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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Meandering from the Individual to the Human

[In a particularly inchoate and convoluted stream of thoughts that I have found hugely difficult to write, I am going to try and critique the idea of the individual, on the basis of various bits and pieces of philosophy that I've been reading.  This will involve me unpicking some of my own work to address and maybe resolve something of an aporia within it - that is to say between wanting to write a history that enables in a radical, left-wing political sense and my insufficiently theorised use of the term 'individual' which could be read to (and perhaps does) imply an adherence to key concepts of bourgeois, liberal capitalism.  It also exposes the fact that my own discussion of 'the individual' in fact saw it as anything but individual.  Thinking on the basis of what my earlier writing implied (in the light of what I've read and written since) suggests that the social actor is overdetermined by identities.  Those identities, furthermore, involve (obviously enough) identification with others, so that the social/historical actor overflows the boundaries that might be seen to be imposed by the body or the notion of the individual.  Going further, exploration of how identities function in action shows that psychoanalytically the actor is not individual; s/he is a 'dividual' in Simon Critchley's terms.  As an umbrella term I want to use the word 'human' to encompass all possible acts of identification with other actors.  Multiple identities and the lack of an absolute, totalising individual 'core' permit an ethical engagement with the past which moves us past 'identity politics' history.  It also permits a more diverse ethical political action in the present, not prescribed by dominant or hegemonic identities (as, in turn, defined by party political dogma.  Well ... see what you think ...  As always when I write about this sort of thing, any reference to a theorist or philosopher's works should be prefaced by 'if I understand it correctly'.  ]

As you know, I’m not a philosopher.  I always feel the need to say this for several reasons.  One is that I get very annoyed by people who set themselves up as historians, who aren’t, and I’m sure (indeed I know) that philosophers get annoyed by people who set themselves up as philosophers, who aren’t (some indeed deny the title of philosopher to extremely important philosophers by holding a prescriptive definition of what philosophy is, but that’s another issue).  Another is that a small group of ‘post-modernist’ philosophers of history has had an influence out of all proportion to its value; the problem is not that these people aren’t historians so much as that they aren’t really philosophers either.  The position they have adopted is that (discussed in my piece on so-called interdisciplinarity) of the interlocutor: the person who stands at the edge of the ‘set’ of one academic discipline and reports on or critiques it through appropriating the perceived stance of another, without actually being situated within that discipline. 

I am a historian but, as you also know, I am interested in exploring a theory of how the study of history has ethical and political value in the present.  This, as yet again you will know, stems from a view that assigns a value to historical study not on the basis of the knowledge of ‘what happened in the past’ but on the basis of the ways in which one studies ‘what happened in the past’.  This project has led me to an ever-greater interest in ‘continental philosophy’, which seems to me to be far more meaningfully politically-engaged than its ‘Anglo-American’ ‘analytical’ counterpart.  My approach is (ideally) not just to see how I can employ this philosophy in thinking about history (the classic ‘interlocutory’ move), but also to see how my understanding of history allows me to engage critically with the philosophy.  As yet, though, my reading has been more of an exploration of different strands of philosophy, getting myself oriented within a large and complex body of traditions and ideas, and with less (thus far) of the critical engagement from a historical perspective.  What this series of meandering and largely inchoate thoughts will be about is how I might get from the problematic notion of ‘the individual’ to a more helpful (if in some areas unfashionable) concept of ‘the human’ and, simultaneously, about how I might get from the analysis of social action in the past (in other words from historical explanation) to an understanding of and guide to action in the present. 

I have to make it clear that I am a very long way from being an expert in or authority on any of what follows.  I’m using this as a means of putting my thoughts into some sort of order, to attract comments and criticism and in the hope that it might be of some use to someone out there as well.  I have recently (Early Medieval Europe 19.4 (2011), p.461) been described as ‘only a theorist en passant’, using theory ‘pragmatically’.  This is just, and indeed possibly even more so than intended.  I’m not a pragmatist in the Rorty sense but my readings of philosophy are themselves pretty pragmatic rather than truly, rigorously systematic let alone dogmatic.  This (especially the lack of rigour) will doubtless be underlined in what follows.

