Saturday, October 28, 2006

On the concept of Freedom

"Why are his feet so dusty?"...."Cause he's ripping up kilometers!" (K'Naan).

When BJ invited us to join this blog, he called me a man of freedom. I want to comment briefly on the concept of freedom. Certainly I will not astound anyone when I say that freedom is a relative term. In first world nations like the United States one has the freedom to get in a car and drive on a well-paved smooth road to a well-lit, bright super market, and fill a plastic cart with bulging red perky tomatoes. Similarly (or perhaps conversely), in a place like Dakar, Senegal, one has the freedom to walk along the edge of a dirt road ankle-deep in mud and lined with mounds of baking refuse to a hunching complex of damp dingy stalls lined with corrugated tin and covered with plastic sheets where in the half light one chokes on the stench of rotten meat and dried fish while picking through reed baskets of tomatoes for one or two that are still fresh.

Contemplating these two freedoms, one might eventually come to realize that in the light of the recent French colonial presence in Senegal, the second freedom is in fact much richer and more deeply colored than the first, as the freedoms in Dakar to walk where one wishes, to build corrugated-tin-walled markets, and to grow and sell and buy tomatoes are all relatively recent and new phenomena. Having experienced the freedom of buying tomatoes in each of these two worlds, one might also come to view certain freedoms of the United States less as freedoms and more as luxuries or aspects of easiness; and then to wonder where in these 'freedoms' sleeps the passionate actualized liberation of 1776 from the economic and military tyranny of Great Britain (the good queen of which now, I'm sorry to say, has our good brother Haley comfortably in her pocket), that liberation having served as a catalyst in the spawning of all other American freedoms. Perhaps in the imaginations of some individuals in those founding years, the then-unnamed creature capitalism would involve certain bold, inventive entrepreneurs starting their own economic ventures (perhaps with names like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, or EPA) and employing and training people with the hope that those underlings would come to create similar businesses that could compete with the original in a way that would strengthen the economy on a whole and cultivate creativity, analytical thinking, and bold calculation of risks within each individual.

It seems today, as some of you have begun to grumble cantankerously of the chains that you worry are beginning to grow between your ankles and the legs of large wooden desks, that the disjunction between the actualized liberation from economic oppression over 200 years ago and the realization of the imagined possibilities of capitalism as perceived by our founding fathers and their kin could not grow any larger. Frustration with this and other fissures in the American social, political, and economic systems drove me to leave the country and to seek freedom elsewhere, and while easily romanticized (I am guilty of this myself) I urge you to realize that freedom is never necessarily synonymous with ease of living (and neither should ease of living or a quality of excessive luxury ever be equated with freedom - therein lies the strength of advertisement campaigns).

It is true that I have only myself to answer to, and have no pin-stripe fake-smile hair-grease whips driving me to pour my life into slobbering giants like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, EPA, etc, but as some have said before, no freedom comes without a price, and I have met the cost in my own way. Still I would say that no easiness of living is worth a sacrifice in freedom, in the gift that is one's ability to think and act and feel and move entirely on one's own, no matter the cost of walking a self-conceived self-pursued alternative path, but I think you all know that already. I miss you all dearly and sincerely hope you will be able to join me for some stretch of my long-legged rambles.


Diana M. Gauvin said...

You make an excellent point. I wonder, though, if there is an aspect easily mistaken for the lack of luxury that does, in fact, limit freedom. For example, the excesses of poverty do, in some cases, limit the ability to choose whether or not to steal. And I do think that freedom is, in any case, somewhat illusory, as life experiences and social, familial, and educational confinement lead people down a particular path...

Nevertheless, the condescending approach of Americans toward the freedom of the less financially priveleged seems to have been more of the inspiration to you, and in that I agree with you entirely.

John A. Atchley III said...

A sentence that struck me particularly was your urging for us to realize that "freedom is never necessarily synonymous with ease of living". This idea of freedom being synonymous with anything I think points to a frequent confusion, and that is the attachment of an ideological charge to the concept of freedom. That is, freedom shouldn't be synonymous with anything. Of course, this begs the question of what work the concept of "freedom" actually does.

This is a particularly important question when we think it within the context of Diana's concerns about social conditioning.

If we follow an anti-metaphysical line of thought here, I think freedom begins to look like somethin quite different than what it is naturally assumed to be.

In this quasi-Nietzschean model, the individual becomes a dialectical site within a complex, heterogeneous, dynamic social mass. The individual is a site of interesecting discursive fields, of intersecting values, ethics, beliefs, and of intersecting systems of meaning and speaking.

In this model, meaning is never fixed or absolute: truth evaporates as soon as two absolutisms exist in the same instance. So then, truth becomes redefined as something to be created and something necessarily impermanent. It is a function of competing ideologies.

As an individual in this contingent world, we can either pursue absolute master narratives, pour our faith into a coherent ideological system that exists to explain our self within the world


we can pursue contingency itself as an anti-master master narrative. This is where I locate "freedom" - as the ability to open oneself up to heterogeneity rigorous self-examination. Freedom is in my mind, a dialectical term - it means nothing as an abstract philosophical concept, but only as an epistemological process.

