Pula - Croatian Defenders’ Home, from 29th Nov until 9th Dec 2018

  • Andrea Matošević

An Essay for the 24th Book Fair(y) in Istria, 2018
Theme: Liberty

Long live the chains!

Vive les chaînes!, Vive les chaînes! - the students were loudly chanting along the sounds of an armed riot at the very end of one of the most intriguing European films from the second half of the twentieth century – Le Fantôme de la liberté by Luis Buñuel. Yet, in that scene from the Phantom of Liberty, filmed, as the most important part of the author's oeuvre, in the manner of the surrealist thought, the students can only be heard, but not seen. Their message, though, makes a perfectly clear sense, still, at the same time completely incomprehensible and unacceptable to a westernly trained ear. However, even without entering the interpretative catches of the author's play involving historical events, symbols, and their meanings, it is clear that the chains are occupying the place of nothing else then liberty itself. What happened? At which moment did we choose slavery and proclaimed it libertarian? Which of the free choices we have made in a sane state of mind put the liberty in chains? – are the questions Buñuel wants us to ask ourselves and to ponder upon. Or to put it harsher: who made us believe that the matters liberté presupposes and seeks as the mysterious, the boundless, the abstract, the doubtful, thus the possible, are in reality fake and unnecessary dubieties? 

Although the answers to these and many other questions could be found at every click and every step of that metaphor of possibilities (still unreachable to some) known by the name of social media, but it is difficult to recognize the questions in that thickly grown and hardly penetrable forest of opinions. We still believe that, apart from new and current, people should still pose those “grand“ questions bearing the patina of the recent but bygone ages. For that reason, the year 1974 – the time period which spurred the creation of the aforementioned The Phantom of Liberty - could be interpreted as the historical link reaching almost halfway through the timeline, a bridge connecting or dividing the two opposite geopolitical events whose coordinates on the diachronic map match May of 1968., or May of 1979, respectively. Without much doubt, those events could be rendered signifiers of the opposite ideas of liberty, and at this very moment, we seem to be the heirs of both.

On one end, there are the ideas of '68 and a cry for reality which aims for the impossible, along with the libertarian anti-war, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist messages and also the idea of the cooperative action among the workers, the students and the migrants. On the opposite end, there is the electoral win of the prime minister Margaret Hilde Thatcher and her Conservative Party in Great Britain after which nothing will be the same. If, on one hand, the dominant idea of the generation of '68 was to render the society more equal, or, rather, more free, and if those same ideas served at least to some degree as an inspiration to the more recent student riots which also took place in our region, the Iron Lady is, on the other hand, going to be remembered in history as the one who wanted to “free” the individuals from the chains of the society itself. There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women is probably the most well-known statement within the field of social negations in the name of emphasizing the ostensible rights and liberties of the individual. But of course, the matter in question was liberation of the market and the material redistribution involving nowadays still pertinent, quite surprising, even perverse interplay of economy and its etymology – οικος [oikos], Greek word for house is embedded in its root, and yet the economy itself, the abstract global Moloch, was the very reason of many individuals and families not being able to get a hold of their own piece of freedom. The market is free, the individuals aren't, and the Greek notion of liberty is still in most cases written in German - Freiheit.

All the more reason why one should pose the questions whose answers point to the interrelation between the movement, the space and the sense of liberty – what does it mean to be free in the times when newsfeed is filled with fearful statements of the people saying that they feel safe only in the presence of the army and long barrels in their streets and public areas? Are we facing Long live the chains! in its most recent and thick-headed version? Does at the same time the idea of liberty stand for the machine which swallows the lives of thousands throughout the vast water dunes to which we romantically ascribe the possessive pronoun – Mare Nostrum, and doesn't that sea of ours deserve a more appropriate name such as Mare Monstrum (monster)? Honey and teran wine are reserved for us, the Other is free to yearn for it. Maybe The Dark Side of Liberty is the right idea, yet of a scope too broad, unfamiliar, cargo cult and the imported cynicism of a foreigner that paves the way for the practical mistakes, which, at the end of the day, could not be avoided anyhow. It is a fertile ground for the sellers of nostalgy, but also for the healthy theoretical concepts which rise from the large body of “retro-utopias“ of the 20th century where the fragments of the “better and more just“ days are being looked for. Therefore, in some of its numerous contemporary versions, liberty is thought of in past tense, and its coordinates are constrained to North-North-West. 

