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Somewhere lost in all our discussions of identity and all our conceptions of the egoless wiki, TheCollective, and community is the rise of individuality in urbanized society. One of the central outgrowths of Modernism was the conception of Self as unique, distinct, personal, profane, and me. This contrasted to previous notions of the self that were more humble and more societal, going back in Western culture to at least Aristotle's ThePolis? where the conception of Self was as a functioning member of the larger community. Urbanization's pressure of being lost, faceless in the crowd forced people to find anchor their lives in the only thing that stayed with them: themselves. And then the need to differentiate yourself to remain identifiable to oneself gave rise to the emphasis on the modes of style--and the winds of fashion, and now the rise of lifestyle brands.

Americans have a very highly developed sense of TheIndividual given that America was borne on the Enlightenment ideal of rational state, which necessarily included economic and political conceptions of TheIndividual as rational actors in contrast to the irrational, HiveMind of the Church. This historic thread continues today, and you will find that American.culture is highly individualist and libertarian, often to the chagrin of other cultures steeped in older histories.

To quote e.e.cummings, quoted from Introduction to his Collected Poems of 1938, quoted in the Norton Anthology, quoted off a web page, quoting a mailing list [1] (*):

In the thirties, cummings visited Soviet Russia. The Revolution was still popular. But cummings didn't like the emphasis on the collective, and de-emphasis on TheIndividual. He gives this account of his conversation with a Russian dramatist:

"tell him I drink . . . to the individual"

A pause "he says that's nonsense, ."

"tell him I love nonsense and I drink to nonsense." Pause

"he's very angry. He says you are afraid"

"tell him I am afraid to be afraid"

noisemusic,a waiter's glaring. "He believes you are mad."

"Tell him a madman named noone says,that someone is and anyone isn't,and all the believing universe cannot transform anyone who isn't into someone who is.

[ed: See the later poem he derived from this exchange. [anyone lived in a pretty how town]]

PostModernism begins to destroy this conception of Self as centred and coherent; instead we have a socially constructed perception of e.e.cummings, partially enjoyed and encouraged by himself. Now TheIndividual melts into an embeddeding in society, and although remaining at the helm of its own navigation, it may not in fact succeed at remaining distinct, bounded, or even identifiable given the larger and stronger waves of social culture. Globalization to TheIndividual is the glacier to the tree. Now we may not even be able to bound our own mental conceptions of ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead we must delve deeper into our core to find something even less malleable: our time; we now conceive of ourselves as our histories, our futures, our life projects. But even those are vulnerable...

See also AnIndividual, TheCollective, WhatIsMultiplicity.


I'm skeptical of the idea that people in earlier times didn't think in terms of "individual self" just as much. Although it's a neat idea, and possible. -- BayleShanks

(For an extreme view of how people were in the ancient world, it's probably worth mentioning here Julian Jaynes, and his "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" [2] In his view, not only the notion of the individual, but consciousness itself, are relatively modern developments. Of course his view doesn't seem to be very popular; maybe only us old fogies even remember him. --DavidChess)

(Caveat: I'm sketchy on this; historical literary theory is not my strong point.) It's evident from the history of Western literature that there was a dramatic internalization of perspective following Freud's creation of psychoanalysis, the disfavour of the Church, and the pressures of urbanization on the psyche. It's not as if people before this time were zombies, lacking self-awareness. In fact, self-awareness is often very poignant: even St. Augustine's Confessions is highly personal ("chastity, but not yet!"), and there were earlier Greek schools like the Stoics that seem prescient of the existentialists of the mid-20th century. However, the intents are different; e.g. Augustine wrote Confessions to reinforce the religious order, not to express rampant individuality. The conception of Self is a philosophical stance, a high cognitive one, a set of metaphors people used to navigate their times. Before there were overriding notions of place in society, either as part of a greater social order or in relation to a Divine order or both (cf. GodKing). Modernity was a schism between Institutionalism (AnIndividual) and the natural reaction to that: greater focus on individuality. Existentialism provided meaning to individualism in spite of the wider society, whereas Stoicism provided no meaning as it could not conceive of meaning without a wider society. And now we go beyond simple internalization to construct a complex ordering of Self beneath the skin; hence multiplicity.

It's good to look at art as an example. Greek art sought to exhibit perfectionism as measured against an externally held ideal. Roman art sought to replicate the past perfectly. Medieval art sought to explain the Christian mode. Renaissance art sought to reflect the new faith of rationalism: it sought to rationalize representation, and thus it not only technically became perfect, but it thematically (politically) reflected rational society. Modern art held nothing sacred, believing truly rational/scientific exploration could not hold any one view in higher regard than another, and thus it depicted the profane. James Joyce's Ulysses as portrait of one otherwise insignificant man as epic is canonical. The post-classical painters who began with low portraits and moved to find beauty even in distortions. Like everything Modern, Modern art is schismatic. You have the Abstract artists who sought to discover/build methodologically scientifically/psychologically what is art (~institutionalism) and you have everyone else (e.g. Dadaists) blowing the bottom out from underneath art as they discovered philosophically that there is no such scientific discipline of art (and that there is no science). Some have argued that PostModernism is really just this latter vein of Modernism taken to its natural conclusion, and that therefore PostModernism doesn't really exist, although I would argue that there is a shift when Modernistic themes invaded our own internal conceptions of identity, such as the belief identity is social constructed (consider gender and gays). Meatball follows this vein, which is why we use CommunitySolutions so effectively, whereas before you have the belief that Self was immutable (hence racism; genetically predetermined identity!) and therefore you had to use external tools (TechnologySolutions) to exert influence. Meatball actually works to find a methodological approach to social construction.

