The myth of ‘the individual’


One of the strangest and most prevalent myths of our times is the myth of ‘the individual’. It is so prevalent, in fact, that it isn’t often questioned: we are all individuals… aren’t we? It is an integral part of our development to identify as ‘I’ (according to Western psychologists). Perhaps it is actually just a developmental phase – perhaps we have been culturally stunted here because isolation is particularly good for the economy… but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

You probably know the story of The Little Red Hen. You know, that iconic story that libertarian Ayn Rand fans love to tell you in the middle of the night when you’re drunk in their kitchen and have nowhere to escape to – because it proves that human beings are selfish and that poor people are just making bad choices? You know, that chicken who wants to make some bread and asks for help at every stage, but all the other animals in the animal farm are too busy being hedonistic assholes, so when her bread is finally made and they all smell the delicious yeasty scent… and come scrounging… and she’s like: “nah ah”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but that never happened. You know why? Chickens are communal animals. They hang out in groups and scratch for bugs together – sure they fight over food, especially when there’s scarcity, but being together is something they do. It’s good for their survival, and it’s company. If chickens were going to bake bread, you can bet your arse they’d do it together.

Human beings are social animals – probably even more so than chickens. We always live in communities. We are never completely individuals. We all depend on each other. It is a bit ridiculous to think of ourselves as independent individuals – when we are all so obviously and completely inter-dependent. It’s a bit like treating a cell in your body as an individual – or taking anything and isolating it from its environment and then trying to understand that thing. It doesn’t work. Individuals can only exist in relation to social and environmental contexts. We cannot be removed.

fish

The funny thing is that people are so embedded in their culture they really can’t see out of it – it’s the water in our goldfish bowl, right? So the way we thing – well it’s just normal – IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE: OKAY? It’s hard for us to even imagine a society without ‘individuals’… but actually, our mythology is not universal. There are lots and lots of cultures where ‘the individual’ is not really all that important. This is a bit hard to understand from a Western perspective because our philosophical history is based on the idea of ‘the individual’. Our morality starts with ‘me’ and extends out – hopefully – to other people, sometimes it stretches to other animals, but rarely does it encompass the ecosystem (which is probably why the ecosystem makes a better starting point). The anthropologist David Graeber, points out:

Western social theory is founded on certain everyday common sense, one that assumes that the most important thing about people is that they are all unique individuals. Theory therefore also tends to start with individuals and tries to understand how they form relations with one another (society)… With no concept of either “society” or unique individuals, [the Melpa] assumed the relationships came first. (Towards an Anthropology of Value, 2001, page 36, 37)

The thing about assuming that we’re all just selfish is that it ignores that we’re equally not. Sure, it makes a great economic platform if you like to promote the kind of economy that destroy ecosystems and exploits people as much and as quickly as possible, and it fits with the Christian heritage of Western culture that assumes we’re all sinners, but it ignores the blindingly obvious communal aspects of us – as a species. Basically, if someone was like: ‘dude, when you’ve got a minute, can you help me grind this flour so we can have some sweet gluten-free fairtrade bread in five hours’ and you had the time and energy, and that person wasn’t a talking chicken, you’d probably be all over that, right? You’re a decent kind of person… and people have been making bread communally for thousands of years.

Anyway, there’s another reason The Little Red Hen is a terrible story: it sucks to eat alone. If I went to all that trouble to make some kick-arse bread I would want to share it, and the recipe, and get all the social credit for my awesome baking. Just sayin’

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The internet confessional: which type are you?

Are you among the millions who just confess to carefully selected friends you share your Facebook account with or are you more public with your personal bits? In the habit of regaling your audience with salacious stories about your ex, inspiring jealousy with pictures of your cafe brunch or revealing your bizarre crushes on over-the-phone technical support workers?  If you blog, are you tempted to spill juicy personal information or just gossip disapprovingly about other people’s gratuitous displays of sexuality? We now exist in an internet with a plethora of ways to share what might otherwise be private with various parts of the public.  There is even an ‘internet confessional’ website.

