How Do You Run Away from Home?

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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Andrew Brammeier says

    I find your initial discussion of the idea of individualism and home to be thought provoking. I have had similar questions throughout life, but never so elegantly elucidated. Having served previously in the US military I always wondered why I felt “safe” or “home” when arriving on the base. Was it knowing that the environment would be familiar and easily understood? Was it the familiar social structures that dominated the military mindset, knowing exactly where you stood in relation to everyone else? I find it interesting that this concept can be linked up to your Gervais principle and the statements in The Life of Pi about how zookeeping is all about making sure the animals know their position in the hierarchical structure. This post also struck a chord as I am engaged to a Korean woman. Her ideas of what “home” consists of are vastly different than mine. Some of this is structural, but have you also thought about the cultural constructs that make up the “home” concept? An example would be a Korean cultural expectation that when you come into a “home” you greet everyone. My roommates and I never do this. To my fiancee this is part of why my apartment does not feel like “home”. Thanks for the consistnely thought provoking articles.

  2. One more possible “getting away” drive– the idea that parents ought to control teenagers, and in particular prevent them from having sex.

    From what I’ve heard, teenager as a distinct status was invented in the twenties.

  3. Much of what you’re saying strikes me as something that devalues home ownership, which is probably a good thing. Once you realize that the key things you need to thrive can be largely digitally reassembled in a hundred other places, there’s far less point to settle (in both senses of the word) in a single house that currently serves your needs.

  4. R like Ribbonfarm. It is said that a diaspora folks like the Jews invented the mobile home by turning the book into it.

    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 can only hope this won’t decay either into a postmodern invent-yourself credo which I never trusted and I failed to see any interesting examples or conversion style events offered by religions [1]. For an intellectual its more fruitful to let a pattern evolve, to ritualize and de-ritualize aspects, turn features from concrete into abstract, support metonymic shifts, while sticking with the elements of ones own history. This won’t prevent them from becoming homesick though and often it is the lack of something particular – the design pattern covers everything but an element which is missing. If this element grows in your mind, chances are it becomes your soul.

    [1] Christianity was in fact breaking with kinship but for the prize of raising a totalitarian church and empire and a sado-masochist religious community: if you believe in me, you will be saved, if not, go to hell.

    So individualism had to take the liberating impulse but somehow pass through all the intermediary socio-psychological structures. At the opposite end we don’t want to be sociopaths either i.e. retain the idea of being sociable, show civility and good manners, despite going our own ways. Some even want to pay taxes or find an equivalent payback, although they don’t literally believe in the state. They prefer this over substantiating communities according to the sectarian protestant dissect-and-embrace pattern.

  5. Excellent post. A few thoughts:

    1. The present scope for realtime communication cannot be over-stressed. Leaving behind friends and family used to be one of the most heart-wrenching things about “running away”. Today, they’re pretty much next door regardless of where you are. You may gradually end up wanting to interact less with some long-separated friends, but the process is not an abrupt break, and is not inevitable. People (the ‘important’ people) are a big part of the psychological home, and now you can easily take them with you.

    2. We should be careful never to over-rationalise happiness, as the processes for happiness formed earlier than the processes for rational thought. In other words, stead of looking for stories about what can make us happy (e.g. “nexus of relationships”) perhaps we can just look for associations. A person whose earliest happy memories were of rambunctious full-family meals, versus the person whose earliest happy memories were of solitary explorations along the river bank. This would fit well with the pattern idea. For instance, the more people move, especially from a young age, the less they tend to be attached to a physical home – unsurprising if this allows their feelings of happiness and safety to be associated with more abstract/generalised factors.

    3. Perhaps in parallel to the idea of home, it is worthwhile to explore the idea of non-home or anti-home. How far do you need to run to run away? The absence or presence of which things make you feel uncomfortable, scared, lonely, or unsafe? What could be an anti-home pattern? Perhaps, the decrease in such anti-home patterns in the developed world is as important as the increased portability/deployability of the home patterns.