Note this refers to mainstream views. Human nature has not changed in ten thousand years; there are always those from throughout history who exhibit similar characteristics to the dominant cultural themes of today, and those today who reflect previous dominant modes. Also remember that you are trapped in your own cultural mind set that has been constructed for you since birth. -- SunirShah

Indeed. The modern difference may be that those who dare to be Individual are less likely to be burned at the stake or banished. Instead, we merely let MediaConcentration? render them inaudible or invisible. -- KatherineDerbyshire

Katherine: I see a level of irony in your comment since web technologies have provided an unprecedented ability for Individuals to express themselves. It is of course true that most Individuals are being drowned out, but I am really quite amazed at how readily Google finds (amplifies) even the most quiet 'whispers'. Furthermore, in spite of the (in)famous scene in the movie Network, I am under the impression that the Silent Majority is a growing component of all societies (I have some awareness of the declining portion of the population that bothers to vote, for a large number of diverse reasons, I'm sure, but none the less they do cede the field to the strident voices of the special interest groups). -- HansWobbe


You might want to look at this : http://www.nooranch.com/synaesmedia/wiki/wiki.cgi?NetoCracy -- PhilJones


I have a copy of Jaynes' book, and I like to think that I'm not quite an old fogie yet...

On to my point... If human nature has not changed throughout history, then it stands to reason that society does not impact the individual, as human nature remains static. If, however, societal and cultural forces shape the individual, then it stands to reason that human nature as we experience it today may be profoundly different in its actual existance than the human nature experienced by other historical cultures. From my experience, human nature in the Oriental and Occidental traditions are not only two very different conceptions, but also experienced quite different in reality.

The root of Western thought and culture, and thus the root of the Western "self", is commonly traced back to Socrates in the philosophical realm and Christ and earlier Judaism in the theological realm. In Socrates we find the platitude "The one thing I know is that I know nothing." In the Christ, whether taken as fact or as myth, we find the ultimate example of self-sacrifice. It is a blending of these two ideals that underpins the notion of the individual that has founded Western philosophy - the self as the center of nihilism, self-as-self-denier, and, furthermore, self-as-self-destroyer. This initial act of violence gives rise to the tendency for Western philosophy and culture to be externally violent, war-like, anti-communitarian. I grant this as a broad generalization to which exceptions may be found, but I am attempting to point towards historical trends. This idea expains the violence of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the externally-nihilistic writings of Machiavelli, the frighteningly bleak philosophy of Hobbes, the violent synthetic process of Hegel, the increasing depersonalization of the scientific movement of the early 20th Century, all the way through to the make-peace-through-war sentiment that dominates the modern political scene.

Oh, what might have been achieved through the course of Occidental history had we only started with the inverse conception of the self - that the one thing that the self knows is everything? That is, that all that is worth knowing the self already knows! Individuals who have spoken this message have tended to face institutional persecution and misrepresentation. I would place Peter Abelard, an early monastic philosopher in this camp, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, who I tend to believe is not quite the nihilist most people make him out to be. Rather, thinkers such as these two have attempted only to show the nihilism inherent in Western institutions, and have in reality merely supported an idea of a self-validating conception of the individual. --ChrisPeterson


I feel unable to refer to philosophy or literature to support a single view regarding TheIndividual and TheCollective. It seems to be entertaining to hold and defend extreme positions. It seems boring to see the truth somewhere in between. But: we live in a complex system and to construct an antagonism between "the elements" and "the system" in the sense of a SystemTheory seems unfounded. While biological development is slow, selection from a genetic pool is always present and we have no basis (except lack of scientific data) to assume that humans are basically unchanged. Our minds surely change faster together with the developing languages and concepts. Humans build on their changing biological foundation and are tuned by a lot of influences (contexts) to interact (cooperate) in complex systems. It is evident how different these tunings are in western and eastern societies. Most of what we do and think refers to the systems, but we do not depend entirely on them, although we always depend on some environment (Robinson's island). So the answer can't be a single view (we have a rich assortment of them already) but a synthetic model to partially integrate and understand these views as snapshots into a complex system from different viewpoints in time and space containing various degrees of uncertainty. I'm sorry that this is so boring. -- HelmutLeitner

I find your perspective most enjoyable to read. Your take on views as snapshots of the complex system I think of as universe sounds exactly to me the understanding I found sometime after reading Chaos: The Making of a New Science, that fractals can only be observed as snapshots of their mathematical models and they are themselves simple models of nature. Observing natural systems over time with the concept of chaos in mind it seems then that all of our understanding of any system we can understand comes down to the best model we can build of a slice in time. Quantum Mechanics too depends on the awareness that the observing of something changes its nature. I felt that surely this applied to all things, down to the electrons in the electrical impluses that are part of and make up thought as they jump from neuron to neuron. The universe is complex and may tempt some to boil it down into a unipolar theory or a bipolar opposition. The truth from where I sit is that those views are simple models of tiny parts of creation. Reality is not only harder to pin down, it's impossible, it merely becomes a question of how much you want to know and at what cost.

It also brings to mind MaybeLogic? and the reality tunels RobertAntonWilson? speaks of therein. I've come to believe since that I live in a self-deterministic quantum universe, that what I observe I create in my time in this place whatever all of those things may be. It's not simple, it's fuzzy, but it's not boring. -- JasonMichaelSmithson


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