Updated: Apr 15
A tableau, visible only through a pair of peepholes in a wooden door.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
In this modern milieu, I have found it troublesome to collaborate with social norms. On one hand, I believe that this society enjoys some of the greatest liberties known to man, but the degree or nuance of this freedom is not always well directed. I find myself constantly between a rock and a hard place for I revere this doctrine of freedom so much that I am desperate to see it in action and it pains me that I seldom do.
There are unspoken rules as to how to properly exist in this world and meeting the requirements of modern society enables one to function passably in this ‘proper’ realm. But my personal priorities are quite divergent. I want other things, which do not fit into the category of acceptable desires, but most of all, I want freedom.
I am a palpable idealist, but even I have to admit that freedom is effectively mythological. We have merely dreamed it, but it is a dream from which I am yet to wake. Instead of chasing popularity, status, money, and possessions, which are just as futile, I try to get as close as I can to that elusive reverie.
I find this notion of freedom or lack thereof particularly pertinent when it comes to my body. This peculiar thing. Deviant, dark, and undesired. However free I may feel in my mind, I remain bound by this flightless, gendered being. However multiplicitous and complex my thoughts may be, my body is legible only as one or two things. This external perception of the self is nothing short of excruciating.
For this reason, I find my greatest freedom when I am utterly alone and hidden from oversimplifying eyes. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said: "Hell is other people." He tells a story of a person looking through a keyhole and they are completely absorbed with what they see behind the keyhole. They suddenly hear a step behind them and become aware that they are also being watched. This makes them overcome with a sense of shame for being caught performing a reprehensible act.
One of the most fundamental things in understanding Sartre is that he was himself horrified by the perception people had of him. A philosopher born into an upper-middle-class family, he lost his father at an early age. One of the turning points in Sartre’s life was when he became aware of his appearance. An infection left him squint and he began to perceive himself as ugly. From then on he focused all his energy on his intellectual assets. This in part would lead to the development of existentialist theory.
That shame exists at all proves how preoccupied we are with other people’s gaze. We often think of ourselves as objects in someone else’s world. Hence we cannot ever be truly comfortable with each other. The self and the other will forever be in conflict.
Essentially, individual freedom cannot exist. Even when we think we are making decisions such as getting to work on time, paying bills on time, walking on the right side of the road, these are NOT decisions. These are conditions – attempts to be accepted by others. Consciousness itself is a relation or response to our surroundings and circumstances.
Society then is borne out of a desire to be unified by agreed-upon terms - the social contract. Whether it is a club, religion, or law, there are certain standards we choose to share in order to make sense of the world. individual freedom would infringe upon these agreements.
We are thrust into existence with no proven reason or meaning. The exquisite part is that gives us the opportunity to attribute our own meanings to our lives. Yet we seem to remain driven by how our lives are perceived by external forces. Whether it is family, friends or followers, the self remains intricately linked to the other, begging the question of whether the self exists at all.
In today's increasingly connected society, most people need a script, an answer, or a rule book. They want to be shown the way. Particularly in the internet age, it is clear that people would rather say something than think something. thought is no longer truly self-oriented. In order to impress upon each other, people rarely use freedom of thought but instead demand freedom of speech as consolation.