What are you waiting for? Stop wasting your time. You will die alone. You will miss the train and stay on your own! These are just some of the questions and warnings that single women hear on a daily basis. Single women are constantly being asked whether they are ”still single,” or being bid to get married next or soon. Still, soon, ever-after, waste of time, waiting, how long, when — all of these form part of the rich language of time.
A Table for One argues that time plays a crucial role in the discursive formation of female singlehood and that our common understanding of singlehood is dominated by underlying temporal models, premises and concepts. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach and integrating different theoretical realms and perspectives, this book paves the way for a new theorization of singlehood and time. Lahad’s unique approach gives us the opportunity to explore and theorize singlehood through temporal concepts like, wasting time, timeout and accelerated aging. Other temporal categories which are examined throughout this book, such as age, the life course, linearity and commodification of time, enable the fresh consideration of our dominant perceptions about collective clocks, schedules, time tables and the temporal organization of social life in general. By proposing this new analytical direction, A Table for One seeks to rework some of our common conceptions of singlehood, and present a new theoretical arsenal with which the temporal paradigms that devalue and marginalize single women and women’s subjectivities can be understood.
The following is an interview between the author, Kinneret Lahad, and Irit Dekel.
Irit: Kinneret, it is a pleasure to interview you on the occasion of your book publication!
How would you say the reading of the state of singlehood offered in Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time, adds to our understanding both of singlehood, of temporality and of the condition of women in contemporary societies?
Kinneret: Thank you for this insightful question. My reading of singlehood is a political one. That means that I look at singlehood not as a social problem, a new consumer niche, a personal tragedy or celebration of one’s autonomy. By political I mean here that singlehood should be understood in relation to dynamics of power — institutional and others — whereby the single subject is marginalized, and the possibility of long term singlehood is obliterated from spheres of public life.
Irit: But isn’t there a paradox here? Since the common representation of single people is that they are free of commitments and economically stable (of course, this notion of singlehood excludes single mother or working and poor single women/men).
Kinneret: Actually, I do not think this is a paradox. Singlehood is usually portrayed within the confines of binaries: choosing/non-choosing; the happy/miserable single subject. But a more nuanced and political reading of singIehood pronounces that singlehood should be analyzed in intersectional terms, attuned to axes of power like gender, race, age, class and ableness. A binary discourse excludes women who often don’t have the privilege to “choose” singlehood due to various economic and social constraints. I am of course not arguing against chosen singlehood, but when we discuss this category we should bear in mind that these choices are relative and not absolute.
Irit: Could you say more about the ways this perspective advances our understanding of temporality more generally?
Kinneret: Temporality/time is one of the key theoretical concerns in my book. The binary categorization of choice and non-choice assumes a fixed point in time when the position of the single person is bound to be static (choosing or not choosing the single position). This leaves no room for ambivalence, for changes or fluctuation between varied positions. This brings me to answer your question about temporality. To a large extent, singlehood is still imagined as a liminal and temporary position. A single woman can not “afford” to be single beyond a certain age. Once she crosses that threshold she hits a point of no return at which, for example, the privilege of being “selective” and/or ambivalent are no longer socially available to her. This brings us to the separation Georg Simmel suggests between social categories and their carriers. I thus illuminate the state of singlehood as a social construction carried by subjects — in this case the single subject. I was here inspired by Haim Hazan’s work on “re-membered bodies and dis-membered selves” (2002).
Irit: Haim happened to be a mentor to both of us at Tel Aviv University.
Kinneret: Hazan’s work has had a profound impact on my own research. Hazan separates the condition of old age from the carriers of old age, thereby freeing them of the totalizing identity of “the elderly.” And this changes the way we think of and address both the various conditions of old age, old age as a category, and old people. The same sociological sensibility is here applied to singles and singlehood.
Irit: How are single subjects then juxtaposed to other social positions?
Kinneret: My book offers a fresh outlook on the discursive means through which singlehood is articulated. Singlehood, when understood as a broader story about societal assumptions about the life worth living, can illuminate pertinent questions of social membership, gendered respectability, happiness, and what is socially valued.
Such an approach strives to unpack how the meanings of singlehood are part and parcel of power relations embedded in “couple culture,” family politics, reproductive policies and national resilience.
The book proposes a novel research agenda that discusses singlehood as a political and feminist issue, echoing Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue. Here, I propose that singlehood is a political, ethical issue connected to the allocation of social and symbolic goods and therefore should be discussed in feminist and political terms.
Irit: It seems to me that in Israel, where we both come from (and where you currently live, in Tel Aviv), for a woman to be single, is a serious transgression of a social order that sanctifies family and couple culture. How did the research for the book illuminate this issue? What are the reactions to it in Israel and elsewhere?
Kinneret: There is no doubt that Israel has its own cultural and historical specificities: the state of war, Holocaust trauma (now handed down from one generation to the next) and what conservatives call the “demographic crisis,” which is evoked to insist on the necessity of partnering and producing healthy Jewish children. These subjects have been expertly covered by scholars like Nitza Berkovitch, Yael Hashiloni-Dolev, Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli and Orna Donath. However, we should be weary of exoticization. Israeli culture is not that different from other western societies. When I look at social research, as well as popular media, I see that the regional differences between center and periphery count for much more than in which country one finds herself not celebrating Christmas or Passover properly. To some extent singlehood can be more legitimate in large cities, but is still heavily sanctioned outside of metropolitan areas.
Irit: Your title, “A Table for One,” alludes to the space that singles take up (or don’t), and matters concerning their visibility and legitimacy in public. I learned about the allocation of legitimate or bracketed time and unscheduled timelines. These vertical and horizontal power relations between space and time also show how much we can learn from singlehood about public and personal life in the US and elsewhere. In a recent Public Seminar post on how all politics became reproductive politics, Laura Briggs writes on how the 2008 financial crisis set in motion by the issuing of subprime loans was rooted in targeting women of color and single mothers. How can your book and work help us understand the space that is ‘singled out’?
Kinneret: In the book I consider Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” after which I ask whether a single woman can legitimately occupy a respectable designated space absent from the nuclear family. This brings us to the question of gendered respectability that female singlehood defies. According to second and third wave feminist interpretations, one can assume that women as individuals are entitled to privacy and, to an extent, the freedom to pursue their life goals, but a question remains to be answered: can a single woman occupy, for an extended period of time, this public “table for one”? Can she be accountable as a subject but also accounted for in society without a husband and children, which have traditionally marked her as a legitimate and a respected subject? I hope that the book does not only demonstrate how far we have left to go but can also direct our attention to how we can better understand singlehood and other socially marginalized categories by building upon alternative socio-temporal terms, logics and terminologies.
Kinneret Lahad is a Senior Lecturer in the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel-Aviv University, Israel. Her book, A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time was recently published by Manchester University Press.
Irit Dekel is a Research Associate at the Berlin Institute of Migration and Integration Research, as well as in the Department of Diversity and Social Conflict at Humboldt University, Berlin.