Relative individuality

by Rob Horning

12 October 2005


Is conformity a by-product of diversity? And likewise, is individualism a by-product of standardization? In her study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Elizabeth Eisenstein suggests this in passing while discussing the dissemination of standards brought on by the advent of printing. “One might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization. The more standardized the type, indeed, the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncractic personal self.” She then cites Montaigne as the first great example of the individualist sensibility enabled by print’s standardizing.

It seems an appropriate point to keep in mind when considering the conundrum of ads that encourage you and the millions of others watching to be different in the precise way they’ve requested, or the subcultural dilemma of rejecting the mainstream for a more rigid orthodoxy. Like “realism,” the sense of individualism doesn’t have an absolute definition, an ontological verity, but instead is always relative to its context. One can only be individual against a backdrop of conformity, which itself will only appear amidst an easily recognizable diversity—which is to say its meaning is dialectically determined and always contingent. Thus theoretically the diversity present in cities afford the opportunity to spot conformity and distinguish oneself as an individual simultaneously. But it seems as though the diversity of cities makes one feel compelled to conform so as not to dissolve into the amorphousness and disappear—it impels assimilation to some stable, recognized group and the same time it seems to promise greater freedom to differentiate oneself, to realize some individuality for which the raw materials wouldn’t be present anywhere else. This fosters a tension that keeps urban identity fluid while denying the comforts of self-actualization, of having completed oneself and one’s identity once and for all.

Individuality, then, is a social trait, a public expression of personality, a quality that relies on one’s interaction with culture; it is not a matter of one’s ability to stand above culture or reject it. One can reject culture without ever seeming to stand out, without feeling the need to call attention to oneself—individuality is not rebellion but affirmation of the existing culture, a willingness to enter into its process for cycling through what’s old and what’s cutting edge—being an individual only helps culture turn the fashion wheel. True rebellion may lie in becoming as anonymous, as outwordly conformist as possible.

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