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.
Thanks for your interesting message. I’d certainly like to make a ‘guest post’ of it. It fits very well with the next piece coming up here on the London riots – but of course you say things that hadn’t even occurred to me. For example the whole idea of a market place of ideas as an Individualist fantasy is intriguing. (Likewise the idea of nuclear power as an Individualist institution. I have seen it as implicated in a Hierarchical or at least strong Grid world view and have perhaps been wilfully blind to the promethian, cutting edge of progress aspects.)
Your three suggestions for de-biassing public debate show that we could be doing much better than we currently are – and that the problem of market failure in the market place of ideas has some encouraging solutions. I’m sure the readers of Fourcultures will be fascinated…
Dan Kahan is a part of the Cultural Cognition Project. Watch this space for his guest post.
Just about to write something about the recent restatement of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ordination of women – I realised, effectively, I already had.
Add only this: it’s not actually very easy to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Few people have ever met anyone who has been (militant atheists have been trying it recently, with limited success). This is because exclusion is a very uncharacteristic measure for a hierarchical organisation. It sits rather better with Egalitarian organisations which have no other sanctions against persistent dissenters. Indeed, for hierarchies, exclusion makes almost no sense, since one thereby excludes the wrongdoer from punishment. Note that in describing excommunication theological commentators sometimes refer to it as being of medicinal benefit. It supposedly encourages the wrongdoer to realise the seriousness of their offence and thence to repent and return to the fold.
So, far from being another indication of the terrible hierarchy at its terrible worst, as some commentators have suggested, the restatement of the Church’s willingness to excommunicate those attempting the ordination of a woman is really more evidence of just how far Egalitarianism has made inroads into that most hierarchical of hierarchies. Lacking other more coercive sanctions, the Church is reduced to fighting Egalitarianism with its own weapon, exclusion.
But the excluded who won’t repent don’t merely vanish. These days they turn up in America where they take a largely competitive, Individualist approach to religion: if you can’t join them, beat them. Does it seem unlikely that a small group of women could change the church’s longstanding practice? Perhaps these women and their supporters might take a little encouragement from the story of Mary Mackillop, the Nineteenth century Australian nun who was excommunicated for inciting disobedience. In October 2010 she’ll be made Australia’s first saint.
Read also: grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches
“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”
An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid] egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid, low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.
No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.
The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.
Edward Gibbon made a famous claim in chapter 3 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.
Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.
The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase. Continue reading
Individualist social organisation operates on the assumption that accountability structures and measures are the problem, not the solution. They act as a brake on the forward momentum of heroic risk. Who dares wins. The only accountability required is clearly success or failure in the market. Accountability is an obstacle to success that needs to be overcome. On this view, it’s hard to see how accountability structures could be ‘reformed’. The only thing worth doing with accountability is to dismantle it.
Now that the dust of the global financial crisis is beginning to settle, one of the key lessons learned seems to be Continue reading
New Scientist has an article by Ed Yong on the dichotomy between eastern and western thought.
But there are more than two alternatives (western/individualist/analytic vs eastern/collective/holistic)… Continue reading