Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More On Freedom

An Anonymous comment in the Moot wants to know what I mean when I bemoan the "reductionism that misconstrues human freedom as instrumental power." Just who and what sorts of things do I have in mind when I say this? It is actually a question that takes us right to the heart of political thinking, really, especially for somebody indebted to Arendt as I am.

In a nutshell, I would worry about the reductionism of anybody who says that the more tools you have at your disposal to do things with, the more free you are. Especially if the person saying it seems inclined to treat this as anything like the end of the story. This is not to deny that it is nice to have more tools with which to do useful and edifying things (all other things being equal), but it is to say that this is to confuse efficacy for freedom.

Freedom is a political matter, the quintessential matter of politics indeed. In politics, we are not billiard balls banging meaninglessly into one another across a felted surface, in trajectories that can be exhaustively calculated in advance, where what matters is the augmentable or diminishable intensity of force with which the balls are flung and colliding. Where we assume the vantage of the political we are not billiard balls banging about, and we do not treat one another as billiard balls to bang. (This is not to deny that there are other salient vantages we can assume in respect to human conduct and understanding, by the way.)

Freedom is present or not, experienced or not, facilitated or not, from moment to moment -- but it does not accumulate, it does not amplify, it does not hoard, it does not improve. Freedom plays out in the world.

We are free when we act in the world in the company of the diversity of our peers. We are experiencing and actualizing our freedom when we offer up out of our thinking, out of our judgment, out of our privacy a text, declaration, or deed to the hearing and responsiveness of a diversity of our peers in the world. We do this without any certainty what will finally come of our releasing this eruption, this interruption into the world, knowing well that in taking up our text, our declaration, our deed the world will collaborate in the meaning available in it.

What matters is our owning of the text, the declaration, the deed, and the recognition, the substantial being, conferred on us by that diversity of others when it is taken up in the world, a recognition and substantiation in which our own-ness, our public self is produced and maintained in the world, as a peer among peers, as a legible subject with a critical purchase and take on the world that obliges response and responsibility from our fellows.

This recognition conferred in the transaction of free action doesn't require agreement from our fellows, but only the affirmation that the assessment to which we attest, the exertion arising out of our intention is legible as issuing from a peer. A peer is emphatically not an equal, nor an intimate, but one who registers in their alterity both their equity in respect to us and their diversity from us. An action is our own, and that we are our own can be conferred only by the collaborative recognition of our actions as actions among peers -- we can no more substantiate ourselves on our own than we can be free in isolation from one another. In declaring a thing beautiful (or offering up a beautiful thing to the reception of the world), for example, we seek less the affirmation that our judgment is shared but that even where it is not shared the declaration is taken to issue from a subject of a taste that is their own who values a thing that is valu-able even by those who do not value it.

Freedom can be easily destroyed -- it is incredibly fragile -- by the obliterative instensities of pain or of pleasure, by violence, by duress, by immiseration, by isolation, by the lack of a context of trust or legitimacy to give a home to these precarious transactions.

Freedom is usually present when we collaborate toward the accomplishment of a shared task, each contributing their separate measure to that accomplishment, each co-ordinating that effort through the communication of their ongoing re-assessments of the scene. This may be part of what makes us so prone to confuse efficacy with freedom, especially since the capaciousness enabled by tool and technique is often experienced, for a time, as freedom is, as novelty, interruption. Freedom is indeed often present when we take up a tool, and especially when we turn the tool to some unexpected use, or teach another what can come of the tool, or when we declare in the hearing of company that the tool is fine or failed, good or evil, beautiful or ugly.

But freedom is not a matter of making a selection from a menu provided by others, and not augmented by the expedient of being provided ever more items on the menu from which to make a selection. Freedom doesn't accumulate like gold pieces in a vault. It cannot be saved, or hoarded, or amplified. Freedom isn't dumb force, however ferocious, however capacious.

One is either free or not, from moment to moment, one is either experiencing freedom or not, from moment to moment, one is either actualizing freedom or not, from moment to moment. Nobody is free every minute of the day, even in a free country, nor are many of us ever so unspeakably miserable as to be unfree every minute of the day -- outside the hideous extremities of deeply criminal regimes and personal devastations.

But it is true that a form of government that values freedom can provide for more occasions for its actualization among its citizens, while another that disvalues freedom can frustrate its play. It is important to recognize that a society of uncritical conformists and consumers is quite as threatened in its freedom as a society of totalitarian tyranny isolated by terror and mistrust from taking up the risk of freedom and savoring its bounty.

The robotic world of the futurologists is a barren world without freedom in it, only meaningless calculations and amplifications of force. And what is to be most repudiated and feared is not the eventual consummation of their inhuman utopia of heartless hopeless crystal -- horrifying enough though that obliterative consummation would be. No, what is to be repudiated and feared is the degradation of our sense of ourselves in the present, the indifference to ourselves in our freedom and fragility in the present, the obliteration of regard for our social and embodied and contingent agency as it is, peer to peer, equitable and diverse, promising and forgiving, assertive and uncertain in the present.

There is little that is more precarious than freedom. Even where it is valued and facilitated, it scarcely outlasts the moment of the transaction in which it is actualized, the judgment offered up to the hearing of the world, the enterprise offered up to the co-ordination of one's collaborators. Although there is more to flourishing than the experience and actualization of freedom, and although a life lived interminably in the exactions of freedom would little likely be a flourishing one, a life without freedom is no more worth living than an unexamined life is. And again, while it is unquestionably nice to have nice and useful things at one's disposal it is the worst kind of nonsense to confuse such possessions with freedom or in the mad pursuit of them find freedom a mirage.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. :)

JD Tuyes said...

And if as evidence that "Freedom isn't dumb force, however ferocious, however capacious", those moments when we scream out freedom the loudest like during the McCarthy period can be among the most repressive: a full-scale propaganda machine, institutionalized racism, sexism and compulsory heterosexuality including their natural violent outcomes, compounded by military drafts.

Could this be a sufficient background for an experience of freedom even while we spend most of time chirping about it? I suppose if you were on the winning team, but even then. We, all of us, keep thinking that just by repeating the word freedom, we are somehow living it.

I wonder then if we only truly recognize our freedoms in hindsight. That is probably why Naomi Klein is treated as some sort of Cassandra half of the time. What she says about the lack of political involvement in global decisions cannot possibly be true!

A pleasure to read this article. Now for a true existential experience of freedom, the drone removes his necktie after a 12 hour day.

Best to you, D.