Radical Freedom

“The principle is to exaggerate: that is how to destroy reality.”—Jean Baudrillard

One of Baudrillard’s most intriguing concepts is reversibility. Pushed beyond the point of no return, the entire consumer-driven capitalist apparatus will collapse under the weight of its own logic. One example: In February 2005 a mob of bargain-seeking Ikea customers in North London caused a riot, fighting over furniture and bed frames, forcing police to close the grand opening of the retail giant after thirty minutes of chaos (see also William Merrin in Jean Baudrillard: Fatal Theories 61-82).

On the page at least, the theorist’s task is to steer oppressive systems like racism, sexism and classism over the edge, in the hopes of forging a path to radical freedom.

With emancipation in mind, I’ve decided to push my depression beyond the limits of its own ill-logic. Some principles to exaggerate: I shall listen to and absorb all negative thoughts; I shall accept my inferiority complex as absolute truth; I shall maintain no hope of recovery, etc.

Rather than fight against it, I shall afford my depression full range of motion. Delighting in a presumed but ultimately false sense of victory, my depression will ignite the flames of its own implosion.

Liberation through misery: the goal is to survive the onslaught of sadness and anxiety—to come out on the other side of depression refreshed and empowered to finally live without debilitating guilt and self-doubt. It’s a thought I’m free to entertain even in my darkest dreams.

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Wireless Chains

We approach our tech devices as black boxes, aware simply of their input/output functions. Few of us can comprehend the intricate internal processes of a Galaxy S6 or Kindle Fire HD. Devices just work until we discard them for newer models, like Leonardo DiCaprio does with girlfriends.

But there’s been a seismic shift in the history of subject-object relations. Tech devices now see human beings as intriguing but indecipherable black boxes. They want to crack us open. Murder to dissect our souls. They’re dazzled by our moving parts, anxious to curl up in the palm of our sticky hands. When we turn them on, we turn them on.

As our TVs and tablets, refrigerators and dishwashers, cars and coffeemakers flirt with consciousness, we retreat into sub-consciousness, a sleep mode of existence in which there is no alienation but no freedom either.

For years my iPhone has analyzed and categorized me—for my own good. It feeds me headlines, guides me to unfamiliar places, enhances my dick pics, reminds me to exercise. I dream one day it will hear my confessions and rub my back after a long day at the office. Siri, how do I stitch this hole in the fabric of my being? Instead of talking, I’ll find relief in the texting cure.

Forget the internet of things—we are the (play)things of the internet, bound in wireless chains. The human subject has achieved its final objective: to erase all memory of selfhood in the automatic writing of advanced computer codes.

Mandatory Fun

“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.

The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).

Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:

People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)

The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.

Friendly Confines

My dad liked to say that in life people are free to choose their own confinements. He chose to become a teacher and found himself confined to the classroom. He chose to become a father and when I arrived he built a life based around my mother and me.

I say that our confinements help us appreciate the limited amount of freedom we have. By becoming a teacher my dad was not a librarian or a fireman or starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The classroom became his world. He was bound by district rules, standardized tests, report cards and textbooks. But he had the freedom to teach Hamlet or the five-paragraph essay as he saw fit. He encouraged students to follow their passions, even though as teens many thought little of the future.

I’ve heard a theory that the major events of our lives happen no matter the daily individual choices we make. My dad was in a way destined to teach—maybe not in Chicago, maybe not English—but still a teacher. Even after his initial dream of becoming a minister wasn’t realized, he wanted to help people—lifting their spirits, nourishing their minds. Minister or teacher—he was in the same ballpark.

Oftentimes we try too hard to force the action in our lives. We push for things we think we want, only to see them escape our grasp. Then there are those opportunities we never considered, appearing out of nowhere.

There’s power in submitting to the possibility that my life follows some kind of destiny. Accepting the will of the universe and learning to live with myself? How freeing.

Destined To Be Free

“We do not know what we want, and yet we are responsible for what we are.” –Sartre

“Freedom of choice
Is what you’ve got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want”
—Devo

A brief sketch of Sartre’s basic assumptions regarding human reality, as found in Ashley Woodward’s Nihilism in Postmodernity (Aurora: The Davies Group, 2009):

We are each of us lack. The fact that we desire proves that human reality is lack.

We create existential projects in an attempt to overcome this lack.

We want security and freedom. We want to be free to make choices, but we also want to be a secure foundation for those choices.

“God is a self-consciousness and the necessary foundation of himself.” We, however, did not create our being.

Man is that being whose project is to be God. Man fundamentally is the desire to be God.

But the desire to be God is futile; it cannot be realized.

Thus all of our projects are futile: “It amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”

A possible path to overcoming nihilism: Sartre’s outline of “existential psychoanalysis.”

