Thoughts about the dichotomy between individual and collective have been bashing about in my head lo these many years, so it’s time to get some of them down in black and white and see how they look in their externalized form. Here goes …
We’re all individuals and we’re all part of the collective which is global humankind. The conflict between those two levels of reality has been, for me at least, worrying in the extreme. Let me begin the discussion with some thoughts about my own awareness of participation in the collective as the individual I am. How one defines an individual depends on one’s ideological framework, of course, and rather than peg myself in one box or the other I will eschew the use of boxes entirely and stick to the essential facts. I am a biological unit. So are we all. As far as the Planet is concerned, that’s the full extent of what I am. What I think, what I opine, what I dream is of no consequence to Mother Earth, only my biology counts. In the societal sense, however, the biological is of far less importance and what most matters is what comes out of my head and the actions that my head engages my body to perform. I didn’t get hired for any of the jobs I had because I was a functional biological unit. I got the jobs because I had specific knowledge and skills required for the position in question. So as an individual I’m defined both biologically and socially, both at a Planetary level and at a purely human level. Those are the two horns of impalement I mention in the title, because I find no way to dovetail those two polarities. At the biological level all the individuals on the Planet mass together to form a collective humanity that threatens to destroy the very biosphere upon which our life as biological beings depends. And there we sit as conscious individuals, watching it happen. Horns of impalement, indeed …
As the biological individual I am I’m aware of a state much like the ideological condition Theodor Adorno calls “Verstrickheit” (see the blog post entitled “Horkheimer, Adorno and Business As Usual 40 Years On for an explanation of the concept). I like the word “entanglement” as an English equivalent. It’s of paramount importance to me that my physical footprint on the Planet be as light and small as possible. Yet life must go on — MY life must go on, as must yours — and so I find myself using cars and planes and all manner of household equipment and water and electricity and … and … The list goes on and on. I can reduce my consumption to as great a degree as my cleverness and ability allow, but beyond a certain threshold things break down and life in the modern world ceases to work. I can’t very well bicycle everywhere in the dead of winter. I can’t walk 20 miles in two hours to get to an appointment. So my biology acts as a major constraint, a deadweight on my conscious self, imposing conditions on my beingness — since we are flesh and blood and mind all mixed inseparably together — that I’d rather sidestep entirely. I think now about the ways in which we console ourselves by symbolic actions that satisfy the need we feel to engage responsible action toward the Planet. We put our glass and plastic in blue bins that get picked up and recycled — but what benefit does it really bring in the Big Picture? We march down the street on Earth Day waving banners about saving Mother Earth, but that action remains purely symbolic, it doesn’t save any populations on the verge of extinction. Meanwhile we continue to drive our cars and fly in airplanes to go on vacation, and all the while the population bomb continues to explode. Ah yes, the Population Bomb. Does anybody remember that book published by Paul Ehrlich back in 1968? I haven’t read it in ages, but I remember reading it in the 1980’s with the same sense of sinking in the pit of my stomach that some of Adorno’s pieces induce. The sinking feeling says: we’re screwed, Bridget. Game over. Kiss your ass goodbye.
And indeed these days we are kissing a lot of things goodbye, through a fault entirely our own — which brings me to the collective level of reality. We individuals on the Planet, however innocent of evil intent we may be, are precipitating the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. The Guardian, that British paper which continually makes me wish I were English rather than American, has published a very good article on the topic, available here. Once again I find myself impaled on the horns of the dichotomy. As the conscious individual I am, I feel extreme distress at the fact that human activity is causing the mass extinction of other species. That process occurs, however, as a result of the human collective, from the cumulative effect of all the actions we individual humans on the Planet take during every day of our routine, humdrum lives in the societies we inhabit. When we start the car in the morning to go to work, we don’t think to ourselves, “Well, there goes another portion of the amphibian population in Central America, blast and damn …” We don’t usually think about anything other than whether or not we’re running late. To hold continually in our awareness as individuals the realities and facts of the human collective would be unbearable. There are some individuals, such as Adorno from the Frankfurt School, who made the attempt to do something of the sort in the domain of consciousness. Their life’s work involved the attempt to bring the points of those horns of impalement together so that they touched and created a live circuit. But Adorno failed, I think, because the gravity of the individual domain is always too strong: our survival as individuals depends on it. The collective domain does nothing for us as individuals save provide the means for us to go about our business as the individuals we are. There is no self-aware consciousness at the level of the human collective. At that level, the best it ever gets is: shit happens. We can see one alarming result of that rudderless state of affairs in the following header from the article in The Guardian mentioned above:
Nearly half of the 177 mammal species surveyed lost more than 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015
