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Critiques of Individualism as Will to Power

Critiques of individualism are as legion as critiques of modernity in theological circles. But anymore I’m not even sure what a critique of individualism is supposed to do. Ostensibly authors of books lodging theological critiques of individualism are hoping to somehow reshape society or at least generate some substantive sub-cultures that don’t fall prey to being “individualistic,” however that be defined.

But what would that even look like? What makes today’s world so particularly individualistic in a way that is different from the rest of history up till now? The only thing I can think of is that today people (in the West anyway) have more power to make choices about how to live life. So a few hundred years ago most people probably didn’t have the option to pick up and change the way or place where they were living life. They were embedded in something stable, or at least hard to disturb without significant trauma on many levels. Now that level of trauma has been significantly reduced. Human bonds are more fragile, less likely to be permanent.

Hence “rampant individualism”?

I kind of don’t think so. In the first place, I don’t think all that many people today are actually going to seriously argue that it is wrong and bad for people to be able to make decisions about how and where to live. The radical discomfit that people seem to have with individualism is that they don’t like the modes of life many people choose and so they start launching polemics about the horrors of individualism, often with a nostalgic reference to how things used to be more given, more stable, more solid. Romantic references to “place” and “land” tend to come up a lot here.

But, here’s the rub: those lodging this critique certainly don’t think that they should have to give up or be denied their ability to shape the course of their life. The most ardent critics of individualism are remarkably mobile and nomadic fellows from what I’ve see. They go where the university posts take them with little regard for “place” or “land” or “community.”

Now, I’m not that interested in just pointing out a potential inconsistency between some intellectuals’ published positions and their actions. My point is more basic and more important than that. It seems to me that the people who most ardently criticize individualism are people who are concerned about a loss of power to shape society (or the church) towards their understanding of the good. Put concisely, “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman.

It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. Its hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today).

If there can be a non-ideological mode of critiquing individualism I have yet to find it. Mind you I’m not saying that I think all the modes of life that characterize modern life are all fine and dandy. I manifestly do not. But, the impulse to structurally change and shape the conditions of social life in order to bring about one’s own vision of the good society is totalitarian. All despots believe that they are doing what’s ultimately good for the populace while insisting that the choosing and interpretation of that good must be out of the hands of the people themselves. They cannot be trusted to choose it so it must be imposed on them by a stable life, rooted in a particular place where things just “are” the right way. You know, my way. They way where I have power. Because at least that’s not individualistic.


  1. Great thoughts, Halden.

    I remember someone sharing a story with me about their professor who identified as a Marxist and drove a sweet sports car. The student questioned him about this, to which the professor responded: “After the revolution, we will all drive sports cars.”

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  2. dbarber wrote:

    Or, as I’ve heard it: I’m a Marxist, not a Christian. (ie, enjoyment not moralism)

    Good post. I wonder if, in a deeper sense, individualistic and totalizing conceptions actually need one another, are two sides of the same coin, etc. In my mind, what’s necessary is to avoid both and to pose against them, equally, a pluralistic conception.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  3. Aric Clark wrote:

    I think your criticism is valid if we are very vague about what individualism means or if we are, as you say, merely using it to argue that society should be structured the way WE want it to be (doesn’t everyone think this though?).

    Here are some examples of “individualism” that I think are bad:

    #1 Jesus & Me theology. I said a prayer. Jesus entered my heart. Now I’m saved. How about you? We are all saved as “individuals” – true?

    #2 Exchanging the extended family or kin group for nuclear families or autonomous individuals. It is a huge burden on society to expect that each individual will own his or her own home, his or her own car, his or her own parcel of land. It is costly and wasteful and we lose a lot of “goods” this way – communal child-rearing, shared resources diminishing the chances of “individuals” being lost to extreme poverty etc… Clearly we also gain some goods, but it is not a neutral transaction. It could be worth arguing that this form of individualism is more harmful than beneficial.

    #3 Excessive “rights” talk. Freedom of speech conceived of as an individual right rather than as a social good means that I don’t have to be concerned if my speech is offensive or harmful to other people. It is my right to make rape jokes, and that is all that matters right?

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Austin Eisele wrote:

    I think you miss the point of much of the critique. It’s not merely a romanticism that falls back to eariler times before individualism (although it is sometimes), but rather a critique of the notion that humans really are autonomous in a fully substantial sense, and that much Enlightenment thought creates an illusion of autonomy. Those person “choices” we have are illusory, in other words, and only a recognition of our lack of autonomy, or rather our dependence upon our communities, is there any substantial notion of freedom. In various strands of thought, say Marixism, this illusion bolsters the power of one party over another, or, in the case of Nietzsche, this illusion retrains the artistic genius or the “future man.”

