Bergson, Daydreamers, and Sticklers: Seeking Individuation in Laughter
Comedy famously works with types. We can intuit, then, that if it is to teach us something about individuality, then it must do so negatively. After all, the individual is that which does not correspond to a type, and by presenting us types, comedy shows us, what an individual is not. But in merely affirming that individuals are unique, in contrast to types, we fail to grasp the problem. Since any exterior traits can be shared with others, critiques of the ‘materialistic’ world, with their attempts to rediscover of authentic ways of being, are forced to strip away individuality more and more of its qualities, until it becomes a ghostly being living in complete solitude. At the same time, as science uncovers the universal laws that govern our universe, and as algorithms become better at predicting and forming our decisions, it seems once again that what we casually call our ‘uniqueness’, is nowhere to be found.
It is then no coincidence that the category that was supposed to resolve this conflict, existence, was to be discovered not in the toil of everyday life, but in our hours of solitude: I exist. As empowering as this realisation of there being something in us that cannot be taken away is, it does seem to make individuality a lonely affair, namely by turning our shared social lives into the domain of pure generalities. Indeed, sociality becomes synonymous with conformism. But are individuality and communality really irreconcilable? Or is it not rather this solitary conception of individuality that brings us to a dead-end?
Henri Bergson’s book Laughter (1900) is well-suited to deal with these questions, because he understands laughter as a social corrective of a (usually) individual distraction. By becoming ridiculous, we start resembling a certain type; however it is not our individual reflection that ‘snaps us out of it’, but rather the people around us. Being laughed at is thus not a signal for us to conform, but, quite the contrary, to assume our individuality. This differentiates Bergson’s conception from others, in which humiliation plays a central role, like Hobbes’. For Bergson, laughing at someone is not a question of power or spite, but rather of the social, and even biological task of society, of keeping us alive. Bergson is well aware that laughter doesn’t always work that way, and people often humiliate others for selfish and destructive reasons (L 60b). But in its essence, becoming ridiculous is in this conception not a question of social convention or power, but rather an ‘objective’ category. But what is it then, which makes us ridiculous?
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The main thesis in Laughter, in a rare case of philosophical clarity, can be intuitively grasped. The humorous appears, when there is “something mechanical encrusted upon [plaqué sur] the living.” The explanation follows suit: The comic “came from the fact that the living body became rigid, like a machine. Accordingly, it seemed to us that the living body ought to be the perfection of suppleness, the ever-alert activity of a principle always at work” (ibid. 17b). The image that immediately comes to mind is Chaplin in Modern Times, where this dynamic between the repetitive and mechanic world of modernity stands in stark opposition to Chaplin’s playful vivacity. This association is so evident that it almost forces us to read Bergson’s theory as a conservative rejection of the ordered circuits of the ‘modern times’, revaluating the experience of ‘authentic’ and ‘primitive’ life — where it is the modern subject itself that becomes ridiculous. Yet, as I hope to show, such a reading is misleading.
Let’s start with Bergson’s first two examples, because they are telling. The first one is about a man who runs on the street, stumbles, and falls. We laugh, because it looks like “his sitting down is involuntary” (ibid. 5b). What happened? Because “through lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a kind of physical obstinacy, as a result, in fact, of rigidity or of momentum, the muscles continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else“ (ibid.). The second example is about “a person who attends to the petty occupations of his everyday life with mathematical precision. The objects around him, however, have all been tampered with by a mischievous wag, the result being that when he dips his pen into the inkstand he draws it out all covered with mud, when he fancies he is sitting down on a solid chair he finds himself sprawling on the floor, in a word his actions are all topsy-turvy or mere beating the air” (ibid. 6a). We recognise the main thesis, as in both examples, the figures became ridiculous because of “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being” (ibid.).
