“Fallen through the Looking Glass”

(Response to an essay question, asking whether I have fallen through the looking glass in the past year. Not a terribly interesting assignment. But I’ll post it up here for anyone who are interested in how to try to water-down philosophical concepts whilst avoiding banality—although I’m not sure whether I have managed to do it here.)

I certainly have “fallen through the looking glass”. But the view from this inverted world may be the saner one, as Plato suggests in the Allegory of the Cave. The world of the looking glass may be bizarre, it may be full of dangers, but there is always a way to turn its “curiousness” to one’s advantage—at least, when the situation is not truly tragic, but merely inconvenient.

The pandemic has continued much longer than expected and, as a cross-border student between Hong Kong and Mainland China, I’ve now been through 6 quarantines. I’ve found this development rather welcoming (in this way, I am fortunate). I rather enjoyed this inverted world, copious in free time, which allowed me to read my Heidegger, Arendt, Hegel, and, of course, Kafka, the great theorist of the looking glass. Aristotle’s life of contemplation, I found, is not too shabby.

My personal experience is just that, merely my personal experience. But from it I’ve observed a larger social problem: we don’t know how to be alone. In Žižek’s ironic words, we are Alienated (with a capital A) because we don’t know how to alienate ourselves from others. Though we talk about the lack of social contact during the pandemic, my feeling is exactly the opposite—we are with other people, on social media, all the time. (To my horror, there was a day where I logged 4 hours on my phone; but my sister, always ahead of me, managed 8.) Such hyper-connectivity, strangely, leads to increased loneliness and depression, shown in both my anecdotal observations, but also in studies.[1]

I, and I believe this extends to many others as well, find it difficult to sit still and spend a prolonged hour and a half with a book without checking my phone. There is an antsy agitation, a build-up of anxiety, an increase in internal pressure, that is relieved only after checking social media. That would not be a problem, if not for the fact that it does make one happy. Such impulsive connectivity only exacerbates the problem that it wishes to solve, like when one scratches a mosquito bite, procrastinates, or gambles.

         The takeaway? We have fallen through the looking glass. But the danger of this foreign world lies in our desperate measures to return to a semblance of normality through the hyper-connectivity the internet provides with us. But such connectivity exactly creates its opposite: we Alienate ourselves by trying to eliminate ‘alienation’. We have to teach kids the art of solitude.

[1] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2749480 & https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11126-019-09630-7

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