Notes on Being-Single

Written by Carlijn Cober

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The incident
The date: Monday morning, November 11th. The location: my office. It’s a
day like any other. I open Google. I type something intellectual into the
search bar, press enter and BAM! There it was: an ad for National Singles Day.

To make matters worse, the advertisement isn’t from some fancy lingerie brand, an online bookstore or a food-related platform. No. This is where it gets really bleak. The ad, targeted at me and only me, is from Kruidvat.

Unwittingly, it popped up and punctured my brittle little heart.

I am unsure how to feel about this. In order to collect myself, I turn to cultural analysis. The advertisement seems festive, especially for a drugstore, with colorful hearts and a button saying “Happy Singles Day! Het VOORDEEL van single zijn!”. Here in caps (their typographical choice, not mine) is a clever pun based on ‘voordeel’ as both benefit and discount in Dutch. Clever Kruidvat. Based on this declaration I deduce that the ad for Singles Day presents being single as a celebratory fact, as a reason to indulge in consumerism and to “treat myself” (because if not me, then who?). I guess I feel okay about this. I click on the link, which takes me to their selection of items.

I suddenly feel less giddy and less celebratory, as all the pre-selected
items
encourage me to comfort myself, rather than treat myself, by splurging on things such as:

cozy socks, an XL bar of chocolate, de-stress sheet masks, an XXL fleece blanket, and snuggly, man-repellent footwear (UGGS).

The folder features some extra commentary on the latter item: “Cadeau waar je zélf happy van wordt!” (The gift that will make YOU happy). I interpret this as a sign that the Kruidvat is aware that UGGS are simply a sartorial mistake, and counters their ugliness by playing into the discourse of comfort, independence and self-determination. It doesn’t matter if they won’t satisfy fashion-forward people! They’re soft! They’re comfortable! Who cares about other people! These shoes will make YOU happy.

Another striking word here is the use of “happy”, instead of the Dutch ‘blij’. The incorporation of the word ‘happy’ into the Dutch language could have been the topic for one of Paulien Cornelisse’s books on the oddities of social language use. ‘Happy’ is one of those monstrous anomalies that occur either in combination with negation and illeism (‘Carlijn voelt zich niet zo happy’), or in speech directed to toddlers (‘Voelt Carlijntje zich niet zo happy?’). Either way, ‘happy’ has a sardonic quality.

I forgot to list the anti aging cream. This cream ensures that the single
person’s face does not display signs of aging; thereby figuratively erasing the time they have been single. A cream to cover up the dead time of wasted years spent alone. Well played, Kruidvat.

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National Singles Day
When did Singles Day become a thing? For reasons I can’t explain, I feel drawn to investigate this phenomenon. By now it has been several minutes since ‘the incident’. I re-open Google. I am not sure if we are still friends. My browser is still under suspicion. No ads this time. Perhaps it knew it was a bold move from which I would need to recover.

The first hit leads me to Google’s questionable buddy Wikipedia, which informs me that this ‘national holiday’ derives from China. It began as a student initiative at Nanjing University in 1993, and was then gradually turned into a commercial spectacle. In terms of magnitude National Singles Day is now comparable to the shopping frenzy of Black Friday (the American phenomenon that by now has found its way to several other countries). To prove the popularity of this retail strategy: on this year’s Singles Day, Alibaba, the online retail platform of Chinese origin, made over 38
billion dollars in sales.[1]

The date, November 11th, is meaningful because of the abundance of ones
in 11-11.[2] In Limburg, where I grew up, this date announces the beginning of the ‘Carnaval’ season and is known as the fool’s number.[3]

The confession
Currently, there are about 3 million bachelors (m/f) in the Netherlands who might have felt equally surprised (single-shamed?) by these commercial deals. My web-browser, family and friends know I am one of them. This blog-post is part article, part confession.

Although my confession might not seem controversial to you, reader, comfortably distanced by your computer, my proclaimed identity (state? mode of being? status?) can have a startling effect on people. The discomfort it arouses in many an unaware conversational partner can result in a number of responses, including awkward silence, exclamations of disbelief (“No! You?”), well-intended advice (“The trick is to pretend not to be looking for someone”) or – perhaps the most cringe-worthy scenario – the reassurance that “surely, it won’t be for long!”.

Meanwhile, I have been single for almost four years now. Somewhere along the way, something shifted in my perception of ‘being-single’ as a concept. At first, my new single status meant hard-won freedom, an escape from the confinement of domestic gender roles. Being by myself, partner-less, childless, was a choice, my choice. Being-single was a declaration of independence. After two years or so of ‘being-single’, something shifted. Being alone no longer felt like a choice. It started to feel more and more like a predicament.