    4. Humans never evolved in the expectation of us knowing that our ‘tribe’ is ultimately 7 billion strong. It’s quite likely that our Dunbar-numbered community was ‘supposed to be’ (in other words our brains and behaviours have certain optimisations for) perceived as the only human ‘us’ in the entire world. The ability to know (and regularly experience) this to be false probably stirs up some dissonance between our doggedness and our cattiness, and could be an important contributing factor to the rise of individualism. After all, if there are more people around you than you can reasonably care deeply about, why not start caring the deepest about yourself (and a few of the closest friends and loved ones). What should be my attachment to my relationship with the neighbourhood boulangerie, if I know that it will disappear, without an exactly equivalent replacement, the moment I leave France?

  6. Most if us could not survive alone in the wilderness for very long. So our natural state is probably as part of a group or, at least, a loose network… not as purely independent individuals.

    So it is more of a matter of degree. How large is your tribe?

    I consider myself to be fiercely independent. My tribe is small: it is made of my wife and my two sons. I think we could last some time in the wild.

    I become sick, sometimes physically so, when I find myself in a larger tribe. It is quite unnatural for me. Too many people to monitor…

    I do fine however with an extended loose network of people I don’t have to monitor closely. I’m quite willing to trade occasionnally with dozens if not hundreds of people.

  7. Roy Baumeister argues in Meanings of Life that as other value bases have eroded (religion, consensus morality, etc.), the self has been conscripted as a source of meaning and value to take their place – but Baumeister’s relevant time frame is only a couple hundred years, especially the past 50 or so. He traces the development of morality from being unquestioningly oriented toward sacrificing the self for the good of the community (self as ultimate evil) toward self as the source of value and morality (self as ultimate good) that we see today.

  8. It seems to me that one element of this discussion has been left out: for much of history half of humanity—usually female—has been forced to leave home for marriage/mating purposes. You could equate this to Graeber’s ideas about slavery but I don’t think that applies entirely. Do the young women (in most cases it is the woman but in some cultures it is the man) who leave home at a young age to join the community of their husband’s (/wife’s) family who they barely know, if at all, carry with them a pattern of home? Is this a form of “individualism”?

    My feeling is that neither collectivism nor individualism are “diseases”, they are both a part of biological human nature, just as introversion/extroversion are. The fact that travel/tourism/exploration is so popular among humans, and that we do it either as soloists or in groups, is indicative, IMO. Each individual falls somewhere on the continuum between two extremes and makes the best of it.

  9. I found this post very interesting. I think that mankind throughout his evolution has been a nomad. We migrated, it is said, from a central genesis point and then populated the world. It may be that wanderlust is hard-wired into our geneology. Then we developed agriculture and attachments to the land became an aid to survival. This, too, may be hard-wired. So we have the dicotomy of attachment to “home” and no attachment. Various people may fit into the continuum at any point from home-bound at one extreme to vagabonds at the other. Also, people may move from one end of the continuum to the other at various points in thier life. To me, it is not an either/or decision. As we move through the stages of our lives, one way may seem best while at some other point the other makes sense. In any case, one of the traits that has made our species so successful in populating the planet is its ability to be either and still flourish.

  10. I like how recreation is a pun, and how we reroot by changing who we root for.

  11. There are a lot of very similar ideas in Peter Sloterdijk’s recent work, particularly the Spheres trilogy.

  12. I don’t think Graeber quite thinks individualism is a disease in the way you said; while talking about that same tribal setting he says directly that an important part of those societies is precisely the ability to simply run away from social situations that you find intolerable.

  13. A large part of the desire to run away stems from the dissonance between the vision you had of yourself in school versus where you stand now. For many, the middle class script and existing social order will be more than they can negotiate. Running away from this psychological home is a means to clean the slate.

    This seems to be the classic “go west” storyline, where you can disappear and start a new life. Those with a high existing social status are less likely to run away.

  14. Christian Molick says

    Two potentially interesting ways running away can work are running to specialization, thus staying in the tribe by becoming an essential yet incomprehensible part of it, or becoming a tribe of one so that the social status lost from being an outsider is replaced by tribal standing by somehow being needed by all in the way a medicine man might serve an entire tribe or several tribes while staying outside all.

