In the beginning of the covid pandemic on March 23rd, 2020 the philosopher Catherine Malabou wrote a text titled “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and ‘I’”. In it she reflects on Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) who was traveling on a boat from Paris to Venice and was forced to halt in Genoa because of the plague epidemic that broke out earlier that summer. The passengers on the boat were given the option of quarantining for 21 days on the docked boat or in a lazaretto which is a hospital for those affected with contagious diseases. All passengers on the boat chose to quarantine on the boat. Rousseau chose to be quarantined alone in the lazaretto.
In the lazaretto he wrote: “I was conducted to a large building of two stories, quite empty, in which I found neither window, bed, table, nor chair, not so much as even a joint-stool or bundle of straw..I was shut in by great doors with huge locks, and remained at full liberty to walk at my ease from chamber to chamber and story to story, everywhere finding the same solitude and nakedness” (Rousseau in Malabou S13).
Departing from Rousseau’s experience Malabou writes that “quarantine is only tolerable if you quarantine from it – if you quarantine within the quarantine and from it at the same time so to speak. The lazaretto represents this redoubled quarantine that expresses Rousseau’s need to isolate from collective isolation, to create an island within isolation..to clear a space where to be on one’s own while already separated from the community” (S15).
Malabou goes on “I noticed that writing only became possible when I reached such a confinement within confinement, a place in the place where nobody could enter and that at the same time was the condition for my exchanges with others…to shelter in place has to be a radical Robinson Crusoe experience, an experience that allows one to construct a home out of nothing. To start anew”. Malabou finishes “I think it is necessary to know how to find society within oneself in order to understand what politics mean” (S15).
As I always wanted to understand what politics mean, I go searching for society within myself, but how the hell am I going to find society within myself when I can barely find society within society?
In any case I go looking for society within myself in my old studio space at the Rijksakademie, which I was asked to move away from after a month in it, as it was needed to be used as a storage space, and see that my name plate has been taken off from the entrance door, erasing any traces of my individual existence there.
I go looking for society within myself in my new office space but there are flies there. Small ones. Maybe from the trash bins outside the window of the office.
I go looking for society within myself in the garden of the cantina at the Rijksakademie but I only find there rows of wooden tables built in days when the anderhalvemeter samenleving (1.5 m society rule) was the main way society was organized.
I go looking for society within myself at home but a 5-month old baby makes it clear that I am clearly not the most important self that needs to be searched for there.
I go looking for society within myself at work on a 2-day staff day get away from home but I end up getting covid there (and besides what was I thinking – finding society within myself at work?).
I go looking for society within myself with some old friends but I end up infecting them with the covid I got from my colleagues at work after 2.5 years of avoiding my friends in fear of them infecting me.
I go looking for society within myself in a cafe but I learn from the barista I order from that it’s illegal to call oatmilk milk and that it has to be called oat drink as it doesn’t have milk in it.
I go looking for society within myself at the Turkish hairdresser, but I end up gaining according to some a cute haircut while losing according to others what was a cute haircut.
I go looking for society within myself in academia but everyone there keeps saying stuff like ‘simply put’ but it sure doesn’t sound simple.
I go looking for society within myself to visit my parents where I was born but it’s a settler colonial state so I get out of there.
I go looking for society within myself in the artworld but everyone there keeps asking me if I am going to Venice.
I go looking for society within myself on a 1 week long meditation silence retreat but when I come back from the retreat no one can recognize me anymore.
I go looking for society within myself on google but the first entry that pops up is titled: “How to be yourself in a society that seems to demand you don’t”.
I go looking for society within myself by reading Hegel but “Hegel says that I lose myself when I discover the world and I lose the world when I find myself” (Flusser 12).
I go looking for society within myself by reading Flusser but Flusser says that “we go out into the world to experience, and we lose ourselves in the process; we then return home to find ourselves again, and we lose the world we experienced to find ourselves again” (Flusser 65) so now I’m even more confused.
Mentally and physically exhausted from my search of society within myself, I surrender and stop searching. Maybe if I won’t come to society, then society must come to me?
I wait and wait and wait and nothing happens. Is this what politics mean?
Flusser, V. The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Malabou, C. To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and “I”, Critical Inquiry, 47:S2, S13-S16, 2021