Essay: The Pursuit of Individuality

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During lockdown, writer Diana Weis reflected on the most essential asset of late capitalism: individuality. Perhaps we would be happier without it.

Phase One: Inventory. In those first quiet weeks after the beginning of the pandemic, when the collective state of mind was still oscillating between shock and hope for a quick end, there was an unconditional will to pull something positive from this new state. When the possible space for experience suddenly ended at the inner walls of one’s apartment, this was declared an optimization zone without further ado. The great mucking out began. Or, better: the decluttering.

Minimalism outside equals minimalism on the inside. As we learned from Marie Kondo, we asked ourselves about every piece that was jammed into the apartment, whether it would bring us a deep sense of pleasure. Does it spark joy?“

The initial relief of having found a meaningful activity was soon followed by fatigue, and then despair. Because every time, the answer was no. ‚No‘ to the olive-green nail polish with a matte finish, ’no‘ to the goldfish-shaped flower vase, ’no‘ to the retro-looking cell phone cover. Had we been completely crazy to drag all of this stuff into our apartment and pay money for it?

It wasn’t long before we wanted to give up. We swore never to buy anything again. We thought about how many H&M dresses it would take to sew a tent, which you would only leave when the world had miraculously settled down.

Then it happened: While penetrating the deepest, darkest corners of the closet, they suddenly came to light, the things that sparked joy. Old photos, old diaries, old letters. Poetry albums in which, under the heading “Hobbies,” page after page of touching simplicity was scribbled: cycling, swimming, reading. They were not things whose surface texture flattered our ego, rather they were testimonies of our relationships to other people.

And with that, the second phase began: regression. The present felt like absorbent cotton; the future was scary. The only really safe place was the past. Suddenly there was a longing for those who had shared a piece of your life with you. People with whom we had laughed, drunk, and argued. We talked to old friends and reveled in what we had experienced together. On social networks, hashtags like #TBT (Throwback Thursday), which appeared under photos of children and young people, were trending. Quite a few lost their nerves, their jobs, their homes and returned to the provinces from the big cities. Risk group or not, travel warning or not: Disasters are best faced with your own family. With people who, while they may not understand you, know you better than anyone else.

Phase three: pupation. Final destination, childhood room. Even among those left behind, the initial action dried up and gave way to a phlegmatic feeling of being stuck in one’s house. Sweatsuits all day every day . We slipped into a cocoon of sweaty fabric brushed soft on the inside and we reduced all vital functions to a minimum. But just like with a chrysalis, things happened that you couldn’t see from the outside. Everything that had made us usbefore had broken away, only we were still there, strangely enough. A little less money than before, a little more flabby around the waist, and gray hair coming out, which people started not caring about as much. And the thing that somehow made it okay to be lying around so completely out of it and not knowing when you would next visit an art exhibition or concert was that everyone else felt the same way. Equality was comforting.

This insight had to sink in. After all, until recently, we had spent considerable resources to be everything, but not like everyone else. Just individual. So, with the first easing of restrictions and the first of the warmer days, we slowly emerged from our lethargy and entered phase five: balancing. We asked ourselves what kind of individuality this is that costs so much energy and money and ultimately consists of little more than a few nuances of taste. Out of nothing but a few things that did not help us at all when we felt insecure and alone. In this balancing, it helped to look back into history.

In pre-modern times, it was still quite natural that what made a person what he was, was not his personal preferences and tastes, but his ties to others: family, profession, religion, regional origin. Since the Enlightenment, the importance that people attach to their individuality has grown steadily in Western societies. In 1774, with Werther, Goethe created what is arguably the first icon of individuality suitable for the masses: a whiny, milk toast-type, constantly lamenting and insulted by his own feelings because no one is interested. Every rule, every convention seems unbearable to him. So far, so relatable. But Werther exhibits yet another trait that is characteristic of modern individualism. For with all the deep thoughts he tosses around every day, there is still plenty of room for self-performance. In his letters, Werther frequently describes his favorite outfit in detail, and it seems to give him a thieving pleasure to rub shoulders with the majority society he despises.

The so-called Werther costume of blue frock coat, yellow vest and gauntlet boots became the first revolutionary youth fashion in Germany. At the same time, it showed back then what is fully unfolding as an individuality paradox today: The efforts to live out one’s very best self as dramatically as possible in front of an audience ultimately creates an army of clones hunting individuality. It is fitting that since the nineteenth century, it was, above all, mass culture that promised to help each person find his or her self and at the same time gave them the means to realize this exceptional self through consumption. Art historian Wolfgang Ullrich describes consumer culture as a „measure of care for the individual.“

But freedom of choice also implies a compulsion to choose. No one behaves as compulsively as the individualist. He lusts for objects, feelings and experiences that flatter him and only him like a tailor-made silk caftan. Because nothing brings the exceptional self to the point as well as one’s consumer behavior. Right? That’s so me , we say when we particularly like something. And we don’t find it strange at all to declare a unicorn cup the essence of our selfhood. Instead of eating what is put in front of us on the table, you put the bowl together yourself. And you overlook the fact that the ecstasy about the latest superfood doesn’t come from your innermost being, but is the fruit of marketing campaigns tailored to specific target groups.

Sometimes good things come in ugly boxes. Anyone who held out to this point is probably too broke anyway to boost a battered ego with spontaneous luxury purchases. We have reached the last phase: stoicism. Things cannot be changed, at least not by and large. So, we stick to the little things. We are happy to just sit on the same park bench with a good friend and feel the sun on our skin. We can be proud of ourselves for being so tough. Like cockroaches, we are able to hide in dark corners when danger threatens, and yet we will come crawling back like little indestructible tanks shortly afterwards.

We need a lot less than we thought, and we can endure a lot more than we thought we could. It is clear that we will need these newly discovered strengths, frugality and resilience, moving forward. It helps to know that we are not alone in the world as individuals.

Author: Diana Weiss
Photos: Hans Eijkelboom from his book ‚People of the Twenty-First Century‘
This essay is taken from Issue 30 of Fräulein Magazine, on the theme Life 

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