Individualism in American Society

Topics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Individualism, Henry David Thoreau Pages: 9 (3320 words) Published: May 17, 2013
Individualism in American Society

A Reflection on the Repressive Desublimination of American Individualism

The idea and practice of individualism has been subject to repressive desublimination in America. Repressive desublimination is when a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and needs in the first place. Humans need recognition of the self because they possess, as individuals, the capacity for reason and logic and people exist physically and mentally apart from one another, thus leading to different experiences and different perspectives. The human need for recognition of the self has been buried and denied by the ideology of collectivist society. In American society, the idea of the individual has been co-opted and redirected through the political, economic, and social ideologies back into a form known as corporatism that ultimately reinforces collectivist society. Works from the birth of the American literary tradition paint an image of what it means to be an American individual. They also express the dangers and temptations encountered in pursuing individuality in a corporatist society and what happens when a person cedes their “self” to society. Already, with only these two options, we see no way out. But this way of thinking too is corporatist. Corporatism reduces society to the sum of its interests and places legitimacy in interest groups. However, “If everything is interest based then it is impossible to imagine that there could also be two positions, because everything moves from the idea of interest, from the truth of self-interest.” (Saul, 1996, p.8)

Who is the American individual? Above all else, the American individual is self-reliant and ruled by reason and intuition. They insist on themselves and never imitate. Ralph Waldo Emerson explains that the individual follows their intuition and instinct, “To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true in your private heart, is true for all men, —that is genius.” (Emerson, 1841, p.533) One follows your own soul because it is connected to God. To follow anything but your own soul, your own intuition, is folly because people are “noble clay plastic under the Almighty effort” who’s role in life is to be a hand of Providence and “advance on Chaos and the Dark.” (1841, p.534) However, most people do not express their true selves, “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” (1841, p.533)

Henry David Thoreau adds a rule to the logic of the individual. Thoreau’s major quarrel is with a government set up to serve him but which adamantly refuses to. The government cannot comprehend the idea of the public interest, only negotiating interest groups. Thoreau’s individual does not fight with other men or nations, nor do they make themselves seem better than anyone else. They like the idea of government but only if it serves them and they continuously look for reasons to support the government. However, if the government is not one of equality, one cannot support it with clear conscience. The individual should never be forced to resign their conscience to the legislator, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” (Thoreau, 1849, p.830) Thoreau also asserts the morality of the individual. One person’s right to throw a fist extends as far as another person’s nose. Or to use Thoreau’s metaphor, “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.” (1849, p.834) The reason-based individual must neutralize their actions. It is not their duty to eradicate any enormous wrong but it is their duty to wash their...
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