Opening In Me, the Paradox of Liberty

3 mei 2012

Opening In Me, the Paradox of Liberty

De kop is eraf, de openingsavond van In Me, the Paradox of Liberty was smullen: fantastische liederen door Ed Spanjaard en Maarten Koningsberger, met een hele persoonlijke inleiding door Ed, een keynote van Zymunt Bauman, en een geanimeerde discussie met Machiel Keestram, Hedy D’Ancona en het publiek onder leiding van Farid Tabarki. Marietje Schaake was er met een videomessage bij en we hadden ook nog een Skypeverbinding naar de onderduik waar Dirk van Weelden, Maartje Wortel en Jeroen van Kan mee zaten te luisteren.

En hier alvast wat foto’s gemaakt door Simon Bosch.

Here is the background paper to the keynote speech of Zygmunt Bauman. The Dutch translation is published in VREIHIJD, the magazine accompanying In Me, the Paradox of Liberty.

Freedom and Security:

a case of Haßliebe

“We are so made” – wrote Sigmund Freud in 1929 and do one contradicted him seriously since then, “that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things”. Freud quoted Goethe opinion that “Alles in der Welt läßt sich ertragen, / Nur nicht eine Reihe von schönen Tagen“ in support of his own, only slightly qualifying it as perhaps „an exaggeration“. While suffering can be a lasting and interrupted condition, happiness, that “intense enjoyment”, may be only a momentary, fleeting experience – lived through, in a flash, when the suffering comes to a halt. “Unhappiness, Freud suggests, “is much less difficult to experience”.

Most of the time, then, we suffer – and all of the time we fear the suffering which permanent threats hovering over our well-being might cause. There are three causes from which we fear the suffering to descend: “the superior power of nature, the feebleness of our own bodies” and other humans – and more precisely, given that in the possibility to reform and improve human relations we believe stronger than in the subduing the Nature and putting an end to the weaknesses of human body, from “the inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationship of human beings in the family, the state and society.” Suffering or horror of suffering being a permanent accompaniment of life, no wonder that that the “process of civilization”, that long and perhaps interminable march on towards a more hospitable and less dangerous mode of being-in-the-world, focus on locating and blocking those three sources of human unhappiness. The war declared on human discomfort in all its varieties is waged on all three fronts. While on the first two fronts many victorious battles have been scored, and ever more enemy forces are being disarmed and put out of action, it is on the third battle-line that the fate of war remains in a balance and hostilities are unlikely ever to grind to a halt. In order to liberate humans from their fears, society must impose constraints upon its members; whereas in order to pursue their chase after happiness, men and women need however to rebel against those constraints. The third of the three sources of human suffering cannot be regulated out of existence. The interface between pursuit of individual happiness and the un-encroachable conditions of life in common will remain forever a site of conflict. Instinctual impulses of humans cannot but clash with the demands of the civilization bent on fighting and conquering the causes of human suffering.

Civilization, insists Freud, is for that reason a trade-off: in order to gain something from it, humans must surrender something else. Both the things gained and those surrendered are highly valued and hotly desired; each formula of exchange is therefore no more than a temporary settlement, a product of a compromise that is never fully satisfactory for either of the two sides of perpetually smouldering antagonism. The hostility would die down if both the individual desires and societal demands could be catered for at the same time. But this is not to be. Freedom to act on one’s urges, inclinations, impulses and desires, and the constraints imposed on it for the sake of security are both badly needed for a satisfactory – indeed endurable, liveable – life, as security without freedom would equal slavery, while freedom without security would spell chaos, disorientation, perpetual uncertainty and ultimately impotence to act purposefully. But they are and will forever remain mutually irreconcilable.

Having implied that much, Freud came to the conclusion that psychological discomforts and afflictions arise mostly from the surrender of quite a lot of freedom in exchange for increase of security. Truncated freedom is the main casualty of the “civilizing process” and the chief and most widespread discontent endemic to a civilized life. This was the verdict pronounced by Freud, let’s recall, in 1929. I wonder whether the verdict would have emerged unscathed were Freud to spell it out today, over eighty years later – and I doubt it. While its premises would be retained (demands of civilized life, as much as human instinctual equipment bequeathed by the species’ evolution, stay fixed for a long time and are presumed immune to the vagaries of history), the verdicts would in all likelihood be reversed…

Yes, Freud would repeat that civilization is a trade-off affair: you gain something but lose something else. But the roots of psychological discomforts, and so of the discontents they engender, Freud might have located on the opposite side on the value spectrum. He might have concluded that at the present time human disaffection with the state of affairs stems mostly from surrendering too much security in exchange for unprecedented expansion of the realm of freedom. Freud wrote in German, and the meaning of the concept he used, Sicherheit, needs three words, not one, to be fully translated into English: certainty, security, and safety. The Sicherheit which we have in large part surrendered contains certainty what the future will bring and what effects if any our actions will bring, security of our socially assigned placement and life tasks, and safety from assault on our bodies and possessions, their extensions. Surrender of Sicherheit results however in Unsicherheit, a condition not so easily submitting to dissection and anatomic scrutiny: all its three constitutive parts contribute to the same suffering, anxiety and fear, and it is difficult to pinpoint the genuine causes of the experienced discomfort. Responsibility for anxiety  may be easily imputed to a wrong cause – the circumstance which today’s politicians, seekers of electoral support, may and all too often do turn to their own benefit – even if not necessarily to the benefit of the electors. They naturally prefer to ascribe their electors’ suffering to causes they may fight and be seen fighting (as when proposing to toughen the immigration/asylum policy, or deportation of undesirable aliens), then admit the genuine cause of uncertainty, which they have neither capacity or will to fight nor the realistic hope to conquer (as instability of jobs, flexibility of labour markets, threat of redundancy, prospect of tightening family budget, unmanageable level of debt, returning worry about provision for old age, or general frailty of inter-human bonds and partnerships).

Living under conditions of prolonged and apparently incurable uncertainty portends two similarly humiliating sensations: of ignorance (not knowing what future may bring) and impotence (being unable to influence its course). They are indeed, humiliating: in our highly individualized society, where each individual is (counterfactually, as it were) presumed to bear full responsibility to his fate in life, they imply the sufferer’s inadequacy to the tasks which other persons, evidently more successful, seem to be performing thanks to their greater skill and industry. Inadequacy suggests inferiority – and being inferior and be seen as such is a painful blow delivered to self-esteem, personal dignity and courage of self-assertion. Depression is currently the most common of psychological ailments. It haunts the rising number of people recently given a collective name of “precariat” – coined from the concept of “precariousness”, denoting existential uncertainty.

One hundred years ago human history had been often represented as a story of the progress in freedom. That implied, much as other popular related stories, that history is consistently guided in the same, unchanging direction. Recent turns of public moods suggest otherwise. “Historic progress” seems more reminiscent of a pendulum rather than a straight line. In the times of Freud’s writing, the common complaint was the deficit of freedom; his contemporaries were prepared to resign much of their security in exchange for the removal of constraints imposed on their freedoms. And they managed to do so in the end. Now however signs multiply that more and more people would not mind surrendering some of their freedom in exchange for being  emancipated from the frightening spectre of existential insecurity… Are we witnessing another turn of the pendulum? And if it indeed happens, what consequences it might bring in its wake?