    Furthermore, don’t you think it’s appropriate that these critiques are animated by a certain revulsion at the modern world? How has our modern choices enable anything to be much better? Of course no one can some jump out of our own time (“Hic saltus, hic Rhodus,” as Hegel was fond of saying), so Bellah et al can’t somehow go back to an agrarian eden (or even Port Royal, KY), but still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid critique (you’re trucking, in my mind, with the genetic fallacy in this post by looking at their motives like that).

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Brad E. wrote:

    Wendell Berry is an example of a non-hypocrite who specifically left academia for a return to home, and has been there for 40+ years; bell hooks, a womanist author and poet, is a fellow Kentuckian who also recently did the same (see her recent book Belonging).

    I grasp your point, and agree to some extent, but your criticism comes off as totalizing when it also seems like your main object of scorn is white tenured academics. But there are plenty more critics and critiques of individualism that aren’t relegated to that category! Personally I am less interested in what I might tell other Americans about their so-called rampant individualism than I am helping myself and other Christians learn habits to counteract our own destructive tendencies to believe that the most important question at any one moment is, “Will this choice/action/event lead to my pleasure/benefit/long-term-happiness?” Sure, that self-absorption has been around forever; but it is also uniquely focused in American life, and the church seems, more often than not, blind to it.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Austin, you actually make my point for me here. You make claims like “those person[al] “choices” we have are illusory” but are you prepared to give up those choices? Do you think they seem illusory to the millions of impoverished human being in the third world and elsewhere? People deprived of these “illusory” opportunities are desperate for them.

    Likewise when you ask “How has our modern choices enable anything to be much better?” I can’t imagine your really mean that. Do you really think hospitals, clean water, effective transportation, etc. don’t really matter? They certainly matter to the people who don’t have them.

    Also there’s no genetic fallacy here. I’m not condemning something on the basis of its origin. What I’m saying is that what these critiques are actually doing is not something good in the here and now.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  7. Austin Eisele wrote:

    Well, of course I would not give up those illusory choices. But the critique is that those choices neither give us freedom, nor give us happiness (the two general criteria for the good life in most theories). I would actually agree with that wholeheartedly, no matter my love for Chiswick brewery or Indian food, because much of our choices in the modern west are dependent upon the backs of the improverished third world who are desparate for them. In fact, it has been your blog that has opened up this dimension for me, because of your love of Stringfellow and discussions of Empire and the gospel. People like Richard Horsley and Warren Carter make a good case that Rome and the West are not all that different, and our “choices” are often created because we have the rest of the world as our resource.

    What I mean by “much better” is a century of continual genocide, the not-so-slow destruction of our world through ecological exploitation, and again, that happiness question. Technological innovation matters, of course, and there is no going back to another period. But still, just because the lenght of our lives (at least in the super rich west) is longer doesn’t mean that it is better, no matter how much we might desire these longer lives.

    In terms of the genetic fallacy, I think that any charge of the will to power (unless your using it in its Nietzschean, positive sense) falls into the genetic fallacy. You’re saying that these individualism arguments arise out of anxiety, fear, etc., and so their authors must be jockying for some position of power over these fears (or others, the hoi polloi or whatever). That is condemning on the basis of origin.

    Of course, if you just saying that they aren’t actually doing something here and now, that’s probably the best critique of much decrying of individualism. Right now I’ve been reading Yoders “Body Politics”, and in his very first chapter (“Binding and Loosing”) I think he makes an excellent critique of individualism by SHOWING a counter practice. Would that be an acceptable critique to you?

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  8. melissa f-b wrote:

    One of the more important critiques of individualism has to do with those who have no modern conception of self, e.g. the profoundly disabled, mentally ill. Individualism isn’t just scary for people who “want to control the social lives of others.” Some of us are put into situations where we have no other choice than to make very intrusive decisions for men and women who cannot chose for themselves. Many people who work with the intellectually disabled find critiques of individualism necessary to make sense of their lives and the lives of the people they work with.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Umm, I think you’re lumping a lot of the horrors of the modern age into the term “individualism” here in a way that obscures rather than clarifies.

    I’m not condemning anything on the basis of origin, only on the basis of the actual content and function of these sorts of critiques of individualism. There could be many licit critiques arising out of fear or anger. The one in question here however is manifestly not.