These two examples are neither particularly characteristic of modern comedy — slapstick comes to mind, but its repertoire is ancient — nor of modern life. Rather, we need to regard Bergson’s theory of laughter in a much wider frame, where laughter serves not only a positive social, but a biological function. If what makes us appear ridiculous is inadaptability, a certain rigidity, then making us aware of such tendencies has nothing less than an evolutionary value. Being attentive corresponds to survivability. But what does that have to do with the question of individuality? Just like comedy often works with hyperboles, let us flesh out the two persons from the examples above into caricatured and one-sided types to better understand in what way they lose their individuality.
In Bergson’s description of the “person who attends to the petty occupations of his everyday life with mathematical precision” we can pretty easily recognise the comical type of the stickler. He has created some automatisms — habits, rules, obsessions — that render him unable to react to changed situations. In comedy, just as in Bergson’s example, the stickler is often abused by another comical type, the trickster, or he creates situations that are themselves comical. But the characters in comedy are hyperboles of what the author has observed in his surroundings, which means that we encounter the stickler not only in theatre and film, but also in real life. The stickler, then, is the result of certain real dynamics that he (the character) then exhibits in an extreme form. But what is the nature of these dynamics? What ‘makes’ a stickler?
The stickler has set certain rules and habits in his everyday life that he follows through “with mathematical precision.” It is obvious that establishing such regularities is an important tool of survival, as they stem from observations of one’s surroundings that allow for planning and preparation: Stocking up for the coming winter etc. But if we take ‘automatisms’ in an even broader sense, they encompass the metabolic processes of all living beings, their reproductions and circulations. Habitualisation thereby is not only the result of conscious observations of the external world, but also things like the plant’s ‘unconscious’ observation of the coming and going of the sun. This is not to say that photosynthesis can’t be explained in purely causal terms; it is rather to say that the plant’s organism is built around the regular reappearance of light, whose rhythm becomes essential for its survival. But it is not light in itself that ‘interests’ the plant, but rather radiant energy, thanks to which it becomes a carrier of energy.
This means that there are other aspects of light, like luminous energy, irrelevant to the plant, which allowed for the evolution of different light-sensitive organs, like the eye. Through the eye, light does not become a source of energy, but a means to observe and control the environment. We are here right in the middle of Bergson’s theory of perception that he develops in Matter of Memory, which states that perception is a reductive process. Perception is not something that living beings ‘impose on’ an ‘empty’ universe; it is rather about ‘cutting out’ aspects of a continuous universe that are useful to the living being’s survival:
“Our needs are, then, so many search-lights which, directed upon the continuity of sensible qualities, single out in it distinct bodies. They cannot satisfy themselves except upon the condition that they carve out, within this continuity, a body which is to be their own, and then delimit other bodies with which the first can enter into relation, as if with persons. To establish these special relations among portions thus carved out from sensible reality is just what we call living” (MM 262).
This simplification of reality, where one organ ‘cuts out’ the energetic aspects of light (radiant energy) and the other its refractive aspect (luminous energy), is in that sense an inherent aspect of life. Yet, ‘sunlight’ already delineates one aspect of a huge number of highly complex physical processes that occur in the sun; and the ‘sun’ once again is embedded in the gravitational forces that constitute our planetary system and the whole universe. We are separating all these aspects of the world in as far as they are useful to us (perception), but the universe itself is a decentralised continuity traversed by intertwined forces. At the same time, the useful aspect of whatever it is that is perceived, is not ‘seen’ as an individual instance — so that the plant ‘sees’ this ray of light — but as a general quality. It does not ‘matter’ to the plant if the light originates from the sun or from an infrared lamp, as long it has the general quality that is useful to it. Just the same, as Bergson says, the cattle doesn’t see individual stalks of grass that it can eat, rather, “it is grass in general which attracts the herbivorous animal: the colour and the smell of grass, felt and experienced as forces, (we do not go so far as to say, thought as qualities or genera) are the sole immediate data of its external perception” (ibid. 206). If, genealogically, the first distinction of the eye is the one between dark and light, its complication (evolution) went on to further distinguish finer nuances of light intensities, its direction, colour, etc. In that sense, the organism starts to perceive brightness, darkness, up, down, left, right, redness, blueness, greenness — in short, more and more kinds of generalities. Individuation, as a process of drawing finer and finer distinctions, is relative in as far as it distinguishes between such general qualities.
