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The self under quarantine: we are not machines

Text Dominique Mkhonza

“We are no longer subjects in a given, objective world but projects of alternative worlds. We have raised ourselves up from a submissive, subjective position in order to project. We are becoming adults. We know we are dreaming.”

— Vilém Flusser, Medienkultur (Media Culture), 1997
as quoted by Byung-Chul Han in In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (tr. Erik Butler)

The self has been suspended, have you heard the news?

Our pleasure-seeking, pressed-for-pleasure, pressured-to-pleasure, dopamine-addicted, and schedule-bound selves have been put in time out. All over the globe, cities are being ordered inside. The surreal emptiness of New York City jumbotrons flashing their futuristic and fantastic neon lights onto nobody at all is a visual that is packed with the same desperate shame of an ex-lover attempting to seduce someone who just does not love them anymore. It would be delicious, in a cinematic sense, if it weren’t so dystopian. And it could be dystopian if it weren’t so purely real. Cue the tragic notes for a second, it’s not all bad.

We are beings with dreams, are we not?

Day 3 of self-quarantine, we painted our apartment a romantic shade of green. Day 5, I learned how to bring my bedroom plant back to life. I FaceTimed with people I never FaceTimed before. Day 6. Drank wine and FaceTimed. Day 7, painted my toenails and FaceTimed. Day 8, home workout videos are more alluring. I don’t actually do them, but it’s fun to imagine. Wait. Is it fun to imagine? No, I feel catastrophic. A sense of. What. Tension. My brain is tight. Something about all of this is clinking at my nerves. Why am I not doing anything? A week laid off of work and I haven’t written a word. I haven’t produced anything. My creative flow is not flowing. I am not going anywhere.

“But we’re all not going anywhere,” My mom tells me. Over the phone.

I keep calling everybody. I am going a little crazy. The days feel heavy and aimless. It’s true, what she’s saying. We’re all stuck inside. And it’s inside where I’m able to see that the popularized notion of ‘self’ is starting to feel a little flimsy.

What is the self, anyways? Who am I, really, when I am not being constantly drawn into some directionless orchestra of busyness? Or when I am not being constructed/instructed in perfect dyadic tandem by that vast, external capitalistic force that demands me to produce? Although it does feel hyper-personal, my obsession with productivity is something that does not end or begin with me, it would be too self-involved to think so. It is possibly a very human and touching attempt to locate meaning in the face of constant meaninglessness. We are deeper and more in need of interpersonal intimacy than we think we are. In the face of an economic engine that has evolved to structure the very basis of how we are allowed (able?) to think and be. We are still awake within ourselves. Looking for something. Victims of economic thinking. Transactional exchanges become the norm. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine! Sterile beings versus beings of heart. Point me to the room where I can simply love you. Endless demands must give us cold blood. Endless demands must exhaust us. Endless demands make us feel guilty for sleeping. The dread of waking up at noon. The dread of not having a good enough excuse for ourselves, or lives embellished with meaning (money, fast cars, glittering mansions, bitches to fuck). Cold conduct makes way for cold intimacies. 

Eva Illouz wrote a fantastic book about this. Emotional capitalism. The popularized communication style mandated by the economic world is beginning its creepy transference into the realm of our personal relationships. An ambiguous sort of osmosis. It is melting itself across the way we think, the way we view partnership, the way we view ourselves. Our relationships must produce something, or else they are pointless. Point me to the room where I can know you just to know you. Is that door still an option? 

Productivity as distraction. A tweet on my timeline reads: “took 11 days locked in the crib to realize everything I do is merely escapism.” What have we been escaping from? Is it working? What are we running to? Do we know? Status, sense of worth, personal justification all derived from the external consumer-jungle? We try to pick our meaning out like fruits from a tree. We try our best, bless us. I want to propose the idea that it is not just ourselves, physically/materially, who are under quarantine, but the notion of ‘self’ itself. The items, locations, and daily rituals that we have been employing to confirm a sense of self are momentarily unavailable to us. What does that leave us with?

© Katrina Koenning

The day before my country announces that all non-essential shops and businesses must close overnight, I take a walk down the street for a piña colada bubble tea. It’s so silent. It rained earlier. The sky is that sweet, floating grey. Pure grey, the sort of grey that looks like it has light trapped in it. Pale. Post-thunder. It’s the opposite of that technological silver which is forever cold, calculating, and reflective. This sort of grey, it lets you in. It lets you see things. What I saw in it was how much I love life. I was struck by that emotion. I thought I like being awake. I had to take my headphones off. I needed to hear the birds. Organic symphonies. I wanted to hear the footsteps of every stranger that walked past me, six feet apart. I needed to hear their feet. I walked past a sleeping storefront with a sophisticated advertisement flashing behind the glass. What’s your next destination? the sign read. It was one of those artsy, clothing shops that sell Bohemian-style clothing. Preying on the repressed wanderlust of the masses. Haha! We are being sold an adventure. The next advertisement I noticed was in a waxing salon. Live your best life. Be sexy! Oh, but the best life you can live is one of honesty, warmth, and integrity. We all know that. Even if it’s still only a whisper in the heart. We know that human connection is the truest, most real thing that we have. Maybe the way that we live—a style demanded by a variety of systems, requirements, and deadlines—makes it hard for us to remember ourselves, each other, and prioritize that energy. So haunted by the ticking of a clock… 

The thing is, we can feel it. 

