The very high price of me, me, me

The New Individualism

November 2, 2006

This book, as you might expect, is peopled by individuals. Very young, very old or dead, with several in between. They are exemplars, or survivors, of the "new individualism" that is the subject of Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert's attention.

There are the young daughters of the authors, Caoimhe and Annie, barely out of the nursery. There is 23-year-old Kelly, obsessed with remaking her body via plastic surgery. There is Larry, a dotcom millionaire and workaholic, facing breakdown and psychoanalysis. There are Joe and Xavier, affluent gay men staying in a Paris boutique hotel, drinking their cold Japanese lagers while worrying about which expensive restaurant to eat at and contemplating more meaningless sexual encounters in the great cities of the world. Then there is recently divorced Simon, 40, feeling alive only with torrid sex separated from emotional commitment; and Ruth, a contented married woman in her fifties who has found a new sense of autonomy via cybersex. Norman Bishop is a recovering addict, living with HIV, now devoted to good works in his community. And then there is Phyllis Whitcomb Meadow, a former collaborator of C. Wright Mills.

Some of these characters had or have real lives, known to their authors, such as Caoimhe and Annie, Norman and Phyllis. Others are composites, constructs, amalgams, offering heuristics to propel the argument. Each of them is intended to illustrate one or more aspect of the contemporary penetration of globalisation into individual lives. They live in "our plastic culture", with "hollowed out" identities, instant makeovers, body fascism and worship of an evanescent celebrity, its demeaned public language, its enforced privatism, narcissism and emotionalism.

The culture of advanced individualism, the authors argue, has generated a world of individual risk-taking and self-expression, which is underpinned by new forms of apprehension, anguish and anxiety stemming from the perils of globalisation. The emotional costs of globalisation, neoliberalism and rampant consumerism are high, and we are all forced to pay the price.

This is not, at first, a cheerful read. One has a sense of new "dark times"

upon us. And it is difficult to avoid the feeling that this profound cultural pessimism has quite a lot to do with what the authors see as a "seemingly unstoppable political shift towards a new conservatism and reactionary intellectual consciousness". This is surely saying something about the liberal intellectual and political climate in the US in the first half of the decade, more than it is about the globalising world.

I doubt whether it is wise to make epochal assessments on the basis of purely conjunctural fears, and surely in the end the authors would agree with this. For after freezing the bones with a deep sense of hopelessness the argument looks up. About a third of the way through, the book becomes less polemical and more analytical, offering a finer balance of the impact of global flows and the new individualism.

We live in a world of exhilaration and anxiety, opportunities and fears, new possibilities and accelerating risks, choice and recuperation. There is a new contingency in all our arrangements, from the spheres of intimacy and sexuality to the wider domains of politics, culture and global economics.

The authors explore what they set out as three major theories of individualism and individualisation. The first, "manipulated individualism", can be traced back to the Frankfurt School. Although there are great insights into the colonisation of the world by bureaucratic capitalism, there is little room for agency, resistance and reflexivity.

The second theory is of "isolated privatism", which involves the replacement of authentic, reflective subjectivity with narcissistic, hedonistic attitudes. Again, Elliott and Lemert find this wanting. Finally, they explore the theories of "reflexive individualisation". Surprisingly, given that this is generally seen as a more optimistic theory of the impact of globalisation, the authors seem to be more disposed to this than the other two - possibly Elliott's Anglo-Antipodean pragmatism triumphing over Lemert's American pessimism. But in the end, all three are rejected - or perhaps, in the case of the last, transcended - in favour of a new approach, which concentrates on understanding and explicating "ongoing emotional struggles to relate internal and external experiences in which both processes and structures are explicitly examined, revised and transformed".

The authors want psychoanalysis to play a central role in this new approach, and various gestures are made in this direction. But the individual case studies dotted throughout the book owe very little in the end to psychoanalytical insight. They come alive and speak to us as they embody the emotional burdens of the new globalised opportunities and threats. Strangely, however, the individuals who least embody the new individualism carry the hope in the book: the two daughters, simply because they are yet too young to have succumbed or resisted, and Norman and Phyllis. Norman, despite his travails in the late modern world, lives and speaks in a community. Phyllis speaks for energy, creativity and what Elliott and Lemert call "aggressiveness". "Aggressiveness," the authors suggest, is what Norman and Phyllis have in common. They do not mean violence or thuggery but passionate engagement and a will for survival.

For, "if there is a model for surviving the new individualism it could be the lives of those who survive a real encounter with the deadly worlds and live to tell the story".

Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology, London South Bank University.

The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization

Author - Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 213
Price - £65.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 415 35151 0 and 152 9

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