So, preliminaries aside…

The individual is a subject I have been mulling over of late.  It has a particular historical weight.  In the British (and especially English) context it has an especial resonance.  What is held to be specific and different about the trajectory of British/English history (its Sonderweg – special path – to borrow the German term) is very often couched in terms of individualism.  Alan Macfarlane classically considered the origins of English capitalism and thus individualism to be sought in the end of a true peasant class in England at a point at the end of the Middle Ages, much earlier than in other European nations.  Richard Hodges later tried to move the origins of English individualism even further back, into a putative tenth-century Anglo-Saxon ‘industrial revolution’.  The links between this form of analysis and a nationally-centred, economically- (and perhaps politically-) conservative form of history is clear.  Indeed, the concept of the individual is something of a corner-stone of modern capitalist politics and economics, of all shades, not just the conservative.  Individualism is connected with the (competitive) pursuit of personal interests and the ability to pursue personal interests, vis-à-vis other people’s interests is widely held as a mark of liberty and even (even more problematically) of ‘human rights’.

Another famous historical aspect of the problem is the ‘twelfth-century discovery of the individual’, presented in a classic article by Caroline Walker Bynum.  I have never found Walker Bynum’s argument especially convincing but it raises the question of the reality of the individual as an analytical unit.  The approach, perhaps, is mistaken on two counts.  First, it might teleologically be looking for a ‘point at which’ where the conception of what we regard (now) in liberal capitalist western democracy to be a fundamental unit or building block of society emerged from an earlier concept of society.  Again, the idea might have been to push Macfarlane’s ‘point at which’ back earlier into the Middle Ages.  But to do this it needs to assume something ‘natural’ – even essential – about the notion of the individual, as we understand it.  Maybe it is not so natural.  So maybe past understandings of (let’s call it) personhood cannot be so easily assimilated with modern ideas.  Second, more fundamentally, what if our concept of the individual is itself just a misleading, politically-contingent construct?  If that were the case, then it would be no more meaningful to talk of the twelfth-century discovery of the individual than it would be to talk about the fifth-century (BC) discovery of Atlantis, or the fourth-century (AD) discovery of the hippocamp, or of Pliny’s discovery of the African Blemmyes (with faces in their chests), or Aethicus Ister’s discovery of the cynocephalus (the dog-headed man).  Discovery would be the wrong word.  Did twelfth-century people develop a concept of the individual that is like that of the modern world?  That would be the less politically-loaded formulation of the question (the answer in my view would still be ‘no’ but that’s a separate issue).

To indulge in a little autobiography, my work has very often been concerned with the individual.  Ever since Settlement and Social Organisation (1995) I have tried to open up the possibility that every individual social actor has a role to play in history.  The course of history, in other words, is not just determined by the actions of a few ‘great men’ and nor is it determined by economic, technological, climatic or ecological considerations beyond ordinary human intervention.  I also wanted to avoid seeing history governed by faceless ‘class analyses’ of classic Marxist formulations and similarly I wanted to argue against the idea that past people acted in equally predictable ways according to other ways of dividing up society (gender, kindred or ethnicity).  Now, some people expressed the thought (in conversation) that this meant that I was, by stressing the individual, advocating a fairly conservative approach to history.  What I was trying to do (in a work written during what seemed at the time to be an interminably disastrous period of Conservative government) was to argue, from a historical analysis, that claims that there was nothing that we, individuals, could do, or that certain things represented the ‘natural’ and thus unchanging/unchangeable ‘common-sense’ or ‘human-nature’ way of things could and should be countered.  Or, you might say, ‘Change?  Yes We Can!’

My analysis of Merovingian social interaction saw social change as happening as the result of myriad infinitesimal modifications to the social structure (formed not as a body of laws and modes extrinsic to social action but as continually constituted by action, by a society’s accumulated knowledge of all previous interactions, those deemed correct and those considered wrong).  Interactions were based on the interplay of identities chosen situationally by social actors in order to pursue their own aims (achieve power/wealth/general satisfaction in life).  This could be fundamentally be based around a struggle for finite material resources between particular types of élite group and their competitors (as I saw it in Warfare and Society [2003]) or less uniquely concerned with material gain (Barbarian Migrations [2007] made some important changes by acknowledging the existence of affective bonds that might transcend material advantage).  Nonetheless the image was, one might say, agonal if not agonistic.  This was in opposition to what I saw (and see) as a historically and politically deeply problematic conception of ‘consensus’. [Again, that’s for another time; for now let me just say that the idea of ‘consensus’ and the repressive political work that the term does has not been sufficiently rigorously theorised.] 

