A Collective Embrace
Reindividuation and the Evolution Towards Communal Living
by Caspian Vale
We are situated within a precarious moment in socio-economic history, one marked by significant shifts that serve to unhinge the traditional frameworks of familial and communal living. The millennial generation, and those that follow it in particular, face the brunt of these shifts. The prospect of achieving milestones that were once considered rites of passage—such as home ownership, marriage, and child-rearing—now seem increasingly elusive due to economic constraints and changing social norms.
The current economic reality, characterized by skyrocketing housing costs, stagnant wage growth, and a radically changing job market, presents significant barriers to achieving financial stability. These trends have been further exacerbated by the long-term economic impacts of global crises, such as the 2008 financial crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, and whatever is happening right now. The ensuing precarity has had profound implications for the ways in which we live, love, and raise our children.
Consider the high costs of housing, particularly in urban areas. The dream of owning a home, once a cornerstone of the so-called “American Dream,” is becoming increasingly unattainable for many. In cities like New York, the median home price is more than ten times the median income. This trend is not limited to the United States; similar patterns can be observed in major cities across the globe. As a result, many are forced to rent for longer periods, often sharing living spaces with others to defray the costs. The notion of a “home,” thus, becomes a shared entity, a collective space rather than an individual or nuclear family possession.
In parallel, we are witnessing a steady decline in birth rates across many developed countries. This decline has been attributed to a multitude of factors, including the high cost of child-rearing, increased participation of women in the workforce, and a shift in societal norms regarding the desirability and necessity of having children. The repercussions of this demographic shift are manifold, not least of which is the disruption of traditional structures of care and support for the elderly. In the absence of children, who will provide care in our old age?
In this context, the notion of a small-scale communal living arrangement—such as a shared walkup in New York City or rural collective homestead, housing four to ten adults—begins to emerge as a plausible alternative. This arrangement, far from being a retreat into a bohemian ideal, represents a pragmatic response to the current socio-economic conditions. It is a creative adaptation, a form of collective resilience in the face of systemic challenges.
The shared walkup becomes a site of mutual support and interdependence, a communal space where resources are pooled and responsibilities are shared. It represents an opportunity to redefine the boundaries of “family” and “community,” expanding them to include friends, colleagues, and other like-minded individuals.
Moreover, in such an arrangement, the responsibility for child-rearing can also be shared. The economic and emotional burden of raising a child, typically borne by one or two parents, can be distributed across the community. This shared responsibility could potentially alleviate some of the anxieties associated with child-rearing, making it a more feasible prospect for those who might otherwise be deterred by the high costs and intense demands of parenthood.
This new model of living, however, necessitates a radical reimagining of our societal structures and norms. It requires us to reconsider our definitions of family, community, and kinship, and to confront our fears and prejudices around shared living. It demands that we negotiate the delicate balance between individual autonomy and collective responsibility, between personal space and communal togetherness.
Let’s backtrack and focus on how our current economic and social reality (unaffordable housing, increasing childlessness, general precarity), it would seem, conspire to lead us to a state of “disindividuation”—a term we borrow from Bernard Stiegler. What is disindividuation? Stiegler introduced the twin concepts of “individuation” and “disindividuation”. These, he posits, are the continuous processes that shape our identities and societies. Individuation refers to the process by which an individual forms their identity and sense of self through their interactions with the world around them. This is not a solitary process; it occurs within a network of relationships and involves the assimilation and transformation of cultural and technological artifacts.
Disindividuation, on the other hand, is a state of alienation or detachment resulting from the disruption of these processes of individuation. It arises when external factors—such as societal or economic pressures—interfere with our ability to form meaningful connections with each other and our environment. This results in a sense of isolation and estrangement, a feeling of being adrift in a sea of impersonal forces and abstract systems. In our current socio-economic landscape, the forces of disindividuation are, unfortunately, all too prevalent.
