As a participant in the The 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art I was struck by how many delegates were hostile to the notion of community. Is it that, in the humanities, perhaps, academia is fatally geared to recognition of solo-achievement at the expense of collaborative methodologies? Perhaps that’s because the ‘art’ element is still understood in terms of romantic-period notions of self, ego, genius, and originality? In these terms community is the wicked Father called Family, or Tradition. Individualism, in contrast, is Rebel Energy; it is innovation and creativity. The available writing on the self has arguably been more inspiring than that on the community, which tends to fall into windy utopianism or dreary sociological treatises.
But we certainly have a degree of nostalgia for our self-willed creativity, despite the thinly veiled reality that the majority of human beings are merely tiny cogs in the global machine. In part, the delusional component arises because the global conglomerates constantly promote the notion that we are actively making democratic choices; the money-driven system relies on the glorification of the free consumer while masking the grim realities of massive global inequality. It is a sad realisation that every sleek gadget is a displaced testament to an undocumented exploitation of a poor exploited sweat-shop factory worker.
Or consider how the global entertainment industry creates myths of the superhero while demonstrating its necrotising groupthink uncreativity by relying on a corporate production line of sequels and prequels dreamed up in the boardrooms of film studios. For Hollywood these fan-cash-machines now represent 80% of its business activity and are at the core of this dominant marketing regime. This species of film, backed by so much global advertising that it seldom dares to fail, is not the product of the heroic creative individual, an undiscovered J. K. Rowling, toiling away in a cafeteria to keep warm. So let’s not despair: it appears that the local genius still breaks through by means of her sublime efforts to embrace the larger issues of culture and humanity, woven superbly into a well told story. And if you break through then you too will have your global film franchise. We know how to reward success.
But such film-industry-style commercialisation is not altogether new. The notion that writers cater for the market can been witnessed in the work of Shakespeare, who wrote several popular history cycles. Let’s congratulate the BBC (backed by American finance in this cases) which is currently screening Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V, delightfully titled The Hollow Crown.) But Shakespeare showed us both the allure and the responsibility of absolute power; he showed power, cynically, as a necessary performance, a scripted regime; and he showed us the life of the people - warts and all.
But community does sometimes hold people back when it is not open to growth, vulnerability and metamorphosis. Vibrant inter-cultural communities where genuine dialogue is enjoyed and conversations fostered can be highly successful. Throughout the world we witness the inexorable rise of super cities and mass migration from rural to urban areas. Indeed, the closed local community can be the most absurdly oppressive place to live (as satirized in Little Britain’s solo-homo Welsh Village ‘I am the Only Gay in this Village.)
But we also tend to romanticize the individuals who struggle against all odds and who gleefully challenge traditional expectations of them. Such is the tap-dancing working class romance Billy Elliot. It is a wonderful and very necessary mythology.
It seems that we are doomed to run our lives between the twin pillars of toxic individualism and oppressive community expectations. Between who we want to be and what society expects of us. The Scylla and Carybdis of individualism and communitarianism. Arguably, then, each term needs to be qualified, such that they can function in dialogue, rather than as reductive and destructive binary oppositions. Either that, or we change the system. Over to you!
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