Photo credit: Lulú de Panbehchi

Alexis Turner

Academic bios are a curious genre. Inevitably written in the third person, with a slightly pretentious air and a crushing homogeneity, they list two or three sentences of research interests that are, for the most part, impenetrable. They wrap their subject in an armor of words: the outsider cannot get in while the fellow traveler, another academic, sees a list of familiar themes and turns of phrase. A comforting spark leaps up, protecting both, for now, in the warm glow of recognition. Someone understands! And so the insider, the subject for whom the bio is written, carries on for another day, protected and trapped in the cold, hard sheath of words that reveal nothing. To truly expose one's ideas or passions, that would be to remove the armor. Too dangerous. Too isolating. Better to follow the formula.

The irony, of course, is that the things that terrify people reveal the most about them. Are we most afraid of being alone? Of being wrong? Poor? Unjust? Of being uncomfortable? Weak? Unknown? Are we afraid of failing?

So what is left for me to say? I could tell you that I am a graduate student in the history of science at Harvard University, having previously studied science, the history and philosophy of science, and political theory at Sarah Lawrence College, The University of Chicago, and Indiana Univeristy. Or that my current research interests seek to harnass these unruly backgrounds in order to understand what I think of as the physics of politics—the structure, movement, tensions, and balance inherent in different political systems—and the ways that our relationships to science inflect our judgment and action in the world. I could show you my curriculum vitae. But I think it would be more telling if I said that the thing that terrifies me most is unfreedom. What leads us to demand compliance and similarity from others, or to willingly provide it of ourselves? How do we balance the need for recognition against the need for independence, the demands of the political or the social against the demands of the self? How can we be free while still being human?

Today, there seems to be a growing consensus that these questions are useless because they cannot and have not ever been answered definitively. People who believe this are very fond of pointing out that these are the same questions that Socrates asked, after all, and can we really not stop gnawing them after 2400 years and just do something that gives us results, for crying out loud? (This is a good moment to pound a fist on a table, for emphasis.) To this I can only say that answers are answers. When you get them, what is left to do? Answers do not provide freedom. Only questions can do that. Freedom is in the answering.