Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some Initial, Disorganized Thoughts on Kateb

I've been reading George Kateb's  The Inner Ocean. It was something I read in undergrad but didn't really understand mostly because I cared too much about understanding it correctly. I picked it up because I was thinking a bit about the role of the American individual nowadays and the sub-title of the book is Individualism and Democratic Culture, so I thought there might be some insight.

A bit on why I am interested in this whole individual business: the Tea Party. They are obsessed with the individual. Individual freedom. Individual tax-burdens. Saving the individual from the monster of socialism. The individual they talk about is distinctly American, too. When they talk about immigration they like to say that we are all just individuals. American individuals. Which is funny because it absorbs unique individuals into a mass of white Americanness, but I digress. The Tea Party just fascinates me and I'm trying to understand a bit where their vocabulary comes from. It doesn't come from Kateb (they've probably never heard of him), but Kateb writes a lot about the vocabulary we use in American politics. So, there's that.

Back to Kateb. Kateb thinks the individual is pretty stinking important. In particular, he thinks individual rights are important and that socioeconomic equality is a threat to those rights (sound familiar?) A democratic culture supports the individual. And here we come to the title of the book and one of the more pretentious sentences I have ever read, "I find the theory of democratic individuality, like some other individualisms, cultivates a sense of individual infinitude; that is, a sense of one's inner ocean, of everybody's inexhaustible internal turbulent richness and unused powers (Kateb 34)."

I can get behind this to a point. I'm American and, technically, a liberal theorist, so I do get a little uncomfortable when you start to push the individual into a mass. But I also think the individual can find more room to move when they feel safe, and much of how our government and socioeconomic structure doesn't offer safety to the individual, which I think means we don't get much space to recognize our inner ocean.

Something that worries me more, however is how Kateb's idea of the individual is really masculine. I'm not sure if this is a valid critique, but the dudes (and they are dudes) he talks about are really, really male. In particular, he likes Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson. I love all of these guys. I'm even considering a tattoo of a line from Song of Myself. That said, these dudes have always been for me dripping with the ideal of the lone American male, self-sufficient and able to shape themselves into anything. They'd be Marlboro-men if the Marlboro man was a philosopher. There's also this line from Emerson that Kateb makes use of, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members (Emerson quoted by Kateb on page 86)."

It's not that Kateb or Emerson is against women. Hardly. They just have an image of the individual that is male. A female individual simply doesn't enter the equation.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with that idea. This is a blog, so it'll progress and maybe not as rigorously as I'd like, but this concerns me because if our American liberal philosophies are grounded in this idea of the (male) individual, then I'm a little worried about what we really mean when we defend the American individual in philosophy and other popular texts.

Stuff I Read While Writing This
The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture by George Kateb

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate
Make your own hipster Ariel

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