Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

The Myth of Freedom

The New York Times ran a story on Friday about the spotlight Glenn Beck had cast on an “obscure CUNY professor,” Frances Fox Piven, and how this had attracted some very hostile attention from Beck’s followers. One fine fellow had left this comment on Beck’s site, The Blaze, “Somebody tell Frances I have 5000 roundas ready and I’ll give My life to take Our freedom back.”

The thing that struck me about this quote wasn’t the threat of gun-related violence but the idea that we need to take our freedom back. As I told a friend the other night, I can’t relate to this sentiment at all. Specifically, I don’t feel any less “free” today than I did before Barack Obama became president. Indeed, my friend responded that he felt more free since Obama was elected.

I’m not sure if my perception of the Tea Party (or Tea Party-ish Republicans) is simply a caricature invented by the liberal media, but it seems like this notion of freedom is near and dear to them and that they see the Obama presidency as an assault thereupon. However, I’m hard-pressed to name a freedom that has been lost during the last two years (and the “individual mandate” in the healthcare bill doesn’t count since it hasn’t gone into effect yet – though, even then, it’s really just a tax issue for those who don’t have insurance. Of course, freedom from taxation is a freedom we have never truly enjoyed).

Now, I love freedom just as much, if not more, than the next guy, but I also believe that freedom is relative and that actual freedom is different from formal freedom. We are all formally free, for example, to own property here in the United States, but one’s ability to actually exercise that freedom is constrained by one’s available resources. Similarly, we are formally free to pursue whatever career we wish, but our ability to do so depends on education, physical or intellectual abilities, available resources (again), and so on.

In other words, while we have not lost any fundamental formal freedoms over the last two (or more) years, the economic downturn has definitely impinged on the ability of millions to actually exercise said freedoms. Having lost my own job two years ago, I can relate to that feeling. However, I don’t understand how assaulting an economics professor, let alone trying her for treason, would restore that dimension of freedom.

Having said that, I do think that lashing out would at least give someone the sense that they were reclaiming the most fundamental freedom that humans enjoy: the freedom to act. Nevertheless, this raises another question about freedom and one that few have the existential wherewithal to adequately face let alone answer: If we are parts of the physical universe, and every thought or action cannot be separated from its physical underpinnings (think: neurochemistry), isn’t possible that our sense of freedom is itself an illusion imposed by the physical system that enables us to sense anything at all? What if, for instance, the evolutionary advantage that has made human beings the dominant species (at least among vertebrates) is not that we can act freely, but that we can believe we act freely?

In other words, the freedom to act that the lone gunman seizes could be, and in most cases probably is, just the symptom of an underlying neuro-chemical or otherwise conditioned physical state and thus not free in any sense of the word other than when physicists speak of an object, subject to the gravitational pull of another object, being in “free fall.”

And that’s a freedom that, frankly, no one can take from you.

Formalism versus Fundamentalism

106303639_e5fce15c95_mAs some of you may recall, and many of you will not, Frances Fukuyama published a book in 1992 entitled, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis therein was that, with the ascendancy of societies combining a free market economy with democratic political institutions, history, understood quasi-dialectically as a series of increasingly dominant and effective social forms, had, as the title suggests, ended.

Fukuyama’s thesis was and is plausible because, like the scientific rationality which forms the third angle of modernity’s powerful triumvirate, the free market and democracy share a distinct formalism. Just as “science” offers not a set of beliefs about the world so much as a method for exploring and solving its many mysteries, “democracy” merely offers a way of formulating laws and maintaining a system of government, without stipulating their specific content, while the “free market” provides general guidelines for the organization of commerce and trade, indifferent to the existence of a particular enterprise or commodity.

This formal abstraction lends to science, the free market, and democracy, a kind of universal timelessness and along with it an aura of finality. At the same time, this formal emptiness, while appealing to the reformer, appalls the revolutionary; the reformer sees in this open-endedness the possibility of continuous improvement; the revolutionary sees it as a failure to instantiate the absolute.

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Heidegger, Hölderlin, and Ronell – or – What Sticks in the Craw

2470380695_fd41f38779_mFunny what sticks in the craw.

I was doing a search for this pamphlet, Theory of Poverty, Poverty of Theory, a strange, Situationist tract that I bought in Berkeley long ago, when I came across an abstract for Avital Ronell’s essay, “On the Misery of Theory without Poetry: Heidegger’s Reading of Hölderlin’s ‘Andenken’.”

This essay, which I have not read, “[C]onsiders the tendency among young theorists to forget or repress poetry. As symptom, the aberrant dissociation of poetry from theory reflects an increasing technicization, not to say impoverishment, of critical language.”

I won’t go into why I believe Dr. Ronell finds the dissociation of poetry from theory aberrant, or why she paraleptically equates technicization with impoverishment (especially when one could just as easily see in the study of literary theory the root-cause of its student’s quite literal impoverishment).

Instead, I will focus, briefly, on the last line of the abstract, which reads, “I zero in on the figure of ‘dark-skinned women’ in the poem ‘Andenken’ to show how philosophy is tripped up by the permanent insurrection that poetry conducts.”

First of all, as you can see in my ad hoc translation of Hölderlin below, the women are “brown” [braun], not dark-skinned. The poem “takes place” in southern France, after all, where the grape-ripening sun also tans the limbs of those laboring in the fields twixt the Garonne and the Dordogne.

Secondly, I’m disturbed by the anthropomorphic dissociation of philosophy and poetry. Philosophy and poetry don’t conduct anything and suggesting they do removes them from the historical and material contexts in which they are conducted.

Finally, and along the same lines, I take issue with the figurative use of the term “insurrection” when speaking of Heidegger’s appropriation of Hölderlin, especially given the poet’s known Jacobin sympathies. Specifically, when insurrection becomes solely metaphorical, it is not the poetical that is repressed, but the political. Read the rest of this entry »