Conformity and Individualism

The tension between conforming to what is perceived as “normal” and maintaining individual liberty is always a big issue in American literature and culture, but it seems particularly prominent in later 20th-century writing. What do these texts suggest about ways to successfully negotiate this problem? Writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Gwendolyn Brooks emerged from the apparently “conformist” 1950s with works and ideas that challenged the status quo in a number of ways, but which also reflected the existence or emergence of subcultures (or countercultures) that provided a sense of community and belonging to their members. How important are such communities in providing support for individuals who may not fit into “mainstream” society? Would the existence of some sense of community have helped, for instance, Darl or Blanche…? Moreover, does the fragmentation of postmodern America into an assortment of subcultures undermine or strengthen the culture as a whole?

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36 Responses to “Conformity and Individualism”

  1. kellen moser Says:

    I believe that as our society moves on there will be a greater rise in individualism compared to conformity. Look at how different it is from now and say the 1950s. Even today, it seems like more and more people are seperating themselves from conformity. People don’t want to be a part of mainstream society. At one point, it was considered “cool” to be like everyone else, to be a part of mainstream. Now, more people, especially kids and young adults, consider it “cool” to not be part of mainstream society. People don’t want to be like everyone else. I think that the works or people like Ginsberg and Brooks will become more popular over the next decade or so, as long as young people are being exposed to it. Personally, I liked Ginsberg and Brooks more than anyone I have read this semester. People want to see different now, and will continue to in the future.

  2. Lacey Babekuhl Says:

    I agree with Kellen. The way our society is heading at this point in time, definitely points to a more individualist mode of thinking. The changes that have occurred even within the past 100 years are enormous and quite amazing if you really reflect upon them. However, as much as I believe our society will change, it will still remain slightly the same and though an increasing percentage of it will become individualists, straying from even the accepted individualist norm will be frowned upon. It seems that in our world even the nonconformists adhere to some set of guidelines.

  3. Jack Nichols Says:

    What individualism?

    I think our society on some levels has lost touch with what individualism means. The idea of the “rugged individual” was once the personna embodied by Theodore Roosevelt and embraced by the generations of self-sufficient, hard working, risk-taking Americans. Today, however, people lack all sense of personal accountability. Everything bad that happens to anyone is now seen as the result of some system fancifully termed by some sociologist. Within or by these sociological systems, we believe a person was doomed to fail from the start and exercises no control of his or her situation (and in doing this we conveniently ignore every case of a person or a people overcoming a hardship). People blame rich people for others being poor. Doctors are sued for being anything less than God and we in turn gripe about the high prices of medical costs as if some preternatural evil force has overthrown the basic principles of economics.

    Darl and Blanche are not nonconformists. They are simply insane.

  4. Steven Cass Says:

    I think communities of subcultures is most helpful for the young. It helps them realize that the likelihood is that someone else is like you. (For example, a friend of mine in high school was convinced he was the only gay person in the world because he was the only gay person he knew.) Also, the voice of the collective communities can help subcultures get accepted into “mainstream” society.

    I have serious doubts that such communities could have helped either Blanche or Darl.

    If non-conformity is the popular thing to be, then to be a non-conformist is to be a conformist. Individualism is exceedingly hard to find in modern society.

  5. christinaschreiner Says:

    I do think that “the existence of a sense of community” could have possibly helped Darl. Until the point where he semed to just lose it, he really didn’t appear to have much of a problem. The only real thing was that he was misunderstood by his family. Had he been able to find somewhere this sense of communtiy, in a sense that they were people who understood him and the experiences he went through, his melt down very well could have been prevented. His family didn’t understand him, and he probably didn’t even understand them anymore. It wasn’t that he was so much a non-conformist, in a sense, he was actually conforming to the outside, city world, just not to the backwards world he lived in. Blanche, on the other hand, is a completely different story. I don’t think that anything short of a nice stay in an asylum could have helped her. Sure, Stanley’s rape seemed to push her over the edge, but she was already at the top just waiting to go over.

