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The Australian Journal of Anthropology (2012) 23, 5064 doi:10.1111/j.1757-6547.2012.00167.

From dividual and individual selves to

porous subjects
Karl Smith
La Trobe University

The distinction between understanding persons as dividuals versus individuals began to

develop in the latter half of the twentieth century. Originating in Louis Dumonts
comparative work into the differences between Western and Indian subjects in the 1950s,
it perhaps reached its zenith in the 1980s when Marilyn Strathern used it to differentiate
between Melanesian and Western concepts of the person. By the end of the century, critique
and reconceptualisation of the individual:dividual distinction was so well established in the
anthropological literature that its explanatory capacity was largely negated. The aim of this
paper is to attempt to clarify the different modes of personhood that the dividual:individual
distinction sought to elucidate by introducing a useful distinction between the self and the
human subject and further developing Charles Taylors distinction between porous and
buffered selves.

One of the more pervasive recurring themes in the anthropological literature is
summed up in the title to Shweder & Bournes 1984 paper: Does the Concept of
the Person Vary Cross-Culturally? From my reading, it appears that by the time of
this papers publication, there was already widespread agreement among anthropo-
logists that the answer is unequivocally yes. Yet the literature dedicated to the
debate continues to grow as participants critique and challenge the myriad of ways
in which different conceptualisations have been represented.
Dumonts comparison of Western and Indian conceptions of personhood
serves as an important landmark in the formulation of this debate (Dumont 1980;
Ram 1994). Dumont initially defined the difference in terms of the hierarchical per-
son of India and the egalitarian Westerner, later reframing it in terms of holism
and individualism (Robbins 2002: 190). Shweder and Bourne discuss the differences
in terms of sociocentric and egocentric persons (1984: 1278; Mageo 1995: 283).
Robbins (2002) argues that in the Melanesian context, at least, it is useful to think
of the contrast between relationalism and individualism. In other contexts, the
Japanese have been characterised as groupist in contradistinction to the Western
individual (see, e.g. Ram 1994: 150; Sugimoto 2003)with this characterisation
later extended to others of the so-called Asian Tigers. Busby (1997) observes that a
recurring problem in this debate is that in most cases (as in all of the cases cited

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From dividual and individual selves to porous subjects

above), the comparison is made between a Western standard and an ethnographic

subject. She points out that whereas such studies depict both Indians and Melane-
sians as dividuals when compared to the Western individual, when the Indian
person is compared to the Melanesian person, they appear to be as starkly distinct
from one another as each is from the (supposed) Western standard. This so-called
Western individual is, of course, also a highly problematic category.1
In this paper, I focus on the dividual individual distinction. This is not to imply
that all of the different concepts that have been identified and described as socio-
centric, hierarchical, permeable, relational, etc. can be reduced to a conception of
dividual. Rather, my aim is to contribute to a better understanding of anthropos by
elucidating the underlying condition for any and all of these distinctions and can
do so most clearly (and quite adequately) by focusing on this one particular charac-
terisation of culturally distinct conceptions of self or personhood.
The distinction between understanding persons as dividuals versus individuals
began to develop in the latter half of the twentieth century, perhaps reaching its
zenith in the 1980s when Marilyn Strathern (1988) used it to differentiate between
Melanesian and Western concepts of the person, although the term Dividual was
coined by Marriott and Inden in the context of their comparative research in India
(cf. LiPuma 1998). The anthropological literature is rife with critiques of this dis-
tinction (see, e.g. Shweder & Bourne 1984; Josephides 1991; Ram 1994; LiPuma
1998; Hess 2006). By the turn of the century, Englund and Leach (2000: 229)
observed that it had become current anthropological wisdom that all persons are
both dividuals and individuals. They then turn their critique to the meta-narratives
of modernity which, they contend, furnish ethnographers who engage in such
narratives with a sense of the direction which the universal dividual-individual
tension will take (ibid.). Their argument appears to be that it is not possible to
theorise globalisation and the juggernaut of modernity without (mistakenly) con-
cluding that all cultures, and thus all peoples, will invariably become increasingly
individualistic. To the extent that there is such a tendency within theories of
modernity, whether formulated by boosters or knockers of modernity (Taylor
1991: 22; cf. Kahn 2001: 657), it is undoubtedly a legitimate source of concern. But
we need not avoid engaging in the theorisation of modernity in order to challenge
this suggestion that increasing individualisation is inevitable.2 Nor do we need to
conduct the type of long-term ethnographic fieldwork that Englund and Leach
advocate in order to problematise this notion (again, cf. Kahn 2001).
Whereas Englund and Leach are wary of those theorists of modernity, such as
Alain Touraine (2002), who see increasing individualisation as both definitive of
modernity and somehow inevitable through the processes of globalisation, others,
such as Charles Taylor (1989, 2007) and Cornelius Castoriadis (1987), argue that
such individualisation is historically and culturally specific and that claims of its
inevitability are grounded in erroneous anthropological conceptualisations. As
critique and reconceptualisation of the individual:dividual distinction is well
established in the anthropological literature (e.g. Ram 1994; Busby 1997; LiPuma

