Sunday, 26 February 2017

Creating Things in Order to be Free

In an interview in his later years Foucault described how he saw freedom:

“Freedom is practice; . . . the freedom of men is never assured by the laws and the institutions that are intended to guarantee them. That is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘freedom’ is what must be exercised . . . I think it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.”

In other words, laws and civil liberties and rights and all that are important, but ultimately freedom is something you have to do. The only way to be free is to be free. You have to literally "exercise" it. There is something to this. Freedom isn't merely some passive state of existence in which you happen not to be under any constraint. Freedom is an activity - it's the making of autonomous choices. By doing that, you are "exercising" freedom. (Foucault, I think, ultimately came to argue for a kind of philosophical self-help: through knowing and mastering yourself you can use that as a foundation to make free choices.)

In the modern world, it's easy to be seduced into what are essentially compulsions. Scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook newsfeed, commenting on Guardian articles, retweeting things, flitting between YouTube videos, playing video games, watching just-another-episode of a boxed set. Those things are addictive and are designed that way. The idea that those things are a wonderful new world of freedom, as they are sometimes portrayed, is a lie. When you choose to get out your phone to check your Facebook notifications you aren't exercising your free will any more than you are when you unconsciously scratch an itch.

There is a school of thought that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle which, roughly, says that freedom and virtue come from making things or practicing a craft or a profession well. In my mind, this line goes something like Aristotle -> Ruskin -> Morris -> MacIntyre -> Crawford. In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford puts forward the case for this craft-oriented view of freedom.

The essence of this is simple but perhaps counter-intuitive. When you have developed a certain level of mastery of a craft, you reach a point at which you have genuine agency. Somebody who is competent at a certain activity (cooking, mechanics, painting, Judo, teaching) knows what to pay attention to and what to ignore. They have control over the world around them when they are performing a task associated with the activity in question. They form their own understanding and perceptions of their surroundings, their tools, the thing they are creating or doing. Even when doing something involving a complex domain (e.g. competing against somebody in a Judo bout, or teaching a class), they know how to react to the unexpected. They act autonomously.

Though I agree with this, I would expand it and suggest that whenever people are engaged in a creative task they are exercising autonomy - they are actually doing freedom. When a good cook is cooking or a good painter is painting, they are making purposive choices in the absence of constraint. They understand their subject matter well enough to exert genuine agency over their creation.

I think this is the reason why creating gaming materials is a source of such pleasure and satisfaction for me, irrespective of whether what I make up will actually be used. The act of creation is itself liberating: imagining things that haven't existed before and committing them to paper is me as a human being exercising freedom.


  1. I agree; creating involves agency in a way that consuming -- e.g. watching telly -- doesn't (I think this was Albert Borgman).

  2. Even a bad cook or a bad painter can be purposeful.

  3. Ignoring Foucault, what does the concept of *freedom* have to do with either the habits you listed (social media etc) or being artistically creative ?

  4. The French satiric newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné has this motto : "Freedom of the press only wears out if you are not using it".
    These words ring as true now as they did in the early XXth century

  5. Yes, personal discipline is a means to freedom. St. Augustine, who is far more insightful than Foucault, says something to this effect in his 'City of God':

    "Therefore the good man, although he is a slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices..."

  6. Am I being free when I will myself to do work that I do only for survival? Is it an exercise in freedom or in slavery to go against a system in which you need to do things you don't want to spend your life doing just to be allowed to live in comfort? Is comfort society's carrot to keep us enslaved?