Resistance: On Groups, Individuals, Performance

The other day, I’m walking down the street only to find myself accosted by a young woman asking me to join Greenpeace — which is not as much a joining as it is a paying. One doesn’t join Greenpeace: one pays Greenpeace to do various things, I suppose, including accost people on the street.

Now, don’t get yourself in a tizzy (I’ve never written that word before: tizzy. I like it). Greenpeace might very well be a fine organization doing a world of good. I have no idea. Nor, really, do I care. What interests me is that this encounter was such a familiar encounter: it was consumerist. That is, Greenpeace mimics any other corporate brand, hocking its wares for money in exchange for stickers, tote bags, and that sense of having done something good. When, in fact, all you did was buy more shit.

Again, don’t get yourself in a tizzy. What I’m pointing to is the performance. That is, put aside the content for a moment — Greenpeace — and just look at the structure of behavior: it’s the same old shit. And I think — I stress this part: I think — that real change happens when structures of behavior change, not when we do the same old shit under a different umbrella.

And then there’s the whole group thing. I have what seems to be an ingrained resistance to groups. I don’t join ’em, however formal or informal. I don’t even have a group of friends — I swore off that shit after the hell of group politics that was college. I prefer the lone encounter. Or solitude.

But I am not advocating the selfish individualism that runs rampant in the US. I just don’t think that the way to resist said selfishness is through groups. Groups, as far as I can tell, foment sameness and with that violence: adhere to the group or die. (Think of that Seinfeld where Kramer refuses to wear the AIDS ribbon and they kick his ass for it. In fact, this is an ongoing theme of Larry David’s throughout “Seinfeld,” culminating in the finale which finds them in jail for apparent moral indifference.)

I return, then, to WS Burroughs’ ethics of the Johnson: the one who doesn’t stick his nose where it doesn’t belong but at the same time won’t let someone drown. This is my kind of ethics — rabidly individual but at the time thoroughly societal: A society of individuals.

And this is my politics, my ethics, my idea, my rhetoric: to build towards a society of individuals, a way to go with others but without demanding unity. This entails tolerance — who gives a fuck who wants to marry whom? Who gives a shit who fucks whom? And it implies a certain appreciation of diversity — after all, it’s a society of individuals and being an individual means being different. And so public discourse itself changes — rather than a media of conformity, we begin a media of multiplicity. And it asks for basic politeness, a sense of civility in the public arena: politeness allows individuals to negotiate public space without violence. It marks a respect for the other individual.

There are no doubt those who say: We don’t need more individuals. We need more cohesion, more togetherness. Perhaps. But I, for one, like my space and don’t want to give it up. And so I imagine a different kind of interconnectedness, a network of individuals. TC mark


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  • Tony

    I don't think believe the assertions that 1) Membership in a political/activist group by necessity promotes a stultifying sameness 2) that even if such an ill-defined “sameness” exists (people who agree with each other politically tend to organize together. I wouldn't characterize that as “sameness”) is violent or leads to violence.

    In history, group action has made far more impact than individuals. Civil Rights. Indian Liberation. Solidarity. Egypt. Women's Suffrage.

    So I think, as a political philosophy, this is probably a non-starter.

    Mr. Coffeen has written on TC before about the inherent problems and contradictions of modern industrial capitalist (he might argue that it is post-modern, post-industrialist, if I correctly detect that intellectual strain in his writing) life. But he offers no solutions other than to eschew group action in favor of “a different kind of interconnectedness, a network of individuals” and an ethics both “rabidly individual [and] thoroughly societal.” He offers no vision for what this could be or how this could work in reality. Instead we are lukewarmly admonished to be more tolerant and polite – laudable goals, certainly, but to paraphrase Susan B. Anthony – the well behaved seldom make history.

    This just feels like an attempt for Mr. Coffeen to justify to himself his own apathy.

    Also, if I have failed to get that this is satire, which it could very well be, my apologies.

