On Positive and Negative Liberties

While reading through Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge I began to ponder on the role that systems of rules play within our discourses on liberty. Foucault’s text sets out to define Archaeology, and comes to the conclusion that “Archaeology defines the rules of formation of a group of statements” (167). For Foucault, there are certain rules that make any discourse possible – and it is archaeology will attempts to show what these rules are. A common example that he uses within the text is the discourse of medicine. Medicine comes about because of a series of rules that allow medical discourse to take place.These rules prescribe what subjects are discussed within the discourse, what methods are utilized, etc. Within any discourse there are rules of this sort that limit what can be talked about. What struck me while reading is that these rules can have implications for both positive and negative liberty. They perform the action of making a discourse possible as well as confining it to a certain number of topics.

Initially, this made me think about grammar. To the annoyed 5th grader, grammar is a nuisance which infringes upon one’s liberty to perform whatever writing function they wish. Rather than simply using words, grammar forces them to learn a set of rules that disciplines their writing and speaking styles. While this 5th grader might see grammar as an imposition on their liberty, they might eventually begin to see the positive aspects of grammar. It is grammar, of course, that makes any communication possible. Without grammar the structure of our sentences would disappear, making any sort of conversation impossible. In this way the confines of grammar constitute a positive liberty. Rather than promoting freedom from something, they advance the freedom to do something. In the case of grammar the rules allow us the freedom to speak and communicate with one another.

Contemporary western political discourse is inundated with negative conceptions of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from something. A basic example of negative liberty is that I have the freedom from infringement on my personal speech (i.e. I have freedom of speech). When we speak of freedom in this way we are speaking of freedom from some constraint (taxes, immigrants, courts, etc). Negative liberty is an important component of our culture. It is a key concern of many of the freedoms that we hold dear — freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to vote for whomever you wish, freedom of speech, etc. — but with all of the focus on negative conceptions of liberty, positive conceptions are often left to the wayside.

Plato on the Fall of Ancient and Modern Greece - The Imaginative ...


in the tenth book of The Republic Plato argues against democracy for the reason that it promotes negative liberty to the detriment of society. In 558 b-c Plato writes, “We said that no one who had not exceptional gifts could grow into a good man [sic] unless he were brought up from childhood in a good environment and trained in good habits. Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all this away and doesn’t mind what habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honoured” (p. 294). Throughout much of The Republic Plato makes the case for an educational program that would produce the ideal leader — a philosopher king. The ideal leader can only come about through a series of harsh educational regiments. These educational regiments take place as constraints on the individual who is attempting to become a philosopher king. From one perspective these restraints can be seen as attacks on an individuals liberty (and education can for sure be used as a means of discipline and control, c.f. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), but within the context of becoming a leader, they allow for the individual to attain certain practices that would be impossible without constraint.

Part of what Plato is attempting to show in The Republic is that too much negative liberty is detrimental to an individual. Too much negative freedom leads to chaos. If we return, for a moment, to the discussion on grammar we might try to imagine a text that exists without the constraints of grammar. When imaging such a document one might be reminded of a random texts from Borges’ The Library of Babel where the texts, void of any semblance of grammar, appears to us as pure gibberish. The grammatical rules that are in place allow us to communicate with one another. These rules can provide us with the ability (at least to some degree) to flourish or perhaps — in Aristotelean terms — to reach our telos.

From a religious perspective this shouldn’t appear to be anything new. Within the religious sphere — even more so than in the political sphere — we are quite obsessive about positive liberties. In You Must Change Your Life Peter Sloterdijk writes about the ways that religion uses liturgy and ritual to shape the habits of believers. Religion creates social hierarchies that can only be climbed if one performs the rituals (or Anthropotechnics) which shape ones desires and habits to the degree that one’s body is affected in such a way that these habits become second nature. For many religious peoples the goal is to not simply refrain from our sinful desires, but to shape our bodies in such ways that those desires no longer even occur to us. In this way, religion uses educational constraints that allow for flourishing. Through the restraints imposed by religious practice one is granted the freedom to flourish within the religious sphere.

similar results jacob s ladder jacob s ladder circa 1925 european ...