The escalating costs of housing have made the prospect of home ownership increasingly elusive for many, leading to a sense of instability and transience. The declining birth rates, driven by a combination of economic uncertainty and changing social norms, have led to an erosion of traditional family structures. Economic precarity, exacerbated by the rise of gig economy and the erosion of labor rights, has fostered a sense of insecurity and vulnerability. These forces, acting in concert, have created an environment where the processes of individuation are disrupted. The networks of relationships through which we form our identities are being strained and fragmented. The cultural and technological artifacts that we assimilate and transform are increasingly shaped by impersonal market forces and algorithmic systems. The result is a state of total disindividuation, where our sense of self and our connections to others are eroded.
But Stiegler’s philosophy does not leave us in this state of disindividuation. It offers a way forward, a form of “reindividuation” that seeks to restore our connections and revive our sense of community. And this is where we find the millennial aspiration for communal living—a reaction to the disindividuation brought about by our socio-economic conditions.
According to Stiegler, the processes of individuation and disindividuation are not linear or one-directional. They are cyclical, dialectical processes where each phase contains within it the seeds of its own transformation. In his conception, disindividuation is not a terminal state, but a phase that can give rise to new forms of individuation. It is a pharmakon—a Greek term that signifies both poison and cure. For us, the poison is the socio-economic forces that lead to disindividuation—the rising housing costs, declining birth rates, and economic precarity. The cure, paradoxically, is found within the poison itself. The very forces that drive disindividuation also trigger a reaction, a form of reindividuation that emerges out of necessity.
In the face of housing unaffordability, the communal living arrangement emerges as an economically viable alternative if not an economic necessity. In the face of declining birth rates and the dissolution of traditional family structures, shared child-rearing duties within these communal settings offer a new model of kinship and connection to children even for those who want to go without. In the face of economic precarity, the pooling of resources and mutual support inherent in these communal structures provide a buffer against the uncertainties of the market. This is not merely a pragmatic adaptation to economic pressures; it is also a profound act of reindividuation—a re-establishment of connections, a restoration of community, and a reclamation of our sense of self.
This reindividuation is not a passive process; it requires active engagement and negotiation. It involves reconfiguring our relationships, reassessing our values, and reimagining our ways of living. It involves challenging the impersonal market forces and algorithmic systems that shape our lives, and reclaiming our agency in shaping our identities and our societies.
But there is no romance in viewing new visions (or visions born again) as an economic necessity.
Jean-Luc Nancy wrote about community in his “La Communauté désœuvrée” or “The Inoperative Community.” In this seminal piece, Nancy critically examined the yearning for a restoration of a transparent, small-scale community—a “Gemeinschaft”—as an antidote to the ‘alienation’ experienced in modern society, or the “Gesellschaft.” According to Nancy, at the heart of Western political thinking exists a deep-seated nostalgia for an ‘original community,’ a utopian state of immediate co-existence where individuals lived in harmonious and intimate communion. This longing is rooted in a perceived dichotomy between the pre-modern Gemeinschaft and the modern Gesellschaft, with the former symbolizing a purportedly warm, familial community and the latter representing an impersonal society full of self-centered individuals.
According to this narrative, the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft has led to the disintegration of society, a decline in norms and values, and the prevalence of violence. The answer, it is suggested, lies in a reversion to the era of communal ties or an aspiration for a future community where these bonds are reestablished. However, Nancy deconstructs this binary thinking, challenging the idealization of the ‘original community’ and the demonization of the modern society. He asserts that the ‘original community’ is a myth, a romanticized vision that never truly existed. Instead, he posits that community cannot be understood as a stable, homogenous entity but as a dynamic, heterogeneous collective—an “inoperative community.”
The inoperative community is not a return to an idyllic past, nor is it a utopian future. It is a recognition of our present state of being-with, a state of co-existence that is not defined by a shared essence or a common identity, but by the very act of sharing itself. It is a community that is not bound by a common work or oeuvre, but by the shared experience of being in the world together. This inoperative community, Nancy suggests, is not a solution to our societal problems, but a condition of our existence—a reality to be acknowledged and engaged with.
