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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.1 (2002) 1-13

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"The Right to Be Lonely"

Denise Riley

How single is single? Is the numeral One the founding start of a series—or an atom? There could be two broad tactics in the movements toward new family forms: to cope with the furious miseries of social exclusion by the gesture of nominating absolutely everyone as a legitimate family (and could a family of one also be ushered into this all-embracing kinship?), while an opposing gesture might declare that really, no one constitutes a family, but no one should want to anyway. In the teeth of the former tendency to incorporate more and more contenders into the realm of the familial (with which "the social" is increasingly and fatally taken to be coterminous), I offer instead the willful principle of The Right to Be Lonely. As oxymoronic as many another claim to rights, my theatrical slogan will be embellished with remarks about the immediately emotional metaphoricity—a metaphoricity not separable from, but sunk in, social realism—of all talk about societal "exclusion" and "inclusion," about outsiders and insiders. "The right to be lonely" is both a consoling defense that will not work, and a parody. (This slogan is not, of course, intended to advocate "having one's own space" as a gleaming lifestyle, in the name of some repellent and impossible "autonomy." Nor do I proffer [End Page 1] it as any romanticization of loneliness—which must, if episodically or without acknowledgement, be everyone's common fate.) Still, this "right to be lonely" may serve to interrogate the diction of belonging. For do we unequivocally want this social inclusion? Certainly we may want to speak for equality, but in doing so, to steer clear of its now usual accompaniment of a treacly talk of belonging, spiritual recognition, community. Can it be avoided? Probably not. Does any rhetorical "we" (like the use I make of it now) rely on it? Yes. But the impulse to inclusion also runs a circuit of envy in all agitation about who and what is in, and who and what is not. With such jealousy, any drive for greater social inclusion is as driven as any society gossip column—while one unhappy byproduct of striving for enlarged acceptability is to push the resulting residue of everyone else further into the backwoods of an unspeakable deviancy. This, ironically, is a concomitant of promoting new family forms. No one is to blame for it.

It is pragmatically necessary to fight for what is sometimes termed the "legitimation" of unorthodox lives; yet this may be best done in the bitter knowledge that in the process, new hierarchies of social acceptability are being generated. Then what are the emotional limits to this thing called legitimation or recognition? If, for instance, you cannot have certain rights on the death of your lover, where that person is of the same sex as you, you might indeed be passionately concerned to gain legal recognition for your liaison. Yet, if you are a long-established mistress, or the male lover of a married man, you too are standardly excluded so as not to increase the distress of the wife and children: is this not a social exclusion that you would find painfully acceptable? We also suffer greatly from the deaths of our friends, to whom we can have no state-sanctioned recognition. Our sorrow is sharpened by whatever form of neglect it happens to have at hand to feed it, but only in some circumstances do we interpret official nonrecognition as a cruel social exclusion. For this ambiguous state of affairs, we might also reproach our wavering discourse of "public" and "private" itself, a language that also, unevenly, speaks us. Language is hot and language is historical. 1 It drags along or cajoles lives with it. There is an emotive topography in that spatial conceptualization of "inclusion" and "exclusion" itself; it is this linguistic emotionality that suffuses all political philosophies of who is in and who is left out.

Concepts are often constructed...


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Archived 2004
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