Saturday, June 9, 2012

"An End to Freedom" by Jean Baudrillard

Let me share something with you, here.

It's an essay, and it's about you.
And it's about me.
It's about everyone, really.

The following is worth reading, but only if you give it
your undivided attention.  It might seem long,
and there might be a few unfamiliar words.
Be patient with the writer and with yourself.
Put down the phone. Close the Facebook tab.
Choose to engage yourself for the next few minutes.
Put on your critical-thinking cap.

I first came across the works of Jean Baudrillard last year, in a book shop. I assumed he was just another New Age nut with an agenda to push. I was wrong. Baudrillard was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He died in 2007, but I hope that his insights into our political system, society and place in the world will continue to be shared.

What follows is the essay 
"An End to Freedom" 
by Jean Baudrillard, 
from his book Impossible Exchanges
published by Verso in 2001.

An End to Freedom

Two spectres haunt the subject: the spectre of Will and the spectre of Freedom. The pressure everywhere is for the subject to claim the full use of one and the boundless exercise of the other. Today it is illegal to give up one's own will, or not to wish to be free.

The 'liberated' man becomes fully responsible for the objective conditions of his existence. This is, to say the least, an ambiguous destiny. In this way, the 'liberated' worker, for example, falls prey to the objective conditions of the labour market.

At the same time as it forms part of a movement of liberation (of energy, sex, mores and work), modernity also involves the transference of everything which had to do with the imagination, dreams, the ideal and utopia into a technical, operational reality: the materialization of all desires, the realization of all possibilities. Everything is accomplished unconditionally; there is no transcendence any more, no alienation. Fulfilled individuals, but fulfilled only virtually, of course. It is the virtual which renders reality total by absorbing any imaginary alternative. The individual at last becomes identical with himself; the promise of the ego has been fulfilled. The prophecy which was that of the whole of modern history, from Hegel and Marx to Stirner and the Situationists - the prophecy of the appropriation of self and the end of alienation - has been fulfilled. Not for better, but for worse. We have passed from the Other to the Same, from alienation to identification (similarly, the Nietzschean prophecy of the transvaluation of values has been fulfilled for the worse - not in our passing beyond Good and Evil, but in our falling back this side of Good and Evil).

This indivisible individual is the achieved utopia of the subject: the perfect subject, the subject without other. Without inner alterity, he is doomed to an endless identity. Self-identity of the individual, the subject, the nation, the race. Self-identity of the world, now technically and absolutely real - now 'become what it is'. No more metaphors, no more metamorphoses. All that remains is the indefinite metastasis of identity.

Identity is a dream that is pathetically absurd. You dream of being yourself when you have nothing better to do. You dream of being yourself and gaining recognition when you have lost all singularity. Today we no longer fight for sovereignty or for glory, but for identity. Sovereignty was a mastery; identity is merely a reference. Sovereignty was adventurous; identity is linked to security (and also to the systems of verification which identify you). Identity is this obsession with appropriation of the liberated being, but a being liberated in sterile conditions, no longer knowing what he is. It is a label of existence without qualities. Now, all energies - the energies of minorities and entire peoples, the energies of individuals - are concentrated today on that derisory affirmation, that prideless assertion: I am! I exist! I'm alive, I'm called so-and-so, I'm European! A hopeless affirmation, in fact, since when you need to prove the obvious, it is by no means obvious.

The process of liberation is never innocent. It starts out from an ideology and an idealist movement in history. It tends always towards a reduction of the fundamental ambivalence of Good and Evil. Good or bad, the fact of being 'liberated' absolves us of an original evil. There is an element of simplification and transparency, of the elimination of the dark continent, the dark side, the accursed share, and the coming of the reign of value: all these things are present in the Rousseauist concept of a happy destiny, a natural vocation, a 'liberation'.

Not to be free is immoral, and liberation is both baptism and salvation, the true democratic sacrament.

Now, this is a utopian model. You cannot liberate Good without liberating Evil, and the ambivalence is definitive. The historical advance of the forces of Evil undoubtedly proceeds even more rapidly than that of the forces of Good. Another problematic consequence: as soon as they are liberated, things begin to float - money in speculation, sex in the lack of defined sexual boundaries, production in senseless overproduction, time in the undecidable calculation of origins. Once they are liberated, things take both an uncertain and an exponential turn. An uncontrollable ratcheting-up (e.g. nuclear power) and, at the same time, the beginning of the countdown: as soon as there is accounting, a calculation of value and accumulation, there is the prospect of exhaustion. Liberation leads always to a critical threshold beyond which its effects are reversed.