    Its interesting that you mention Yoder here, though. What Yoder does not do is offer a critique of “individualism” as such. Rather he describes the missional form of the church’s life irrespective of the surrounding society. Indeed, for many theologians critical of individualism, Yoder’s ecclesiology is manifestly too individualistic because it insists on the voluntary nature of Christian commitment.

    In fact, that’s precisely why I think Yoder is far more helpful, as you hint at, in addressing the actual problems of the current time. He doesn’t spin his wheels decrying individualism. Rather he offers us a politics of mission grounded in the action of Jesus. I think that’s heading in a better direction.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    That’s a good point. Thanks.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  11. Austin Eisele wrote:

    Well, I’ve lumped them there in response to your own lumping to the goods of modernity, that’s all. But again, the point is that those “choices” are not what makes for a better world. I think the critiques of individualism are often taking aim at a possesiveness that leads to exploitation, the destruction of “locality” or local bonds, and even for individuals themselves to help determine the good. In other words, modern individualism is merely the flip side of an exploitative system that puts to sleep the bourgeoise at the expense of an underclass.

    I agree wholeheartly about Yoder. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone criticizing his discussions of the Jesus movement as “voluntary” as if that is individualism in the modern sense. Clearly it is not, unless your definition of “individualism” is “a person who makes a decision” – which would be pretty silly. I think, especially in “The Politics of Jesus”, that his discussions of servanthood is probably the best critique of individualism I’ve ever read (and of course, he never mentions the word).

    There, and in the “Revolutionary Subordination” chapter, Yoder is a real psychological realist, and basically argues that the gospel shows us that to be fully human is to be in this position of depedence and subordination, because that is how Jesus was as the suffering servant. To my mind, that is not really at odds with the critique part of say Marx and others, although it is grounded in a much more convincing manner.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Fair enough on the lumping. I agree about Yoder. But its true; people criticize him all over the place for his “voluntarism” which they think is inadequate to respond to “individualism” and such. That sort of dynamic gets to the root of the problem of building theology as individualism-critique that I was trying to get at in the post.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Also just so its clear, I intend this post to be a sort self-critical mode of reflection. I think the impulse towards “theology as individualism critique” needs to be examined precisely because I instinctively identify with it.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  14. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Bravo, Halden. As someone who has himself denigrated something called “individualism” in both class and in print, I stand convicted, and will repent of my misleading ways.

    Your argument is strongest, I think, when you point out that people who lament “individualism” are indeed, as you say, people who want to control other people’s lives. Still, I’m taken aback by your final paragraph, where you assert that the desire to change the structures of society in order to bring about one’s vision of the good life is “totalitarian.” That’s rhetorical overkill, don’t you think? By that standard, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a fascist. (Though I do sort of agree about Milbank, who has a not-often-so-thinly veiled contempt for democracy. The more I read and ponder his work, the more creeped out I get. Lately, he’s even taken to panegyrics about monarchy, King Alfred, etc. Really batty stuff.) Would you argue that it’s “totalitarian” to persuade rather than coerce others into structural change for the sake of one’s vision of the good life?

    The question, it seems to me, is not about “individualism” but about “liberalism,” as in “liberal individualism.” That’s why I tend to agree with what I take Austin to be saying — that critiques of “individualism” are really about capitalism. Capitalism — leavened and sanctioned by liberal individualism — fosters an acquisitive sense of selfhood through which, ironically, individual freedom is in fact limited. The “freedom” to make money, buy stuff, move from job to job, etc., forces you to live by the logic of capital.

    But capital, as Marx would remind us, is a social power. You can’t avoid some kind of conversation and political action about social structures. Any kind of freedom or selfhood is inseparable from those structures, so you can’t dismiss the desire to change them as totalitarian.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Gene, thanks for the comment. I suppose I should have modulated my comments somewhat when I brought up the issue of fascism (Why is rehorical overkill ever so easy and fun?). Indeed, I do not think that persuasion is fascist. I suppose what I meant by “structurally change and shape” was something more akin to what John Howard Yoder called seizing hold of history to move it in the right direction. Or, to put it even more succinctly, when I referred to “the impulse” to structurally change society, what I really should have said was, again in Yoder’s words “the compulsiveness of purpose that leads us to violate the dignity of others.” It is precisely that compulsiveness of purpose that I see all over the many tirades I hear, often from conservative evangelicals and First Things Catholics.

