Individuality Mariano García

In order to speak about individuality, it is first necessary to define the word “individual.” Epistemologically, individuum is the Latin translation of the Greek word “atomos” (ἄτομος), something undivided and undividable, a subject which has been dealt with pertinently by the Greeks and Romans, medieval philosophers, and various contemporary schools of thought. The notion of individuality is associated, above all in modernity, with singularity, placing the individual in opposition to the generic. However, Lévi-Strauss in La pensée savage stated that both the notion of species and that of the individual are sociological and relative. In order to do so, the anthropologist studied the distinctive—and ultimately oppositional—positions occupied by the names of species and first names in language. If the name of a species such as Basic rapa is placed outside of discourse twice over—because it comes from scientific language and is made up of two Latin words—in the same way first names fulfill a paradigmatic role outside the system of language because they lack an article and are written with a capital letter. Finally, first names, just as those of species, form “the fringe of a general system of classification: they are both its extension and its limit. When they come on to the stage the curtain rises for the last act of the logical performance.”1

Without ever ceasing to share general traits with its species, an individual is characterized by developing its own traits, which generally means that the question of individuality slides toward the “human individual.” Terms such as “me” and “person” are not only associated with the notion of individuality, they are implicitly ordered within a framework that concerns rational beings. If a bear can go mad and show behavior which differentiates it from other bears, this “aberration” of its conduct does not help to characterize it as an individual. It keeps on being a bear, an animal of that species, with some kind of mental or physical disorder, classified accordingly as an animal within the order of plantigrades etc. The human being, on the other hand, as liable as the animal to being classified in multiple ways, is to a certain extent suspended outside of classifications.

Despite this, individuality as a sign of being human is questioned at least by what we call the “civilized world.” In fact, in totemic societies a possible identification of man with his totem is conceived of, which is difficult for modern man to assimilate. From this identification which brings about deindividualization, metamorphic imagination emerged, of which the myths of societies without writing bring us so many examples. Transformation is the latent element which describes a measure of non-individuality within individuality, and in the transition from oral to written culture there remains an archaic remnant of the capacity for identification as a consequence of deindividualization of so-called primitive cultures. Maybe writing as an objectivizing procedure has collaborated in the definitive founding of “civilized” individuality. As was pointed out above, however, individuality is defended and criticized equally throughout the history of man. The emphasis on individuality without a doubt opens the way for a chain of undesirable “-isms” on a grand scale, but the individual can also feel the oppression of his/her own individuality.

In literature, particularly in fantasy literature, a way of capturing this state is to revert precisely to the primitive discipline of metamorphosis, that relic of totemic societies. It is not by chance that tales of transformation serve as a vehicle for staging all the different ways in which individuals and society enter into conflict, or the individual with him/herself.

If metamorphosis for Tzvetan Todorov begins at the moment we move from words to the things those words are supposed to designate (through a literalizing process on a metaphorical level characteristic of the fantasy discourse: so-and-so is as brave as a lion, etc.), these then form a transgression of the separation between matter and spirit, making the passage of the spirit to matter possible.2 To frame the topic, Rosemary Jackson3 turns in the first place to a correspondence between fantasy and the first state of Freud’s evolutionary model, as, due to its tendency to dissolve structures, the ideal of fantasy is undifferentiation which rejects difference, homogeny, reduction, and the discrete form. She compares this to the Freudian model that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle opposes man’s fundamental drive toward an inorganic state, which Freud called entropy, to the erotic and aggressive drives that he included under the designation of energy. Even more specific is the opposition which Irène Bessière proposes based on Sartre between the thetic and the nonthetic, where the first category signifies propositions (theses) which are taken to be real, rational, while the nonthetic

“can have no adequate linguistic form, for it exists before, or outside human language. Since fantastic narrative relies upon words for its being, it cannot belong to the nonthetic—if it did, it would cease to be. It does, however, attempt to belong to it. It is situated between the thetic and the nonthetic, positioned within the first and pushing (back) toward the second [ … ] The thetic remains undisturbed, so that a transgressive thrust is all the more vertiginous. The writing of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille in many ways belongs to this literature of transgression, dissolving forms within the thetic.”4

Thus, for Jackson the force driving Sade’s literature to push the human further than him/herself is comparable to fantastic art: arriving at the point of absolute unity of self and other, subject and object, a zero point of entropy which Lacan identifies as the profoundest desire of the subject. It is in the preoccupation with the limits of the human and its dissolution that Foucault finds an ontological function; an exploration of the limits of being.5 This exploration, which tends to take on the characteristics of a social and sexual transgression in its rejection of the limits which are imposed on the human, is an empty transgression, however, to the extent that modern fantasy texts (from Sade and the Gothic novel onward) progressively lose their ability to assume a transcendental role which relates it to higher worlds, even if what is ultimately created is, in the words of Blanchot, a place different from all places. Freudian entropy involves the tendency of an organism toward stability, given the fusion of the organic and inorganic, as occurs in the “primitive” world of the child: everything is connected to everything, and consequently nothing is connected to anything: the “region” that Blanchot speaks of would thus be a dissolution of privative opposites, close to the contexts of semiotics with which Julia Kristeva defines the flow of prelinguistic rhythms and pulses which break when the child enters the symbolic order of language. “From the basic pull toward entropy derive many of the thematic clusters of the fantastic, from obsessions with death, cannibalism, animism, to graphic descriptions of changes of form. Metamorphosis, with its stress upon instability of natural forms, obviously plays a large part in fantastic literature for this reason.6


1 / Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1968, p. 215.

2 / Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique, Seuil, Paris 1970, p. 119–120.

3 / Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion, Methuen, London 1981, p. 76.

4 / Ibid.

5 / Ibid., p. 78.

6 / Ibid., p. 80–81.