On a Royal Navy Man-o-War, space is at a premium. This means you are allotted exactly 22 inches in which to sling your hammock. You literally sleep shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other men. Privacy is the stuff of dreams. All life is communal. You wolf down your peas and pork along with the rest of the men. You knock down your grog rations in a body. You haul on halyards to make sail as a single man. Step out of line and the bosun is more than prepared to raise a couple of welts on you back.
And in some ways, he is right to. There is little room for individuality, figurative or literal. The ship’s pieces and parts, its spars, rigging, and ground tackle, are heavy, out of the power of a single man, or even any three, to manage. Indeed, to handle the ship properly, at least a third of its full complement, perhaps 100 of the several hundred that represent the entire crew, must be on board.
And lucky for you they are, because today is no balmy, airless equatorial summer day. It is February, you are on blockade duty, and the Bay of Biscay is in a foul temper. The ship is clawing to windward, into the teeth of an onshore gale, to get clear of the French coast. It is grueling work. The wind rises and backs, swings around, necessitating constant adjustment of sail, keeping a hundred men on deck, day and night in the sleet and freezing spray for 36 hours.
When it finally blows itself out, a cool sun rides up above a gauzy curtain of cirrus and altostratus, and you are all, minus a foretopman presumed lost overboard, alive. This means you get to spend the next day or so mending the tattered rigging and sails as you hurry back to make sure the French haven’t got out while you were gone. A return to drudgery, but you are alive, and only because the captain and his officers can wield an arm a hundred strong when they need it.
On land, as often as not, you can live alone (perhaps in a previous life you were a shepherd) maybe seeing no one else for weeks at a time. Those with money have entire rooms to themselves back on shore, but a ship is an odd sort of space. It is a place of otherness, and island of humanity in a wide and inhumane sea.** To put it bluntly, the ship ought not to exist. It is a rebellion against the natural order of things, a scrap of dry in an immense wet, and as such subject to constant assault. Keeping it afloat is a 24/7/365 affair, a constant, losing battle against entropy.
To repeat, there is little room for individuality. This is not to say no room, for individual action in a pinch, most especially in rapidly changing, unexpected situations, may save the whole ship, and is expected of everyone, but only in a pinch. In the long run, survival depends on the ability to allow one’s identity to be subsumed into the collective self of the ship, to act as a body under the direction of a single intelligence.
What’s the lesson for the anthropologist (or the sociologist for that matter)? There are hard limits to individualism. As someone who has lived his entire life in a society that treasures individuality, the ship is a fascinating thought experiment in the boundaries of the self. I love to be alone and deeply resent a mandate. I and others who share my preferences will likely structure our lives so as to minimize our interaction with the collective authority our society can exercise. We are blessed to live in a place and a time in which we have that luxury.
However, we cannot make the mistake of believing it to be a right. To do so would be analogous to leaving our place in the heaving line of men described above. If exercised at the wrong moment, that “right” would amount to a strange combination of suicide and homicide, and would be punished as such. If we do not actively seek to create spaces in which we can act as individuals, without threatening or deeply offending the populations we live in or alongside, the luxury of individuality will evaporate. While we have seemingly endless tracts of desert waste and Alpine no-man’s land as yet unexploited, and while we are careful not to impose the demands of our individuality on others, we may preserve our carefully cultivated personal spaces. We may exist on the margins of collective society. But fill any space shoulder to shoulder, and such margins are erased.
The individualist, then, has a special duty to either to preserve or open up spaces in which he can pursue the luxury of independence. He cannot, if he has a conscience, cry, “Fire” in a crowded room. It is his burden to find or make a space in which he may sound his barbaric yawp.
Perhaps all of this seems a bit obvious, but too often it seems that individualism is asserted as an objective good, a right all people, at least all Americans, ought to enjoy freely and universally, and this represents my dissenting opinion. Individualism is no right, and claiming it as such will do little in its service. Either we make space for it ourselves, or we give it up.
** This note is simply to ensure that any who did not follow the link know that the ship as the heterotopos par excellance is Foucault's idea, not mine.