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K. Smith

1998; Hess 2006)and accepting Englund and Leachs claim that all persons are
both dividual and individual to some degreemy aim is to attempt to further
clarify these issues by introducing and developing an idea recently formulated by
Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007)specifically, his distinction between porous
and buffered selves. Indeed, there are very strong parallels between the philosophy
of the self that Taylor outlines in his earlier workmost systematically in Sources of
the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989)and, for example, LiPumas
discussion of the problematic distinction between modern and Melanesian persons.
We must note, though, that LiPuma (and others) focuses on the conceptualisa-
tion of personhood, while Taylors is a theory of the self. As Ruth Abbey observes,
Taylor does not explicitly differentiate between terms such as person, self, subject or
selfhood, identity and personhood (2000: 57). And, as Sokefeld observes, these
terms are frequently mixed up in the debate with some authors attempting to keep
them strictly apart (1999: 4278). Despite his doubts about the feasibility of any
strict distinction (p. 428), though, Sokefeld attempts to sustain a distinction
between self and identity. Identities, he argues, are plural (p. 419), conflicting
(p. 420), context dependent, competing, antagonistic and intersecting (p. 423). The
self, in this framework, is a narrative construct that manages these plural identities,
lending coherence and continuity to the persons experiences (p. 424). Sokefelds
self is a product of agency, which is an integral ability of human beings (p. 424;
cf. Taylor 1985: 263). This self is thus also dynamic and changeable, although
relatively more stable than the contextual identities (p. 426). In contrast, Taylor
defines the self as the narrative identity that lends coherence and consistency to the
diversity of ones lived experience (1989: 47).
As I am attempting to further develop the concept of porosity in order to shed
light on the debate within the anthropological literature, I will maintain Taylors
terminology of self and selfhood and leave the issue of its relationship to person
and personhood for others. Hence, when LiPuma argues that In all cultures there
exist both individual and dividual modalities or aspects of personhood (1998:
56), these can be reformulated as modalities of self-identity without, I think, chang-
ing LiPumas meaning. In any case, suffice to say that the terms person and self are
interchangeable for the purposes of the present argument.
The central thrust of Busbys criticism (mentioned above) of the ethnographers
tendency to differentiate between Western and Other modes of personhood is
also widespread (e.g. Ram 1994; LiPuma 1998). From a broader perspective, Spiro
critiques the ethnographic assumption that there is something rather peculiar about
the Western conception of the self in the context of world cultures (1993: 107). In
a similar vein, Sokefeld suggests that there is an ethnocentric othering in the con-
tention that Westerners are selves, while others are not and argues that the self
should be taken as a universal like culture, without thereby predicating much about
the contents of the self (or culture) (1999: 429).
As we will see, Taylors theory of the self as a narrated identity satisfies all of
these criteria. However, remaining highly cognisant of the artificiality of any strict

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distinctions, I have argued elsewhere (2010: Chapters 2 and 3) that there is heuristic
value in making a clear (albeit not rigid) distinction between self-identity and
human subjectivity, and in treating both as universals like culture, which are
psycho-social constructs: self-forming, self-constituting social institutions. Space
does not allow me to reproduce that argument in its entirety here; for present pur-
poses, it will suffice to say that this distinction creates a place for the unconscious,
which is absent in Taylors account of the self.
Hence, I will begin by roughly summarising the ways in which the divid-
ual individual distinction has been presented in the anthropological literature. I will
then briefly outline Taylors theory of the self before moving on to compare his dis-
tinction between porous and buffered selves to the dividual individual concepts,
focusing on commonalities rather than differences between the pairs. Having done
so, I will then argue that the human subject is essentially porous and that this
porosity is fundamental to the capacity of the human subject to constitute itself as
this or that sort of person and to identify itself as this or that sort of self.


