Wednesday, March 6, 2013

On Freedom: The Gyre and the Grid

"The most Bloomesque notion of freedom is the freedom of choice, understood as a methodical abstraction from every situation. This concept of freedom forms the most effective antidote against every real freedom. The only substantial freedom is to follow right to the end, to the point where it vanishes, the line along which power grows for a certain form-of-life. This raises our capacity to then be affected by other forms-of-life."
                               – Tiqqun, Introduction To Civil War
                                   [Co: Chief Love in the Fire, Scott N. Wong]

A great while ago I sparred with Peter Wolfendale over the concept of agency and how geological and cosmological processes, given sufficient scale, may be considered ‘agentic.’ I won’t get back into that now other than to say that what I had in mind was far less a panpsychisist fever-dream of a Cheshire cat smile upon the moon’s face than an indictment of us fleshy-meat-sacks as indeed far less ‘free’ than we otherwise imagine ourselves to be. That said, Peter has just put up a post on the concept of freedom on his blog ‘Deontologistics’ – well researched and rigorous as per usual – and it seems as though a convenient enough opportunity to respond to what I’m kind of picking up on as a general trend in philosophy that I disagree with (as Peter says, “indexed by the words ‘rationalism,’ ‘accelerationism,’ and ‘prometheanism’).

I will start by saying that I do not think that the ‘rational subject’ is dissociable from the ‘phenomenal self’ – they are both simply the 'self-model' described by Thomas Metzinger, that is, the attempt of a biological organism to “paper over” a world that does not admit of exteriority or attempts to extricate oneself. As Peter writes, “[T]he question is whether these self-models are limited to being models of the biological processes of the organism, or whether they can extend to be subject-models of the responsibilities that individuate that organism as a given subject.” He thinks that they can and do, I think they cannot and don’t – so that’s as good a place as any to start to trace the diverging comportments towards ‘freedom.’

I speak frequently and pejoratively about what I call ‘bourgeois subjectivity,’ and though I am not the first to call it this I nonetheless mean something quite specific.

When Jean-Luc Nancy indicts Kant for locating freedom in, as Peter writes, “the abstract functional architecture [of] transcendental psychology” he means precisely that the pre-subjective intentionality described by Hume in the Treatise, Sartre in Transcendence of the Ego, and Metzinger, is both prior to, and more fundamental than, the freedom that comes about as a result of rational self-legislation, i.e. individuated 'bourgeois subjectivity.'

My position here is not that the ‘self-model’ is not one that takes on responsibilities that individuate an organism as a given subject; my position here is rather that the self-model does not supplant entirely the originary and anarchic freedom of an organism lacking subjectivity or rational self-legislation proper. That is, in other words, they fundamentally contend with one another in the body of the organism, and indeed this is precisely what psychoanalysis has been so successful in articulating.

It is at this point that I will note that I believe the contemporary rationalist and accelerationist reticence to, as Nick phrased it in his recent video talk at Weaponizing Speculation, “the tyranny of impulse” is a normative one, and simply this. It is ‘qualitiative’ in Peter’s terms insofar as it admits that quantitatively, causally, we are a play of forces, some intellectual, some libidinal, but then simply privileges the intellectual, the rational. Which begs the question: why is it so important to quantitatively credit the libidinal, the base, the organic, with a role in the causal articulation of freedom? Beyond the response that it simply has this role whether we credit it or not, I feel it is important precisely because of the specific role that it plays.

The one thing I can unreservedly agree with Peter on is his rejection of voluntarism – that is, any philosophy which ostensibly throws its hands up about the causal mechanisms of freedom and hence “discourages us from actively working upon ourselves (both as individuals and as collectives) to make ourselves more free, by increasing both our positive and our negative freedoms.” I neither believe that the theoretical nor practical strain has philosophical merit. That said, I would reverse the levels of disdain that Peter accords to them, in that what Peter calls ‘practical voluntarism’ or ‘pseudarchy’ is more often than not real boots on the grounds activists who are trying to make real changes in the world (and simply would benefit from a causal understanding of freedom more than they realize) and don’t deserve the invective Peter directs to them, ‘manifestly stupid,’ for example. No, the ones who are ‘manifestly stupid,’ are the academics who dismiss the causal, “e.g., Badiou, Zizek, Hallward, ect.”

So how, then, does the libidinal, organic, pre-subjective act causally to make us in any palpable sense ‘more free.’

We should say that the libidinal, organic, pre-subjective and animal is quantitatively unfree but qualitatively free, and that the rational, intellectual, individuated and subjective is quantitatively free but qualitatively unfree (much to the protest of the rationalist, who would like to call duty and self-legislation ‘freedom’) and subsequently locate that which is both quantitatively and qualitatively free in the tension – and, importantly, the proliferation of tensions – between them.

The problem that I see with Peter’s understanding of freedom, especially in his discussion about madness, is that he recognizes only one tension, that tension between the individuated subject and a unitary and monolithic ‘society' [and would probably moreover say that any such 'tension' is highly qualified]. Whereas we know that the levels and strata of individuation are more complex than this, one can be ‘on the outs’ with one group while cozy with others, one can feel at home with one’s father’s family and less so with one’s other father’s family, indeed the subject is constantly, inexorably, irrevocably split, and it is within this web of contending allegiances that the subject is said to be ‘individuated,’ even though this is a misnomer, as what is ‘individuated’ is a multiplicity.

To be sure, Peter himself gestures to this, writing, “if subjects are just socially individuated loci of responsibility, then these loci needn’t be constantly in play, as it were.” Truly. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “It is an affair of world-wide population on the full body of the earth, not organic familial generation. 'I love to invent peoples, tribes, racial origins. . . I return from my tribes. As of today, I am the adoptive son of fifteen tribes, no more, no less. And they in turn are my adopted tribes, for I love each of them more than if I had been born into it.’ People say, After all, schizophrenics have a mother and a father, don’t they? Sorry, no, none as such. They only have a desert with tribes inhabiting it, a full body clininging with multiplicities.”[1]

The ‘rational’ ‘individuated’ subject is here seen then to be radically irrational and non-individuated, and are understood here rather as a seething mass of duties and expectations that oftentimes contradict one another. One may enter into alliance with new ‘tribes,’ just as one may sever alliance with older ones, on the basis of a tension between the presubjective, organic, libidinal on the one hand, and a tangled network of competing social assemblages in which one may be considered 'rational'‘or ‘individuated’ on the other.

In admitting of the libidinal, contingent, and passionate (in which we may be quantitatively unfree though feel qualitatively most free) and their role in the continuous social and biological maintenance of the self-model (in which we may be quantitatively free, though oftentimes feel profoundly unfree) we achieve a kind of freedom proper.

In any case, as always, I’m less interested in tearing Peter’s conception down than grateful for a conception to respond to.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus tr. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 1987), 34.

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