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Post-Individualism is the assertion that the individual is an invented mode of social-being, having an origin in place and time and an extinction.

History of the Individual[edit]

In reading texts, a close reading of the laws, dramas, paintings and poetry created in a period of interest display the cultural issues of the day.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1971) notes the adjective "individual" in 1425 referring to the Catholic Trinity, in 1600 to a mate who could not be separated from the spouse and not until 1613 as describing a particular person in contrast to a group. As a noun, it appears in 1606 referring to a single person, in contrast to a society or family. Individualism is noted in 1835 as referring to a ‘novel expression’ found in a translation of De Tocqueville.

In The Subject of Tragedy, Catherine Belsey issues a bold preface: “The subject is to be found at the heart of our political institutions, the economic system and the family, voting, exercising rights, working, consuming, falling in love, marrying and becoming a parent. And yet the subject has conventionally no history, perhaps because liberal humanism itself expresses a human nature which, despite its diversity, is always at the most basic, the most level, the same.” (Belsey 1985, pp. ix). Subsequently she details the origin of the individual subject on stage, noting its absence in miracle plays and its trace in in Marlowe and Shakespeare. She describes the pre-Shakespearean and pre-individual miracle plays where the nameless, featureless main character of the play must navigate the vices and virtues. Only through the denial of the self and its desires can Everyman be saved from Hell and granted admission to blissful Heaven. The nameless man exists only as a compliance to hierarchy.

Selfless Griselda is a Job-like woman who suffers decades of abuse and yet maintains her obedience to her husband and master, and is eventually rewarded for her virtue. Faith to father, king, and god characterizes pre-Elizabethan theatre and creates the person as subject to hierarchy. The woman has no place in Griselda's story. (Belsey 1985, pp. 166)

Later, in Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare, the main characters have more than a choice between heaven and hell and may evaluate them in the light of their own values. Faust is an early individual caught in the hierarchical pre-enlightenment world that tries to force them into the pyramid of power. The main characters exhibit real struggles with themselves and with others rather than be subjects of good and evil.

Faust sells his soul for the chance of sexual pleasure, re-creating himself as the newly invented individual with a foot in the old hierarchic world. The nameless subject of the miracle plays emerges as the individual liberal humanist.

Hamlet's being is created in the moment when he sees the hierarchal social matrix and religious fate.

In drama from the English Restoration, the individual moves away from the conflicted ontology of being and is free to dally. The aristocracy portrayed in theatre doesn't believe in anything outside the body's well-developed individual desires. One puts up appearances in public but adultery, lying, and money-grubbing are in vogue. In The Country Wife, the seduction of a provincial man's pretty wife is the object in play. The character celebrates his independence from the secular and political hierarchy.

In Shakespeare: The Loss of Eden Belsey shows how Hamlet the play were constructed out of the popular sermons and iconography of the time, which reflected the loss of Eden story, the division of labor between the sexes, and the first murder. The character of Hamlet is a reflection of the fashionable story of the Dance of Death, taking kings, queens and counselors, courtesans, and cavaliers democratically. Throughout the course of the drama Hamlet takes the life of all these classes of character, either actually, as in the dueling scene, or symbolically as in the graveyard scene. Hamlet the individual assumes the divine and magical role of Death.

Descartes rejected hierarchic absolutism in favor of the individualistic experience: "I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world..." In his famous 1641 cogito he proved his own existence from his own internal state. The individual emerged alone and for itself.

Michel Foucault asserts that French cultural texts, sampled over time, exhibit profound changes in their fundamental modes of justification and trace the development of new kind of personality. In I, Pierre Riviere, Foucault's contribution notes the appearance of broadsheets in the early 19th century that made extraordinary news out of the ordinary crimes of ordinary people. "... the village or the streets ... came to produce history. ... No king or potentate had been needed to make them memorable." (Foucault 1975, pp. 205) Anybody could be the subject of news.

Foucault's The Order of Things, “For Nietzsche, it was not a matter of knowing what good and evil were in themselves, but of who was being designated, or rather who was speaking…” (Foucault 1973, pp. 305). The reader and the writer emerge from the between the lines and begin to assert themselves as personalities.