    On the whole, I intended the critique to be aimed at, as you say “people who want to control other people’s lives” and who use the critique of individualism to pursue that end.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  16. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    “Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts”

    Are you sure you haven’t forgotten white male pastors at evangelical megachurches? What is interesting for me is to see a kind of abreactive overcompensation from people who leave that kind of setting. Once people discover that critics of “rampant individualism” display it they stumble over themselves to display the rampant individualism they used to criticize along with whomever they aligned themselves with and become the very problem they used to worry about.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  17. Josh Rowley wrote:

    Aric, to your three examples of ills fueled by individualism I would add consumerism and violence. (I would also expand #2 by adding that individualism devalues church and other forms of community and qualify #3 with the observation that there is a difference between working for rights for others and demanding rights for ourselves.) Individualism undergirds consumerism, which tends to be self-absorbed and unsustainable. Barry Harvey makes this connection in the book StormFront:

    “In our time and place individuals hearken to whatever promises to provide them with the ‘choices’ that will satisfy their self-directed appetites. Unfortunately, the consuming spirit of our age has taken possession of most Christians in North America, and as a result they too find it difficult to imagine another way of life. They assume along with virtually everyone else that the primary purpose in life is to make choices that will satisfy their own interests and desires in every sphere allotted to them by the commercial institutions of society. Numbered among those spheres is religion.” (5)

    Similarly, individualism can undergird violence in at least two ways: (1) it can intensify the natural instinct of self-preservation to unnatural levels, and (2) it can blind us to the interrelatedness and interdependence of all life, thereby making us more likely to devalue the lives of others.

    If self-denial is part of discipleship (cf. Mark 8:34), then it seems to me that individualism is antithetical to following Jesus.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  18. roger flyer wrote:

    Excellent point

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  19. roger flyer wrote:

    Nice self disclosure Halden.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  20. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.” — Ayn Rand

    Hillel’s Paradox encounters Ayn Rand’s objectivism:
    Back in the day (of Temple sacrifice) there were basically 2 kinds of offerings, individual/personal (for individual sins or personal thanksgiving, etc.), and communal/collective offerings (for collective atonement and/or thanksgiving). Turns out, once and awhile Passover falls on Shabbat, and it is forbidden by Torah law to offer individual offerings then. But the mandated Passover offering has elements of both the (unlawful) personal, and the (obligatory) communal, so what is one to do? Well, they called the big thinkers in the Sanhedrin together to sort this all out, one can imagine all the back and forth, and meanwhile sins were piling up un-atoned and G-D was going un-thanked (and all the sheep and goats were making a mess). Finally, Hillel, the newbie from Babylon (of, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” fame) is asked to comment and decide the matter. And what was his decision? Turns out Hillel had been reading his Yoder, Marx, and Obama and affirmed that the communal aspects of the offering were to be privileged in the Passover offering thus making it lawful. Reckon this seems a bit of a moot point now, Dome of the Rock and all, still, Hillel was great with the memorable one-liners. Might be some light in what he said. Obliged.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  21. Brad A. wrote:

    So I’m curious about your reading of folks like Cavanaugh, Halden. What do you think about his narrative of individualism and his critique of it as an ideology?

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  22. Brad A. wrote:

    Again, I should direct you to Scott Bader-Saye’s book (alluded to in our earlier argument on Israel) – he’s specifically using biblical Israel in part to challenge modern individualism. I’d be interested in your reaction to his arguments.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  23. J. Tyson wrote:

    The critique of the predominant form of liberal individualism is much needed, most forms of individualism are off-putting. Where the problem lies is in the constant advocation for a ‘return’ of some sort, often to some sort of imaginary ‘good society’, which is akin to a basketball fan arguing for a return to wooden backboards – it simply will never happen.

    Professor McCarraher is exactly right: we are not individualistic enough. In the sense, that we experience individualism on the cheap via remaining (do we have choice, though?) within the apparatus of capital. The most interesting forms of individualism are seen in the nomad, the prophet, the disciple who chooses exodus: the one who does not posses her individualism, but is open to hospitality that may or may not be offered from people along the way. This might shed light on an individualistic form of life that does not hoard and keep others at bay, but wanders alone in search of parables of the kingdom, where the spirit in empowering new forms of living.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    I don’t read Cavanaugh as doing “theology as individualism critique.” His work is markedly different from, say, Bellah who is seeking to offer a new vision of society as a whole to be implemented (after all, Cavanaugh’s main work doesn’t even deal with the United States or Europe). That’s exactly what Cavanaugh does not do. Sure, he notes that the modern nation state is predicated on fragmenting and atomizing other social bodies (though this isn’t about creating individuals, its about turning over the control of bodies to the state), but he’s not dealing out of the sort of angst for societal change that the people I have in mind tend to foster.

