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The S.M. Critique Part II: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Choose

July 21, 2009

Image courtsey of the internets's seamy conservative underbelly.

Image courtsey of the seamy conservative underbelly of the internets.

Please recall: c. p. 100 Wallace treated us to a double-barreled assault on contemporary U.S. values courtesy of Schtitt and Marathe. On p. 107 Marathe admonishes Steeply: “Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care… this, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance? Who teaches your U.S.A. children how to choose their temple?” Now, on p. 317 Marathe is back to unpack this idea of choice that’s so central to his argument.

He says:

Now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to live, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving?

Marathe suggests that maybe the state should be playing a larger role in protecting people from themselves — “l’état protecteur.” Steeply counters:

Does this sound a little familiar, Remy? The National Socialist Neofascist State of Separate Quebec?… Totalitarity… Unfree… There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us — those are just the hazards of being free.

The Marathe block-quote above makes is pretty clear that on one level, the Entertainment is an allegory for substance abuse — think of Erdedy and JvD and Poor Tony all feeding themselves this “death of pleasure with spoons” (note also that spoons are often used to cook up raw heroin to make it injectible, if I understand it correctly). Wallace also sees addiction as a fundamentally lonely pursuit — cf again Erdedy beating off until he’s chapped during his marijuana binges, Poor Tony holed up and isolated in the rest room stall, and the narrator’s commentary on JvD’s impending felo de se: “The truth is that the hours before a suicide are usually an interval of enormous conceit and self-involvement.”

Steeply’s response is to accuse Marathe of fascism. Fascism is pretty much always a Bad Word in the real U.S., but in the context of IJ it’s instructive to recall that Schtitt, with his “whiff of proto-fascist potential” (p. 82), delivers a fairly sensible critique of American self-interest. Also, in footnote 90 Geoffrey Day tells Don G. that sees something “totalitarian” and “un-American” about the internal logic of AA. If Wallace is pitting G. Day against the AA here, it’s pretty safe to say that Wallace is on the side of the latter.

Wallace seems to be developing a fascism-is-good* trope here which, judging from the ‘96 Bookworm review (which is just a treasure-trove of useful information), he’s torn about:

The guy who essentially runs the academy now is a fascist, and, whether it comes out or not, he’s really the only one there who to me is saying anything that’s even remotely non-horrifying, except it is horrifying because he’s a fascist…  it seems to me that one of the scary things about sort of the nihilism of contemporary culture is that we’re really setting ourselves up for fascism. Because as we empty more and more kind of values, motivating principles, spiritual principles, almost, out of the culture, we’re creating a hunger that eventually is going to drive us to the sort of state where we may accept fascism just because.

Steeply of course isn’t having any of this, and like a good American he turns out to be something of a fundamentalist when it comes to the frequently-invoked but rarely-defined notion of “freedom.” But Marathe’s whole point is that when “freedom” is reduced to “the ability to do what I want, went I want it bcuz nobody is the boss of me,” you’re setting yourself up for the crazy reductio situation of an enslaving Entertainment that already, in real-life contemporary America, has a near-perfect analogy in drug abuse and other intensive forms of self-gratification. As someone who for the past 300-some-odd days has chosen almost exclusively to gratify himself with an enslaving Substance whenever the opportunity arose, to the detriment of literally All Other Things, the logic of this argument seems unassailable.

This exposes an interesting irony behind the slogan “freedom isn’t free.” It typically functions as a catchy simplification of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” — the notion that our beloved American value of freedom comes at a cost, that it must be guarded and protected, sometimes with our lives. But a cynic, a Schtitt or a Marathe, perhaps, might also interpret it by saying that “freedom,” the classic American freedom as invoked by Hugh Steeply and George W. Bush and on countless t-shirts and bumper stickers, “isn’t,” in fact, “free” at all — that this American “freedom” is not true freedom, but maybe something more complicated, more troubling, more sinister. That this “freedom,” when taken to its logical end, may really just be another form of enslavement. A Cage, if you will.

