Freedom and Uncertainty

Ingrid Molderez
Limburg University, BEL


The future only exists in the now. Such Cooperian metaphors are the foundation of sensemaking in the following article. Molderez's work represents a unique form of European postmodern metaphorical thought surrounding complexity and sensemaking. Beneath the syllogisms and tropes lies a poetic flow relating uncertainty to the potentiality for action. Two intersecting fences and a forward-moving force create a box, the only escape from which is a perpendicular vector. Pragmatic managerial advice this piece is not, but as a synesis of free-flowing ideas it contains an inspiration for new insight and creative potential.


“Nothing is certain any more unless it is uncertainty.” In this article the connection between freedom and uncertainty is analyzed and discussed thematically in a series of metaphors such as “fences as boxes,” “including/excluding,” “the land of qwerty,” and the “end(s) of plans.” The basic theme is letting everything in (cf. Francis Bacon), so that uncertainty becomes intertwined with certainty. Letting everything in is related to the idea of being instead of within, which allows for the decentralizing the human body. Being-with is linked to a freedom that does not focus on the individual as a separate and fragmented body, but with the body-in-contact, a body that cares and is free to take care (Heidegger, 1962).

What does it really mean to be uncertain and is uncertainty a concept closely related to the inclination to dominate? Being able to know and feel certain are closely related to each other. One is certain when one knows what is going to happen, when one knows how to be in control. When this becomes unknowable, one feels uncertain. The desire to be certain about everything is linked to the aim to know in advance. Knowing is not allowed to be viewed as a process. Process is uncertainty, and therefore also not-knowing. The only certainty we have is that life ends in death. That certainty is the source of all uncertainty. It scares us that we cannot live for ever. To be able to cope with this certainty, we do as if we can live for ever and we try to get our grip on everything, by boxing in reality. But uncertainty is interwoven with life and that makes uncertainty certain.

Fences as boxes

Fencing in characterizes western thought, as Emile Durkheim once said. The necessity of specialization is linked to the development of ever more complex societies. But specialization has evolved into the cutting off of what is not alike and the enclosing of that which is alike. What is within the fence is known and does not need to be questioned.

In No Man's Land, George Monbiot (1994) demonstrates how much this obsession with fencing has intruded into daily life. The dominant way of thinking is a form of fencing where things are put into boxes. Our life is overwhelmed by such boxes. Instead of telling stories around the fireplace, we sit in front of a box. We watch and listen without the capacity to connect. Everything must be shown to us for every “thing” is outside the box. Initiative, the ability to take part and to be part of, has been removed. The box prevents us from being moved—both literally and emotionally.

We have stopped making our own music; music too has been put in its own box. National parks are boxes created to contain animals to be looked at—only after one pays one's entrance fee. Our telephones are boxes. Our democracy is reduced to boxes; one inserts one's ballot into a box. The most important friend we have in our lives is a box—the computer. The value of a human being is found in boxes.

The box as metaphor illustrates the link between certainty and the attempt to grasp everything. The box refers to the container as well as to the contents of the container. In both cases, the contours are eye catching and therefore easy to retain, keep, maintain and sustain. The contours of the box point to their frame, i.e. to what keeps the content from escaping. Here we see the possessive character of the frame, of framing and of managing. The manager is “the one who puts things his or her way, the one who frames others” (Lefebvre, 1997: 137). Modern factories are closed boxes. In the nineteenth century workrooms had large windows. They allowed daylight to enter. People could see both inside and outside. Electric light made such construction superfluous. The buildings do not contain large windows any more. They are quasi-boxes. Shrinking human substance to a box limits behaviour to a cube. Nothing beyond the contours is tolerated.

Drawing on Robert Cooper's word games (1997), frame is cognate with from. Frame is what is taken from. A frame is also a form; the function of frames is to make forms through frames and through framing. Form evokes the image of uniform—or that which makes everything uniform and excludes that which does not fit. What fits in is absorbed. The frame forms us like a uniform, and informs us as what to do and how to behave, i.e. how to perform.

Sometimes frames are confusing. The signposts for the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, are a case in point. Open University communicates a message of accessibility, but the gate at the entrance displays the opposite. The same goes for Keele University. When one enters Keele grounds, the first sign is “Welcome to Keele University.” This is immediately followed by “Wheel clamps in operation.”