When I announced the topic of this article to my best friend, he asked me: “So, where do you stand on this?” Until then, it hadn’t crossed my mind that this was an issue I had to take a stance on. Will I declare single life to be the best thing that ever happened to me? Will I use this article as an open call? Will I delve into the “happy single” not as an urban myth, but as something real? Even mid-article (now, at this very moment) I am unsure how I feel about being single.

The Happy Single
Being a ‘happy single’ turned out to be a controversial topic around this time, when actress and UN gender spokeswoman Emma Watson defined herself as “self-partnered” in an interview with British Vogue on November 4th. When explicitly asked about her dating life, she stated:

“I have never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel. […] It took me a long time, but I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered”.[4]

The Internet had a field day riffing on the term. #Self-partnered became a trending topic on Twitter and was discussed by several news outlets, including The Washington Post and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. The (digital) controversy was real, as public opinion went back and forth between praise and mockery. The mixed responses reveal that people who proclaim to be happy and single, like Emma Watson, raise suspicion as well as admiration. Above all, the controversy reveals that the image of the ‘happy single’ is not taken at face value. Is it possible to be un-partnered and fully blissful with oneself?

In the Dutch context, “the happy single” has been made famous by a series of sketches by the satirical television program Koefnoen on “Ipie the happy single”. Ipie is a character whose hairdo is a claim of independence, known and satirized as the “kort pittig kapsel”. In the case of Ipie, “happy single” functions as a euphemism for bitter and unwanted. In other words, it was pure “spiel”. I thought the word was some LA slang based on the German
word for ‘game’ or ‘performance’, but the Cambridge Dictionary tells me that this is “a speech, especially one that is long and spoken quickly and is
intended to persuade the person listening about something”.[5] In my head, a tiny voice translates this polite definition into “lies”. My office roommate looks up from his desk, and it is at this moment I realize this tiny voice is coming out of me, as I am mumbling aloud.

Being-single
The incident felt like something that could have happened to Carrie Bradshaw, the 21st century patroness saint of single women. I couldn’t help but wonder… What does it mean to be single?

Firstly, being single is a day-to-day practice, an activity of existing for and with oneself. It means dinner for one, which suddenly becomes an issue when one is tasked with finding the least awkward restaurants to be alone when eating out. It means telling the waiter you’re not waiting for anyone else. It means being led to a spot far away from the window. Secondly, it is an indicator for a relationship status. On a binary, slightly normative level, you are either in a relationship or you’re not. That having said, there are many gradations nowadays, including long-term casual hookups, friends with benefits and the ‘situationship’.[6] Thirdly, being single is not simply an indicator for relationship-status; it is a mode of being, an ontological form.

Heidegger declares that a fundamental aspect of Being (Dasein) is Being-with (Mitsein): “So far as Dasein is at all, it has Being-with-one-another as its kind of Being”.[7] For Heidegger, the phenomenon of loneliness proves that we are inherently connected to others: “The Other can be missing only in and for a Being-with. Being-alone is a deficient mode of Being-with; its very possibility is the proof of this.”[8] In this sense, we are social
creatures to the core, who are formed by social practices and by our sharing of the world with others. We are in the world not for or by ourselves, but as part of intricate networks. The observation that loneliness stems from connectedness feels comforting at first glance, like the adage: “This too shall pass”. Yet all it brings to my mind is how elephants (emotional role models, in many ways) can actually die from a broken heart.

With the best of intentions, someone recently said to me: “But you’re not alone! You’re with your dog!” In his preparation for a lecture course on How To Live Together (2013), Roland Barthes mentions that even hermits are known to have animal companions, illustrated by the example of Saint Gregory who is “deemed to be overly fond of his kitten”.[9]
Perhaps this observation holds true for my fluffy roommate and me too. Does being-with-animal eradicate Being-alone? My dog seems happy to see me when I come home, yet he never asks me how my day was…

But being-a-hermit is not the same as being-single, they are different types of being-alone. Chosen solitude feels differently from reluctant solitude. There should be more words to describe different feelings of aloneness, as many as there are Dutch words for rain.

There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and this is a
difference single people often emphasize in their interaction with others.
Being-single has a connotation of loneliness, of a sad state deprived of
personal contact. I won’t deny that at times this is the case. I am reminded of a note in Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary (2010) written on November 11, 1977, almost a month after the death of his mother:

“Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say: I’ll be back at a specific time or who you can call to say (or to whom you can just say): voilà, I’m home now.”[10]

My dog doesn’t speak French.