Oh dear. Whose hand was on the wheel to prevent that from happening? The answer: nobody’s. There’s no conscious steerage of the human collective in its global expanse. The best we manage is steerage at the level of the nation-state, which has proved to be completely useless to address global environmental issues that escape the borders of the world’s countries. We have the outcome of the Paris Agreement before us as evidence, to which the United States refused to be signatory. Anybody’s eyebrows raise over that fact besides mine? If the USA refuses to be signatory to an international agreement to deal with climate change, then we’re hard pressed to take it very seriously as an effective agent of change. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions is however only one aspect of the issue. What about population increase? A table supplied by Infoplease is sobering not only for its numerical data but also for the implications it has about all those additional individuals who will live their lives doing what all individuals on Planet do, i.e. consuming resources in order to carry on with the business of living. Here is the table:
As you can see, the table projects a population of under 7.6 billion for 2020, yet current statistics on world population show a total of over 7.6 billion as of May 2018. Clearly, the “go forth and multiply” directive is more effective than we might wish. That memo has gone out worldwide and the multiplying is happening very rapidly. Climate change agreements do nothing to stem increase in population, yet population is what drives the production of greenhouse gasses through individuals consuming fossil fuels for the business of daily life in ever greater numbers, so it seems to me we have yet another pair of horns before us on which to impale ourselves. What’s a body to do? Go down with the ship, that’s what. For each of us the body is the anchor to the Planet and its physicality, and if the Planet’s surface biosphere goes down the drain, so will the human bodies on that surface along for the ride. It’s not exactly rocket science, is it.
Since I don’t have children I’m not caught up in all the hoopla about preserving things for future generations blah blah blah. In my opinion, future generations will only secure the destruction of the biosphere because they’ll need to do the same things we’ve done who created the mess in the first place. The children of millennials will continue to need food and transportation and electricity and all the rest of it, perhaps mouthing the proper opinions about climate change but all the while living their lives as though nothing were really at the stage of dire straits. That’s how we individual humans get on with our lives, no matter what portion of the globe we inhabit. By the time things get dicey at ground level with regard to the world’s climate going wonky, it will be far too late to do anything but kiss it goodbye. It’s probably already too late to do anything else.
If in the past twenty-odd years we’ve failed to constrain the nation-states of the world to act as an adequate collective consciousness for the global collective of humankind, it seems to me unreasonable to expect that in the next twenty years something will change radically in that circumstance and produce cooperation and unity of purpose that finally make possible effective action at the collective level. The self-interest of nation-states continually overrides the crises of the collective reality, just as the individual is ultimately more concerned with its own survival than it is with the survival of the particular social framework it inhabits. We’re mammals, after all — let’s face facts. We live decidedly animal lives both as individuals and as groups, however the non-tangibles may configure themselves with regard to society and religion and all the rest of it. We don’t need any more children in the world, so say the population tables, but still we carry on upholding the sanctity of the family, considering children the most important thing in life, we coo and cluck in delight at the sight of newborns, and children in many parts of the world are the only social safety network that exists, so parents operate on the assumption that the more you have the safer you are. If that’s the case, why not go for eight or nine? Living in the Philippines as I do, it’s not uncommon to find people in early middle-age with more than five children. The same thing goes on in many other countries. For every child born into the modern world, the chances decrease of climate change being controlled before it’s too late to fix it. To my mind, that’s another set of horns with impalement written all over it.
But let’s go back to the level of the individual again for a moment. Living our lives as individuals, we deal with other people as individuals, not as pieces of a faceless collective that causes disastrous effects untraceable to actions with no identifiable agent acting out of identifiable motives. People are never random in that way as individuals, there’s always a motive and intent behind what they do. So we deal with each other on that basis of individual awareness, of accountability for conscious intent, of responsibility for the self as a conscious individual. When one considers things in that light, the collective level of cumulative human effects on the Planet — for example, coral bleaching or species extinction in the cloud forests of Central America — essentially disappears, because a direct causal link between individuals and those events is impossible to trace and to sustain in lived experience. We deal with John or Gloria as individuals who think this or that, like this or that, have a tendency to be moody or cheerful, and so on and so forth. We don’t think of John as a creep who is willfully destroying the amphibian populations of South America, nor do we buttonhole Gloria and ask her just what the hell is going on with the hole in the ozone layer. In terms of communication theory, the two horns of impalement represent two incommensurable levels of discourse. There’s no way to bring them to a common denominator so we can discuss them in similar terms from a common point of reference and understanding. They are, as we say, apples and oranges. Not a happy circumstance for anyone interested in bringing the two levels together to prevent things from going up in smoke.
