Are We Free? On Freedom, Potatoes, and a Third Way Politics in Turbulent Times (Part Two)

April 27, 2024  • BÁYÒ AKÓMOLÁFÉ, PH.D., Guest Contributor

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In the final scene of the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, the central character Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, realizes his life has been a sham.

Born and raised on a giant television set as the oblivious star of a round-the-clock, 24-hour series greedily consumed by millions of fans, Truman is first introduced to us – his meta-audience – as an average guy who, unbeknownst to him, lives in a scripted reality where his best friends are plot devices, his job is a psychological spring trap designed to keep him situated and surveyable within the vast production studio and within budget, his polite manners are conditioned habits that enhance his ‘watchability’, and his every move is observed by expertly hidden cameras.

A fateful encounter with a potential love interest – really an extra on the elaborate set – sparks off a series of insights, accidents, rewrites, suspicions, and experiments, which then blossom into full-blown attempts to respond to what Truman slowly realizes is the central question of his life: am I free?

Now at the edge of his world, at the literal edge of everything he has ever known, the god of the studio thunders his final bargain, through parting clouds and a biblical aesthetic, reminding him that he is better off in the familiar, in the arms of those that watched him get born, and those that watched him take his first steps, and those that watched him go to school for the first time. The voice offers Truman the only thing it really can: belonging.

It doesn’t matter that you have been incarcerated in here for so long, the creator of the show seems to say. The world you seek out there is no better than this one, no more real, no less surveilled. I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.

Truman ultimately chooses neither. Choice is not the issue here. Lingering at the liminal edges of his moral world, the question of whether he is free or not fails, and then falls at the feet of a minor gesture[1], a terrifying risk, the trace of a memory of a moment when he was spirited away by a glance. There is no answer to the question of freedom that is not a coming to an edge, a coming to a crack in the wall, an embrace of the bewilderment of embodiment. The absurdity of freedom hits home: we are only as free as our conditions. To be free is to be indebted. And he is indebted to a glitch in the otherwise smooth production algorithms of the studio.

Truman walks into darkness, becoming fugitive, fading away from the text, from the screen, from all audiences – but not before hurling his habitual politeness back at his creator.

I thought about The Truman Show when I first read the comments of Simon Stiell – the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change – at a recent forum exploring how far along the world has come in addressing global warming. Stiell announced that the world has only two years left to get its act together – or face unprecedented collapse in the heat and swallow of runaway greenhouse effects. The end of the world as we have known it.

In addition to making these simultaneously startling and by-the-numbers prediction, Stiell assured the world that there was still hope, and that this hope lived in the efforts of “everyone on the planet”, every aspiring leader, every conscientious actor.

It seemed to me that Stiell, at his podium, was appealing to an idea, the star of white modernity: the impervious, free, citizen-subject who – when faced with demise and catastrophe – should properly choose life over death. Sustainability over consumerism. Green economies over toxic pillars of feathered poisons. Justice over injustice.

But the ‘star’ no longer ‘exists’ and has been carried away.

Drawing lines between us and the world, we begin our accounts of responsibility from ourselves, from our intentions, from a politics of human actors who can – given the resources and time – change the world. The problem of course is that this vaunted, self-evident, liberal actor is ever more difficult to locate amidst the tides and flows and criss-crossing intensities of technology, geopolitics, microbial gestures, and multi-species animacies that are the conditions of life and death. We are learning that the one who acts is not ‘one’ at all, and action is dispersed across manifold networks that share the burden of how the world comes to be itself.

We do not act upon the world. We are the world in its unspeakable tensions, contradictions, experimentations, creativities, and messy alchemies.

It is not left to us to save the day.

Stiell’s premise of freedom and choice, nourished by a neurotypical liberal humanism that sees individuals and leaders instead of monstrous assemblages of entrained flows and indebted turns, feels inadequate to the moment. The evangelism of the data, the sermons of science, and the assurances of statehood about our inherent nobility no longer feel capable of matching the alluring power of travelled desire.

It might seem deeply controversial to say that choice is not available now. We are religiously committed to the idea that choice – the fulcrum around which freedom spins – is always available, an inviolable aspect of what it means to be human. We all have it; each of us. Simon Stiell believes this. Somewhere between the pineal gland and heaven, somewhere in our chests, a divine light glows seductively. A light not of this world.

In recent times however, the luminosity of this inexplicable gift that supposedly sets us apart from animals, has not illuminated a path of escape from the problems that confront us. It’s not that we do not make choices; it’s that the expected effects of such gestures are curiously counter-anticipatory. It’s not a failure to choose that haunts us; it’s the failure of choice altogether. An overwhelming pattern is eating up the city, and whichever way we turn, whether to the left or to the right, we come right back to the spiral[2] – the ant mill and its pheromonic trance, the Sisyphean hellscape.

For some, this failure of choice looks like the deepening intensities of white modernity in its efforts at regaining mastery by investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. It looks like the dopaminergic networks of persistence that inform citizens of the Global North to keep investing in sustainability, even while the feedback data from these experiments at persistence tell us that most recyclable waste is shipped to the Global South – to Ghana as 15 million pieces of clothing per week, to Asia and South America as millions of tonnes of plastic trash.

When being good leads to effects not so different from being bad, then a moral apparatus is losing its generativity. When the ways we respond to the crisis becomes the crisis, we need to get lost. What is the point of leadership if the idea is to get lost? What kind of politics is invited now?

This is why I write about a third way.

The third way is unspeakable. It is not to be fully designated or fully named. So, I end – quite abruptly – my exploration of freedom, choices, potatoes, and loss with a few thoughts about this concept.

By the ‘third way’, I do not mean an incremental cousin to a fundamental binary. I do not speak of independent parties or a synthetic blend of centre-right and centre-left ideologies. I do not write about modernized social democracy. I am not even speaking of an ‘alternative’, a foil to the mainstream. Instead, I refer to a tendency that infiltrates the body, a subtle force that upsets moral-aesthetic arrangements. An exquisite site of queer matterings. The failure that streams through success.

In Yoruba cosmologies, the third marks the agency of the trickster Èsù. The trickster is transversal, cutting across the tensions, intensifying the messiness often shrouded by the capitulation to a convenient game of sides, blurring the borders between goodness and evil, complicating responsibility.

In my estimation, the third way is not a guarantee, not a solution, not a cartography of Yellow Brick Roads and emerald utopias, but an invitation of some sort to a politics of messy collaborations, social experimentation, and generative incapacitation.

In a time when choice is broken, when there are no highways to escape, we will need to travel in the lowercase. We will need to meet each other in new sites of im/possibilities.

[This is part two of a two part essay. Read part one here.]

About Aspen Global Leadership Network Scholars-in-Residence
AGLN Scholars-in-Residence are an Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN) experiment to widen our aperture and bring in global perspectives on humanity’s greatest challenges. We’re thrilled to have Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and Báyò Akómoláfé as inaugural Scholars-in-Residence serving in this role. They will offer virtual engagements, writings, assist with curriculum development, as appropriate, in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Office of Curriculum and Moderators, and more.

[1] I like to think that the spotlight labelled “Sirius (9 Canis Major)”, which falls from the sky in front of Truman’s car at the beginning of the film, is part of the same splitting, disrupting tendency that has cracked its way through the seemingly impervious studio-world of Truman – beginning, so to speak, with the moonstruck glance that sets it all off.

[2] I borrow this idea of a cursed spiral eating bodies and cannibalizing cities from Junji Ito’s manga comic, Uzumaki – where a pattern maddens a town in Japan, warping directionality, disrupting positionality, and transmutating bodies into monstrous life forms.