It is perhaps redundant to remark that this whole process of complication depends primarily on utility. To what degree does distinguishing ‘green’ and ‘blue’ improve an organism’s survivability? A perceptive organ gets more complex the more it becomes capable of breaking down generalities. If the plant only distinguishes quantities of light (more/less energy), the eye has ‘learned’ to draw distinctions within the light’s wavelength and is able to perceive different qualities (colours). But this is not to say that the eye is a ‘better’ light-sensitive organ than the leaf; their capabilities both match their utility. Too much specification can, after all, hurt a species’ survivability, as climate changes throughout time. What is of primary importance is, rather, adaptability, the ability to ‘pay attention’ to changes in the surroundings. This is again not to say that mutation is a teleological process, but rather that the mechanisms, the possibility of mutation is something that the plant (or any living being) cannot lose. But when it comes to complexity, which in certain cases indeed does improve an organism’s survivability, the development needs to be understood as going from generality towards (relative) individuation. The eyes of a mantis shrimp are not ‘better’ than human eyes; the fact that they are better capable at individuating colours is in strict accordance to the utility of colour distinction in the shrimp’s environment. Our brain might simply not be able to handle that kind of colour intensity. But even the mantis shrimp does not perceive all the possible nuances of colour that are ‘objectively’ there between a wave with a length of, say, 536.23 nm and one with a length of 536.24 nm. Such an ability is simply not useful.
It may seem that we have moved far, far away from the character of the stickler. So let us reiterate what it was that made the stickler appear ridiculous. We all have a certain set of habits and rules that we developed over time and that kind of ‘work’ for us. There’s evidently nothing wrong with that, and it is, as we’ve seen, a mechanism that all phenomena of life partake in. But the stickler is ‘unmasked’ when the situation changes and he is unable to react to it. While for the whole dynamics of generalisation and individuation to work, they both need to be in accordance to the utility that the singular situation demands, the stickler has dissociated from the situation and started moving within his own circuit. It is then no longer the situation that demands certain degrees of generality or individuality, but, quite the contrary, the stickler, with his rules and habits who ‘demands’ the situation to be in a certain way.
While perception is to be understood as the constant movement between generalisation and individuation according to the demands of a given situation, the stickler’s rules become fixed entities, universals. In each situation, these universal rules are at work, which means that the singular case is to be understood as its instantiation. Instead of two processes, we are now dealing with two entities: the Universal and the Singular. But here arises a problem: How do they relate to each other? How does the singular stalk of grass relate to its ‘grassness’? As we can see, the whole process of perception gets turned upside down: We now ‘start’ with the individual ‘thing’ in front of us (this stalk of grass) and are then confronted with the riddle, how the universal (grassness) ‘comes into’ it. This is where the whole scholastic universals controversy comes into play. For individuality to make sense in this image, the singular stalk of grass needs to be understood as an instantiation of the universal ‘grassness’. Just the same, for the stickler the inkwell in front of him becomes an instantiation of the general inkwell that he needs to fulfil his daily habit of writing. But if all we perceive are singular instantiations, a discrete (≠ continuous) universe, then we are confronted with the questions, where and how their universals exist. Unsurprisingly, the various answers that were given to this question all turned out to be unsatisfactory.