In the lives we lead as individuals — as friends, lovers, husbands and wives, children, parents and all the rest of it — individuals are for the majority of the human collective the focus of life to the exclusion of all else. It’s a decidedly biological stance, it seems to me, and the pattern of life it exhibits shows us as the primates we are. If we compare a video of a family gathering with footage from a researcher studying gorilla groups in Central Africa, I expect we’ll find more similarities than make us feel entirely comfortable. I see that aspect of things here in the Philippines even more strongly at work than I do in the USA, where the trappings of middle-class life tend to blur the edges of the mammalian business under transaction. It’s much more out in the open here. How could it be otherwise, given the level of population increase? Here’s a table:
In just under 50 years the population has nearly tripled. Not good … Consider the level of poverty in the country and then project the population increase into the future another 50 years and see if your hair doesn’t stand straight up on end. Mine would, if I knew I’d be alive 50 years hence. Things are bad enough now.
But John and Gloria don’t figure into such statistics as individuals in lived experience. John loves cacti and brought you a stunning specimen for your birthday last year, bless his heart. Gloria has been taking care of her mum these past 10 years and never utters a peep of complaint — she’s a saint with a heart of gold, is our Gloria. That’s who we are as individuals: beings innocent in our daily lives of any responsibility for the collective actions that cause the deterioration of the Planetary biosphere and the continuing explosion of the population bomb. Nobody at the altar on wedding day gets a stern lecture from the padre about the fine mess we’re in due to overpopulation with admonishments to control one’s reproductive urges — “all well and good to let the dog see the rabbit, but keep it capped, kids, this is serious business.” Oh no, it’s all smiles and long life and go forth and multiply, which is absolutely the last thing the Planet needs, if the truth be told.
So, where does all of this leave us? Since I’m in the end phase of my own life, heading now within a foreseeable future toward the grave as my destination, I tend to be rather more Big Picture about things than I was in my younger days — how predictable from an old fart like me LOL. I tend now to think of myself as an individual embedded in a collective, keeping both levels of reality smultaneously in mind as I consider my position in life. The result of that stance is not the bringing together of the horns of impalement, but rather an awareness that they cannot and will not be brought together, not in the remainder of my natural lifetime, most likely not in the foreseeable future. Once again, if you jump over to the post I wrote on Business As Usual (here) you’ll find in my assessments of things in this matter of individual and collective at the physical level a strong echo of the consideration there of the realm of individual and social consciousness. We’re dealing with a type of entanglement at both levels, as physical individuals with the biosphere and as conscious individuals with the realm of ideology. I mentioned the physical aspect in that post on the critique of ideology because its omission in the ponderings of the Frankfurt School seemed to me either a regrettable oversight or an ill-advised exclusion. The physicality of the body is our bottom line, despite what flights our fancy may take or what heights our intellects may scale. The body always has the last word, because it determines whether we live or die. There’s no more bottom a line than that one.
In the awareness I have at present, patched together from insights and experiences gathered over the entire course of my lifetime, it’s clear to me that the individual stands powerless before the realities of the collective human level. As the individual I am, I can’t possibly do anything strategic to reverse climate change, stop species extinction or create a worldwide human framework of accountability that could adequately address collective issues. This leaves me in exactly the same position as I find myself in the ideological domain. I can’t stop the political and economic madness in the world that erupts so often and in so many locations around the globe. In his analysis of our entanglement in social structures, Adorno says outright that there’s no way out of it. The same must be said of our entanglement in the collective physical effects of humankind. By being a human being alive at this point in history, I contribute to the woes that humanity visits upon the Planet. Adorno’s advice in the ideological realm was to live as modestly and unassumingly as possible. I find no better counsel for living with regard to the physical footprint I make as a human being. Consciously I can exert an effort of intelligence and will to make my life as little damaging to the Planet as possible. It won’t save the biosphere from destruction in the future, of that fact I am only too well aware, but as the conscious individual I am I can do no more. Despite that effort, however, it’s a very crass case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So there we have it: I stand impaled on the horns of that dichotomy, being both individual and a part of the collective with no way to harmonize the two into something I would be pleased to call a unified and empowered self. If ever there was a time we needed a deus ex machina, it’s now. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that something of the sort pops out of the woodwork before the lights go out by themselves without anyone touching any switches.