Against Essentialism: Fetish of the Individual

In thinking about the fetish of the individual, one book that comes to mind is  The Creation of Self in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,(which isn’t the real title of the book) but what recently got me was “Against Essentialism” which is about as sociological a sociology book as I’ve ever read, but then I haven’t read many of them. As I understand it “essentialism” is a view that says certain things are essential, or basics, or primitives.  This might be similar to how we used to think that atoms were the building blocks of matter.  Atoms were the most basic unit, the ‘essentials’ from which other things were created. But then we found out that atoms are made up of electrons and protons, and so those became the ‘essentials.’ And after that we found out those were make up for quarks and stuff, and people started to get the idea that “it’s turtles all the way down.”  And going in the other direction, before we had atoms as the essentials there were the four humours, and before that — I don’t know.

When you talk about anything related to people—love and death or growing old or religion or families or love affairs or war or politics—one of the essentials is “the individual” which in reality is a couple of different things; the person, the individual, the observer, the actor, the self, the ego.  We take as granted that the person is the basic building block of society, just as we used to take for granted that the atom was the basic building block of matter. What I want to get at (or at least hint at) regarding the fetish of the individual is that the – what is the point?

Part of the point is that the person is not a building block of social/human interaction, but a result of social/human interaction. (this is straight from the Against Essentialism book) It is not that people create social reality, as much as that social reality creates people.  And of course, both are true. We are both the creator and a creation of our reality.  Autopoesis is the term that comes to mind, but there are others.

So if—just for argument—people are not the basic building block of human/social interaction, what is?  To my simple mind we can go back to atoms being made up of electrons, which are made up of quarks, …..   In other words, there might not be a ‘basic’ building block.  But even so, what are the equivalents of electrons. Human are to (x, y, z) as Atoms are to electrons and protons. And I deliberately put in x, y, z, because I’m sure there is not just one thing that is more basic than person.

And I think the answer is a bit of a Klein Bottle, in that people are created by society which is created by people.


Klein Bottle

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