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2015-16 Seminar: Freedom

Throughout the modern period, the development of capitalism, imperialism, and liberalism have been inseparable from novel forms of and ideas about “freedom.” Socially embedded forms of differentiation and exclusion (related to constructions race, gender, sexuality, religion, civilization etc.) have also been authorized by ideologies of freedom. Diverse theoretical traditions have developed sophisticated analyses of the entwined relationship between (forms of modern) freedom and (varieties of modern) domination. It is also the case that throughout the modern period innumerable social, political, intellectual, religious, and cultural movements seeking to overcome forms of modern domination have explicitly done so in the name of, and with the aim of, “freedom.”

Given this history, what kind of relationship might intellectuals and political actors today develop to the concept of freedom and its heterogeneous legacies? Is some notion of freedom necessary for critique, or is it on the other hand an obstacle to clear thinking about social justice? Is freedom best regarded as a dangerous ideology and a disabling fiction? A utopian desire or a regulative ideal? A concrete condition and/or a real possibility? Do the stakes change when we think of freedom as an idea as compared to a demand, a practice, a social status, or a form of lived experience? Should freedom be thought differently in relation to different political scales (e.g., local self-management, state forms, the global order)? Do different notions of freedom contain different temporal assumptions and/or different affective registers?

Some questions that projects might explore could include the following:

  • In what way might we usefully distinguish freedom from, or re-articulate it with, related concepts of liberty, autonomy, and emancipation?
  • How might a critical understanding of freedom help us to distinguish among varieties of unfreedom, domination, and alienation?
  • How should we think about fugitivity, marronage and related practices and spaces of relative freedom with regimes of unfreedom?
  • How might we consider freedom in relation to tensions between rights and responsibilities in struggles for empowerment and voice of minority groups?
  • How might it be useful to think freedom in relation to terms such as equality, justice, solidarity, mutuality, reciprocity, accountability, responsibility, and/or revolution?
  • Is there a tension between freedom and ethics, or are they indispensable to one another?
  • How can we understand freedom in historically specific ways, in relation to particular historical moments or social formations? Or is it by definition a universal category?
  • How might we engage different cultural traditions for understanding freedom and unfreedom? Or is freedom an inherently Western concept?
  • How has the concept or experience of freedom circulated? Has it assumed different forms or meanings in different locations? Has it been a unifying or a divisive force translocally?
  • Do contemporary structural transformations associated with globalization make freedom more or less useful as a concept and political reference point?
  • In what ways might freedom need to be re-conceptualized for these times?
  • Could a seemingly outmoded notion of freedom be re-functioned to address contemporary challenges?
  • What are the political and analytic risks of holding onto a notion of freedom—or alternatively of abandoning it?
  • Does freedom continue to underwrite current forms of domination, or continue to be useful as a standpoint from which to challenge them?