In the simplest terms, the individual is considered to be an indivisible self or per-
son. That is, it refers to something like the essential core, or spirit of a singular
human being, which, as a whole, defines that self in its particularity. To change,
remove or otherwise alter any part of that whole would fundamentally alter the
self; she he would then be, effectively, a different person. By contrast, the dividual
is considered to be divisible, comprising a complex of separableinterrelated but
essentially independentdimensions or aspects. The individual is thus monadic,
while the dividual is fractal; the individual is atomistic, while the dividual is always
socially embedded; the individual is an autonomous social actor, the author of his
or her own actions, while the dividual is a heteronomous actor performing a cultur-
ally written script; the individual is a free-agent, while the dividual is determined by
cultural structures; the individual is egocentric, and the dividual is sociocentric
(cf. Spiro 1993: 115; Ram 1994; Mageo 1995: 283; Busby 1997: 275; Sokefeld 1999:
419). To be sure, this depiction is but a rough caricaturised amalgam of many
detailed and nuanced depictions; but as my aim is not to devise a more accurate
depiction of the dividual or individual, but rather to clarify that which underpins
all such distinctions, this broad-brush outline is sufficient for present purposes.
The dividual has generally been portrayed as belonging wholly to the tradition
side of the modern:tradition dichotomy (Ram 1994: 123, 125; Sokefeld 1999: 419
n4). In this sense, Sabine Hess explains that dividuals are seen to have a deep and
intrinsic connection to a particular place and are frequently constructed as the
plural and composite site of the relationships that produce them (2006: 285).
Similarly, Ram explains that the dividual has been portrayed as someone with
permeable boundaries that allow transactions with substances of native soil
(1994: 145) as well as with others in the community society. It is this plural and

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K. Smith

composite nature that renders the self dividual divisible, which by extension means
that we are dealing with both a static characteristicas in ones connection to a
particular placeand a highly dynamic characteristic: the self changes according
to the changing social situation in which the immediate face-to-face relationships
ebb and flow in the normal course of everyday life.
Here, then, arises an interesting and important tension, for the dividual is seen
to be thoroughly embedded, and inextricably engaged, in relationships with particu-
lar places and particular othersand yet in the immediate interactions of changing
situations the person is understood to change in accordance with movements
through places and relationships. To put this in concrete terms, a man is effectively
a different person when performing the culturally inscribed role of son-in-law than
when, for example, performing the role of a father or a brother. On this conceptu-
alisation, we do not have a single coherent person performing different roles as
demanded by a changing context, but rather a different person differently consti-
tuted in each of his or her interactions with others. As Spiro notes, such a condi-
tion (according to modern psychiatry) is a sign of a rather severe psychopathology
(1993: 109). When put like this, it is hardly surprising that Ram is offended when
the Indian person is reduced to this fickle fractal dividual.
Ram (1994: 1305) argues that Dumont went astray when he endeavoured to
criticise the Western conception of the individual by contrasting it in a binary fash-
ion to Indian conceptions of selfhood, despite his careful qualification that he was
analysing conceptions rather than manifestations of selfhood. LiPuma argues that
fundamental to the problematic comparison of Western individuals and Melanesian
persons in the ethnographic literature is that concrete Melanesian persons are con-
trasted to abstract concepts of the Western individual (1998: 57ff.). Sokefeld notes
that the understanding of the Western self involved in such comparisons is mostly
derived from (selected) Western written philosophical traditions and not from
analysis of the experiences of people in the West (1999: 418 n3).
Furthermore, Ram argues that when anthropologists adopt an exclusively com-
parative approach they compound Dumonts initial error by reproducing and
entrenching the dichotomous polarities through which the Indian (and, more gener-
ally, non-Western) subject is rendered more and more radically other to the Wes-
tern subject (Ram 1994). LiPuma concurs, arguing that the defense of the
otherness of the Others led ethnographers to ignore precisely those conditions of
encompassment [or sameness] that made their own enterprise possible (1998: 55).
So we have a compounding methodological problem here: the tendency to compare
concrete persons to idealised conceptions of persons, combined with a tendency to
focus on differences and ignore commonalities.
Although his terminology differs somewhat, and although he conducts philo-
sophical rather than ethnographic research, Taylor formulates such a corrective
through analysis of the lived experience of people in the West (2007: 45). His con-
certed efforts to offer correctives to this problematic are motivated by a desire to
create space for religious interpretations of personhood and to reintegrate them into

