Image courtesy of Kunsthalle Budapest: ’No One Belongs Here More Than You’ | 2011 | curators: Petra Csizek, Gábor Döme | office: Újirány Group | authors: Árpád Kovács, Péter Pozsár, Gábor Szohr, Dominika Tihanyi
On an overpopulated and panoptic planet, individualism as we know it and its form of solitary consciousness might not be viable any more. One could ask: what’s the use of being a lone wolf if there’s nowhere to hide, and if what we have to howl is lost in the cacophony of the infosphere? Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, advocate a tribal ‘esprit de corps’ as the secret of successful anti-totalitarian human groups. Sooner or later, evolution or history might demand that human societies be organized as a plural chaosmos of cohesive groups of intermediate size, all fighting for their own symbolic and material territory: a thousand platoons. Identities and the individual spirit would be best embodied by what we could call co-jective communities: subjects blending in a cooperative unity, displaying a strong esprit de corps, defining themselves both by what they stand for and what they’re opposed to.
When you belong to a community with a robust esprit de corps, you’re expected to experience a sense of fraternity, a loyalty and unifying attraction that creates an effect of immediacy between the members, a perception of communion, focus, and responsibility. Yet esprit de corps can also be negative, transferring the homo homini lupus worldview into a herd-against-herd battlefield. Group cohesion is an ambiguous phenomenon. Depending on the context and discourses, the quasi-synonyms of esprit de corps are disparate: group feeling, solidarity, togetherness, collective effervescence, partisanship, inequity, corruption, or even nepotism. The quasi-antonyms of esprit de corps are: individualism, rationality, freedom, disorder, savagery, republicanism, or open-society humanism.
In eighteenth century France, the esprit de corps of labour guilds was arguably a localised form of welfare micropolitics, conferring a protection, a care and a security that the state wasn’t able to provide. Not willing to distinguish good community from anti-republicanism, the French Revolution destroyed diverse forms of intermediary solidarities in the name of the nation state, nourishing the fiction of an isolated rational citizen expected to self-sacrifice to defend the fatherland. This form of pseudo-individualism functioned in the nineteenth century at the cost of much coercion against revolutions, labour associations, and independent communities. Later the massive wars of the twentieth century meant that conscious self-sacrifice for the state became difficult to impose in Western nations. Today we tend to view the state as we see multinational companies: as a suspicious master.
The casual frontier of the self, in common parlance, is the individual discrete body defined by a proper name, an identity card, an uncontrolled timetable, and solitary wishes, what Deleuze, in his course on Leibniz, calls a ‘pruritus of the soul’. Can we still self-sacrifice for a political idea? We spend a great deal of our days in front of a screen searching for our private happiness or secret identity, and many of us have lost the experience of epic group feeling and the practical understanding of peer-group solidarity, which is different from charity. The Orwellian ideal of common decency seems to many like an old-fashioned virtue. We are not comfortable with the idea of a collective self, a pervasive identity that would encompass a group of individuals as a whole. Yet we do accept the idea metaphorically, as for example in the following sentence: ‘Scotland now backs yes vote’, thus personifying an entity that doesn’t seem to have a will that could be separated from the sum of its individual parts.
In 1762 Rousseau proposed that ‘general will’ ought to be considered not only as the sum of all the particular aspirations, but as a specific psychological entity, indivisible, an incorporated and willing ‘common self’ generated by social agreement or ‘association’. By virtue of a social contract, a body politic would be endowed with life and spirit. Rousseau defined the general will of the body politic as a common ego (‘moi commun’), one could say a mind politic. This was an implicit postulation of a collective cogito, where the collective self-awareness of the body politic preceded the physical formation of a constitutional assembly. Perhaps any group with a social creation agenda should engage regularly in moments of collective (Cartesian) mediation: What is for us not an illusion, but a strong certainty, at the core of our unity?
