Resistance, pt. 2: On Groups, Individuals, Performance

The other day, I'm walking down the street only to find myself accosted by a young woman asking me to join Greenpeace — which is not as much a joining as it is a paying. One doesn't join Greenpeace: one pays Greenpeace to do various things, I suppose, including accost people on the street.

Now, don't get yourself in a tizzy (I've never written that word before: tizzy. I like it). Greenpeace might very well be a fine organization doing a world of good. I have no idea. Nor, really, do I care. What interests me is that this encounter was such a familiar encounter: it was consumerist. That is, Greenpeace mimics any other corporate brand, hocking its wares for money in exchange for stickers, tote bags, and that sense of having done something good. When, in fact, all you did was buy more shit.

Again, don't get yourself in a tizzy. What I'm pointing to is the performance. That is, put aside the content for a moment — Greenpeace — and just look at the structure of behavior: it's the same old shit. And I think — I stress this part: I think — that real change happens when structures of behavior change, not when we do the same old shit under a different umbrella.

And then there's the whole group thing. I have what seems to be an ingrained resistance to groups. I don't join 'em, however formal or informal. I don't even have a group of friends — I swore off that shit after the hell of group politics that was college. I prefer the lone encounter. Or solitude.

But I am not advocating the selfish individualism that runs rampant in the US. I just don't think that the way to resist said selfishness is through groups. Groups, as far as I can tell, foment sameness and with that violence: adhere to the group or die. (Think of that "Seinfeld" where Kramer refuses to wear the AIDS ribbon and they kick his ass for it. In fact, this is an ongoing theme of Larry David's throughout "Seinfeld," culminating in the finale which finds them in jail for apparent moral indifference.)

I return, then, to WS Burroughs' ethics of the Johnson: the one who doesn't stick his nose where it doesn't belong but at the same time won't let someone drown. This is my kind of ethics — rabidly individual but at the time thoroughly societal: A society of individuals.

And this is my politics, my ethics, my idea, my rhetoric: to build towards a society of individuals, a way to go with others but without demanding unity. This entails tolerance — who gives a fuck who wants to marry whom? Who gives a shit who fucks whom? And it implies a certain appreciation of diversity — after all, it's a society of individuals and being an individual means being different. And so public discourse itself changes — rather than a media of conformity, we begin a media of multiplicity. And it asks for basic politeness, a sense of civility in the public arena: politeness allows individuals to negotiate public space without violence. It marks a respect for the other individual.

There are no doubt those who say: We don't need more individuals. We need more cohesion, more togetherness. Perhaps. But I, for one, like my space and don't want to give it up. And so I imagine a different kind of interconnectedness, a network of individuals.


Jeff M. said...

I want to respond to this post, but I don't have the time. So I'll just paraphrase the late anthropologist Marvin Harris: revolution means everybody does the same thing, not their own thing. The reason that the sound and the fury of 1968 accomplished nothing less than the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of the world is that all the radicals were more interested in being individuals than in changing society.

Daniel Coffeen said...

But everybody is already doing the same thing. I want everybody doing different things.

What is revolution, anyway? Are we referring to overthrows of leaders? Or to fundamental changes in the very structure of the social? I mean the latter; the former is, for the most part, irrelevant.

Christopher said...

It's important, I think, when discussing the relation of the individual and the group to distinguish between fascist-collectivist and socialist-communitarian social structures. A little Kierkegaard might help:

"There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side.There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.

For “the crowd” is untruth.

Where the crowd is [...] a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you – “the crowd” is untruth.

A crowd – not this or that, one now living or long dead, a crowd of the lowly or of nobles, of rich or poor, etc., but in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision. Observe, there was not a single soldier who dared lay a hand on Caius Marius; this was the truth. But given three or four women with the consciousness or idea of being a crowd, with a certain hope in the possibility that no one could definitely say who it was or who started it: then they had the courage for it; what untruth! The untruth is first that it is “the crowd,” which does either what only the single individual in the crowd does, or in every case what each single individual does.