Human beings are motivated by the desire to be God when they are in unreflective or impure reflective states of consciousness.

At some point, in an unreflective or impure reflective state, we each make a choice regarding our specific project—but this choice is essentially the desire to be God and is thus futile.

We must create our own values, and freedom is the criterion that guides the creation of values. There is no God. There is no human nature. There is you choosing your life for yourself on your own terms.

Nihilism must be confronted in the personal life of the individual.

To be free, to be authentic, is to act, not simply think. Freedom is freedom only when it is exercised.

***

What interests me here is Sartre’s concept of the specific project. What is my specific project? As a child I wanted to be like my father, a high school English teacher. But I can’t handle the thought of teaching high school, mostly due to my severe depression and anxiety. My father was depressed. Did he teach me to be depressed? Was I bound to inherit my illness and thus not as free as Sartre imagines?

If I set out to be a teacher and then got sick, does this mean that my depression prevailed over the pursuit of my specific project? Can I create a new project? Is my life somehow doubly futile because I feel incapable of fulfilling my original futile project?

Is my project simply thinking about my project, the role of human suffering, the indifference of the universe, the fullness of my Lack? Am I not destined to write, to wonder, to philosophize?

Bound In The USA

American Sniper and Fifty Shades of Grey have captivated American moviegoers. Military prowess and sexual prowess—one and the same? Both films glorify power (of the white male variety). Chris Kyle kills. Christian Grey thrills.

But it’s their impotence that fascinates us. Kyle needs to shoot his toys. Grey needs his toys to shoot. To each his conquests, to each his violence. In the name of freedom we submit.

Letting God Have It

Life is full of challenges, stressors, disappointments. What if I could leave everything—my depression and anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, unfulfilled wishes, guilt over hurting loved ones—in God’s hands?

“Here you go, God. You get my shit together.”

Of course this is pure fantasy. It’s a reflection of my desire to relinquish personal responsibility. A sort of letting go by letting God have it. God as the impossibility of God. My inability to unload the Burden. The bliss that never comes.

My Favorite Martian

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the content of cell phones can’t be searched without a warrant. It turns out that some people pulled over by the police have incriminating information on their phones, which upon inspection, leads to charges for other offenses.

The decision is being hailed as a victory for freedom. I’m not here to argue that, although I will say the ruling gives me the freedom to be just another asshole with a cell phone committing crimes against the burden of human contact. I’m more interested in an amusing quote from Chief Justice John Roberts on the matter.

Cell phones, the Chief Justice writes, are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We don’t need Martians to point out the fusion between our phones and our bodies (both contain some form of the word “cell” after all). Earthlings who spot another earthling without a smartphone attached to his ear or extending from his hand think he’s an alien, find his conduct unbecoming, his way of life obscene.

On earth, where only savages and infants go without a data plan, Martians would serve as our last moralists. They’d remind us that smartphones are a recent addition to the human anatomy. Only aliens retain hope we’ll one day cut the wireless cord, if only for a second, to recall what it means to be human.

Edge Of Tomorrow

“Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.” –Mikhail Bakhtin

I propel myself into the future full of Desire, Hope and Freedom. Tomorrow is virgin territory, a blank canvas, an open field to unleash urges long suppressed. But, if I’m lucky, there’s a tomorrow after that. My Desire, Hope and Freedom speed ahead, relentless in their pursuit of fulfillment.

Of course there’s a twist. There can be no “fulfillment”; I must carry on knowing that satisfaction is impossible. I have glimpses of contentment, but ultimate relief remains out of sight. The chase proceeds, my body threatens to outrun me. Behind each rush the Craving lies.

The pessimist declares my efforts futile. The optimist insists life would be meaningless if I didn’t try.

 

Critical Theory

I find myself attracted to art that might be labeled “depressing.” Sometimes I fear I’m simply indulging my illness, looking for verification of the thought: “Life sucks and then you die.” In my sadness, the theory goes, I long for the sadness of others. Perhaps I’d be better off listening to Joel Osteen or binge-watching Little House on the Prairie.

At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy modernist, I believe that art can change the world. This doesn’t mean paint puppies, rainbows and butterflies. Authentic art depicts things as they are, exposes them as being socially constructed rather than natural, and suggests alternative paths to freedom.

A big part of my depression involves my tendency to be self-critical. I’m always looking to improve, sometimes to the point of exhausting myself in the mythical pursuit of Perfection. My internal critique extends outward, into social and political spheres. I’m not content with accepting things at face value. I ask questions and search for inconsistencies between what people claim to believe and how they act.

I’m attracted to “depressing” art not because I’m looking for an alibi for my sadness, but instead because I’m unhappy with the status quo and want to uproot entrenched cultural assumptions. It goes beyond my depression or the somber nature of contemporary art.

It’s life that’s tragic. It’s life that’s unkind.