Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The myth of the individual in western culture

Yesterday I blogged about the Enlightenment project but I wanted to interrogate this modernity in a different way after discussing the blogpost with someone on social media. During the discussion I was asked about possible reasons for the decline in the importance of religion and I suggested "capitalism and printing" in a brief remark, without really thinking too deeply about it. The discussion brought me back to a blogpost I did in 2008 to review a book by Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism (1995). In that blogpost I find this:

Gurevich has little time for the ‘great men’ approach to history that was pioneered in the Romantic era and still serves as a surrogate for knowledge today. Three quarters of the way through the book, when he is in full stride, Gurevich spells this out: “[I]f we concern ourselves only with great people, we shall not learn very much about the life of medieval society,” where
Individuality is not valued or approved: rather it is feared, and not only in others - people are afraid of being themselves. Manifestations of originality or idiosyncrasy have a whiff of heresy about them. People suffer if they feel that they are not the same as everyone else.
Preoccupation with originality is not “a characteristic mark” of medieval times. Rather, “essence lay in the fact that the person embodied certain ‘vocations’, ‘offices’ or varieties of ‘service’.” “Individuals did not seek inner satisfaction by contrasting themselves with everybody else: they found it in subordinating their egos to preselected prototypes.”

This brings me to the image which accompanies this post, which is supposed, by it seems a lot of people, to be a self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli tucked away in a 1475 painting he did. The emergence of this new style of painting in Italy at this time, at the end of the Middle Ages and at the start of the Renaissance, makes it appropriate to talk about capitalism because it was in the city states of northern Italy at this time that we see the emergence of an economic model that could be labelled, without appearing ridiculous, "capitalism". Double-entry bookkeeping and all that. Or you can think of the powerful banking family of the Medici and how they patronised the pictorial arts. Taking the thought further there had also been the new style of writing - in the vernacular - pioneered by Tuscans Dante (born in Florence) and Petrarch (born in Arezzo, another Tuscan city) 100 years earlier.

The Renaissance continues to fascinate people today and a book like Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve (2011) illustrates this undying appetite for things to do with historical moments that stand as milestones in the evolution of our culture. In a blogpost about six months ago I wrote about the book:
The book chronicles much of the lives of two men: the 1st-century-BC poet Lucretius and the 15th-century-AD bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini, a follower of the early Humanist and vernacular poet Petrarch (1304 - 1374). While Petrarch is famous nowadays for his sonnets written in Italian - following the formal lead of Dante Alighieri, who was among the first to write in the vernacular - for Bracciolini Petrarch was rather notable for his enthusiastic collecting of classical Roman and Greek manuscripts. Greenblatt's entire book is dedicated to the story of how a long poem by Lucretius was reclaimed from obscurity by Bracciolini in 1417 and - presumably, I haven't got that far yet - how it influenced people living in what we call the Renaissance.
But originality is something that even today is suspect. It might gain approval if it consones with the thinking of other people or, within the mercantile ambit of capitalism, if it results in a product so successful that it creates a new category of object, and mountains of profit. In social media for example there is no evidence that originality per se is valued, rather people assign approval to speech that has resonance for themselves. Originality clearly has its limitations - as an elite concern or as a private one - and in some cultures even today it is treated with a high degree of suspicion, for example in Japan where people tend to preserve a sense of identity that coheres only in terms of relationships with others, which points to Gurevich's assessment of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Because of the way that culture works in our world as an element of capitalism - even elite culture tends to define itself with reference to dollar value, for artworks for example - we might ask how this notion of "the individual" actually functions in western societies, or if it is a tired trope that has been appropriated by capital for its own mercantile purposes. I suspect that given the way that social media works this is not only true but that the majority of people are actually conditioned to follow and to behave in an organised fashion that preferences the sense of "community" over the individual. Is this surprising? Is it bad or good? For if it's inevitable that people prefer to find community with their peers then how far is it justified to assign blame to capital for this - supposed - shortcoming in ourselves? Maybe humans are just like this. Are we conditioned by upbringing or by our genes?

So what are people like Greenblatt and Gurevich doing except finding community with people living in that foreign country - the past - so as to fortify a personal preference for exemplars that cleave to that now-tired trope of Modernism, the outsider?  If it's a preference we all identify with though do not in actual fact endorse by way of our daily actions, then how important is it? Are we merely vicariously performing an old story - the jeans, T-shirt and black leather jacket exemplified by the painter Jackson Pollock, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, or Fonzie in Happy Days - in order to appropriate some elements of cool that otherwise elude us because we're too busy working and - when not working - actualising our essential selves by way of culture, family, cooking or exercise? Isn't the individual what we are most unlike?

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