Freedom and Its Discontents: Lauren M. E. Goodlad's Opening Remarks

Monday, May 2, 2011

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Paris in 1968
[On April 28 and 29, 2011, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy Initiative, and the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security for a conference, Freedom and Its Discontents. Published below are the conference's opening remarks from Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Director of the Unit for Criticism.]

Greetings, everyone.

It’s my very great pleasure to welcome you here to the opening of our spring conference, Freedom and Its Discontents, which is the collaborative effort of the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory, the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy Initiative, and the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security. I’m Lauren Goodlad, Director of the Unit, and I want to thank you for joining us this sunny morning.

As many of you know, every spring the Unit for Criticism partners with other programs on campus to put together a series of collaborative events, and this year’s group--with whom it has been my great pleasure to work since last summer, includes Jesse Ribot, Director of SDEP; Colin Flint, former director of ACDIS; Elena Delgado, affiliated with Spanish and the Center for Latin American Studies; Christopher Higgins, in Educational Policy; and Rob Rushing, associate director of the Unit.

These are the people who got together beginning last summer to think about freedom and its discontents and to figure out how it might make sense to take up the topic as the center of a multidisciplinary seminar and conference--the end result of which was the seminar which met for the last time this past Monday and today’s and tomorrow’s conference: bringing together geographers, political theorists, literary critics, critical theorists, and historians, and musicians working in a variety of methodological and regional fields.

Along the way we received the support of co-sponsors, large and small, without whose help we would not have been able to assemble the outstanding scholars we have here today from the United States and Canada.

On behalf of myself and my co-organizers I want to thank the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Center for Advanced Study, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities--sponsors of this morning keynote lecture--the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, and the following programs and departments: English; Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; Spanish, Italian, & Portuguese; Comparative & World Literature; Jewish Culture & Society; French; Political Science; History; Slavic Languages & Literatures; Latina/Latino Studies; and Germanic Languages & Literatures.

I also want to thank the Unit’s Grad Assistants, Mike Black and Kathy Skwarczek, on whom Rob and I rely for everything from the design of the lovely poster and program for today’s conference (among other events) to tech support and organizing details of every sort.

But a great deal of gratitude is also owed to the many faculty members and graduate students--affiliates of the Unit for Criticism--who joined us (several attending all five meetings during a very busy semester), enriching our collective discussion of this most familiar and elusive of topics: freedom.

When I was a kid, around 9 I think, my mom used to let me watch re-runs of Star Trek every night after dinner--with the result that my earliest and, to this day still, my most reflexive thoughts about freedom are from a particular Star Trek episode which I now know first aired in March 1968 and is called “The Omega Glory”.

If you are of my generation--or just geeky--you will know in this episode Kirk and Spock are on an alien planet, Omega IV, and are imprisoned along with this alien couple in animal skins. As they try to escape by loosening the bars in their prison,Kirk says that they must keep on “working...if we’re ever going to regain our freedom.”

To which the big guy in the animal skin, hitherto mute, speaks out--in a deep voice to which I can’t possibly do justice. “Free-dom?,” he says. “Free-dom?...That is worship word. Yang worship. You will not speak it.”

To which Kirk, never one to skip a beat when dealing with aliens in animal skins, replies, “Well, well, well. It is our worship word, too.”

As you will no doubt surmise, this is one of those many Star Trek episodes which offers not so subtle commentary on the current Cold War even while supposedly depicting the far-off future. Because Omega IV just happens to be the scene of a postwar apocalyptic clash between Orientalized warriors called “Kohms” and Teutonic-looking “savages” called "Yangs". And, as usual, there is a rogue federation officer who has “gone native” and abandoned the Prime Directive.

I’ll spare you the full details except to say that when Kirk shocks the Yangs by knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, he and Spock deduce that the Kohms are the descendants of “Communists” and the Yangs of “Yankees” indicating that, centuries before, the Omegans had a conflict exactly like the one going on between the US and Soviet Union in 1968, only on Omega, subsequent biological warfare left the Yangs as savage bearers of the US liberal creed.

The episode concludes when Kirk is put to the test by being asked to repeat the words to the “E Plubnista” which at first he can’t remember--but which he eventually recognizes as the Preamble to the US Constitution--"We the People"--allowing William Shatner to read aloud the document with a hammy gravitas that should leave John Boehner weeping with envy.

At the end of the episode the Yangs are ready to regard Kirk as a deity, but he commands them to stand tall and listen to him read more of the Constitution aloud. These words were not meant to apply just to “Yangs,” he lectures them, but to “Kohms” as well; and on that note of blithe universalism the crew leaves, Prime Directive more or less intact, confident that that Yangs and Kohms will now cooperate in rebuilding their war-ravaged planet.

So one thing we learn from this perverse pop culture memory of mine is that reading the Constitution aloud in defense of freedom seems to have signified a soft, mainstream, TV-friendly liberalism in the United States of the Lyndon Johnson years (this would have been contemporaneous with the peak of American aggression in Viet Nam); whereas now, though the props have remained virtually the same--a flag, a white guy with a tan, and a copy of the “E Plubnista”--freedom seems to have drifted from the presumed universalism, sooner or later, of liberal values and institutions to the freedom from liberal values and institutions, Medicare, Social Security, and progressive taxation chief among them.

In our seminar this semester we considered conceiving these competing constellations of freedom as the positive and negative liberty that Isaiah Berlin sketched in his famous 1958 lecture--itself a reaction to Fascism and Stalinism though ostensibly a debate with the ethico-political legacy of Kant and Hegel.

What was clear to everyone is that while a proactive “freedom” can generate a host of discontents which we see, for example, in the cold and hot wars subtending Star Trek’s narrative of supposedly benign international federalism, the reduction of freedom to negative and individualistic perspectives has facilitated a host of discontents including racial and gender inequality; the political and cultural tyranny of powerful elites; the fomenting of neo-imperial violence; and the devastation of environments—physical, animal, and human.

But then, as we also discussed, there are other conceptions of freedom as non-domination which are neither purely negative nor positive in the overbearing sense Berlin described--for example, the kind of liberty that John Stuart Mill associated in 1859 with the freedom to participate, disagree, and even be eccentric; or the kind that Hannah Arendt associated with the faculties of imagination and judgment. And then too there is the kind of existential freedom that, as Jean-Paul Sartre believed, human beings were “doomed” to experience as the condition of living in a post-metaphysical universe, reminding us that there was more going on in 1968 than Star Trek.

“To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise" wrote Hannah Arendt in her famous essay, “What is freedom?”, and yet, as she well knew, raise the question we must since questions of freedom demonstrably underlie the major challenges including the call for human rights and civil liberties for citizens and non-citizens alike; the promise of social justice across races, ethnicities, nationalities, classes, genders, and sexualities; and the need to spread sustainable economic development, create peace and security for all, and ensure environmental flourishing across the globe—concerns central to the work of the scholars we’ll be listening to today and tomorrow.

So raise the question we will.


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