  6. Emily Rieck Says:

    As the saying goes, “it takes a community to raise a child” whether or not being a community means being a conformist is certainly has it’s benefits as a social net. As stated above, being a non-conformist is conformity but most people probably just want to be accepted in whatever category that puts them in. Blanche and Darl, I believe could have definitely benefited from having some other network to trust in. The only reason they were in the situations they were in (or dealt with those situations) was because they had no one else to turn to. Being in a community or part of a network however shouldn’t take away a persons individualism, it should help extract those traits for the benefit of the network. Ginsberg and Brooks were individualists but part of a larger network who recognized that the world was accepting behavior that wasn’t individualistic which can be highly damaging as a social whole.

  7. Garett Lohff Says:

    I think that the presence of a community could have helped Darl and Blanche. Both seemed to be distant from their families, and did not have anyone to turn to. The people around Darl and Blanche did not support them very well, and they became disjointed from society. Darl did not belong to the “mainstream” society because certain things happend in his life that he could not discuss with anyone. He seemed to let it stay inside, and it bottled up until he went over the edge. Blanche is in the same situation as Darl because she has also lost touch with reality. She creates a seperate world for herself, and she cannot cope with real life anymore. I don’t think a sense of community would have helped either of them because they did not really live in a community setting. Darl only had his imediate family and Blanche only had Stella.
    Communities are important to everyone because they create a place where people can grow. Individuals may come out of the communities, but in order to conform or not conform to a community there has to be one first. It is great that individuals come out of these communities because individuals create change, and change is sometimes good. Individuals like Ginsberg shape what our society is today. Without these types of people there would be no change in our communities. Individuals make a sense of change in our society, and help create new works for people to read or look at. Change is good for our society because no one wants the same thing everyday of their lives.

  8. Michelle Rydell Says:

    I agree with Garret. I think that having a stronger connection with a community could have helped Blanche and Darl from going insane. Blanche had no one to lean on, no one to help her talk about her problems. Instead of addressing her problems and issues, which her family could have helped her do, she created this separate world that made her problems disappear. You can only address your problems if you have somebody listening, and unfortunately, nobody was listening, really listening, to Blanche. She completely distanced herself from reality and if she would have been in touch with a community and connected to other people from a young age, she could have coped with her problems instead of ignoring them.

  9. Glen Drew Says:

    I have read a lot of hunter s thompson and some of william burroughs, a very famous heroin addict and also considered members of the beat generation like ginsberg. They struck back at conformity by promoting self discovery through drugs and sex. While 50s America tried to embrace values such as leave it to beaver and father knows best, the two world wars proved our world is a much darker place. While most believe that civil rights and free love and fuck the pigs were in the 60s, there origins seem to be more in the 50s. It just took a decade to really catch on. It seems that most Americans didn’t catch on to the free love parade until it became popular to do so. As far as american subcultures go, just look at the magazine racket in today’s society. You’ve got millions of different clubs and hobbies and organizations people are interested in. America is a melting pot, has been since it was started, and pray it stays that way.

  10. catherine ashbach Says:

    I think the exixtance of ulternative culture groups is essential to American culture. In todays world there are many diverse groups and I think we are leaning more towards an appreciate those who are unique attitude rather than past beleifs of if we don’t understand you then you must be bad crazy ect and the only place for you is a padded cel. Because I have read One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in another class this semester, another great author of the beat generation, I wonder fi Greenspan spent any time traveling arroung on Freedom as many other prominent beats did?

  11. Roxanne Merchant Says:

    On the thought of “does the fragmentation of postmodern America into an assortment of subcultures undermine or strengthen the culture as a whole?” reminds me of a conversation I had with my boss today. We were having the discussion of how our 2 major political parties are more concerned with their own agendas then they are about finding ground from which to help the American people. If they look at cutting any programs there will be some special interest group yelling. jumping down, and saying, “not my group.” There are more groups and subgroups out there that want their piece of the pie, and nobody had better touch their piece of the pie. Subcultures are a good thing, but only if they don’t turn it into the “my group” vs “your group” mentality. I think that there are many of the beat generation that would be disappointed in what they found today. They weren’t looking for what they could get. They were looking for what they could change, for getting their message out, and not asking for some program to fix the problem. They were looking for the people to become aware of the problem and then find a way to fix it. These were the people who didn’t trust government at all.

