What's wrong with the last post?

by CarlD

There are a lot of things wrong with the last post, which has been sitting there bothering me for a couple of days while I took care of teaching and administrative business. A big one is that it (and its antecedent) assumes that freedom must be defined with or against the integral sovereign liberal self, and on or counter to a continuum from complete autonomy to complete heteronomy (sometimes called the ‘structure / agency problem’).

Thinking as I do that the integral self is a performative myth and that selves are dynamic composites built out of the networkings of everything from amino acids to cosmic rays to neighborhoods and grandmas; and that the omnipotence of complete autonomy is part of the imaginative theological juvenilia of our species, with complete heteronomy a lazy inversion we frighten ourselves with like a ghost story; the last post is pretty dumb. But I like Foucault, Camus and Hegel – they’re part of my self – so I’m not quite ready to give them up yet.

I’d like that post to be at least productively wrong as opposed to not even wrong. Any other thoughts?


17 Comments to “What's wrong with the last post?”

  1. Honestly I don’t understand how the prior post violates the points of the subsequent one. I see these points as compatable.

  2. Freedom is the recognition of necessity, as Hegel said. When I was driving down to school this morning I chanced to be behind a couple of cars in a row that were pretty much ignoring the lines painted on the road. Their flirtation with those transgression thresholds may have seemed like freedom to them, but acceptable transgression is part of how the system’s built. Around here beat up old guys in beat up old pickup trucks drive real slow, right down the center of the lane. Freedom is in coming to grips with the lines, accepting their power to limit and compel, and releasing the desire for somewhere, something else they simultaneously create and frustrate. If there’s room to move and to play within the lines, so much the better.

    For me the problem is in the writing quoted here. Are the ornery old guys in their pick-up trucks the exemplars of freedom that they are, perhaps by themselves as well as others, imagined to be? Is their driving an ideological statement, “Don’t tread on me!” updated by Ronald Reagan’s “Government is the problem” and turned into parody by Rush Limbaugh? Or is it that, like me, they have old eyes, peripheral vision is blurring, and they cling to the middle for fear of sliding off the edge of the road they can no longer see?

    Conversely, are yellow lines painted on a road good examples of Hegelian necessity? Being largely ignorant of Hegel, I have to ask where in triangle formed by the laws of Newtonian mechanics, Kant’s categorical imperatives,and political calculation is this necessity supposed to fall?

    But, returning to the writing, when I read this passage, it doesn’t seem that the author knows where he is going with it. Not necessarily a bad thing that; after all, Socrates is always asking superficially dumb questions with all sorts of answers. Perhaps the problem is in our educated selves, that we are too trained by advertising and modern academic conventions to believe that thoughts that don’t come straight to the point are necessarily flawed.

  3. Section 87, Beyond Good and Evil, Part IV

    Bound heart, free spirit.—When one binds one’s heart firmly and keeps it imprisoned, one can provide one’s spirit many freedoms: I have said that already once. But people do not believe me, provided that they do not already know it. . . .

  4. Kvond, without digging out my copy and getting some context, it looks to me like he’s making the standard rationalist move of cordoning off (amputating?) emotions/the body and assigning sovereignty to mind (or whatever the hell spirit means, he must have been laughing when he wrote that line).

    What I’m groping after here is an untruncated sense of our embodiment of and participation in communities at many scales, such that whatever we might want to call ‘spirit’ about ourselves is at most a node in a much larger array. Paganism without the theology, if you will, but the point for the concept of freedom is to decenter and situate consciousness, intention, will, etc. As I understand it this further decentering of the human subject is a common theme nowadays.

    I guess I can see why you wouldn’t see this as incompatible with Hegel, Camus, Foucault. They’re pretty good for chastening the illusion of self-determination. But they’re all still very human-centered, in ways that make sense since human’s what we’ve got to work with, but tends to stop at the horizons of consciousness and its discontents.

    JM, you’re absolutely right that the passage you quote is not cleanly pointed. Hm. Those guys in the pickups say something about both unfreedom and freedom. In one sense, their lives are bound up in ways that give them very little wiggle room. On the other hand they’re in the rhythm of it in a way that exemplifies something of what I’m trying to get at about a more comprehensive freedom. There’s a Dao to their lives, right? Is freedom in the smaller sense of individual will the right question, for them or us? I’m still groping.