    • nobody

      i don't think his goal was to necessarily offer solutions (and he's stated that in other articles), but rather to induce thought. (it is /thought/ catalog, after all.) judging by your reply, i think he succeeded. personally, i feel that the beginnings of any fundamental change are ideas, thoughts, and conversations.

      • Tony

        He may not offer solutions, but he most certainly is taking a position on what not to do.

    • Guest

      He doesn't offer a solution because he isn't writing for a peer-reviewed journal, just Thought Catalog

      • Hi

        Yeah, idg the complaints about the article being a non-starter. What's it supposed to start? This is TC, not, some kind of instructive dissertation/treatise posting zone.

  • Daniel Schealler

    I misread that as 'this entrails tolerance'.

  • Giron

    By taking a position doesn't mean you have to offer an unequivocal solution. That's problem in the US everyone thinks that if you adhere to a particular point of view you have to have all the solutions to that particular point of view. On group action, are you kidding me? Have you have ever read Gustav Lebons book on Madness and Crowds. The crowd is insipid and inane by default. Groups are the ones that cause most of the problems French Revolution, Nazi Germany, etc, etc. The crowd is a mere puppet to the indivdual. Groups do more harm than good, and there are plenty of atrocious examples that have shown this.

    • Tony

      1) People acting in groups have done bad things, and they have done good things. I don't think the French Revolution was a bad thing – the terror that followed, certainly, but the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a republic is probably one of the best things that happened in history, and it is certainly not on the level of Nazi Germany.

      2) I would argue that most human rights, many of them strongly protective of individual rights, were won by group or collective action, from the Magna Carta forward.

      3) Furthermore, let's not make the mistake of conflating crowd/mob dynamics with group or collective action. You can have collective action without having a mob.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Yes yes: I am actually trying to undo the group/individual dichotomy — a false dichotomy from the get go. In this essay — form the French essayer meaning to try —, I am trying to proffer different ways to think through some of these issues. And it seems to me that there is a prevalent figure standing right in front of us: the network, individual nodes all intimately intertwined to form a collective that is not a group, not a collective, not a mob.

      • Tony

        Collective action that does not respect the rights of the individual might be what you would best spend your time arguing against, rather than collective action, full stop. I don't think that a Seinfeld reference adequately makes the case that groups are necessarily and categorically violent, totalizing and problematic, and the number of counterexamples I've offered would suggest that a project to argue such is likely to fail in the face of evidence to the contrary.

        I also pose this question: In the example with Greenpeace, in what way were your rights as an individual subordinated to the group? Your main complaint against them was that their interaction with you was superficial and consumerist – by implication, you would have preferred a deeper or different level of interaction, or none at all. (I suppose none at all is your preference, given your stated antipathy towards “groups” of all kinds.) By arguing that “none at all” is the preferable option, it seems to me that you are basically advocating that people attempting to engage in collective action should keep quiet and go home, lest they offend those individuals who want nothing to do with them.

        You want to be the kind of person “who doesn’t stick his nose where it doesn’t belong but at the same time won’t let someone drown” – yet it seems you would prefer to remain unaware of the drowning person, because then you might be compelled to act. As I said previously, this piece is advocacy and justification of apathy, pure and simple.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Ah, this is the problem with trying to shift the terms of discourse: we speak past each other. Where in the world did I mention superficial? I said the encounter is structured like the exchange of capital for goods — which may be the problem to begin with. And so I wonder, out loud, if there may be other structures of the exchange. For instance, Burning Man practices a gift economy.

        I am advocating new kinds of encounter an exchange. If that's what you call apathy, so be it.

        And this is why I spend my time alone…..

      • Tony

        “when, in fact, all you did was buy more shit.” I read this comment as dismissive of the value of the transaction, and tried to encapsulate that with the word superficial. Perhaps you'd like to propose a better term for it – I think my point still stands.

