Individual and character

Is individualism a philosophy? Is it a code about the way people think in modernity, or are thought for, thought for that is by institutions and organizations and the people who put up signs and the people who say, fill out this form? Does it describe a society centered around markets? Or is it a theory that helps us understand societies that center around markets, if there are any?

This is a question that confronts us as we try to assemble the lines of descent that went into the making of character in the late seventeenth century. There is a theory, put forward by Jacques Bos, that the character writing of the seventeenth century can be seen as a stage in the making of individualism – the character that the character writers are concerned with is all external show and symptom, “a representation of a certain category of human beings…” Our task is to discover how, from this literary stylization of the person, we get to the twentieth century, where “there is an almost self-evident connection between the words ‘character’, ‘individuality’, and ‘inwardness”.   

Bos’s notion of the the problem fits in with a broader sense of the way the ‘civilizing process’ in the West has gone. The individual and individualism are contrasted with an earlier communalism, out of which, for good and ill, the Western Paleface has broken.

But I’d like to harry  the idea that the individual and individualism are what we are all about in the twentieth and twenty first century, as well as this rather Hegelian sweep towards the inward. It is not that these are illusions; rather, I think character is something more than their factotum, and that its assembly and spread – across fiction and fact, through the spheres of representation, is a movement containing other movements.

To start off, then, one needs a sense of where individualism came from – that is, as a sociological category – and a sense of how it has been used by historians.

The analytic story goes back to the two decades between 1830 and 1850.

In Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the Revolution, which he published in 1856), there is this paragraph about individualism:

“Our fathers did not have the word individualism, which we have forged for our use, because, in their times, there was not, in fact, an individual who did not belong to a group and who could consider himself absolutely alone; but each of the thousand little groups that composed French society only thought of themselves. Thus it was, if I may so express myself, a sort of collective individualism, which prepared souls for the true individualism which which we are acquainted.

And what is the most strange is that all of these men who hold themselves so apart one from another became so similar to each other that it was enough to make them change places to no longer recognize them.”

Tocqueville is no random witness to individualism, since he was perhaps the first to use the term in a sociologically sophisticated way in Democracy in America. The United States even then had the reputation of being an individualistic country.

Tocqueville’s notion of distance, of being apart,  of being alone seems, then, to be part of what individualism is. The beat, here, falls upon the individual apart from his social ties. Yet there are a number of paradoxes here. In the United States, one of the commonest severe punishment that one can inflict on a prisoner is solitary. In solitary, the individual fills his cell in complete solitude. The individual is all- and that all is his punishment. This should help us see that individualism, with its logical stress on the private and the lone person, is, at the same time, not solitudinarianism – the individual is not primarily conceived under invidualism as solitary. This semantic fact is often washed away when we try to grasp invidualism from a quantitative point of view, as though it were about individual atoms. If the individual and the solitary were synonymous, this would be an uncontroversial move. But one has to merely dip into the rich semantic flow of ordinary language to see that the solitary is the negative projection of the individual. “He is a loner” is not a compliment in American speech. “He is a self-made man” is a compliment in American speech. The path of solitude and the path of the individual are not the same path; yet they can be confused due to the conjoined meanings of alone and lonely – the individual, like Robinson Crusoe, is envisioned as ultimately acting alone, even if we project him into corporate headquarters.  But he is not envisioned as being alone – because then he could never get into corporate headquarters. He wouldn’t want to.

Tocqueville was writing at a time when individualism was also being discussed in socialist circles. Steven Lukes points out that individualism became the target against which early socialists, like Blanqui and Cabet, spoke out. In Germany, Karl Marx in the German Ideology – written in the 1840s as well - spent much of his time hashing out what the individual was from a social perspective. It is with Marx that we start getting a sense of the individual as something linked not to the soul, or even to social distance, but to production – to the economic system”

“The difference between the personal individual and the contingent individual is not a conceptual difference, but instead a historical fact. This difference has, in different times, different meanings – for instance, rank as something contingent to the individual in the 18th century, plus ou moins even the family. It is a difference that we must not make for every epoch, but that instead every epoch, under the different elements that it finds itself in, makes for itself, forced, actually, not by concepts, but through material collisions of life. What appears contingent to later times as its opposite to earlier, and also among the elements of the earlier that are passed down, is a form of commerce, which corresponds to a specific development of the forces of production. The relationship of the forces of production to the form of commerce is the relationship of the form of commerce to the occupation or activity of individuals.”