  12. Kristin Olson Says:

    I believe that communities for those individuals who do not fit into “mainstream” society are very important since they would help to provide those individuals with a sense of belonging. If theses eccentric individuals feel that they belong somewhere and have others to support them, then they are less likely to develop depression and/or go what one might call “insane” (like Darl and Blanche).

    As a whole, I feel that the fragmentation of postmodern America into an assortment of subcultures does help to strengthen our culture- mainly since it gives all individuals the freedom to live the way they want to live. Instead of standing around complaining and/or gossiping about those who are “different” than us, we all should try our best to keep an open mind and put ourselves in the shoes of other individuals who are different from us. This should help make everyone more comfortable and peaceful with others who are “different.” In turn, this should help to put us as well as others at peace with not only ourselves, but the rest of the world as well. It’s like what Wallace and Boisseau said in one of their creative writing books (sorry I can’t remember the title or page number), “If the world resembles our selves, then by finding peace within, the world outside will become peaceful” (referring to “Among the Cows” by Enid Shomer).

  13. Anne Rosenbaum Says:

    I agree with Kristin. I think that a multitude of strong subcultures are beneficial for the great variety of people in America who are seeking to find their placeinsociety. I feel that fragmentation, however negative the word sounds, can be a positive thing as it allows for individual development and the ability to envision one’s individual role in the larger society. I believe that a lot of these authors, as well as characters from previous texts (Darl and Blanche) suffered from a lack of such subcultures.

    Additionally, I believe that strong subcultures are to the advantage of America. One single force is often less effective and even deleterious to a single effort or cause such as America. Instead, postmodern America offered multiple viewpoints and subcultures that gained such strength that America was able to wield power in a variety fronts as a multi-faceted nation.

  14. Katie O'Leary Says:

    I think all of these posts are very insightful. A common thread I am seeing here is that while it is not fair to isolate members from society for not representing the status quo, it nevertheless happens. Clearly, we have seen how this is depicted in both Blanche and Darl. An excellent example of this is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), in which, essentially, a non-conformist is sent away because he constantly “preferred not to.” I think it is notable to point out that this novella was written in 1853, and so this problem of assimilation is certainly not a phenomenon (although it is perhaps more prevalent now). Furthermore, I agree with Anne that “fragmentation” need not be negative.

  15. Molly O'Connor Says:

    I think that outspoken writers such as Allen Ginsberg are extremely important for a society to have, especially in the fifties when conformity was considered very important. I admire him and his work for not conforming and blending into the norm. It is important for stand for your individual beliefs which is something that he clearly did. America is a land where free speech is coveted… why not use our rights?

  16. Caitlin Reindl Says:

    It is possible now that it’s not so much to be an individual but more of an infatuation with the idea of individualism. Everyone claims to be their own person and hold ideas that they believe are unique to their structured personality, but everyone is a little piece of someone. Individualism is a joke and the more people that try to be individuals the less “individual” they truly become. When I think about Individualism I think about someone being genuine and true to their actions and words. Its not so much about what you wear or the way you do your hair, its about what comes from the inside. That is proven through the 20th century writers and what sort of messages they were trying to put across to their audiences.

  17. Andrea Smith Says:

    I agree with Kellen, in that people are “going their own way” and breaking away from the mainstream. As society grows, many people are becoming more of themselves and not doing what everyone else is doing, instead they’re being unique. Literature has definitely come a long ways in developing today’s society and what people think. I enjoyed reading the poems in the Postmodern time and really liked Ginsberg. I thought his poetry was unique and had a sense of different style. I think knowing what you believe in and sticking to it, will make you a stronger person. Don’t follow the crowd, be yourself!

