Arts Of The Working Class Logo


Never Were, Never Are and Never Will Be Individuals. [1]

  • Essay
  • Jul 31 2023
  • Korina (Kyriaki) Pavlidou
    is a Berlin-based researcher in social philosophy and legal theory. In her ongoing work, Korina is engaged with process epistemologies and philosophies of movement and becoming through a transdisciplinary and experimental lens that takes to heart critical feminisms alongside experiential and non-representational approaches to research.

Properly speaking we are not, and never have been, individuals:  

we are, literally, transindividual processes,  

accidental sites of a process of becoming that takes place at different levels. 

We are relations, not substances. 

Processes, not things. [2]

Anarchafeminist Manifesto 1.0 


Boundness, stasis, binarism, finitude. Dominant western societal models employ these onto-epistemic assumptions to produce and explain social reality. And whether they acknowledge it or not, these models hold an ontological commitment to their conception of how the world is shaped and how humans exist and relate. In this context, political philosophers commonly draw the standard distinction of atomism, where society is nothing other than an aggregate of individuals and corporate units, versus holism, where society is seen as a collective entity endowed with fixed, distinct properties and singular pre-existent structures to which people are subsumed and subjected. [3] Social scientists, on the other hand, outline this division along the same lines as an agency versus structure antithesis. At each field of inquiry, social bonds are translated to mere economic relations leaving out of the equation whatever cannot be classified as production in economic terms.

In all cases, social existence, whether naturalized or structurally mediated, stays cemented into a solid ground of bounded places and encased selves, defined by insular bonds of common class and economic interests, and a shared national, ethnic, and racial identity. What’s troubling in this respect is the theoretical certainty traversing dominant patterns of knowledge according to which our modern western societies are autopoietic, closed, and self-referential systems or naturalistic worlds that consist of independent entities and substances. The latter points to another blind spot in widespread discourses about social reality: the structure versus agency dualist split, in all the different names and versions that this appears, does not exhaust the spectrum of ontological political thinking. Rather both these viewpoints share an essentialist and substantialist thought pattern that gives primacy to things, material and immaterial forms, and to finality, completion, and the idea of the end: the end of things, the end of the world, the end of it all. 

Against this backdrop, liberal ethics, whether actualized in neoliberal or social welfarist politics, define the individual as an ideally stable and finite form [4] that is always already prior to their own individuation. Bringing this to the level of society, people are anchored to collective and individual identities that are considered definite and completed. In questioning social reality, matter, even if being in a kinetic and vibrant process, is only partially changing for it to maintain its substance. The process is determined. The idea of fixed, inert, eternal essences posits as the undeniable answer; and yet, some questions are not raised.

How do we relate to each other, to what we environ, and to what environs us? Do we relate as entities or as processes? Is individuality the way to articulate modes of social existence or do we need to look for other linguistic and conceptual frames of reference? 

Addressing this theoretical and political impasse, voices coming from social philosophy, criticize the concept of individuality and move towards the ideas of ‘trans(in)dividuality’ and ‘trans(in)dividuation.’  In this vein, philosopher Chiara Bottici, by combining insights from anarchafeminism with symbiotic biology and queer ecology, reconfigures individuality as ‘transindividuality,’ namely, as a process of affecting and being affected in turn, which takes place within a complex web of relations. [5] Casting attention on the notion of individuation, political philosopher Bruno Gullì, phrases this further as ‘trans-dividuation,’ that is to say, as a plural process that does not happen all at once and is never-ending. [6]

Taking a critical stance towards essentialism, researchers in evolutionary biology and philosophy, John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson, as well as scholars, Maria Mancilla Garcia, Tilman Hertz, and Maja Schlüter, from environmental humanities, emphasize further that social systems exist through change rather than permanence, and encourage a move from essences towards processes as the constituents of reality. [7] In this framework, to realize social existence as an ontogenetic process is to no longer perceive the concept of being at the level of individuality comprised of a rigid, self-enclosed entity of an already finished becoming, but to conceive of being at the level of relationality through open-ended, generative processes of individuation that is continuous and in constant movement. In light of this, we as humans do not simply interact as already constituted, predefined, and fully-formed entities. Rather through the process of relating, we transform and are being transformed while we divide and are being divided as trans-dividuations and not as individuals. 

In this world of high complexity, the chasm between social discourses with essentializing and homogenizing tendencies that reduce such complexity on the one hand, and the lived experience of people, which goes past closed, static systems on the other hand, looms large. For this, a transformation in the way we conceive and articulate our relational reality becomes increasingly necessary. Approaching social existence no longer at the level of individuality, but critically at the level of individuation as trans-dividuation, can pave the way to move towards configuring our societies as transpoietic, porous, and open systems that consist of a web of infinite, transversal relations for which there is no closure.

For our globalized societies that constantly talk about change, to remain fixated on an ontology of things and forms, means to remain the same and effectively resist change. Moving from the idea of form to that of process could open up a space within which we can morph a politics of relational living that embraces societal bonds in their dynamic complexity and potential. In so doing, we can dissolve deep-seated, rigid ideas of segregation, ranking, control, and hierarchization that have infiltrated our social existence and experiences in conformity to social imaginaries of fictitiously confined territories and boundaries. Adopting a process perspective could shed light into a mode of thinking where the world is not a thing, the individual is not already individuated and people are not entities. Rather, they are relations that create relations in an ongoing, inconclusive process. If nothing endures but change, grasping our social realities as processes, could tune us into the forces of change as not in-being but as happening. How we relate, we are—and if we were to start thinking and acting like that, it could potentially blaze new trails towards a different social living: a living that is not defined by the expectation of an end, by what is always already dead, and is actually never open to changing. But instead, a living that through the act of relating, where it ends is always already beginning.




    [1] The title is inspired by the article Gilbert, Scott F., Jan Sapp, and Alfred I.  Tauber. “A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals.” The Quarterly Review  of Biology 87, no. 4 (2012): 325-41 as cited in Bottici, Chiara. Anarchafeminism. (Bloomsbury, 2021) 145, 228, 293-294.

    [2] The Ongoing Collective, ‘Anarchafeminist Manifesto 1.0: Not one less!’ (Public Seminar, 2020) 17 May 2020 <> last accessed 09 June 2023.

    [3] Frega, Roberto. “The Social Ontology of Democracy.” Journal of Social Ontology 4, no. 2 (2018): 157-185, 159-161 ff.

    [4] Balibar, Étienne. Spinoza, the Transindividual. Translated by Mark G. E. Kelly. (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 80-81, note 13.

    [5] Bottici, Anarchafeminism, 127-128, 131.

    [6] Gullì, Bruno. Singularities at the Threshold. The Ontology of Unrest. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2021), 23 ff.

    [7] Nicholson, Daniel J., and John Dupré. Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. Oxford University Press, 2018; Garcia, Maria Mancilla, Tilman Hertz, and Maja Schlüter. "Towards a Process Epistemology for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems." Environmental Values 29, no. 2 (2020) 222, 231.



    Karrabing Collective, Day in the Life (Still), 2020. Courtesy Lenbachhaus, Munich and © Karrabing Collective.



To improve our website for you, please allow a cookie from Google Analytics to be set.

Basic cookies that are necessary for the correct function of the website are always set.

The cookie settings can be changed at any time on the Date Privacy page.