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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, September 13, 2013


Man's chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, - his pre-eminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life, and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.-- William James, THE WILL TO BELIEVE.


In PART 3 I said that I would "address pluralism's vision of freedom."  This, I reiterate, must be opposed to the dominant idea of "free will" as elaborated by Judeo-Christian philosophy: that the entire purpose-- or perhaps, *the telos*-- of free will is to encourage the subject to make "the right choice" over "the wrong choice."  Modern elitist criticism, or at least those critical outlooks that subscribe to a reductive vision of life, dispenses with Judeo-Christian standards, but preserves the supremacy of the "right choice/wrong choice" dichotomy:

We may never be truly free, but those who know that they are not free have reached a superior level of cognition to those who are unaware of the fact.
I refuted this reductionist view by citing philosopher Larry Krasnoff and lit-critic Leslie Fiedler:

Krasnoff and Fiedler, albeit in very different ways, advocate a form of agency in the human subject; an ability to choose, even when one makes the wrong choice in a given situation.
For both of them "agency" requires the will to "overturn all external constraints." Fiedler might not agree in all respects with the second part of Krasnoff's formula: that the same subject would " realize that this [overturning] is a futile and irrational activity."  Still, he was undoubtedly aware that many individuals did disavow their early rabble-rousing: in one essay Faulkner castigates William Faulkner for having reduced the taboo-breaking characters of his 1931 novel SANCTUARY into much milder forms in the 1950 work REQUIEM FOR A NUN.  That said, Fiedler in his own mature years clearly set himself apart from the ethical and aesthetic critics, emphasizing rather an appreciation of the "ecstatic" nature of art.

This ecstatic nature, found equally in art-as-work and art-as-play, bears on the idea of freedom as being a will oriented not as fulfilling any particular utilitarian agenda, but as what William James calls the "quest for the superfluous."  In elitist circles this human love of superfluity is often condemned as essentially "escapist." In essence Stuart Kendall agrees with James in his Bataille-derived statement, stressing that the forces of necessity and "consumption" are secondary to those of "expenditure:"
Consumption is, in short, a means by which individuals negotiate their identities through expenditure.-- Stuart Kendall, GEORGE BATAILLE.

I should note in passing that Bataille's meditations on this subject were certainly informed by his reading of Nietzsche, another prophet of ecstacy, under the rubric "will to power:"

Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength--life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.-- Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL.

I think Nietzsche overstates the case somewhat: for me neither the will toward practical self-maintenance nor the will toward expenditure are "cardinal."  Kendall's statement, though it privileges "expenditure" over "consumption" somewhat, shows the two tendencies as innately interdependent.

By now the experienced reader of this blog may anticipate that my definition of freedom is going to be no less twofold than the definiton of art cited above. However, there is a difference: art is fundamentally about play, even when that play is turned to the purpose of utilitarian work.  But freedom, and its expression in humans in the form of free will, is not fundamentally oriented on "play" or on "work."

For the pluralist the best understanding of freedom may be seen through an appreciation for a plurality of choices, rather than the ritualized choices between "good" and "bad" as encoded by religion or by philosophy, particularly that of Kant, who at times seems to be reinstuting the old maxim that "service is perfect freedom."  I do not define freedom as service, but neither is it rebellion against service.

I am not arguing for relativism, but rather a form of Nietzchean perspectivism.  Free will proves difficult not because it's hard to choose the straight path over the crooked path, or to choose tough-minded reductive realism over escapist fantasy.  It's difficult because we as humans can see every situation from many perspectives, and can only choose in terms of what we think may lead to the best conclusion.

In some situations, moral rigor may be called for.  However many factors contributed to America's decision to oppose the Axis powers in World War II-- initially through indirect means, such as the lend-lease program-- some degree of moral umbrage informed that decision.

And yet, at another time and place, moral rigor was misplaced.  American soldiers returned from the war and almost immediately started looking for new foes to fight, whether they were Communists or comic books.

Fredric Wertham was certainly a demagogue who had no appreciation for the function of *expenditure* in children's entertainment: for him, children were meant to be nurtured like flowers in a garden.  One can see a slight validity in his queasiness: few would agree that children should be exposed to everything adults can behold.  But Wertham's narrow definition of the process of "self-preservation" made him blind to a type of "play" that was fundamentally harmless.

At the same time, one cannot always live on a quest for the superfluous.  While I've railed against critics like Berlatsky and Darius for trying to reduce art to a series of "right choices," I'm aware that art-as-play needs art-as-work as a complementary force.

Ergo, pluralist freedom is the free will to choose-- even when one makes the wrong choice-- with the knowledge that *the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances.*

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