  18. Carrie Herrboldt Says:

    Anyone who breaks from conformity is an individualist (Ginsberg, for example). In today’s society; however, one sees more and more people breaking away from the “beauty queen and jock” society, and moving towards a more non-conformist society. I see this in people who advocate for law reform, I see this in people who rally peace protests, and I see this in people who “break the rules” in the media, television, etc. However, to me a non-conformist can be someone who chooses to use organic materials instead of synthesized and artificial products. I think that the more people who challenge tradition the better. Tattoos, for example, are a way of expression and art, and in previous times, tattoos were exploited as “dirty.” Also, gothics are non-conformists who choose to express themselves through wearing black. Having tattoos or wearing black is a good way for people to express themselves and be non-conformist. Non-conformists are everywhere, and I think that Ginsberg was a good advocate for people who like to think outside of the box. He allocated for new ideas, and his listeners learned from him. As one of the men/women in the beat generation, I think that Ginsberg shook things up in his time period; therefore causing his peers to re-evaluate themselves, and rethink what is important in the world. People who continue to promote different ideas will make other men and women think outside of the box and challenge authority. Because of the recent push for world change, I think that society today will continue to shift towards this attitude.

  19. Katherine Wielechowski Says:

    Now, please nobody hit me… While I believe that movements that are outside of the main stream are very important since they cause change that every society needs, sometimes I just don’t get what they are trying to say. That might be my conservitive background talking, but I just didn’t get Ginsberg. I thought it was confusing and that it really had no point. I just might not be insightful enough to understand it, or too involved in the mainstream to recognize the genius of something on the outside.
    It could also be that I’m just not a fan of anything newer than “Modern” which definitly includes Postmodern. (I’ve been studying classical history for the past 4 years, so sue me!)
    Oh, and another thing to not hit me about please… I know that breaking away from the mainstream is awesome… but doesn’t all that newness and individuality eventually become mainstream? From the Beats, you get the Beatnecks-the mainstream half-sibling of the Beat movement. Our generation has brought the Emos… which is becoming the “Emo-child” the mainstream half-sibling.
    Sometimes I wonder how much people actually believe in their movements that are “outside” and how much they do it just to do something “outside.”

  20. Cory Haisch Says:

    I would say that these subculture groups are very important to the survival and livelihood of the individuals that do not fit into the mainstream group. This is evident in America and the world today, just take a look around. The reason for all these “off-the-wall” groups such as, NAMBLA and gangs, is so people that may have radical ideas or radical ways about achieving their goal can be with others that share the same views, almost like a support group. These groups provide the much needed companionship and support that people need to survive, and since they cannot find it in mainstream America, they can look elsewhere to find it. That is why these groups are important, they provide assistance and hope for all those that feel alienated by the rest of the world. I do feel that if Darl or Blanche would have been a member of a group of people with similar views as them, that they would have been better off, than they were. This is because if they were with people that shared similar views and had similar habits as them, than they wouldn’t have been labeled and treated like they were because they would have fit in.

  21. Steve Nelson Says:

    Throughout the mid 20th century, I believe that culture in America was progressing towards a singular-uniformitarian society. Consequently, I believe that as a result of this, many subcultures began to appear and thrive that believed in standing out and rejecting the values that are considered “normal” by contemporary views. Therefore, the majority of contemporary society rejected these views and viewed them in a ridiculing manner. In essence, these views relate to the characters of Blanche and Darl in that both seemed to be out of touch with reality, and in Darl’s case, more experienced than his redneck family. I believe that the people of the 50′s and 60′s such as Ginsberg weren’t necessarily “cooky,” but they recognized the need for varying views and cultures in a uniform America.

