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Saturday, May 6th, 2006


 

Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity

by Hal Niedzviecki

We're All Individuals Together

A review by Gerry Donaghy

In the opening chapters of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship, the eponymous character is a young man enraptured by both the theater and his actress girlfriend Marianne, much to the consternation of his father, a respectable businessman. When Wilhelm finds what he believes to be evidence of Marianne's infidelity, he abandons his dreams of the theater, burns all of the plays he's written, and takes a position in his father's company. Later, while traveling to collect debts owed his father, he encounters a troupe of traveling actors, each one a colorful bohemian stereotype. He abandons the business, joins the troupe and begins his theatrical mission. After much joviality and even greater tragedy, Wilhelm, realizing that he never really possessed the talent or temperament to be dramateur, decides to go petit bourgeois, starts a family and wonders what all the fuss was about. The purpose of the novel, well one of them anyway, was to show how our youthful flights of fancy evaporate in the face of adult responsibility, and how society benefits from this adult conformity.

This was quite an about-face from the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, where the hero commits suicide in a desperate act steeped in both melodrama and poetic angst.

While other generations have learned to live with the eventual sublimation of individuality, these days, it seems that we will not go gently into that good night. It isn't enough for us to lead productive lives and enjoy our leisure time anyway we see fit. This sense of individuality is everywhere. In the business world you have casual Fridays and Fast Company, a business magazine that reads like the bastard offspring of Atlas Shrugged and Free to Be You and Me. Outside the workplace, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is no longer a symbol of rebellion, it's a status symbol. On television, we are constantly being bombarded with instant celebrity (hey, you managed not to get murdered by the escaped convict that you shared crystal meth with while he held you hostage... here's a book deal).

Now, everything we do is an attempt to express how we aren't like everybody else. What does it take to stand out in the world when you can buy Sid Vicious baby clothes at the mall, and the Internet grants anybody with a modem access to an audience of millions? What is the nature of the public sphere if it lacks unified values? This new ethos is explored by Hal Niedzviecki in Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity.

From backyard wrestling leagues, Canadian Idol auditions, to self-esteem gurus, Niedzviecki tracks the never-ending quest for human uniqueness. Niedzviecki's examinations yield fertile insights, without sounding overly pretentious. Rather than risk alienating his readers with either verbose references to Situationists, or invocations of the anti-globalization movement, the author wisely looks at our cultural transmitters and how they influence our desires and ideas of the self. No matter what stage of life we are in, we are constantly being told how special and unique we are. Niedzvieck shows us children forced to sit through a lecture by a youth self-esteem expert, and New Age business consultants who all bear the same message: being yourself is not only the best way to go, but it's the best for your school/organization/society/ congregation etc. This is a message that is intuitively contradictory, yet none of these snake-oil salespeople seem to be going broke. And as society becomes more homogeneous, those wishing to express their uniqueness in a society of other iconoclasts must resort to more extreme methods of setting themselves apart. The irony of this is that this often takes the form of embracing certain orthodoxies. This phenomenon is described quite fittingly in the profile of so-called "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

Niedzviecki astutely illustrates the culpability of mass media and its role in creating this new conformity. While arguments against both media consolidation and mass media in general are not new, Niedzviecki's take on these subjects is refreshing. Instead of using these issues to bludgeon a message of anti-monopolization of the media or how American culture is ruining civilization, the author chooses instead to show us basically that if few outlets control what we see and hear, it should come as no surprise that ideas of individuality or rebellion are interchangeable and endlessly replicated. Niedzviecki writes, "Ersatz rebellion mixes with passive entertainment and ends up occupying the space where real active voices and dissent once had a chance to make a difference." So when we all see the same images of rebellion -- Niedzviecki uses the example of the film The Matrix -- our images of rebellion become codified into a collective experience devoid of any discussion about what to rebel against in the first place.

He further goes on to say, "The tight control over access to creative product stifles dissent -- aesthetic and political -- along with the bulk of our generally mainstream aspirations." This is a radical break from the typical McLuhanesque idea of the Global Village, or the Andy Warhol axiom that everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes. As technology has brought down the entry costs into just about any medium, everybody who wants to express their uniqueness is able to do so, but communicating that uniqueness by getting somebody other than your friends to see your homemade movie or read your self-published book is getting more and more difficult due similar decline in outlets, further diluting any real singularity of theme or message.

Niedzviecki's logic isn't always spot on. Early in the book, he proclaims that "business and religion are no longer seen as institutions capable of fostering individuality." But have these institutions ever fostered these traits? To confirm my suspicions, Niedviecki, on the next page, quotes the bible of conformity The Organization Man, essentially nullifying the previous statement. Also, this book was originally published in Canada in 2004 and would have benefited from some revisions in light of the rapid public embracement of such technological phenomena as blogs, music downloading and MP3 playlists, and mash-ups (such as Danger Mouse's Jay-Z/Beatles experimental The Gray Album). These are covered very briefly in Hello, I'm Special, but a second look would have helped immensely. These are minor criticisms of an otherwise fascinating portrait of contemporary culture.


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