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the human sciences from which they have been evacuated by the hegemony of
exclusive secular humanism (2007: 22, 29). At the same time, like Dumont, he
traces the origins of this problematic conceptualisation of individualism to particu-
lar Christian theological interpretations (Taylor 1989, 2007; Dumont 1965; cf. Rob-
bins 2002). Tracing the historical origins of the concept of the individual in the
history of Western thought is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say here
that between Augustine (354430) and Aquinas (12251274) an idea developed that
the individual person is animated by an indivisible and inalienable soul created by
God. This conception of individuality was consolidated in the wake of the Protes-
tant Reformation, as the Churchs mediation between the Christian subject and
God was rejected in favour of a direct unmediated relationship between the individ-
ual and God. Following subsequent social and theological developments, the con-
cept of the individual developed three key aspects: the capitalist notion of
individual ownership, the Christian notion of the soul in individual relationship
with God, and the Western psychological value that every person has a core self
(Hess 2006: 288; see also Taylor 1989, 1991).
Hess observes that the Christian notion of the soul strongly influenced the
development of the ideas of individual ownership and the core self and then pro-
ceeds to point out, following Mosko, that the Christian individual is really a divid-
ual. That is, by entering into an exchange relationship with God one becomes part
of Him, and He becomes part of oneself (2006: 294). Extending this analysis, we
might suggest that the individual ownership of property and goods in consumerist
society also implies a fractal type of constitutive relationship, wherein the modern
consumer can constitute him herself through the ownership of particular goods and
propertiesand can reconstitute him herself through disposing of old goods and
replacing them with new ones.3 The modern consumer also frequently compart-
mentalises public and private, professional and family, work and leisure, front and
backstage, to use Goffmans famous dramaturgical analogy. The persona performed,
the roles adopted is are context dependenta contextual self, so to speak (cf. Fou-
cault 1988). In this sense, then, the modern self is every bit as fluid and dynamic as
the (supposedly) traditional dividuals of Melanesia: someone with permeable
boundaries that allow transactions with (Ram 1994: 145) objects, properties and
others to constitute and reconstitute the self in changing relationships and contexts.
As LiPuma puts it: the ideology of the Western person as fully individual only par-
tially conceals the reality that Western persons are interdependent, defined in rela-
tion to others, depend on others for knowledge about themselves, grasp power as
the ability to do and to act, grow as the beneficiary of others actions and so forth
(1998: 60).
This is not sufficient in itself, though, to overturn the psychological notion of
the core self. For instance, Francois Dubet (1994) offers a compelling formulation
in which the social subject is depicted as the backstage director of the performance
of the onstage actorthe stable core from which the social self can take a stance as
it performs various roles in changing contexts and different relationships. This

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K. Smith

interactionist formulation is similar to Sokefelds notion of the self as the manager

of plural and intersecting identities (1999: 419, 423). Some might wish to argue that
both of these positions represent something like a core self upon which shifting
identities are constructed. But from within the psychological discourse of continu-
ous self-development, this supposedly stable core is itself the site of self-develop-
ment, the subject of self-improvement. It can be not only clarified, elucidated and
articulated, but also enhanced, refocused and strengthened. It is not only a fixed or
static core, but a continuous work-in-progress that develops through concerted
effortbut also through simple life-experience itself. It is on such grounds that
Taylor, following Heidegger, observes that we are always becoming, never just being
(1989: 47; see also Illouz 2008: 171176).4 I call this not-fixed not-static (not-)core
subject and argue that it is not given, either, but is rather produced by the meeting
of the (each time) unique human psyche and society through the process of
socialisation (cf. Smith 2005).