So: agonal, based around competition for resources or the achievement of other ‘satisfactions or aims in life’: there are points of contact here between my conception and that of the liberal, bourgeois notion of the individual.  That must be acknowledged. 

Digression: Words and Why they Matter: There is an interesting point here about how one’s political intentions for a piece and how it can be read might not match up.  As some of you will remember I have made the point forcefully (indeed deliberately shockingly), and I will make it again at some point (just how is the issue that concerns me), that it is simply not good enough to disclaim any responsibility for the use made of one’s words, as an excuse for lazy thinking and lazier writing in the discussion of politically sensitive, current issues like, oh, ... say (for the sake of argument), immigration.  One hard-of-thinking possessor of a D.Phil accused me (in an offensive message) of having a ‘shallow’ understanding of history because I didn’t appreciate (or accept) that how someone uses your words is independent of what you write.  One might call this the philosophically-uneducated man’s post-modernism because it shows absolutely no understanding of the issue at all.  This kind of lazy get-out-of-jail-free card – or, as I would rather call it, this kind of complacent, elitist, sophist fuck-wittery – just won’t wash.  All readings are not equal (and, as far as I am aware, neither the terribly-maligned Derrida nor any of the other continental philosophers regularly blamed for the idea ever said they were).  At one extreme, no guilt can be laid on an author for a clearly forced reading with little or no regard to the text itself; but when, at the other extreme, one can interpret one’s words (whether or not the author agrees) via a more or less straightforward retelling, then – whatever you believe – you have responsibility for not being able or willing to think more carefully and responsibly about the composition of your text.  Taking (ironically given the usually avowed contempt for what they call ‘post-modernism’) the relativist line that anyone can read your text any way they like might enable you to quaff your free port at Saint Frithfroth’s high table with a clear conscience the next time someone, drawing their motivation from a matrix of ideas and attitudes to which you have - however unwittingly and in however small a way - contributed, fire-bombs an immigrant hostel or guns down an island-full of Norwegian children in the name of the defence of Europe, but it cuts no ice around here.

So, as you can imagine, whether or not my earlier writings can be taken as a straight endorsement of capitalist individualism is an issue that troubles me more than somewhat.  Indeed, with the current neo-liberal UK government and its policies, it troubles me deeply.  Going back over the texts I’m not sure it could be done very easily, given the stress I laid on everyone having a role to play and everyone being able to change the system, to it being a way of moving away from ‘safe’ history (Settlement and Social Organisation, p.281), and to putting people back into their history (Barbarian Migrations, p.518).  At no point do I say anything like ‘anyone can do what they like and stuff society; and that’s how progress comes about.’  Nonetheless if someone presented a deconstruction that showed how what I said was actually supportive of an opposing political stance, then I would have to put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t thought it through hard enough.  A fortiori if someone were able simply to juxtapose verbatim quotes to make the point via an entirely unforced reading.  Well, to suggest that I was either right-wing, careless or stupid would be fair enough.  [And yes, that is a challenge, by the way…]

Similarly, I think that the consensus theory of medieval politics and the ways it envisages social/political power are, if you scrutinise the concepts closely, pretty reactionary and thus quite the opposite of the political beliefs that I know are held by some of its proponents.  I could not, however, (I think) make that reading and interpretation emerge simply from a series of quotes from, say, Dame Professor Janet L. Nelson’s writings.  It would have to be a close, deconstructive reading.  And because of that it would have no adverse critical bearing on the quality or intentions of the original work itself except (if it could be done) to say, ‘I think one needs to probe these concepts more carefully’.  I admit I need to probe my own concepts more closely - see below.


As a (however gloomy) analysis of how things happen in social change, I still think that this is broadly on the right lines, though always susceptible to greater refinement and subtlety, but with one key drawback to which I will return at the end.  That does not imply that that is the way I think things ought to be or of how I think one ought to behave.  However, the fault-line that I can now identify within my argument – its aporia if you like – is that my concept of the historical actor was in fact anything but individual.  It could be divided along any number of lines.  The actor (let’s call him/her that) is a unique node where different identities meet.  But this node is not static and never just identified with a single identity (it is this that makes me opposed to identity politics and – more so – to the writing of history for the purposes of identity politics).  This is not simply because there is nothing immanent about an identity and not simply because an actor often can choose which identity to play in a particular situation.  It is also because the nature and range of identities changes through time (gender modified by age or the life-cycle for example; the precise value of an age-based identity changing through life; etc.).  And it is because the nature of an identity deployed in a given social situation is governed by the broader historical setting.

