Sunday, September 6, 2015

Happiness and Freedom

“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Slippery phrase, this. Pharrell Williams doesn’t ask you to believe that happiness is the truth in order to participate. You need only feel that the comparison is possible, that happiness is close enough to the truth to be comparable. And they are. I feel like happiness is the truth insofar as the truth sometimes is elusive and happiness sometimes feels made up and both happiness and the truth sometimes feel right as rain. “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” How can you not clap along? It’s easier to clap than to admit by not clapping the doubt in our hearts. The song makes us happy by asserting that we are. Like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but without the imperatives. But much more effectively, too, because it allows you to chose being happy, even if you don’t actually know what being happy is or means. You can be happy like “a room without a roof.” That sounds like a ruin to me. A happy one, I guess. Our desire for happiness is so powerful and the song’s projection of happiness so compelling that there was a while there when “Happy” was everywhere.

I have heard Williams’ new single, “Freedom,” only one time on the radio, though I wish I could hear it more often.  Like “Happy,” it also asks us to ponder things we may not easily explain, but unlike the earlier song, in which not knowing enabled feeling, in “Freedom” not knowing keeps us from experiencing the transcendence contained in the concept of freedom. Moreover, not knowing in “Happy” enables a sense of belonging, while knowing in “Freedom” entails a joyous surrendering of particularity, something much more challenging in our modern episteme.

The song is located centrally in what Paul Gilroy calls the dissident cultures of the black Atlantic. Its call for freedom resonates with the cultures that were born in the fires of racialized slavery and its macabre aftermath. Cultures that responded to that terror with expressions of dignity that affirmed the humanity of black people and encoded resistance to the brutal racial realities that have continued in the modern system to the present day.

Gilroy also reminds us that one of the perverse effects of the racial regime in which we live is that it constricts the full humanity of everyone. Echoing Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gilroy suggests that by continuing to deny the humanity of non-white peoples, Europeans and their white descendants have made themselves more inhuman. The struggle for freedom from racial oppression, then, is a struggle to free all people from the grip of the particularity of racial identity and the hierarchies constructed from those identities.

Williams follows in that tradition and takes it further. “We are from the heat/The electric one/Does it shock you to see?/He left us the sun/Atoms in the air/Organisms in the sea/The sun and yes, man/Are made of the same things.” Williams draws these things into the same circle with lyrical urgency. Freedom here means surrendering our uniqueness and embracing our interrelationship with all of existence. We gain freedom when we begin to see ourselves as inseparable from the world around us. The “He” in the lyrics suggests a Christian dimension, something like recognizing an “intelligent design” of which we are a part, but the non-hierarchical relationship of humanity to existence elaborated in this song is profoundly at odds with Judeo-Christian belief. Freedom entails understanding how much we are like everything else, that we are not special, that creation is not here for our use, that all things and not we alone are made in god’s image. To transcend, to be free, means to disappear into undifferentiated existence. How appealing is that thinking in the modern social imaginaries that place the individuated (and usually racialized white and gendered male) human at the center of the world? Like I said, I’ve only heard it once on the radio.

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