A colleague of mine at the University of Birmingham, Ben Horn, recently asked me to respond to the question ‘What is freedom to you?’:
I considered trying to respond to this question – one I have thought about often – via Twitter. But as the genre of ‘microblogging’ might suggest, Twitter isn’t conducive to short or long answers in response to vexing issues; everything is displayed in an instant and ideally consumed as a haptic slurry. Of course, writing well on Twitter is a great skill: to be able to express oneself tersely, ideally with witty or pithy profundity, can be a useful, appealing, and important form of expression. But Twitter’s primary form of communication – the tweet – can also be considered a medium of impoverished or, perhaps, to choose a more neutral and accurate ascription, homogenised expression and thought, as Stewart Lee has noted in regards to what we might call epigrammatic comedy – something that abounds on Twitter. There is nothing inherently wrong with epigrammatic expression – the epigram can be expression at its most beautiful, as I’m sure Bartlett’s would adore me for saying. But what Twitter does is latch onto the allure of the epigram whilst abstracting any promise of profundity; in a sense, the epigram is a promise already existent within our Ideaspace, a motivation, a promise of beauty and profundity that we believe, wholeheartedly, will be realised upon witnessing. Twitter alters the odds of that encounter whilst maintaining the allure of the epigram as a kind of ghost in the shell; the brevity of the epigram is there, the short-form, but forced within it is a distracting banality; which is to say Twitter captures part of the allure of the epigram, its attention capture, it’s length, whilst subtracting/removing any instance of sustaining novelty. What I describe here resonates with that undercurrent of conformity that Slavoj Žižek identifies with ‘wisdom’, as distinct from philosophy – Twitter’s epigrammatic style is a kind of constantly positive and affirmative drip feed that facilitates a listless, hebetude heuristic in relation to knowledge and information – that constant undermining of the promise of the epigram that is nevertheless addictive. What’s my point? I didn’t write my answer to Ben’s question on Twitter. And, if you want to enjoy Twitter, just follow @williamblakebot, @oharapoems, and @MsJeanRhys.
What is freedom? To my mind, freedom is a horizon of experience we won’t ever reach as a permanent state. Ideally, it can serve us as a tool, as a psychopomp, between structures of agency, new or near-identical relative to what preceded. When freedom becomes a psychopomp, it is no longer freedom – it is part of the process I call agentialisation. Let me try and illustrate what I mean.
When I think of that relationship between agency and freedom, I think of the latter half of Book II in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667/1674), in which Satan, standing at the gates of Hell, gazes out at the expanse between Hell and Eden:
Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension where length, breadth, and height,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by the confusion stand
Chance governs all. Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordainJohn Milton, Book II, Paradise Lost, ll.890-897; ll.910-915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 ).
An unending and immeasurable ocean of possibility – the genesis of birth and death – is how I understand freedom; something almost impossible to endure as a transition, let alone as a permanent state. Freedom can’t be grasped or actualised unless as agency – even the description of freedom as ‘an endless war of Chance’ is agentialising, as it marks the parameters of possibility (i.e. war, chance, endless time). In attempting to traverse this ‘wild expanse’ Satan is dragged ‘through the shock / Of fighting elements on all sides round’ (1014-15) – this is not so much freedom attacking Satan as the chains of agency restraining and enabling his passage through freedom. So when we think of the process of agentialisation, we must understand agency as the expression of two forces – the agency of the subject and the new agency that they are negotiating in their passage through freedom.
So what we see in Paradise Lost is not freedom. What I’ve described above, through Milton, is freedom as something that can only ever be approximated, anticipated, or conceived as a tool that, whilst we cannot grasp it, can be used to craft our agency. It is a kind of invisible, ideational impetus from which the parameters that may enable a state of agency, on new or near-identical terms relative to what preceded, can emerge. Ultimately, freedom cannot be expressed or witnessed as anything other than a horizon of possibility, without inherent or determined signification. What we see above and with Satan is the experience of being detached from an established state of agency and the attainment of a new agency – the process of agentialisation.
