Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bottled Water and Irresponsible Metaphors: Physical Freedom, Mental Freedom, and the Idea of 'Intellectual Insurrection'

This is personal, son. This will be incoherent, mang. This was an assay, bro. This was a quest, hun.

1. Introduction
2. Personal Freedom
3. Distinguishing Between Physical and Mental Freedom
4. Intellectual Insurrection as Mental Freedom Without Physical Correlates
5. Conclusion

1. Introduction
I don't want to live the way that I do. I don't want to stock bottled water so that we Americans can keep up our insane and mindless consumption habits. I don't want to think that bottled water is okay. But a reality is immediately apparent: I have to stock bottled water. I need money to live, and this is the job I was able to get. My personal freedom is, frankly, very limited. But guess what, I don't have to think that way. I don't have to think that bottled water is okay. I can fight that idea, I can struggle against my mind and my world. I can stay intellectually vigilant and I can maintain a certain piece of mental freedom.

But what am i doing? What is this process by which I physically capitulate to society's demands, I stock their bottled water, yet at the same time refuse to recognize their demands as legitimate, and attempt to maintain the freedom of my mind. What are the proper metaphors? Are they militaristic? If not, what are they? Is it irresponsible to refer to something like this as an 'insurrection'? War is very serious business that ruins lives. It is not something to play with. So am I being reckless with these metaphors? What to do with this idea?

The main thing I want to address in this essay is my tendency to use metaphors that are drawn from war and the military. I often metaphorically refer to things as wars, battles, struggles, strategies, insurrections, and so on. My undergraduate degree in military history certainly got me thinking along these lines, and Michel Foucault's work, especially Discipline & Punish, made me more comfortable with these metaphors. In my 'Society's Implicit War' essays of July and August I took these metaphors for granted and gave them an extended look. But now I want to challenge them a little bit. I find them so easy to use that I want to attack them a little bit.

Recently, I have been thinking and writing a lot about the idea of 'intellectual' or 'cultural insurrection'. Foucault, especially in The Society Must Be Defended lectures, refers to 'the insurrection of knowledge against the institutions'. He is trying to talk about how we are subtly coerced by the knowledge that is produced by our most prominent institutions. Prisons, hospitals, mental institutions, schools, etc., all produce forms of knowledge that structure our lives, and therefore subtly coerce us into living in certain ways. This is why Foucault concludes that power and knowledge are inseparable. So the idea of intellectual insurrection, therefore, is a process by which we intellectually break down the historical determinants of our thoughts. It is very easy to just live our lives without questioning the way that we live. It can be easy to be trapped in the forms of knowledge that we have. So with intellectual insurrection we try to use history and cultural studies to learn why we think the way that we do. And it turns out that it has a lot to do with society's ability to subtly coerce our thoughts through the structuring of experience.

So I have become very keen on this idea of intellectual insurrection. I feel that my own life is so structured, so rigid. I'm surrounded by such an amazing amount of cultural momentum. Every day I am bombarded by other people's thoughts and opinions. They come from everywhere: tv, advertisements, books, the internet, every single action around me. But I feel fortunate to have encountered some interesting philosophy and history that tries to draw my attention to the way that I can think differently then everyone else around me. Even though I am implicitly encouraged to think in certain ways (to respect monogamy, to recognize racial and class divides, to love consuming) I don't have to think those ways. I can think in new ways. I can be polyamorous if I want. I can do my best to not be limited by conceptions of race and class. I can do my best to not buy into the capitalist world of consumerism.

But here is the crucial point: it is very hard to resist those forms of thinking. They are everywhere, I am saturated by them. To attempt to think differently, therefore, feels like a struggle, a battle, an insurrection, that takes place in my own mind. Me and my friend talked about how society seems to encourage vice, and that it takes so much effort to be virtuous, it feels like a struggle. So why all this emphasis on struggle? Why all this reversion to metaphors of war? Why do I feel like I'm waging a war in my own mind, against my own mind. Why this emphasis on this idea of insurrection?

So anyways, those are the topics and the questions I need to ask here. I need to understand why I find it so easy to characterize my mental state as one of 'intellectual insurrection'. I need to throw some doubt darts at this idea to see if it holds water. In order to do that I am going to explicate the feelings I have that have inclined me to think in those ways. I want to talk about how I feel about personal freedom; how i don't feel that I have enough of it. Then I want to talk about mental freedom and how I strive for it. Then hopefully I will have a clearer perspective that will help me talk about this idea of intellectual insurrection.

