Born in Iraq and now completing his PhD in Auckland, writer and researcher Faisal Al-Asaad realises self-isolation is already a way of being for him and many others – and hopes Covid-19 might wake us up to the damage of it and change our ways. 

Notes from Self-Isolation is the title of this series, but it could very well be the title of my PhD thesis. Don’t worry, I won’t go on about that monstrosity, and I certainly won’t harp on about the ‘solitary’ nature of writing, not least because I think this is bullshit contrived and sustained by so many industries and institutions, including academia, that exist as fossilised vestiges of a bygone, medieval era. All I’m saying is that, like many people, I’ve been doing self-isolation for ages now, and well before it became a thing, so this whole thing is uncanny for me.


Also, rest assured, I’m not here to pretentiously try and impart some arcane wisdom any more than I can try to share basic iso life-hacks: I have none. In fact, and despite changing little about the usual routine, I still ended up spiralling last week. I think that’s because, in addition to the looming collapse of so many things that offered normality, isolation is quite simply a pathological way to exist in the world. No amount of mental acrobatics, digital interaction, or scholastic grandilloquence can bridge the yawning chasm between your ‘bubble’ and everything you crave out there. Physical distancing is social distancing, whatever else anyone might try to tell you.


OK, so I lied, maybe I did have something to share, and it’s this: if you are isolating (and I mean really, properly isolating, not like the hacks in the white, middle-class dystopia where I live, who seem to be treating quarantine as dramatised leave) and you’re thriving right now, good for you; but if you’re not, and you feel like you’re on some wild, emotional and existential roller coaster, then don’t panic, you’re being a human.


Don’t panic, but also take heed, because this is a critical moment, and there’s much for us to learn. I don’t think it’s always easy to tell why isolation feels the way it does, or what it is exactly that we feel like we’re missing, and desperately craving, about the social. But in times of crisis, we might become privy to those secrets we keep from ourselves.


For me, the lockdown revealed that my thesis, which for a long time was experienced and resented as the cause of all my misery, is also the very safe-room I’d inadvertently created over the years. Whether consciously or not, academia, and the PhD program, is something I pursued long ago because they provided an out; an exit from the social, or what felt like the worst aspects of my social. Nurturing all my tendencies for social avoidance, this little corner in the world also sheltered me from the family and community expectations that hound and harass every migrant of my generation. Only time made the difference between it feeling like refuge and feeling like confinement.


I’ve come to understand and accept this a little better over the past couple of weeks. I also happened across another little secret I didn’t know I had been keeping over the years: how much we desperately need to be around others, to be social, not just when we feel we’re unable to do that, but maybe even when we don’t want to.


That we might be reminded of this now, in a world-shattering way, and after decades of neoliberalism, seems about right. Our recent history has seen late-stage capitalism devise ever new and elaborate ways of devastating our communities and rendering solidarity impossible by increasingly making access to public resources and safety nets a thing of the past. At the same time, it has also created conditions in which continued survival, individual and collective, has become contingent on so many of the very institutions that perpetuate this violence, academia being only one among many, and certainly not the most brutal or inhumane.


When we have less and less recourse for our livelihood through intimate forms of support and solidarity in the spaces of family and community, and find ourselves at the mercies of the market, we’re left in a situation in which our fundamental need for one another is harnessed to scenarios that heighten our vulnerability to exploitative relations and working conditions. Being social in this context requires us to accept our inter-dependence alongside everything which that entails in this context, including harm and violence. No wonder then that many of us look for safe-rooms and crevasses in and away from the social; no wonder we might want to turn avenues of social and economic mobility into escape routes headed for an imaginary independence. Instead of solidarity, we are promised a fantasy of individual sovereignty, which, as Lauren Berlant aptly put it when discussing the politics of austerity, is in fact a ‘nightmarish burden, a psychotic loneliness, and just tainted’.


Something is a little different now, though. It’s true that we still find ourselves in ‘bubbles’, but we’ve committed to doing this together, collectively, for our own good. At the same time as we confine ourselves for the sake of others, we put our faith and trust in others to do the same for us. Better than anything else in recent history, this lockdown has shown us how much we need and depend on others, and how we do so in a way that trumps all the things that promised us certainty in an age of socialised precarity. More importantly, the lockdown reminds us that, in all the ways that count, our individual and collective survival and wellbeing is more in our hands than in the hands of the very institutions and structures that have brought us to this brink. 


The next few weeks will be as revealing as they are challenging. For myself, the struggle that comes with being part of a casualised and precarious workforce, with all that it brings by way of depression and anxiety, is an ongoing one, and I have no doubt that last week’s spiral won’t be the last. But I like to think that maybe every time I’m in a free-fall, it’s because I’ve managed to let go of something that kept me tethered, that kept me hanging on to fantasies of a good life yet to come, or fantasies of a return to normality. 


For us collectively, I hope that ‘when this is all over’, we can walk away with more than simply a notion of having survived, or a renewed faith in individualised self-reliance. I hope that we can instead walk away still feeling the unsettling quality of our dependence on and desperation for one another. The lockdown should be seen as ringing the death-knell of self-isolation, in all its forms, rather than marking a new era of its normalisation.