Sunday 25 September 2011

Individuation, Conviviality and Global Warming

Erich Fromm's work on individuation is very closely related to Illich's work on conviviality. The two men were friends. Yet, conviviality seems to be the opposite of the 'individualised' consumer society that we see before us. But individuation is radically different from individualisation. Indeed, for Fromm, the individualisation of  capitalism is actually an example of what he calls "automaton conformity": the subjugation of the individual to the collective as a result of personal anxiety.

Individuation, by contrast, is a psychic orientation which comes to terms with human mortality. Aniela Jaffé says
"The psychological path of individuation is ultimately a preparation for death"
Beyond this, individuation is an acknowledgement of identity and selfhood as it is constituted both from within and without. The latter's importance is the connection of identity to the relations to those around us, and the role of individual action in constituting self as well as carry the moral responsibility for the constitution of others' selves. Harre's Positioning Theory is the latest (and possibly the clearest) identification of this aspect of selfhood. Finally, I think individuation involves some awareness of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics: of the essential balance of action and the harmony and symmetry of relationships. I think the central focus of this balance lies in the nature of attachments both to others and to things.

In this way, individuation is not at all 'selfish' - its view of the self is essentially where the inner world and the collective combine. Individualisation or personalisation on the other hand, has a narrow and naive concept of self, drawn from enlightenment philosophies and effectively hijacked by consumerism. Consumerism has sought to constitute individual identity through the mass attachment to commodities. Often this comes at the cost of attachments to each other.

The economic mechanisms create risks around the attachments to commodities and people as a way of creating new needs for attachments to new commodities and increasingly services. Services have arisen because they are more easily manipulated as objects of attachment as ways of creating ever-new risks and anxieties.

Such risks are essentially global in character. The current financial crisis is a classic example of the production of 'global risk': the threat to each individual is the threat of loss of identity through loss of objects to which they are attached - the house, the car, the job, etc. To the truly individuated person, such risks are hollow: preparation for death is precisely the realisation of what matters - and it is other people that matter. In this way, individuation and conviviality can present new paradigms for living. Convivial local groups can protect against global risk.

Such global risk presents some striking anomalies. An example is presented in the "global" risk of "global warming". With global warming, the anxiety is that "we will all die". Notwithstanding the real and (in my opinion) incontestable effects of the accumulation of human-produced Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, there are some problems here. On the one hand, since humankind is seen as the cause of global warming, if "we all die", then the loss of the cause of the problem brings the necessary correction. On the other hand, whilst the fear that "we all die" is fully engaged with, the certainty that "I will die" does not enter the equation. However, global warming is probably most accurately characterised as a sort of collective moral angst - that somehow the failure of coordinated action to prevent collective death is a collective moral failure. But there is nothing collective in the anxiety. What lies behind this? I think the answer is once more about identity and attachment. The fear, similar in character to the economic crisis, is that individual identity is lost through the loss of objects and people to whom we are attached. It may be that the deepest fear is of the loss of those loved ones to whom we are most attached.  For example, although it is not natural for us to be predeceased by our children, history has shown a fluctuating statistical probability that this might happen (100 years ago, it was not unusual at all). As we live longer, we may be faced with similar statistical possibilities. In this way, the fundamental character of "global warming" is of a global political movement of anxiety creation whose motives and direction are not at all clear, but generally expressive of the existential problems of modernity.

With our current global risks of the economy and the manufactured risks associated with consumerism, the combination of conviviality and individuation presents a ray of hope. Technology may have something to contribute here. I think conviviality depends on the management of value pluralism through the coordination of activity. Such activities can be coordinated through technology, and the increasingly real-time technologies that are now presenting themselves may provide a powerful boost to the emergence of really innovative online engagements between people. 

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