Selfies Under Quarantine: Students Report Back to Rome

On March 5, 2020, the Italian government ordered a lockdown for all schools. A few days later, now a month ago (feels like ages), on March 9, all Italian cities, and all of us, human beings, were placed on a strict lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. No more going out, no more walking, no more outdoor activities, except from shopping for ‘necessary’ reasons.

I’ve found myself having to adapt my professional and personal life to this unprecedented condition. One of the classes I teach at John Cabot University, an American liberal arts college in the heart of Rome, is called ‘Selfies and Beyond: Exploring Networked Identities’. Before the lockdown was issued, the students and I were using the method of auto-ethnography to explore our digital lives. Because of the obliged condition of ‘social distancing’, and since now many of them sit far away in their home towns in the US, on the other side of the Ocean, we came up with the idea of moving their pieces, which were once sent to me as private notes, to a public online platform where all can see, read, and comment on what my students are writing.

For the next weeks to come I will discuss here critical theory that reflects on the status of the networked self and emotional capitalism, from Benjamin, Baudrillard and  Zizek to Illouz. I have asked students to read the theory in light of the current situation, and look at it from the perspective of their networked quarantines and digital daily life.

This series of blog posting on the INC website puts together their reflections and my reflections, their anxieties and my anxiety, the occasional joy or maybe just temporary satisfaction that we encounter in sharing our thoughts and, every now and then, some digital laughter.

For this series I choose to work on a rough, irregular, broken style.

It’s a draft, it’s a rough-cut. It’s the aesthetics of the fragment.

At a time when everything is on hold, I cannot think about anything finished, anything with a polished and clear structure. Our lives are on hold, let our writing be in a permanent draft status.  We are holding our breath, let us then hold our thoughts, as well. Let us freeze permanence, certainty, and release drafts instead. Until the curtain is lifted, at least.

This is an aesthetics of the fragment. It is also an ethics of the fragment. Permanent judgment is suspended, definitive analyses are on hold. Things will flourish in the fragility of the fragment, in the uncertain style of the draft; randomly, just as the grass now growing in the city’s pavement cracks.


In collaboration with Danielle, Shaina, Briana, Jackie, Marta, Gabriella, Sydney, Elena and Sophia

This week’s reading: excerpts from Geert Lovink’s ‘Sad by Design. Watching: Geert Lovink’s talk at John Cabot University. Looking at: Edward Manet’s painting ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.

We reflected on the following quotes:

“Emotion is a luxury, right? To be angry is a luxury. We don’t have that luxury right now. Let’s just deal with the facts, let’s just get through it.”  Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York


“There wasn’t any anger involved (I think). I mean, what was I supposed to be angry with? What I was feeling was a fundamental numbness. The numbness your heart automatically activates to lessen the awful pain when you want somebody desperately and they reject you. A kind of emotional morphine.”   Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore


“I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here.”  Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems



Is social media helping us overcoming the imposed ‘distancing’ of this crazy period; or is it yet another tool to dive us into a deeper sleep, trusting that in the end we will become used to ‘see’, ‘watch’ and, eventually, ‘feel’ the Other throughout the surfaces of our screens?

Marta writes: “Allegedly, this virus has robbed people of their social life due to social distancing, but did it, really? The truth is that social physical interaction was robbed by social media way before Coronavirus even existed. I believe that the lack of social interaction and the intensification of social media use is not a new phenomenon caused by a natural disaster, but a recurring one caused by human kind. The majority of us now use this calamity as an excuse for our excessive social media use. If you think Covid-19 is the reason why you can’t distance yourself from your phone, you are either lying to yourself or you’re in denial.  ‘The thing that scares me the most is the fact that we are adapting to social isolation. It will be harder to leave our phones and easier to stay home even when we are free to go out. Does adapting to social distancing lead us to numbness, or is it numbness related to excessive social media use?”


The simulacra of interaction. Are we left looking at our lives from the acquarium, having to constantly feed and take care of the red fish we watch moving inside which, in the end, is us?

Natalia tells of a dream-like sequence: “After sleeping through the afternoon, I stood up with a slightly lesser headache and got to the other room. After a while, I grabbed my phone. I opened Instagram, only to notice – oh, the magic of happy accidents – that a friend of mine is live on Instagram Stories. Perhaps he’s been broadcasting his piano skills, I might have though yet the time spawn since I saw it until I cliched it was too short for me to think this sentence through in my mind. I clicked. And he was playing the piano. And I listened. He noticed that I joined, and so he played one of my favorite songs. And I listened. And I was happy.  But then it just disappeared. My friend came back to his life, and I was back in my room with a headache and a lack of will or power to act. Just as if our meeting a second ago has never existed, just as if it was a dream, something with no actual impact on reality. But after a dream one sometimes wakes up feeling better, feeling happy. I didn’t dream, neither I woke up, yet I felt sad.  It seems as if our interaction, our sociality, was an innocent delusion, a harmless hallucination.”