2. Personal Freedom
So what is personal freedom? How much of it do I have? How do I utilize it? It seems to be such a commonly used idea. People refer to freedom and choice so effortlessly. I recently tried to develop some thoughts on this issue of choice in my essay 'Possibilities and Inclinations'. But I still feel that common use of the word freedom is so vague and so inadequate. The way that it is talked about never makes me feel better or feel helped. I feel like the way that people talk about freedom and choice is in no way helpful of practical. It is talked about like something that you just do. Don't you see that you are just free to choice whatever you want? No. No I don't.

And here is why. My emotions, and my history.

My emotions were the first think that made me realize that I wasn't quite free, that I wasn't just able to choose, that I wasn't able to simply master myself. I would just cry and cry and cry. It wasn't something I could control. It wasn't something that I felt good about. I was just young and I would just cry. So where is my freedom, my choice, when I am simply overwhelmed by emotions? It always felt so enfeebling to just be overwhelmed by tears. I always felt like I was falling short in terms of self-control or discipline. How do I choose? How do I choose when I just want to cry? Eh.

I'm just rambling here. But the bottom line is that freedom and choice aren't that simple. Because emotions already exist before I can apprehend them intellectually. And to me it seems that consciousness, awareness, and some type of thought is required in order for something to qualify as choice like people talk about it. I do, however, think that emotions choose for us. Every action is a choice in one way or another. But people talk about choice like it has to be a directed and rational process. But emotions are not choices. They just come to us. They have polluted and compromised my sense of the idea of choice since I was very young.

My emotions have always done more to me than my choices ever have.

Apart from emotions, I think that my learning about history has also made me less comfortable with the idea of freedom as people talk about it. I used to not think about how I thought. I used to not realize that my thinking had something to do with history. But now I can't think of my thoughts as being apart from history. How fascinating that the history of thought is probably my favorite field? I remember the first time I heard of Isaiah Berlin. I couldn't believe there was a philosopher who considered himself a historian of ideas. What an amazing label, I had thought. Since then I have learned so much about Collingwood and Foucault, and how they both advocate history as the history of thought.

And the most startling thing is how practical and relevant to the present becomes. If I want to understand my own thinking, shouldn't I look at the history of my thought? And not just my personal history. But the history of thought in my society, in the entire world. Ideas. It is all about ideas. All about thought. What was the first time that someone thought it was a good idea to bottle water? What was the first time that the idea of bottled water became possible? When did it first become popular? Those would be worthwhile questions. Interesting questions that would cast some light on how everyone thinks now. Because how the hell did everyone come to think that bottled water was a good idea? That it was so necessary? Or even such a permissible luxury and not some frivolity?

Who knows. This is all over the place and I don't care right now. How am I so tired?

But the only point I'm making in this section is that I don't feel free. I don't feel like I can do or choose whatever I want. And I don't feel bad about it. But I want to ask choice what it really is. What are you, freedom? Because you sure as hell aren't as simple as you are made out to be. You aren't just some thrust into the void. You are much more than that. You are the navigation of my emotions. You are the archeology of my thought.

My inability to control my emotions and my sense of history have shown me that I am not simply free. But that I am free only by acting in relation to a determinism. I am already pushed in so many directions.

I am already feeling things before I think anything. And I am already thinking certain things before I could possibly think other things.

This is not sad. This is good. This is what I want. I want to understand why I do what I do. And it turns out I don't do things because I choose to do them. But because I am emotionally compelled and historically determined.

Oh how to stress this point enough? How to articulate this clearly enough. I need to read Johanna Oksala's Foucault on Freedom. He is my man for this topic. For this personalized view of history as a determining force. But I, just like Oksala, think that Foucault's work is meant to open us up to the 'practice of freedom'. Because freedom and choice can't be some simple thing, some simple decision or switch. They have to be relative, they have to be historically informed. Or perhaps not.

But anyways, this seems like a good time to start talking about mental freedom.

3. Distinguishing Between Physical and Mental Freedom
So, seeing as how I just told you that I feel historically and emotionally determined, and that I don't place much faith in society's reductive definitions of choice and freedom, I have to ask: is there such a thing as freedom and choice? And the only acceptable answer is yes. But how so? What is it? If it isn't a simple or self-evident process, then what is it?

