Individuation vs. Self-Improvement

So I was thinking about the financial industry bailout and the auto industry bailout and the subcontracting of the War in Iraq to companies like Blackwater. And I was thinking about Madoff and his scam and corporations and media manipulation and box stores like Walmart eradicating competition and independent small business owners (all aided and abetted by the Republicans) and I was thinking about agribusiness and America’s health challenges and I realized that – if you take the long view – this financial crisis is an enormous opportunity to completely start over. Now that the lies of the viability of unfettered, unregulated corporate capitalism and so-called “free markets” have been revealed to be an enormous Ponzi scheme perpetrated by the extremely wealthy on the middle and lower classes, perhaps we can actually take some time to get our priorities in order and re-build a civil society. To use the metaphor of addiction – we hit rock bottom, now we have to start on the 12 Steps. Or to use a slightly different psychological metaphor, we have suffered a profound identity crisis and “nervous breakdown” where our existing assumptions and ego-constructions have proven to be inadequate and unrealistic. Now we can begin the long, arduous but ultimately redemptive process of reconstructing our collective identity as a nation.

Let’s dismantle agribusiness and subsidize local farmers; subsidize in-region distribution channels for local food so it is as inexpensive to buy an egg that is grown upstate as it is to buy an industrial-grown egg that has traveled 1000 miles. Subsidize the small business people and use the power of the federal government to build lots of stable, self-sustaining, small communities that don’t rely on huge corporations and industries for jobs. We are all connected via the internet now anyway, let’s use the small-donor, grassroots model for building the economy and re-building the nation. Think globally, invest locally – in infrastructure, education, business, finance and everything. Give people the tools, support and incentive to be self-reliant, roll back the Industrial Age indentured servitude of the working class to huge corporations. 

To go back to the psychology metaphor – this is a process of individuation, not self-improvement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of arts and culture in the process of constructing personal identity and thus I’ve been thinking about the notion of individuation. According to Jung individuation is defined thus: “In general, it is the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.” (C.G. Jung. Psychological Types. Collected Works Vol.6., par. 757). It is s complex, nuanced idea – one that requires a commitment to the arduous path of seeking self-knowledge and the acceptance of a certain amount of fluidity in the construction of the Self. It is not easily reconcilable with the culture of profit/loss statements and “bottom line” evaluation, quantifiable statistics and demographic analysis to maximize market penetration. Individuation is a far cry from “self-improvement.”

The notion of self-improvement, as pioneered by Dale Carnegie and endlessly modified and recapitulated by countless others, is like the Reader’s Digest form of Individuation. And while I don’t want to be a snob, what the country needs now is not shall bromides and platitudes but a profound reconstruction. We need to dig deep into the Big Ideas and dare to live up to them. What does it mean to be a Democracy? Must Democracy necessarily be expressed through unfettered free market capitalism, or is it “government by consent of the governed”? If it is the latter – then why isn’t it “one person/one vote”? Why can’t the governed vote to create a government that supports the betterment of the whole rather than the enrichment of the few? Why can’t the governed embrace civil liberties for all citizens – keeping the government out of our private lives – while providing access to civic/public life for all? Why can’t the governed demand from the government a commitment to civic stability, to economic prudence, to social order and increased dialogue?

I forgot where I was going with this one. Except that “Self-Improvement” – tied as it is to a “quick-fix” mentality where one improves oneself mostly in the hope of financial gain – is not sufficient. If we are to rebuild America we must commit to the challenge of individuation, acknowledging that there is no simple path to adulthood and accountability, there is only a lifelong commitment to the journey itself and the belief that by pursuing self-knowledge and “right action” we improve not only ourselves but the world around us.

 And the ARTS and CULTURE are important parts of that. Like Michael Chabon said in his arts policy essay:


“Every grand American accomplishment, every innovation that has benefited and enriched our lives, every lasting social transformation, every moment of profound insight any American visionary ever had into a way out of despair, loneliness, fear  and violence—everything that has from the start made America the world capital  of hope, has been the fruit of the creative imagination, of the ability to reach  beyond received ideas and ready-made answers to some new place, some new way of seeing or hearing or moving through the world. Breathtaking solutions, revolutionary inventions, the road through to freedom, reform and change: never in the history of this country have these emerged as pat answers given to us by our institutions, by our government, by our leaders. We have been obliged—to  employ Dr. King’s powerful verb—to dream them up for ourselves.

America’s artists are the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation, of reaching across the barriers that fence us off from our neighbors, from our allies and adversaries, from the six billion other people with whom we share this dark and dazzling world. Art increases the sense of our common humanity. The imagination of the artist is, therefore, a profoundly moral imagination: the easier it is for you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, the more difficult it then becomes to do that person harm. If you want to make a torturer, first kill his imagination. If you want to create a nation that will stand by and allow torture to be practiced in its name, then go ahead and kill its imagination, too. You could start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performing arts.”



OH and remember – unfettered access to knowledge and information is one of the cornerstones of democracy – so KEEP WIKIPEDIA FREE:


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