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       mf : It seems to us that in contemporary acts of civil disobedience we also encounter the complex and delicate problem of the relation between “individual” resistance and “collective” engagement. In your opinion, when and by which paths does individual resistance to the governmental regime of performance (on the part of a teacher, a doctor, a civil servant) become a collective practice? In other words, what we are asking – and we asked Christian Laval the same question – is if the “refusal to obey”, that is: the practice of disobedience as such, which says no to the governmental power of performance, constitutes by itself a politically efficacious critique against this power. Or, if this is not the case, how would it be possible to go from the negativity of individual refusal to the positivity of collective struggle?

       S. Laugier, A. Ogien : In any case disobedience requires us to defend a form of individualism – because the monopoly of the individual, so to speak, should not be handed over to neoliberalism and certain destructive modalities of individualism. Too often the tendency on the left has been to abandon this theme of individualism, and sometimes for good reasons: contradiction between the needs of the individual and social relations, the foregrounding of commercial individualism and the cynical “get rich” attitude, and also for theoretical reasons – notably in connection with critiques of methodological individualism, and of the neoliberal ideology, which grounds all thought about social action on fictitious autonomous individuals, with no reference to social relations and the public good. It is customary, by the way, to deplore the process of individualization that according to many analysts (sociologists, historians) is characteristic of modernity and which leads each person to place her private life, her subjective territory and her particular interests, at the center. From this we get a very unflattering picture of individualism, opposed to conceptions of collective interest and care for the collective that are traditionally established on the left.

This negative image is reinforced, more actually and anecdotically, by the emergence, in public and political life, of narcissistic figures, which present a caricature of an individualism we will call, fall lack of a better term, “vulgar”: the search for personal profit, not only the in frantic culture of the ideal individual promoted in the media and celebrity culture, but also in the exhibition of signs of wealth or individual success. What we can do, bringing again together Wittgenstein and Foucault, is to give individualism back its meaning, and thus to draw distinctions between forms of individualism; not to hand individualism over to this right-wing modality, an individualism that is not only selfish, but deprived of meaning and of an ideal, lacking any real individuality. It seems that a form of individualism which is yet to be defined is essential to democracy as such.

The thought of Cavell, and the tradition of XIXth century American thought, Emerson and Thoreau, theorists of civil disobedience and self-reliance, revalidate a radical and critical form of individualism. They show, like Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy, that reflection about the individual calls for a new definition of what counts as a just expression, a coherent voice; it is not enough to express oneself to have a voice, as is also shown in Foucault’s analyses of individual and public expression. The voice is indissolubly personal and collective, and the more it expresses the singular, the more capable it is of representing the collective. A voice, then, must bear a claim, and express the others: not only speak on behalf of those who cannot, an idea that is often brought up in electoral processes, but that is condescending and has no future. One does not speak on behalf of another, one must already be capable of speaking on one’s own behalf, of taking responsibility for speaking up.

At the heart of the question of the voice there is the question: by virtue of what are we able to say us? (Only) I can say what we say. The shared use of language directly raises a political question, which is that of the necessity of the individual voice and of dissent. It’s the idea that one must find one’s own voice in politics: we find this thematization of the voice in Emerson and the idea of self-reliance. Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance affirms that genuine individual expression is legitimated as public when it is genuine.

« To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost. »[1]

This leads Emerson to a critique of conformism and moralism, understood as the incapacity to speak up, to stand behind what one says, to be in fact the subject of one’s speech. Reliance is not rooted in an existent individuality, it is constitutive of individuality: the constitution of the individual is achieved through each person’s search for her voice, the appropriate tone, the adequate expression. It involves, at the same time, an individual constitution – Emerson says “to follow one’s constitution” – and a common one: to find a political constitution that allows each person to find expression, to be expressed by the common and to consent to express the common.

Here then we find a formula for individualism: in the idea of self-reliance, and in the dialectic of consent and disobedience that is proper to the meaning of democracy. In this way individualism becomes a democratic principle, the principle of each person’s political and expressive competence. Each person must know what is convenient for her, and each time in a singular manner. This is why commercial individualism in not true individualism; instead, it relies on a generalized and abstract individual with stereotyped needs (money, Prada dresses, Rolex watch): an individualism without individuality.

True individualism is not egoism, it is attention to the other as singular, and to each person’s specific expression; it is awareness of the ordinary situations in which others are involved. For all these reasons the attention to those who are vulnerable is part of what is at stake in individualism. True individualism becomes concrete attention to each person: the ethics of care intends to valorize care for others not against the care of the self, but as the basis for a real care of the self – against ways of understanding the category of the “vulnerable” from above, which are often hypocritical. To assess the importance of the care of the individual presupposes the recognition of the fact that vulnerability is shared. This reminds us, against the ideal of autonomy, which is insufficient, of the fact that we are in need of others for the satisfaction of our needs, and that each person is in need of particular attention. Today, the dismantling of the state (education, university, hospitals and general public services) is the primary source of the vulnerabilization of individuals: the loss of protection from the community, which is the only possible framework for a fruitful life for the majority. For these reasons, it is not possible to contrapose individualism and solidarity; the individual will only be protected by insisting on the need for a society in solidarity, attentive to the vulnerability and specific expression of each. True individualism is also attention to singular others. 

[1] R.W. Emerson, Self-Reliance [1841], in The Portable Emerson, ed. by C. Bode and M. Cowley, Penguin Books, New York 1977, p. 138.


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