Tag Archives: freedom

Freedom of Choice

After I read “Up Simba” I couldn’t help but think back on DFW’s thoughts on freedom in his Kenyon commencement speech.  

The crux of the commencement speech is that you have the freedom “to exercise some control over how and what you think.”    You can either rely on your brain’s hard-wired default setting: being “hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head,” or you can choose something else.  Something more empathetic, compassionate, mature.  To not revert to the automatic thoughts you have about a situation or a person, but actually take the time to think, to put yourself “in their shoes.”  It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But you have the choice between the two, and that’s for sure also.

In “Up Simba” there is a similar choice to be made.  Either we can dismiss McCain as another lying, conniving demagogue or we can believe that he is genuinely trying to inspire a nation to be the best it can be.  For the latter DFW makes a strong case, which primarily relies on McCain’s choice to follow POW code as testament to his selflessness.  It’s uncertain whether this fact is enough to push voters past their cynicism toward politics.  It’s certain, however, that you can choose whether it is enough.  

As DFW says in the closing lines of the essay, “whether [McCain’s] truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.”  


Are we free to choose?

I found that in our current section of reading, Marathe and Steeply (but mostly Marathe) have some interesting things to say about choice and freedom. At the start of their current segment of conversation, the two are discussing the film cartridge that has caused a growing group of individuals to watch on repeat basically until they die. Marathe says passionately (as ever), ” ‘[N]ow is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die–and let its children die, each one–for the so-called Entertainment, this film” (318). Marathe considers Americans’ inability to choose what they love, and therefore really only loving themselves, the reason everyone who sees this certain cartridge so far is unable to break away. Craving entertainment is an obvious form of self-love, and this craving coupled with what appears to be the ultimate Entertainment results in the lack of desire (and even inability) to pay attention to anything but that which provides the pleasure. Marathe continues: ” ‘The appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose–this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only’ ” (319). In other words, the actual ceasing of bodily functions that the film cartridge prompts through catatonia is just the physical representation of what has already happened in the minds of all Americans. Once again this comes from their inability to choose what to love, and so only love themselves. In constantly craving pleasure, then, it is no wonder they would choose death by pleasure over any other cause of death–but it is in that non-choice that Marathe believes they have already died because they cease to live in any meaningful way. They do not live for others, they do not love something greater than themselves. He is arguing first that the Entertainment does not kill them because they are already dead, and if you want to play semantics and say that it does in fact kill them physically, then that is their own fault. The cartridge would not kill someone who was not already dead in the mind, obsessed with pleasure, because it would not affect them the same way. A person who could choose what to love would be able to walk away from viewing the ultimate Entertainment.

In light of the argument about choice, the argument about freedom is rather interesting. Steeply argues that it is the temptation in a free society that leads to things like watching the film cartridge. Marathe, however, views freedom differently, pointing out that it is not even well-defined. ” ‘Your freedom is the freedom-
from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. . . . What of the freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose?’ ” (320). Steeply would see Marathe’s “loving-filled father” as someone who forces, who applies that constraint that Americans like to be free from; but to Marathe, there is no way to be free unless one is taught how to choose. If a person is not taught, she will of course choose “a child’s greedy choices”–i.e. those things that demonstrate her self-love, because she does not know how to love something else, because she has not been taught how to choose what she loves.

I personally disagree with Marathe’s view here (quite possibly because I am American and therefore too immersed in my own culture to see it for what it is): I do not see us only as a freedom-from society, I think we are very much a freedom-to place as well. (Concrete example: there have been arguments surrounding the freedom of religion clause about whether atheism is a legitimate choice, because using its wording some argue that it says one is free to choose one’s religion, but not free
from choosing a religion; therefore abstaining altogether (being an atheist) is not protected in this clause.) It may be that most of the time our choices are selfish, but I don’t think that is uniquely American; evolutionarily, considering myself the center of the universe is called self-preservation for promotion of the species. I don’t know whether we’re capable of choosing what to love, but once again I don’t find that an American problem, I find it a human issue.

Counter arguments? Corroboration?

Here is how to

Passage that we read in class last Wednesday:

Marathe: “Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen” (107).

Steeply: “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision…You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?” (108).

About 60 pages later, in the Year of the Yushityu, Hal narrates TENNIS AND THE FERAL PRODIGY, which “according to the entry form” (172), is written by Mario. The script of this “11.5-minute digital entertainment cartridge” (172) champions Marathe’s argument that there is always a choice. Moreover, the script conveys that one can always be in control–of anything and everything.

The script is structured like a lesson, with nearly each paragraph beginning with “here is how.” Therefore, the script assumes that abilities from “how to hold a stick” (172) to “how to sweat” (174) can be learned, and hence, can also be controlled and regulated, as if a product of choice.

In particular, the speaker instructs, “Here is how to handle being a feral prodigy” (174). In here lies a contradiction–because feral denotes untamed, natural, wild, and incapable of being “handled” (174). To handle, on the other hand, signifies to control, to manage, and to dominate. The script thus insists that it is possible to conquer even the unconquerable, to control even the uncontrollable. In fact, this possibility can be shown, taught and learned by what seems to be a simple lesson–a lesson that tames the self.

In here lies another contradiction–the freedom, or ability, to take control of the self in turn limits and subjugates the self. The cartridge does not instruct “how to handle a feral prodigy.” It instructs “how to handle being a feral prodigy” (174). Thus, the cartridge instructs not how to tame an external feral prodigy that has come to invade the body, but rather how to control a self or a being who has come to be defined by his feral prodigy. In a way, by stating, “Here is how to handle being a feral prodigy,” the text evokes a giving away of the self, a surrendering of the self. The complete “being” or existence of the self has become replaced by only being a feral prodigy, an alternate, reduced existence.

Handling “being a feral prodigy” (174) ultimately effaces the being, reducing it to zip. The paragraph is poetic. It creates a contrived, controlled, regulated, unnatural–not feral–effect. Using words such as “signifying” and “composed of” renders the sentence–”Here is how to handle being seeded at tournaments, signifying that seeding committees composed of old big-armed men publicly expect you to reach a certain round” (174)–literary and formal and also, forced and unnatural. Furthermore, the lesson–”By repeating this term over and over, perhaps in the same rhythm at which you squeeze a ball, you can reduce it to an empty series of phonemes, just formants and fricatives, trochaically stressed, signifying zip” (174)–carries a poetic rhythm per se. This rhythm reverberates throughout the script. The repetition of “Here is how to” and the choppy syntax create their own rhythm. The use of the words “trochaically stressed,” “signifying,” “phonemes,” “formants,” and “fricatives” produces the effect of a poetry explication. Moreover, “phonemes,” “formants,” and “fricatives” generate an alliteration, furthering the poetic style. Ultimately, however, the poetic style of these sentences in synchronization with the result of handling being a feral prodigy amount to nothing, “signifying zip” (174). This paragraph delineates a process of reduction: reducing terms to “an empty series of phonemes”–which are irreducibles, and reducing a being into a feral prodigy, and then that feral prodigy into, presumably, a tamed prodigy. In this way, this paragraph, along with the lesson embedded in this paragraph, exerts control–a control that is perhaps tragically and inescapably self-limiting and self-effacing.

So then looking back at Marathe’s words, he claims that the lack of choice renders a person “a fanatic of desire…a citizen of nothing” (108), but the contrary–that is, the option to choose, the ability of control–can lead to the same result: nothingness.