For a crowd is an abstraction, which does not have hands; each single individual, on the other hand, normally has two hands, and when he, as a single individual, lays his two hands on Caius Marius, then it is the two hands of this single individual, not after all his neighbor's, even less – the crowd's, which has no hands."

To extrapolate this line of logic further: if the individual is both himself and part of the collective, then it must be that the the individual subject emerges from the collective but is still embedded within its collective environment, a single material distributed temporally into two superimposed functions. While a person may think of their ethics, desires, and will as being entirely their own, all these things develop from, and will always continue to be influenced by, the ethics, desires, and will of other people. Thus the individual risks disintegrating back into the crowd if his individual will cannot be maintained against the collective. Fascist and socialist groups are structured based on opposing perspectives on the teleology of how the individual should develop within society: one channeling the collective will to a cohesive and the other to an expressive end, the latter enabling the individual will to emerge free from the collective base as a conscious participant in a community.

Anonymous said...

Feel the same way when being accosted by these kinds of groups on the street, when I just want to go about my business. As far as the view on individualism, I think having your own time for creativity and deep thought is more of an aid then succumbing to GroupThink ideals. If you look at any real great leader or truly creative individual they have a lonerish quality that I think drew people in. Who's the one who changes the world: the popular captain of the football team or the slightly antisocial guy who was into abstract shit?

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Christopher: Kierkegaard was my initial entry into concepts of the individual. Abraham making his way up Mt. Moriah — and Johannes de Silentio's inability to conceptualize it — is seminal in my understanding of myself and my place in the social. So thanks for the excellent quote.

As for fascist vs. socialist constructions of the collective, I may — may — agree that they enjoy opposing perspectives. And this is why I want to suggest a different model with which to think the social, one that is neither fascist nor socialist but functions with the logic of the network. I'm reading Hardt and Negri's "Multitude" now, hoping it might articulate some of my thoughts on this.

Christopher said...

Mark Fisher's "Capitalist Realism" helped solidify a lot for me. It's fairly light (~90 pages), it should be up at aaaaarg.

Ruby said...

I gave my bank details to a chugger (charity mugger) who called to my door. It was a horrible experience: I resented the pushy salesmanship and being made guilty for far flug causes at the same time.

They spin it as being group membership but its just a simple cash transaction based on manipulation.

Charities and causes need to revise the 'business plan' if they want to regain credibility.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Ruby: Yes, exactly. I'd love to see, think of, discover new models of group action, ones not premised on brand and purchase and accosting people in the streets, on the phone, and in their homes.

Jared Alford said...

'round the bottom of p. 105 Hardt & Negri ask "What can the multitude become?" and start using the word common a lot. keep your eyes peeled for that if you haven't already.

solidarity as process implies we see solidarity not as an identity between people but as a coordinated response to a common problem, which is why i'm repeating this phrase right now, heard at a "solidarity reading" at UCB last year, from the mouth of prof-poet Geoffrey G. O'Brien (who's read Hardt & Negri).

Jared Alford said...

This quotation from this blog called Larval Subjects seems relevant. You often talk about how the mass media prepares insipid dualisms in filtering information. I wouldn't know, since I just read blogs and weekly magazines, which tend not to do that, but maybe even on TV things are a bit more complex.

"The construction of a world is thus dependent on both the emergence of certain technologies (printing press, radio, television, satellite, internet, etc) and the communications that flow across the flows rendered possible by these technologies. With the emergence of these technologies a new form of the Common begins to emerge. The Common, however, is not merely a shared content at the level of information, but is also a spatio-temporality that comes to characterize social existence. With respect to content, Luhmann is careful to emphasize that mass media do not produce the same in the form of shared propositional contents or beliefs. Indeed, the topics favored in the news, for example, are those that embody difference because these topics enhance the possibility of further communications, allowing the media system to autopoietically reproduce itself. We thus get a strange differential unity."