There is, in a sense, a reversal of power. The subject pretends to be more powerful than the world; the world is supposed to follow its law. Referring to Molière’s doctors, who are the “quintessence of pedantry,” Bergson says that the latter is “nothing else than art pretending to outdo nature” (L 17a). It is therefore a question of control. One cannot say that this process is inherently bad. The cultivation of nature, technological advancement, and cultural development can all be understood within this framework. It is only when one of these three processes starts losing its touch with reality, becomes rigid and starts trying to impose its rules onto the world, that it potentially becomes dangerous. There are no general rules to answer queries about genetic engineering, automation of work, and intergenerational conflict, as they all concern the degree to which we impose our rules unto the world. The stabilisation of our environment is an important tool of survival, but we cannot forget that in the end, it is us who need to adapt to the world, and not the world to us — as it becomes clearer and clearer in view of the climatic catastrophe that awaits us. As soon as we see these questions through the lens of rigid universals, or the various laws of efficiency, maximisation, progress, we are not only potentially dissociating ourselves from an ever-changing world, but are also in danger of becoming victims of a new kind of dependency.
After all, in all consequence, if all individuality is but the instantiation of a universal, then the subject must be one as well. In that sense, the individual Socrates is mortal because he is an instantiation of the universal ‘human’. This makes the subject ultimately indistinguishable from the things around it, and in this self-reification, human beings fall prey to the various laws and norms that intend to control their movements, actions, and decisions. In short, the stickler not only dissociates from the world, but also from himself.
If we flesh out Bergson’s first example, the person stumbling and falling on the street, into a comical type, we can imagine him as a notorious daydreamer. The daydreamer loses track of his surrounding, because his mind is ‘somewhere else’ as he lets his thoughts wander around freely. In comedy, the daydreamer is often that distracted character who unknowingly gets himself into dangerous situations, but who will coincidentally save himself in the very last second (Chaplin elegantly skating at the edge of the abyss).
The daydreamer, one could say, is immersed in the logic of dreams. What happens in our dreams is that we leave our very natural, and once again useful, tendency of association go on unchecked. Associations are integrated into our everyday perception, as they facilitate the recognition of the objects around us. Yet, the more associations take over, the further away we get from the current perception and into the realm of memory: “When we let our memory wander at will without effort, images succeed images, all situated on one and the same plane of consciousness” (ME 201f.). In that sense, while we were dealing primarily with perception in view of the stickler, the ‘grounds’ of association is rather memory itself — and those are coincidentally the two elements that divide Bergson’s Matter and Memory and that make up our consciousness.
What happens in our everyday use of association is that we connect a present sensorial image with an image that we perceived previously but which we are still able to access. Usually, we call it association when this process occurs automatically. More often than not, though, we have to put an effort to concretise a certain image that is present in our mind only vaguely (“I know that person’s name starts with a K…”). But just as with perception, what interests Bergson is not a purely psychological capability. After all, memory denotes the degree of the past ‘looming’ into the present. Understanding memory broadly as the ability to retain the past in the present, we can once again see that it pertains to all phenomena of life, as metabolisms are mechanisms of reproduction and repetition, for example following the blueprint of the DNA. If you allow me the metaphor, the plant needs to ‘recognise’ the sunlight, as any sensorial information only becomes useful if the cognitive apparatus (in the broadest sense) ‘knows’ what to do with it. Going down that road, we can say that the more elaborate the organism’s capabilities of retaining the past (association, memory) become, the better it is able to variate the degree of the past’s presence in the current situation. While DNA changes across generations, humans have a high flexibility when it comes to decide, how much we want to ‘soak’ the presence with the past. Maybe we use the clock hanging in our living room to read the time, maybe we want to tell a visitor where we bought it.
