Michael Braverman portfolio / personal site

Roof Thoughts on Freedom

I decided to spend some time philosophizing on the roof of my summer house located in Sorate, an area in the Lazio region of Italy. Here, my house overlooks the Tiber valley with its river eventually flowing into Rome, and where I happen to had biked today. And now, after overcoming the exhaustive journey to the train station and back, and completing the whole bike tour through the ancient wonders of the Roman Empire; I decided to spill out my inner forces of contemplation, as I emptied a bottle of Dutch beer—oh, the irony of being petty-bourgeoise contemplator.

But desire these remarks, I alluded to the time of the ancient Romans, when land ownership was considered the most honorable and greatest condition in the life of a citizen. Owning land was considered to be one of the most significant conditions of a free citizen (or at least it was their equivalent of whatever we even call it today). It was a Roman privilege to die on land that one possessed, and to pass it to his ancestors.1 How can you compare that with today?—when my generation feels more free by acquiring futile material possessions and renting spaces in which it fulfills its futile life activities—and calls that home? But here I am, sitting on the roof of a house, on the land belonging to me and my family; like a Roman citizen, with a house as an archaic symbol for citizenship—I embrace this view to manifestly critique the modern illusions of freedom. I think Marx mentioned somewhere in his The German Ideology (1846) that Romans where capitalists, and here I am, a petty-bourgeoise contemplator in today’s capitalism being nostalgic about—capitalism.

But while I was sitting on the roof, I could not help but notice the birds that where flying around and catching their evening feed for their birdlings. I thought about the birds, as humans frequently think of them: free creatures who embrace the ultimate freedom of flight. But upon closer inspection, I realized what an illusion this allegory for freedom is; the superficiality of the bird’s flight is so easy to categorize as ‘free’, just like we superficially categorize the conceptions of freedom that is stamped on a dollar bill. The flight performed by the birds is an illusion: the same illusion that certain male bird species perform to attract their female mate by showcasing the colorful patterns on their feathers; is the same illusion that birds project on us, by making us think that their evening dance is ‘free’.

But humans are more creative than birds—especially when it comes to being ‘creative’ to one’s own advantage. And here we are today, where this human ‘creativity’ is responsible for the continuing relations of slave and master; lord and serf; upper class and lower class; etc.; in which our society—especially the mostly liberal one—fails to recognize its slave condition. But first, lets looks at the dialectical history of our slavery.

The Historic Conditions of a Free Individuality

The Hegelian development of the free individuality (the liberation of the self-consciousness) in our societies, was constantly being postponed, since our consciousness is easily mislead in believing in various illusory conceptions of freedom: through production and consumption as a drive of the libido; veneration of ideologic and religious ideas; fulfillment or deprivation of certain desires; etc. etc. Us humans, continue the journey towards a liberated human individuality; but as we progress through history, the material and social conditions of every new era never fail to establish new conditions in which the many are subjugated to the benefit of the few.

German thinkers in 19th century have formulated this human determination; whether it is a Hegel’s satisfaction of a self-consciousness when its object of Desire is satisfied through another self-consciousness2; or the Nietzschean will-to-power and his master and slave morality. Throughout history, we have come up with ways by which we balance our natural predispositions: by constructing illusory and alienating conditions with whatever material and technologic means available at any given time in human history. This is our material history, it is a span of time where we invent conditions in which we live our seemingly free lives; under contracts, bondages, debts, consumerism, virtual technologies, data extraction etc. Every period of human history has always had its own equivalent of class exploitation.

We construct our current ideals and principles of freedom on the right to express our individuality; express our sexuality; choose our interests; form our beliefs and opinions; et cetera—just so we can suffer from unfreedom when deprived from these very same principles. We complicate our lives by making them seemingly more free, but are still the same slaves—just like serfs; who think they are free once they finish toiling the land belonging to their masters at the end of the day. Why do we complicate our free time and create illusory conditions for freedom, but not think about how little relation these ideas have to freedom?

This is what we have been doing ever since Man first detached his necessities from Nature’s conditions and commenced his journey towards freedom. This is our path towards freedom; but along this path, we frequently get enslaved by others; enslave other individuals and creatures, and sometimes enslave ourselves—frequently without giving notice and realizing only after several generations. Our liberal culture has still some realizations to make, before it is fully liberated from its own illusions, and gain the rational capacities to realize that even liberalism can be used as an instrument that deprives individuals from their freedom (hence the magic of neoliberalism).

