What would it be to re-sculpt the projects of human life and social government without “freedom” or “liberty”? The terms are decidedly overdetermined, rising (unsurprisingly) during the configurations of the nation state and in the wake of the French Revolution (see accompanying Ngrams). The assumptions and calls for freedom after the 1790s remain caught in the gooey conundrums of those 17th and 18th century white Europeans seeking an end to their “enslavement” to the tyranny of monarchy and wealth. “Freedom” shaped the totems of political existence and social desire and became the obvious rallying cry for 19th century abolitionists and anti-imperialists and 20th century postcolonialists and oppressed identities (feminists, civil rights activists, gay liberation activists).
I think of Foucault’s famous line at the end of “What is Enlightenment?” when he gives readers permission to dissociate critical work from “faith” (la foi)in Enlightenment, and yet firmly maintains the telos of Enlightenment critique as freedom or liberty (liberté). True, Foucault transvalues freedom from a state or achievement to a practice. The critical task, he writes, “requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.”*
As another example, Saidiya Hartman’s recent, gorgeous book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (Norton Press) also attends to freedom. In her speculative historiography, or critical fabulation of the archive, Hartman deploys freedom as a practical bid that is lived and performed in abeyance; it is the reach for a live of access and entitlement that post-slavery America both promises and will not allow. Hartman peers into the urban metropolises of America’s Northeast to track the ache for freedom: “This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom” (24). Freedom is embraced by the Black men and women Hartman tracks, even in its impossibility; it is enacted and claimed, even under the duress and violence of the carceral archipelago that forms our society of norms.
Freedom signals earthly salvation, a kind of heaven-on-earth. It is a word that makes a cut as deep as the Grand Canyon into American sensibilities, shaping political activism and religious redemption. Freedom is a word that frames and shelters the hopes of everyone who feels and has felt the pinch of power and longed, even for a moment, to be released from its pain.
Even so—peering at those Ngrams again—it also is a word anchored in European whiteness and the entitlements of the very Ideal Type of white individualism that many of us teach and write against.
I am not suggesting a censorship of the word so much a shift in the affective circuits that surround it and, perhaps, an experiment of trying to think and work without it. In his recent book, History 4º Celsius (Duke University Press), Ian Baucom argues that critical humanists need to work out of the double urgency of what he calls “historical forces” and “planetary forcings.” He writes, “our understanding of the force of human politics, history, and culture [including the Atlantic slave trade, imperialism, and settler colonialism] must be held in interpretive tension and dialectical exchange with what we are discovering of the forcings of climate change as we address the fully planetary condition of the Anthropocene” (8)**
In these days when the earth, our very material matrix, suffers from our “freedom” over it, what if Baucom’s double urgency galvanized us to foreground other terms?*** What if we were to transvalue other words? What if we were to try to mold our political and everyday desires–our visions and our casual experiences of a shared planet–around terms like “obligation,” “imbrication,” and “restraint”? What if these were the words we etched into our political activism and legal codes? What if we were to try to replace the sacralized dominance of “freedom” with a valuation of specific ligatures: the demands of love, the obligations of self- and communal exploration, the labor of provision for lives that have been denied flourishing, the respect for the dead, the efforts of protection for those who cannot (yet) speak or defend themselves, the tasks of vigilance against unworthy and unnecessary pain…****
What if we determined ourselves to say specifically what we mean when we express our ache for freedom?
*“Je ne sais s’il faut dire aujourd’hui que le travail critique implique encore la foi dans les Lumières ; il nécessite, je pense, toujours le travail sur nos limites, c’est-à-dire un labeur patient qui donne forme à l’impatience de la liberté.” http://1libertaire.free.fr/Foucault17.html.
**See also Baucom’s note 14 on p. 120: “Most broadly, by force I am referring to the powers of social, cultural, and political organization (and disruption) proper to the legal, economic, bureaucratic, and other institutions of ‘human’ history; by forcing I have in mind the radiative pressures (from carbon dioxide emissions, sulfur, solar flaring, etc.) effecting changes in the mean surface temperature of the earth.”
***I posit this possibility even knowing that Baucom, too, arranged his argument around the question of how his “forces” and “forcings” “reopen or renovate the question of freedom” (30).
****Lynne Huffer writes beautifully about vigilance (veiller, watchkeeping) in her recent, gorgeous book, Foucault’s Strange Eros (Columbia University Press).