  5. Carl, may I suggest a look at Alva Noe – Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Lot of interesting, fresh thinking there.

    Or, reverting to a favorite hobby horse, why not begin by getting by the temptation to think categorically about freedom vs. unfreedom and instead consider degrees of freedom in different contexts. You are right, I think, to question the martyr’s premise that while the wicked can imprison, torture or even kill my body they cannot touch my soul, whose freedom is grounded in unwavering faith in higher things. That premise is, of course, what makes movies like The Manchurian Candidate so scary, that new TV series, The Doll House so creepy, or C.J. Cherryh’s SF masterpiece Cyteen so disturbing. All play with the idea that the self can be reprogrammed in ways of which it may not itself be aware—so the wicked can touch our souls.

    Is freedom a kid in the grip of the terrible twos or adolescent hormones saying “No” to his parents? Consumer choice in a world that is one big hypermarket? The legal right to dispose of property — including, perhaps, slaves? Not having to worry about food, clothing or shelter, so that we have plenty of time to think or pursue our hobbies? One we step back from the martyr’s premise and begin to take into account the circumstances that create as well as constrain opportunities, the whole question of freedom becomes much more interesting.

  6. Carl,
    So your difficulty is that you believe both that it makes sense to talk about selves being free or unfree and that, as you put it, “the omnipotence of complete autonomy is part of the imaginative theological juvenilia of our species.” I think that the belief in complete autonomy comes at least in part from our experiences. It sure seems to me that, on this Saturday morning, I can do anything with the day (and, by extension, with the rest of my life) that I want to. I also at times experience the opposite–lines in the road, if you will, that seem to limit that freedom. Can’t it be useful to explore such freedoms and unfreedoms while keeping in mind the proviso that being both embodied and situated in society means that even the greatest range of freedom I can exercise is pitifully small? From that perspective, freedom vs. unfreedom is a useful question, but not an all-important one.
    The premise behind your discomfort with the previous post seems to be that you should be consistent in your ideas, i.e. that you should view the world from a single, unified point of view. That makes sense, but I’m having trouble seeing how that fits with your view of the self. If the self is not coherent and is just a fiction of self-presentation, is there an “I” who can be said to be consistent or inconsistent in more than just a performative sort of way?

  7. being both embodied and situated in society means that even the greatest range of freedom I can exercise is pitifully small

    Why “pitifully small”? As I walked home tonight, I found myself walking in the dark through one of the last flurries of falling cherry blossoms. I remembered that, according to Japanese tradition, those falling blossoms are symbols of lives both transient and brilliantly beautiful. I think of haiku, bonsai, and tea ceremony and remember a moment, now long ago, when another me, who was clumsily practicing judo, was told to spar with someone who was larger, stronger, and more advanced than me. I surrendered completely, went totally loose, and the next thing I knew he was flying over my shoulder and landing on the floor. (Only happened once, but that was truly a moment of Zen.)

  8. Good point, John. It’s only pitiful when I clothe myself in a belief system that burdens me with the expectation that I should by dint of will be able to control everything.

  9. Carl: “What I’m groping after here is an untruncated sense of our embodiment of and participation in communities at many scales, such that whatever we might want to call ’spirit’ about ourselves is at most a node in a much larger array. Paganism without the theology, if you will, but the point for the concept of freedom is to decenter and situate consciousness, intention, will, etc. As I understand it this further decentering of the human subject is a common theme nowadays.”

    Kvond: I can see that. The reason why I include the Nietzsche is that it opens up the possibility that freedom and restriction are not opposites. Gravity after all is what makes the dancer. In a sense, restraint can serve a focus. I liked your image of the pick-up trucks that drive the center lane (especially after having my more than pleasant dosage of Kantian indoctrination lately). One’s freedoms, in fact freedoms in general, seem to be orbital and not categorical.

    If we are to be pagan (with or without the theology) we have to accept that the gods are also “deinos” awesome and aweful.

    And yes, I too love the de-centered subject, but read this as process, a slingshoting of a moving center that sweeps things into motion. Sometimes it is located here, in my body, even at an exact spot, and sometimes it is “out there” in wide swathes.