Taylor argues that the self is constructed through a narrative that answers the question
Who am I? along three axes: temporal, spatial and moral (or social) (1989: 47ff.). On
the first of these axes, drawing on the work of Ricoeur and MacIntyre, he argues that
we need to locate ourselves within our own history and construct a narrative to
explain how we came to be who we are today. In part, the question who am I? raises
the question am I the same being through across time? Am I the same today as I was
twenty years ago? If not, what changed and how did it change? Will I be the same
twenty years from now? (MacIntyre 1984: 201) To understand who I am, I need to
understand how I got here, where I have come from, and what happened along the
way. For Taylor, this is a temporal orientation analogous to the need to locate oneself
in space in order to travel from here to therein order to get to where I want to go in
my life, I need this temporal location, this sense of where I am in time, as well as in
space (the second axis, which is unavoidable for embodied agents).
Along the third axis, Taylor insists that this narrative is always constructed in
dialogue with othersat first with significant others (a la Mead) but later with the
more generalised others of the community and society of which we are a part. In
this sense, the narrative answers the question Who are you? which is invoked by
the fact that we are social beings, being-with-others (1989: 29, 35). This is but
onealbeit a crucial oneof the challenges that Taylor poses to the modern
conception of the atomistic individual: we cannot understand who we are, indeed
cannot be who we are, except in dialogue with others. And again, we need to know
where we stand in relation to others in order to know who we are, where we are at,
and how to get where we want to go.5
This becomes clearer when we add that for Taylor, this self-identity amounts to
an orientation to the good (1989: 32ff.). Importantly, this is not a universal
Goodnot one good that applies for everyone (not a Platonic Good, or an

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orientation to a monotheistic God). But it is an orientation to the world around us,

an expression of what we believe it is good to do and to be. Equally important is
the dialogical dimension of this orientation: it is neverit cannot bederived
individually, but is always a socially derived orientation to the good. We reach our
conclusions beliefs about what is good through dialogue with significant others
whose orientations are similarly derived in a broader sociocultural context. Hence,
my sense of who I am is inextricable from who I deem it is good to be, which in
turn is inseparable from what I deem it is good to do (which of course does not
entail that I always live up to or in accordance with this orientation)and this is
inseparable from the orientation of my community culture society; what they
deem to be good (1989: 42).
A useful way to think of this is that the self is a story we tell our self about our
self (cf. Ferrara 1997: 75), while at the same time being a story that we tell others
about our self. And this plays out differently in different cultural contexts; to a
greater-or-lesser extent, it is also the story that others tell us (and each other) about
who we are. This interplay between the singular psyche subject self and cul-
ture society is reciprocal and mutually constitutive. Different cultures do indeed
have different concepts of the person, and therefore, the persons within those differ-
ent cultures locate situate themselves within their particular culture society by
composing themselves as that type of person.
Despite the validity of the criticisms outlined in the first section of this paper,
the ethnographic record demonstrates that there is nevertheless merit in distinguish-
ing between cultures in which the agent is seen to be the author of his or her own
actions (and identity) and those in which the agent performs a script that is
authored by kin neighbours community culture societybut only if we can keep
them on a continuum, rather than dichotomising them, thus treating them as
more-or-less rather than either-or characteristics (cf. Mageo 1995: 283). Yet no mat-
ter where it is located on this spectrum between socio- and egocentric, every society
reproduces itself by socialising its young to conduct themselves in accordance with
its particular social imaginary significations (Castoriadis 1987), to conform and con-
tribute to their particular imagined community (Anderson 1991). In every case,6
children are initially socialised according to the ascriptions of significant others in
and through the discourses of the other (Castoriadis 1987: 102; Smith 2010:
1189, 127). From this perspective, then, primary socialisation is essentially socio-
centric, for only a society can produce a person; or, conversely, a child can only
construct an identity for itself using the concepts and characteristics of the person
available within its community. Yet, viewing socialisation as a lifelong process, we
find that throughout their development, some particular persons (or groups of per-
sons) are increasingly oriented towards authoring their individual identities. And we
find them almost exclusively in societies that imagine persons to be the authors of
their own identities (if we find them elsewhere, they are eccentric, outlaws, trouble-
makers, witches, sorcerers, social revolutionaries, etc.although many persons in
each of those categories generally are also performing socially defined roles).

