March 24th, 2011 / 6:28 pm

Possible Paths to Freedom

Two competing suppositions:

1. The path to maximum freedom is maximum knowledge, maximum mastery, so that the largest possible range of options and possibilities is on the table, and so that improvisations and inventions and productive acts of play might rise from the foundation laid by the broadest possible exposure to everything.

2. The path to maximum freedom is a rejection of preexisting things. The way to invention, improvisation, and productive acts of play begins with a willful resistance to the idea that the making of art coincides with an engagement with the world of ideas, information, or the discourse of others. It is better not to think too much about these things. Good things rise from organic processes divorced from the analytic.


  1. Hello

      Well, someone took philosophy in college…

  2. T Bailey

      Or else he was paying attention to the debate on HTML Giant today.

  3. M. Kitchell

      there are so many bitchy bitches around lately

  4. Curt

      can i like number 2?

  5. deadgod

      I guess the ‘competition’ is between anticipatory analysis and ad hoc pathfinding.

      – to which: 1. preparation doesn’t – or doesn’t have to – obstruct “improvisation”, either as an exigency or an ability; and 2. “improvisation” never happens on a foundation of no experience or forethought.

      The contrast discloses a mutual entailment rather more than it does a ‘competition’, in my view.

      And what’s “freedom”?? – to me, a word loaded almost to the point of inutility.

      When people say “freedom”, they usually mean ‘permission, license’, and count on getting ‘freedom from consequences’. Or they use the word as a political bludgeon, an automatic, automatically in-every-case desideratum: ‘escape from doing things at your own expense’.

      It’s not a word attached conceptually to “responsibility” or “long-term interests” – though, of course, “freedom” often comes in the same rhetorical packages as personal responsibility and sacrifice in risibly self-contradictory ‘conservative’ bloviation.

      What do you mean by ‘maximizing freedom’? What do you want more of??

  6. deadgod

      Well, someone learned how to organize their thoughts and phrase that organization adequately.

      Also, someone learned how to win conversations by not having them.

      Misundereducated winning!…

  7. T Bailey

      If you stretch out one of those images at the top of the post, it’s Jimmy Chen.

  8. alanrossi

      why is the second one referring to “art” specifically? also, what deadgod said, as per usual: how does one “improvise” or “invent” without some general knowledge of preexisting things.

      in zen, there are two schools of thought regarding enlightenment: in one, a person becomes enlightened by long hard work of meditating and shit (the slow enlightenment school); in the other, one becomes enlightened in an instant, after having their arm chopped off or after having cold water poured on their balls. but (these new fancy days anyway), for those who believe in the “instant” approach, that doesn’t mean meditating and practicing isn’t worthwhile in the meantime; and for those of the long hard work school, it is not seen as an impossibility that enlightenment may come in an instant, it’s just unlikely.

      so, why must the two views above be competing? why can’t one both by analytically competent when necessary and, when the situation changes, turn to a more intuitive approach? a tennis player practices shots over and over and over, until the body knows the shots and the mind doesn’t think about them: but still, it becomes all intuition and creativity when one must make a stretched running forehand on a deep volley for a crosscourt winner.

  9. Jonathan

      I thought about this question when you posted that book list from one of your syllabi a few months back and said something like, “If you want to be a writer you need to read your brains out.” I wondered then, and still do: is this necessarily true? It certainly might be, and I do think that if you want to write a work of art and haven’t read widely you just aren’t going to be aware of some of the things that fiction (or any kind of writing) can do, though this doesn’t rule out the possibility that you might stumble organically into some innovations of your own (though, again, a limited reading background is going to predispose you to assess as innovative certain techniques or maneuvers that have already been exploited, probably more effectively, by other writers). But when I think about what happens in my brain when I sit down to write something now, as opposed to, say, four or five years back, I do find that the freewheeling joy I used to feel once in a while mid-composition is pretty much a thing of the past (assuming it isn’t just a post facto rennovation in memory of a process that was actually just as generally unpleasant for me then as it is now), and that while my development as a reader has certainly given me more tools to work with, the workshop sometimes seems so cluttered of late that I can’t conjure the motivation to do any actual work — and instead of using the breadth of insight into how writing can work that I’ve theoretically acquired with all of the reading I’ve done to actually write something of my own, I open a beer and page through another of the many books I’ve been telling myself I need to read.

  10. Curt

      Personally I think #1 is a very systematic approach (and I do believe that Mr. Minor is right in saying that #1 and #2 ARE in opposition [if you disagree take a poet from both numerical selections, you should find that their different processes yield very different results; think formal poets vs. Olson’s projective verse]. #1 is a more conservative approach whereas #2 is more liberal.

      Improvisation is not the key of #2 either, it is resistance, attempting to cast away the world/knowledge (because after all you cannot resist what you do not know as alanrossi pointed out). The idea of freedom is intriguing because it gives promise of creating something that is entirely you (this does not imply the work will be self-involved though it could, i.e. confessional poet) and possibly ‘new’/’fresh’/’honest’/etc.

      Reading/influence only gets you so far (as Jonathan implys), they should be tools but not blueprints.