  10. Kvond, I like the idea of orbital freedoms. It’s interesting you mention gravity, as I use it (along with friction) to make this same point to my classes, under the rubric of constraining and enabling structures (the point is that they’re generally both). The road markings work well for this point too – I ask what it would be like if I woke up this morning and decided today was a driving on the left kind of day, and we go from there.

    Bob, thank you for reminding me that ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds’. I actually spent this weekend in an unproductive tangle, as I often do, pulling and pushing in various directions or none at all to little effect. It’s like selves are engines – lots of moving parts that motor things along pretty well if they’re all in good shape and the timing’s synced up, but if the cylinders start firing out of order it’s a pretty bumpy ride. Rachel refers to this as ‘being in our own way’. I find that I slide in and out of timing, probably on a schedule that puts me somewhere on the BP continuum, and I can easily imagine how frustrating and ultimately insanitizing it must be to be stuck out of sync.

    Clearly this is happening within ‘me’ and is therefore in the sense of the sovereign liberal self something for which ‘I’ bear responsibility. It’s a dimension of my freedom, which I am squandering. In another frame, Psychology points to ways in which the discourse of individual freedom is pretty hopelessly simplistic.

  11. Carl,

    I like your analogy of friction and structures. Excellent. I think that when talking about freedom, one really should turn one’s eyes towards, “Freedom from what…” and then, when in a philosophical mind apply the Spinozist prescription that one is most free when able to affect or be affected by the greatest number of things.

  12. Carl,
    As I think we’ve discussed before, one of the reasons I think that its worthwhile to have a sense of self with some degree of coherence is just what happens when coherence is lacking. People given diagnoses like borderline personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder are, as you put so well, “stuck out of sync.” Sorry that the elements of self were a real jumble this weekend; even if you recognized what was happening at the time, I imagine the psychic aches and pains associated with spending days like that had to be unpleasant.

  13. I have an overly simplistic metaphor that I like about individuals as switchboards on a very large tangled mess of circuits that is the world.

  14. switchboards on a very large tangled mess of circuits that is the world

    Trying to figure out why this image is so disturbing. Has something to do with the rigidity of the switchboard, but also its passivity. It just sits there waiting for the Operator, whoever that is, to stick the plugs in the holes. The self as multiple date rape victim?

  15. I see what you mean, JM. But switchboards can also be the points of active selection between options (although to do so they must be programmed, which may or may not void the metaphor). I’m reminded of Max Weber’s earlier railroad metaphor, re: the idealism vs. materialism debate, that ideas may act as ‘switchmen’ between different material tracks.

  16. Ha I didn’t think of it that way, John, though you have a point–there’s something a little too passive and rigged about the whole thing. I liked it as far as metaphors go because it at least acknowledges the “active” role individuals [switchboards] can play as little centers that receive stimuli or inputs and then (at least nominally) decide when to send certain outputs [electrical currents] along the circuits.

    Carl, you could say that we’re preprogrammed by a bunch of natural or physical forces that are beyond our control, too, right? At least without stretching the metaphor too far.

    I’ve been thinking about determinism quite often lately.

  17. Speaking both as an anthropologist and as someone who works in advertising, I am someone for whom metaphors are a serious topic. For those who might be interested, I contributed a chapter to John Sherry’s (1995) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook a chapter titled “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors.” If you’d like to see it and don’t have access to the book, I can scan the chapter and send it to you. Just send an email to jlm@wordworks.jp

    The chapter begins with this question

    To Malinowski, advertising was ‘the richest field of modern verbal magic’. He may have meant this statement literally; today we read it as metaphor. We are, as James Fernandez puts it, at a ‘metaphorical moment’ in the history of anthropology and the other human sciences, having learned that what he had taken to be straightforward descriptions of ethnographic realities are, in fact, metaphoric interpretations that often conceal as much as they real. Deconstructionist trends in recent critical theorizing have made us deeply aware of how metaphor (and other tropes) permeate even the strictest scientific discourse, which raises the problem behind the problem I wish to discuss here. If our theories are metaphors and are thus not literally true or false, how can we choose between them?

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