Freedom and Its Discontents: "The Shape of Freedom and Its Discontents"
Guest Writer: Sally Perret

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

[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. Below, Sally Perret, a Unit graduate affiliate from the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, writes about the conference's keynotes, panels, and musical performance.]

"The Shape of Freedom and Its Discontents"
Written by Sally Perret (Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese)

The image of “Freedom and Its Discontents,” as the words appeared on the poster for this conference, proved to be a fruitful theme. Indeed, many of the speakers highlighted the fact that freedom is not something that can be obtained in some pure form separate from everything else. Rather, as Lauren Goodlad showed in her opening remarks using a clever example from Star Trek, in reality there are always “competing constellations of freedom” at work in a given society. Emphasizing the importance of the study of freedom, the seminar leading up to the conference asked: “Why should we study freedom?” The answer seemed to be: “Because we must. Because at the end of the day, the promise of social justice should matter”.

This same sense of urgency could be felt in the first keynote lecture, given by Audrey Kobayashi who reflected on freedom as it relates to responsibility, concentrating her analysis primarily on the dialectic of freedom as described by Jean-Paul Sartre. Contrary to popular opinion, Kobayashi argued that Sartre’s view of freedom was not concerned with the “individual’s will” but rather with setting the possibility of existence within a contingent future. For Kobayashi, Sartre’s theories suggest that the creation of freedom in any society necessarily implies an engagement with the other, as the quotation she read from Simone de Beauvoir implies: “to will oneself free is also to will others free”. According to this view, there is an urgent need both in academia and beyond to move from individual to action-based freedom.

Kobayashi’s talk was followed by an engaging first panel, in which Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist, and Elaine Hadley, a literary critic, spoke about freedom in two temporally different contexts. Burt’s paper focused on the advance of human rights trials in the aftermath of dictatorships in Central and South America, while Hadley looked at the self-ruminations on freedom in Victorian Britain during the 1854-56 Crimean War. Among the various challenges of the human rights trials that Burt observed is their long duration and remove from original acts: efforts to prosecute those charged with violations of human rights may take years to materialize, while trials of high-level political figures who order but do not execute criminal acts may last for a decade. Hadley, looking at a war remembered partly for the incompetence of military leadership described the emergence of a different kind of liberal subject: not an elite individual, but the more anonymous working man who, like the nameless soldiers who died in the Crimean War, could be seen as the object of collective action and sympathy.

During the next panel, Abdi Samatar and David M. Hughes offered their own examples of the conference’s theme. Samatar spoke about how piracy was produced and how it has evolved in Somalia. In doing so, he showed how piracy began there as both a necessary response to the ungoverned spaces, weak laws, and poverty that plague Somalia, and as a form of resistance that came about as a rebellion against the exploitation permitted by these same conditions. Specifically, he showed how international responses to piracy in Somali waters over the last twenty years have actually contributed to its exponential rise more than to its decline. For Samatar, the solution to piracy is thus a political one: if we were to address the political situation in Somalia, we could potentially put an end to piracy. Afterwards Hughes talked about the concept of freedom in relation to the origin of oil production in the middle nineteenth century. Whereas other resources of the time, such as coal, were advertised as projects that freed people, Hughes showed us that from the beginning, oil was associated more with work than with freedom. Specifically, oil was originally understood as a commodity that offered a steady rate of return rather than a revolutionary good. During the question/answer period, however, several audience members pointed out that in today’s world, oil is often described in a language of freedom. Not only do many people associate the car with freedom, but many of today’s conflicts stem from disputes over oil in the name of freedom or autonomy.

In her afternoon keynote, Svetlana Boym, drawing on her work in Another Freedom, provided what she calls “experiments in thinking” about the limits of public freedom in today’s societies. Relying on the work of Hannah Arendt, Boym concluded that there is an urgent need to “pluralize our thinking.” Freedom, she argued, is not about individual sovereignty; rather, it is something that should be actively created by and for each new generation. Thus, Boym advocated the importance of thinking of freedom as a material struggle, but one that requires boundaries. The questions of who benefits, suffers, or stands up in defense of those who struggle are all necessary parts of freedom.