As I recall, Nietzsche reflected that the old (Christian) religious structure of Western society, far from being dismantled, had merely been replaced with a scientific religion. Instead of confessing to the priest in a private booth, more people these days confess to doctors and therapists.  More recently, there has been a diversification of the Western religion – in much the same way that the printing press allowed for individual adaptation, the internet has allowed for broad private-public confessions. Just like fight club, you choose your own level of involvement.

We can construct a 1-5 scale of internet confessional types:

Prudent or Prudish?

1 make conservative confessions about their sporting preferences and occasional celebrational posts (you don’t want anyone knowing anything bad ever happens to you), with more personal details confined to private messages. When they use social media to purge emotionally, it will be prefaced with “I’m sorry but” and be followed by a hurt/angry message.  1s might feel comfortable using Snapchat because the images disappear after a few seconds, but generally, only people well under 30 have heard of Snapchat and young people are much more likely to reside higher up on the scale, having grown up in a social-media world.

Dribs and Drabs

2s can be a little more revealing, maybe some political commentary, bad day ranting and firm opinions aired like dirty laundry along with pictures of one’s child/niece/nephew/partner/dog and some thinly spread social commentary amongst re-posted inspirational quotes, memes and news stories. You might not know where you stand with 1s and 2s because they might not know themselves, either that or they know damn well and are just respecting their own privacy. Both 1s and twos are prone to drunken confessions which are awkward the next day.

Constant commentators 

3s continually post on Facebook about things other than them, but you can tell from the nature of their re-posts, exactly how they feel about absolutely everything.  They are also likely to argue with you on your posts, just to make sure you agree with them about absolutely everything.  They will also take pictures of things they see/do/eat just to make you jealous. They are prone to the occasional drunken confession, but it will look cute compared to their normally well-constructed sentences.

Blurred bloggers

3.3 is reserved for the people who blog publicly but restrict their personal information. For example, one might write a food blog and mention one’s child being especially cute but neglect to mention an impending divorce out of fear of rejection by the conservative food-blogging community. One’s hard-core metal blog might fail to mention one’s penchant for floral embroidery, or one’s serious and sensible opinion blog might omit the existence of one’s Jungian archetype and astrology blog. Occasionally they will get emotional or political in their posts in a way that is likely to lose them followers, but in the heat of the moment they don’t much care.

Drama dilettantes

4 is slightly embarrassing with the level of personal detail, especially if you’re a prude, they untag the unflattering party pics but might post semi-naked soft-porn-esque pictures of themselves. Their blogs read like gossip magazines about themselves and the people they like and dislike enough to want to poison.  They will post poetry… they will. You always know where you stand with 4s and, if you’re sensible, that will be quite far away so as to avoid the emotional shrapnel.

Unveiled humans (my alliteration skills failed me)

5s may or may not have naked pictures, but if they do, they will be much more genuine than porn.  Whereas 4s want to flash everything flattering around and hide the unsightly human bits, 5s are experimenting with revealing their true selves, including beautiful flaws, to whomever stumbles across their blog.  They are probably politically progressive: artists, feminists or hippies, and are making a statement.  You can learn a lot about their politics, spirituality and sex lives from reading their blogs.

We can indulge our voyeurism in 4s and 5s. When they are like us we can like them and when they offend out sensibilities, or lack-there-of, we can ‘other’ them and make fun of them with our friends. Meanwhile we continue to confess in our own ways, both on and offline. The confessional is necessary because we have been taught to hold everything in. According to that Foucault dude, the pressure from conservative Victorian suppression is to blame for this bizarre emotionally vomitous behavior, and maybe 5s have gotten past that, to the point where they can co-exist publicly with their private bits rather than holding in all the bad stuff until we’re forced to purge it up all over everything.