Satan’s journey is a negotiation of agency that grants him this ability to navigate what is ultimately an approximation of freedom. In this case, agency is divine or theological. As featured in that lengthy citation above, ‘Unless the almighty maker them ordain’, nothing passes through this landscape of nightmarish, unbounded ‘freedom’ independently – not without agency; agentialisation is some other power, not a power ‘outside’ of oneself, but the ability to traverse freedom as a perpetual horizon whilst also ensuring an eventual return to a state of agency, a state which may be drawn up on new terms. As we see when Satan meets Chaos and Night, ‘Alone, and without guide, half lost’ (975) in his freedom, he is only able to escape by being shown ‘What readiest path leads where your gloomy bounds / Confine with heaven’ (976-977). Ultimately, Satan does not seek absolute freedom as a permanent state, he seeks agency; he rejects an absolute unity with freedom as that pure ideational impetus, that horizon of possibility, because his intention is to redefine his current parameters, redefine his own agency, and he does so through the established agency of Chaos and ‘Night, eldest of things’ (962). But all of this requires Satan to graze the lip of freedom, to skirt towards its edge, to look toward that horizon as the muse and madness that can create or restore agency.
As Satan wanders that ‘darksome desert’ (973), one considers if he would have benefited from some better advice when leaving the gates of Hell: ‘Take care, it’s a desert out there’. This oft-quoted line of Mark Fisher’s is taken from his description of The Caretaker’s album Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia (2006). Parts of that essay resonate closely, I think, with what I take to be Milton’s description of agentialisation and freedom above, represented by Satan’s journey:
You suppose that you could be in familiar territory. It’s difficult to know if you’ve heard this before or not. There’s not much to go on. Few landmarks. The tracks have numbers, not names. You can listen to them in any order. The point is to get lost. That’s easy in this ill-seen, late Beckett landscape. You extemporise stories they call it confabulation – to make sense of the abstract shapes looming in the smoke and fogMark Fisher, ‘Sleevenotes for The Caretaker’s Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia‘, in Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology And Lost Futures (Hamps: Zer0 Books, 2014), pp.109-111.
Both Satan and Fisher are encountering the desert of freedom, experiencing agentialisation, through the constant buffeting of the signifiying and asignifying. But Fisher’s approximation of freedom comes closer to what freedom, proper, is – ‘the tracks have numbers, not names’ – an asignifier of potential that one can only become lost in; this Dionysian plane I call freedom. Of course to become lost in freedom, lost in music, is to become ‘caught in a trap, no turning back’, it is a nightmarish state – one must be restored to a sense of agency, to turn away from the desert. If one moves too close to freedom, if one gazes into that abyss and does not return with agency, then one is condemned to madness.
How can we glimpse freedom and alter our agency? In a sense, this was a defining question within Fisher’s work and is not one I can answer. But, to close this post, I will turn to another wanderer of the desert who, in my interpretation, also sought to answer that question: Albert Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus (1955 ):
I see many people die because they judge that life is not
worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas
or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a
reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore
conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, np.
I’d argue that what Camus accurately describes here, in this quote, is the threat of freedom, the intrusive plane of possibilities that enter as ‘ideas’ and ‘illusions’ divergent or differing from one’s established agency. In a word: Camus describes the promise of agentialisation that is incited by freedom, a promise of agency that is or sometimes seems unobtainable, which can be liberating or maddening. It is unsurprising, then, that Camus selects an excellent epigram (contra Twitter) for his book, citing the Greek lyric poet Pindar: ‘O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible’. Freedom is Pindar’s ‘the possible’, something to be exhausted through the circumscribing process of agentialisation, with agency amounting to a refusal of subsumption to the madness of the infinite, the immortal life of absolute potential.
Camus subsequently takes up that most urgent question, the meaning of life and the problem of suicide, and returns with an agency; the agency that Camus retrieves from the infinite of freedom is one of great beauty: absurdism. He elucidates the absurd through a story that is a close relative to the journeys of Fisher and Satan through their own desert of freedom: The Myth of Sisyphus, the story of an Ephyran king condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity, after Sisyphus tricked the gods and achieved eternal life for all of humanity. For Camus, the tale of Sispyhus ‘sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert’. The absurd is an attempt to traverse the desert of freedom through agentialisation, not as a return from the desert but, rather, as a ceaseless series of returns within it.
At a later date, it would be good to draw out the distinctions between Sisyphus and Satan, what motivates their desire for agentialisation, the desire to master ‘that dizzying crest’ of freedom, as Camus describes it. It would also be good to present my thoughts more lucidly. But, for the present, I think I’ve given enough of an idea about my understanding of freedom as the (un)desirable horizon from which one must strive towards and from to attain agency.