I feel it. The strange, elusive nature of ‘self.’ I think I am vaguely recognizing that a lot of what we’ve internalized as important, essential, inherent as air, integral as blood, worthy of endless prioritythat which conducts the flow of our lives like an enigmatic director of a Hollywood movieis actually pretty empty. Echoes the sterile cleanliness of a lonely bachelor pad. Think dude in American Psycho. An idea. A suggestion. Floating in from somewhere. Everywhere?

A text from a close friend.

Be careful. Flashy things do not constitute a life. Only life can be life. What is organic to life is life. What is organic to life is love. Peace. Sunlight. Nature. Clean air. Nurturance. Protection. We are not productivity machines. We are not concepts. We are not what we thought we needed. We are not stylish collectives. We are not subscriptions. We are not our morning coffee order. We must rest, recover, reassess, re-learn how to wonder and play and retreat. While I’m here, I will be having fun. I love my nails painted fun colors. I love a good party, the hot spectacle of a dancefloor. I love flashy earrings. I love aesthetic appeal. I love almond milk matcha lattes. I love the sleekness of a nice car. I apologize for none of this. We are beings of joy, are we not? What I’m saying here is this:

Experiencing the quarantine of ‘self’ has inspired me to reassess where I have been giving myself away. A revival of understanding. Knowing myself, my borders. How much of my stress is really mine? How much of my anxiety is really mine? I am feeling the stress of the lifestyle that is demanded of me. Where can I take back my creative urge, my involvement in my life, my attraction to simple moments, warmth from strangers? How much of what I thought was me was someone else? How much of what I thought I needed to show up as is simply an idea delivered to me via the eternal conveyer belt of societal expectation? 

The self in relation to productivity. Productive-self as symptomatic of a larger picture that does not value rest, leisure, play, love, health, wonder, creation. To say and think and know that you create for yourself, you create when you want, you create even when it’s not perfect, you create imperfection and you like it, you create even after the due date, you create outside of the lines, if you don’t want to create you don’t create, you create art, music, technology, relationships, playfulness, love in your communication, you create your life, you are in your life, your life belongs to you, you create love for everyone, your time is yours, you are allowed to rest and be excused. You don’t need to own the day every day. 

© Lafont London.

I was asked on my blog: How can I self-isolate and not go crazy? I’m going crazy going inwards. 

You feel the tension of time making the air tight. With the exclusion of any ongoing issues requiring the help/guidance/care of a medical professional, I will say: Go crazy. Going crazy doesn’t make you crazy. Go crazy and do it with love for yourself. Be curious about what will expose itself to you. No judgement. Dissolve the harshness. Eat the cherry and spit out the seed. When I say crazy, what I’m referencing is that rattling of an incoming implosion. Gently move your head to look at it. Rather than retreating or ruminating. Have love for yourself. When I say love, I don’t mean bottomless positivity. Sometimes that constant demand to be positive feels inflexible; a signalling of larger societal structures that sometimes revel in denying the reality of how lonely this can all feel sometimes, how hard shit really gets, and how the cultural obsession with self-help and constant transformation/self-improvement/self-making-over, has most likely fueled an intense paranoia regarding our mistakes. We are obsessed with regulation, saying the right thing, being the right thing. It’s a little claustrophobic. Inaction is viewed as a lack of progress.

Give yourself more room. Especially in this strange moment of crisis.

© Hajime Sorayama.

I’m happy for FaceTime at a time like this. 

My friend who is quarantined in Italy called me to show me Monte Vesuvio. He has a gorgeous view of it from his backyard terrace in Napoli. The sky behind his head was hot pink like love in Spanish movies. My heart was a ballerina in the face of the moment. We are both on lockdown, a world apart, connected to the same electric sunset through a screen. To think he exists! The enduring presence of another person. The knowledge that you and I are not alone on earth, that we are not forgotten children lost under the endless sky of status games and the cold, heartless superficiality of the status-quo. We can come together and collaborate on a new definition of self. 

We are beings beyond description. We are beings of deep need and love.

We are the impact we make in our little corners. We are our willingness to see others as they exist outside of arbitrary, societal labels. Outside of boxes is where love lives its largest life. Love smashes boxes. Let’s make simplicity cool again so we can care for our souls. Let’s start giving ourselves permission to rest. Locate life in experiences, over accomplishments. 

A call to all: Take it easy. Have fun. Love what you love. Take care. Be care. 

Stay safe.