My Big History reading binge last year got me interested in the history of individualism as an idea. I am not entirely sure why, but it seems to me that the right question to ask is the apparently whimsical one, “How do you run away from home?”
I don’t have good answers yet. So rather than waiting for answers to come to me in the shower, I decided to post my incomplete thoughts.
Let’s start with the concept of individualism.
The standard account of the idea appears to be an ahistorical one; an ism that modifies other isms like libertarianism, existentialism and anarchism.
Fukuyama argues, fairly persuasively, that the individual as a meaningful unit only emerged in the early second millennium AD in Europe, as a consequence of the rise of the Church and the resultant weakening of kinship-based social structures. This immediately suggests a follow-on question: is the slow, 600-700-year rise of individualism an expression of an innate drive, unleashed at some point in history, or is it an unnatural consequence of forces that weaken collectivism and make it increasingly difficult to sustain? Are we drifting apart or being torn apart?
Do we possess a fundamental “run away from home” drive, or are we torn away from home by larger, non-biological forces, despite a strong attachment drive?
Chronic Disease or Natural Drive?
If the former is true, individualism is a real personality trait that was merely expensive to express before around 1300 AD. The human condition prior to the rise of individualism could be viewed as a sort of widespread diseased state. Only the rare prince or brave runaway could experience an individualistic lifestyle.
If the latter is true, individualism is something like an occasional solitude-seeking impulse that has been turned into a persistent chronic condition by modern environments. That would make individualism the psychological equivalent of chronic physiological stress.
According to Robert Sapolsky’s excellent book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, chronic stress is the diseased state that results when natural and healthy acute stress responses — the kind we use to run away from lions — get turned on and never turned off. This is more than an analogy. If individualism is a disease, it probably works by increasing chronic stress levels.
The interesting thing about this question is that the answer will seem like a no-brainer to you depending on your personality. To someone like me, there is no question at all that individualism is natural and healthy. To someone capable of forming very strong attachments, it seems equally obvious that individualism is a disease.
The data apparently supports the latter view, since happiness and longevity are correlated with relationships, as is physical health. Radical individualism is physically stressful and shortens lifespans. I bet if you looked at the data, you’d find that individualists do get ulcers more frequently than collectivists.
But to conclude from this data that individualism is a disease is to reduce the essence of being human to a sort of mindlessly sociable existence within a warm cocoon called home. If individualism is a disease, then the exploratory and restless human brain that seeks to wander alone for the hell of it is a sort of tumor.
Our brains, with their capacity for open-ended change, and restless seeking of change and novelty (including specifically social change and novelty), make the question non-trivial. We can potentially reprogram ourselves in ways that muddy the distinctions between natural and diseased behaviors.
The social perception of individualism through history has been decidedly mixed, and we have popular narratives around both possibilities thrown at us from early childhood (think of two classic children’s books: The Runaway Bunny and Oh, the Places You Will Go).
Around the world (and particularly in the West), individualism has superficially positive connotations. Correlations to things like creativity and originality are emphasized.
But the social-institutional structure of the world possesses a strong an immune defense against individualism everywhere. We don’t realize this because mature Western-style institutions allow for a greater variety of scripts to choose from.
This variety represents a false synthesis of individualism and collectivism. A domestication of individualist instincts. A better synthesis is likely to be psychological rather than sociological, since we are talking about intrinsic drives.
The Runaway Drive
The existence of an attachment drive is not a matter for debate. It clearly exists, and is just as clearly healthy and natural. Nobody has suggested (to my knowledge) that the ability to form attachments and relationships is a disease. There do exist fundamentally unsociable species (such as tigers and polar bears) for which adult sociability could be considered a disease, but homo sapiens is not among them.
The attachment drive breaks down into two sub-drives, getting ahead and getting along (competition and cooperation) that both require being attached to the group.
The question is whether a third drive, getting away, exists. This is not the same as being an exile or outcast. Those are circumstantial and contingent situations: self- or other-imposed punishments. I am also not talking about “running away from home” as a response to toxic communities or abusive families. That is merely a case of lower-level survival drives in Maslow’s pyramid over-riding higher-level social drives.