Depiction of “Jacob’s Ladder”

These systems of rules that exist within the political and religious spheres hold implications for liberty in both the positive and negative senses. In these religious practices, for instance, we can see clear examples of times where these rules move from positive liberty to infringing on negative liberty. One can look to the barbaric practice of conversion therapy as an example of this. It seems to be the case that when we stop understanding these systems of rules as helpful tools that allow us to flourish and transform them into universalizing truths that must be followed, they stop providing us with positive liberty, and begin to infringe upon our negative liberties. We must remember that the rules which give the ability for positive liberty are not universal rules. They are confines which exist in order to allow us to do things, to fulfill things. When these rules lose any flexibility and become written into law, they fail to participate in any notion of liberty, and instead fall into the realm of discipline and control.

in this way, we can see that the distinction between a positive liberty and an infringement on negative liberty is not so clear cut. To make things more difficult, one might see a positive liberty as a clear infringement on a negative liberty (and vice versa). Where we draw the line is likely up to our political or religious ideology. So far as it is possible, however, we must attempt to examine how we are using the rules that we have established. So long as our rules are allowing us to flourish and grow into the people that we want to be, we can see these rules as positive influences. It is when our rules start to become inflexible and oppressive that we ought to take the time to re-examine, change, and, perhaps, abolish them.


Works Cited:

Foucault, M. (1982). The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage.
Plato. (2007). The Republic. (D. Lee, Trans.) (New edition). London: Penguin Classics.

A new reading project for the new year

About a month ago, my friend sent me a syllabus that he found from high school that was based on “The Great Books” (specifically The Great Books Tutorial) with texts such as Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. While looking at the syllabus, I began to think about the fact that while I have a general understanding of much of the theorists and authors and texts involved, I had never really had the opportunity to read through these books. I began to look more closely at the notion of these Great Books – books which helped shape and form the Western canon and Western thought in general – and began to think about indulging in a study of my own which focused on reading through some of the Western Canon. I have, since, come up with a reading list that I have been following. My hope is to get through a significant portion of this list throughout the new year.

One of the problems that I have been coming back to in regards to this project is the fact that the Western canon is dominated by white men. Once we travel past Augustine of Hippo (an African man) the list does not reach another person who doesn’t fit the criteria of “white male” until we reach Wollstonecraft. Going forward I hope to contemplate ways of bringing in more diverse readings. The alternative is to follow this study of Western canon with an abbreviated look at texts from other cultures and histories. In any case, this bias towards certain types authors can be understood historically, but it is something I hope to keep in mind while reading through these texts.

Below I have presented a reading list that was inspired by The Great Books Tutorial reading list that I found through my friend. I’ve gotten rid of some texts which I feel I have no interest in reading at this time (mostly the theologies of John Calvin and Martin Luther). These may be replaced with more abridged, short studies that take less time than reading through the entirety of something like Calvin’s institutes. Some texts on the list I have already read in the past. These I have marked with an apostrophe. I am unsure if I will re-read them or not over the course of this project. As I have already begun the project (at the beginning of December), texts that I have already read will be marked with (Read) behind them. Note: Some of the “texts” are not actually texts, but plays or musical numbers. I’m interested in more suggestions on classical music as it is something I am interested in, but do not know much about.

The Iliad – Homer (Read)
The Odyssey – Homer (Read)
Oedipus the King – Sophocles (Read)
Oedipus at Colonnus – Sophocles (Read)
Antigone – Sophocles (Read)
Agamemnon – Aeschylus (Read)
The Libation Bearers – Aeschylus (Read)
Eumenides – Aeschylus (Read)
The Poetics – Aristotle (Read)
Gorgias – Plato (Read)
Euthyphro – Plato (Read)
Apology – Plato (Read)
Crito – Plato (Read)
Phaedo – Plato (Read)
The Republic – Plato
Aeneid – Virgil
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
De Anima – Aristotle
Theatetus – Plato
Physics – Aristotle
Metaphysics – Aristotle
*The Symposium – Plato
Phaedrus – Plato
On the Nature of Things – Lucretius

On the Incarnation – Athanasius
Confessions – Augustine
City of God – Augustine
Proslogium – Anselm
Monologium – Anselm
Summa Theologiae – Aquinas
**Duns Scotus – Open to Suggestions
Divine Comedy – Dante

