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Individual as social

I had a thought yesterday while on a run that I wanted to sketch out here. These are matters about which I am in over my head but whatever. I do believe in a kind irreducible singular human individuality. At the same time I think individuals are to a significant extent social products. In some sense to some extent an individual can be thought of as a kind of resonating chamber, like the body of an acoustic guitar, in which social scripts, culture, ideologies resonate. The individual is a mode of mediated collectivity. Individuals are or stand upon the tips of icebergs which are fundamentally collective. The thread through which I found my way there began with my own frustrations with trying to stay physically, creatively, and intellectually active. I think there are individual efforts which are real but I also think that in an important way if I am to be different we have to be different - different social relations make different individualities possible. The individual capacity to live differently, to become a different individual, is in important respects conditioned by social collectivity.

This has I think at least two facets. One is that apparently individual phenomena are actually more collective than we might think - language is collective, for instance. Another is that the degree to which institutional and social conditions remain the same is a degree of limitation on self-transformation/self-fashioning. Far less abstractly: with more spare time and resources and fewer other demands on me I’d have more success at doing athletic, creative, and intellectual activity. Further, the things I do instead of, and the activities which reduce my energy and opportunities for these activities, are themselves parts of collectivity. I’m enrolled in various collective activities with only some limited measure of control - I play parts in scripts I didn’t write. Individuality is shaped by that playing of parts (the self as resonating chamber again, echoing snippets of those scripts and my interior responses to them). Individuality can also be a way in which those collectivities and social patterns become obfuscated, through an overemphasis on individuals as undetermined, unencumbered, free and self-fashioning.

Again less abstractly it seems to me that to undertake a serious effort at doing something new and different from one’s usual routine one succeeds better if one does not remain one: join a group, enter into relationships, find collective contexts. I read something recently about a time study done at a university that found that researchers with robust research networks put more time into research and get more out of their research time as well - more hours and more productive hours as well. Presumably the point is generalizable: want to do an activity or live a certain way? Find ways to plug in with groups of people who want similar and reinforce that goal. So it’s not just a matter of individual goals and actions, it’s a matter of finding or making social settings and participating in them.

This is in some respects obvious just stated with more obtuse terms but I also think in institutions/organizations the individual-making collective processes are often treated as free gifts just harvested and those conditioning collective processes aren’t adequately sustained. An emphasis on individuality can become something that facilitates a kind of social clearcutting, using up the individualized products and their ostensible individual makers without refreshing the sociality that was a necessary condition for their existence. This is on my mind in my job as the less thought provoking and intellectually exciting parts of the job have increased (that university time study on my mind again - so much email, so many meetings!), resources for the other parts of the job have contracted, and my own capacity for those other parts feels constrained because I’m tired, distracted. Ditto for exercise, art and music, etc. Hmm. Thinking now about bands. I do hope to be in a band again some day. But also starting a band is a kind of collaborative artistic activity (and one that’s nested in contexts that are themselves nested - venues, labels, scenes and networks, genres, etc). The band by being multiple people can have a kind of energy-generation internally at least to some extent, in a way I don’t feel as an individual thinker or creater. Ditto for sports teams or workout buddies. Maybe I want to join a writing band, like when Wu Ming called themselves a band who make novels.

Time is up. (I want to make an effort to write with timers more often and do more of this writing to think, trying to get back into a daily writing practice and in a low key way. I made some notes on this at my writing diary the other day.) Note to self that I want to think more about Oregon Trail as my kids are interested in it and returning to it I see it differently than I did as a kid. But how does one have time to think and learn...?! Hard to feel the brain power to even pose the question

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