The getting away drive is the drive to voluntarily leave a group because it is a natural thing to do. A drive that is powerful enough to permanently overpower getting ahead and getting along drives, resulting in a persistent state of solitary nomadism and transient sociability in the extreme case, like that of George Clooney in Up in the Air. In his case, it turns out to be empty bravado, a pretense covering up a yearning for home. But I believe real (and less angsty) versions exist.
If we do possess such a drive, it presumably shows up as a weaker or stronger trait, with some individuals remaining strongly attached and others itching to cut themselves loose. In my post, Seeing Like a Cat, I argued that:
I am a cat person, not in the sense of liking cats more (though I do), but actually being more catlike than doglike. Humans are more complex than either species; we are the products of the tension between our dog-like and cat-like instincts. We do both sociability and individualism in more complicated ways than our two friends; call it hyper-dogginess plushyper-cattiness. That is why reductively mapping yourself exclusively to one or the other is such a useful exercise.
To argue for a getting away drive is to argue for the presence of a cat-like element to our nature (specifically, tiger-like unsociability, not lion-like; in the latter, individualism is exile imposed on young males. Domestic cats appear to be an in-between species).
Fukuyama does not get to the evolutionary psychology of individualism, and appears to be agnostic towards the question. He merely marshals evidence to show that the original human condition was a strongly collectivist one, from which at some point a widespread pattern of individualist behavior emerged. Since his focus is on the institutional history of civilization, he limits his treatment to the necessary level of institutional development and externalized trust required for individualism to exist.
Graeber appears to believe that it is a disease. For him, identity is social identity. The individual is defined in terms of a “nexus of relationships.” To be torn away from this nexus is slavery and loss of identity. While the theory is a workable one if you are talking about actual slavery (he treats the history of the African slave trade at considerable length), things get murky when you get to other situations.
The Three R’s of Rootedness
Homesickness provides a good lens through which to understand attachment drives. Diasporas and expat communities provide a good illustration of the dynamics of both wanderlust and homesickness.
For some, the expat condition is torture. They return to some place that feels like “home” every chance they get. If they cannot, they recreate home wherever they are, as a frozen museum of memories. Home in this sense is doggie home. It is a social idea, not a physical idea. Physical elements of home serve as triggers for memories of social belonging.
There is a third kind response to the diaspora state, integration into the new environment, that is also an expression of homesickness. It is merely a more adaptable variety that is capable of building a new home in unfamiliar surroundings (which can be either a new stationary geography or a moving stream). This takes effort. Many of my Indian friends who came to America at the same time as I did are now rabid football fans. They used to be rabid cricket fans back in India. It’s just a small part of their careful (and ongoing) effort to construct a new sense of home.
All these responses are a reaction to the pain of homesickness: return, recreation, rerooting. The three R’s of rootedness.
It is tempting to believe that some sense of home is necessary from a pragmatic point of view. After all, life would be hell for practical purposes if you were always in highly unfamiliar physical and social environments. Perhaps you don’t need the pain of homesickness in order to want a home. Perhaps practical considerations are enough.
It’s more complicated than that.
Utilitarian and Psychological Homes
Utilitarian familiarity in the environment to support a low-friction, efficient life does not require a full-blown sense of home. Something much simpler will suffice. Practical needs are much easier to satisfy than existential ones.
For instance, Starbucks can supply a familiar work environment anywhere in the world, but it hardly seems meaningful to call Starbucks a part of a sense of home.
Highly developed civil societies can provide, with greater ubiquity, much of the utilitarian support structure that “home” supplies in less developed ones. Starbucks represents a mass-produced modular piece of an abstract sense of home that can be manufactured from interchangeable environmental pieces.
This is a useful thought, but you need to distinguish between utilitarian homes (defined primarily by “sufficiently familiar” material environments that don’t require new learning) and psychological homes (defined primarily by social environments and specific relationships) to make the model hang together.
