Sunday, July 8, 2007

Freedom of Speech

This is an endnote from the introduction to Hal Foster's The Return of the Real, an art criticism book focusing on the "second neo-avant-garde" and the development of post-modernism in the arts:

"I address a further reciprocity between leftist provocations and rightist prohibitions in chapter 5. As this work of (dis)articulation proceeds, the neoconservative strategy of the last two decades comes into focus [published in 1996]. Its essence is twofold: first, to denounce vanguard and popular cultures as hedonistic, and then to blame this bad culture for the social ravages incurred from a capitalism that is hedonistic; second, to celebrate traditional and authoritarian cultures as ethical, and then to use this good culture (of family values and the rest) to buy votes for this rapacious capitalism (that, never mindful of the working class, is evermore heedless of the middle class as well). It is a clever trick, but why do so many people fall for it even as they see through it? This is where the work of (dis)articulation comes into play (let alone the critique of cynical reason)." (229)

This reads well, I think, with an article published by Edward Said in 1983 ("Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community," in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster). From the article:

"Our political discourse is now[, in the early years of the Reagan administration,] choked with enormous, thought-stopping abstractions, from terrorism, Communism, Islamic fundamentalism, and instability, to moderation, freedom, stability and strategic alliances, all of them as unclear as they are both potent and unrefined in their appeal. It is next to impossible to think about human society either in a global way (as Richard Falk eloquently does in A Global Approach to National Policy [1975]) or at the level of everyday life. As Philip Green shows in The Pursuit of Inequality, notions like equality and welfare have simply been chased off the intellectual landscape. Instead a brutal Darwinian picture of self-help and self-
promotion is proposed by Reaganism, both domestically and internationally, as an image of the world ruled by what is being called 'productivity' or 'free enterprise.'" (136-7)

Both of these authors (the former clearly influenced by the more prolific latter) reveal the brutally ingenious stupidity of late capitalism's mechanisms of political and social (in this case the same thing) control. Ultimately, both accounts point at the usurpation by the political authority of an ostensibly democratic narrative. This narrative is co-opted, as is frequently remarked, through the use of fear. What makes the brutality ingenious is that, instead of creating an arbitrary political scapegoat to focus popular fear (as did the Nazis, for example, or as Rene Girard describes the origins of sacrificial violence), the neo-liberal, late-capitalist political/economic apparatus focuses fear on exactly those who work to expose late capital's hedonism, and that fear is focused in part by reflecting the critique of late capital back on the critics themselves. This is the necessity of free speech. It exists not to free the masses from the yolk of oppression or to foster the free exchange of ideas, but rather to nourish an oppositional base that can in turn be debased. After all, if avant-garde art and leftist scholarship were forbidden, fear would have to be focused either arbitrarily or fantasmatically (as in 1984, and to a lesser extent, in contemporary popular discourse on terrorism, as indicated by Said). The fact that there is a fantasmatic evil currently does slightly undermine by hypothesis on free speech, though it can be partially recuperated by considering "terrorist" not only as a foreign body, but a domestic label, as in "If you _____, then the terrorists have already won," or "you're either with me or you're with the terrorists." (I'm obviously not claiming that terrorism doesn't exist, but rather am suggesting that it is made use of politically as a means of accruing power in a way that is incommensurate with any practical solution to the terrorist problem.)

Freedom is slavery, but not in the Orwellian sense. It is not the demand for freedom that will eventually lead to slavery. It is by granting freedom that sustainable slavery can be attained. Clearly I mean slavery somewhat metaphorically: I'm not implying that the contemporary American condition(s) are equivalent to any historical or contemporary state of actual slavery.

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