Introduction to Fetish of the Individual

When this idea came to me, and it really did come to me, I didn’t “make it up,” it came as a pair – Fractal Society and the Fetish of the Individual. I really like the idea of “the individual” being a fetish – in part because of the two meanings of the word “fetish.”

To begin with, we need to realize that our idea of an individual is socially created, just like our idea of a marriage is socially created. Marriage means different things in different cultures, because those cultures define it differently. A huge step for my social work students is the recognition (or at least glimmer) that the different definitions are not better or worse. My definition of marriage is just my definition of it. I like it, I believe in it, it works for me. And it is easy to think that my definition is the right definition. It might be right for me, but it is not universally “right.” This is an example of locality of effect – if you want to go back to complexity.

There is an idea in Vajrayana Buddhism of “coemergent wisdom” which refers to confusion and insight arising together at the same time, like two sides of a coin.  In a similar, but not identical way, ‘fractal society’ and ‘the fetish of the indivdual’ co-arise – I don’t think you can have one without the other. Fractal society says that you (and if I’ve clearly presenting thing you might have a sense that  “you” isn’t exactly what you thought you was) consist of many subsystems that often are semi-similar to you as we normally think of you, and that you also are part of many suprasystems which are also semi-similar to what we normally think of as you.  If we want to understand the world, if we want to understand “you” we need to take into account these other levels, and their interactions with each other. If we focus too closely on just “you” then we are going to miss other things. It is like if you have a certain type of camera, if you set the focus too tightly, you miss the foreground and background. Which might be what you want to do with certain shots – and I guess I’m saying we should at least have the flexibility to decide how tight we want the focus to be.


The Fetish of the Individual refers to our tendency to overly focus on the individual person, to the exclusion of those sub and supra systems. This is not to say that individuals don’t exist – though one could make that argument. Rather it is to say that we don’t want to fetishize the individual, or if we already have a fetish of individuality, we might want to become aware of it and maybe work on it a bit.