  22. Emily Finley Says:

    I think it is always good to have an open mind about everything and back what you believe. Being outspoken isn’t always a bad thing, in fact in many instances it is great to stand up for what you want to see happen. I really respect writers like Ginsberg, because he does just this. I think it is very important to be yourself. We are lucky we get to voice our opinions and have the privilege to do so, as young adults our age were not so fortunate as us back then.

  23. Chris Berke Says:

    Conformity is a big issue in America. Everyone wants to stand out, yet they end up fitting in with some group anyways. But that’s ok, because you get subcultures, and each of them have something to add to society. Darl and Blanch didn’t conform to their immediate surroundings and they seemed “crazy” to the other characters in the stories. But who’s to decide what is crazy? Just because they didn’t conform, doesn’t mean that they are out of their minds. They are their own people and are probably very in touch with their own reality. Also, people such as Ginsberg didn’t write like other people wrote. He had very different views and was very open minded to the people around him. Some people may disagree with his opinions, but he is respectable.

  24. Ashley Pearson Says:

    I think that breaking away from conformity definately strengthens our society as a whole. If everyone were the same and thought the same way our world would be boring and nothing new would ever have been introduced. If Stella could have found a little bit more individualism i think it definately would have helped Blanche get through some of the tough things she had to deal with in her life. Maybe she wouldn’t have been thought as being so “insane” then. Everyone would go crazy if they felt as alone as Blanche did.

  25. Ashley Johnson Says:

    In society today we have lost perspective on exactly what individualism is. People say they want to be individuals, but yet they still end up conforming to one group or another. So, when you have lots of people subdivided into their “individual” groups doesn’t that mean we’re all still conforming to the idea of belonging to a group? Everyone likes to think they are different from everyone else and, growing up, your parents tell you you are special. But, in reality, you’re just the same as everyone else. You can try to break out of the mold as much as you want but will never truly accomplish it. I respect writers and artists who try to bring across individualism, but at the same time, they are still like everyone else, conforming to the practice of trying to be an individual.

  26. Amy Jarding Says:

    As with what Glen said, Burroughs’ approach at giving an insight into the drug culture is mind blowing. I’m currently reading the Naked Lunch right now, and there are times the writing is so graphic that it makes my stomach hurt. The fact that someone is writing with such an intensity to trigger feelings of abhorrence towards a situation is encouraging. I appreciate the author’s stream of consciousness writing and at times get so pulled into what I’m reading that feelings of physical awareness are present. Burroughs writes about situations in which question is presented: “can tongue or pen accomodate these scandals?” Reading postmodernism is an experience in itself and should be welcomed with an open mind and an imaginative state.

  27. Amy Kraayenhof Says:

    The American society is definitely moving more towards an individualistic culture when it comes to things like trying to succeed in life. There is such a diversity to everything from what we wear, listen to, as well as read. However just like we like to be individuals we like to be like other people, that’s why we have the friends we do, look at high school cliques for example, so in the end we all are still conforming in some way or another, just not on a mass scale. We also tend to outcast people that are too individualistic. I agree that if we get to individualized we may get a little crazy and feel alone sort of like blanch probably did.

  28. Trenton Mendelson Says:

    As time progresses culture and society are constantly changing. Due to these changes in culture and society, there are always changes in the personality and actions of people. I believe that people are becoming much more individualistic as time progresses. Not only are people becoming more self-aware, they are recognizing other individuals and emulating them. You would think through this emulation they would copy them, but instead are etching out their own role as an individual, and are simply inspired by other individualistic persons. Blanche would have benefited from a more individualistic culture. I feel she would not have had to escape to her dream world, because she would be a stronger individual, capable of accepting things and not always working to be like others.

  29. Jordan McQuillen Says:

    One thing that we have seen through this semester is that characters are often faced with the conflict of doing what they want to do and doing what soceity expects out of them. But, over time, these expectations change. This theme kind of follows US history too, because women & minorities had very few rights and freedoms way back in the 1860s, but today these same minorities are competing for the US Presidency. Our country allows people to read what they want to read and write what the want to write, which will ensure that even the verbally outspoken always have a medium to communicate their beliefs/ideas/obeservatinos to the population and also serves as a timepiece for generations to come.