However, handy libertarian phantoms from the 19th and 20th century, the ideas which from the current political point of view seem at the same time too big, incomprehensible and inadequate for the restrained physical, temporal, sometimes even intellectual spaces through which we mainly move, are nowadays being translated into completely different practices and desires. “Free yourself from fears” serves as the narcotic moto of the post-modern antidepressant consumers. And the anxieties and fears – ergo the contemporary chains – are huge in number. The existential and health-related ones lead the way, so the new liberators are not necessarily going in for dismantling well-educated anarchists and humanists, revolutionaries, artists or poets. We are told that they could be recognized by the white coats of the pharmaceutical engineering of happiness and carelessness. As the most of the contemporary demagogues will try to convince us, liberty is not anymore fought for and reinforced on the streets, in the workplace, through a piece of art or a theoretical article, that is now passé – liberty is now designed and put out for sale from the aseptic laboratories. As their calls were left unreturned, its slaves do not sing its praises anymore, now they consume it daily with a glass of water on an empty stomach with instant results. Before we justly, but maybe too easily shout out and condemn – the contemporary chains!, within the paradigm of the new romanticism, we are bound to acknowledge that if the liberty should be linked to or looked for in the field of anatomy, it would certainly be found in the mouth or the throat. The threatening Shut your gob! or You'll get your gob smacked!, the same as the more benevolent one Spill it out!, are originally didactic, and not necessarily metaphoric imperatives coming from the acknowledgment of liberty's always being confined and closely bound to individuals superior or inferior to us. 

More thorough articulations should be able to represent, or maybe even analyze the history of liberty in the terms of exchange. The means of trade being offered, given or more often taken, are the other or the second last currency which is used to settle debts because even when you claim to have nothing, that you are crushed by the utmost and unbearable deprivation, you still own something. Many of the rulers and usurers were and still are aware of that fact, and so were the outcasted but free and largely romanticized social bandoleros, often praised as heroes and symbols of people's justice, the notion of which has been mainly connected to the agrarian societies: Dick Turpin, Cartouche, Johannes Pueckler, Juraj Janošik, Lampião, Sándor Rózsa, Francisco Sabaté, Bárbara Ramos or Salvatore Giuliano paid a great price for their liberty and robinhoodism. Still, aren't they the very ones who remind us of the fact that liberty has its price almost in every case and that it is never given away as a present, that it can always be charged, or rather overcharged, which means it is in the hands of others? Doesn't that disparate relationship bring up the question of its relation both to righteousness and justice, legality and legitimacy? Who do Cartouche, Lampião, and Rózsa stand for today? Who are our illegal, but legitimate social bandits of the digital age which point to the limits of liberty and at the same time lose their own in this unreasonable equation? Are they whistlers such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, hacker and programmer Aaron Swartz or Ahed Tamimi who reminds us once again that liberty is sometimes connected to the notion of ethnicity? Are some future Bárbara Ramoses, future Sabatés, Puecklers and Janošiks locked at the stage of incubation among the army of malcontents in the corporate, civic and academic sector burdened with freelancing – often characterized as the ultimate form of slavery? 

Regardless of what we are going to make of the questions posed, at this year's Book Fair(y) we will speak of liberty freely, sometimes sing, but mainly listen. Because we need a mouth and a throat, vocal chords and breath to talk about it, to negotiate and agree upon it, but without ears and arms to acknowledge it and transform it into some future action, it is a breath thrown into the abyss of the disposable, or in the best case a soliloquy spent in vain. For that reason, almost in the inversely proportional manner, although we know that it is impossible to see liberty as a self-evident fact, we feel the urge to listen about it constantly and by all means available. It means that we should give priority to hearing and rehabilitate the ear, probably the most neglected and the least responsive sense organ in the body. If we manage to do so, in this way listening and hearing will, at least for a short period, become watching and seeing. Through listening about the chains, we might become able to see them: Voir les chaînes!, Voir les chaînes!