“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 22, 2011

spheres of freedom

“There is a famous Holderlin poem called “The Autumn”. In it Holderlin describes a foot
of earth, about a square meter, upon which the Duke ofWiirttemberg, Ulrich, is supposed once to have trod. Holderlin describes this piece of forest ground in a very beautiful poem. And now pick up a biology book and see how a piece of forest ground is described there: 16x10 to
the 57th lice, so-and-so many insects, so-and-so many spiders; and then it also says 10 to the minus 7 foxes and twice 10 to the minus six deer. You notice they are two quite different languages. One is the language of statistics: we deal with our surroundings in an unsensuous
way, exactly as we do with the real relations in history. And we deal with lyric peotry in a sensuousw ay with our direct sense for what is near. The two fall apart. The big decisions in history are not made in the realm of what we can experience close at hand. The really big disasters take place in the distance which we cannot experience, for which we don't
have the appropriate telescopes (or microscopes) in our senses. The two don't come together.”
-Alexander Kluge, “The Political as the intensity of everyday feelings.”


In 1827, as Heinrich Heine was approaching London in a steamship on the Thames River, he had a conversation with a “yellow man” who was standing at the rail with him. Heine, overcome by the moment, had expressed outloud his rapturous sense of England, the land of freedom, and of freedom itself, the new religion. The yellow man interrupted his monologue at this point, and, conceding that freedom might be the new religion, pointed out that it was a more complicated thing than was accounted for in raptures. It was a doctrine, he said, adapted its form to its environment - the “national character”. For the English, freedom was a matter of privacy, of the liberty to lead his domestic life as he saw fit:

The English are a homebody people, they live a limited, fenced in family life; in the circle of his family members, the Englishman seeks that spiritual comfort that is denied him outside the house by his inborn social awkwardness The Englishman is thus satisfied with that freedom, that unconditionally protects his personal rights and his body, his property, his marriage, his beliefs, and even his eccentricities. In his household, nobody is freer than an Englishman, if I may use a famous expression, there he is king and bishop within his four walls. The common hustings speech is not wrong: “my house is my castle”.”

Against this, the yellow man weighs the French:

If the Englishman’s largest need is for personal freedom, the Frenchman may, in a crisis, give this up, if one still gives him the plentiful enjoyment of only that part of common freedom that we call equality. The French are not a homebody people, but a social one, they don’t love to sit silently together, which is what they call conversation anglaise, but they run chattering from the café to the casino and from the casino to the salon, their light champagne blood and inborn talent for socializing drives them to a social life. The first and last condition of that, and yes, its soul, is: equality. With the extension of sociability in France, there had to grow in tandem the need for equality, and even if the reasons for the Revolution are found in the budget, its first word and voice was lent by those intellectual roturiers who lived in the salons with the nobility seemingly on the same foot of equality and yet, now and then, be it only in a hardly noticeable, but yet deeply wounding feudal smile, were reminded of the great, shameful fact of inequality. And when the canaille roturière took the freedom to top off the high nobility, this was done less to inherit their properties than their ancestors, and instead of a bourgeois inequality, introduce a noble equality.”

And then the yellow man analyzes the Germans:

As for the Germans, they need neither freedom nor equality. They are a speculative people, ideologues, visionaries and meditators, dreamers, who live only in the past and future and never in the present. The English and French have a present, by them every day presents its struggle and counterstruggle and its history. The German has nothing for which to struggle, and since he began to ruminate, that even so there could be things whose possession would be ever so desireable, his philosophers have been teaching him of the existence of such things to doubt. It can’t be doubted that the Germans love freedom too. But otherwise than other peoples. The Englishman loves freedom like his respectable wife, he possesses her, and if he doesn’t handle her with excessive tenderness, still, he knows how to defend her in a crisis like a man… and woe to the redcoated strapling who breaks into her holy bedroom – whether as a gallant or as a scoundrel. The Frenchman loves his freedom like his chosen bride. He glows for her, he flames, he throws himself at her feet… The German loves his freedom like his old Grandmother.«

The yellow man may have the intangible substance of one of those impossible, garish figures glimpsed by various characters in Master and the Margarita, but his comments expressed the sociology of the day, up to an including the comparisons with types of women, echoing Montesquieu’s geographic notion of the spirit of the laws, but rescored to the tune of the Hegelian obsession with triads.

But I have the triadic habit myself, and think that there is a recognizable social reality underneath the analogy making. More than that, these three understandings of freedom have competed with each other, often in the same national space, and always in some relation with the broader class structure of society. Usually, the social materialization of freedom has been crucified, by the social scientists, upon the insistence that there are two spheres under which we understand the modernization process – the private and the public sphere. The spheres make for a very manageable analysis of history, but do they really capture the reality of friendship, the office, the traffic jam, the tv show?


During the Great Transformation the drivers of the system of production changed in their rhythm, spacing, and effects. In Europe, the pre-modern modes of producton depended on the spread of one or other major technology – the wheel, the chariot, the plow – over a relatively long period of time, during which social relations adjusted as they could. But the modernization was synonymous with new rhythms, spacing and effects – a new regime of routines. Not only were diffusion times for new technologies shortened dramatically, but their interdependence created a system of disequilibrium, even as the system’s theorists searched for equilibrium – in the system of money, in the market, etc. – a system in which one part could be touched to produce predictable effects on the other part, feeding back into the first part to moderate and over time suppress the initial touch.

What I want to go into, here, is not that entire system, which lurks behind the walls of the artificial paradise, but a part of it – the technologizations of diffusion itself. The media. Which employs the same social group that is employed as agents of circulation, due to the fact that in both groups, there is the same educational background. The groups overlap, the white collar worker and the journalist, the adverting man and the painter. And in turn, both groups form both the ideologues of the home and the instruments for its penetration by capitalism, the latter under the necessity of creating demand, that second nemesis, a happy nemesis.

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