HELLO, I’M SPECIAL: HOW INDIVIDUALITY BECAME THE NEW CONFORMITY
By Hal Niedzviecki
“We now live in the age of the individual.” This is how Hal Niedzviecki starts off Hello, I’m Special. The words surprise me. After all, hadn’t John D. Rockefeller, a hundred years ago, declared that “Individualism has gone, never to return”? When did individuals make a comeback?
Well, they didn’t. What Niedzviecki means is the reverse of what he says. It’s all part of the paradoxical and ironic way language is used in our culture – and throughout this infuriating and generally superficial book. The “individuality” (excuse the quotation marks) that Niedviecki describes is really conformity. Or, put another way, “pseudoindividuality” is the “new conformism”. “Nonconformity is now the accepted norm.” You see, everyone wants to be an individual (or “special”) these days, and if that’s what everyone wants then it isn’t very individual, is it? In fact, your desire to be special just shows how un-special you really are.
That is not a very profound insight, but lack of profundity is the least of the book’s problems. In the first place, the net is cast too wide. Niedzviecki wants to talk about everything – from reality TV to serial killers to Disneyland to non-traditional forms of worship to backyard wrestling to Canadian Idol. What holds most of it together, when it does hold together, is not individualism or specialness but the dream of pop culture.
The dream is to be recognized as special. What everyone really wants is to be famous. We become conformists in order to become celebrities, a deified form of pseudo-individuality. The only “true act of revolt against the system is a kind of disappearing act.” You have to opt out. It’s a catch-22: the only way to be special is to not want to be special, and if you do want to be special then you aren’t.
Where, then, are the rebels? In his search for genuine individualism Niedzviecki finally washes up on some islands off the coast of British Columbia. It turns out that the aging hippies who live there are the “last of the authentic individualists”. The local hero is an artist named George Sawchuck:
George Sawchuck responded to potential fame by retreating. For a lot of the people I meet in these parts, the answer has been escape. Rebellion becomes not doing something. This is most certainly because when everyone is a rebel, refusing to conform to pseudo-rebellion seems to be one of the few ways we can actually step outside the system.
In other words, George Sawchuck pulled a “disappearing act.” But wait! Wasn’t he paid to use his picture in an ad campaign for a long-distance company? Sawchuck is unapologetic about selling out (“People say I sold out and I say maybe I have”), but Niedzviecki has to spin: “Perhaps that’s what true individuality is all about these days – an ability to shift and change and take advantage of circumstance without abandoning a core truth and confidence.”
A core truth and confidence. Genuine individualism. And what does that mean? If the new individualism is just conformity, what is the real thing? More spin: “In an age when people increasingly seem to be floating through life” Sawchuck reacts “by continuing to assert his primal existence, the stuff of his life, that which makes him want to survive – his identity as a singular unit.”
Such verbiage indicates a lot of intellectual wheel-spinning – especially when it comes from someone who is not a bad writer. But anyone trying this hard to sound like he’s saying something important probably isn’t. And a lot of the book is like this. You get lines like “The media/pop-culture industry has become an intensely homogenized profit-obsessed hydra with multiple heads.” Presumably this is in contrast to the common or garden-variety hydra, which only has one head. But whatever the analogy, the point being made is banal. And so it goes.
Returning to the example of Sawchuck, we have to ask what sort of primal, individual stuff it is that has the “ability to shift and change and take advantage of circumstance” (like being paid to promote a long-distance plan)? Why isn’t Sawchuck’s anti-celebrity just another strategy to achieve specialness? Lots of people play the media that way. What makes them so authentic?
It’s hard not to feel for Niedzviecki. He wants to believe in rebellion for all the right reasons. As he puts it, a “culture in which it is no longer possible to author genuine dissent is a dying culture.” But how do you define what is genuine about any culture, or any individual? Niedzviecki’s hero-worship of supposedly non-conformist island supermen (one of whom earns his stripes as an individual by sitting on a beach smoking pot for a whole year!) seems more like a reaction against his conventional upbringing in an affluent conservative suburb than a discovery of some core truth.
“This book is not about me” he says. But of course it is. It’s an exploration of his concerns, aspirations, and anxieties. Whether he likes it or not, it’s all about what makes him special.
Review first published November 13, 2004.