For individualism, symbolic resistance is not enough.


One reason individualism has fallen out of favor, a major one, is that individualism is understood in conflict with community and culture. In this conflict, individualism is interpreted as anarchy. And individualism may well be a form of anarchy, though not necessarily a form of anarchy in conflict with community and culture.

Remember that, during America’s westward ho, individualism was a primal and positive force, a pioneering spirit that drove us towards what was right as rain, supported in equal parts by the naive enthusiasm of Pecos Bill and the pseudo-sexual violence of John Wayne’s McClintock.

Subsequently, all such instinctive justification for American individualism has been subverted. Instead of natural and good, individualism is mystical and mechanical. No longer swept from her feet, the American heroine’s head is swept from her neck. And instead of riding west to protect the schoolmarm, American heroes simply ride on, into the distance of High Plains Drifters and Terminators.

And yet still, after all this, community and culture would recapture individualism, dead or alive. Brando’s Wild One and Fonda’s Easy Rider are the DOA variety. Still alive are those rugged individualists who, against all odds and much to their own dismay, survive: the lone and the lonely, the Freddy Kruegers and the Jason Bournes.

Pitting the individualism of the Wild West against vested interests of community and culture has come about, strangely and somewhat perversely, with the steady rise of community and culture. The ascension of society brings with it a curious revelation: individualism is not individualism at all. Individualism is but a disguise adopted to serve the social, and the drama of that social has now moved from off-Broadway to on, where actors playing individuals can either speak their lines as written or not speak them at all.

This is essentially the position taken by Markus & Kitayama (1991) (with, according to Google scholar, a staggering 7292 citations!). This analysis elaborately describes the difference between “construals of the self” in Western (prototypically American) and non-Western (prototypically Japanese) culture. The implication throughout is that Western construals of the self — particularly those promoting a philosophical individualism — are more likely the fabrications of Goldwyn than Nietzsche.

Toward the end of their analysis, Markus & Kitayama clarify:

…a persistent issue is how deep or pervasive are these cultural differences?…In other words, is it the case, as we suggest here, that these norms can sometimes be internalized to the extent that they determine the nature of one’s experience? (p. 247)

From this point of view, individualism may play an important role in community and culture, but only if community and culture permit it to do so.

This argument is currently the most critical argument raised against individualism. It is an argument that would retain the function and occasional value of individualism but destroy its core in the natural and biological origin of the human species.

I find this argument, despite offering a vast rhetorical repertory, problematic. It assumes individualism is subordinate to community and culture because everything is. Based on this assumption, individualism has no unique properties; individualism is an instrument of the collective.

I have dealt with this argument before. In a previous century, I delivered a rebuttal to Craig’s (1999) proffer of a “constitutive metamodel” that would do for all non-constitutive metamodels what Markus & Kitayama would do for individualism: absorb it into the collective. This rebuttal made the same point I would like to make now: paradigmatic differences cannot be resolved through social discourse.

It must be said that there are arguments of note that any model attempting to accomplish what Craig would like his model to do must fail. If the differences among communication theories are truly based on unique paradigmatic assumptions… then it is unlikely any superficial appeal to rhetorical similarities among these theories will mediate their differences. It is rather more likely, as Kuhn (1970) notes, that any attempt at serious theoretical debate between distinctive paradigmatic camps would simple not be effective: “Communication across the revolutionary divide is inevitably partial” (p. 149).

…in Myers, D. (2001). A pox on all compromises: Reply to Craig (1999). Communication Theory, 11, 231-240.

In this, Marxists and individualists agree:

Either workers and their allies [here, for “workers,” the naturalist might simply say “body”; and, for “allies,” simply “mind”] claim the real agency that they possess and take the chance of making a world in which they are free in body as well as mind; or they resign themselves to generation after generation of grinding exploitation, settling for the meaningful but insufficient consolations of sporadic, creative, ungrounded, and symbolic resistance.

…in Cloud, D. L., Macek, S. & Aune, J. A. (2006). “The Limbo of Ethical Simulacra”: A Reply to Ron Greene. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 39(1), 72-84.

Equally, for individualism, symbolic resistance is not enough.