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.

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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.

Glass Harmonica

The short surrealistic film Glass Harmonica (1968) is, according to Open Culture the only animated film ever censored by the Soviet Union. This is interesting since the film itself can easily be seen as an attack on capitalism and bourgeois greed. The European Film Philharmonic Institute suggests that the film was controversial in the USSR because of its display between governmental authority and the artistic population. In this post I provide an alternative to this understanding of the censorship through an analysis of the film from a theoretical perspective.


“Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical” -Deleuze and Guattari [1]

This narrative of this film can be viewed as a conflict between rhythm and meter. The meter of the despotic bankers drum against the rhythm and melody of the harmonica. Chronologically, it is the drum that appears first – though its initial appearance gives only a single beat. The drum is the second major territory that is seen, after the clock tower (we’ll return to the clock tower later), but it is only given a single initial beat at the beginning of the film before being overcome by the harmonica. After the breaking of the harmonica the viewer is granted a full understanding of the drum, as it draws the surrealistic animal people in towards itself. When we hear the drum the second time in the film – just after the people have become animals – we see the true nature of its power. The repetitive, singular rhythm of the drum draws the people in towards it. This rhythm, which belongs to the despotic banker figure – the figure who signifies the greed of the bourgeois and capitalism – is able to affect the people in order to shape their desire for the image of the coin/capital. This meter reflects the meter of fascism. As Deleuze and Guattari write that meter is the tool of dogmatism. Meter is the affective force behind the fascist authoritarian – it is through the fascist meter that the people desire fascism. And it is this meter, the meter of the despotic authoritarian drum which draws the people in. It is the second instance of the drum which makes sense of the first. In the second instance the drum plays and the ‘people’ travel towards its noise; they are drawn into the meter of the drum. They have come because they desire capital. But, why do they come to the drum initially? It is a single beat of the drum which repeats inside of them. Their desire has already, to some degree been shaped (as can be seen in some of their appearances). The sameness of the despotic meter has already taken hold of their desire.

In contrast to the meter of the drum is the rhythm of the harmonica. The harmonica appears early in the film as the people surround the drum, after its initial beat. When the rhythm of the harmonic plays the people begin to change. The rhythm of the harmonica is a critical deterritorializing rhythm. It pulls the people out of the desire for capital and towards a desire for beauty. The harmonica’s rhythm fights against the meter of the drum. Each time the harmonica arrives, it is treated with fear from the despot. In an interesting move, the despot is able to travel throughout this world as if he is teleporting. This suggests that the despot, like capital, is an omnipresent force who circumnavigates everything. In each case the despot destroys the harmonica, attempting to destroy the rhythm which was overcoming the meter of his drum.

It should be noted that both of these rhythms are deterritorializing. The drum deterritorializes the current socius – the initial image given is of the landscape with the clock tower at the centre. The drum is able to shape the people’s desire in such a way that the clock tower – that which used to function as the centre – is stripped down because of desire for the coin/capital. The drum functions like capitalism – it decodes all, and recodes with capital as the only code. Everything in the tower is stripped for money; no meaning remains outside of monetary value for the people. They desire nothing but the coin. The harmonica, too, functions as a deterritorailzing force. The harmonica serves as a refrain which undoes the despotic desire of the drum to a new desire for beauty. The harmonica’s creation of the Rose is the result of the desire for beauty that comes with the refrain of the harmonica. This creation suggests something key – the harmonica does not simply deterritorialize, it reterritorializes as well.

Rhythm and Image

The relationship of these rhythms to image is prominent throughout the film. This is enforced in the reshaping of the people. Each figure is shaped in their relationship to rhythm. As the meter of capital travels through the people their physical appearance shifts until they become as animals, objects or monsters. The most notable of these figures is a short man who betrays a lover of the harmonica who is holding a rose. In exchange for this betrayal, the despot gives the man a coin. This man is portrayed as short, and as the rhythms of capital deterritorialize his body, he begins to shift into a more monstrous being. Yet, when the harmonica’s rhythm later deterritorilizes him and he gives away his wealth, he begins to appear more and more like a man. Furthermore, he becomes a tall man rather than short. The rhythm has affected the body of this person in ways that shape his image. With the harmonica he becomes a less surreal, and more normative human figure.