The Unfree Birds

So why exactly do I want to denounce the depiction of freedom associated with the birds that I saw today? Why not leave these poor bridlings alone? Well, first of all, the flying birds that might seem to be performing their evening ritual of freedom, are actually feeding mothers that are striving to feed their offspring, according to naturally determined biological necessities.

But upon closer inspection, I realize that the mother bird is living in a condition that is different from the one that the father bird is. The mother bird which seems to be performing a free evening ritual; is actually a laborious animal body that fulfills its mother duties—from dawn to dusk—hunting for insects in order to sustain her offspring. This is the laborious life of the mother bird; which ruthlessly toils away the energy of her body, while she carries out the condition of a feeding mother.

The idea of a mother spending the significant sums of her energy raising children—is the epitome of a mother in our patriarchal societies. A female that does not fulfill these biological necessities, would frequently signify that she is not fulfilling her biological duties. But as the master who tamed Zarathustra said, life without the necessities of hardship—is not life.[^source]

And what does the father bird do? Well, the father bird surely doesn’t perform these feminine evening dances3—or if he does—their his fellow male birdlings would comment: “common, you gay bro?”. Instead of performing these rituals, the father is probably flying somewhere; not chained to the necessities of his offspring and satisfies his personal desires when and as he wishes. While his partner, the mother, spends a significant portion of her energy and the durability of her body raising their offspring.

Marx quite justly defined this as slavery in the household family: where the wife and the children function as slaves of the husband.4 It is hard not to notice these unfair predispositions in biology; where the female has to go through the most enduring and laborious processes of life. This biologic predisposition reflects very well the reasons why there have rarely (if any) been any societies where women enjoyed a more liberated state than their male counterparts.

Humans have long been androcentric, the practice of placing the male point of view as the center of one’s world view, history, and culture. Putting the feminine point of view at the center is called gynocentrism—which is a rarity in human world-views. As far as my inquiry into human linguistics went, I have not found a single human language where the masculine form of a word is not the primary gender of nouns and adjectives. Almost all human languages are generic male languages.

So why not just end this biologic disparity? Surely nothing should stop humans from solving the inequality that humans inherit by nature. We should all just become self-reproducible, genderless hermophrodites and finally become liberated from the inequalities of nature? Well, it does seem that we are on that path. The pragmatic and utilitarian way of fixing and re-arranging the living molecules of human life, under which the modern human kind is advancing; will dispose all these biological disadvantages and inequalities. But I’ll leave that conversation for some other day, since there will be plenty of arguments why this will eventually go against the interests of liberal-humanitarians—but they will understand it once it is too late.

The peak of human freedom, was when our past generations fought for it; right at the moment when the blood was boiling in the veins of militant revolutionaries — who fought for the notions of freedom, those which, we blindly assume having today. Just like how degenerated our creative spirit has become, to an extent that we no longer have the capacity to create the art of our time. Whatever artistry we do today — is a dead corpse as soon as it comes out of our galleries. At this point, we as individuals, can benefit more by looking at art as historians, analyzing how our ancestors developed their notion of free individuality, and how they produce art of their time; instead of attempting to create the art of our time. Our art, is not ours, it belongs to the grave, it is already dead. Unless we want it to accurately depict how we celebrate the deadness of our life. If we want to kill our freedom, and never bother coming back to it, all we have to do is–keep on visiting the dead spaces of our contemporary galleries. Contemporary art, allows us to detach from the freedom that our ancestors confronted face-to–face; and instead, fetishize our abstracted notions of freedom, which have no identity nor reference. Abstracted freedom might as well be abstracted slavery.

This is the dilemma of our aspiring free society: It thinks that is is free, in the same way that I initially thought the bird performing its evening ritual was free.

  1. Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. (University of Chicago Press: 2nd edition), pp. 62 

  2. Hegel, Georg W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. §175, p.110 

  3. Of course, this depends on the bird species. Males of certain bird species can play a significant role in protecting the offspring that he shares with his female partner. Male penguins are notorious for being protectors of their families, and spend significant amounts of energy raising their offspring, compared to their female partners. But some male birds never even see their offspring. 

  4. Karl Marx; Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology, pp. 52