Recently (in a thread on Long Sunday as well as elsewhere), I was accused of being a conformist. I say accused because the overall tone of the remark was neither blandly descriptive nor particularly complementary. I've wondered about this. What does it mean to conform and why might conforming be behaviour seen as unlaudable? Why might the appellation conformist be an insult?
On one level, it seems obvious: the conformist seems not to think for herself, at best, and to be an Eichmann-like follower, at worst. "Just following orders." Here "conform" suggests compliance, obedience, and, perhaps, more, compliance and obedience without thought. But is it really so simple?
We might also do well to recognize that conform means to adapt or adjust. So one who conforms is also one who adapts to certain circumstances. "When in Rome...." It could be an attribute, say, of being a good guest or traveler. From this perspective, a failure to conform might be more than simply irritating, it might also suggest the ugly American insisting that everything go his way. "Where are my hamburgers?" Some dictionaries include "to be in harmony" in their definition of conform. There is something pleasant, well, harmonious, about this way of thinking about conformity, as if its lack or absence were dissonant, jarring, unpleasant.
A failure to conform might be the ultimate in arrogance, a making of oneself into an exemption, she to whom no norm applies, she who is above all norms, she who acts as she pleases when and where she pleases. The non-conformist here makes her own rules, but it is hard to call these rules sense they really refer to an absence of rule, to being above all rule, being unruly. But surely this is not a particularly attractive or admirable way of being, this diva-like quality of demanding specific kinds of sparkling water and only, only green M&Ms. It may well be original, unique. And that is no doubt a good thing because too much of such dissonance is cacophonous, maddening, a kind of madness.
We might do well to notice that speaking and writing require conformity, that the pleasures of irony, dadaism, and jokes play with our conformity, drawing us out of it, making it strange to us, and then, releasing us back to this conformity, now somewhat different, not quite the same.
Is it so easy to conform, in these times of symbolic inefficiency? I moved a lot as a child--living in South Carolina, Washington, Louisana, Nebraska, and Texas before I was 5. Conforming, adapting, was pretty useful. And, is it possible that each conforming movement becomes a kind of addition, a change, a way of making conforming itself more complicated, more multi-layered, less simple: how, for example, to be at home enough to be elsewhere? If we are elsewhere, unadapted, have we really gone anywhere or haven't we brought too much of what and where we were before with us, so much in fact that we can't be in another place?
And, then, what about Zizek? What I have in mind is of course being fully in ideology, playing by the rules, fully identifying with the system. Zizek frequently points out that this full identification, conformity, is one way of disrupting a system, of giving up that point of distance or non-identity that actually supports it. Really playing by the rules can be subversive of these very rules insofar as it ignores the obscene superego supplement.