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We see similar circumstances with a couple who steal the clock’s hands. When the couple first appear, they are in awe of the despot’s rhythm. Their faces appear symmetrical, and they are the first to the top of the tower to steal its machinery in order to fulfil their desire for wealth. Their prominent scene is an interesting one. As they bring the clock’s face to their home, abandoning it on a pile of things, the pile begins to fall over. The man, now treating the woman as an object, leaves her to hold up the things. While this is occurring, the man begins to look through a peep hole – no doubt aligning with the traditional image of the peeping Tom – yet, rather than a woman, the image through the hole in the wall is of the short man, depositing his coin into a box of coins. In this surrealistic world, the sexual perversion has been transformed into a perversion of greed. The man desires not sex, but wealth. As the coin of the short man rolls through the window of the peeping Tom, both the man and woman are transformed into animals. The rhythm of the despot – the rhythm of the coin has fully taken over their being. They have been deterritorailized through the rhythm of the coin, and reterritorialized as animals. Yet, the final image of the couple shows, again, the deterritorializing force of the harmonica, who appear in a more human, rather than a surrealistic form as they return the stolen clock hands to the face of the clock.

As the rhythm of the harmonica travels through the people, one of the most interesting images is that of an egg. The egg begins to crack, revealing a body with an egg for a head. This egg, too, cracks revealing a woman beneath it. This image relates to an interesting use of the egg in the theory of Deleuze and Guattari. The cracks could be seen as the lines of flight along the socius of the egg which is deterritorialized by the rhythm of the harmonica. All of the surreal figures appear to be deterritorialized in the same way. They have been deterritorialized to such an extent that when the despot returns (still omnipresent) to destroy the harmonica a second time, his rhythm has no effect on the people. His fascist meter is beaten by the rhythm of the harmonica which lives on in the rhythm of the people who it has affected.


Immunological Clock Tower

At the end of the film the harmonica is destroyed by the despot a second time. Yet, when the despot attempts to reassert their drum meter over the people again, the people do not return to their animal forms, but retain their normal human appearance. Even more, the people restore the very clock tower that had been ransacked by their greed at the beginning of the film. As mentioned earlier, the first territory that is seen in the film is the clock tower – not the drum or the harmonica. So, despite the various deterritorializations that occur throughout, the end of the film signals a return to the beginning. The film is circular: it goes clocktower—drum—harmonica—drum—harmonica—drum (failed)—clocktower. I think that the image of the clocktower is one that is central to understanding the censorship of the film in the USSR.


The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes on immunological spheres. In his book, Globes[2], he writes about ‘macrospheres’. These are large spheres which provide cultures with immunological spaces against the exterior. A chief example of this is the role of God during the middle ages. God functions as the centre who provides immunological resistance against the unknown exterior. The centre, God, helps make the people immune against the outside. I’d suggest that one might read the tower as having a similar role. The tower exists at the centre of the town, and can be read as protective against the outside. When the outside force is able to circumnavigate the defences of the interior, the first thing that it takes out is the clock tower (as we see the clock tower ravaged by the greed of the people). This works similar to the role that capitalism and enlightenment play in the destruction of macrospheres in Sloterdijk’s writing. Capitalism circumnavigates the globe and deterritorializes interior defences and immunological systems, focuses on individuals and recoding everything for capital. The end of the film, then, does not present a deterritorialized body without organs, but rather a return to the old territory – a return to the old immunizing system. The question then becomes: what is the role of the harmonica in all of this.


Two Interpretations of the Harmonica

As a result of this viewing of the film as a return to the previously deterritorialized immunological space, I think that we can provide two interpretations of the harmonica. Either the harmonica is revolutionary or the harmonica is reactive. I’ll begin with the idea of the harmonica as a revolutionary deterritorializing force. If one views the harmonica as a revolutionary force, we can see it as an extension of the Russian political struggle against the bourgeois. If this is the case, it is clear that with the second destruction of the harmonica, the revolutionary aim of the people is abandoned. If the harmonica is a revolutionary force, any rhythm that it provided the people is abandoned at the end of the film with the return to the immunological clock tower. Revolution pushes forward, not backwards. Thus, if the clock tower is presented in the end, then the revolution has failed. With the defeat of both the force of capitalism and the force of revolution, the people are free to return to their old immunological space. Under this interpretation, the film provides the communism of the USSR as a phase on the road to return to the previous immunological society – before bourgeois and before revolution.

Alternatively, the harmonica’s rhythm can be seen as reactionary. If one views the harmonica’s rhythm as always already signalling a return to the past it could be understood that the despotic meter is not simply a representative of capitalism, but all authoritarian forces. In this case, the reactionary movement of the harmonica’s rhythm can be seen as a signal back towards a time before the USSR. The film would again present a return to an immunological space, but in this case the harmonica is not simply a tool of this return, but the rhythm of its return. This return is not a revolutionary (forward moving) rhythm but a conservative one. Under this interpretation, the film does not attack only capitalism, but all authoritarian rule, which would also be seen as antagonistic from the perspective of the Russian government. In either case, these interpretations give some theoretical motivation of this film’s censorship in the USSR. The film does not provide the viewer with a revolutionary message. It provides message of return – return to the past immunological space – rather than a revolutionary move towards new horizons.


[1] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. 1 edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p. 313

[2] Sloterdijk, Peter. Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2014.