Foucault in The Order of Things states that the individual is a new invention. "Before the end of the eighteenth-century, man did not exist. ... He is quite a recent creature, which the demiurge of knowledge fabricated with his own hands less than two-hundred years ago: but he has grown old so quickly that it has been only too easy to imagine that he had been waiting for thousands of years in the darkness for that moment of illumination in which he would finally be known." (Foucault 1973, pp. 308)

In Discipline & Punish, Foucault traces the construction of the individual as its own center of power. Prior to 1800, punishment in France was a way to control the populace through fear of the king through his magistrates. Beginning in 1800, the rising middle-class demanded more systematic punishment, not because the king's justice was so cruel but because it was not systematic enough to protect middle-class property. Reform, the forced internalization of law, the remedial construction of the rational individual, became the new intention of the French legal institutions.

Tocqueville came to America in 1831 explicitly to see American reformatory experiments (Pierson 1938, pp. 30), visiting and reporting on penitentiaries at Auburn, Sing Sing and Philadelphia where prisoners were subjected to theories of work, prayer, and isolation therapy in the attempt to repair their broken personalities. De Tocqueville and Beaumont's notes analyzed American penitentiaries for possible implementation in France. (Pierson 1938, pp. 705). Penal institutions were tasked with creating responsible individuals.

The colonies inherited the corporal punishments of England but built institutions as factories for building or repairing character. However, in the experiment, prisons created the criminal rather than the moral personality. (Pierson 1938, pp. 95)

In Freud, the character-ego evolves through collisions between the libido and reality as the person advances through stages of sexual development. If the individual is the ego, it is an invention. The model suggests the ego develops in each person and is not regarded as innate.

Throughout Jonathan Friedman's Cultural Identity and Global Process, culture and the human subjects are dynamically reconstituted according to the rise and fall of hegemonic power. As economic power centralizes, subjects identify uniformly with the imperial citizenry. With its decline, the culture fragments and subjects identify with a traditional ethnicity. The individual is thus not a constant entity but a variable that resonates over time with its society. (Friedman 1994, pp. 39).

Friedman identifies the late 18th Century fear of silent-novel reading among women as "... emergent separation of self from social position ..." (Friedman 1994, pp. 26)

In 20th Century American drama, the main characters continue de-coupling from hierarchy to stand alone.

In Tennessee Williams' plays, the characters attempt to express their sexuality against the background of the decrepit hierarchy of the Old South. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche arrives to announce to her sister that her family's old estate has evaporated. The house and lands are dispersed and she, unable to fend for herself, incapable of living as an independent individual, must throw herself on the remaining fragment of her family. Her brother-in-law Stanley, a modern individual, is capable of standing alone, of migrating, of creating his own family. Sister Stella emerges as a character as she is torn between the Old and New South. The play exhibits a full range of personalities from the hierarchic to the rugged individual.

For Arthur Miller, it is the nuclear family itself that is disintegrating, leaving open the possibility of the completely independent individual. In View from the Bridge, Eddie attempts to construct himself as autocrat independent of law, such as the police, the neighborhood code of silence, his wife's wishes that they live in peace and love and his niece's desire to marry the man she loves rather than stay at home in the shadow of her uncle. In Death of a Salesman, the father dreams of his successful, loving sons while he falls apart as a personality. The sons themselves do not resemble the ideals imagined by the father but insist on making their own way. The mother tries to make do, a neighbor steps in to help but they cannot substitute for the damaged family. Arthur Miller's plays are the individual's declarations of independence from hierarchy.

In Sam Shepard, the family has already fallen apart and the fragments attempt to reunite but do not know how. The powerful individual values overwhelm the weakened bonds of family. In True West, two brothers stay in their absent mother's cottage while she is off exploring an ideal world that she can't find. The brothers claim to love their father, who lives alone in the desert. The brothers are at each other's throats from the opening scene. They cannot write the screenplay they claim to want, they cannot take care of their mother's house, they can barely keep from killing each other and they haven't a chance of supporting their absent father. The individual has become more powerful than the institutions that created it.

In David Mamet, the family is only a distant, unheard voice. Individuals completely de-coupled, isolated, amoral, reaching for the objects of desire and incapable of alliance. In Oleanna, John talks with his wife on the phone, trying to reassure her that their life is not falling apart. He interacts with a student who is working to expose chauvinistic professors. John's own narcissistic self-involvement prevents him from seeing the danger he is in. It is one amoral individual against another.


