Burning Down the House

Leftist sticker. Brussels, 2014.

In a world where the reality principle has largely been conflated with the totalizing logic of capital, the most powerful messages may be those that repudiate common sense. Consider this provocative sticker from Brussels, one of a series popping up around the city: “If you are really cold, set fire to your house.” Like the Zen koans it resembles, this counter-intuitive advice has the potential to turn one’s thinking inside out.

If, in Kris Kristofferson’s famous words, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” it must be our possessions that keep us prisoners. The prospect of losing them is so painful that we are willing to sacrifice our liberty to retain ownership. To be sure, this bondage does have a practical side. Our homes keep us warm and dry. Our vehicles convey us to both work and play. And our technological devices make it possible to interact with others across all manner of social and political divides.

What is left of us without these things? These days, a lot of people can’t even conceive of an identity that isn’t bound up with — and also bound to — inanimate matter. The notion that there might be a remainder of individuality after our possessions are stripped away strikes them as absurd, if not outright dangerous.

It’s this timid worldview that the slogan on this sticker means to take on. The double-meaning implicit in the word “cold” is crucial. To the extent that we are unwilling to put our belongings at risk, we end up becoming like them, devoid of the spirit that animates life.

The idea of putting these goods to the match, of acknowledging that they are only “good” insofar as we imbue them with that attribute, can be taken literally, of course, and sometimes must be. But it is equally powerful as a figure for radically rethinking selfhood.

Maybe we need to aspire, not to the model of identity borrowed from the world of objects, in which duration and internal consistency are paramount, but to one that prioritizes our capacity for transformation. Maybe we need to be more like fire and less like the matter it hungers to burn.

Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit

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