Here’s the opening to my new back page piece at Global Brief. For the whole series, look here.
There are individuals and there are the anonymous. Most of us are individuals to ourselves, family and friends, but anonymous to the rest of the human race. We are anonymous in crowded cities, in the vast bureaucracies of government and multinational corporations. We are anonymous in statistics, and when we are dead. We are anonymous except in the hearts of loved ones. But that memory eventually burns out as well. Before history, we are all anonymous – a tide of humanity swept up in events, lucky to die in a bed of our own with loved ones around (feeling like an individual).
The idea of an individual is paradoxical, like Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit parable: look at a diagram one way and it’s a duck, tilt the paper and it’s a rabbit. Or it trembles, to use Jacques Derrida’s felicitous verb. Individual/anonymous. We strut our individuality, but we are haunted by images of the beehive and the anthill, where the individual is subsumed under the sign of the collective. Are we simply carriers of genes – worker bees in a hive? Is civilization merely an accumulation of minute anonymous gestures by replaceable minions? Or are we individuals with a particular claim on the infinite – infinitely precious (to a superior being, perhaps), with a will and the power to create and alter forever the course of history?