The Alone-standing Woman

The term ‘single’ strikingly differs from more or less related terms such as
‘separated’, ‘divorcee’, ‘widow’, ‘decoupled’ – all of which carry the traces
of a previous relationship. The word ‘single’ stands alone, with no shared past to document. In her book Risking who one is: Encounters with contemporary art and literature (1994) Susan Rubin Suleiman has dedicated a chapter to ‘Living Between: The Lonveliness of the “alone-standing woman”’.[11] In this chapter, she talks about her friend, the polyglot experimental writer and literary critic Christine Brooke-Rose. In this chapter, she theorizes the transitional mode of the several roles Brooke-Rose embodies, such as translator, scholar, traveller, multilingual European, and “alone-standing woman”. The word has an odd ring to it in English, as it is a pun on the German “Alleinstehender”, also common in Dutch as ‘alleenstaande’. In its most literal translation being an “alleenstaande” means standing alone, facing the world alone, but also to be independent, self-reliant, on your own.

I want to stress the quality of ‘transition’ that Suleiman uses in her
description of Brooke-Rose. On an intuitive level, it feels as though
being-single differs from other categories of being, such as being-together,
being-a-family, being-childless, being-separated or other modes of being that point towards a certain identity, temporal framework or performative role. Unlike these more or less fixed notions of ‘Being’, being-single also has the quality of a temporary, transitive state; an in-between, a becoming. In
philosophical terms, the notion of an eternal becoming is often described as something positive, for instance in the Deleuzian or Braidottian sense of the word. However, in the case of ‘being-single’, I’m not sure “becoming-single” has a better ring to it. It sounds more like ‘conscious uncoupling’,
popularized by Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow after her break with Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin (both of whom have since consciously coupled with other people). Isn’t being single generally something one hopes will be over soon? Is freedom to be found in this specific form of ‘becoming’? Perhaps.

But what happens if someone doesn’t view this relationship-status as a transitory state? As we have seen, the idea of the ‘happy single’ raises alarm over its authenticity. Being-single and satisfied is somehow perceived as an inauthentic attitude. This brings us to another touchy point related to ‘being-single’, that is the need for someone else. Among the many lists that circulate on the Internet summarizing the positive aspects of being single, the statement that ‘being-single is a skill’ stands out. The article claims that being single teaches you how to thrive on your own, and how to establish healthy habits. Somehow the everyday banalities of cooking and cleaning and living for one feel like more of an effort than practices of shared living. I realize there is an element of care here that is somehow important, although difficult to pinpoint. It is precisely this element of care, or ‘self-care’, that is prominent in ads targeted to singles in order to yield profit. If anything, the Kruidvat advertisement shows that notions of care, self, independence, co-existence, authenticity, comfort and togetherness all link together in the discourse of singleness. They create a sticky social web that I am still trying to unsnarl. If I get any closer to an answer, reader, I will let you know. Meanwhile, I’m going to buy something that makes ME happy. Most likely those cozy socks.

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Notes

[1] Arjun Kharpal
(November 11th, 2019) ‘Alibaba breaks Singles Day Record with more than 38
billion in sales’, in: www.cnbc.com. (November 12th, 2019) Via:  https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/11/alibaba-singles-day-2019-record-sales-on-biggest-shopping-day.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singles%27_Day

[3] Redactie Ensie (April 8th, 2015) ‘Elfde van de Elfde’, in: Ensie.  Via: https://www.ensie.nl/redactie-ensie/elfde-van-de-elfde (November 14th, 2019).

[4] Paris Lees (November 4th, 2019) ‘Emma Watson: “I’m very happy being single. I call it being self-partnered” ’, in: British Vogue. https://www.vogue.co.uk/news/article/emma-watson-on-fame-activism-little-women (November 8th, 2019)

[5] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/spiel

[6] Anna Medaris Miller (May 17th, 2019) ‘Are you in a situationship?’, in: Women’s Health Magazine. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a27478820/situationship/  (November 28th, 2019)

[7] Heidegger, Martin. ‘Being and Time’, in: The Continental Ethics Reader, edited by Mathew Callarco and Peter Atterton. London/New York: Routledge, 2003, 40.

[8]
Heidegger, Martin. ‘Being and Time’, in: The Continental Ethics Reader, edited by Mathew Callarco and Peter Atterton. London/New York: Routledge, 2003, 37.

[9] Roland Barthes, How To Live Together: Novelistic Somulations of Some Everyday Spaces. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 30.

[10] Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary: October 26 1977 – September
15, 1979.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2010, 44.

[11] Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking Who One Is: Encounters with
Contemporary Art and Literature. 
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994,
169-178.

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