Liberty has succumbed to its perverse effect: liberation. In its accepted philosophical sense, liberty is an idea and, by fulfilling it, we have lost it. More or less the same thing happened with desire which faded as an ideal at the same time. Thus liberty, by its own logic, died a natural death, abolished in our profoundest imagination. But it still has to die an unnatural, ignoble one, dragged in effigy through all the discourses which stand in for it - including the discourse of human rights, and more generally all the forms which have replaced existence with the right to existence, difference with the right to difference, desire with the right to desire - and, finally, liberty with the right to be what one is and to want what one wants, which is its derisory form. Liberty thus shares the fate of all these defunct values, exhumed and resuscitated by the work of mourning - nostalgic and melancholic values which the system puts back in circulation as additional 'moral dimension'.

One can understand why the individual wants one thing only: to be rid of it. 'Being nothing is intoxicating, and the will is a bucket you knocked over in the yard, with a lazy flick of the foot, as you went by' (Pessoa).

This paradoxical movement may extend as far as the rejection of this unconditional liberty. The utopia of liberty, once realized, is no longer a utopia, and it is earlier forms, past forms, enslaved forms, which gradually became once again a utopia.

Omar Khayyam: 'Rather one freeman bind with chains of love / Than set a thousand prisoned captives free.'

Let us be clear about this: we are not speaking of the utopia of a historically defunct form of master and slave, but that of a linkage, a concatenation of forms, of a subjection to the cycle of becoming, to the rule of metamorphoses. Not a personal subjection of the slave, but the subjection of words one to another in language. The necessity of a form is of this order: words are not 'free', and it is certainly not the task of writing to 'liberate' them. On the contrary, writing binds them together, links them in 'chains', but they are linked together with 'chains of love'. The only thing they are to be liberated from is, possibly, their meaning -  so that they may form a secret concatentation.

The Hero does not 'liberate' events or historical forces, nor does he construct a history. He connects, concatenates the figures of myth and legend; this is why neither Revolution nor Democracy needs heroes. The Poet does not 'liberate' words according to their meaning. He binds them together in accordance with the figures of the language; this is why the Republic has no need of poets. The Madman and the Idiot do not 'liberate' drives or lift repression. They rediscover the secret concatenation of the figures of madness - which is closer to an archaic metamorphosis or an otherworldly curse than to desire and the unconscious.

More generally, forms are not liberated; only forces are liberated. The world of forces, of values, and even of ideas - the entire world of liberation - is the world of progress and competitive striving. Forms, for their part, do not surpass each other: there is movement from one form to another ,and this play of forms is tragic and sacrificial; whereas relations of force, conflicts of values and ideology, are merely dramatic and conflictual. All the figures of modernity, of liberation, are utopian: theirs is a dream of an ideal non-place. Forms, for their part - the forms of art, for example - are not inspired by utopianism: they do not dream of surpassing themselves towards some other end; they are, in themselves, the non-place.

In any case, to be liberated you have first to have been a slave. And to have been a slave, you have to have not been sacrificed (only the prisoners who were not sacrificed become slaves). Something of this exemption from sacrifice and something of the consequent servility persists in 'liberated' man, particularly in today's servility - not the servility which precedes liberation, but the servility which succeeds it. Servility of the second kind: servility without a master.

In ancient society, there was a master and the slave. Later came the lord and the serf. Later still, the capitalist and the wage-labourer. There is a servitude particularly to each of these stages: you know who is the master, who the slave. It is all different now. The master has disappeared. Only the serfs and servility remain. Now, what is a slave without a master? A person who has devoured his master and internalized him, to the point of becoming his own master. He has not killed him in order to become master (that is Revolution); he has absorbed him while remaining a slave - indeed, more slavish than a slave, more servile than a serf; his own serf. The final stage of his servility which, from one regression to another, eventually reaches back to the point of sacrifice. Except that no one any longer does him the honour of sacrificing him, and he is forced, in despair, to sacrifice himself to himself and his own will. Our service-based society is a serf-based society, a society of individuals rendered servile for their own use, slaves to their own functions and performance - perfectly emancipated, perfectly servile.

If the problem of freedom can no longer be posed, then we have to think up an original way of not posing it - or of going beyond it. What is there beyond freedom? The same alternative faces us here as when we ask about the end: what is there beyond the end?

The equivalent in the register of freedom of what occurs in jokes or poetic language (in which words are not free to be exchanged for others, nor exchanged for their meaning, but exchanged as they have, in themselves, been changed by the grace of language) is that people, above and beyond their own wills, are what they are; are the direct coming-to-pass of what they are and what they do - at least in their 'poetic' moments, when they are not representing anything - especially not themselves as subjects. The rest - the rhetoric of will, responsibility and freedom, the image-playback of our whole moral philosophy - is all very well for the disenchanted consciousness of the alienated subject, the subject who is 'liberated' because they no longer know what [to] do with him as a slave, he himself not knowing \what to do with his freedom.

It is, in fact, a highly relative freedom, this freedom to become responsible, as a subject, for the objective conditions of one's own life. As long as I am subject to objective conditions, I am still an object, I am not wholly free - I have to be freed from that freedom itself. And this is possible only in play, in that more subtle freedom of play, the arbitrary rules of which paradoxically free me, whereas in reality I am kept in chains by my own will.

So. What do you think?

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