  15. No matter where you go, there you are.

  16. “Homes as Design Patterns” reminds me of,_context_and_interaction , with “home” as the context and people as data.

  17. It seems this post would benefit by incorporating a bit more of your blog’s “experiments in refactored perception” subtitle. Like yours, here are some loose thoughts, based on the question: How do you run away from home, if the brain is a much more general purpose engine than it _feels like_ in day-to-day life?

    I think most would agree that given the use of a time machine we could take a newborn baby from any human society for the past five to ten thousand years and teach them everything our children learn in school, and perhaps if we taught them well and got lucky in our selection they could be capable of writing a blog like yours. We could also teach that child to shoot a basketball, fly a jet fighter, and feed and nurture them to build strength and agility far beyond what they would have developed back in their day. Clearly very few of us will play basketball as well as Jordan or reason as well as Einstein, but we all accept that spending years focused on building skills in those areas will make us far more capable than our ‘natural’ state.

    That human plasticity need not be limited to cognitive and motor skills (e.g. learning calculus or baseball, or relearning to walk or speak after a brain injury); specifically, it also appears to extend to emotions and motivations as well. This is relevant to the disease/health theme of your post, since the emotional centers of the brain are the source of diseased mind-body interactions like chronic stress and healthy mind-body interactions like happiness.

    We are all human and have innate biases and behaviors that emerge from the structure and electrochemical function of our brains, which emerge from the information stored in our DNA and our upbringing and vice versa ad nauseum. One of those innate biases related to emotions is a high level of attention paid to and input taken from the emotional state of other humans, which can be seen physically in our mirror neurons and socially in a wide variety of contagious emotions. With that in mind, and to follow your reductionist approach, perhaps it is useful to think of our brains’ emotional centers as based on or highly influenced by a model of a human being that we use to understand both how we feel (by prodding and testing it) and how others feel (by clothing it in their likeness and then prodding and testing it). So simplistically there would be the model, the inputs to the model and the outputs from the model.

    By analogy with other human capabilities, each of our brains would be slightly more or less capable in each of those three areas. If your brain has relatively well developed and governed input and output channels and a detailed and high-performance model, then being around other people would be a pleasurable experience, like a naturally smart kid learning math or an agile one playing sports. If your brain has a detailed and high performance model and a well developed/governed output channel but a bottlenecked or ungoverned input channel, then perhaps you would feel quite happy on your own or with your family, quite capable of very sophisticated communications, and relatively uninfluenced or overwhelmed by the state of other people. That set of capabilities works great for a blogger in 21st century America, but maybe dangerous for a young male in a nomadic tribe on the savannah who needs to be very sensitive to threats and opportunities to survive and mate…right?

    Maybe not. That is where I think your subtitle comes into play. We naturally assume that our emotions are in charge of us; that is what the root of the word means after all, and it is certainly how it feels. However, if you assume that your emotional capabilities are at least as easily augmented or changed by training and tools as your intellect and your body, then the range of possible situations that could be either ‘healthy’ or ‘diseased’ depending on your emotional capabilities is extremely large.

    So, in an abstract attempt to answer your question, if you want to know how to run away from home, you should probably focus on developing your model and any feedback loops from your outputs to your inputs in order to to become more capable of managing your own emotional state. If you want to recreate your home after running away from it, then you should focus on developing your output channel to become more capable of managing/changing the state of those around you. If you want to create a new home, then you should focus on developing your input channel, so you are more capable of understanding/mimicing the state of those around you. Or if you want to be all you can be, then work on all three.

    If that is close enough to true, then even if you aren’t the Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein of running away from home, you can at least get a lot better at it.

  18. The dichotomy of individualism as a disease or natural drive seems to me to be on the verge of being a naturalistic fallacy. That dichotomy suggests there is a way human beings are “supposed to be,” and perhaps there is to a certain extent but I think people have to be more careful about appraisals of human nature.