If we can view freedom as a dialectical or dialogical project, one that necessitates a perpetual undermining and reimagination of self, once that maintains a constant critical distance from belief, and one that entails what Kant and Hegel referred to as cosmopolitanism, then we are led to questions of social justice: how can we ensure the universal physical conditions that enable this sort of freedom and what are the implications for others' freedom of even embarking upon such a project?

I agree very much with Diana that poverty and inequality are very real limiting factors in any definition of freedom, and I also agree with both Diana and Drew that Western culture confuses luxury with freedom - but I want to emphasize that I don't think freedom is necessarily bound to physical or empirical conditions.

This is really the point where my ability to think freedom starts to dissolve rather rapidly. Because here we are at the convergence of different cultures, and also questions about epistemological violence, questions about imperialism and slavery and the imposition of one ideology onto another and when this is a dialectical process and when this is an inequitable and violent process. This is the aporia that I consistently approach as I begin to think through contingency, liberalism and freedom especially.

Any ideas how we can reconcile what I would refer to as localized freedoms vs. freedom-in-general?

josef kijewski said...

I agree with Diana to a certain extent; you mischaracterize the most common (or commonly expected) mode of living in America with what is truely remarkable about the freedom of America, something that seems particularily strange considering you, in this writing, identify yourself as a beneficiary of it. You had the choice of which road to travel down (it's so nice when metaphors and life line up, or at least very tempting), whereas someone born into that other one most likely did not.

Also, to say that the discrepancy between the economic systems imagined by our founding fathers and current reality could not grow any larger is patently ridiculous. It's just a silly thing to say.

As a matter of particulars, a great many markets in the world seem quite obviously to be moving much closer to those imaged by Adam Smith and the like... which would seem to indicate that they've been much further apart in the past.

Diana M. Gauvin said...

Josef, you are a very nitpicky reader. =b That may have been a little bit unfair. Sometimes people do write with a wee bit of hyperbole (have you ever read anything I've written, sir?) =) I suspect the "could not grow any larger" was not based (or pretending to be based) in quantitative evidence.

And BJ -- interesting response (and, haha, I will not get over the fact that you found a way correctly to use "anti-master master narrative"). But I guess I wonder: other than a dislike for aporias, why stress reconciling the two kinds of freedom that you distinguished? I worry that it is in the nature of the "localized freedom" as you seemed to describe it (and I admit that I may have been misreading) to evade generalization, even to the extent you're looking for...

josef kijewski said...

Much hyperbole deserves to have holes poked in it; I know this is the case with my own, sometimes yours, and, I guess, I felt here. When it's unnecessary and hindering to the argument--in this case, it's a very 'easy out' for someone who doesn't agree in the first place to simply dismiss the rest of it, and I don't see the point of it otherwise. You know, game/candle.

Dusty Foot Philosopher said...

I believe that in my original post, I was thinking of freedom (with the emphasis on I, as I claim this sense of freedom only for myself) in the sense of independence, of being dependent on nothing but what the self is capable of, or can provide and imagine. This is of course idealistic and in its fullest sense completely impossible. And yet, ridding oneself of dependencies can quite literally be, and feel, freeing. Following this line of thought, though, the poverty that I touched on previously and that Diana calls into question truly is an interesting and important context for discussing the concept of freedom. On one hand, someone might find freedom in ridding themselves of dependencies on cars, cell phones, and (this is a stretch, josef, and borders on hyperbole, so please just grit your teeth and bare with me) running water, for example. On the other hand, someone who has never experienced a dependency on items such as these, but is at the same time aware of their existence, might see freedom as only attainable when such items are achieved and incorporated into daily life (those items in this case serving as symbols for an imagined concept of what it is to be free). This I believe is where BJ's point becomes most relevant, namely that freedom, then, is as suggested completely relative in terms of the individual. If this is the case - that there is clearly and absolutely no single definition of freedom - then our disgust with political bodies that claim to know what freedom entails for other people (and enforces their claim militarily), or for economic bodies that claim that the ownership of their products is an essential aspect of attaining a sense of freedom, is vindicated. Interestingly, for me, one crucial aspect of freedom is that which BJ discussed: the ability to be critically self-analytical in a way that attempts to escape the influence (and the potential hindrance/constraint) of social conventions (or at the least to be so with as much awareness of those conventions as possible). However, it seems that BJ would claim that this ability of critical awareness must be central to the freedom of any individual, thus allowing it be considered a general rule for the achievement or condition of freedom. I have to disagree. I would rather claim that their is no central thread to freedom, that it really is totally dependent on the nature of the individual, and that for some people freedom might come without a full understanding of the self and the self's place in the world. If there is no 'general freedom', as BJ put it, then that eliminates the need for such questions as BJ posed at the end of his post. There is no need to actively ensure any 'universal physical conditions' for anyone. The ensuring of such conditions sounds dangerously like the historical context of the basis of conflicts in places such Vietnam and Iraq, as BJ hinted at but wisely avoided saying outright. I think I will say no more, as I fear we are beating this already dead horse farther into the ground. This may have been an attempt to clarify my original point, and if I have only muddied the waters further then I apologize. As Garrison Kealer says: "Be wise, do good work, and keep in touch".