What if I told you that there’s no such thing as an individual action? That every time you eat, walk up the stairs or read a book, you are not the sole agent behind what you are doing, but are engaged in a process of co-creation – as much acted-upon as acting?
To grasp what I mean here, imagine riding a horse. While I can effortlessly distinguish between myself and a horse, I’m aware that neither I nor the horse alone can produce the action of riding. Riding emerges as a kind of co-action between myself and others, and these others are not limited to the horse: they extend towards the particularities of the terrain, the open space that affords movement, the training that the horse and I have undertaken together, the bridle and saddle, and even the food we have ingested to give us energy. All these agencies and many more collaborate to produce the event of riding.
I’m going to suggest that, just like riding, all actions are collective. While this would be close to common sense for a Chinese philosopher of the ‘classical period’ (roughly 6th to 2nd century BCE), it might seem counterintuitive to those of us raised in Western contexts.
There’s currently a dominant tendency in what we call ‘the West’ (the Anglosphere and some parts of Europe) to buy into the myth of individualism: the notion that individuals alone are responsible for their failure or success, that we are self-reliant and independent from each other and the natural world. Basically, that we can do things by ourselves. A prominent manifestation of individualism is the American Dream – which in her book Cruel Optimism (2011) Lauren Berlant called a desire that becomes ‘an obstacle to your own flourishing’. Individualism promises prosperity and success based on individual effort and merit, but it delivers ideas and conditions that make those things unattainable for all but a privileged few. Under this ideology, drug addicts are blamed for their weakness, pregnant women who choose not to become mothers are shamed for their recklessness, and the unemployed are condemned for their laziness. Yet in a world where corporations manipulate doctors to overprescribe drugs, where reproductive rights are in retreat, and where jobs are often humiliating, exhausting and poorly paid, individualism has become a cover for those very entities responsible for these grave injustices and inequalities. The performance of an ideology that supposedly benefits the person but brings about the opposite of what was intended – that’s the notion of cruel optimism. [Continue reading…]