This strongly anti-conceptual approach to the individual – who emerges first as a social fact within the forces of production that embody the collisions of life – gives Marx a sort of history of individualism. Individualism  waits on the emergence of the individual, rather than individualism arising in the educated class and bringing into existence the individual. Marx’s story, then, leads us firmly away from the solitary – who emerges in life’s collisions too, but within another set of conditions – and sets up his attack on Stirner, who in Marx’s view is engaged in rescuing an archaic social category and conflating it with the individual in a massive act of bourgeois self-mystification. Whether Stirner’s notion of egotism and the “Own”  is really bourgeois self-mystification or the expression of a nausea with a modernity that set the teeth of the children of the bourgeoisie on edge – I will leave to later. In any case, Marx’s targets shifted in the 1850s to the political economists, and here I think he was able to put to better use his sense of parody and bafflement. The  Robinsonades of the economists really do play a strong, self-mystifying role in building up the codex of capitalism.

Marx set the terms for economic historians looking at the sociology of capitalism, and its origins. Those origins would be linked to the individual as a creature of economics. We should look, in the medieval period, not for what the saints wrote in their summas, but for what the smallholders wrote in their wills. If pre-capitalist society went as it was supposed to go according to Marx, we would find that the properties of the small holders were bound by laws and customs that would disallow or strongly hedge about the market. The same of course would be true for the large landholders. Given the largely agricultural nature of Europe, this meant that any sort of trade would be shaped by the larger system of production that based the producer on the family, on bloodties.

It was just this thesis that was challenged by Alan Macfarlane in the 1970s. Macfarlane went through the records of a small area of Essex, Earls Colne, and he found that in the midst of the feudal night (or if you will, the humane society of peasant England), smallholders seemed to be selling their lands left and right, and disinheriting their children, and in general pursuing their individual interests like the money mad characers in Balzac’s novels.

For Macfarlane, the market in land in the sixteenth century discredits the theories – like Karl Polanyi’s – that periodizes the creation of the system of “fictitious commodities”, such as land and labor, at a much latter date. Similarly, it destroys Marx’s thesis about the origins of agricultural capitalism, which does not start with the large landholders squeezing their tenants, but with the smallholders creating an active, non-family centered market in land under the nose of the large landholders.

Macfarlane’s interpretation of his data has, however, been subject to a number of shocks since he published his thesis in 1978, in The Origins of English Individualism.  Notably, Govind Sreenivasan has studied the same corner of the English world and found much greater family continuity in small landholdings than are accounted for by Macfarlane. Sreenivasan, whose expertise is in German peasant society of the early modern period, went over the records for Earls Colne and found that the land-family bond was much stronger, statistically, than it was represented by Macfarlane. He drew up an indictment in his article on the matter that went after three aspects of Macfarlane’s thesis:

“First, the depiction of the weakness of the land-family bond is exaggerated. Secondly, the description of the causes of the turnover of property is incomplete and therefore misleading. Thirdly, the reconstructed concepts of kinship and property are directly contradicted by the sources.”

Pulling back, what we see here is that the dispute about land tenure is set in the terms Marx lays out in the German Ideology. It is a materialist approach to individualism. Which, in a neat U-turn, comes back into an infuses the system of production that makes possible materialist approaches. But in following this turn, we tend to lose sight of, and normalize, the idea of the individual, or the easy notion that we live  in a liberal order that promotes individualism. Because if the individual is taken in the Stirner sense – if its materiality is not its place in the system, but its place as an organism born and bred and having a brain that does certain things all the time – then we are also talking about a cosmic vision of the world – how the world is put together, what the limits are on human beings, and how they live within those limits. These are not reducible, point by point, to their horizon of possibility – the system of production. This is, I think, what makes Marx’s notion of alienation so important, and so intrinsic to revolution – for revolution is the other horizon of possibility from which the capitalist system can be analyzed.

I am taking my cues from this tension in Marx.  From Marx to surveys of smallholder sales in the 16th century, we can run the individual into the space he – always he in the history, a significant and overlooked warp – inhabits and infer the creation of individualism as a matter of habit and a mental tool – but we must also not overlook the fact that the individual in the market is a phenomenon that points to a larger thing – a murderable forked thing, something that casts a shadow inside himself, a non-planetary shadow, a thinking shade.

Earl Colne may seem a long way from Theophrastus, but as in fact the history of “character’ in the seventeenth century is about the way a term and concept in learned culture sinks into ordinary culture, which makes it important to have a broad sense of ordinary culture and the forces – the conflicts - that shape it. And I think it is also important to have a sense that the learned culture is not a progressive culture. Its learning does not represent the forward flight of the absolute spirit.