Canterbury Tales – Chauncer
As You Like It – Shakespeare
Henry IV – Shakespear
*The Prince – Machiavelli
Richard II – Shakespear
Don Quixote – Cervantes
St. Matthew’s Passion – Bach
Essays – Montaigne
Novum Organon – Bacon
*Discourse on Method – Descartes
*Meditations – Descartes
Pensees – Pascal
Paradise Lost – Milton
Leviathan – Hobbes
*Ethics – Spinoza
Discourse on Metaphysics, Monadology, Principles of Nature and Grace – Leibniz
A Treatise on Human Nature – Hume
Woman Holding a Balance, A Lady Writing  – Vermeer
Gulliver’s Travels – Swift
Second Treatise on Government – Locke
On the Vindication of the Rights of Women – Wollstonecraft
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics – Kant
Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals – Kant

Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
The Federalist – Hamilton
Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
*War and Peace – Tolstoy
Logic – Hegel
Phenomenology of Spirit – Hegel
Capital – Marx
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
*Tristan and Isolde – Wagner
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
*The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
Democracy in America – de Tocqueville
The Ego and the Id – Freud

This is what I have planned thus far. After this I may look into German Phenomenology with Husserl and Heidegger (and, perhaps, Gadamer). Moving afterwards into French thought with Sartre and Beauvoir. I might also consider reading some structuralist thought such as Saussure, and I might include some Bergson as well. This will not, of course, constitute everything that I read, but I feel that it provides me with a solid foundation of a reading list going forward in the next year and beyond. Through this reading I hope to gain a deeper appreciation for Western though. In this, I hope to be able to examine the threads of culture, literature and philosophy that have provided the groundwork for the Western ideology that I have been educated in and thrown into.

If you have any suggestions for particular translations (or recording) of any of these works, I would be happy to hear them. Thus far I have been using a mixture of public domain texts and what is contained in both my personal and local public library. Thus far, this method has been effective, but I imagine that I will need to purchase some of these texts in the future. I am also open to suggestions on texts to add (or even subtract) from this list. If there is a text (or musical piece) you believe that everyone should read that fits within the lineage I have provided above, please let me know about it, so that I can make to get to it eventually.


Update: While I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this plan in the near future (I made it to Aristotle’s Physics), I do hope to continue with this at some point. In any case, I’ll leave it here for the perusal of any who might be interested.

On Affect

Note: This post contains spoilers for the film Inglorious Basterds

Asger Jorn 1961 'The Suicide of Mr. H', Institute of Arts, Detroit ...

Asger Jorn ‘The Suicide of Mr. H’ – at the Detroit Institute of Art

Since reading Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy” earlier this year, my engagement with art has been profoundly impacted Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the subject in that book. D/G think about art in a way that is different from most engagements with the subject that I have seen. For many, a piece of art is imbued with meaning from a variety of factors such as the artist, the cultural environment, the contemporary zeitgeist, or what have you. For Deleuze and Guattari, art does not contain meaning, rather art serves as a means of preservation. For Deleuze and Guattari, art preserves “a bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects” (WTP 164). The key to art, for Deleuze and Guattari, is its ability to produce sensations in bodies. They key element of this production are the affective capabilities of a piece of art.

The concept of “affect” is one that Deleuze and Guattari borrow from Spinoza. Spinoza defines affect as “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these affections” (The Ethics, 11/139). According to Spinoza, “the human body can be affected in many ways in which its power of acting is increased or diminished, and also in others which render its power of acting neither greater nor less” (11/140). This means that various affects, such as love, hate, anger, hunger, etc., impact our bodies in certain ways that shape the desire or will of the body. The body then responds to these affects. Spinoza gives a number of examples:

“the infant believes he freely wants the milk; the angry child that he wants vengeance; and the timid, flight. So the drunk believes it is from a free decision of the mind that he speaks the things he later, when sober, wishes he had not said. So the madman, the chatterbox, the child, and a great many people of this kind believe they speak from a free decision of the mind, when really they cannot contain their impulse to speak” (11/143).

In each of these examples the actor believes that they are acting freely, but really they are acting as a result of affects which are acting upon their bodies. The infant is affected by hunger, the drunk is affected by alcohol, etc. People are conscious of their actions, so they believe themselves free, but there are other actions which are acting upon their bodies in ways that shape their desire, and ultimately their action.

Deleuze and Guattari expand on the idea of the affect. Affects are central to their notion of becomings. Becomings take place as the affects affecting bodies. They describe affect in their “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal…” Plateau “For the affect is not a personal feeling, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel” (ATP 240). This might not be the most clear description, but the affect is an action or power upon a body. The power of the pack (a multiplicity) which throws itself into a body to cause some action to take place. Affects take place between bodies. One body affects another in shifting its desire or will. The result of the affect is a becoming: “Affects are precisely these non-human becomings of man. just as precepts – including the town – are nonhuman landscapes of nature. Not a ‘minute of the world passes’ says Cézanne that we will preserve if we do not ‘become that minute’” (WiP 169). What this means, roughly, is that a body is infected by another body at a minor level, which shifts the being. This intermingling of bodies is the affect affecting the body, creating a new sensation.

