Here’s a phrase that, I think, captures the essence of individuality: “I’m me.” “I’m me” expresses the separateness of individuality-- as in, I’m me and not you. It expresses particular composition-- I’m all these things that make me “me.” And it expresses agency-- in “I’m me,” Matt Lowe is both of the words/concepts in the sentence, both the subject and the object. I’m all the things that are “me” but I’m also the “I’m,” the owner and agent of this thing that is me.
So if someone were to ask “What is an individual?” then these characteristics-- separateness, particular composition, and agency-- while not comprehensive, go a long way towards describing the individual. But an equally salient question goes like this: “What does it mean to identify as an individual?” In answering this question, a certain experience, marked by passion and anxiety, is highlighted-- to identify as an individual is to live with and act upon an intense need for separateness, for particular composition, for agency. So, let’s say that “identifying as an individual” is what we mean by “individuality.” Here individuality is a commitment, a desire, for dignity, for integrity, for self-importance. For self-determination, both in terms of having power over one’s self-definition and having power over one’s fate. So that’s individuality.
The Folly of Individuality
The folly of individuality is that, from the perspective of many fields of study, the separateness, particular composition, and agency of the individual are illusions. The reality, the experience, of myself as a unique agent is repeatedly eclipsed by larger Wholes (with a W) which, paradoxically, also includes things smaller than me. When I reflect on the many parts and Wholes among which I find myself, then my self-importance, my ability and desire to define myself and determine my fate-- it all feels foolish, and this individuality represents a failure to recognize and live in alignment with greater truths of my reality.
I have so many examples of this to share, but I don’t want to be too confusing or overwhelming; I want to present them already organized. So I’m going to present my main point first-- that the individual is made of parts that mock individuality, and that the individual fits into Wholes that mock individuality. These look like two separate critiques here: (1) a bottom-up critique from the perspective of parts, and (2) a top-down critique from the perspective of Wholes. In actuality, these two perspectives are the same-- maybe a metaphor will help. The individual is a wave in the ocean. The bottom-up critique tells us that a wave is nothing but water molecules and motion. The top-down critique tells us that a wave is nothing but the ocean doing its thing. Do you see, then, how these critiques are the same? The ocean doing its thing is water molecules and motion. There’s a larger Whole, playing out in millions of tiny parts, and the individual is just something caught up in it, and individuality is that something taking itself too seriously.
The wave metaphor might be too reductive-- I don’t want to say that the individual is nothing but component parts of a larger whole but rather that the individual is nothing without component parts of a larger whole. How about a tree metaphor, with the individual as a leaf? The self-importance and self-determination of a leaf would be foolish, given its place in the life of a tree.
Ok, then, so how about this as the main point: Individuality is foolish when we consider the individual as something that emerges among the component parts of a larger whole. (repeat it). Now for a brief survey of a bunch of examples-- let’s look at this phenomenon biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, and mystically. This won’t take as long as you think-- I’m going to do the whole thing pretty glibly.
Biologically, the individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into a stream of atoms, hormones, genes, etc. “I” am a brief or permanent stopping point for a flow of genes that have been mixing and remixing for eons. I am a collection of collaborating cells... that is, until they stop collaborating, at which point I become more of a battleground or a junk heap, a compost pile, my personhood incidental and past.
The ecological example is just the biological one on a larger scale. The individual emerges out of and biodegrades back into the life of the Earth. I’m a function of climate. Like other animals, I’m a temporarily effective vehicle for water and seeds.
Psychologically, I subscribe (loosely) to two theories that chip away at the integrity of the individual-- internal family systems and attachment theory. In my framing of internal family systems theory, the individual is just the place where various intrapersonal forces compete and negotiate for the power to speak for me as a whole. The “I” is literally a persona, a mask, an attempt of some part of me to represent all of me.
In my understanding of attachment theory, the stability and positivity of my personality-- the fact that I feel capable of knowing and loving myself-- is mostly a result of having the good fortune of feeling known and loved by certain people in my life. This reckoning of how the individual emerges out of a family leads me into the next realm, the socio-historico-cultural.
Socio-historico-culturally-- on a societal, historical, cultural level, Matt Lowe is an overdetermined entity. Ask Marx; ask Maslow; ask Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. My sense of self floats atop the historically-contingent life-support systems of industrialism, capitalism, agriculture, academia, and several others. *My ability to think about myself personally, to have productive and fulfilling work and relationships, is a product of my more basic needs being met. The fact that so many of my basic needs are met is a product of how society treats me as a first-world-inhabiting economically-secure educated employed neurotypical non-disabled cis het white Jewish male in 2018. Self-determination? Ha! I’m mostly a particular collection of social component parts of a larger social whole.