  30. Josh Tribble Says:

    I think that these subcultures definitely strengthen a culture, in that it gives the dominant culture a chance to look at things from a different perspective. The conformist culture is not always the correct point of view, but if you have many different perspectives on a particular situation in culture then you have the best chance of bettering society. Also these subcultures are important to a well rounded society, in that individuals who do not fit into the conformist culture need a sense of identity within the culture they exist within, therefore becoming or adhering to the belief systems of a subculture provides for a sense of wellbeing for these types of individuals. The conformist culture may only be set in place, to a certain extent of course, because some people may have been brought up that way and don’t know any better, or it is an inherent subconcious mental representation of themselves, therefore they place themselves within the dominant culture. I also think Blanche would have been better off in a culture where she did not have to or feel like she had to adhere to the expectations of other people, but on the other hand i think Darl acted to disonnect himself from the societal norm.

  31. Patrick Boustead Says:

    I think the idea of individualism is some what lost in today’s society. Many people say that they agree with this idea and then turn around and shun someone who might be a little different. Examples pop up all the time, go and sit on a bench in the mall some Saturday. You have parents ushering their kids away from someone who might be walking next to them covered in tatoos.

  32. Ashley Dolly Says:

    I admire Ginsberg’s ability to step out of the box. Authors like this convey a message to people that it’s ok to be a non-comformist and perhaps the ones who choose not to conform are more of an individual than others. Rather than people in the 50s viewing these authors as way different or possibly not normal, these authors are actually speaking to the world that it’s ok to be yourself and choose your own way of life

  33. Hannah Prentice Says:

    I feel as though this could also be tied to the assimilation argument. People are so obsessed with trying to belong that they eventually lose their own identity and their sense of individualism. Ginsberg was able to retain his sense of individualism in his writing. He wasn’t conforming to the ideals of the time, he was living his own life. I believe that a society should be made up of small bands of people with different things in common rather than the entire society trying to conform to one ideal. There will always be people that won’t conform but the majority of people are looking for someplace to belong. There will always be conformity.

  34. Justin Heyd Says:

    I believe that Ginsburg was obsessed with not being a sheep just like people are obsessed with following the herd and trying to fit in. Ginsberg was trying to shepherd a society of people who had lost their individualism. However, when you are the only one proclaiming your ideals of individuality, it will be very difficult for people to listen to what you have to say. Even Jesus Christ, one of the most influential leaders of all time, had twelve apostles to help him and preach his teachings. I believe that a society of subcultures strengthens our society for the better. One of the great things about America is that even within a small city you can have many small subcultures in it. And in society, you will always find individuals like Ginsberg, that refuse to conform to what is expected of withing society and continue to march to the beat of his own drum.

  35. Wanda Plaatje Says:

    I for one do think that the American people are becoming more individual due to Authors like Brooks and Ginsberg. Yet, I believe that culture in itself refers to the universal human capacity to communicate with agreed boundaries. So, if said boundaries of the future are to be an individual or to make subcultures the new culture, doesn’t it fall back into itself as the new conformity or the new “mainstream” culture; thus, in essence, become the very thing it was supposed to oppose? Anyway, if such a sense of community did exists in the fictional worlds of Darl and Blanch, I don’t it would have saved them. Culture means nothing to the mad.

  36. Danielle Baker Says:

    I believe that Individualism started with people who wanted a change. People who wanted to go against mainstream society. Yes I am talking about Communists, the Black Panther Party, Gay and Lesbian Groups, and AIM to name a few. Most of these groups have gotten a bad reputation by our media for not being conformists and “violent”. Before anyone attacks my statement, just think of the free breakfast program (started by the Black Panther Party), women’s right to vote (a senator added in anyone of any sex can vote thinking this would stop people from letting Blacks vote), and the list goes on. I do however think it is harder to be an individual because a lot of people want change nowadays.

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