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American Solitude

Notes toward a history of isolation.

... networked and isolated by design, anxiously looking over our shoulders as we careen toward an uncertain future. Now a year into the pandemic, we—whatever “we” means here—are in the thick of solitude. But this is the anxious isolation of the bunker rather than the retreat of the monastery.

... networked and isolated by design, anxiously looking over our shoulders as we careen toward an uncertain future. Now a year into the pandemic, we—whatever “we” means here—are in the thick of solitude. But this is the anxious isolation of the bunker rather than the retreat of the monastery.

Being alone, of course, has a history. Indeed, even setting aside the history of medical quarantine, one might point to medieval hermeticism or Henry David Thoreau’s insistence on solitude’s ecstatic revery as antecedents for social distancing. Contemporary concerns over the psychological effects of loneliness and isolation are steeped in Cold War–era military science and cultural anxieties. Both military planners and scientists imagined high-technological modern warfare, conducted at a distance in remote territories, as a form of militarized solitude. Loneliness was a unique threat to the distinctly Cold War virtue of vigilance: anticipatory dread, watchfulness for the impending disaster of nuclear war. A genealogy of isolation as a constellation of affects—monotony, boredom, worry, and loneliness—can show how contemporary concerns fit within Cold War cultural formations. 

Consider the speleologist Michel Siffre. In 1962, Siffre descended some 100 meters into darkness to reach the subterranean cavern of Scarasson, deep beneath the Alps. Pitching a small nylon tent atop a glacier, Siffre remained in this abyss for two months, subjecting himself to the effects of isolation, low temperatures, and thin atmospheric pressure—both as a physiological experiment and a bid for publicity. Settling into his frozen solitude, Siffre declared Scarasson a refuge from society, writing in his book Beyond Time, “I told myself, ‘I am free!’ . . . I was no longer a slave, either to men and their social habits or to the effect of the rotation of the earth on its axis.” However, as days became weeks, boredom and monotony sank in. Despondent and alone, Siffre read philosopher Henri Bergson by the light of his gas lamp and listened to American jazz records on a hand-cranked turntable, anxiously awaiting the end of his confinement.

Siffre is perhaps best understood not as a cave diver with a philosophical bent but as a prototype for the American soldier, alone in hostile conditions. The American pursuit of a high-technological strategy made far-flung and exotic geographies—the Arctic, the deep sea, outer space—into new terrains for warfare. Alone in the Canadian wilderness, radar operators along the Distant Early Warning Line watched for the earliest signs of nuclear attack, bathed in the green glow of the radar screen. Both the military and the popular press imagined the boredom and monotony that accompanied solitary duty not only as a threat to the psyche of these individual soldiers but to the nation itself. Newly dominant on the world stage, the United States was thought to be only as strong as the vigilance of its soldiers in isolation.

Accordingly, psychologists and psychiatrists across North America made laboratory hermits out of research subjects in a scientific vogue for isolation and sensory deprivation. Scientists seemed endlessly creative in pursuit of an objective form of isolation, a platonic ideal of solitude. Subjects ...