    Another way to think of it might be that individualism isn’t really a disease OR a natural drive, but more a cognitive immune response. The traditional human environment involved a small number of strong ties, whereas city living essentially requires a large number of weak ties. And facebook and similar reinforce this pattern of multiplying and weakening ties. Perhaps individualism is in some sense a response to the changing human social environment, the way fevers and coughs are not themselves diseases but natural responses to pathogens within the body.

    There are many other possibilities. Perhaps the genetic tendency towards collectivism or individualism (assuming there is such a thing) is a highly variable trait in the human population so that neither can be regarded as being “more natural” than the other. I’d lean away from genetic explanations since the brain is so incredibly plastic. Personally, I’d guess that much as Fukuyama argues vis a vis the church, the rise of individualism is a result of the cultural generation of narratives that empower individuals and subsequent elaboration of these narratives. Just as the invention of the bow and arrow made possible new hunting behaviors, the invention of new narratives about what it is to be a human being makes possible new social behaviors. Then it becomes a question of why individualism has been a successful meme rather than a question of what it is in the first place.

    • Narratives specially link people together. It’s not particularly clear that why they should be vectors of individualization. Using a quality, value or abstract idea which gets individualized, possibly against a community makes the most sense. But this alone wouldn’t give rise to individualism as a cultural phenomenon, not just a specialty of some intellectuals. One eventually needs another community, this time of silent readers of books. Protestantism + letterpress may have been the relevant starter which lead to philosophical and economical frameworks centered around the individual.

      The outcome has been a highly reactive substance, an atomic and free individual, full of choices for binding, opinion and action, which follows its own interest and calculates it in economical affairs and so on – an aggressive and optimistic vision. This is the sort of individualism we are usually talking about in sociological discussions. It is less about a person in the mode of dissection or resistance, seeking loneliness and a space for thinking but a social actor with particular traits.

      • Well, actually I think the “relevant starter” was the adoption of writing in ancient Greece. Athens supplied a lot of early “individualist” narratives, the most notorious being Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial. Even the mythology has a lot of those overtones; Chronos rebelled against the previous order and slew his father, then Zeus did the same to Chronos.

        It’s not clear to me whether you’re trying to correct me about something; my post seems perfectly consistent with what you say in your second paragraph.

        • Ooh, forgot the bit Hellenic individualist narrative: Prometheus. Rebel and inventor of free thought, pretty similar to Lucifer but sympathetic rather than evil incarnate.

  19. Perhaps running away from home is about changing one’s identity by jiggling one’s environment.

    Perhaps it’s about seeking history-less freedom.

  20. JiaoNing Bu says

    As a member of a “stream” of expat English teachers in Taiwan, who has stepped very far away from the “stream” I can make a few comments:

    I had wanted to move away from the states and just live in a state of “sustainable movement” since I could remember. I had literally dreamed about it constantly since I was a late teen. One trip I took to Europe, and dating a girl who’d grown up as a child of missionaries solidified it for me. As soon as I graduated college, I was off.

    For about a year and a half, I had a lot of discomfort, but not really homesickness. I believe I was forced to confront a lot of personal issues because this goal I had had did not cure everything in my life, though I was happy with where I lived. At the same time, I would have a nightmare of being trapped back in the U.S.A. about every two weeks, from which I would awake and laugh with joy to discover it wasn’t real. I’ve been away for about four years and still have this sometimes, which seems to peg me as a “lifer.”

    On the other hand, I’ve never really understood the foreigners who like to eat Western-style food, or hang out with other foreigners in Western-style pubs. To me, this has always seemed expensive and boring. I’ve spent the last four years moving further and further from the big cities, until now I live in a mountainous town of 50,000 with three native English speakers present. I ride my bike everywhere and feel happy and healthy enjoying the richness of experiences I have here (I saw a cobra in the wild just last week for instance!).