In John Storey's Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, "As Slavoj Zizek ... points out, interpellation works like this: ‘I don’t recognise myself in it because I’m its addressee, I become its addressee the moment I recognise myself in it’ ... Advertising, then, according to this perspective, flatters us into thinking we are the special ‘you’ of its discourse and in so doing we become subjects of and subjected to its material practices: acts of consumption. Advertising is thus ideological both in the way it functions and in the effects it produces." (Storey, pp. 78)

After Individualism[edit]

Foucault and Belsey pose the individual as a necessary structural element of their cultures, an element that comes into being and evolves with changes in the system of power. If the individual had a beginning then perhaps it has an end.

In Foucault, the 19th Century French individual arose from the blossoming middle-class, which needed to be educated, formerly a privilege of the upper class. Law was becoming interiorized. Each person tried to carry a copy.

In Belsey, the subject is an open, ever-mutating entity that surfaces as new issues in cultural artifacts. The mutation occurs in the reflection of cultural studies, in self-examination and in art criticism. In her Critical Practice, she deconstructs the reading act, which constructs the knowing, observant, reading individual as well the writer.

Fred Dallmayr sees the individual morphing in response to global power. He sees the social problem as extreme idealism where people mistake an idea for the actual on-the-ground work that must be done. Dallmayr recommends a being-in-the-world existence. Dallmayr's example of the next person to step forth is Arundhati Roy who broadly displays compassion for the victims of power and recommends that we think smaller rather than bigger, limiting our scope to what we can actively see and hear and do.

Jonathan Friedman sees anthropology in global terms. Human society on the large scale does not evolve but instead exhibits repetitive phases. Hegemonic powers naturally and structurally accrue resources and then diversify in such a way as to decentralize power, eventually fading in deference to new hegemonies. The vehicle for the fading of hegemony is fragmentation of society as groups form spontaneously and assert their independence from the larger political structure. The smallest anthropologic element, the individual person, is driven in response to the macroeconomic phases. In Cultural Identity and Global Processes, Friedman admits of the difficulty of analyzing the individual because the researcher is already embedded in the intellectual judgments of the hegemony. The researcher is similar to Belsey's reader in being constructed while constructing. "... the use of the concept of culture, in whatever form, has had a cyclical history that is not independent of the goings-on of the world at large." (Friedman 1994, pp. 71)

In Jonathan Friedman's dynamic, the individual subject oscillates between membership in the larger group of hegemonic power and individualization into traditional ethnicity during hegemonic decline (Friedman 1994, pp. 55).

Sociologist Anthony Giddens classifies the modern individual as an active chooser faced with existential anxiety who decides among cultural options to enhance ontological security. In Modernity and Self-Identity, self-actualization connects the interior, personal life with political life. Giddens characterizes the modern person as a set of internal references that socially interact, exposing and developing the references, particularly in the emancipation of the person from traditional constraints. A person is the evolving result of self-actualization.


Individualism might have been invented or discovered in other places in other times. Aristotle displays a demonstration of the existence of mind similar to 2000 years before Descartes. (Aristotle)

In theatre, some classical Greek plays appear to support something like the modern individual. In the Orestia, At Agamemnon's triumphal return from Troy he is murdered by his wife, who has announced her presence and power and situation. She asserts her individuality in the face of patriarchal hierarchy. The remaining events of the trilogy are automatically triggered by the violation of law, like a machine. Orestes is tormented into avenging his father by killing his mother. If the Oedipus cycle is the revelation of oracular fate, the person's attempted choice is futile.

The individual might have pre-existed in repressed form before the 16th century in England or 19th century France, becoming visible sporadically until blossoming forth in modern times.

According to Belsey, cultural artifacts are borrowed idealizations of how the artist thought the culture should be, and thus, being complete fictions, could miss the actual individual. Only the differences between examples in art become noticeable. However, in Foucault, the change in salient issues through time (the discontinuities in the archeological strata of culture) enable insights into the culture.

Hierarchal persons who wish to subject themselves or other people to hierarchy certainly continue to flourish.


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