The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization REVISED EDITION

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The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The New Individualism - Anthony Elliott, Prof Charles Lemert - Bok () | Bokus

The ones who see things differently. And they have no respect of the status quo. You can praise them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify them or vilify them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Because while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Apple draws a direct connection between its hi-tech aesthetics and individual expression. Between the technological revolution and personal genius. And yet the campaign, paradoxically, sells individuality to a mass audience.

How did such a cultural contradiction come about? We do not attempt in this chapter to provide anything like a comprehensive account of the development of notions of individualism.


Rather, we situate our discussion of individualism throughout this chapter in the context of changing relations between identity and globalization. The snapshots of individualism presented here are crucial for grasping social changes currently sweeping the globe, as well as the basis upon which we develop hypotheses regarding the emergence of a new individualism throughout this book.

There are three contemporary compelling, and widely discussed, theories of individualism with respect to issues of the globalization of life, meaning, self-actualization and identity. And yet, while enlightening and exciting, this modernist approach to individualism also implies its opposite, a negation of meaning and total loss of personality. There is a sense in which modern culture is at once enabling and constraining, which Simmel seeks to plot through the extremities of our individualist age. In such a way, people seek reassurance of their independence and power in an overwhelmingly indifferent and impersonal world.

The key perspectives advanced in German critical theory — particularly evident in the writings of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse — were shaped largely by twentieth-century experience of fascism, particularly the Nazi reign of terror in Western Europe.

In Frankfurt School sociology, if there is one area that stands out in terms of dramatizing the transformed social conditions in which individualism operates in our own time it is that of mass culture. The ideas of the Frankfurt School have been taken up in a number of ways to make sense of our age of rampant individualism. It was to fall to what has been called the second generation of critical theorists to develop a more sociologically sophisticated critique of the cultural consequences of the spread of globalizing social forces into the private sphere as a whole.

In the societies of early or market capitalism, individuals performed a vital role in mediating between the differentiated spheres of the state and civil society through interpersonal interaction, business dealings and civic association. In ancient Greece, the public sphere was constituted as a profoundly dialogical arena, a place where individuals came to meet to engage in a public discourse of critical reason and to debate issues of common interest.

As the state came to penetrate more and more into the economy and civil society, however, the public sphere — so valued by Habermas — entered into a period of unprecedented decline. For Habermas, this is how it is in our own time — but perhaps even more so. The impact of new communication technologies, like television, cable and satellite, is viewed as weakening both the private sphere and civic association; the public sphere itself becomes desiccated.

Yet Habermas, for the most part, remains unconvinced.

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The use of the Internet and related interactive technology may create new forms of publicness, but this is a degradation of genuine civic engagement and public political debate. It is degradation as individuals today mostly engage with mass communications and mass culture in privatized terms, as isolated selves obsessed with mediated spectacles.

The sounding board of an educated stratum tutored in the public use of reason has been shattered: the public is split apart into minorities of specialists who put their reason to use nonpublicly and a great mass of consumers whose receptiveness is public but uncritical. Our age of mediated conversation TV chat shows, radio talkback is that of politics trivialized. There are quite a number of criticisms of the thesis of manipulated individualism, both of Frankfurt School thinking and of authors working within a broadly critical theory tradition.

Equally contentious is the assumption that individuals are increasingly powerless in the face of global forces, with all this implies for a downgrading of human agency, resistance and social knowledgeability. As Cambridge sociologist John B. Thompson queries: Why do members of the life-world not perceive that what they are threatened by is the uncontrolled growth of system complexities, rooted ultimately in the dynamics of capital accumulation and valorization?

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Why do they not resist this growth directly and demand, in an open and widespread way, the transformation of the economic system which underlies it? Whereas theories of manipulated individualism tend to concentrate on the overshadowing of selfhood by large-scale institutional forces, adherents of the thesis of isolated privatism derive their notions from transformations in ideology, culture, art and literature as well as in economic life.

The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalisation

In stimulating consumer desires, multinationals and business conglomerates today encourage people to think only of their own private satisfactions, which in turn weakens the spirit of active citizenship. Like Bell, Bloom says the contemporary epoch inaugurates an isolated privatism at the level of the individual; but Bloom in particular harbours a neo-conservative suspicion of social changes such as the rise of feminism and sexual permissiveness, which he sees as culturally regressive.

If individuals today are unable to muster the commitment necessary to sustain interpersonal relationships and civic participation, this is because an unchecked narcissism empties out both the emotional depths of the self and the affective texture of interpersonal communication. Thus Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man , explains the demise of public life as a consequence of pathological narcissism and character disorders.

Robert Bellah and a group of Californian academics, standing somewhere in the middle of the left-liberal wing of individualism theory, believe that much of the language of contemporary individualism profoundly constrains the ways in which people think about their identities, relationships with others and also involvements with the wider world. In Habits of the Heart, a book that explores the relationship between culture and character in contemporary America, Bellah and his associates argue that the balance between public commitments and private attachments has tipped overwhelmingly in favour of the latter at the expense of the former.

Here we have what we might call a popular conception of individualism, or at least a popular-academic take on the political costs of an individualist culture. Interestingly, Bellah and his associates, who contextualize practices of individualism in terms of cultural tradition, political ideology and social history, see the problems facing our society less in terms of invasive economic forces eating away at the fabric of social practices and cultural traditions, and rather as a lifting of individualist ideologies to the second power.