I actually resist the notion of “my Starbucks” wherever I am, and if possible, I try to find multiple Starbucks locations that I then rotate through. I seem to naturally resist the tendency of utilitarian homes to turn into psychological homes. I like to keep my cafes interchangeable. I have never personalized a cubicle or office. I am not quite as extreme as George Clooney in Up in the Air though, who prefers hotel rooms to his own apartment. I do personalize some parts of my home environment, but the need has been diminishing.
There is some evidence that people are starting to manufacture interchangeable ideas of psychological homes as well. For example, there is the trope of fashionable urban women looking for a gay, male friend when they move to a new city. The role becomes defined in terms of the interchangeable-parts individuals capable of filling it, and home is anywhere your set of roles can be easily filled.
Ensemble television shows are full of references to this idea of interchangeable people in roles. In South Park for instance, when Cartman ends up in jail, the other kids look for a new fat kid. When Kenny is sent to a foster home, Cartman looks for a new “poorest kid in school.” On Seinfeld (I think I am allowed to make Seinfeld references till 2017), Elaine at one point drops the other three characters and finds three new friends who are very similar, but with a small change (they are nice and positive instead of mean and negative, an example of a simple change in Elaine’s design pattern for “home.”)
But it is not clear to me that interchangeable psychological homes are possible beyond a point. Still, the social trends are suggestive.
But the result of these developments is that we are now living with a strange successor to the idea of home.
Homes as Design Patterns
The utilitarian home is digital rather than physical in its dynamics. Home becomes a design pattern in your head (RAM) that can be “saved to disk” anywhere in the world where the substrate of civil society is sufficiently evolved. This is not the same as living out of a suitcase. This is not minimalism. This is virtualization. My design pattern for example, includes bike paths, a gym nearby, at least 2-3 coffee shops (preferably Starbucks) within walking/biking distance, a Chinese restaurant, and an Indian grocery store. I could probably write down the full specification in a couple of pages. It is very easy to instantiate this pattern in any American city above a certain size.
A slightly more complex metaphor is that home is now a program that can be recompiled, with a few changes, in any new environment. The physical pieces of the pattern are simply those that must be physical, and are too expensive to rent or sell/rebuy as you move. You cart these physical elements around in a U-Haul. Only a few pieces are in there due to their emotional significance. Most could be virtualized if cost structures changed.
Such environments are not new. Roman military camps were expressly designed this way. What is new is the ubiquity and general accessibility of such environments, and the rise in the number of people who choose to live this way, with a digital sense of home.
Since individual ideas of home constitute such a large proportion of what we call civilization, this has big consequences. The planet is turning into a hardware platform for a fluid idea of civilization that exists as a collection of design patterns for “home.”
It is less clear what the psychological idea of home has turned into. For some people, psychological home has clearly moved online. I recall an op-ed somewhere several years ago, comparing cellphones to pacifiers. Appropriate, if they represent a connection to psychological ‘home.’ Putting your phone away is like suddenly being teleported away from home to a strange new place.
For others, the three R’s still dominate the idea of home. Online life is not satisfying for these people. I think this segment will shrink, just as the number of people who are attached to paper books is shrinking.
For a speculative third category, we have the sitcom-ish idea of interchangeable people in roles. I am not sure this category is real yet. I see some evidence for it in my own life, but it is not compelling.
But for a fourth category of people, the need for a psychological home itself is reduced. A utilitarian home is enough. The getting away drive has irreversibly altered psychology.
Running Away from Home
I am afraid I am going to have to abandon you to your own devices abruptly at this point. This is as far as I’ve gotten. Questions that I am still thinking about include:
- The relationship between individualism and introversion/extroversion
- Developing the idea of utilitarian homes as design patterns that can be compiled anywhere
- What does the Freudian idea of superego map to in this model?
- A more satisfactory account of the evolution of ‘psychological home.’
The interesting thing about thinking about “home” in this digital sense is that “running away from home” is no longer about physical movement between unique social-physical environments (though that can play a part). If your sense of home is a pattern that you can instantiate anywhere the environment supports it, you cannot actually run away from it. But you can throw it away and make up or borrow a new design pattern.
I’ll write more about that at some point.
This post was partly inspired by discussions with reader MFH.