At some point in December, during a conversation over dinner with one of R.’s colleagues, I said something that prompted him to hand me Anneli Rufus’s Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto. I’m not sure what it was I said, but the book certainly spoke to me, or at least to part of me.
Party of One is an impassioned defense of lonerism, aimed in no small part at reassuring those who have been accused of being standoffish and cold by family, friends, and colleagues that they are not manifesting deep character defects, but are instead simply of a type that requires a lower degree of social interaction (which I understand to be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively) than the majority of folks do. The book also works to rescue the loner from its associations with criminals ranging from the pedophile to the serial killer, demonstrating the difference between genuinely wanting to be alone — enjoying one’s privacy, finding solitude productive, etcetera — and being an outcast whose remove from social networks is neither produced voluntarily (but rather is a product of either ostracism or having something to hide) nor productive of pleasure (but instead of the kinds of anger that results in antisocial behavior).
All this is good, and does the trick of redrawing the distinction between “loner” and “loser” in a way that is deeply affirming to one who needs lots of time alone, who doesn’t readily make social connections, who finds interacting with others at times to be unnatural and a bit exhausting. But something grated on me as I read the book, and I’ve been attempting to uncover the source of the irritation for the last week or so. Here’s where I think it lies: Rufus associates the loner with the figure of the “rugged individualist,” that peculiarly American extension of Enlightenment ideas of human nature and values. This is an archetype that I find particularly noxious, largely because of the ideological uses to which it’s been put — the kind of libertarian posturing that stops reading Rousseau after the “nobility man in a state of nature” part, and fails to go on to the “degeneration into brutishness without an appropriate social contract” part. I don’t believe that the individual precedes, or can exist outside of, its environment. Nor do I believe that the desires of any one person for a life more private than public indicates that said person is more closely hewing to some kind of individualist ideal. If anything, the chafing produced in such loners by the surrounding society seems to me to indicate the prior demands of the community, the ways in which we can never really exist apart but are always caught up in the mechanisms of the world around us, responsible both to ourselves and to others for its happy functioning.
So what I’d really like to see someone take on, rather than the pure defense of the individual apart that Rufus presents, is the question of these contrary demands. Can a loner be a socialist? Better still, a social constructionist? Can I vant to be alone without needing to decry affirmative action and the personal income tax? Where, exactly, is the conjunction of personal philosophy and political theory, and how can their contradictory demands be balanced?