Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Means of Individuation: Castel on the Dialectics of Individuality

In the essay publishes as the conclusion to La Montée des Incertitudes: Travail, Protections, statut de l'individu Robert Castel gives a genealogy of the contemporary individual. First, in a line of thinking that would seem to parallel Etienne Balibar because it is one of his sources, Castel argues that the modern individual is founded upon property. As Locke argued, Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself." As Castel stresses this connection between property and individuation is not a theoretical assertion but a practice as well. Bourgeois modernity is founded upon the reciprocal connection of the individual and property.

This first modernity is followed by the second in which the stark opposition between property and propertyless is mediated by the increasing political and social recognition of labor. Labor is no longer the only property possessed by those who have nothing else to sell, the necessary precondition for future property, but becomes itself a kind of property, or status. Workers become employees, and are recognized as such through institutions of unemployment insurance, social security, disability, etc. As Castel writes, "It is the collective which protects the individual who is no longer protected by property." The bourgeois subject of property is not only generalized and democratized by the figure of the (salaried) worker, but the worker is potentially more explicitly transindividual: property could always be naturalized, seen as something that stemmed from a pre-political state of nature as in Locke's account, but the rights to recognition as a worker necessarily stem from social institutions.

Although one could argue as much as this is true historically, describing the long battle for the recognition of the social status of the worker, a battle that also carried its own racial, national, and sexual exclusion of non-workers, there has been a counter-tendency to "naturalize" work and conceal its historical and social mediations. Or, more to the point, if the first tendency is institutionalized in the legal recognition of the individual as worker rather than just as property owner then the second is institutionalized in all of the myriad ways in which work appears as an isolated and individual activity rather than a social relation. Unemployment benefits and social security may recognize the worker as a social status, as something collectively one and organized, but against this the paycheck recognizes as the worker as individually responsible for his or her work. As Marx writes:

"In contrast to the slave, this labour becomes more productive because more intensive, since the slave works only under the spur of external fear but not for his existence which is guaranteed even if it does not belong to him. The free worker, however, is impelled by his wants. The consciousness (or better: the idea) of free self-determination, of liberty, makes a much better worker of one than of the other, as does the related feeling (sense) of responsibility; since he, like any seller of wares, is responsible for the goods he delivers and for the quality which he must provide, he must strive to ensure that he is not driven from the field by other sellers of same time as himself."

"I pay my own bills" is our modern Robinsonade, a modern account of the independent individual that eclipses and conceals its historical and social relations.

All of this is really preamble to Castel's consideration of the two figures of contemporary, or what he calls "hypermodern" individuality. The first, what he calls individuality by excess. The excess in this context refers to an access to an excess of the conditions of individuation, access to the material, social, and symbolic capital which makes individuation possible to the point that it has the paradoxical effect of a disaffiliation with any existing material, social, or symbolic collective. As Castel writes, "The individual in excess seems to me to perform a form of disaffiliation from the top through which the individual is detached/detaches himself from his collective affiliations because they are somehow saturated." It is an extreme version of Marx's claim that "the epoch which produces...the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social relations." it is an individual that denies its connection to any social, economic, or political condition of its individuation, of its very capacity to act, because these have been so thoroughly incorporated into its existence. This is partially what is meant by "privilege" to use the parlance of our time: the inability to see one's material, social, and cultural advantages because they have been so thoroughly intertwined in one's existence that it would be like fish seeing the water they swim in. The other form of individuality, individuality by default is the inverse of this. It is an individual that lacks access to even the fundamental conditions necessary to assume their individual liberty, to use Castel's terms.They are the disposable individuals of the contemporary society, outside of work and shuttled between various institutions designed more to manage them as an excess population than to bring them into any collective. 

It is possible to see contemporary politics as defined by this opposition. On one side we have the individuals of excess, the ruling class, unable or unwilling to comprehend how others cannot "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" because they inherited self-pulling boots. As one resident from Arizona describes this retreat from the social by individuals of excess. 

People who have swimming pools don’t need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don’t need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don’t need K-12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don’t see the need for government. Since a lot of the population are not citizens, the message is that government exists to help the undeserving, so we shouldn’t have it at all. People think it’s OK to cut spending because ESL is about people who refuse to assimilate and health care pays for illegals.”

On the other side we have the individuals by default, individuated not by their access to various conditions of social belonging, but by various layers of exclusion, control, and subjection. Loïc Wacquant distinguishes between two sides of the state, one ideological and the other repressive, corresponding to these two individuations. As Wacquant writes, Actually existing neoliberalism extolls ‘laissez faire et lasser passer’ for the dominant, but it turns out to be paternalist and intrusive for the subaltern, and especially for the urban precariat whose life parameters it restricts through the combined mesh of supervisory workfare and judicial oversight.” The state is a centaur: addressing individuals of excess with a humanistic ideology of entrepreneurship while confronting individuals of default with a brutal logic of discipline. 

There is another way to see this intersection of excess and default, however, one less oriented towards identifying two distinct classes than a dialectic of contemporary experience. I am thinking of social media, or social life as it is increasingly mediated by various forms of technological mediation. It opens up the possibility of a kind of excess for nearly everyone as suddenly something one did, wrote, or thought has gone viral. Fame is no longer just for the famous. This excess is predicated on a kind of default, not just the narcissistic emptiness that needs constant validation by "likes" and "retweets," but the more significant lack of any collective or community worthy of the name. There is no communication, no solidarity, just isolated individuals performing their relation to some purported communal norms in the name of trolling or virtue signaling. Negative individuality and negative solidarity are the transindividual conditions of each other. Thus, the same collective conditions that extend one's reach can drastically undermine one's life, and much of life on social media is the intertwining of this increase and decrease of one's power to act. The conditions of fame are the conditions of shame.

To take a less spectacular example, and to return to the connection between individuation and property we just need to look to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Once again we can see an intersection between excess and default, as the very thing which extends and supplements individuality, developing all of its aspects and nuance, is that which undermines self-possession. The means of individuation are at the same time the means of dispossession. We no longer have any illusions about possessing, as some kind of private property, the conditions of our individuation. Inchoate demands to "nationalize Facebook (or google)" reflect in their own way a recognition of the transindividual as a condition of individuation. As Balibar argues, ownership of the means of individuation, especially as they affect the "postulate of the individuality of the thought process" brings together politics and economics in a novel way. It is no longer the topography of base and superstructure but the identity of ownership and control.

By way of a conclusion I reminded of a remark in The German Ideology in which Marx states, "Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence." This remarks seems to have taken on increased importance today. 

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