In French as in English, the expression ‘esprit de corps’ designates the self-like phenomenon that supersedes, in organized groups, the interests of the constituent parts. It is a human feature that qualifies a faithfulness, an abnegation, and a privilege: faithfulness to values, partial abnegation for the sake of the organization, and a set of privileges (etymologically a private set of rules) that individuals gain from the reality created by the community. The apocryphal motto, ‘All for one! One for all!’, dubbed by Alexandre Dumas in Les Trois Mousquetaires, is a rather precise evocation of the sentiments of honour, belonging and commitment shared by warriors of the same corps. Esprit de corps is a ‘war machine’, as Deleuze/Guattari call it, a driving force that allows, by contagion, the summoning of courage. It is about Descartes and Rousseau working together. Before the advent of the individual citizen facilitated by neoliberalism and its laissez-faire, social groups were usually believed to constitute the conscious and visible frontier of the self, both its envelope and its limit, both its possibility of shape and its spiritual corset. The individual was a corporate affect, an effect of group unity: my individuality, the highest expression of myself was produced and guaranteed by the group in which I was supposed to be able to evolve by emulation of its best members, and through a constant form of mutual observation, encouragement, self-editing and self-unification.
Your invisible group of social affiliation is today accessible by big data agencies or insurance companies, but not necessarily by yourself. Consciously or unconsciously, we always belong to a collective body before we can individualise. Our esprit [spirit] comes from a corps [social group]. The subject is co-created within a certain set of rules, a language, a discourse, a code. The language that we speak, the institution we work for, the region of the world we live in, the Zeitgeist of our epoch, the profile of our social body, its practices and values, are fields of values that shape us – what Bourdieu called habitus. As already explained by Marx and his notions of ideology or class, we always belong to a group, be it invisible to our perception, and that belonging, more or less active or passive, is a matter of policy. A few centuries of economic individualism have now propagated the habit of belief that a supposedly free-willed rational agent, defined by the possession of a bank account even more than by its citizenship, isn’t the effect but the cause of (collective) agency and (collective) consciousness. In our societies, the individual self is often believed to be causa sui, the entrepreneur of her life. In such a context of delusional individualism, what is the secret of effective groups? Take for example the Anonymous movement or Wikileaks. As I’ve written in If you rule by the code, you will fall by the code, their main virtue is that they are sons of protocol and algorithmic order. Their identity is organisational at the very source. It is easier for Anonymous to be effective politically because their group-think is originally one of digital orders, coding, protocols, while so many other leftist groups since the sixties have conversely developed an incapacity to self-organise, because the idea of order and esprit de corps was and still is considered reactionary, military or conservative. If so, why would Deleuze & Guattari dedicate an entire chapter of their book to ‘esprit de corps’ and the war machine? Of course esprit de corps is also praised today in corporate and capitalist discourses, in a wish to fight against turnover and low commitment at work. Because BMW has extensively used the concept of joy to advertise its cars, does it mean that joy is inherently bad?
What this article is saying is this: instead of only belonging to more or less conscious groups that we have not really chosen, we should co-create visible and conscious groups of belonging and thought in which we start to take control of our own collective social type. The Internet is our contemporary uniform and skin, an epidermis for contemporary biopolitics and body politics, allowing conformisms to crystallise and at the same time ideas to circulate. But digital is not enough: to cultivate a reality-bending group unity, a thought-group will have to meet in real life, regularly, to create a mystique, a discipline, a common meditation, to produce corporate affection, to allow each member to become a surexistent body. I am not advocating the dissolution of the self in the group, but rather the full development of the individual in a community that is co-created with a sense of responsibility and authorship.
Now, does this mean that pluralistic agonism (as advocated by Chantal Mouffe) is the only possible horizon? Are we replacing the war of all individuals against all with a global in-between communities guerrilla? The idea of a thousand platoons seems to merely dislocate the paradigm of competition from the individual to the group. Is that better? Should we abandon this new situation to the invisible hand? The answer in my view lies in the absolute that shapes the relations between communities. Today this absolute value is capital, surplus-value, which means that there is an imperative of production, and that creation is seen as a product of anthropocentric agency. Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze have all argued that if our ethical global absolute was a non-anthropocentric creative flow (the Creal), creation not as a product but as a cosmic immanent given, the world would be a better place: we would not consider ourselves as producers but as editors, shapers, borrowers of a richness that is a universal gift.