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K. Smith

In disenchanted modern society, where disenchantment is inseparable from the

development and increasing hegemony of disengaged reason, the dominant and
hegemonic conception of the person is of an individual of the type that Taylor has
termed the buffered self (2007: 27). For Taylor, as for Weber, disengagement and
disenchantment go hand-in-hand. Disenchantment means that we no longer under-
stand (or experience) ourselves as inhabiting a world with spirits, daemons or other
entities that can inhabit or possess us. And disengagement means that we have
come to see ourselves as significantly independent of othersi.e. as individuals in
an atomistic or monadic sense who can objectively analyse and dispassionately act
in any given situation (cf. Smith 2011).
Yet the capacity to construct oneself as such an individual is a privileged posi-
tion even in the most individualistic of societies. For example, loosely speaking, in
patriarchal societies, men might be able to construct themselves as such, while
women are expected to conform to socially ascribed roles. In multi-ethnic societies,
the dominant ethnic group might permit individual authorship, while oppressed
and marginalised groups often have their identities ascribed by the dominant cul-
ture. In class-based societies, the dominant class might permit its members to
author their individual identities (but only within clearly circumscribed parameters),
while subordinate classes are expected to perform their socially prescribed roles and
so on.
Although such complexity is entailed in Taylors argument that identity is dia-
logically constructed, I have suggested elsewhere that polylogical is a better term
for this relationship (2010: 67; cf. Sokefeld 1999: 41920 on conflicting plural iden-
tities). In fact, the three counter-examples I have presented above are not mutually
exclusive, but overlap and intermingle. Members of patriarchal, multi-ethnic, class
societies must orient themselves in accordance with the competing and complemen-
tary logics of each of those social characteristics and many more. This is also the
case in more enchanted worlds or traditional cultures. To give one example, Fred
Myers (1988) explores the tensions between collective and individual ownership
among the Pintupi, for whom communal obligations to share are in perpetual ten-
sion with individual desires to preserve what is ones own. In another, Desjarlais
(1992) discusses the tensions between communal belonging and individual expres-
sion among the Yolmowa people of Nepal. Each of these examples supports Engl-
und and Leachs claim that we are all somewhat dividual and somewhat
individualor sometimes one and sometimes the other.
The highly individualised conception of the Western individual, which Taylor
has dubbed the buffered self, is a particular way of orienting oneself to the world
and thus of experiencing the world. But assuming such a stance is to deny or
repress unavoidable or essential dimensions of being-in-the-world. It is in this sense
that I want to apply Taylors conception of the porous self to a deeper level of
self-constitutionthe porous subject, incorporating many of the characteristics
attributed to the non-Western dividual while overcoming the tendency to
dichotomise dividuals and individuals.

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When Taylor introduces the distinction between porous and buffered selves
(2007: 33), his objective is to elucidate certain problematic characteristics of the
disenchanted modern world in the context of contemporary debates about the
secularisation hypothesis that became hegemonic in social theory and the socio-
logy of religion in the twentieth century. Although that debate does not directly
concern us here, the context is necessary to understanding the difference between
his use of the terms and mine. Taylors concern is with the historical changes
that occurred in the European Western world from before the Protestant
Reformation, through the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution until today. A
Secular Age focuses on the question of how it came to be that, whereas at the
beginning of this time frame it was virtually impossible to not believe in God or
a spirit world, today such belief is but one option among many, and for many
today, unbelief is the default option (2007: 13, 25). For present purposes, what
is important is that the distinction here between modern and tradition is not
between the West and the Rest, but between before-and-after historical changes
within the West itself (i.e. the changes that often serve to distinguish the West
from the rest).
In this context, Taylor adopts Webers term Disenchanted to describe the mod-
ern world and enchanted to describe the alternative condition that characterised
the pre-modern world.7 Taylors porous- buffered-self distinction differentiates
between (imagined experiential) modes of being in the enchanted and disenchanted
worlds: the enchanted world, in contrast to our [modern-Western] universe of buf-
fered selves and minds, shows a perplexing absence of certain boundaries which
seem to us essential (2007: 33). To us modern Westerners today, meanings are
understood to be created within the human subject; our responses to the external
world are internal; there is (or, appears to be) a sharp boundary between self and
other, individual and society, subject and world. It is the perception of this sharp
boundary that Taylor calls buffered, a radically different sense of self and its place
in the cosmos (2007: 27). For the buffered self:
it comes to seem axiomatic that all thought, feeling and purpose, all the features we
normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the outer
world. The buffered self begins to find the idea of spirits, moral forces, causal powers
with a purposive bent, close to incomprehensible.(2007: 540)

By contrast, in the enchanted world, the meaning is already there in the object agent, it
is there quite independently of us; it would be there even if we didnt exist.(2007: 33)

And this meaning that exists already outside of us, prior to contact can take
us over, we can fall into its field of force. It comes on us from outside (2007: 34).
In this sense, Taylor is clearly talking about a self with permeable boundaries in
the sense associated with dividual persons.

