Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy
There’s really too much touch, too much pressing, to be truly moved or excited. The banal touch of the crowd has dulled the speaker’s senses.
(Michael Cobb, “Lonely” in After Sex: on writing since queer theory)
‘Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments,’ says stand-up comedian Louis CK in an interview with Conan O’Brien (2013). In this interview, he makes a point about the way in which we push such feelings of sadness away by instantly reaching for our phones, texting, checking social media, all in order to avoid the experience of sadness. For Louis CK, cell phones and social media have lost us the ability to just sit there and do nothing, to just ‘be people.’ Instead, we are frantically texting, trying to reach out in some way, to avoid the knowledge that ‘underneath everything in your life,’ Louis CK says, ‘there’s that thing, that empty, forever empty, you know what I’m talking about?’ Awkward laughter from the audience follows. My guess is they do know what he is talking about. I know I do.
I want to touch upon the concept of solitude, and whether this is still permitted in contemporary society. Does our Western social media zeitgeist still allow for one to be alone? To experience a loneliness which might be productive? Louis CK, in my opinion, rightly points to a dialectic between the sad and the happy we all ought to experience, stating that ‘when you let yourself feel sad, your body has like antibodies of happy that come rushing in to meet the sadness.’ What comes forth from that sadness is a profound happiness. Yet we do not allow that sadness to sweep over us. At the first sight of it, ‘we go like, oh I’m feeling sad, I got to get the phone and text Hi to like fifty people’ (Louis CK). So we experience neither the sad nor the happy profoundly. We are trading feelings for emoticons and suppressing solitude by finding friends on Facebook.
Of course, social media has proved to be a valuable asset for global accessibility to knowledge and can play a pivotal role in modern revolution. However, when I think of social media in the way Louis CK describes it, the word crowdedness comes to mind: the sheer abundance of others (those fifty people that Louis CK texts). The moment we come to feel alone, we make a neurotic gesture towards others, so that sadness cannot have its way. However, to be alone (and sad once in a while) is an intimate practice and, I believe, part of what it means to be an individual. Hence, the individual becomes crowded. What follows from that posturing towards others to subdue the sadness, is that the (virtual) crowd becomes a symbol of happiness. Being part of that crowd must then ensure happiness. The move towards the other becomes void, as ‘to be with’ turns in to ‘to be not alone’.
In The Promise of Happiness, Cultural Analyst Sara Ahmed refers to the BBC programme The Happiness Formula (2006), which states that the social project “to make people happier” means “to make societies more cohesive” or “to put glue back into communities.” ‘Happiness,’ Ahmed explains ‘is imagined as social glue, as being what sticks people together’ (121). In this view, happiness functions as a conduit that brings people together. Implicitly, this also suggests the opposite: sticking to others shapes happiness. The numerous advertisement images of ‘the happy crowd’ suggest as much. Just think of the most recent coca cola ad: the command to ‘choose happiness, what are you waiting for?’ is accompanied by a backdrop of partying teens. To be together is to choose happiness. So what of the man who is not of the crowd? What of the choice for solitude?
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt theorises the terror of totalitarianism, stating that by ‘pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them. People are pressed to be together in order to eliminate the space between themselves’ (466). Space is eliminated, and there is no possibility for distance, perspective or individual thought. Arendt, of course, speaks of political realities such as fascism and not of our social media age. However, I venture to state that in a way, we have internalised such workings of terror, pressing ourselves against others, forcing an intimacy that is so deeply intertwined with the public, that it is practically non distinguishable from the intimate. The perspective of the ‘happy crowd’ saturates the intimate sphere, thereby making it impossible to gain perspective, to be productive and creative. Because that is what isolation could ideally yield: space to breathe.
Such a ‘body politics of being together,’ for me, is one aspect of happiness fascism that in fact has a reverse effect. It does not transform ‘happy’ into ‘even more happy’ but rather solitude into loneliness. To be alone now means to be lonely. Writing about this form of ‘being together,’ Michael Cobb suggests that it ‘is one of the primary totalitarian logics that accelerate feelings of alienation and dislocation’ (211). Happiness as ‘the promise of the crowd’ becomes the common ground upon which we all feel terrifyingly alone.
To be sure, I am not repudiating the importance of meaningful relationships, I am simply trying to revitalise solitude and sadness as a necessary aspect of ‘being a person’ (as Louis CK says). The connection to others, as many ‘others’ as we can find, prevails over the connection with ourselves. This then is the true condition of loneliness. The loneliest people are not necessarily those who are alone, but rather those who frantically avoid being alone. Enter Facebook, because this is the platform where our ‘self’ surfaces through the likes and dislikes of others. As the content on Facebook is more and more shaped as serious political and cultural business, one’s political self, one’s cultural self, and all the other ‘selfies’ materialise only in the fabric of Facebook. The public eye must then affirm our most intimate self, we must like and share that self and ‘be answerable to the propaganda of our “waking lives” (Cobb, 219) at all times. Yet what is left of that ‘self’ in solitude? Perhaps, because this self is rendered void when all alone (missing a like?), we are quick to search for the happy crowd again. To make sure that we are not confronted with the ‘empty, forever empty’ feeling that Louis CK touched upon.
It is probably clear by now that I am making a point for the isolated figure, the one not of the crowd. Not because I think people should be alone all the time, but because I think a reshaping of the figure of isolation and his importance is in order. The crowd as a symbol of happiness reinscribes the way we think about those who are alone. Happiness then is not an end goal (from being alone towards being part of the crowd), but does something to the image of the one that is alone. It cripples the potentiality of time spent alone and it smooths the surface of different perspectives. And in the same move, it undermines an intimate connection with others. We are simply too close together to even delineate the shape of the other. Pressing up against each other, to us, should cause happiness and ‘if we have a duty to promote what causes happiness, then happiness itself becomes a duty’ (Ahmed, 7). The one in isolation, the lonely figure, is simply unwilling to play the game, unwilling to fulfill his duty. That is where happiness fascism eventually leads us: not to being happier people, but to a repudiation of the lonely.
Cobb writes that ‘there’s really too much touch, too much pressing, to be truly moved or excited. The banal touch of the crowd has dulled the speaker’s senses’ (216). Too much pressing indeed; pressing up against each other, and too much pressing of the like button. What we lose in the process is the potency of real connection. The happy crowd has ‘dulled our senses.’ Louis CK finishes his interview with a story. He was driving along the highway listening to Bruce Springsteen when a profound sadness came over him. He pulled the car over and ‘just cried like a bitch.’ The crowd start to laugh. He continues by saying that he was grateful for the sadness, ‘that is was beautiful.’ A nervous giggling from the audience. ‘It was met with profound happiness,’ he says. The audience is quiet, perhaps pondering. Happiness: a guy alone in his car in the dark, crying to Bruce Springsteen? Why not?
Marleen Kruithof currently works as a freelance editor, directs youth theatre and is a member of the editorial board ofthe grid.
Ahmed, Sarah. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt. 1951.
Cobb, Michael. “Lonely”. After Sex?: On Writing since Queer Theory. Eds. J. E. Halley, A. Parker Durham: Duke UP, 2011. 207-219.
O'Brien, Conan. "The Fast and the Bi-Curious." Conan. TBS. Burbank, California, 19 Sept. 2013.