The ability to vary the degree of the past’s ‘presence’ is an enormous evolutionary advantage. But this is not a linear progression, where the maximal amount of retained past would mean the maximal level of survivability. More often than not, we have to react as quickly as possible in a situation, which means keeping the process of association to a minimal level — we’ll identify an object flying towards us merely as a ‘dangerous thing’ and only try to find out what it was after we’ve successfully avoided being hit. Survivability rather coincides on the one hand with the ability to create useful memory-images, and on the other hand with the ability to correctly judge the ‘amount’ of past that is appropriate to a current situation. Once again, the complication of a certain capacity, in this case memory, is a function of its utility, meaning that it depends on what a particular situation asks for:
“we go on also from the whole to the parts, by a process of decomposition […], a process which consists in breaking up, for the greater convenience of practical life, the continuity of the real. Association, then, is not the primary fact: dissociation is what we begin with, and the tendency of every memory to gather to itself others must be explained by the natural return of the mind to the undivided unity of perception.” (MM 214f.)
“if this perception evokes in turn different memories, it is not by a mechanical adjunction of more and more numerous elements which, while it remains itself unmoved, it attracts around it, but rather by an expansion of the entire consciousness which, spreading out over a larger area, discovers the fuller detail of its wealth. So a nebulous mass, seen through more and more powerful telescopes, resolves itself into an even greater number of stars.” (ibid. 251f.)
Returning to the daydreamer, we can see that his error is to dissociate the automatism of association from the demands of the given situation. He thereby completely undermines the categorical difference between the memory-images, which are not only images of the past but also the result of his own arrangement of the world, and the perceptual images, which are ‘out there’ and tangible. Once the automatism of association is no longer understood as a biological tool, but as the ontological structure of the world, the present becomes merely an image in a sequence of discontinuous images — the arrow of time — while the memory image merely becomes an absent perception images, so that their difference is only gradual. What differentiates the present and the past is then just the contingent fact that we are now ‘here’ and not ‘there’ on the arrow of time, without being able to explain, what it is that makes ‘this point’ (the present) different from ‘that point’ (a point in the past). This is the “error of associationism: placed in the actual, it exhausts itself in vain attempts to discover in a realized and present state the mark of its past origin, to distinguish memory from perception” (ibid. 173).
But the daydreamer’s associationism is not only unable to distinguish the present and the past, he is also unable to explain why certain images ‘attract’ each other and others don’t, i.e. why, among the thousands of my memory-images, it is this one that is associated with my present perception. After all, if we are given two different images, we will always find ways to find similarities between them. However, as long as the creation of memory-images is bound to utility, the connection between these images can be explained. It is, after all, not necessarily the most similar memory-image that is the most useful. But for associationism, where the memory-images become ‘copies’ of the ontological sequence of images on the arrow of time, “each recollection is a fixed and independent being, of which we can neither say why it seeks to accrue to itself others, nor how it chooses, among a thousand memories which should have equal rights, those with which to associate itself in virtue of similarity or contiguity” (ibid. 216).
What happens with the daydreamer, drowned in memory-images and dream-like associations? On the one hand, the sequence of images is no longer guided by utility, on the other hand, the daydreamer now assumes that the universe is a sequence of discrete and objective images. If perception is added to it, is merely a secondary question. As with the stickler, there is an inversion, where it is no longer the situation that decides upon the appropriate perception or memory, but the subject that attempts to turn around this relation of power and assume control over its surroundings:
“the dreamer, instead of appealing to the whole of his recollections for the interpretation of what his senses perceive, makes use of what he perceives to give substance to the particular recollection he favours: thus, according to the mood of the dreamer and the idea that fills his imagination at the time, a gust of wind blowing down the chimney becomes the howl of a wild beast or a tuneful melody” (L 57a).
The daydreamer might perceive his decoupling from utility as a kind of emancipation, leading to a conception where the subject is that which does not follow the universal logic of utility (autonomy of the subject). Yet, he is at danger of himself becoming a mere image among images and thereby lose his autonomy in the same breath that he gains it. For if the people around him are a sum of traits that can be associated with the traits of other people, why would the same not apply to the daydreamer? To resolve this threat, he turns the problem of the selection of images that we’ve sketched out above to his advantage: It is the subject’s will that, standing outside of the exterior images, selects which image is to be associated with another. The autonomous subject, due to its separation from the exterior world, thereby assumes mastery of the images surrounding it. Instead of moving on the axis of association, the daydreamer, just like the stickler, creates two separate entities: exteriority and interiority. The subject, looking at the world ‘from the inside’, is thereby not located in the exterior world, which now becomes a pure playground for this autonomous being.