I suppose right now I have to provide a simple answer: it has to be a sort of mental freedom. It has to be a freedom that is in the way that we think, and not simply in the way that we act. Because if we define freedom simply in terms of actions, then we don't have much hope. We have to work the jobs that we are able to get, that we are qualified for based on our experiences, we have to go after money (maybe not, shouts out to the ave rats). In short, we have to do a whole bunch of things no matter what. We have to buy alarm clocks so that we can wake up at certain times to get to our job on time. We have to recognize the way that our society regulates space and time and we have to regulate ourselves accordingly. In short, if we define freedom in terms of physical behavior then we don't have much hope because our physical behavior is carefully regulated by our society. We can't hurt people, we can't go lots of places, we can't do many things.

But if we define freedom in terms of our thoughts we have a bit more hope, I think. Because we can choose to do certain things, like pursue money, but not let ourselves be fully taken over by the desire for money. We can think that money is a necessary evil that we need, but that we don't really want to do it. We can think 'god this moment in history sure has pigeonholed me into this money making game', and all the while continue to try and make enough money to live. Wouldn't that be a sort of mental freedom?

Or another example, perhaps. Gender. What a crock of bullshit the way that our gender relations are structured. It makes me crazy. Men pursue, women wait to be pursued. If a woman comes on too strong, that could be bad because that isn't their proper role. Men pay. Women do this. Men do that. All so god damn regulated. I told a co-worker tonight that I didn't care much about being masculine. She laughed and told me that I was one of the only guys she had ever heard say that. Well what the fuck? Why do I wear male clothing? Why do I behave differently to men then I do with women? Why all this gendering if I don't care about gender? I have to care about gender.
But. is it possible to engage with those gender stereotypes, let them structure your actions, and still retain your mental freedom? That sounds dissatisfying.

Here I arrive at an impasse that forces me to make a distinction. We have to make decisions about our lives that use this distinction between personal freedom and mental freedom. We have to ask ourselves, do I have the possibility of acting differently? Or do I have to make a concession to have mental freedom? With gender, for example, I refuse to act in those ways. I will not let society's standards for gender relations structure my actions. I will act differently. I will not be aggressive towards other men who I perceive as threats. I will not treat women like objects to be pursued. I will not let myself get wrapped in that world of relations between men and women as some power struggle. I will do my best do behave differently, to love differently, to act differently towards men and women.

But what about my behavior in the economic realm? Is it possible for me to not stock bottled water? Is it possible for me to not have a job? No. The answer right now is no. I have to do those things. I have to make a concession that I will behave according to society's rules. But here is the crucial point: I will not think in those ways. Within the realm of my mind and my intellect, I will not accept the legitimacy of our economic system and our way of life.

So this is all coming back to the relationship between thinking about things and doing things. The more important of the two being thinking about things. The question is, If I am thinking about things in a certain way, is it possible for me to also behave that way? And, If not, and I am doing something, even though I think it is disagreeable, is it possible for me to still think otherwise? In short, is it possible for me to align my thoughts and my actions? To come back to my examples of gender and economic work. If I think that gender is bull shit, it is possible for me to change the way I behave. I can change the way that I treat men and women so as to be more loving and less regulated by conceptions about bodies. But with the economic world it doesn't matter if I think it is bull shit. It simply doesn't matter. If I want to live a comfortable and relatively 'normal' life I have to compromise my ideological thoughts about capitalism and simply engage in the system. It doesn't matter if I think that bottled water is stupid, I have to stock it. I have to make it easier for you people to buy your frivolous and wasteful product that epitomizes the problems with our way of life. But that doesn't mean that I have to think it is okay.

The issue of freedom, then, is this dance between thought and action. It is a concept that encompasses both the physical and mental aspects of behavior. True freedom would be the unity of thought and action. It would be thinking something with all your heart and all your intellect and doing it. It would be freedom if I were to intellectually and emotionally reject gender roles and thus behave differently because of that mental work.

But what if it is impossible to align my physical behavior with my mental convictions? Is my freedom compromised entirely? Or what is happening to me in that case? Where does the dissonance between my thoughts and my actions leave me? This seems like a good point to turn tot his idea of mental/intellectual insurrection.

4. Intellectual Insurrection as Mental Freedom Without Physical Correlates
So I have now parsed this idea of freedom a little bit by dividing it into the categories of physical and mental freedom. But now I must ask a serious question: What do we do when it is impossible to align our physical actions and our mental convictions? What does this mean for our mental health and our sense of identity? How can I maintain the strength of my mental convictions when I can't act on them? How can I ease the cognitive dissonance produced by this failure to align my thoughts and my actions?