Border as frame is explored in Jacques Claes's (1994) analysis of façade. A façade is not just the front of a building, but also a bridge between that which is locked in and that which is locked out. Depending on the scale of accessibility, the bridge can be approached by a large number of people or only by a few. Think, for instance, about the power that is exhibited by the grandeur of the buildings of financial institutions. Like a smile on a face disclosing a friendly person, a façade unveils what is happening inside. The façade masks what is inside and mystifies observers, keeping them outside—not in the know.

Combining different frames leads to uncertainty. Uncertainty is often represented as the opposite of certainty. Uncertainty and certainty are, then, mutually exclusive. Uncertainty is what we are not sure of, what we do not know. Not knowing, “the uncanny” and “das Unheimliche” (cf. Freud, Heidegger in Steiner, 1992) is bewildering because there is no direction, no guiding, no guarding. Following Maurice Blanchot in The Ease of Dying (Michel Holland, 1995: 3): “What is not seen is the only important thing.” Not seen stands for not understood: not found out, not determined, not made sure, and therefore not known.

This does not imply that the unknown or the uncertain are essential in themselves. Uncertainty relates to including and enclosure, thus perceptions of uncertainty can differ: “If only people were free enough to let everything in, something extraordinary might come of it” (Francis Bacon in John Russell, 1993: 30). Certainty demands the exclusion or expulsion of that which is not familiar. There can be no thing without nothing, and there can be no certainty without uncertainty.

Uncertainty lets in only gradual moves towards certainty. One becomes familiar with what is not known. Francis Bacon (in Russell, 1993: 112; also referred to by Cooper, 1997) exemplified the importance of inclusion and exclusion by rephrasing Shakespeare's “To be or not to be” into “To be and not to be”, i.e. “the marks on the canvas have to make the image, but they also have to not-make it.” Painting and writing are inclusion and exclusion.

Three Figures in a Room, painted in 1964, illustrates this. One of the panels shows a naked man who is sitting on the toilet in such a way that man and toilet are one. The painter is acting as creator of a micro cosmos: “a microscope camera; The man does not acknowledge the painter's presence.” Bacon reversed the relationship between painter and the subject/object. Things that play a vital role in a human's life are now included. The idea of letting in is also central to the paintings of Edgar Degas (Fisher, 1991: 214). In the nudes he painted between 1885 and 1890:

Degas denies the body a distinct power to organize the space around a human personality. Instead the body has surrendered to the still-life and become like a white pitcher, just another element within the arrangement. “I want a bigger box!”

Thus letting in can be considered as a quest for a bigger frame or, according to Monbiot, a quest for a bigger box. But the freedom for letting in is also a licence for letting out, i.e. a movement of coming and going. This movement can also have an adverse effect, because constant movement makes linkages temporary and loose. The emphasis on movement points to the possibility of being in two places at the same time. In other words, letting in is about feeling connected to two worlds that are disconnected at first sight. Compare the world of “profit making” with the world of “being environmentally friendly.” The two are boxed and boxed in— (pre)packed as if something is hidden or concealed. Yet, thinking in terms of only two worlds would be an oversimplification of the complexity of life.

With the inclusion/exclusion pair, one can make a cluster of what is in and what is out, instead of trying to define it. In René Magritte's Plagiarism (Gablik, 1992: 92, 94), the experience of inner and outer is synthesized. Through a vase of flowers on a table, one sees a meadow and trees. Two realities are allied with one another when one reality can only be viewed by means of the other. Thus, the strict division between inside and outside is shaken, and made uncertain, because of one element of the landscape, i.e. the bird's nest on the table. With Plagiarism, as with other paintings, Magritte emphasizes the simultaneity of events that are normally experienced separately: “Interiors and exteriors coincide, just as things happen concurrently, both inside and outside the mind.”

The movement from exclusion to inclusion and vice versa opens the cloister, the safe, the strongroom, and allows coming and going. Openness is a prerequisite to making in and out possible. The safe is protecting shelter, which always is there when one needs it. Within one can roam freely, but the freedom is at the same time a boundary and a fence.

The land of QWERTY

The free market is a fence. The free market does not insure the liberty of the individual to choose what he likes, but forces him to take what there is. Thus it is not a box. Think of the origin of the qwerty keyboard, which dates back to the nineteenth century (David, 1985; Krugman, 1995). This specific position of the keys forces typists to work slowly. It reduces the tendency of keys to jam, a severe problem with early typewriters. Although it might seem obvious to shift to a more efficient system, everyone who works with qwerty is so familiar with it that another keyboard has never prevailed. Manufacturers make qwerty keyboards because that is what typists are accustomed to. And typists learn the qwerty system because that is what is available. “The standard keyboard, adopted more or less by accident, has become locked in” (Krugman, 1995: 222-3).