What we are discovering here, is a conception of individuality as exception, which we can recognise in idealist as much as existentialist thought (which in that light becomes a direct successor of German idealism through Kierkegaard’s intense reading of Hegel). In this conception, the whole exterior world, consisting of discrete images with associable qualities, is radically opposed to the individual that becomes something like a cinema spectator who has emancipated itself from whatever it is that is happening around it. The individual is thereby no longer an instantiation of the universal (as it was with the stickler), but rather an exception to the exterior. Consequently, there is individuality only when the subject is alone. It loses it once it joins others, to become a social ‘mass’, whose members only have general traits and are inherently replaceable: the ‘sheep’.
The daydreamer perceives this solitude, in which he finds himself, as a confirmation of his autonomy, in contrast to the people around him, whose various traits he easily associates with each other, so that he no longer perceives them as individuals, but as homogenous masses. Yet, as his own individuality is based on differentiation, he himself must find means to distinguish himself from ‘them’. The only possible means to do that are, though, once again exterior qualities: hair and clothing styles, tattoos, taste, education, wealth. But as those keep being associable, the eccentric daydreamer perpetually needs to find new ways to distinguish himself from the masses — which, ironically, will bring him into a new form of dependency, as he needs to provoke the antagonism of the people around him to confirm that he is different from them. Individuation through secession, where the whole exterior world is emptied of all individuality, is in constant danger of being devoured by it, and has therefore constantly to affirm its difference. But the confirmation of this difference can only come from the outside: The individual falls prey to the images that it claims to master.
Consciousness, for Bergson, is the result of two distinct processes, one concerning perception and the other concerning memory. It is a “double movement of contraction and expansion” (MM 216) that is “the result of the fundamental needs of life” (ibid. 217): In the case of perception, consciousness moves along the vertical axis of generalisation and individuation, where the continuous universe, consisting of interpenetrating forces, is separated into discrete and useful things. This is an act of simplification, where only the useful sides of things are ‘illuminated’. Memory moves along the vertical (temporal) axis of association, where consciousness expands by ‘allowing’ memory-images into the present sensorial data, to recognise them or utilise past experiences. Consciousness, then, is not a fixed entity, as it expands and contracts permanently. Both processes have but one goal: To establish contact with the world so as to improve the living being’s survivability. Life’s elasticity consists in the ability to move along these two axes depending on what a given situation demands. Yet, there is no general rule to deduce, what reaction is needed in a particular situation; it depends on a plethora of factors concerning both the living being and its surroundings, making each and every situation unique (being in the ‘same’ situation for the second time is already being in another situation). This is why this elasticity is a matter of continuous attention and effort, as no automatism can replace our ‘reading’ of our surroundings: “To remain in touch with things and men, to see nothing but what is existent and think nothing but what is consistent, demands a continuous effort of intellectual tension” (L 59b f.).
Constantly keeping up tension is tiring. We might therefore feel keen to relax a bit and let the two processes ‘run on their own’. While this weakens our contact with the world, it is only when our distractions become visible to the people around us that they might intuitively feel inclined to correct us and to remind us to once again start paying attention — by laughing at us. The more we distance ourselves from the middle ground, where both our perception and our memory function according to their utility, the more we start resembling certain types. Laughter, for Bergson, has a specific biological function. If a plant ‘gets distracted’ and doesn’t adapt to climate change (as a species, through inter-generational mutation), it becomes extinct. Humans, on the other hand, have created a certain ‘buffer zones’ where they can help each other to ‘snap out’ of their dissociations by laughing at each other and getting reminded that they need to pay attention to their surroundings. What we perceive as ridiculous are not the extreme cases, but rather instances where we still feel that it is possible to correct the person’s behaviour through laughter. In cases where we feel that the person is already too ‘far off’, like with a member of a cult or in cases of mental illness, we stop perceiving their quirks and ‘distracted’ logic as ridiculous. Comedy, on the other hand, is a useful tool to elaborate certain types that result from specific distractions.