    Here is where I would like to add something though. First off, my feeling of “homeness” largely comes from a connection to the outdoors and natural phenomena, even in urban environments. I know this might sound strange, but the way that light makes shadows on the ground is always quite comforting to me and has similar characteristics (and reasons for variation) everywhere. I remember the first time I noticed this, I was riding in a bus in Ireland, and the streetlamps had a familiar glow, while their proximity also caused crisscrossing shadows identical to what I would have had in Atlanta. I was shocked at the time by how similar something like this was. I have had many analogous responses with other little things.

    I also usually notice the way plants grow, and the way air feels. There are a lot of tropical plants here that my grandmother used to grow ornamentally. The fact that they fill the forest floor with examples she would only dream of sometimes makes me feel more “at home.” So do things like stopping to watch a caterpillar climb up its thread, or seeing some butterflies circle around a little puddle. I also admire the way the Taiwanese do their farming, or the way the aboriginals move around in the backcountry. Perhaps some people, who have a kind of kinaesthetic focus and perception of nature, maybe those who grew up playing around a farm, will have similar experiences to this?

    • JiaoNing Bu says

      One more thing I would like to add. Skype helps, and I speak with my family often, but there is something deeper than that. During my time at University, my father had become terminally ill. Knowing from my studies that family members often become resentful of one who is disabled, I sought to mitigate this effect until the rest of my family (and he) adapted to the new circumstance.

      In the first years of his illness, I spent a lot of time helping to take care of him. When I was getting ready to leave, he said I had done so much for him and for the family that he simply could not accept anything else from me. He said that I had his blessing to go about my life completely as if I owned nothing to my family again, because as far as he was concerned, I did not.

      “Running away from home” on the best terms possible has made the entire experience a lot more sustainable for me. The feeling that I have no psychic baggage anywhere makes me feel more free.

  21. The New Urbanist movement, where people move back into city centers vacated by business and industry, feels like a rejection of the starbucks & bike paths-interchangeable home template found in suburbs.

    Is this rejection represent a different attitude towards “home”? Or, is the New Urbanist city neighborhood just another template for home?

  22. Brent Eubanks says

    I was struck by the fact that you presented this dichotomy:
    “If the former is true, individualism is a real personality trait that was merely expensive to express before around 1300 AD. … 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. ”

    But it’s not clear to me that there is a dichotomy here. Is there any reason that BOTH of these ideas cannot simultaneously be true?

    Clearly, individualism was hard to express in the historical past, largely for social structure reasons which had their ultimate root in the realities and necessities of survival.

    Data suggests that a highly individualized state of being is more stressful than the socially cocooned alternative. While “a mindlessly sociable existence within a warm cocoon called home” may not be your preferred state, it is almost inherently a lower-stress condition. On the other hands, there are things which simply can’t be achieved while in that state (e.g. radically independent thought).

    There is a tendency (stronger in some than in others) to rebel against the constraints of community membership, and it has become much easier to indulge this tendency in recent times.
    It seems obvious to me that this tendency has the potential to be either (or both!) beneficial to society or corrosive to society, depending on context and degree.

    So maybe the issue is that you’re asking the wrong question in casting this as an either/or. Perhaps a more useful question is, taking as a given that we each contain these conflicting drives, and that modern life gives us a (largely historically unique) opportunity to choose which one to favor, how do we establish the most positive balance between them?

  23. Are we not social creatures by our very nature? Language is a social technology, and thinking would seem to be impossible without language. Infants without social contact fail to develop basic brain structures and often do not survive. Through the operation of our mirror neurons, most of our feelings are not even our own, but rather those of others mirrored into operation of our own emotional centers. No person is an island. Our identity is intrinsically social, regardless of how eccentric we may feel ourselves to be.

    Perhaps our inextricably social identity is what makes running away an issue in the first place. A pope once said, “Give me a child until five, and I will give you a Catholic for life.” Whether the adult sought to belong or rejected his social origins, his origin was confirmed all the more for his struggle to run away from it.