Qwerty is the product of chance, of unpredictability, and of uncertainty. The manufacturers did not plan or forecast the dominance of the qwerty system; it just happened. Things happen when different things touch each other, come together and meet. Unpredictability is not an excuse for doing nothing or for acting in the same way as before. Paul Krugman (1995: 222-3) calls the story of the qwerty keyboard:

a parable that opens our eyes to a whole different way of thinking about economics. That different way of thinking rejects the idea that markets invariably lead the economy to a unique best solution; instead it asserts that the outcome of market competition often depends crucially on historical accident.

Path dependence is conceptualized as “where you end up depends on what happens along the way”. The hidden path becomes visible, without implying that traces can be known beforehand. Although the end may be there from the beginning, it is only at the end that one can tell something about the end. A temporary policy of supporting an industry may be able to lock in certain goods and lock out others. Historical accident can also lead to deplorable results, as in an industry that is badly located. Sir Richard Arkwright, for example, established the first successful waterpowered cotton mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1771 because the water supply was available there (Hill, 1985). Two hundred years later, the evident disadvantages—poor communications and a shortage of labor—had finally come to outweigh the advantages. The closing down of the factory shortly followed.

The land of qwerty is another way of saying that there are no fixities, only possibilities (Prigogine, 1996). It is the universe of the unspecifiability of possibility, of being not-known. It reveals a relationship with the past—someone started to build qwerty typewriters—but this past cannot be the basis for predicting the future. One cannot predict the future. Predicting is dictating how things will be. It relates to the “diktat,” to the order that should be obeyed. In the tyranny of forecasts, everybody struggles to meet the imaginary figure of their own making. A prediction is therefore not so much a description of a future happening as a result of knowledge and experience. One lets happen what one wants to happen. Not a lot can be changed afterwards. One grasps the future and makes it one's own. Afterwards one can only comply. In forecasting a cast is a form that makes one firm (a more permanent form of Viagra). Events are unpredictable and take place regardless of what people decide (De Fraye, 1997).

Lyotard (1993), in his analysis of photography, argues that the past comes into being in photos. The comparison with the “land of qwerty” is appropriate. Take for instance Kodak. It was founded in 1880 by George Eastman, who was a bank clerk with an interest in photography. He developed an improved process for making photographic plates and began to manufacture them. His Kodak camera, which used a roll film, was produced in 1888. It was sold under the slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” Two years later, it had been purchased by hundreds of thousands of amateur photographers. The amateur can photograph whatever he wants, but his liberty remains within the borderlines developed by the maker of the apparatus and by the scope of the photograph. Compare the difference between standing on top of a hill and looking at the view, and then looking at a picture taken of that view. They are very different. Science and technology make the person: “the voluntary and unvoluntary servant” (Lyotard, 1993: 123). The amateur photographer, often in the form of a tourist, does not feel restrained by these boundaries. Moving within the frame and taking pictures is like a ritual and that is what people need (Parr, 1996). Being can be validated by a picture that shows that one is (really) (there). Camera or kamara (in Greek) is a room, and is characterized by Kodak's box.

The end of plans

Path dependence or historical accidents are produced by plans, goals and strategies. Qwerty is the dominating typewriting system, without anyone having planned it that way. In Crafting Strategy (Mintzberg, 1995) the idea that strategies can only be made deliberately is criticized. Emergent strategies come to the surface after a slumbering formative process. Suddenly a strategy is there, which is a point of certainty in the muddle of uncertainty. It is a temporary result of praxis, a meeting of doing and thinking. Crafting a strategy depends on the intimate relationship between thinking and doing. Strategy is often explained as a thought process that leads to implementation.

The idea of crafting goes back to the early entrepreneurs who sold (the results of) their craft and became successful. They had a form of their product in their head. By working on it, their idea(s) obtained more and more shape. Such strategy (comparable to the management gurus' concept of vision) is a kind of emptiness that facilitates different possibilities. The entrepreneur is “where the action is.” The action stimulates the thinking process and vice versa. Not having filled in everything allows for space, for freedom to work on the form. A strategy is an incomplete box in the sense of a shelter that is not completely finished, but that offers some kind of guidance.


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