    There are certainly some things to challenge in Cavanaugh’s constructive account of theopolitics, but in general I consider his work very stimulating and helpful.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  25. Brad A. wrote:

    I agree in your second paragraph. And I’m on board with your general critique here if you’re largely aiming at arguments for less individuality but with the theological status quo. However, Cavanaugh specifically argues for the creation of the individual, either in Eden (“Church” in Blackwell Companion), or in most of his other work, in modernity. That’s a key claim of his.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  26. Studiosus Sorenus wrote:

    “There is a fear of letting people loose, a fear that the worst will happen once the individual enjoys carrying on like an individual. Moreover living as the individual is thought to be the easiest thing of all, and it is the universal that people must be coerced into becoming. I can share neither this fear nor this opinion, and for the same reason. No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.”

    Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink
  27. anonymous wrote:

    Halden, in response to your comment about feminist critiques, I would point you to Luce Irigaray, who actually offers a kind of critique of individualism as a feminist. She too recognizes the ideological problems inherent in such a critique, and I find her way of wrestling with that to be helpful.

    Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  28. Alex wrote:

    This is a subtle post and I have been thinking recently about many of the same issues. I think people in theology and outside critiquing ‘individualism’ need to keep up their critique to the next level.

    My problem is that critiques of ‘individualism’ which dovetails with critiques of ‘liberalism’ is that weirdly, they believe that social atomism is real while simultaneously recommending a community. This is because people don’t even become consumeristic individuals without wanting to be part of a social group, as sociology tells us. In short, you can’t generate social atomism because humans can’t exist atomistically anyway, they are always seeking social approval. So you uber consumerist kid buys Nikes because he wants to be in the “in gang” – part of a social group – not because he wants to be an atomistic individual. You can see this is in all sub-cultures and all consumerism – people buy not to be individuals, but to fit in. Marxism (with all its attendent problems of perhaps completely erasing the individual – but, naturally, early Marx at least had a response to this as well as many elements of the tradition) at least tries to understand this with some more subtly as someone points out above.

    I use scare quotes over ‘liberalism’ since critiques of liberalism often neglect and reduce the vital differences between liberalism and neoliberalism, the latter being the important force of our times. Neoliberalism grew out of a negative reaction to the developments in liberalism (sometimes articulated by Christians) that tended towards a more subtle form of social liberalism where you saw that community empowers the individual – Hobhouse and Tawney are obvious examples. These were mostly linked to theologically liberal positions, a bit like Albert Schweitzer, which is something interesting to note in passing.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink
  29. Brad A. wrote:

    Alex, the difference for many of these theologians, however, is the type of “community” being formed, and by what means. There is, for them, a distinct difference between a community of belonging marked by self-giving on the one hand, and on the other hand, a group formed via social contract merely to further the interests of the individual. The latter is arguably not even “community” in any substantive sense.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  30. Alex wrote:

    Yes of course, I agree and this is the power of their work. But then they need to make sure it is clear what they are saying.

    Critiques of atomism veer wildly off target when they fail to recognise that atomism doesn’t really exist. This is shown in your response in a sense. People don’t form “a group [...] via social contract merely to further the interests of the individual” unless we are talking about formal economic relations. At least not immediately, though the market can codify relations like this. People do things to fit into a social group, or particularly, into a class. This is why I used the Nike example – people buy expensive sneakers to fit into a particular group (of course, not the best kind of one) not to further their interests in a strictly market related one – they certain seek a sense of belonging, though generally one with no element of self-giving.

    So what I’m saying is a deeper level of analysis is needed here.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  31. Brad A. wrote:

    People certainly do form groups like that outside of formal economic relations – that is clear in modern democracy across the board, which cannot be reduced merely to economic relations. I’d have to disagree with you on this point; I think you are too narrowly defining social contract and self-interest. You mention the Nike example, but I think that’s relatively petty and doesn’t reflect the broad range of beliefs and practices taken into account in many theological portrayals of individualism.