    Our present day notion of “individuality” as a thing in itself strikes me as a glorification, a myth created in opposition to an equally abstract notion called the “social.” More interesting is the discussion of versions of individuality which might enrich the fact of our social being, rather than impoverish it. Experiments in individuality–in the innumerably creative ways we can run away–are what seem to help to drive our social evolution forward, as technology changes what forms of individuality we can afford, and newly enabled forms of social life e.g. in cities, through global travel, or in virtualities, reward the forms of individuality which enable their existence.

    Social biotopes have become richer than those which existed in past millennia, and so have the forms of individuality which populate them. Still, our forms of individuality seem to be only variations on developing social themes.

  24. Very interesting posting, as usual.

    I would argue that at big driver in in the development of individualism is rationalism, or to be more specific, reductionism. As the pattern of trying to understand the world in terms of atomic parts and ther interactions, we inevitably come to understand ourselves as individual beings interacting.
    My personal stance is that man is primarily a social rather than individual being from birth, but also that the tension between the two is a fundamental existential challenge, as you mention with the cat-like and the dog-like.
    I would further argue that this dichotomy is what is at the bottom of the tension between religion and atheism.

  25. Seems to me individuality is more of a marketing ploy than any sort of basic human urge. Granted, everyone needs a balance between social interaction and solitude – this will vary from person to person. What we don’t need is umpteen thousand different brands of useless crap all aimed at satisfying this phantom need to be different. Ever notice how many people have tattoos and piercings these days? That really sets them apart from the mainstream, right? Hey look at me! I’m all individual and stuff.

  26. This is very interesting, but I see at least one thing that strikes me as a false association. Talking about these things from personal experience is fraught with peril obviously, but here goes. I’m most certainly, in this context, a homebound person – by your cat/dog dichotomy a strongly polarized dog. Business travel is unpleasant regardless of the destination. Operating as an expat, even very briefly, is highly stressful. If given 20 million dollars I would build a country house somewhere within about a 50 mile radius of my current location (which also include my family and my wife’s), invite people I like to stay indefinitely, and bring the rest of the world to me as needed.

    But in other ways, reading your cat/dog post, I’m pretty strongly a cat, albeit one with a couple of useful esoteric views the dog world is willing to pay me nicely for. I have rather divergent and highly individualistic views of science, history, sociology, technology and economics compared to most people.

    The false association I see is that these two behaviors don’t seem to be on the same axis. There are rooted individualists (oddball manifesto writers are stereotypically compound-dwellers, not nomadic), and conformist nomads (the prep school kid who’s going to spend a month backpacking Europe before going off to college, just like everyone else). It’s not even immediately obvious to me that these conditions are less likely than a independent cross of the two probabilities would indicate.

  27. I’m surprised that no one has called bullshit on the opening lines of this post.

    Individualism is well established in nature, easily a billion years before humans. Individualism is clear in Gilgamesh and in the Hindu tradition (the sannyasa). But the surely each of us has an inner life in which we understand ourselves as individuals.

    I doubt that I would feel like an alien being if you dropped me down in the center of Rome or Athens. The culture was different, sure, but with the exception of, maybe, Sparta, individualism can be found throughout human history.

  28. Have you ever read Robert Pirsig’s books? There’s a part of “Lila” which really goes at the idea you’re pursuing here. Chapter 9 is the heart of it, but I don’t know how easy it would be to jump into the middle of the book.

    Here’s a summary:

    Pirsig is trying to understand the way cultures develop and maintain morals. Cultures must adapt to changing environmental conditions in order to stay healthy/relevant. Individualists are the ones who reject existing cultural value-judgments in favor of their own personal and immediate assessments of surrounding conditions. Usually individualists are ostracized for this by the traditional culture, but every once in a while, the collectivists will accept the ideas of one of these weird individualists when evidence is overwhelming (i.e. the traditional culture is threatened). In your terms, this is the scenario when a mountain grows up underneath a cat.

    If you view individuals as a substrate for cultures, both individualists and collectivists are necessary parts of a “ratcheting mechanism” where individualists make progress and collectivists maintain those gains and provide stability. There’s a nice analogy with “cultural immune systems.”

    I’m surprised you’ve never mentioned Pirsig on this blog. His thinking seems remarkably similar to yours.