Friday opened with a few remarks by co-organizer Jesse Ribot, and a final keynote lecture by Linda Zerilli. Considering complicated examples such as the French burqa ban, Zerilli contemplated the relative nature of judgment, arguing that it is neither possible to conclude that “all judgments are valid,” nor that a single judgment can capture the complexities of any given argument. The solution, then, must be somewhere in between which, if we are to arrive at it, would require the existence of a common public space in which opinions and judgments can be made and not a place where decisions that already have been made are reenacted or performed (a position that she associated with the liberalism of John Rawls). Instead of merely following a set of supposedly self-evident truths, Zerilli (also inspired by Arendt) advocated that each citizen “think representatively”: that each try to take into account multiple perspectives on a given topic before arriving at a judgment. This type of contemplation, however, is only fruitful if such a diversity of opinions can be expressed on some sort of public stage.

In the afternoon, musicians Jason Finkelman and Yosef Ben Israel treated the conference participants to a live performance of improvisational jazz music using a wide variety of instruments, many of which were hand-made. The experience is difficult to describe, but it was a true pleasure to be there. The songs the two musicians played were all non-lyrical and varied in rhythm and intensity. Each beat came at the audience in an unfamiliar but welcome way and allowed the audience to experience pure creation. As Finkelman explained in the question/answer period: improvisational jazz is not just a freedom from formal rules but also freedom to create patterns and sounds not yet imagined. In this regard, the performance added a valuable dimension to our discussion of freedom by allowing us all to experience its worth firsthand.

The next panel featured Scott Kurashige, a historian, and Cris Mayo, a scholar of educational policy, discussing the need rethink the way freedom is ensured in the United States. In his presentation, Kurashige discussed in detail the work that he and well-known scholar/activist Grace Lee Boggs have been doing in Detroit to adapt to what they see as a paradigm change on three fronts: 1) the decline of the white majority, 2) the decline of US global hegemony in the world, and 3) the decline of industry and the resulting economic crisis. Instead of seeing these as being negative changes, Kurashige explored the possibly liberating effects of a decline in Detroit that has left many spaces open to creative political action. Revolution, he argued, is not a seizure of state power or simply a redistribution of the spoils of empire; revolution is a new beginning, a reconstruction of human relations form the ground up. Specifically, the move from market dependence to local self-reliance will ultimately connect people more directly to their material reality, instead of a reality mediated through globalized networks of power. Cris Mayo also discussed the obligation to rethink the way we approach social problems by focusing on the need to include discussions of controversial issues at an earlier stage in education. Currently, many discussions relating to sex, especially with regards to sexual orientation, are limited within, if not absent from, many schools throughout the nation but particularly in the south. Several Gay-Straight Alliance extracurricular groups have even been prohibited from meeting on school grounds. For Mayo, this trend is dangerous because it teaches future citizens that the voices of some in our society are not as relevant on the public stage as others. To combat this, Mayo suggests that we find a way to ensure that all LGBT kids feel welcome to be who they are no matter where they are but especially while at school, a space of growth and self-discovery.

The closing roundtable offered a few final thoughts on the conference’s theme, including my own reflection on the need for there to be some sort of system in place in order for freedom, Chris Higgins, contemplating the value of a liberal education in today’s world, and Hina Nazar describing her own research on subject-centered reason in British literature. These brief presentations were followed by Jennifer Monson’s delightful involvement of the entire audience in a kind of closing experiment which had us standing up as a group and sharing a few spontaneous utterances. The final question/answer period returned to some key questions: for example, the tension between thinking about freedom as an exercise in itself as opposed (only) to an end toward achievement of social justice. How might discussions of freedom help to resolve some of the world’s greatest problems? Are we free to make these decisions or do large-scale historical, cultural, or psychological structures make them for us? No matter what our answers to these questions may be, ultimately it will be our actions, more than our words, that dictate the shape of our future.


Make A Comment