Well, I suppose this is where the idea of intellectual insurrection sounds a little bit legitimate. I think intellectual insurrection, as a metaphor, is all about struggling with this dissonance between actions and thoughts. It hurts to think one thing and to do another. It hurts to want to do the right thing and to feel yourself doing it anyways, or having to do it anyways. Whether it is my emotions that compel me to do something or my history that coerces me into doing something, it feels really bad to do something when I intellectually don't want to. It feels bad to stock bottled water because my intellectual convictions are absolutely opposed to it. But I have to.

So the question becomes: Is it possible to do a bunch of things but think the opposite? Is it possible to do the things you find morally reprehensible, but to maintain your sense of morality anyways? Well, I think the answer is a shaky yes that needs qualification. We won't be able to maintain moral standing unless we are willing to fight for it. How are we to maintain our belief in what is right when we are always acting in a way that is contrary to it? Thus the element of struggle that I am trying to communicate in this phrase intellectual insurrection.

Why does it have to be a struggle? Because I think that actions incline us to think in certain ways. I think that when we do something over and over again we can begin to think that it is okay, that it is normal, that it fits in with our lives and our being. So we have to fight our thoughts and be sure that we can maintain them even though our actions are out of line with them. We have to keep reminding ourselves: 'it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles. it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles. it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles. it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles it is not okay for all this water to be in all these bottles.' Because if I don't stay vigilant I may lapse into complacency and I may begin to think that bottled water is perfectly fine and that there is no problem with it.

And how many more instances are there like this in my life? How many times a day are there instances in which my thoughts and my actions have to be out of line? I refuse to bend my thoughts to my actions. My thoughts are my domain of freedom. I will stay strong, mentally. I will keep thinking what I think, even if, and especially if, I can't act on those thoughts. I will remain a guerilla of power/knowledge within my own mind and within my own world. I will align my thoughts and my actions as much as possible. But when I must compromise my actions, I will not compromise my thoughts.

I will do your deeds, America, but I will not think your thoughts.

Thus, I have arrived at a more precise definition of intellectual insurrection. It is the stance of mental struggle that I revert to when it is impossible for me to align my physical behavior with my intellectual and emotional convictions.

5. Conclusion
To wrap this up, I will summarize. I think that freedom and choice are muddled and unclear concepts. I think that their unclear definition leads us to blame things on 'bad choices' and 'irrationality'. We are not as free as we think. Our emotions incline us to do certain things, and history forces us to do certain things. Freedom and choice are not static or self-evident concepts. They are clarified a bit, however, if we divide them into the categories of physical and mental freedom. Freedom in its strongest sense is the union of thought and action. We have certain mental convictions, and we are able to act in those ways as well. The only problem is that it is possible to have mental freedom without having physical freedom. We can think that something is bogus, but we still have to do it. This is the domain of mental or cultural or intellectual insurrection. When our actions do not line up with our thoughts, because action tends to influence thought, we have to struggle to maintain our mental convictions. When our actions are out of line with our thoughts we have to fight to keep our mental concepts clear. This is intellectual insurrection. It is a struggle to maintain our intellectual and emotional beliefs even though our actions contradict them.

I don't know if this is an irresponsible metaphor. But I do feel that I have clarified it, and its relationship to the notion of freedom.

I want to be free, in body and mind. I want to live a loving life because I have loving thoughts. But too often I feel myself agitated by the disconnect between my thoughts and my actions, or between my ideals and my emotions. Oh well. The fight goes on. Oh, enough with these metaphors.

In all honesty I want to escape them. I want to find a better way to talk about this issue. This problem of controlling ourselves. This problem of finding a way to feel free and coherent in thought and in action.

Oh the ongoing problems. Oh the questions!


  1. "it is very hard to resist those forms of thinking. They are everywhere, I am saturated by them. To attempt to think differently, therefore, feels like a struggle, a battle, an insurrection, that takes place in my own mind"

    Why is it not enough for "intellectual insurrection" to be properly applied to situations like what you mentioned above. Say, for example, members of an oppressed group have to become aware and understand they are being oppressed before they can effectively act against. "Intellectual insurrection" turns to fight an oppressive current of cultural assimilation.

    In one form or another battles of ideas are waged daily, most notably where the state and/or capitalist elite wish to maintain power.

  2. I think you are right that the notion of intellectual insurrection is appropriate for the types of situations that I am talking about. The problem that I have, however, is that I don't think militaristic metaphors are the best way to address the problem or to conceptualize a response. Is it really a war or battle of ideas? What is war and what is battle? In the six months or so since I wrote this I have been devoting a lot of thought to the issue of war, violence, struggle, etc. I have been more comfortable rejecting the use of militaristic or violent metaphors. It is hard to escape them sometimes, though.

    Please refer to these posts:

    Also, who are you?