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«Abstract The characteristic urban experience of solitude challenges traditional anthro- pological theories of urban life. This article surveys urban ...»

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Being Alone Together:

From Solidarity to Solitude

in Urban Anthropology

Leo Coleman

The Ohio State University


The characteristic urban experience of solitude challenges traditional anthro-

pological theories of urban life. This article surveys urban theories that treat

solitude primarily as loneliness, anomie, and social disorder. It then chal-

lenges 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 soli- tude as an urban way of life and an expression of sexuality. I discuss repre- sentations of solitude in modernist literature and conclude with a reading of Deleuze. [Keywords: Solidarity; Subjectivity; Desire; Urban Anthropology;

Homosexuality; Delhi, India; Deleuze] Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, pp. 755–778, ISSN 0003-549. © 2009 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of the George Washington University. All rights reserved.

755 Being Alone Together: From Solidarity to Solitude in Urban Anthropology 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 lone- liness and the gift of privacy” on any person who “desires such queer prizes.” He added, “The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mys- terious 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, soli- tude is an undesirable product of urban society and a barrier to the solidar- ity 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 num- ber 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…. Count the number of people with cellphones and personal entertainment devices when you walk down a street. Self-involved bloggers, readers of niche news, all of us listening to our personal playlists: we narrowly miss each other (Venkatesh 2009).

Venkatesh of course does not conclude here, and he treats this technologically-aided self-involvement not as a cause, but as a characteristic symptom of a deeper isolation and disconnection. The specifics are different—Venkatesh, in particular, avoids the ecological determinism and fear of diversity associated with the Chicago School—yet the note of concern about lack of solidarity is the same as in Park and Wirth. Between the Chicago School and Venkatesh, meanwhile, sociologists have worried about the “lonely crowd” and “bowling alone,” always with much the same opposition between solidarity and solitude.

Insistently in this literature, social difference and personal desires are presented as a challenge to the achievement of solidarity. Wirth could only recognize diversity, the plurality of ends and aims that the city encompasses, at the price of communication and commonality: “Cities generally, and American cities in particular, comprise a motley of peoples and cultures,” said Wirth, “of highly differentiated modes of life between which there is often only the faintest communication, the greatest indifference and the broadest tolerance, occasionally bitter strife, but always the sharpest contrast” (1938:20).

Later generations of American urban anthropologists and sociologists, of course, would start from within this heterogeneity and difference, and examine the forms of social order and solidarity that not only remained

757Being Alone Together: From Solidarity to Solitude in Urban Anthropology

in this massive concatenation of persons and interests in a defined geographical ambit, but actively structured it and made its forms of life possible (Whyte 1955, Jacobs 1992 [1961], Stack 1975). By contrast to Park’s dire prognostications, some recent ethnographies address precisely the questions of how local government actually flourishes in these contexts of diversity, though not perhaps in its traditional forms and taking the term “government” in a wider sense (Sanjek 1998, Gregory 1998).

These latter ethnographers of local communities and social order, however, are linked to the theorists of urban anomie by their shared analytic focus on solidarities. Solidarity is, of course, the sociologist’s special domain—yet the shared background of the social disciplines in theories of belonging and togetherness, of political participation and social unity, has hindered ethnographic attention to solitudes and their sociological entailments and implications. The constant concern with community, the “conviction that those who live in the same locality share common interests,” to quote Park again, involves a political vision—one in which place, personhood, and full political identity are bound together, even when the analysis is of disorders, of anomie, of rents in the fabric of solidarity.

In this essay, I contrast “solidarity” and “solitude” through two ethnographic episodes from my fieldwork in New Delhi, in order to bring these two terms, analytically, into closer contact. This is primarily a methodological exercise, rather than full-fledged ethnographic description. Through short and compact examples, which present a strong contrast along axes of identity, solidarity, and community, I ask whether solitude can be studied ethnographically without reducing it to the negative underside of solidarities, politics, belonging, and—at its greatest extension—society. Can we speak of a social solitude and examine its potentials for collective life in great cities? Can we construct an ethnography that can encompass urban places where people go to be alone together?

I take my initial cue from White’s account of New York as a space of both solitude and encounter. “No matter where you sit in New York,” he notes, “you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings” (White 1949:10). One comes to the city to be by oneself, but together in that state with all the others gathered close around you.