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As mentioned, Taylor is highly critical of the Western conception of the individ-

ual. His landmark Sources of the Self (1989) is a sustained exploration of the long slow
process through which this concept developed and assumed its current form, and his
later book, A Secular Age (2007), is an ambitious attempt to rectify this erroneous self-
defining idea. Elsewhere (2009, 2011) I have outlined some concerns about Taylors
use of the terms enchanted and disenchanted in an attempt to redress the malaises
of modernity. I want to focus here instead on his point that the self-understanding of
the modern individual as a buffered self is derived from the sort of disengaged rea-
sonand more generally disengaged approach to beingtypically associated with
Descartes and consolidated through the further development of scientific rationality.
This is not to deny that the disengaged stance has certain methodological advantages
in the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge, but to argue that it grossly misrepresents
human-being-in-the-world when extended beyond the methodology of the natural
sciences to become an ontology of human being per se. The sense of porousness, the
porosity that I want to advance here, is not an openness to spirits and causal powers.
Rather I am attempting to invoke the ways in which the human subject is a thoroughly
permeated beingone that is permeated by social others; by socially ascribed mean-
ings, roles, norms and moreswhile also remaining open to nature, the world and
the mysteries of existence. I am positing a sense of the human person who has inner
depths, as per the Freudian psyche, but without the rigid inner outer distinction
inherited from Cartesian philosophy (Taylor 2007: 5401; see Taylor 2002: 106 on the
inside outside distinction).8
The crux of my argument is that the porosity and permeability associated with
the concept of the dividual, when its ethnocentric stereotyping is corrected, moves
us much closer to an adequate ontology of human being than that found in the
typical characterisation of the Western individual. In this sense, we might say that
the reified Western ideal concept of the individualwhen mistaken for a literal
description of who we are and what we are capable ofhas alienated us moderns
from our essential species-being.
To this end, it is useful to recognise a distinction between ontological and his-
torical dimensions of selfhood (Abbey 2000: 56). In these terms, my argument is
that the porous dividual more closely approaches an accurate ontology than the
atomistic Western individual. This is not a nave Romantic glorification of the
Noble Savage, but rather an argument that only in recognising porous subjectivity
as a necessary condition for socialisation can we develop a better understanding of
the common humanity that everywhere underlies cultural diversity.
By moving from the dividual:individual distinction to the porous subject upon
which different conceptualisations of the self can be and are constituted, we achieve
greater conceptual clarity in several ways. First, we overcome the ethnocentric bias
that treats the Western individual as somehow exceptional or unique when con-
trasted to the non-Western other. Second, we resolve a terminological confusion
whereby individual stands for the singular human being, but has also come to stand
for a particular ideological (mis)conception better understood as individualism or

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From dividual and individual selves to porous subjects

individualistic. As Spiro, Sokefeld and others have noted, it is a perennial character-

istic of human development that the singular person must differentiate between self
and other; that is, each person is an individual, socialised in a (more or less) socio-
centric or egocentric culture. Third, recognising porosity as our ontological condi-
tion is to recognise that individualism egocentrism is every bit as much a culturally
inscribed modality as dividualism sociocentrism. Fourth, recognising porosity as
our ontological condition also illuminates the fact that becoming a buffered self is
invariably an acquired condition; every human child enters the world open to the
socialising forces of its cultural milieuto the discourses of the other (Castoriadis
1987: 102)and some milieu are more individualistic than others. But, finally,
human subjects can only become (more or less) buffered selvesor any other kind
of self, person, etc.by internalising (sublimating) the values and norms of their
particular cultural milieu, and this internalisation is only possible because they are
intrinsically porous, permeable human beings (just like everyone else).