    How would you handle individualism in biblical hermeneutics, or in worship, or in political identity and practice, etc., etc? Sure people are wanting to be in a group sometimes, but that is usually a group of their own individual choosing; and the ability to choose without interference from “external” forces is precisely what is being extolled in the systems these theologians are critiquing. Would that person buying the Nike shoes want to be guided in their purchase of footwear by a community or communities of discipline that actually bind them in some way? Probably not.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    I think you’re failing to grasp Alex’s important point here. The point is that many critiques argues that the modern nation state/capitalism/consumerism is designed to “atomize” social groups thus creating “individuals.”

    But this is false when you look deeply, as Alex as done, at the actual phenomenon. What is happening is not in fact the creation of a bunch of unique individuals, but of new communities of many sorts often united around products, trends, political, religious, or social sensibilities, etc.

    In other words its really not a question of “individualism vs. community” but rather a constant negotiation of social forces that simultaneously create, shape, and prey on all sorts of communities. So we need to think in terms not of individualism as opposed to community formation, but in terms of what sorts of communities are good and which are not.

    Its far to easy to fall into the rhetorical binary of individual=bad/community=good. Community can be utterly demonic, I’d say generally more so than “individuals”.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  33. Brad A. wrote:

    No Halden, I’m not failing to grasp this. Cavanaugh, for instance, does indeed account for this when he argues in the context of the state that individualism is a means to social reordering, i.e., toward individual members connected to the state. Arguments about the atomization of social groups (Cavanaugh, Nisbet, Bell, etc.), as I have read them, almost always occur within the context of ultimate reordering, not ultimate disordering. The individualization is an intermediate phase. We can, of course, disagree with their account of things, but individualization/atomization is not, for them, the end. To suggest so misses the entire point of their arguments.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  34. Alex wrote:

    Halden does a good job of saying what I am saying.

    If you examine social groups, people tend not to choose things with the kind of libertarian freedom you are advocating. People tend not to choose things that are radically outside of what is normal for their socio-economic group (with all the money power or lack of it to do what you want to do), for example, delimited by their geographical location, the way they are formed. What I am saying in part is that “the ability to choose without interference from “external” forces” is actually false. I doesn’t actually happen. People are always influenced by external forces and people do not join “a group of their own individual choosing” but a group that is in part the result of actually external influences. Plus on the flip side, allowing people to believe they can individuate themselves leads to an idea that they don’t effect anyone else – yet the point is surely that this is false, and their actions, whether in the marketplace or in the ecological systems they inhabit do effect someone else. Hence if they are even minimally moral, they need to consider this when making decisions and equally others need to consider them.

    I would handle individualism in the fields you mention by examining the sociological backdrop for these practices. No one decides to start reading the Bible as individuals on their own, but because social forces told them this. But I might add genuinely individualistic readings of the Bible seem to be rather rare. I’m guessing you are talking about contemporary evangelical movements, and it seems to me that, in fact, their reading is far from individualistic. They have very strong social rules as to what reading is acceptable and what is not and they enforce them very strongly. One only needs to look at the reactions in certain quarters to NT Wright’s recent book on justification to see that this is the case. Then again, I’m just throwing this out there, I’d have to spend a lot of time in a mega church to work out what was going on.

    If you take the social ontology of Macintyre et al seriously then the ‘individualization’ phase is actually rather difficult to ‘pick out’. In a sense, the reordering is at the same time as the individuating or any ‘surface effect’ of individualising. Hence there is no Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ of atomised individuals before the reordering comes along.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  35. Brad A. wrote:

    Alex, I don’t really think we disagree all that much. I don’t deny what you say here; in fact, I argue it at points in my own work. I was simply suggesting that the folks I mentioned might not fall under the critique that has been leveled here to the degree some think they do. No one that I read denies what you say here – I do interdisciplinary work with theology and the social sciences, after all – but I didn’t think that they way certain scholars were being generalized about was accurate or fair. That’s all I was saying – rather a small point.

    Monday, December 21, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  36. Arild wrote:

    I assume, by your title, that you are refering to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘will to power’ as the fundamental aspect of human volition. Are you granting credit the Nietzsche’s ideas, or are you using the term as an ideological epthet to critcize the mentioned opponents of individualism? I am inclined to think that you are using the term ‘will to power’ to convey a negative sense of egotism in a condescending manner (akin to how the term ‘socialist’ is thrown around by political conservatives). Am I right or what?

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  37. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, that’s pretty much right. I wasn’t intending to capture or comment on the subtleties of Nietzsche’s whole construction, just making about point about the ideological nature of many theological critiques of “individualism.”

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

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