Does a crisis situation give us validation as humans? Is a crisis a collective moment of unity, shared anxiety and common pain, or is it yet another occasion to shout out loud, ‘hiya world I’m here, I’m alive, look at me!”? And what’s the difference between a machine-generated feeling of boredom, boredom ‘by design’, and boredom IRL?  Do we scream outside the window to get attention IRL and finally find in validation our little escape from boredom?

Sydney admits: ‘There is no longer excitement in quarantine.  There was excitement in only having 3 days to evacuate from Italy, somehow.  It felt like a movie, unscripted, and gave me a purpose. And being home before everyone else had to quarantine also felt like an adventure.  I felt dangerous if I went outside. People constantly checked in one me, wondering how I was feeling. Now it is everyone’s normal schedule. There is no more excitement. The added danger and edge is gone now that my entire community is forced to be confined.  It feels nice every once and awhile to be told that we’re doing our part, but it has become normal. There is no excitement. It is boring. And now that my entire life can be filled with entertainment, it has become sad that I can not receive constant stimulation. I no longer feel like a special American soldier, fighting the coronavirus and escaping Italy. I am just another citizen, scrolling on my phone like everyone, watching the same show as everyone, complaining about the same thing.  Words that once sounded large and important as I was reporting from the ‘front lines of Italy’ on my social media are now muted by everyone else. My voice has gone mute. My body has gone numb’.”

Elena points out: “People post Instagram stories to show they are interesting people with interesting lives. I admit that I am one of those people who’s doing anything to keep my online identity interesting, even during these boring days. I post memes and TikTok videos, and I even tell funny stories of my past to entertain my followers. But, WHY? Who cares? Everyone knows I am bored even if I pretend I am not. Digital boredom is indeed very different from the “real” one: when I am bored IRL I don’t scream outside the window “look at me, I am interesting”.  We are ‘sad by design’ when we don’t receive many likes because we don’t feel appreciated. We are anxious by design when we see everyone on Instagram living a better life than ours and looking better than us. We are happy by design when we receive notifications because we feel desired and important. The design of the media platform decides how we feel, we are powerless.”

“These are my friends and I at Romics in 2015. We gave to every social media a personality: Tumblr is depressed, Whatsapp is athletic (because it’s very active), facebook is friendly, etc. This picture is ironic since now I know that social media decide what I feel and not vice versa.” Elena


Is there a moment in our desperate search for affective intensities that we just long for a flat line, that we just aspire to nothingness, that we just crave for an ‘non-event’?

Gabriella: “…. there is a point in our online experience in which we stop seeking the ‘happy accident’ and we find our selves needing an “anti-experience” that might come from the unfulfilled expectancies we encounter online.”


Is boredom something more revolving around the lack of meaning rather than the lack of eventfulness? Are we trying to recreate meaning each time we go online to escape boredom?

Jackie writes: “I’ve especially found myself missing my wii despite the fact that I have a nice refurbished playstation in its place—why can’t I just be satisfied with this cool thing I already have? Why must we miss happiness from our past? I think this relates a lot to the question on the possibility of recreating meaning when being bored. Like rewatching a horrible show that excited me years ago, whenever we’re bored we often reminisce times we weren’t and think that maybe, just maybe, if we did the same thing we could precent all boredom.  A good example to this is my Monday in which I ignored all remote work and made a three-meat four-cheese lasagna. It was an all day affair and something I had always wanted to do, but all I could think about while doing it was getting it done, was being able to sit down away from the stove and do something mindless on my phone.

Instead of being stimulated or living in an exciting and delicious event, I was merely distracting myself from being bored by either homework or nothing at all. It reminds me of a quote from the first Guardians of the Galaxy that we’re always in a big hurry to get from something stupid to nothing at all. And for what? When Lovink talks about this sadness and the boredom it encourages, being “obsessed with waiting” felt like a real big callout, because even when many of us are doing things unrelated to the internet there’s this nagging in our heads that asks why can’t we be there now. Why do I have to be reading this when I could be reading something else? Why am I not satisfying my digital longing right here right now? While he talks a lot about the sadness created by constructs of the internet I thinks there’s incredible validity to discussing the sadness created by the lack of the internet. How elitist of me I guess.