The situation:setting opposition was something I adopted and adapted in Barbarian Migrations from an article on ethnicity by J.Y Okamura ( ‘Situational ethnicity.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 4.4 (1981), 452-65).  The situation is the specific encounter between human beings during which identities are deployed, and the setting is the broader social background against which it is set, and which defines the precise ways in which identities are seen.  What I did was to assimilate this with the reflexive relationship between social structure and social interaction that I had already long used, inspired by Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and the ‘habitus’ and Giddens’ theory of structuration.  Thus the ‘setting’ determines the weight and nature of particular identities and how they can be used in particular ‘situations’ but is itself constituted by the results of all previous ‘situations’.  Although I used this to discuss ethnicities, the idea could be applied to any sort of social identity.

This, in turn brings up the question of what an identity is.  The key point about identity – and it is one I haven’t really made enough of in the past (though there is a nod towards this on Barbarian Migrations, pp.168-9) – is that it is fundamentally an identification, an association, a sameness with an other.  In this perspective, then, what might be called the ‘individual’ is only created through an identification with the other.  At this point one can employ Žižek’s use of Lacan’s ‘graph of desire’ to explore subjectivity in The Sublime Object of Ideology, focussing as it does on the inter-relationship between identities and the way that behaviour is defined as much by what someone thinks other people expect (“Che vuoi?”) if someone playing a particular role as by ‘free will’ and intention.  Žižek more than once quotes Lacan to the effect that ‘a fool who thinks he’s a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king’: in other words identities and roles are not immanent but constructed from people’s expectations about how they behave and how to behave towards them (which in its own way brings us back to Bourdieu and Giddens).

The ‘individual’ can, as I see it, never be all the things that it is at any given time.  It is never a totalised/totalising whole.  It is an overdetermination.  Perhaps, too, it only has something like unity bestowed upon it and its actions in retrospect.  In any given situation, which is always a situation of becoming, after all, an actor could try to deploy/could be allowed to deploy different identities, to greater or lesser effect.  Only afterwards, in retrospect, once their results are perceived, might his/her actions be understood as those of a male/female, young/old person, person of a particular ethnicity, family, religion or social rank, etc.  I wonder whether, when we confer meaning upon interactions, there is a point of contact here with the Derridian notion of différance.  This may or may not work.  I also need at some point to sit down and read Badiou’s Being and Event and The Logic of Worlds and his application of set theory to social action, to see whether it can be harmonised with some of the other ideas I have been playing with.

So, thus far we can see that an ‘individual’ is not really individual at all.  S/he is not singular, sui generis – far from it – even if s/he occupies a particular, unique place on what I once called the social map.  This is true even in terms of self-identification.  Therefore the individual is in psychoanalytic terms not individual either, as a subject.  One is measuring one’s own actions against the sorts of images and backgrounds I have already discussed: this is the realm of the super-ego.  In these terms, Simon Critchley therefore calls the subject a ‘dividual’.  No matter how one looks at it, then, the individual is a myth.  The twelfth century can thus no more have discovered the individual than it can have discovered the unicorn.

One must then be very wary of the ideology of the individual, where the latter is a figure for liberty.  We must look behind the figure to the ideology that it obscures.  I wonder if you could unpick the figure of the individual how much of the rest of capitalist ideology would come adrift.  I wonder whether the figure of the individual is the ‘point de capiton’ of the whole signifying system (as I argued the figure of the civilised Roman male was in the Roman Empire).  Now, unpicking the individual is not necessarily a move back to simple ‘class analyses’ or a move toward dismissing human life in the interests of a greater good (I think Alain Badiou comes close to both of these things in some of his writings, like The Century).  Quite the opposite.  This is where I want to start thinking in terms of the human instead.  Now, I know that the concept of the human is historically localisable and was in many ways bound up with enlightenment ideas that were Eurocentric, sexist, racist even but I think that it is salvageable as an important concept, for reasons to which I will return.  After all, I have spoken before about putting the humanity back into the humanities. 

