People have fought and died in its name, and new dangers supposedly pose a threat to it every day – but freedom itself is fraught with indelible contradictions. In this exclusive preview ahead of the publication of his new book Freedom: A Disease Without a Cure, firebrand philosopher Slavoj Žižek exposes the tensions in how we understand freedom today.
Freedom is one of those deceiving notions that appear self-evident, but the moment we try to dissect them we get caught in ambiguities and contradictions. I think the best illustration of these ambiguities is the situation imagined in the expression “Buridan’s ass.”
All real decisions are undecidable, only the decision itself make reasons for it palpable.
The three basic meanings of the term “ass” in English (donkey; a stupid person; the part of the body a person sits on) nicely come together in this expression: a stupid donkey who is equally hungry and thirsty is sitting on its ass midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water (or, in another version, midway between the two exactly same stacks of hay) - it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make a decision which of the two to choose. (In digital electronics, something similar appears as “metastability”: when a circuit must decide between two states based on an input that is in itself undefined (neither zero nor one), it gets stuck, i.e., it spends more time than it should in this "undecided" state.) Far from being a pathological exception, the stance of the Buridan’s ass is in some sense the zero-level of freedom: if a clear calculation tells us what to do, we just follow the calculation of reasons, there is no doubt or oscillation and, consequently, no freedom. All real decisions are undecidable, only the decision itself make reasons for it palpable.
If there is a free choice it is that of a love object, love cannot be imposed; however, once fully in love, we experience love as our fate – it holds us in its clutches, no matter how hard we try we cannot escape it. This is why we can (usually) enumerate reasons why we fell in love, but these reasons appear as reasons only after we are already in love – we are never in a comfortable external position in which we can compare reasons to fall in love with different persons and decide whom to choose. Kierkegaard says exactly the same about faith: I do not acquire faith in, say, Christ after comparing different religions and deciding the best reasons speak for Christianity – there are reasons to choose Christianity, but these reasons appear only after I’ve already chosen it, i.e., to see the reasons for belief one already has to believe. The same holds for Marxism: it is not that, after objectively analysing history, I became a Marxist – my decision to be a Marxist (the experience of a proletarian position) makes me see the reasons for it, i.e., Marxism is the paradox of an objective “true” knowledge accessible only through a subjective partial position.
We do not just fight for (our understanding of) freedom, we serve freedom, it is freedom itself which immediately avails itself of us… The way seems open to terror: who would be allowed to oppose freedom itself?
How are we to understand these counter-intuitive claims? From a properly Hegelian perspective, we should not limit freedom to a predicate of some entity: at the highest point of freedom, freedom itself is the subject and we – fighting for freedom – are its predicates, instruments even, as in the refrain of an old German Communist song from the 1930s “Die Freiheit hat Soldaten!” (Freedom has its soldiers!). It may appear that such an identification of a particular unit as the military instrument of Freedom itself is the very formula of the “totalitarian” temptation: we do not just fight for (our understanding of) freedom, we serve freedom, it is freedom itself which immediately avails itself of us… The way seems open to terror: who would be allowed to oppose freedom itself? However, the identification of a revolutionary military unit as a direct organ of freedom cannot simply be dismissed as a fetishist short circuit: this is true of the authentic revolutionary explosion. What happens in such an “ecstatic” experience is that the subject who acts is no longer a person, but, precisely, an object. And it is this dimension of identifying with an object which justifies the use of the term “theology”: “theology” is here a name for what is, in a revolutionary subject, beyond a mere collection of individual humans. In our ordinary daily lives, we are free, freedom is a human property, but in an authentic revolutionary situation, freedom itself becomes a subject and acts through us – we reduce ourselves to its objects. To make this religious component even clearer: at the level of subjective freedom, I (an agent-subject) make a free choice; but at the level of freedom itself acting, I am not the agent of choice, I am myself chosen. As Deleuze put it somewhere, I really chose only if I am chosen. So yes, we should shamelessly admit the point often made against the Marxist notion of revolutionary agent: it is chosen in the religious sense of the term.
At this highest point when we are reduced to objects, freedom and necessity coincide, but we are as far as possible from becoming just a cog in the structure that determines us. Free decisions are only possible within a structure which is in itself subjectivised through an immanent inconsistency. Agnes Sligh Turnbull wrote: “If a diplomat says yes, he means perhaps. If he says perhaps he means no. And if he says no, he’s the hell of a diplomat.” What makes this triad (a diplomat can say yes, perhaps, or no) a structure (in the strict structuralist sense) is the cut between the second and the third statement: while the first two explain the real meaning of a claim (yes means perhaps, perhaps means no), the third one changes the terrain from real meaning to the direct disqualification – a diplomat who says no is a bad diplomat. A true diplomat is thus defined by an imbalance between what he says and what he means: he never says no, but he also never means yes. In other words, what makes this triad a structure is that the third logical variation (when a diplomat says no, he means yes) is excluded, and what fills its lack is the direct reference to the subject of enunciation – structure is never flatly “objective,” it always includes a moment of subjectivisation.
However, this notion of radical freedom is clearly an exception: our daily experience of freedom has many shades, from simple choices (which movie to see? which commodity to buy?) to difficult and painful decisions of engaging oneself in a political struggle, from our subjective experience of being free (“I can think and do what I want”) to social freedom in all its complexity and ambiguity (“I am free if I can publicly express my opinions and organize, together with others, my life in the way I find appropriate for my well-being and dignity – in short, I am free if my voice matters in how the society I live in is organised”). But a totally different approach to freedom opens up with modern science: are we (humans) really free in the sense that what we are doing is not fully determined by neuronal and other processes of which we are not aware? In short, is there a free will, and is the notion of free will compatible with the scientific determinism?
The scientific determinism which grounds the technological control of our lives is more and more not just a theory but a social and political fact that directly affects our intimate self-experience.
Till now, at least, this different approach was limited to the scientific domain: the fact that I experience myself as free and that I strive to live in a society which offers a space for my freedom was perceived as fully compatible with the fact that my intimate experiences as well as social activity are neuronally and biologically determined. But today, with the latest advances in digital control and brain sciences, our intimate self-experience and our social activity can be controlled and regulated to such a degree that the liberal notion of a free individual becomes obsolete and even meaningless: the scientific determinism which grounds the technological control of our lives is more and more not just a theory but a social and political fact that directly affects our intimate self-experience.
All these levels have to be analysed in their interconnection. The self-experience of a free inner life should be, of course, supplemented by an account of the Freudian unconscious (which is simultaneously a social fact): is the Unconscious an agency of determinism or is it (as Schelling and Lacan thought) the site of the most radical free decision? Brain sciences raise the question of freedom to a new level: are we free at all, is our free will compatible with scientific determinism, and if it is, in what precise sense can we claim this? Within a social space, we are always caught in the tension between abstract and concrete freedom, and thereby with the “alienated” institutions which mediate our freedom: market, state, and representative democracy. Are they an irreducible condition of our freedom or do they also function as an obstacle to it? Our immersion into the digital universe, clearly indicates how free circulation in the virtual space gives birth to new non-transparent forms of domination. And, last but not least, what is the lesson of our ecological crises with regard to freedom? How will we be obliged to reinvent (or limit) the contours of our freedom?