Here’s a photo taken a while ago that never made it into a post. It’s an advert I saw on a bus shelter. It isn’t the clearest photo in the world, but it tells a story. The story it tells is very clearly expressed by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. It shows that in our society, being an individual is a task we’re assigned. We have to work hard at it. For example, there are things to buy. Buying things also bought by others is the surest way to achieve individuality. The irony, according to Bauman, is that individuality – the mandate of the society of individuals – is thus impossible to achieve. The quotations below are from Chapter 1 of Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge : Polity 15-38.
Individuality is a task set for its members by the society of individuals – set as an individual task, to be individually performed, by individuals using their individual resources. Yet such a task is self-contradictory and self -defeating : indeed, impossible to fulfil.
When it is serviced by the consumer markets, the marathon of the pursuit of individuality draws its urgency and impetus from the terror of being caught up, absorbed and devoured by the crowd of runners breathing heavily behind one’s back. But in order to join the race and to stay in it, you first need to purchase the ‘special marathon shoes ‘ which – surprise, surprise – all the rest of the runners wear or deem it their duty to obtain.
(Bauman 2005 :25)
As a task, individuality is an end product of societal transformation disguised as a personal discovery.
(2005:19; cf. 29)
There’s a good summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – Chapter One at Realsociology.
But individuality isn’t the only kind of societal transformation that might be found disguised as a personal discovery. Communality, being part of a group, is also a kind of social demand dressed up as a personal task. There is a Japanese phrase: minna no kimochi. This means something like ‘being of one heart’. One could say: “Our feelings about the game came together and we played well”. Marie Mutsuki Mockett has written about how minna no kimochi is used to explain how political change might come to Japan after the great tsunami of 2011: by everyone feeling united about it.
This approach to the person is a little disquieting, since it encourages us to question the solid assumptions we have about our selves, how we come to even have something called a self, and how this process of ‘selfing’ relates to wider social processes.