“I like to be human because in my unfinishedness I know that I am conditioned. Yet conscious of such conditioning, I know that I can go beyond it, which is the essential difference between conditioned and determined existence…In other words, my presence in the world is not so much of someone who is merely adapting to something “external,” but of someone who is inserted as if belonging essentially to it. It’s the position of one who struggles to become the subject and maker of history and not simply a passive, disconnected object.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
I am so thankful that we don’t have pre-determined existences, and that we have socio-historical vocations to determine ourselves ontologically. Call it free will, call it an ontological vocation, or call it choice. Needless to say, we have a choice and we can become active agents actively pursuing our being in this world, instead of passive receptacles of a life pre-determined by the conditioning of external forces. In the modern context, these forces stem from the market-system which conditions us, and prefers us to be and to feel as we do (reticent, tired, overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless, crazy, irrational, isolated, etc.). The perceived divinity of market forces conditions us to believe our roles as workers, students, parents, consumers, citizens, spouses, children, elderly, etc. are both predetermined and limited by the “invisible hand” of the market.
So what is one of the most radical things we can do? Become aware of our conditioning and sharpen our edge for perceiving all of the socio-cultural, historical and even genetic factors that have conditioned our construction. Recognize that “it would be ironic if the awareness of my presence in the world did not at the same time imply a recognition that I could not be absent from the construction of my own presence.” If we fail to recognize our role in determining who we are and how we’ll live our every moment, we renounce our “historical, ethical, social, and political responsibility for [our] own evolution.” So in that sense, according to Freire, we are renouncing our ontological vocation to intervene in the world.
Once we recognize that we are alive and free to pursue our ontological vocation of becoming, we must remain vigilant to external conditioning. Instead of thinking of it as burdensome “work,” we should celebrate the freedom of determining for ourselves who we want to be, and think of it as our duty to ourselves. And with the choice to become a constructive presence in our own worlds, comes necessary training, education, self-reflection, and yes, dutiful “work.” There is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back pace to life.
Here is where our vigilance and constant recognition of the conditioning is all important. Externally, market forces recognize and capitalize on our unfinishedness and lead us to believe that without the market we cannot resolve our anxieties about being unfinished. Indeed, market forces wish us to see our “unfinishedness” as simply a phase in a pre-determined life. Market forces further strap a relatively benign idea of unfinishedness with notions that the “vocation of becoming” is more burdensome than one can manage alone or with the limited time one has to pursue such frivolousness. “Oh, if one only had more energy, money and time!”
And, frankly, we have lost our time. We have lost our energy. And so we have lost our roles in our own lives. We are not actually making history anymore, though the mediated images of the spectacle delude this perception so that we see ourselves as choosing. All we are doing is surviving. We are managing pre-determined lives from debt to debt, from holiday to holiday, from grocery visit to grocery visit, or from out-dated laptop to out-date laptop. In between, we might go through a phase of cleaning house and “taking control” over our lives. We suddenly become determined to turn our lives around and get into shape only to lose track of that fleeting emotional “choice” to the burdens of economics and diminishing time. Trapped in a tide of ceaseless pounding by market forces, we are clinging to rocks like barnacles: inert, inactive and eating whatever the waves bring us.
The difference between a market-driven plan to “take control” of one’s life and the kind of conscientization called for by Freire is fundamental. Rather than a Dr. Phil “Relationship Rescue” plan that ignores the cosmic conditioning of our lives and pretends to end our problems after a pre-determined program of study, Freire asks us to recognize our incompletedness as fundamental to the human condition. Our lives require a constant cycle of research, reflection and then action. From each action will undoubtedly evoke new challenges that will require more education, reflection and subsequent action. This kind of ontological—and radical—action on our parts both individually and collectively subverts market determinism and increasingly liberates the human experience.
In order to undermine the monoliths of inevitability, and pre-determination which was historically influenced by fear, superstition, and cosmological anxiety and then institutionalized by neoliberal philosophy and religion, we must insist on the necessity of conscientization. Becoming aware of our conditioning and our unfinishedness lends itself to an honesty and curiosity that rarely manifests in our world.
Can you imagine a world of conscientious, curious and honest people?