Monthly Archives: September 2007

Enfolding the Four Freedoms (A Commentary on Chronicle #348)

To speak of “imperative freedom” as “freedom from another’s intention,” which is to say, Isaiah Berlin’s “negative freedom,” interestingly sets up a line separating two ways of thinking about freedom.  The corresponding, “positive” freedom, according to Gans’s account in Chronicle #348, would presumably be that of the sadist, who has the capacity to impose his imperative will upon others.  In that case, while the pre-existence of the primary, ostensive, freedom, implying the existence of others’ intentions at least potentially at odds with one’s own, makes the sadistic temptation permanent, our reliance upon the communal nature of that primary freedom nevertheless serves to check that temptation by “strictly regulating the exercise of imperative freedom.”

The means of checking imperativity in pre-modern societies is through ritual and gift-exchange; in modernity this becomes a new kind of problem.  Here it is deliberation, or “declarative freedom,” “the freedom to help choose the imperatives by which one will be governed,” that provides the necessary check.  Slavery, tyranny and torture are the forms of imperativity unchecked; still, the emergence of declarative and, even more, “discursive freedom,” continually set the bar higher regarding what will count as these unchecked forms of imperativity.

Gans returns to ostensive freedom in his concluding paragraph, where that freedom “to intend an object in principle generates for each member of society the discursive freedom to become an object of intention”;  the human capacity to direct sustained attention toward some object ultimately becomes the capacity to become, simultaneously, that very object but also a sign directing attention to other likewise self-constituting objects.  It would make sense to assume that the capacity to produce such “personal artworks” oneself coincides with the capacity to appreciate and encourage it in others.

Ostensive freedom doesn’t appear in Gans’s discussion of declarative freedom;  here a relationship between imperativity and declarativity alone is proposed.  Propositions can contend and re-combine with each other in all kinds of ways, but the actual medium by which declarativity checks imperativity is not clear:  we might come to an agreement regarding the choice of “imperatives by which [we] will be governed” but what ensures that we will indeed be thusly governed?  Do declaratives have some kind of inherent checking power?  Are those who issue imperatives somehow intrinsically checked, equipped as imperators to receive instructions regarding the limits of their own power, which is to say, always already declarative as well?

If the answer is “yes” to these questions, which is to say, if what constitutes the modern political order is the interdependency of imperative and declarative (if, say, we can only act on an imperative in good faith if we can manage to square it with or translate it into some declarative we might utter to ourself or another), then this must be so because ostensive freedom comes into play here as well.  Modern politics emerges as a result of a series of events in which the “excesses” of imperativity have been witnessed, recorded and commemorated publically.  These would be the modern founding events, sometimes events which, upon reflection, seem almost unbelievably trivial (like the Boston “Massacre”).  Such freedom would be the freedom to generate new public centers and spaces in which a new series of actions can take place.

Perhaps such a conception of political freedom would further give us a way of seeing imperativity in somewhat less charged terms than as, at best, a necessary evil.  As Gans says, imperativity is certainly associable with responsibility, but also in the more “positive” sense in which its limits can be strictly set in terms of what one must have complete or partial control over in order to be reasonably held responsible for the outcome of a particular process (what the U.S. Constitution refers to as “necessary and proper means”).  You can’t legitimately fire me for not getting copies of a given document to everyone attending the meeting by 4PM if you didn’t also give me “absolute” power over the copier between 2 and 3, etc.

Since such “legitimate” limits, which also empower responsible imperativity, can themselves only be determined scenically, through the application of the memory of “excesses” and their exemplary victims, such ostensivity must also be appropriable by the responsible agent herself:  acting responsibly with delegated powers is itself a form of freedom.  We would then have two, complementary, but potentially and often actually conflicting forms of modern freedom:  that of the responsible agent, the guarantor of the freedom of others under limits set by those others; and the agency of those who emerge from the “others” themselves, who witness and, when necessary, place themselves (as potential victims) at the center of those events which test the limits of responsibility.

Our victimary order is perhaps a result of some imbalance, or even severance of the connection, between these two modes of modern freedom:  we have become incapable of respecting the public freedom of the responsible guarantor.  It is hard to see how even the most robust exchange of declaratives can heal this divide.  Perhaps expansions of discursive freedoms will be helpful here:  less a “chastened” version of of the realm of freedom, discursive freedom might mark the end of our yearning for the end of history through supplementations that increasingly determine the actual shape of the public, political world.  Think, for example, of the boycott, that mixture of consumer freedom and freedom of speech that provides a thread linking the American Revolution (the Boston “Tea Party”) to the signature tactics of the Civil Rights movement.  Boycotts can be private or state-sponsered (as in current calls for sanctions against Iran); boycotts can easily emerge as sites of public dialogue (for every boycott one could imagine a possible counter-boycott); they require various levels of commitment and can aim for change at various levels or to varying degrees; they can flow into more directly political forms of activity, like fundraising or the marginalizing and isolating of “rogue” regimes.  Boycotts, further, as a form of renunciation of a given product or exchange partner, open a space into which new exchanges, perhaps of a gift-like character but at any rate more intensely charged that usual, can enter, staging for us the form of the event in which new signs are produced within a communal space.  Boycotts always have a dimension of ostensive freedom, in other words, and therefore perhaps provide us with ways to continue the transition from politics based upon exposing and denouncing residual forms of illegitimate imperativity to a politics predicated upon the invention of new modes of exchange.

Adam Katz

Chronicle 348 – The Four Freedoms

Chronicle 348 deals with the question of human freedom from the standpoint of the linguistic forms discussed in The Origin of Language (UC, 1981). It is available at http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw348.htm

-eric gans

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