Thomas Dumm


On his book Loneliness as a Way of Life

Cover Interview of December 15, 2008

The wide angle

I first approached this study as an intellectual history of individualism.  From early on in my life as a political theorist, I have been interested in those large forces that shape how we become who we are, what our relation to freedom is, what it means to live in a world shaped by capitalism and liberalism, or in the words of the political theorist C.B.  MacPherson, to have our possibilities shaped by possessive individualism.  But also, when I first decided to go to grad school, I became acquainted with the work of Michel Foucault, and his work presented yet another dimension of how we become who we are.  Especially his book, Discipline and Punish – a work that many have misunderstood, I think – helped shape my ongoing concern with individualism.  My first book, Democracy and Punishment (1987) explored the disciplinary dimension of American individualism by looking at our invention of the penitentiary.  In subsequent books, aside from a study of Foucault for a series on philosophers (Michel Foucault and the Politics of Freedom, 1996) I have become more and more interested in the interplay of culture and power, writing a book about representative figures in contemporary political culture (united states, 1994) and helping to found a journal, Theory&Event – I became its first editor – that encourages thinkers to directly write about the contemporary world.

But as I began work on this book, on the heels of the publication of my last book in 1999 (A Politics of the Ordinary), some large and sad events in my own life made the project take on a new urgency.  On the first day of 2001, my mother died.  Like many, I had a complicated and sometimes difficult relationship with my mom, and while I was a peace with her when she died, her death sparked new reflections on what she meant to me as she lived and how I was to negotiate her ghostly presence in my life after she was gone.  During this same period, my wife was diagnosed with an incurable form of lung cancer, and she died, after a protracted battle with the disease, in the autumn of 2004, leaving me alone to raise our two children.  These events deepened my sense of loneliness, sharpened my thought, and made me reconsider how to approach the subject.

Loneliness as a Way of Life, to the extent that it articulates an argument rather than embodies one, suggests that loneliness is “the experience of the pathos of disappearance.”  I suggest, following Thoreau and Stanley Cavell, that we are in danger of living ghostly lives, and that that ghostliness is deeply intertwined with what it means to be lonely.  But rather than produce yet another sociological study, I try something different.  I cover what may be considered as familiar terrain, but I do so in a manner that is different from what has come before.  For example, in chapter three, “Loving,” I discuss the loneliness of family life by juxtaposing John Locke’s theory of parental authority with a discussion of the strains on my marriage that having two children in a family that strove for gender equality produced.  Or, I contrast the fragmented family story in Wim Wenders devastating film, Paris, Texas, with a story from my own troubled childhood, concerning myself and my own mother.  Using literature, film, and plays to illustrate political theory is not new, of course.  But too often it is done without attending to how such works touch us, how their affective force leads us to rethink moments in our own lives.  In that sense, I think there is something fresh, if not totally new, in my approach.

So the book presents a challenge across several dimensions: for academics, it demands that they take seriously the claims of personal experience and the everyday.  In that sense, this book is a rebuke to those, like some contemporary followers of Hannah Arendt, who think that there can be, and needs to be a sharp distinction between public freedom and private necessity.  That idea is simply unviable in this day and age.  It also presents another challenge to academic writers more generally, in that I was encouraged by my editor to find my own voice in this book, to write with more directness and clarity, while sustaining the intellectual rigor expected by Harvard University Press.  Squaring that circle has become more and more difficult over the past several decades, as the academy has become more and more specialized, and as the public sphere has become more and more dumbed down.  I suspect I’ve not been completely successful, but I’m nonetheless happy to have made the effort.