Friday 7 June 2013

Single, but not alone

Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, by Michael Cobb (New York University Press, 2012)

During a wedding reception this Easter, a distant cousin asked me whether I have a girlfriend. I replied that I do not. “So do you have boyfriend?” Saying no, rather than “not any more”, failed to stop her questioning: “Don’t you have anyone?” Her persistence was not an attempt to out me to an extended family I rarely see, but instead a verbalized struggle with the idea that I’m twenty-something, an earner, a homeowner, and yet: I’m uncoupled.

I may be single but – pun intended – I’m not alone. Today, many of us have transient or unbound relationships. According to the 2011 census, 34.6% of over 16s in England and Wales have never been legally married or partnered; just under 4% more than in 2001 (despite the subsequent introduction of civil partnerships). More and more of us, too, will return to being single throughout our lives as separation and divorce rates increase. Thus, Single is a timely and lively book in favour of the uncoupled, underpinned by a common personal story and entertaining puns. A ‘singular’ response to the dying wish of the author’s grandma: that he would finally settle down with The One.

‘Couplism’, as Michael Cobb calls it, is one societal prejudice that remains acceptable: picking our pockets through the tax or probate systems, and constructing a glass ceiling to career progression. It is inconceivable that the US would permit sole occupancy of the White House (though the UK did elect a bachelor, Ted Heath, to Downing Street). When people hear that we’re single, they will usually still enquire ‘why’ instead of exclaiming ‘why not!’ Worse, we tend to interrogate ourselves. As Cobb points out, ‘the problem of the single is not the actual, lived experience of people who find themselves alone as much as the feelings that deliberately foreclose our understanding of singleness because singles are thought to be lonely – and loneliness, as we’re frequently reminded, has terrible consequences’ (15). Cobb attempts to counter this condition with his academic revelation. His provocative argument is as poignant as it is preposterous.

Affixing S for Singles to the ever-expanding intialism for sexual minorities – LGBTQ(S) – Cobb aligns his ‘camp polemic’ (p33) with Queer Theory in an especially controversial way. In contemporary sexuality and gender studies, the subject is so often (and often rightly) conceived in relation to the Other. We have become suspicious of ‘inflated individualisms’ which frequently oppress ideas of collectivity, community, and deny minorities a voice (p25). But now, Cobb worries that our wariness about singular beings when examining social subjugation ‘might actually help some conservative forces’ (ibid). He therefore rehabilitates an autonomous figure much like the flâneur – a positively-coded loan-ranger – in reading various cultural ‘texts’ of different media, from Beyoncé to Baudelaire. 

The first chapter contends that the couple is fatally doomed from its consummation as such. The second turns to the after-effects of couples, once they pass away – the legal situation upon death, and beliefs about eternal togetherness in an American state that’s paradigmatic for mainstream and multiple marriages: Utah. (Cobb focuses in particular on Mormonism and the polygamy debate). His third chapter rescues the single from being a scapegoat, proclaiming him or her as saviour, through discussion of two prose works: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivner (1853). Finally, Cobb returns to Utah to present the single as a democratic character: the position is open to everybody, its possibilities are boundless.

There is first-person narration of the author’s hike through the desert, where he amusingly resisted the devilish thoughts of ‘couplism’, and through which he portrays Morrissey as well as, ironically, himself as prophets of singleness and Singles Studies. Cobb wants to show that “there is something theological, or, to be more precise, rhetorically theological, that happens when we encounter our vistas by ourselves” (p174). His playful wit is fun, and his descriptions in this final chapter are, in part, genuinely moving.

But for all its personal confessions and theoretical manoeuvres, a fundamental problem throughout the book is that it is not really concerned with definitions. Nor – more problematically – does it address interpersonal ethics, despite the project allegedly being ‘ethics driven’ (p25). After two chapters against the hegemonic idea of coupledom, we are told that even the partnered can be single without leaving each other. We can become single ‘for a few moments out of a busy day of being a spouse’ (p106). This tallies with Cobb’s desire not to vilify ‘those who make meaningful, often monogamous, commitments to a Significant Other’ (p8). So what, we wonder, would constitute the momentary single who remains faithful and sensitive to their other half? I, for one, am unsure. It must surely go beyond the ordinary points in every partner’s day in which a thought or action is not directly related to, but also does not explicitly deviate from the status of their relationship. Cobb is vague: either he is inattentive to detail, or he does not actually care for the other person.

‘An ominous word of caution, a prophecy: these theoretical waters are treacherous. To be single in a world that won’t permit you to be single makes being single an impossible thing to know with any precision. To try and know the single requires that we navigate something larger than what we’re comfortable knowing. But there’s greatness on the horizon: something epic. Remember, the point of Odysseus’s adventures was not merely the return to his faithful Penelope, who was busy resisting all the other couples she could become. The point was the delay, the adventures that made Odysseus heroic – his striving to be immortal’ (p106).


If we agree with Cobb that being single permits freedom – and that being a coupled single such as Odysseus, say, allows for fleeting freedom – then this excitement comes at a cost to the likes of Penelope. Note that she would cry herself to sleep if she was not consoled in her dreams by Athena. Perhaps we should just toughen up, be less melodramatic and give our loved ones their space for grandeur. But Cobb does not at all admit the existence of a line between retaining individuality and becoming selfish. In this he is not only disingenuous. He turns a wilful blind eye to what makes us humane. For him, the single is ‘not self-centred but self-horizoned’ (p191); I am wary of giving such immense scope to our own, monoperspectival worldview. I fear what our preoccupation with it might do to others – or AN Other, specifically, should I continue to find (and lose) him in the sort of search for romance that Cobb would probably argue displaces and annihilates my selfhood.

Cobb’s concept of ‘couplism’ is less comical than it sounds. Indeed, his coinage is politically serious. However, while I laughed with the author at the rest of this enjoyable book, I was ultimately unconvinced about being single in his sense. Because along with offering ‘aesthetic arrest’ (p170), I worry that in disregarding others, if only for a moment, the Single agenda disables our capacity to also look out for someone else, or to keep them in sight – and thereby to be kind. At present, I’m by myself and happy, but I do not wish to be a Cobbian singleton. Any good-looking, available gay man with a sense of humour who agrees with me here: do get in touch.


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