‘We’ and the Problems of Modern Individualism

(Photo: UX Collective)

By Christian Price – Contributor

Over the period of five or six years, a relative of mine has been diagnosed with terminal illnesses succeeding constant and extensive surgery followed by egregious personal strife between diagnoses. Kafka writes “only people affected by the same illness can understand each other,”. Kafka was hinting in the right direction, for people who are sporadically diagnosed with brief illnesses which they suffer with and are treated sporadically throughout their lives. However, it is unlikely that the combination of my relatives own problems could ever be understood, aside from the shallow piffle of discernment that I emote as sympathy. In truth, doctors treat humanity as though there is no such thing as a collective, only individuals. In the very unfortunate event that you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, I feel that the full force of these words will become apparent. 

In a time when consensus and relatability are awarded with much too much social capital, Oscar Wilde’s assertion that England is the “native land of the hypocrite” speaks volumes. Despite the desire to be a ‘we’ we know absolutely ‘sod all’ about one another as individuals. From the bottom up the country bases themselves on a ‘we’, be it ‘we’ the marginalised majority or ‘we’ the British public. Both of these tacit ideologies need a whole article to be deconstructed and nit-picked but on a very shallow level, both are predicated on a ‘sentiment de solidarité’; a feeling of ‘we’re all in this struggle or locality together’. This somehow implies that the lived experiences of this ‘we’ would in any way be the same, perpetuating the fallacy that ‘we’ are just like other people. The paradox lies in the hypocrisy of modern individualism as the things that gives meaning to our lives are the subtle indicators of our individuality.

Debord’s ‘Theory of the Dérive’ explores the constructive and playful behaviours of people in different environments. Based on the sociologist Chombart de Lauwe’s haunting study, which diagrams every movement of a student living in the 16th Arrondissement. Her itinerary forms a small triangle with no significant or worthy deviations, with the points of her triangle correlating to her residence, her college, and her piano teacher. This understandably gave Debord the conception of the impoverish-ment of engagement and understood that, while this student natural tendency to in-fluence others was unique to her, thus highlighting the desperation and insufficiency of modern individualism.

Statistics are superfluous here because there is an unsuspecting inclination that this is the life we all lead. We leap over the reality of place and where ‘we’ live; always trying to get to the destination and refusing to face up to our situation. What de Lauwe failed to recognise, forgivably, is that this triangle would be made ever shorter, in relation to time, with the mass introduction of non-eo-technical forms of transportation (meaning that the form of transportation does not derive from the body). The expectation of the triangularity of life, with each point referring to work, home, and the supermarket, linearised our movements. This eliminated almost all spontaneous interaction on a ‘workday’, and was made only tenfold worse by the car. 

Our totalising reliance on these modern breviaries that enclose us in our triangle do not adequately allow for the levels of compatriotism. While the hypocrisy of the spoken ‘We’ is real, it is not without its justification. Instinctually, we are hunter-gatherers whose prime focus is to survive and for the longest time, that was in a pack. Those human bonds are gone and what we see is a hangover with us begging for communal consoling and appreciation, while simultaneously walking that same old line each day: consuming, working, dying. With airpods donned and the new ‘hoodie’ from Boohoo, our armour is prepared to face a very alien world indeed – to this false commoner – to the one which he so shamelessly professes to be a commoner within. But this shamelessness is compensating for something. Is their professing of a collective just a fear of acknowledging that, as Jean de la Bruyère claimed, ‘ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir, être seul,’ (it is the greatest misfortune to be unable to be alone)? 

Why should we be a ‘we’ at all? Our ‘We’ is embodied in a political culture to the greatest benefit of the greatest number. By design it derogates the individual from her present experience and distances her from the social and political dimension of reality. For what is she Mr Johnson? What is she other than a cog in the British public? Surely that’s what he believes because, in a way, that’s the only way our politics can function; with a distant lever puller, pulling away after a rigorous and Etonian education of presumption about what kind of country we are. When he utters that old, worn semantic, it’s not even a tacit majority that he refers to – although no doubt he deludes himself into thinking it – it really is a tyrannous subjectivity proclaimed by our politicians and accepted by the public. Whilst the will of the people must be obeyed, you cannot know the private thoughts, ideologies and philosophies of others. And yet politicians speak to us as a collective, pedalling away quietly on that production line. We are not so easily divided up into neat little groups to be spoken for and used. There is no concentrated will of the people, hashed out over the dis-patch box between two lugubrious adversaries. There are instead presumed wills of the people which doesn’t even scratch the level of diversity of opinion in the country.

These splits in society are real and do not deserve your false illusions of commonality. At the beginning of my piece I aimed to show how deep in the water we already are and how we have no choice but to be alone. However, history has taught us that you’ll do a lot more social good when you abandon these albatrosses of ideologies that bastardise who you are, who I am and the differences between us that we so blatantly have. And I’d want it no other way.

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