theorize your freedom fries
It seems we cannot get enough of the word freedom when discussing dystopian literature. I want to suggest, however, following our discussion on Monday, that freedom has become an essentially meaningless term.
I don’t mean that to sound nihilistic or un-American; quite the opposite, in fact. Our training in Theory should make us suspicious of terms that are easily deployed, yet difficult if not impossible to define. We made some headway, though.
Devin remarked that there is “freedom to” and “freedom from” and that any exercise of “to” potentially comes at the expense of someone else’s “from.” My freedom to wave my arms wildly ends where it impinges on your right to freedom from being hit. Freedom is a finite commodity, distributed unequally, as illustrated by Savina’s metaphor of the chessboard. And we also noted that we cannot imagine freedom in the absence of resistance to some “other” – a “body of power.”
Freedom once was the goal of abolitionist and civil rights discourses. Its appropriation by the American conservative movement (“free markets”) means that freedom has become the discursive property of one part of the political spectrum. I don’t know how the term freedom came to supplant the preferred term of the Enlightenment thinkers, and the framers of the Constitution: liberty. Liberty can be taken as synonymous with freedom, but it’s relative “freedom” from overdetermined ideological uses by bodies of power to justify the unjustifiable makes it easier to specify productively – civil liberty, personal liberty, intellectual liberty.
Finally, freedom has never existed as an absolute concept – ultimate freedom means complete and utter independence from anyone and anything. This has never happened in human history. Freedom in fact, is downright frightening, and impossible. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow completely free: unable to rely on anyone else or anything. Perhaps I’ve read too much Å½iÅ¾ek, but I’ll offer this nugget of pop culture as evidence. At Woodstock (1969), the folk singer Richie Havens was doing his set, but the traffic jam had caused all the other acts to be late. He had to keep stretching out his set, and he had played every single song he knew. Asked to keep playing, he began to free associate, singing:
Freedom, Freedom, Freedom, Freedom
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child . . .
A long way from my home
Freedom at that time was a rallying cry of the counterculture movement: a vague alchemy of “free” love (i.e. women’s sexual availability to men), liberty from the strictures of middle class morality and materialism, and civil rights. But Richie Havens seemed to understand intuitively that nothing is more terrifying and lonely than absolute freedom. Absolute freedom comes only one time in a person’s life: death. I have no idea what happens after death, but I do know that death is the one experience we have that no one can take from us, or assume our place. My death is my own, as yours is your own, and no one can prepare you for it, tell you about it, or do it for you (for more on this, see Derrida, The Gift of Death). That’s freedom. And while I live, until I build a cabin off the grid like Ted Kaczynski, I’ll accept the interdependence of life on earth, with all its limitations upon my freedom, while zealously guarding my civil, moral, and personal liberties.