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Stout and individual XXII

May 2, 2016

It can prove difficult to pin down Stout’s notion of “democratic individuality” as a term of art and this for both textual and structural reasons. On one hand, specifically democratic individuality receives few direct mentions within Democracy and Tradition and still less in the way of systematic exposition (see DT, pp. 36, 84, 282, 293 for the passages concerned). Individual and individuality, more broadly conceived, figure in numerous passages throughout the work but, again, receive no systematic exposition (to this end, see DT, pp. 48, 51, 64, 73-75, 78, 80, 83, 94, 97-100, 112, 145, 162, 164-166, 169, 172, 174, 176-177, 194, 200, 209, 220, 274-275, 279, 281-283, 292-293, 298, 301, 317, 337, 339). To these passages, we could likely add those where Stout addresses the characteristics of individual and individuality without explicitly attributing them to the former.

That said, it proves possible to sketch the broad outlines of individual and individuality from the content of the passages listed. Therefrom emerges a picture of individual and individuality: as the locus of self-cultivation (DT, p. 84); as “unique” and “irreplaceable” (DT, p. 200); as autonomous and distinct though social (DT, p. 282); as “self-enlarging, other-regarding, excellence-oriented” (DT, p. 293). From such passages, we can conjecture to individual and individuality as particularity writ large.

As concerns democratic deliberation and discursive norms, this conclusion falls into line with the notion of self-expression and storytelling presented: each person is charged with exposing just that which makes her an individual. More importantly, we find therein the democratic and discursive expression of the position of the individual, whereon individual is understood bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community. It remains, however, to be seen whether individuality as particularity and, more specifically, “democratic individuality” stand as ethically relevant notions, i.e. bearing a normative charge capable of guiding thought, speech and deed.

If self-cultivation consists, at least in part, in asking oneself what kind of person one wants to be, this notion then appeals to a notion of “identification”. More simply, the person must identify herself as being a certain kind of person as opposed to another. Although the means of identification often arise within the framework of a particularity community, group or practice, these means find themselves more and more strongly commodified by parties uninterested in individual self-cultivation. Consider that:

[The culture into which Black Nationalist style is being absorbed] is one in which commodities of all sorts are packaged as emblems of ethnic identities and marketed specifically to the appropriately susceptible demographic enclaves […] It is in the interest of the business elite to transform all forms of diasporic consciousness, functionally speaking, into obsession with life-style enclaves by commodifying the means of identification (DT, p. 47).

The real harm lies neither in the commodification of the means of identification nor in the “business” nature of the parties responsible. Rather, the harm flows from the externalization of the means of identification. When so commodified, these means are no longer the work of the person herself or of the practices in which she is involved, and it thereby falls to her at once to resist absorption into the social mass and to take those means back for herself and others through a politics of resistance:

The alternatives to cultural-nationalism-as-life-style are not ideologies, like democratic socialism and libertarian republicanism, but other life-styles made available on the same terms […] The political significance of recalling this commitment today [i.e. the ethical-aesthetic ideal of living one’s life as if one were creating a work of art] is that it projects the image of a human being too marked by individuality to be content with the life-style options the business elite is merchandising. The social practices Ellison valued were all ones in which individuality, and thus resistance to the commodity of identification, is cultivated. Resistance to the commodification of identity is now the essential starting point for a politics of resistance (DT, pp. 47-48).

In short, it is incumbent upon the person to refuse the menu of external options presented so that she might privilege those practices and lifestyles wherein the signs, terms and means of identity are not set in advance by outside parties. At this juncture, certain may worry that a “politics of resistance” does not concern all persons and the individual qua individual but merely those bound up in various sorts of cultural or ethnic nationalism, as per the passage’s example.

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