  11. kb

      I’m been thinking about such things a lot recently, Synthesis/Process/Objectivity v. Deconstuction/Negation/Subjectivity… Alfred Whitehead’s God v Meister Eckhart’s God, Hegel’s Dialectic v Kierkegaard’s Dialectic, Joyce v Beckett, and so on.

      I’ve had the thought for a long time that an infinite postive and an infinite negative both end up being the same thing… describing exactly how and why that is though…

  12. kb

      I’m been thinking about such things a lot recently, Synthesis/Process/Objectivity v. Deconstuction/Negation/Subjectivity… Alfred Whitehead’s God v Meister Eckhart’s God, Hegel’s Dialectic v Kierkegaard’s Dialectic, Joyce v Beckett, and so on.

      I’ve had the thought for a long time that an infinite postive and an infinite negative both end up being the same thing… describing exactly how and why that is though…

  13. Alec Niedenthal

      This is exactly how I’ve felt lately–thanks Jonathan.

  14. kb

      Maybe an “affirmation of all things conceivable” and a “denial of all things conceivable” would be a better way to put that…

  15. mark leidner

      if you already have wealth or talent, choose number 2

  16. kb

      Nietzche condenses the inquiry, perhaps, or maybe I am on a different trail… from The Gay Science: “Regarding all aesthetic values I now avail myself of this main distinction: I ask in every single case, “Is it HUNGER or OVERFLOW which has here become creative?” (CAPS MINE).

  17. phill

      That’s an interesting problem, and perhaps a personal one. Are there people who, looking at the spread of tools that they have accumulated over the years of reading, smile and nod to themselves, happy at the chance to use the right tool for the right job? Or does knowledge of those tools necessarily introduce the notion of writing becoming work? Anticipating the pointed arguments of critics, eschewing tools that are right for the job but worn from overuse? While I’m not the most knowledgeable reader in the world, sometimes I think it’d be nice not to know any better. Automatic writing can only take you so far back into that realm of ‘joyful freewheeling’ before, like an astronaut, your oxygen line pulls taut and you get dragged back to the station. Is this another moment of nostalgia? Topic seems to be popping up all over the place.

  18. Sean

      This can’t end at 1 and 2 is the problem. Minimum 14 options.

  19. deadgod

      It sounds like you find the Maximus poems to have been written with a “willful resistance” to “an engagement with the world of ideas, information, [and] the discourse of others”.

      Olson – enabled by his liberality – was a student of Mayan cultural anthropology, a student of American history, a student of the biological sciences, and a close reader of Pound and Melville — among other enthusiastic “engagement[s] with the world of ideas, information, [and] the discourse of others”.


  20. James Yeh

      I think you’re all overthinking it.

  21. Anonymous

  22. NLY

      Keeping their difficult balance.

  23. alanrossi


  24. kb

      Probably mastery and then negation. Anxiety of influence? Beckett and Nietzsche keep coming up because they are the clearest examples (to me) of this. Both had obvious daddies (Joyce, Schopenhauer) and neither “became themselves” until they finally rejected them. Joyce and Schopenhauer seem to me to be the mastery-types, and both built self-sustaining systems (specifically Finnegan’s Wake and World as Will and Idea/Representation) while their offspring denied all systems / synthesises…

  25. Andrewworthington

      feel like the binary/dualistic nature of this post troubles me…feel like the fact that i use those terms goes against my argument…feel like i want to do both and neither…

  26. Anonymous

  27. Anonymous

      Kyle, have you seen Mickey One? I saw it tonight. If you haven’t, you should see it. It’s a great movie, and deals (imo) with this question in the sense you’re talking about but also in a broader sense. It’s cool.

  28. Curt

      i was thinking more along the lines of his collected poems and not his grand epic. obviously an epic poem such as The Cantos or The Maximus Poems, or “A” has been rigorously planned/revised. i will give you this much: epic poems tend to rely on #1 and individual poems (or small sequences, think Jack Spicer) rely more on #2. So you’re just as right as I am.

      I guess I should’ve used Spicer instead, as he used dictation and never wrote an epic. oh well.

  29. Morgan

      The problem with how you’ve set this up, to me, is that I see a big difference between knowledge and mastery. It’s one thing to “know” about the established rules in a given field, it’s another to internalize those rules to such a degree that you can apply them “masterfully” yourself. That internalization has to change you in ways you can’t go back on. New possibilities are created, sure, but other possibilities are destroyed.

      Personally, I’m glad that different artists take different approaches to this question, because if either was completely dominant the possibilities unique to the other would be lost.

      (And if what we’re actually talking about here is aesthetics, is “freedom” a necessary value? As one of your 137 rules says, “don’t forget that formal constraints can yield up super-cool things” — I’d extend that to all kinds of constraints, even disabilities/limitations. Especially disabilities and limitations.)

  30. klexander

      deadgod and alanrossi hit on this point nicely: the two suppositions aren’t necessarily competiting. improv/play/rejection often entail knowledge, and while it’s easy to conceive of ‘art for art’s sake,’ i think you’d be hard pressed to sever a creative act from a particular discourse or “the world of ideas.”