  • Michael Koh

    this makes me sick

  • Steven Fiveoseveniam Lazaroff

    i think i agree with you. it's about behavior and all too often these 'groups' just promote currency leaving the pocket, not living differently.

    the actual activity content in being part of a group like 'greenpeace' seems to have already been made part of the architectural dynamic of the society we wish to foundationally shake. it seems like greenpeace, tho decidedly 'nonconformist' and 'antagonistic to the status quo' on the surface is subsumed within western, capitalistic behavioral schema, ensconced firmly in the rear of the intestinal tract, destined only to show itself when individuals drag their ass on the floor like dogs. it's just an impacted bowel movement, occasionally making it uncomfortable for people passing on the street. and a tax write-off.

    but there's a difference between 'groups' and 'communities', right? and i think thats what you're getting at? communities don't require a secret handshake, identification card, or annual dues. they dont even need to be acknowledged; they just need to be formed by parallel philosophies, converging streams of behavior. however, i do think to be transcendental, meaningful, rupturing, we need a little bit (just a little bit!) more actively formed communities, not just incidentally formed communities which leave us unaware and despairing.

    i know people like us eschew labels, but you seem like a 'regular-ole' anarcho-communitarian to me, coffeen. maybe a lil more anarcho than communitarian. ha. play on.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I dig your thoughtful comment, through and through. And, yes, you articulate my point about Greenpeace perhaps better than I did. Thank you.

      Community is a good word. And I, for one, have thrived within a certain operation of community — the neighborhood. I've always been quite attracted to the neighborhood, this place of great intimacy and, at the same, respect for privacy. I've seen the same people day in and day, more or less, for 20 years. And this builds a certain caring: we look out for each other. And yet no one is all up in my shit and I ain't in theirs.

      So, yes, community: it is what I'm talking about — it's a small, local society of individuals.

      Thanks for that.

    • christopher lynsey

      Your community / group distinction is awesome.


    They need money to do things.

  • to

    I really like your writing,

  • savagegirl

    It's curious to me that this also stirred the hornets' nest. You've really got a way with folks, but as for the greenpeace thing, it is only commerce. I worked for a similar non-profit in my early twenties.
    This is the business model: the canvasser gets a 'turf' with 40-60 'doors' each 'door' gets the 'rap'-which includes a comeback for every possible response-and there is a 'quota' you must raise each night- before long you realize your 'quota' only pays your salary. You work strange hours-sort of 2nd shift-and are strongly encouraged by leadership to socialize with coworkers.
    There was a younger demographic in the office and a 'hipper than thou' atmosphere, also encouraged. There was also a weeknight 'staff night' party held weekly occaisionally at the office itself but mostly held at any place that openly allowed underage drinking, usually private homes, and also that the use of illegal drugs was not a problem.
    Alas, you are are not the 'foot soldier of the revolution' you have been marketed to yourself as, but a jerk knocking on people's doors during dinner to swindle a few bucks and their golden information to keep your sorry ass on the payroll and give the 'phone canvas' new 'prospects' to torture for the real money that went only to pay some shiny shoes lobbyist to politely request that legislators vote our way on issues we campaigned on-but sometimes there was no real campaign just the commerce.
    To be clear, I was already more radical in my thinking that this organization, so I took the job for other reasons, new friends, new place to live and a new sex partner or two. The job sucked mostly, but those other reasons have worked out better than I ever could have imagined…
    I've since talked to folks that worked for other non profits, even greenpeace. They all reported about the same thing.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I can't seem to speak without encouraging strangers' wrath. Alas, such is my fate (I've even been loathed for my use of “alas” — for alas! Jesus, what has the world come to).

      I will admit that, when younger, I was known to enjoy the conversation of do-gooder street thugs — especially those of the feminine persuasion. But it never got me laid. Perhaps that is the source of my distaste……

      • Daniel Schealler

        Wrath beats apathy.

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