I love this phrase — it’s what I named my would-be think tank when I was 22: The Society of Individuals. Twenty years later and I still cling to, and seek to elucidate, what such a society might be.
In my last apartment here in San Francisco, I’d occasionally get a note slipped under my door, asking me to participate in the neighborhood group. I recoiled at such a prospect — partly for aesthetic reasons (I feared great tedium) and partly out of fear: I always imagine that I’m the one that will get run out of town by the barrio posse.
OK, you can call this paranoia. And no doubt it is. But it speaks to my greater issue with groups of any sort. Any time there is bonding around a common issue, it invites interrogation and condemnation for those who differ.
Take fans of a sport team. I, for one, like sports — at least some sports. But I’m not a fan of being a fan. It just seems strange to me: I want my team to win! But what makes it your team? And isn’t a good game better than your team winning?
I’ve learned the hard way that this is not a popular position. Which is to say, I’ve learned not to watch 49er games in a bar. Jesus! The violence of that community is palpable, seething, imminent. The night the Giants won the world series, I was sure I’d get my ass kicked for not giving the right high-5 to a drunkenly deranged stranger.
My point is this: I imagine a different kind of community, one that is not united in sameness but which agrees to enjoy difference. I like having a neighborhood; I lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years and enjoyed the company of barristas, bar keeps, shop owners, and locals. But what I enjoyed is not that we are all the same. What I enjoyed is how different everyone is, all the quirks and oddities, the tics and predilections.
A society of individuals is a communality built on difference. Now, that may seem oxymoronic but it’s not. It only seems that way because of the overwhelming prejudice for the sentimentality of agreement and unity. A society of individuals is a group of people who relish the fact that we are not the same, that we don’t always agree, that we are different.
Nietzsche says he only wants those who sit atop their own peak — not those who sit at his feet on the same mountain peak. This is how I imagine the society of individuals: each on his or her own peak, strong enough to bear the winds and solitude.
I only want to cavort with such people — those who hold forth with their idiosyncratic beliefs about life and love and goats and gin; those who spend weeks naked in the woods, building their own shelters and tracking mountain lions while covered in mule piss; those who make insane, beautiful films that emerge from the interaction with the camera, and who contemplate love at the same time; those who write poetical dictionaries and text books on atmospherics because it seems so, well, obvious; those who write avant normal pop songs in their basements at night, weaving together Led Zeppelin, The Cure, and Thelonious Monk. I want those who follow strange, uncharted paths and have no shame about it.
My politics is dedicated to creating such a society.