Imaginary Individualism

One of the things that surprised me about COVID and social isolation is the extent to which it made the world feel less real. Turns out that when I don’t see people outside my immediate family, my experiences begin to feel a bit gauzy. This effect is especially true of work. Working at home sounds nice – so much flexibility! – but it is challenging not to see colleagues, the people with whom I share tasks and projects. Maybe I made work up! Maybe the typing I do, the spreadsheets I fill out, the zoom meetings – maybe they are just a weird dream I keep having. Every day I convince myself to start working. When I had an office to go to, I didn’t have to do that. When I was at work, I’d work – no pep talk required. It turns out that all those interactions at work, the ones that might show up in an efficiency study as not quite necessary – good mornings in the coffee room, random conversations in the hallways, please watch this cat video – those make the shared project of work feel real. Real and meaningful. Not on their own, of course, but they are part of the important fabric by which we tell each other that the world is real, we are real in it, and the work we do matters.

This experience put flesh to research that was for me more theoretical than felt. Writing about how Melanesians understand individuals and relationships (Melanesia is a sub-region of Oceania, stretching from Papua New Guinea to Fiji and Tonga), anthropologist Marilyn Strathern writes that Melanesians understand relationships very differently from how most of us in the West do. She writes that “relationships do not link individuals” ⁠ (Strathern, 59). Instead, persons are made up of relationships. ⁠

Drawing on a term “fractal person,” coined by another anthropologist, Roy Wagner, Strathern writes that individuals cannot be “expressed in whole numbers.” (Strathern 59; Wagner 162). That is not to say that persons are less than whole, as if each person is a half or a third of something. Wagner uses the term “fractal person” as a way to get around an alternative we tend to take for granted, the alternative between “individual and group.” In Melanesian understandings, he argues, persons are “neither singular nor plural” (Wagner, 162). A person is not a single unit (an individual), which, if added to other single units, becomes a collective of related members (a group). Relationships do not flow between free-standing persons, who would exist in the absence of those relationships. Persons are made up of their relationships, relationships with kin, with land, with animals; take those relationships away, and the person “fades away” (see Descola, 25). Sociality and relationships are not things a person can engage or not engage in – relationships are not between persons. A person is someone who relates, and relationships make persons.

At a recent Virtues & Vocations webinar, Yuval Levin described how COVID-19 has made us realize the extent of our dependence on each other. “Our individualism is a luxury. It’s something we can imagine because other things are working really well in our society. When things aren’t really working well, you can’t take them for granted, you realize that you are not actually self-reliant.”

The work of Wagner and Strathern suggests that the problem with social isolation is not only that we are dependent on others in practical terms (we need grocery stores and garbage collection and health services), but that we rely on others to be full people, to be real. Seen through that lens, my feeling of unreality is not an illusion, but a clue to the vital importance of relationships for being and staying human. Levin first calls individualism a luxury, but his second description, that it is something “we…imagine,” is the truer one. We weren’t free-standing individuals before COVID hit, we just imagined we were

All these experiences make me work harder to maintain relationships during this time. I don’t mean I am throwing COVID-19 parties or the like. It is important that we maintain distance right now. But I try to aim for physical distance, rather than social distance. Conversations in my friends’ driveway, 6 feet apart and outside. Hikes in open spaces where we can spread out but still see each other without the means of a computer. Dinners in our yard. The latter leaves much to be desired in terms of hospitality. “Do you want to come over to our house? Please bring your own food, utensils, and maybe pee before you come?” It is not an invitation to make the heart sing. But it is a lot more than nothing. And it makes me and my world feel real. This sense of reality isn’t just good for me, but it motivates me to keep working and hoping for the real world to be better. If it is all a dream, why do anything? But if we are all real – and on days I see people, I am sure we are – then working together towards something better is meaningful, important, and joyful.

Descola, Phillipe. Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).

Strathern, Marilyn. “Partners and Consumers: Making Relations Visible,” in Readings in Indigenous Religions, edited by Graham Harvey (London; New York: Continuum, 2002 [originally published in 1991].

Wagner, Roy. “The Fractal Person,” in Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, edited by Maurice Godelier and Marylin Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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