* I realize this is a gross oversimplification of an idea that would more correctly be expressed along the lines of “fascism probably isn’t good, but maybe in some very limited circumstances ideas that would be easy to assail as ‘fascist’ could actually provide a powerful corrective to the excesses of unbridled American self-interest-style capitalism.”

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2009 2:46 pm

    Nicely done, Detox! Surely, part of the problem is that the so-called “freedom” of Steeply, et al., is presented in an either/or fashion, such that either American-style consumerist freedom or fascism. We try sometimes to pretend that there are other, “softer” versions of American freedom (e.g. Euro-socialism, welfare state), and by complaining about those, the illusion of “choice” among multiple options, rather than just two, is upheld.

  2. infinitedetox permalink*
    July 21, 2009 4:16 pm

    Look, Tasks, you’re either with us or you’re with the Terrorists, okay?

    Jesting aside, let me make sure I’m parsing you right — are you saying that Euro-socialist welfare states are, in fact, softer versions of American capitalism, or are you saying that they’re something different completely?

    Your comment jogged my mind re: something I had intended to put in this post but forgot about (short-term memory is still a little behind the curve). One thing in IJ that maybe undercuts Marathe’s critique is the existence of characters like Don Gately, who have looked into the Eye of the Entertainment (substance-wise, at least) and who were able to look away. Also, entities like the AA, whose entire raison d’etre is to wrestle people away from self-gratifying substances and help them “choose their temple of fanaticism.” So you’ve got individuals and entire institutions working like hell to escape the Cage, which shows that maybe there is some hope for the US of A after all.

  3. July 21, 2009 10:42 pm

    Yes, Euro-states are U.S.-capitalist-lite, or were, anyway, until they were dismantled. Of course, a very different working-class history means that certain things are not off the Euro-table that never even got on the U.S. one, e.g. state health care. But these very differences enable U.S. policy-makers at least in recent years to see them as “other” and thus to mask the fundamental “with us or against us” structure that dominated world affairs even before Bush II.

    But more important than that cursory and for that reason surely incorrect explanation is your openness to the sophistication of the S-M conversation. Marathe suggests an existential choice (commitment of self), a use of our originary freedom, to choose our shared limitations. Consumerist Americans don’t really chose themselves, and thus they “choose” belongings, facades, cultural identifiers, without ever doing so in good faith. Again, that’s a general picture, not entirely fair.

    Because, as you say, Gately has looked into the E-of-the-E and come out the other side. I like that, since it reminds me that naming the lockdown (Cage) as total is to mistake the resources that people (and perhaps even some institutions) have for remaining free of false either/ors. So while I doubt there is hope for the U.S. of A (after all), there is nevertheless an ongoing possibility of a different project that can be born here.

  4. July 24, 2009 12:21 pm

    I love this post. Only just came across your blog via infinite summer bulletin board thing.

    With spoons = spoon-fed, cocaine spoons, eat it up with a spoon, heroin spoon. What you ate baby food with. Suggesting weakness and passivity to the point where one can neither stab nor cut. Indicative of the loss of all will to fight for any experience, even for pleasure itself. Remember that scandalous passage about the Near Eastern medical attache who is already so wasted and weak in his pleasure-seeking that he attaches a tray to his shoulders so that he won’t have to look away while he is eating his microwaved halal delicacies.

    Wallace wrote at length about Americans and their Special Treats (forgive me but I forget where.) He seemed to have a mildly Puritanical view about this stuff, I would say (I don’t mean Puritanical in a pejorative way at all, I just mean stoic and high-standardsly, self-denyingly Puritanical.)

    The other thread that this ties up with is the Heroic Stasis one, p. 142 of the book, Hal’s essay regarding “the catatonic hero,” which exactly prefigures his own end actually, “the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets [on a gurney with straps!] by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.”

    infinitetasks is right I think in suggesting that if the book is offering a corrective, that corrective is outside the parameters of the narrative itself. Gately is a thief and a murderer but he is the real hero of the book, its guiding conscience, it has always seemed to me. His story is tragic but contains also the possibility of communication, which is the other thread of the book, the escape route. We may not be able to communicate, but we must try. That we can try at all is a kind of miracle in itself.

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