Sophia continues: “I have found that recently in the past week I have become tired of the content which is available to me and have become quite frustrated with this, clicking off of movies and videos before the ending. I think Baudrillard’s thoughts concerning meaning and the constant flow of information could be applied in this situation as I have access to a vast amount of content, but at this point the amount which I have consumed has caused all of it to become “boring” to me and has lost its meaning’.


Here Natalia attempts at reading Manet in the time of our hegemonic social reality (and social frustration).

“Looking back at the female figure, one can proceed to draw conclusions that fit perfectly to the social media reality of today. Let’s take an individual social media user and compare him/her to the woman in Manet’s painting.  Both feel alienated from the social situation they found themselves in. Online, one feels alienated from the sociality of the digital encounter, an outcome of the online situation they entered.

The woman should act to be as entertained as others are, yet her boredom gives away her alimentation. She both chose and didn’t choose to be there. Could the online user choose not to enter this digital social situation? Was that really voluntary? How long can one escape the pressure to act entertained while being both sad and alienated?

It seems that while all the others are having a blast, they (the woman/the user) do not. But the others are the same: alienated, bored, coming to the same ‘place’ over and over again in a search of a trivial thrill of a happy accident, just as a ‘habit,’ or perhaps they do not have a choice?  The woman looks directly at the viewer, just as an individual social media user looks directly at the screen of a phone or computer. This reflection only deepens one’s sadness and alienation. Alienation is about the sense of narcissist individuality, especially in social media. She also feels her alienation and sadness, she lets boredom show on her face as a manifestation of her agency over her individuality. Though who really has agency here?

Look behind her, in the right corner. She is standing in front of the mirror, yet the reflection is twisted so that we can see her from an angle. Suddenly you notice a man. It is not “a man,” however, but a white, heterosexual, Western, healthy, relatively young, perhaps wealthy, man. Who, again, owns Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp), Amazon, Google, Twitter…? You guessed.

Just as the woman, a social media user produces exhibitionist labor for the users who are as alienated and sad and she/they are. But, in the end, those who benefit most are privileged white men who control them. The woman’s labor is not her own choice, based on the rules she set, as she is standing behind a bar, being a part of a greater enterprise, which uses and commercializes her body (and soul). Social media users are just like she is: producing labor for a greater enterprise (social media corporation) which sets the rules and commodifies feelings, socially, and physical life.  Instead of prostituting oneself, social media user is only keeping the content circulation flowing by producing, reposting, and reacting to content, and producing data. Though isn’t it prostitution itself?”


I wander in the city’s empty streets. Not because of boredom, because of desire.

Desire to reanimate the corpse that lies in front of me, in front of us all.

Formerly known as the ‘social body’, now turned into a social corpse.

Does our newly discovered freedom lie in this transparent structure, in this silent moving around like ghosts, in this not-touching not-sweating not-kissing,

… in this-NOT?

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, emergency first aid to the social body

before it grows into a life without organs.

“When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.” Antonin Artaud (1947)


Life without freedom got me like:

We close this first episode with a long fragment, a love letter written by Elena:

“Freedom broke up with me almost a month ago. We were such a nice couple, we have been dating for about 20 years. I still didn’t get over her of course. I miss Freedom a lot, what a beautiful soul she has. I think about her everyday. Freedom was more than a girlfriend, she was my greatest source of happiness. We were in an open relationship with many other people but the way she looked at me…maybe I was jealous that she wasn’t just mine. What if she broke up with me because I was too jealous? No, I know why she did it: I didn’t deserve her. She gave me so much and I took her for granted. I don’t even feel the right to complain because Freedom broke up with a lot of people lately. Is it true that if something terrible happens to many people it hurts less? Is it true that misery loves company? I doubt it.

Fun fact about Freedom? She has two nicknames: those who love her like me called her “Libre”, those who were only attached to her materialistic beauty called her “Gratis. Ungrateful freaks…Freedom is much more important than a capitalistic commodity but people confuse them. If only I could go back.

I’m stuck in an apparently endless cycle filled with numbness and uncertainties. When is this apathetic rollercoaster going to stop? When will Freedom come back to me? Will she ever come back or is she gone forever?…I don’t even want to think about that possibility. I think about those days when we were still dating and I could go to my friends’ house, to parties, to the cinema, to visit my grandma… good old days. I never thanked her. I used her like an object. Freedom, if you will ever read this…please forgive me. You are and will always be the greatest love of my life. I miss you. I love you like a prisoner loves the first breath of wind outside of jail. I don’t want to be numb anymore. Please come back.”