I am indebted to Joel Kahn, Chris Eipper, Raelene Wilding, Tania Lewis, Nicola
Henry and Nesam McMillan for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this
paper. I must also acknowledge that this is a much better paper as a result of hav-
ing addressed the critical commentary provided by TAJAs anonymous reviewers
(although I remain somewhat bewildered by some of their comments).

Please send correspondence to Karl Smith: karl.smith@vu.edu.au

1 It is perhaps necessary to acknowledge that there are, of course, numerous competing
conceptualisations of the so-called Western individual, and thus, Dumonts autonomous
individual appears to be something of a strawman. My defence for continuing to employ
this strawman is twofold: first, my broader research objective is to articulate a better
understanding of the person self subject, and second, the (mis)conceptualisation that
I am arguing against in this particular discussion bears a striking resemblance to the
rationalist and intellectualist conception that phenomenology sets itself against, as well
as to the rationalist patriarchal conceptualisation which animates Western feminism and
the rationalist instrumentalist conceptualisation that fuels Marxist critique. In short, while
I concede that it is a strawman with little basis in empirical evidence, it nevertheless has
accumulated significant discursive substance and thus holds an important place in the
modern social imaginary (Taylor 2004). It must, therefore, be addressed if we are to
formulate a viable corrective.
2 Joel Robbins (2002: 203), however, identifies precisely such a trend of increasing individ-
ualism in the development of Christianity among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea,
based on empirical ethnographic research rather than meta-theory. Interestingly, he does
present it as a somewhat inevitable result of the cultural conflict between the indigenous

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K. Smith

relational ontology and the exotic individualistic theology. Importantly, his analysis
reveals something more like hybridity or syncretism (see Stewart 1999), where both the
ontology and the theology are changed through their confrontation rather than a
unilinear cultural displacement in which the relational culture disappears.
3 According to Edelman and Haugerud (2005: 32), Consumers can use commodities to
create their individual and collective identities Much of the expanding ethnographic
analysis of consumption emphasize(s) the agency, subjective experiences, and meanings
attributed by consumers to commodities (cf. Barthel 1992: 138; Lehtonen 2003; Noble
2004; Smart 2010: 5).
4 This holds true equally for both the conception of the self and the conception of the subject,
and in much the same way, which problematises, or at least challenges any effort to sustain a
sharp distinction between self and subject, as should become clear as we proceed.
5 Importantly, while Taylor implicitly embraces the Socratic dictum Know thyself (see
1989: 130ff.; cf. Taylor 1985: 2612)and contends that explicitly articulating such
knowledge is in many ways life enhancing, important to maximising the fullness of
lifehe also recognises that knowledge of where one stands along the three axes outlined
above is not necessarily explicit. It need not be linguistically articulated or conceptually
formulated, but is frequently tacit or implicit knowledge, expressed through practice or
action. In such cases then, the third-person observer (such as the ethnographer) is
frequently in a better position to lucidly formulate the subjects position than is the
subject him or herself.
6 Except, of course, the occasionally documented wild child, raised in seclusion, or in
non-human company. But they do not count as selves or persons precisely for the reason
that they have not been socialised to conduct themselves in accordance with any cultural
conception of self or person-hood.
7 Recognising that there are numerous potential objections to extending this into current
anthropological debates, there may be heuristic value in replacing the modern:tradition
dichotomy with a disenchanted:enchanted continuum. Some objections might be met by
emphasising that the modern world is not (and has never been) entirely disenchanted
(which is Taylors central argument in A Secular Age), and others by recognising that this
reformulation allows that a society can continue to live in an enchanted world even while
adopting many of the structures, institutions and practices associated with modernisation.
At the same time, however, we must recognise that not all (cultural) worlds are enchanted
in the same way, or to the same extent. The enchanted:disenchanted distinction offers
possibilities for better describing the ways in which different cultures experience this
porosity. That is, in some societiesand arguably for some people in all societieslived
experience does include the presence of spirits, gods, etc., as well as the possibility of
being possessed by them. These might be accurately described as enchanted cultures
societies or peoples.
8 We must also be wary of another common trap in comparative research: viewing all
members of a given culture as perfect representatives of that culture, which is of course,
not ever the case. (Lind 2011: 19).

Abbey, R. 2000. Charles Taylor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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