Before we continue, it is important to realize that these sensations are not conscious. Affect, here, is different from the use of affect as an emotional state. If we look a moment at Anti-Oedipus, a text that doesn’t actually touch on affects directly, we can see an example of how the affect works at a level below the intellect. A central question for AO is Reich’s question of “Why did the masses desire fascism?” (AO 345). D/G deny Reich’s answer, which relied on the ideological, subjective, irrational and negative criteria. The cause of this desire took place at a lower level: “There is an unconscious libidinal investment of desire that does not necessarily coincide with the preconscious investment of interest and that explains how the latter can be perturbed and perverted in ‘the most somber organization,’ below ideology” (AO 345). The shift in desire takes place at a pre-ideological level – on the level of affect. It is the rhythms of the Fascists, the rhetoric and the speeches which acted directly upon the bodies of the masses. These rhythms affected the bodies in such a way that their desire was predisposed towards fascism.

At face value this concept – that it was the sounds and rhythms acting upon the bodies of the people which shaped their will to desire fascism – seems absurd. However, if we look at an example in film it might begin to make a bit more sense. In the film Inglorious Basterds by Quinten Tarantino, there is a scene that takes place right after the Basterds (a group of American Jewish militants sent to Europe with the task of “Killin’ Nazi’s”) have defeated a group of Nazi soldiers. Three Nazi’s remain from the conflict, and the Basterds have taken them prisoner. Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, interrogates the commanding officer of the Nazi. The commander refuses to answer Raine’s questions, so Raine threatens him with the “Bear Jew” – a member of the Basterds who “Bashes [Nazi] brains in with a baseball bat.” After the commander continues to refuse, the music begins to swell up, and the “Bear Jew” – Sgt. Donny Donowitz, played by Eli Roth – comes into the scene and, at climax of the music, begins to beat the Nazi commander with a baseball bat. As he strikes the Nazi officer with the bat, the music stops, and Donowitz beats the Nazi soldier to death to the cheers of his comrades.

The horrifying aspect of this scene is that, as it is taking place, you begin to cheer for the man who is about to beat another human being to death with a baseball bat. The music wells up inside of you, affecting you in such a way that you want it to happen, you desire this horrifying event to occur. There are multiple things acting upon you in that moment: The music, the events of the film leading up to this occurrence, the smugness of the Nazi officer, one’s prior knowledge of the horrors committed by the Nazi’s upon the Jewish people, etc. All of these things culminate in our desire to watch a man beaten to death with a baseball bat. Finally, it happens; the music stops; the viewer comes back to reality. We watch a man beaten to death on the screen, to the cheers of others. We hear ourselves cheering and are disgusted that we could cheer for a man to be beaten by a bat. Those things – the music, the events leading up to the killing – are things that have affected us. These affects have shaped our desire. They are affective powers which intermingle with our bodies and render us to act in a certain way. Tarantino’s films are particularly proficient at doing this – moving the audience to desire things that are contrary to the ways that they usually feel.

Returning to art, Deleuze and Guattari argue in Anti-Oedipus that “art, as soon as it attains its own grandeur, its own genius, creates chains of decoding and deterritorailization that serve as the foundation for desiring machines, and make them function.” (p. 368). Art opens up new lines of flight and escape; it is able to tear down – deterritorialize – the structures or territories that are built upon a body. Art, then, is able to create sensations that work upon the body, affecting it in various ways, in order to shape desire. This is brought forward even more in Deleuze and Guattari’s final text where, as mentioned near the beginning, they posit that the purpose of art is to preserve and create sensations. For D/G “Abstract art and conceptual art are two recent attempts to bring art and philosophy together, but they do not substitute the concept for the sensation; rather they create sensations and not concepts” (WiP 198). Through these sensations art is able to build monuments, but these monuments are different than we might initially thing. According to these authors “A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly resumed struggle” (WiP 176-177). The purpose of art, then, is to create sensations and build monuments which perpetuate a struggle. Art’s purpose is to affect bodies in ways that shape desire. Art affects bodies – and effective art is art that more strongly affects our bodies.