The Society of Individuals

I love this phrase — it's what I named my would-be think tank when I was 22: The Society of Individuals.  Twenty years later and I still cling to, and seek to elucidate, what such a society might be.

In my last apartment here in San Francisco, I'd occasionally get a note slipped under my door, asking me to participate in the neighborhood group.  I recoiled at such a prospect — partly for aesthetic reasons (I feared great tedium) and partly out of fear: I always imagine that I'm the one that will get run out of town by the barrio posse.

OK, you can call this paranoia.  And no doubt it is.  But it speaks to my greater issue with groups of any sort.  Any time there is bonding around a common issue, it invites interrogation and condemnation for those who differ. 

Take fans of a sport team.  I, for one, like sports — at least some sports.  But I'm not a fan of being a fan. It just seems strange to me: I want my team to win!  But what makes it your team?  And isn't a good game better than your team winning?

I've learned the hard way that this is not a popular position. Which is to say, I've learned not to watch 49er games in a bar.  Jesus! The violence of that community is palpable, seething, imminent.  The night the Giants won the world series, I was sure I'd get my ass kicked for not giving the right high-5 to a drunkenly deranged stranger. 

My point is this: I imagine a different kind of community, one that is not united in sameness but which agrees to enjoy difference.  I like having a neighborhood; I lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years and enjoyed the company of barristas, bar keeps, shop owners, and locals.  But what I enjoyed is not that we are all the same. What I enjoyed is how different everyone is, all the quirks and oddities, the tics and predilections. 

A society of individuals is a communality built on difference.  Now, that may seem oxymoronic but it's not.  It only seems that way because of the overwhelming prejudice for the sentimentality of agreement and unity.  A society of individuals is a group of people who relish the fact that we are not the same, that we don't always agree, that we are different

Nietzsche says he only wants those who sit atop their own peak — not those who sit at his feet on the same mountain peak.  This is how I imagine the society of individuals: each on his or her own peak, strong enough to bear the winds and solitude. 

I only want to cavort with such people — those who hold forth with their idiosyncratic beliefs about life and love and goats and gin; those who spend weeks naked in the woods, building their own shelters and tracking mountain lions while covered in mule piss; those who make insane, beautiful films that emerge from the interaction with the camera, and who contemplate love at the same time; those who write poetical dictionaries and text books on atmospherics because it seems so, well, obvious; those who write avant normal pop songs in their basements at night, weaving together Led Zeppelin, The Cure, and Thelonious Monk.  I want those who follow strange, uncharted paths and have no shame about it.

My politics is dedicated to creating such a society. 


drwatson said...

Yes! I am built with a contrarian nature - just can't help it.

I remember in like 2004 trying to get with like minded, anti-war people. I was like - okay Dave, you know the way to accomplish things often means joining with others, so stop being so stubborn and try. And I did. And I hated it. I disliked almost everyone in the group. I went once, and bonded only with the person who's house we were at because he kept pouring Scotch. Our bond had nothing to do with our take on foreign policy.

But, to be fair, is this Society of Individuals what makes it so hard to change anything fundamental? I mean I really respect and am pulling for the Occupy Wall Street people. But I just can't bring myself to go to one of these things or make a sign. I just know I'd be immediately disappointed with the people there.

I mean Society of Individuals also makes me think of that invisible hand that Adam Smith mentioned. (once in the whole book, someone should point out.)

So while I emphatically agree with you - I'm also worried that I'm part of the problem. I remember Tom Waits saying once he was like pistons - when they're up - he's down. And maybe that's the hope - people like him - people like Nietzsche did affect change - at least they affected me.

Daniel Coffeen said...

The trick is not to be duped into thinking your insistence on difference is the problem — that's what sameness wants you to think.

The Society of Individuals births a very different kind of political consciousness and action, one in which media, art, film play a primary role; in which conversations and driving are cornerstones; in which even legislation changes its countenance and its priorities and its assumptions.

The will to difference is the only will that will keep us all alive.

Glenn said...

Sloe Gin and Poetical Dictionary. The wife just packed away the latter and associated bookshelf to make room for the kids toys. Luckily all varieties of Gin (and Tequila) are safe.

I love the difference of my suburb here in Sydney. Though I get the impression most people in these here parts tolerate such difference instead of embrace it. Homogeneous suburbs in Sydney are a bit of a political issue at the moment. Certain groups seem to flock together, understably I guess, especially when new to a country. And interestingly, the migrants who have been here many decades have spread throughout the city/state much more so than those that have been more recent arrivals. The newly elected government is searching for ideas to spread the cultures a bit more. Sending kids to different schools in different areas is one idea. Doesnt grab me though.

Nevertheless, I enjoy sitting in a chinese dumpling place, being the only white guy who struggles to undersand what the waitress is saying or what the menu on the wall says.

I sat at the bar in one of the local pubs the other day and looked at what was on offer on tap and beyond and realised I had tried everything. The lady serving was seriously surprised because there was a lot to choose from. She said most just kept on drinking the same old favourite thing. My dad always told me to never mix drinks but I always think if you don't try everything you never know what you could be missing. I have favourite I keep visiting. I know what I like, but I don't know everything....

I think thats what a society of individuals has to offer. Something new, different, another perspective or way of looking at something.

I have friends who won't drink an international beer because it couldn't be as good as Australian beer. Madness!

My apologies for the rant. In the end I will continue to embrace the difference the surrounds me ... i feel richer for it.