Fly on the Wall—Putting the Horse Before Descartes

The Madness of Motion in the Mind

The sound of a door locking behind us can be unsettling, especially in an automobile.  It’s as though moments of potential are, at least symbolically, closed off to us.  One commentator describes the process: “it’s an emasculating scenario when going to dinner with friends: riding in their backseat to the restaurant.  When one attempts to exit the vehicle, the inside door handle of the back door fails to open the door.  In recent history I had this happen in a similar situation.  My wife exited her side, but I could not get out of mine” (HistoryGarage, online).

The first so-called “child safety lock” was patented in 1949 and there have been numerous patents since.  Its as though the fear of a foolish unfortunate child escaping a vehicle contravened the adult sense that kids are, well, smarter than we think they are.  It’s one thing to joke about jumping from a moving vehicle and quite another form of nuttiness to engage in the act.

In terms of education and our minds, we’re not immune to the claustrophobia of access and denial to the freedom that education implies.  In life we drive our metallic chariots to and from work, shopping, and school.  Yet at AU our education usually occurs in the comfort of our home, lacking the incessant commute that triggers so much angst among fellow denizens of the rat race.  For our study hour(s) and our individualized study, at least, we can put the horse of our learning ahead of the cart of our perpetual to and fro along paved roads.

The madness of being within a steel box provides a real example of the potential claustrophobia of being human with a body and a mind.  Rene Descartes, in one of his most notorious meditations, considered whether he could be sure of anything at all.  “How could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine?  Unless I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass…” (Descartes, online).

While driving, we are hopefully feeling sound in spirit but even the most austere-minded of us would surely admit that we drivers are a bit like Schrodinger’s famous cat: in two places at once; we hurtle over asphalt while our literal body sits still as a cucumber strapped to a chair.  No wonder the dissonance of roller coasters has entranced, enthralled, and nauseated participants for over a century.

The Pause that Refreshes, The Value of Idling and Indolence

Being along among many others, as rush hour traffic crawls along like a tapeworm from an intestinal tract and back, can make us feel a bit, well, crazy.  Up in Kelowna, BC, where I once was a brick-and-mortar student, it was sometimes worth parking and sitting quietly at a beach overlooking the bridge across Okanagan Lake until, like an enterprising elk, I’d make my crossing when the hue and cry of automobiles subsided.  Not all are so lucky; much of busy-ness implies that there is always more and more to do and to accomplish all the time.  Rest for these folks seems exorbitant, something to do while deceased perhaps.

AU studies can feel a bit like that too; after all, were we to finish one course before the contract date we could always burst on forth into the next necessary component of our grand pyramid of success.  Like any Ponzi scheme or marketplace, however, what goes up must come down.  In the big picture, a little rest and relaxation is in order, and perhaps the attainment of a wiser and more wizened academic perspective shall be on offer.

Enter Michel Foucault, who wrote that perhaps our all-too modern liberation at once enraptures and restricts us while leaving us blind to just how contained and compressed and limited our lives have really become.  Foucault notes in his historical research about prisons and asylums that just the token imprisonment of an unfortunate few led to the illusory freedom of the masses: “confinement was thus reserved in a definitive manner for limited categories of people answerable to the law, and for the mad” (422).  Small children are here implied and the role of early education, famously critiqued by Foucault, comes into play.

Modernity may not allow the impossibility of being mad simply because that would suggest that we are all more or less somewhat crazy by virtue of our very normality! After all, who hasn’t wanted to escape the confines of a vehicle in traffic, even if sanity prevails with knowledge of the corporeal consequence of such an act.  Foucault summarizes this dissonance between reason and madness and context: “It is not the permanence of truth that ensures that thought is not madness, in the way that it freed it from an error of perception or a dream; it is an impossibility of being mad which is inherent in the thinking subject rather than the object of his thoughts” (Foucault, 45).

So, next time you feel like the walls are closing in on your private study dorm or closet, remember that at least you’re not stuck in traffic within a self-locking steel cage!

Descartes, R.  (1641/1647).  Meditations.  ‘Partially Examined Life’.  Retrieved from
Foucault, M.  (1961/2001).  History of Madness.  Routledge: London and New York.
History Garage (2021).  ‘The Short and Surprising History of the Child Safety Lock.  Retrieved from