Dancing in the hollow

Dexter Melville

I sat in a dreary portacabin cut in the shadowy wake of Bristol’s imposing Physics Building. The anonymity of the drab named ‘Ivy Gate Building’ perhaps its only redeeming feature. Its sterile white interiors and organised impassive desks indistinguishable from room to room.

A whisper sharply penetrated my daze, I swivelled and saw the smirking face of my friend seated to my left. Her appearance held me for a moment, the wonky winged eyeliner and colourful patchwork jumper juxtaposed with the impotence of the chair on which she sat. Clearly noticing that I had not registered her comment, she repeated in low voice, “count the puffer jackets,” motioning to our fellow students. I glanced around the room and exhaled, a subtle substitute for a laugh. I counted 64, in a lecture of 90. A sea of red, blue, black, and yellow wrapped up despite the heating systems bold attempt to undress them. 

Months later, sat in another lecture (cultural psychology this time), the topic of individualism and collectivism jogged my mind; the psychological scale used to describe the pervasive attitudes of the individuals from a nation. Here, through socialisation in a specific culture, one develops regulatory psychological mechanisms of thoughts and feelings, in line with the salient cultural environment. Consequently, this shapes thoughts and feelings of people, and thus extends to perception of self.

In collectivist cultures, an inter-dependent view of the self is promoted; with strong protective groups (such as extended family) and a prioritisation of the group’s interests.  From the personal perspective however, an independent view is promoted, where the individual seeks to look out for themselves and their immediate family. Britain for example, is considered to be the third most individualistic culture in the world, behind only Australia and the USA.

Indeed, Orwell noted the British, or rather the English, have a healthy lust for individualistic expression in pastimes. We are a culture of hobbyists, from the humble stamp collector to the misunderstood train watcher, the joy of comfort in one’s own company through a routine activity is a tendency of our population. Reflecting, I realised I am no different, deciding on my nineteenth birthday that in my retirement I would like to take up birdwatching. In the meantime, I am utterly content playing poor chess and writing poor poetry. But if we are to distance ourselves from these tendencies, we can recognise the uniformity of our individualistic pursuits, one akin to the sea of jackets.

The anti-conformist Beat poets of the 1950s were champions of individualistic expression, yet their shared ideas manifested in a singular expression of writing; that of formlessness and impulsiveness. Consider any artsy setting in the 21st century, any alternative scene, and you will observe the same phenomenon. A field of black sheep, uniformly formless. This is no more obvious than if you were to walk into a working-class pub, a bourgeois country manor, or a sleazy city-boy bar.

Are these collective identities, these shared outward expressions of character and belief systems in direct contrast to the very notion that we are an individualistic culture? There can be no question that collective identity exists. In fact, the question is whether collective identity is predetermined and inevitable, particularly within social class.

A notion beautifully addressed by Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ tapestry collection, which I had the privilege of visiting at the Bristol Art Museum in 2018.The differing conceptions of beauty witnessed through Tim Rakewell’s upward social mobility wonderfully demonstrated this uniformity within social classes. Certainly, the conformity of collective identity is a well-founded criticism of the very notion that we are individualistic as a culture. Are we not seeking collectivism, larger frameworks of mutual support, within our imposed individualistic culture?

We are, after all, social creatures, who elevate in-group members and derogate out-groups and thus reinforce the very behaviours and identities which comprise group membership. The out-group is any easy scapegoat when one conceives society through this individualistic lens. It pits us together in a dog eat dog narrative, in which when the other succeeds, the self suffers. This is the reason why prejudice is monolithic, an age-old imposition over society, and why it is so very insidious. Indeed, it is why, from my perspective, divisions are so easily exploited to further economic disparity.

It would be easy to read a sense of contempt in my recognition of such trends. Whilst this may be true, it would be in fact missing the point. I do not blame the individual for a lack of recognition. I blame the system that breeds bad artists; the system that encourages and compels false individuality and condemns collectivism.

Consider the modern capitalist social system and its associated individualistic mentality, which results in the formation of implied rules that dictate what it takes to succeed. Hard work and entrepreneurship are promoted in the supposedly meritocratic ‘American Dream’. Thus, the notion of individualism is positively socialised, in part due to it being a purported prerequisite for prosperity within such an environment. But this is not true individualism; that of understanding oneself and consequently one’s desires.

It is an effort to make a character of ourselves. One that can enable a stranger to compartmentalise us. To remove this would result in an elevation of class consciousness, as each individual considers the intricacies of collective identity, rather than the surface level uniformity.

I conceive that individualism, at the least the false notion of it, is a capitalist exploitation on our desire for self-actualisation; a Western response to Eastern enlightenment. Rather than shed all material objects; use them to cultivate a character. Rather than being introspective and building from the bottom up, we are feeding our entire identities in a top down manner.

Furthermore, I blame the divisive narrative that collectivism is undesirable (a narrative that may be incorrectly inferred from this piece). One that is constantly spouted indirectly on either side of the political spectrum. Yelled into the ever-echoing void. It is in this moment that a quotation from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn comes to my mind,

‘We are dancing in the hollow of the cup of nothingness. We are of one flesh, but separated like stars’.

Let us dance elsewhere, let us not be separated. Let us, like Mannheim proclaimed, consider the differing perspectives of all, understand the differing perspectives of all and create a society in which no ideology is alienated. Wake from unconsciousness and realise there are ties beyond material identification, ties that transcend class and perspectives of material beauty. Let us recognise that collectivism is a consequence of the inequality of individualistic society. Let us observe the sea of colourful jackets and not scorn, as I once did, but celebrate and recognise a symbol of potential; potential that has previously been misguided.

Chargé D'affaires - Depuis 2020