If attention to life is marked by elasticity, our distractions are the result of certain rigidities that at a certain point start affecting our thinking. In the case of perception, the axis of generalisation and individuation is replaced by the dualism of the universal and the singular. Individuality is then understood as an instantiation of a universal. In the case of memory, the axis of association is replaced by the dualism of the exterior and the interior, where individuality is understood as an exception to the exterior world that consists of general qualities. Both conceptions of individuality are inherently contradictory and result from a profound dissociation from the world.
The necessity for continuous attention and effort might remind us of the tradition of enlightenment: consciousness and awareness as a means to battle superstitions. But while, for someone like Kant, this was a specifically human capability, Bergson sees it in a broader context. Attention is not part of rationality per se, it is inherent to all life, albeit in different forms. It includes adaptability, and the whole process of evolution, which essentially is the capability to ‘pay attention’ to changes in the surroundings. When the river runs out, the windmill, as a pure mechanical object, becomes obsolete, while humans (and other forms of life) will react to the change and migrate or change their habits. Attention is a biological category. It does not merely pertain to the rationality, or consciousness, but to the ability to ‘stay in touch’ with the world through light-, temperature-, pressure-, sound-sensitive organs (among many other possibilities). Living beings strengthen their ‘contact’ with the world to strengthen themselves, to increase their survivability; for death is, after all, the complete loss of contact with the world.
Individuality itself is thereby no longer to be understood as a fixed entity, but as something that is constantly expanding and contracting: While there are actions and gestures in which we express our very own personality, we often act as something, be it our social class, gender, members of a certain culture, or even species. What Bergson shows is that attention to life does not mean maximising our individuality in every one of our actions: Sometimes, it is simply more useful to conform to certain rules and norms. Quite the opposite, people who need to set themselves apart in every of their action quickly start appearing ridiculous. But the same counts for the opposite: People, who are only able to act according to given rules appear ridiculous in situations where personal initiative is demanded.
The question of individuality thereby no longer concerns uniqueness, it rather becomes a question of presence of mind. Strengthening our individuality concerns the axis of attention and distraction: The more we stay attentive to the world around us, the stronger our bond with it. A more adequate term might therefore be personality. Personality is not a particular character trait that we develop or are naturally inclined to, like charisma, smartness, or cunning. Those are rather what Bergson calls character, “the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically” (L 46a). The more we get defined by such traits, the more we start following their inherent logic (the logic of avarice, of politeness,…), the more rigid and ridiculous we become, like Molière’s characters. With personality, I rather want to denote an active principle of mind, a wakefulness that perceives each situation in its inherent uniqueness.
Even when we follow the most general rules of conduct, we have to stay attentive to the possible changes in the particular circumstances, as the world around us is in perpetual flux. This means that we don’t lose our personality when we are in social situations, as we develop certain sides of it when we are with others. There is no opposition between individuality and sociality; rather, the people around us can help us staying in touch with the world, so that we don’t lose ourselves in our habits or in our daydreams — by laughing at us when we start getting dissociated. The exterior world does not threaten our singularity, as it is only through a conscious interaction with our surroundings that we strengthen our being in this world.
Abbreviations and Works Cited
L – Laughter
ME – Mind-Energy
MM – Matter and Memory
Bergson, Henri. Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Temple of Earth Publishing.
Bergson, Henri (1920). Mind-Energy. Lectures and Essays. Henry Holt and Company.
Bergson, Henri (2004). Matter and Memory. Dover Publications.