Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The End of the Individual

By Standard * Other Standard Posts

If a certain friend of mine had any idea I was writing a column with this title, he would declare that I had abandoned everything I have ever said to him.

He wouldn't be right, of course, because he's never right. (He really isn't ever right, but he knows he isn't right. He argues from whatever position seems convenient for his purposes - which are always to attack and humiliate me. That means he's always outside of the realm of right and wrong. He's a jerk.) I have, however, tended to defend the idea of the individual as such - that is, that an individual can and does exist, at least intellectually.

I don't have much at stake in individualism per se. What concerns me is actually the idea of authorship: because I have spent several years reading, thinking about, and writing about literature - and because I hope, in some small way, someday, if I can find the time, to write the greatest work of literature the world has ever known - I can't, like Barthes, declare the author to be dead. I can't even relegate the author to a faceless function, the way Foucault does.

I have argued against the idea that culture thinks us. I do think that most of what we say, do, believe, etc. is dictated to us by the ideology of the world that surrounds us, but I always want to carve out a tiny bit of space so that someone, somewhere - even if it is a select few favored by coincidences of time and place - can add something. Literature (and thought), I have argued, is ultimately palimpsestual: we are always scratching out and writing over what has been written before, but traces of the past keep bleeding back through.

All that being said, I'd like to suggest that the idea of the individual in society may be coming to an end.

Somewhere in the middle of the 80-page philosophical doctrine that John Galt sets forth in Atlast Shrugged - I am speaking of what might be the worst part of what might be the worst book ever written - he declares that in his political system, "every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment." This is the essence of Rand's argument: the collective cannot succeed unless the individual is allowed to succeed. The idea isn't originally Rand's; it's at the backbone of freemarket capitalism, and it's representative of the type of thought which has dominated American political thought and fiscal policy over the past generation.

I hope the recent mess on Wall Street demonstrates the weakness of that argument. I am not even referring to the "greed" of Wall Street, which politicians and 24-hour news networks have proclaimed as though they are were all surprised to discover that businesses were all out to make money - as though they had expected selfishness to play no part in self interest. Instead, I am referring to the powerlessness of individuals to sell goods and services without consumers who are successful enough to purchase them.

We are anything but independent or isolated. Whatever successes we have enjoyed have been in large measure due to the communities and institutions in which we have lived and learned. We are each something like a palimpsest: our own hard work builds on top of, but cannot efface, the hard work of those who have come before us. Our decisions and our actions, furthermore, cannot help but affect others around us.

We do not have the luxury of standing by, Galt-like, and watching the world around us fail. Like it or not, we're all in this together. The only way forward is to recognize ourselves for what we are - a body of many, a pluralized one that will live or die, stand or fall by our collective rational judgment.

The hope and unity Ned discovered at the inauguration - the collective spirit he hopes will endure even as he wants to protect the rights of the individual - is certainly a promising first step.


  1. I think that its an interesting point and a good summary of what I see happening in cultural trends as well. You do see social determinism (as opposed to social darwinism) making its way in popular non-fiction books such as gladwell's outliers, Guns Germs & Steel, and others. Perhaps what this will mean for people like me is that our understanding of the individual will become more nuanced and refined. But, it will be interesting to see how this translates into political rhetoric that needs to have broad appeal. Its easy to talk policy in the language of gov't bad v. people good, but not to make an ideology around a complex understanding of the individual. Will be interesting to see how both sides of the aisle rebrand themselves in the coming years. Anywho, back to being unemployed.

  2. I think it would be great if you started by spelling Galt's name right. Since you did not, it is clear you did not read the book. Please read it and then critique it. That is usually the proper order.

  3. The typographical errors have been fixed. Many thanks for the insightful feedback.