They speak of many of their interviewees as trapped in a language of isolating individualism, a language that ultimately distorts human capacities for genuine personal growth, ongoing commitments to others and involvement in public affairs. Hence, their laments about consumption-oriented lifestyles, TV culture and the packaged good life. They are thus left celebrating an image of individualism from a bygone age, one that idealizes individual rationality and logical reasoning and likewise denigrates spontaneous subjectivity and emotional literacy.

This ultimately manoeuvres them into the absurd position of saying that the writings of, say, Tocqueville, or the actions of cultural heroes like cowboys, speak to authentic individuation; whereas they argue that our culture of therapy and appetite for consumerism are only pseudo-individualistic in form. In Robert D. According to Putnam, the crisis of the American Community is that of broken bonds and deteriorating democracy. Civic engagement as opposed to disconnected individualism, cooperative community as opposed to commercialized competition, genuine relationships as opposed to episodic encounters: these are the oppositions through which Putnam summarizes the decline of social life.

Much like Lasch and Sennett before her, she believes that globalization is eating away at the fabric of private life, degrading individualism into self-obsession and unchecked narcissism. Yet while we do not deny that privatism — the privatization of human experience — is a characteristic of contemporary culture, we fundamentally disagree with the elitist and anachronistic assumptions that individualism today is rendered merely surface-oriented, media-driven and focused on personal or apolitical issues.

For one thing, ours is a time of collapsing distinctions between public and private life, of the erasure of traditional distinctions between private issues and political matters, but that also brings with it new experiences of where culture and politics actually reside. The cultural characterization of pathological narcissism, from Lasch to Hochschild, is ill-suited to analysing current patterns of individualism, primarily since global transformations render self-identity itself a profoundly political arena.

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Many such transformations date from the late s and early s, where a number of genuinely transnational social movements — feminism, gay and lesbian rights, indigenous movements and environmentalism — ushered in a widespread acceptance of the politicization of issues previously portrayed as private.

Today popular culture, however distasteful or degraded to some cultural critics, is where millions of people negotiate some of the central political issues of the day, to do with contested notions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and on and on. Criticizing individuals for ongoing interest and engagement with communications media and popular culture on the grounds that this represents a retreat from the public sphere and genuine citizenship is also too simplistic.

Yet popular media moves in many directions simultaneously, and there is considerable research to indicate that interaction between audiences and media messages has become increasingly complex, contradictory and discontinuous in the digital age. We are accustomed to sending email across the planet in seconds. To shopping in stores stocked with goods from all over the world. And to drifting through relations with other people both intimate and at work without long-term commitments. The vanished world of self-restraint has truly been replaced with a culture of immediacy.

This brings us to the theory of individualization. The leading thinker associated with this approach, German sociologist Ulrich Beck, argues that people today must constantly undertake the work of inventive and resourceful self-building and self-design in order to avoid their identities breaking into pieces. In his groundbreaking study The Reinvention of Politics, a riposte to the theories of both manipulated individualism and isolated privatism, Beck contends that the making of identities today is an innovative institutionalized process, not an outcrop of inner desires or forces of socialization.

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According to Beck, traditional societies gave people little room for individual autonomy — as categories of meaning were pre-given. Religion is perhaps the obvious example here. Of self-designed biographies. And of DIY identities. Beck takes this idea and pushes it further. The evidence is all around.

In the seemingly unstoppable desire to shop and consume luxury goods. In new conditions of work, where networking, shortterm teamwork and instant self-reinvention is all the rage. And also in the craving for instant celebrity, and the packaged good life that goes with it. But Beck argues that globalization is not a single process; rather, globalization is a complex mix of forces — usually messy, often contradictory — that produce novelties, complexities and disjunctures in patterns of individualism and forms of identity.

From the early critical theorists to Habermas, the corrosive intrusion of large-scale, impersonal systems social and technological into core areas of personal life is seen to drain civil society and the public sphere of any vitality once possessed. Yet none of the parties to this debate stops to question whether it is sociologically meaningful, in an age of pervasive globalization, to set a conception of modern institutions as remote, distant and cut off from the terrain of lived experience and everyday life.

From Bell to Putnam, a rampant individualism is said to threaten the moral fabric of society; in particular, consumerist imperatives of pleasure, play and privatization put at risk established social rules governing manners and morals. Few critics question the equation of selfhood with critical reason, continuity of cognition and logic, as well as a related downgrading of the emotional realm, of the passions and the political power of subconscious forces and unconscious desires. Few critics stop to consider that individualism, and particularly the politicization of identities today, cuts forcefully against the grain of traditional conceptions of public debate as rehearsed in universities or institutional politics as played out in parliaments.

Is there a way of approaching identity and individualism which avoids the limitations of the approaches we have considered so far?


On the other hand, as Marx emphasized, the very same onrush of capitalist economic development also generates a brutally alienated and atomized society, riven by callous economic exploitation and cold social indifference, destructive of every cultural and political value whose potential it has itself brought into being. Anderson eloquently makes the point that use of a binary opposition between modernity and individualism, or globalization and identity for that matter, is only of very limited explanatory value for grasping the complexity of personal and political life today.

How does such a formulation differ from the notion of individualization? Our approach emphasizes what societal processes of individualism are like from the inside out, that of the individual self.