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Being Singular Plural

Janice Welsch

I’ve been influenced by educators, philosophers, NPR commentators, any number of individuals on local as well as national and international levels. They've prompted me to look at the world and at relationships from many perspectives.

For instance, when I was asked to review Kristen Lene’ Hole’s book, Towards a Feminist Cinematic Ethics, I was introduced to the work of a French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy. I took on the project because I’m interested in feminism and ethics as well as cinema. I haven’t been sorry.

What I learned in the writing of the review took me way past the book itself because it led me to explore Nancy’s concept of the singular plural, a term that prompted me to stop, to go back, to re-read what initially sounded like a contradiction, an oxymoron, a nonsensical term I couldn’t get my head around. I still find it hard to get my mind around it fully, but the term has stuck with me and I keep trying to understand it.

At this point, here’s some of what I think being singular plural means.

We are all singular—unique composites, if you will, of our genetic make-up and all of our experiences. No one shares the whole of our experiences.  Of course, we’ve shared experiences with many people—parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even strangers we might interact with at a concert or on a train—but in each of these instances our experience has been unique. Each of us has experienced the event from our own individual perspective, a perspective based on our particular genetic make-up and previous experiences.

Each moment is embedded within the whole of our particular life and gives us a unique—but limited--take on that moment. Since this is so, it should not be surprising that each of us is ultimately alone though we enjoy close relationships. When thinking of a spouse, a partner, or a friend, we might think of ourselves and them as inseparable. Still, we are ultimately alone. We are singular and the way we experience life is unique.

Nancy suggests, however, that we are not simply singular. We are singular plural. We live in a world with over seven billion individuals, not only people within our families and communities, but also with individuals who exist on the other side of the planet, people who may differ from us--or share with us--age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, interests or values--any number of characteristics we use to help describe ourselves and others. Each of us is an individual, a singularity, among this vast plurality.

Our singularity, because it is also plural, need not cut us off from the world or from each other. We exist together—as a society, as human beings in smaller and larger groups and communities, constantly mingling, moving past and around each other.

This may all sound very abstract, certainly different from the way most of us live in the world from moment to moment, but it could help us live more consciously and fully, more compassionately.

It could help us remember:

First, that we each have a distinct and limited perspective that reflects our unique experiences in the world, experiences that are always influx and are always changing us; and

Second, that we are individuals who exist within a vast society of similarly unique, evolving individuals.

If we are to help make this society function as well as it can, we need to respect our own evolving singularity and we need to respect the ever-changing individuality of the persons with whom we share our world. In practical terms, this means trying to understand the many different, even contradictory, perspectives we encounter when we try to work through the issues that are determining how our society evolves, issues that include, for example, climate change, immigration, abortion, health care, and racism.

We may be singular but we are also plural. When seeking to resolve issues, accounting for both is critical if we are to communicate and interact productively.

Janice Welsch is a Western Illinois University faculty emerita.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.