A number of things came together for me today: Johnny Cash, John Berger, and my figurings last week on agency. The precise shape of their coagulation isn’t clear to me yet but I’ll explain: firstly the tiny Rustichellos and I have been singing along to Johnny Cash in the car for a few weeks now. More recently we’ve have taken to singing our favourite bits to each other at home, ‘Jackson’ (We got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout), ‘A Boy Named Sue’ (I knew that snake was my own sweet dad/from a worn-out picture that my mother’d had), and most certainly ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (when I was just a baby, my momma told me son/always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns) figuring particularly prominently.
Secondly Dr Sternlove has been reading aloud from Berger’s book of essays The White Bird (U.S. title: The Sense of Sight) and I have been lying awake in the heat thinking about Picasso, Ernst Fischer, and Durer. With two consecutive nights of heat and humidity today I found myself googling Berger and found this fascinating essay in Guernica. It was the banner quote which immediately caught my eye:
The best way to understand the world is not as a metaphorical prison but a literal one.
And finally I spent a lot of words last week suggesting that agency was not the act of choice but the knowing that choice is possible, being aware that we can make choices.
Listening to Johnny Cash, singing along this afternoon with The Chook, as he drones “well I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” I can hear both that choice, and knowledge of the possibility of choice is simply inescapable. Johnny Cash knows that whoever the jailer no one choses the path but the chooser.
And because it is inescapable it is a literal prison. Choice, agency is the practice of being and we can’t be free of it. We can count the days scratching marks on the bedpost for time served but that gets no-one anywhere, you’ve got to choose: “if that railroad train was mine/I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line.”
Making no choice cannot change anything, it leaves things be, leaves us all in our literal prison marking time prior to unbeing. Perhaps if we treat our choices as being those made within the panopticon we might be able to better escape the prisons of our own making. We’ve all got to imagine ourselves listening to the train and wishing we were on it if we’re to acknowledge that we had it coming. Or, Berger again:
Cells have walls that touch the world. Effective acts of sustained resistance will be embedded in the local, near and far…Liberty is slowly being found not outside but in the depths of the prison.