Book Review: Shades of Loneliness

I recently finished reading Richard Stivers’ Shades of Loneliness: Pathologies of a Technological Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) since it was on the strangers.club list for the month. Strangers is an online reading group mostly composed of people working in tech fields who want to get a handle on what has gone so badly wrong in our technological society.* I imagine that most of us have overdosed at times on screens and social isolation as work and social media make us more and more remote from face-to-face interaction and unstructured time together with other people.

Whether you are engaged in remote work or not; whether you use screen technology to a significant degree, merely having CMT or some other neuropathic disorder is liable to provide many alienating and isolating experiences for you. Disability and pain are lonely-making experiences, even if we did not live within a hyper-competitive society that excessively esteems power, status, physical fitness, and youth. Maybe your experience with pain, depression, doctors, or others in the helping professions who haven’t been very helpful has tuned you into the ways that our modern scientific and technological regimes cannot by themselves produce an attentive healer or kind advisor who truly provides care. If so, Shades of Loneliness offers some insight into why we medicalize people and disorders we can’t integrate into society by normal (and healthier) means.

Shades of Loneliness offers some insight into why we medicalize people and disorders we can’t integrate into society by normal means.

Stivers is an emeritus professor of sociology at Illinois State University about whom the internet provides no further information. (Apparently he doesn’t get online much.) He comes across as a fairly grumpy guy, but his thesis, after all, is that society makes us lonely, and in our loneliness we make a hostile and sick society. One coping strategy is withdrawal and cultivation of a protected, private life. It is a pernicious circle.

Stivers’ task with Shades of Loneliness is not to suggest solutions or coping strategies but to diagnose us. Stivers argues the (western) technological society described by Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and others compels us to develop a “technological personality” that’s very different from the ideal self of previous eras that it evolved from. The technological personality features an outward-facing persona adapted to cope with noise, distraction, superficiality, and ambiguous relationships defined by competition. With this outward persona we strive with others for power, status, and dominance. Behind it is an alienated, lonely (perhaps undeveloped or ill) inner self that is both protected and isolated from others by its exterior shield.

The interplay between the individual and social pathology is key to Stivers’ thinking. He wants to understand both by reuniting sociology and psychology. He does this by linking the theories of J. H. van den Berg (the Dutch Wikipedia page is superior to the English) and the German-American founder of feminist psychology, Karen Horney.

Stivers sees loneliness as the unusual and uniting feature of our modern world. The most common psychological disorders today appear not to have existed before 1700-1800. Stivers’ major sources indicate most emotional problems are connected to the alienating contradictions we face between love and power, as well as meaning and power in a hyper-competitive, capitalistic society. Individual chapters focus on the contradictions between love and power, rationality and irrationality, unity and fragmentation. Stivers tries to show how these can, in turn, lead to neurosis, obsessive-compulsive and impulsive behavior, narcissism and depression, paranoia and schizophrenia.

A lot of what Stivers writes about has to do with family psychology, so it’s not just blaming “society” and “technology” in the abstract. In fact, there is very little (maybe too little) attention given to specific technologies and how people are affected by them. Stivers and his sources are more concerned with the ways people interact in their most important relationships. No doubt the stresses of family and social roles can be subtly damaging when “love” really masks aggression and control, but how is this amplified or accelerated by Netflix or smartphones?

Stivers repeatedly states (based on Durkheim and Van den Berg) that a major modern social problem is the lack of normative moral guidance, but he doesn’t say what healthy guidance and social integration would look like. Stivers also rants a few times about vulgarity, rock music, casual sex and drug use like a stereotypical social conservative, and he verges on idealizing religion and premodern society at a few points. However, the material he covers from Beatrice Gottlieb and Ann Douglas on the history of family and gender roles should offset any tendency one might have to idealize the past.

The value offered by Shades of Loneliness are its insights into relationship dysfunction, the recognition that no one is an island, and the ultimate conclusion that we can and must “freely practice the ordinary virtue of caring” to overcome personal and societal disorders.

Stivers’ sources all point to loneliness as the unusual and uniting feature of modern society and emotional disorders. Horney in particular suggests all serious psychological problems are connected to the alienating contradictions we live with. Freedom, equality, love, a desire for happiness and a meaningful life — these ideal goals are all compromised by competitive striving with others for power, status, and dominance. We respond to the goads of endlessly marketed wants in the face of obvious inequality and unfreedom. If love and meaning require unconditional self-giving to others, they are fundamentally incompatible with striving for power and advantage over others. The internal self-splitting it may take to cope with these contradictions may well cause more and less severe emotional disorders.

What I liked:

  • Ellul’s insight that we don’t build feedback mechanisms into our tools so they tend to run amok.
  • A lot of Stivers’ sources touch on couples, families, and basic relationships so it’s not just blaming “society” and “technology” in the abstract but how people interact in basic relationships under the stresses of their lives.
  • Van den Berg’s idea that “the unconscious is a communicative phenomenon” indicating how close or distant we are from others. When we aren’t relating to others in mutual trust and transparency, our consciousness is others’ unconsciousness and vice versa. In this view, “the unconscious” is the parts of us that others and our culture can’t see, acknowledge, or understand.
  • Horney’s idea that American cultural ideals cause emotional distress because they come with intense, self-splitting contradictions.

What I didn’t like:

  • There are a few cranky, ranty bits.
  • There are a lot of unargued claims and implications, as well as a dearth of concrete examples.
  • Stivers does nothing to situate and explain his own perspective or contextualize his sources.
  • Stivers and some of his sources tend toward positions I feel are unbalanced and reactionary.
  • Stivers uses very few empirical sources from contemporary cognitive and behavioral research.

Would I recommend Shades of Loneliness? Yes, with caveats.

I don’t think Stivers comes close to making a credible case for his main thesis. The best material is under-developed, and there is some repetition and unfocused meandering through less important material, but it’s a good provocation to read more sociology and psychology, particularly the female scholars who enrich the book and prevent it from tipping into a reactionary screed.

The value offered by Shades of Loneliness are its insights into relationship dysfunction, the recognition that no one is an island, and the ultimate conclusion that we can and must “freely practice the ordinary virtue of caring” to overcome personal and societal disorders.


* To say this today — that we are living in a kind of permanent crisis — needs no explanation, which I take as a very positive and hopeful thing. I have always felt our society and its tools are quite murderous, but this has been a very marginal and stigmatized position since the later 1980s when a mindless technocapitalist optimism took hold in the United States.

† Van den Berg is especially problematic. He seems to envision a good society as one where nothing about us is repressed or hidden and unconscious — it’s all seen and known or accurately assumed. He seems to have idealized a very homogeneous society where everyone is quite transparent and intelligible due to their lack of differences. I’m not sure how this allows for a private self or healthy amounts of diversity and individuality. It is an explicitly anti-pluralist view that probably has to do with how Van den Berg processed social change in the Netherlands after the Second World War. He seems to envision “society” in chauvinistic terms where people are understood as members of ethno-national cultures. In this view (a very unhealthy one, in my opinion) people become dispirited and psychologically damaged by pluralism and social change that disrupts prior norms. Another interpretation might identify the main trauma as centuries of traumatic wars and repression of minority groups in efforts to violently impose the norms of a dominant culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.