I think this means that I am critiquing the ‘individual’ in a similar way to that in which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen critiques the ‘human’ in Medieval Identity Machines (though I’m as yet not too far into that very interesting volume).  However, while I am irresistibly attracted to the idea (if I correctly detect the way Cohen’s argument is going) that Europe was post-human before it was human, there are ideological reasons why I want to stick to the individual, rather than the human, as the term for the notion I am critiquing, and for why I want to preserve the human as something to strive for.

I recently read Le Mythe de L’Individu by the argentine philosopher and ex-guerrillero Miguel Benasayag.  This – funnily enough – was one of the prompts to write this piece.  Dating to 1998, it’s a remarkable book, weaving philosophies together from Plotinus through Spinoza to the present.  [You will understand that I don’t buy his critique of Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe as entirely fair, but there you go.]  One of the things I like is Benasayag’s way of thinking of the human being as not individual and not bound by the body (coming close to Cohen’s critique of the human) but as a sort of shapeless, amoeba-like thing that extends arms (or pseudo-pods, as he says) in all sorts of directions, binding with particular other people in particular times and places: family, friends, colleagues, fellow travellers.  In all these cases the human sees him/herself as part of other people and (I suppose) vice versa.  This I think is implicit in what I said earlier about identification.  Going back to the ways I thought about things sixteen years ago, in Settlement and Social Organisation, what I said about links and barriers could be transposed into a situational willingness or otherwise to ‘extend’ oneself towards identification with someone else or to accept or refuse someone else’s ‘pseudopodal’ extension towards oneself.  Benasayag’s philosophy is phenomenological, focussing on ‘the situation’ and stresses trying to see the universal in the particular, the eternal in the fleeting.  He postulates that one can free oneself from the condition of lack, of ever-waiting, of desire for mastery that never – can never – come that the concept of the individual brings with it, by living in and for the situation.  There is thus an ethical side to all this that brings me back to ideas I have expressed before, about pre-rational ethics and history, etc.

Meandering my way towards a conclusion, then, what I think has been wrong with my thinking in the past has been its concentration upon the ‘rational’, the conscious pursuit of aims, with regard, say, to control of material resources etc.  This is not to deny that this is important but simply to push the idea further (re. the ‘affective’ community mentioned in Barbarian Migrations, p.41) that the non- (or pre-) rational also play an important part in such relationships.  There are two points that I think could emerge from this admittedly disorganised thinking.

One is that in ‘identification’, in that extension of a ‘pseudopod’ towards others there is some of that pre-rational ethics of empathy, of seeing oneself in others that I discussed before.  Therefore the most creative and positive identification of all must be (as Schopenhauer thought) the recognition of another striving, struggling human being.  And this, because it permits no exclusions (apart from other species, which is a problem I admit), must be crucially important.  As I see it, it trumps all the other identifications.

The other point, which stems from the non-immanence of identities, and the non-existence of the individual, affects historical methodology and political action equally.  We don't have a single dominant 'individual' identity - and even if we did, its nature would perpetually be changing, as above.  This makes history written to extend present identities backwards problematic.  For the same reasons I am dubious of identity politics generally, I suppose.  What I think the movement away from the individual to the human might permit, politically, is a non-doctrinaire, non-partisan, piecemeal kind of political action that operates situationally according to the ethical demand.  This, then, would be the sort of ethical ‘anarchist’* politics of commitment that Simon Critchley advocates in Infinitely Demanding.  By stressing a shared humanity we might be able to get around having to choose which identity we see as most important in an absolute way, and thus get some purchase on the problems of hegemony and socialist strategy (on which I need to go back and finish my reading of Butler, Laclau, Žižek, Mouffe etc.).  We might find a new kind of ethically-founded community (which reminds me that I need to get round to reading Agamben on The Coming Community) – one that would itself be (in my way of seeing) as ‘amoebic’ as the ‘human’.

* Not anarchist in the traditional sense of Bakunin, Kropotkin and the rest, but as rejecting the rule of a single political dogma and programme.
[This took me days to write and it has made my head hurt (although that might admittedly be because my varifocals were broken when I got attacked in Poppleton town centre a couple of weeks back) - I might keep tinkering with it for a while yet.]