In order to offer some preliminary answers to the questions above, I examine here two highly contrasting social encounters with gay identity and homosexual desire—queer in another sense altogether—in New


Delhi, India. In my first example, the social organization of desire explicitly tends toward solidarity; in my second, it unfolds, socially, in contexts of solitude. The second example may, indeed, indicate a “strain toward anomie,” to misappropriate Merton’s phrase (1957:157), but that is appropriate to my interests in the loose structure necessary to accommodate urban diversity, difference, and even idiosyncrasy. In the last section of this article, I revisit the problem of difference—so central to Wirth and Park—and examine Gilles Deleuze’s (1997) reading of Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” for a different way of representing the relation between political belonging—what Deleuze criticizes as paternal filiation—and urban solitude.

Nigah/Queer Perspectives My last week in Delhi, I went to an open mic night featuring readings and performances by a group of young, gay artists. The evening was sponsored by a collective called “Nigah,” which is devoted to bringing “queer perspectives” to the city of Delhi (the Hindi word nigah can be loosely translated as “perspective”).

Most of the Delhi literary set were there that night, people I had gotten to know casually during my time in the city. The audience was, on the whole, well-travelled, English speaking, liberal and straight. They had British and US degrees and contributed to local magazines like First City and Outlook. The audience was small, but so was the room they had rented, and the atmosphere was convivial if humid. I chatted with acquaintances as we milled about between performances—the event was free-form and capacious. An Indian-American Fulbright scholar did a stand-up routine about the differences between being gay in the US and in India; a short play about coming out was performed; a male singer dressed in salwar and dupatta did a lovely rendition of a ghazal.

Near the end of the event, a playwright and activist read to the audience letters from a pioneering Indian gay activist, part of an archive he was constructing. They were primarily letters sent from New York and Canada in the early 80s, describing the optimism and community building in the gay communities there. The letters and the speaker both insisted on the same point—we must construct, they said, an Indian gay history, to be a focus of our own collective identity. We must, the playwright said, gather stories of gay lives being lived in Delhi. “ Stonewall

759Being Alone Together: From Solidarity to Solitude in Urban Anthropology

is a very nice idea,” he said, “ but it’s not Indian. It’s not going to be on Doordarshan [the state TV station] anytime soon. It’s not ours.” Nigah both aimed to develop a public life and a cultural life for gay and lesbian Indians, and to provide a safe space for the cultivation of an identity and a sense of community. Collecting stories, and telling them, is the model of active participation and community building offered here.

At the Volga After the event at Nigah, I stopped on my way home to get some food nearby, at a restaurant called the Standard—a long, low, dimly-lit room on the second storey of the Regal Cinema Building. Sat by myself in a booth at the corner, with a view out on the still-busy street scene, I ate a small plate of tandoori chicken, had a double whisky, and observed the middle-aged, middle-class clientele scattered around the room, widely separated from each other. As usual, it was mostly men there that night, a few in small family groups, some eating together, and others—like me—alone with their thoughts.

The Standard was a familiar hang-out of mine, along with two other similar restaurants, the United Coffee House and the Volga. All three are located in Connaught Place, the grand circular shopping district built to serve the colonial capital in the 1920s, and all are large, well-upholstered dining rooms with décor dating from the 1960s, at least—the heyday of Connaught Place as the resort of governmental elites and modern Delhiwallahs of all stripes. They once formed a set, a class of destinations including other restaurants like Gaylord’s and the cinemas on the circle, where affluent residents of Delhi would congregate, taking advantage of the self-consciously modern leisure activities: cinema-going, windowshopping, dining out, even picnicking on the broad park in the center of the complex and sipping café al fresco (see Mitra 1970, Vasudevan 2001).

Writing in the late sixties, Ved Mehta gave a rich description of the urban leisure class in Delhi and the ambiance of the resorts in Connaught Place

and their analogues in other cities:

For what might be called formal relaxation, city people here in India…go to Western-style restaurants, such as the Gaylord and the Volga in Delhi, the Blue Fox in Calcutta, and, in lesser cities, the local Kwality. Following the custom of British days, most of these

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