This is getting repetitive, so I’ll speed up the last three. Existentially-- I am a variation on existential themes, something that emerges out of and degrades back into a stream of self, other, desire, freedom, time, etc. Existential motifs play out in individual lives like the five ingredients used in every Taco Bell menu item-- it’s all there, just in different shapes and combinations (example taken from The Onion). Religiously-- the meaning of the individual is subsumed into the religious myth. My definition and my fate are shaped by the context of a cosmic narrative. Mystically-- the individual is nothing but the One, nothing but an expression of the divine flow.
And there it is! The individual’s self-importance is quickly humbled when the individual sees themselves as emerging among the component parts of the larger whole. Biologically, ecologically, psychologically, socio-historico-culturally, existentially, religiously, mystically. The folly of individuality is-- as if I could really see myself as separate, as unique, as a free-standing agent in the larger reality from which I emerge.
One step deeper
So far I’ve characterized the folly of individuality as based in its illusoriness. But I want to go one step deeper, and talk about the arrogance and the privilege behind individuality. The individual may be an illusion, but individuality is a sin.
First a quick return to my basic definitions: the individual is characterized by separateness, particular composition, and agency. Individuality is characterized by a need to identify as an individual, a commitment to being recognized as separate, particularly composed, and agentic. Individuality is motivated by a need for self-importance, self-definition, and self-determination.
So, if it isn’t clear by now, individuality exists within a very specific relationship to power. Individuality is a luxury. “I’m me” only if and when I’m in a position of enough power to not get lumped in with the masses. “I’m me” only if and when I’m sheltered from the forces that do not give a shit about me as an individual. I get to feel like an individual when I’m not one among many fighting for survival. I get to feel like an individual when my day-to-day experience is not defined by being a targeted population. My particular position in society provides me with power that allows self-definition and self-determination, and thus the luxury of self-importance.
The illusion of the individual and the privilege of individuality pose major obstacles to making positive change in the world. Individuality becomes an idolatrous individualism in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or an idolatrous Messiah complex in some religious or secular groups. In ecology, individuality produces the tragedy of the commons. Jessa Crispin in her book “Why I am Not a Feminist (A Feminist Manifesto)” points out how individualism in feminism produces the phenomenon of individuals “cashing out” once they’ve achieved personal liberation from (or in) the system. Individuality leads to the abusive phenomenon of blaming individuals for systemic issues-- we see this in psychology in the phenomenon of the “identified patient” in family therapy, or in the fact that the DSM is filled with pathologies that only implicate the individual.
Individuality, individualism, is not helping us. We need movements. We need more identification with the greater Whole. We need to understand ourselves as participants rather than as individuals; as participants, so that we understand ourselves and act intentionally within the larger realities in which we are already participating. We have to rise to the challenge of organismic thinking. Individuality must be overcome.
The Inevitability and Redemption of Individuality
Which brings me to the part of the speech where I backtrack, the part where, having critiqued and discouraged individuality, I’m going to go back and insist upon it, and hopefully redeem it.
The fact is, I don’t have to argue much to reinstate the reality of the individual; despite all of my talk about component parts and larger wholes, the illusion of the individual dominates my experience. Despite everything I’ve said, privacy, a major dimension in the separateness of the individual, persists. Internality persists. “I’m me” includes the fact that my pain cannot be traded out, cannot be experienced by anyone other than myself, and none of the above arguments change that privacy, that solitude and isolation.
The biggest factor, though, that forces me to take individuality seriously, is the feeling of responsibility. The individual could be an illusion. Heck, free will could be an illusion. And yet, the onus of action persists. Agency, weirdly enough, seems to be both an illusion and a sacred trust.
Even my call to overcome individuality still places the burden on the individual, doesn’t it? Right? If I call upon myself, call upon you, to join something bigger than yourself, only you can actually make the choice and take the action to do that.
It’s very weird-- with enough critical analysis, the individual appears as illusion and sin; and yet and yet and yet, over and over, the individual is a persisting illusion that continues to color our experience. This inevitable illusion, we have to do something paradoxical with it-- to challenge it while leveraging it into responsible action. Only the individual can make the choice to step out of individuality. I cannot participate conscientiously in the Whole without first dealing with myself as an individual participant, as a particular person with a particular location and a particular agency.
My recommendation, then, is that individuality needs to be sifted; I need to understand when and how my individuality is useful versus when it’s toxic. As a general principle, it appears to be toxic whenever it revels in its disconnection, when it smugly inhabits luxury and privilege. And it’s useful when it’s understood and leveraged into participation, when it’s engaged to subvert itself, through teamwork, through solidarity, through allyship, through participation. That’s it-- that the individual alone is folly; and that the individual-in-participation is everything.
Thanks for reading!