys urban theories that treat solitude primarily as loneliness, anomie, and social disorder. It then challenges these theoretical perspectives with ethnographic cases of gay identities and "being alone together," drawn from fieldwork in New Delhi, India. I develop a heuristic concept of "social solitude" in contrast to "solidarity," and examine the political and philosophical consequences of focusing on solitude as an urban way of life and an expression of sexuality. I discuss representations of solitude in modernist literature and conclude with a reading of Deleuze. [Keywords: Solidarity; Subjectivity; Desire; Urban Anthropology; Homosexuality; Delhi, India; Deleuze]
The hotel lobby accommodates all who go there to meet no one.
-Siegfried Kracauer, "The Hotel Lobby," in The Mass Ornament
E.B. White once wrote of New York that it "will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy" on any person who "desires such queer prizes." He added, "The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him [or her]" (1949:9). White's sympathetic, agnostic take on urban solitude stands out when set against more traditional sociological writings on the city. Sociological theory has long viewed solitude as a symptom of anomie, as an expression of both personal and social disorganization. On this account, solitude is an undesirable product of urban society and a barrier to the solidarity necessary for both happiness and political participation.
The Chicago sociologists of the 1930s stated this theme in different ways, drawing connections between social heterogeneity, density, and "breakdown," primarily taking their vocabulary if not their pessimism from Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel. As the co-founder of the Chicago School, Robert Park wrote, in an introduction to Zorbaugh's pathbreaking study of Chicago's social geography, the city is " remarkable for the number and kinds of people crowded together in physical proximity, without the opportunity and, apparently, with very little desire for the intimacies and mutual understanding and comprehension which ordinarily insure a common view and make collective action possible" (in Zorbaugh 1929:viiviii). This presented a peculiarly urgent political problem for Park:
Our political system is founded upon the conviction that people who live in the same locality have common interests, and that they can therefore be relied upon to act together for their common welfare. This assumption, as it turns out, is not valid for large cities.... All traditional forms of local government fail or break down altogether (ix).
Louis Wirth, reviewing more than a decade of research in the late 1930s, concluded that the weakness and thinness of urban social relationships constitute "essentially the state of anomie or the social void to which Durkheim alludes in attempting to account for the various forms of social disorganization in technological society" (1938:13).
Such understandings of the spatial and social organization of the city as political and social disconnection are hardly exhausted. Writing in the New York Times in early 2009, noting the absence of actual protests despite the much-bruited "populist rage" amidst the current financial crisis, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh repeated much of what Park and Wirth had said, with a modern technological twist. "Our cities are no longer dense, overcrowded industrial centers where unionized laborers and disgruntled strikers might take a public stand," he notes-establishing a new contrast, old solidary city versus new anomic city, as against the rural/urban contrasts of his forebears. " In today's cities, even when we share intimate spaces, we tend to be quite distant from one another."
These days, technology separates us and makes more of our communication indirect, impersonal, and emotionally flat. …