Returning to our discussion of communal living, we can see how Nancy’s concept of the inoperative community provides a compelling framework to understand this phenomenon. The millennial aspiration for communal living can be seen not as a nostalgic yearning for a past Gemeinschaft, but as an acknowledgment of our inoperative community. It is a move towards a more rewarding way of living that aligns with our fundamental condition of being-with. This does not imply a dissolution of individual identities into a collective whole, but rather a reconfiguration of the self within the context of the collective—a recognition of our shared existence.
In the shared walk-up in NYC, for instance, we see the inoperative community come to life. The residents are not bound by a common identity or a shared work, but by the shared experience of living in the same space, navigating the same challenges, and celebrating the same joys. Their community is not a homogenous entity, but a complex tapestry of diverse individuals, each contributing their unique perspectives, abilities, and experiences to the shared space.
The potential for shared child-rearing in such a setting is an extension of this inoperative community. Parenthood, in this context, is not an individual responsibility, but a communal endeavor. It is not defined by blood ties or legal obligations, but by the shared experience of caring for and nurturing the next generation. The children, in turn, are not the property of individual parents, but members of the inoperative community, their upbringing a shared responsibility and a shared joy.
Nancy elaborates upon Heidegger’s “being-with” idea, which posits that our existence is fundamentally relational. For Nancy, ‘being-with’ is not just a fundamental condition of our existence, but also an ontological statement about the nature of ‘being’ itself. He posits that ‘being’ is always a ‘being-with,’ that we exist not as isolated entities, but as beings-in-relation, beings that are constituted by and through our relations with others. This ‘being-with’ is not just an existential state, but a constitutive aspect of our ‘being.’
Where Heidegger’s “Being-with” often implies a sense of commonality, a shared essence or identity, Nancy’s ‘being-with’ diverges. For Nancy, ‘being-with’ is not a merging of identities into a collective whole, but rather an interweaving of distinct, unique beings. It is a community not of sameness, but of difference—a “singular plurality,” to use Nancy’s own term. Each ‘being’ in this ‘being-with’ is a singular being, a unique, irreducible entity that exists in relation to, and in distinction from, the other beings. Our ‘being-with,’ then, is a constant negotiation of this tension between our singularity and our plurality, our individuality and our collectivity.
In the context of shared living, Nancy’s conception of ‘being-with’ offers a profound insight. It suggests that our move towards community is not a dissolution of our individual selves into a collective whole, but rather a reconfiguration of our individual selves within the context of the collective. We exist not as isolated individuals, but as beings-in-relation, as beings who are constituted by and through our relations with the others in our communal living space. Our communal living, then, is not a community of sameness, but a community of difference—a singular plurality, a being-with.
It’s nice to play fantasy, but we must recognize the challenges that lie ahead. The transition towards communal living will not be smooth or easy but it will become necessary. There will be resistance from those who are entrenched in traditional norms and structures and the capital and social forces that benefit from them. There will be practical challenges to navigate, from managing shared resources to resolving conflicts at home and in the legal realm. There will be emotional hurdles to overcome as we learn to live closely with others, negotiate boundaries, and balance individual needs with collective responsibilities but this is no different from now.
These challenges cannot deter us from exploring the potential of this new model of living. The possible benefits—economic efficiency, shared responsibility, communal support, and a renewed sense of kinship—are too compelling to ignore. This is a future that invites us to lean into our interdependence, to embrace a broader conception of family and community, and to reimagine what it means to live, love, and raise children in the 21st century.
It is a vision of a future that is not defined by isolation and economic strife, but rather by cooperation, shared responsibility, and mutual support. It is a future in which the home is not merely a space for individual or nuclear family living, but a space for communal thriving—a shared entity that serves as a foundation for a new type of community. This future requires us to rethink our traditional notions of success and happiness, to shift our focus from individual achievement to collective well-being. It requires us to acknowledge our interdependence and to invest in our relationships with each other.