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Critical freedom

The Deleuzian ethic that we have so far described in terms of assemblages, power and desire might also be described as an ethics of freedom. However, in order to do so, it is necessary to clarify the concept of freedom that is involved. We have seen how the theory of assemblages developed in A Thousand Plateaus (1987) systematically privileges processes of creative transformation and metamorphosis through which individual and collective bodies may be transformed. Implicit in this theory is a concept of critical freedom, where ‘critical’ is understood not in the sense that relates to criticism or judgement, but in the technical sense which relates to a crisis or turning point in some process. In these terms, a critical point is an extreme or limit case; a point at which some state or condition of things passes over into a different state or condition. Critical freedom differs from the standard liberal concepts of positive and negative freedom by its focus upon the conditions of change or transformation in the subject, and by its indifference to the individual or collective nature of the subject. By contrast, traditional liberal approaches tended to take as given the individual subject and to define freedom in terms of the capacity to act without hindrance in the pursuit of one’s ends or in terms of the capacity to satisfy one’s most significant desires.

For example, in both Isaiah Berlin’s classic description and defence of negative liberty (Berlin 1969) and Charles Taylor’s criticism of that concept (Taylor 1985), the focus is upon the preservation or continuity of the individual subject of freedom rather than its transformation. Berlin defines negative liberty in terms of ‘the area of non-interference’ within which subjects are left to do or be what they are able to do or be (Berlin 1969:16). His concept of freedom involves two elements: first, a majoritarian subject of action, where this is supposed to be a ‘normal human being’ with desires, goals and capacities for action which fall within the range of

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normality for a given time and place. Second, the presence of external limits to the individual’s sphere of action. The implication of his spatial metaphors is that freedom lies in between agents and the constraints upon their action.12 While the boundaries of that space may vary over time, freedom is a matter of where the line is drawn at any given moment. At any particular historical moment, freedom presupposes a static subject with given capacities and interests.

By contrast, Taylor’s concept of positive freedom is based upon a more complex concept of the subject of action as an individual capable of ‘strong evaluation’. The resulting concept of freedom thus includes an element absent from Berlin’s concept, namely the concept of internal limits to freedom. Taylor defends a view of positive freedom as ‘the exercising of control over one’s life’ (Taylor 1985:62). This control or self-realisation demands that one have a sense of one’s identity, of who or what one is, on the basis of which one can discriminate between one’s authentic or essential desires and those that are inauthentic or inessential. Such discrimination is what Taylor means by strong evaluation, and his argument is that even negative liberty presupposes this kind of qualitative judgement about the purposes or kinds of action that are significant to persons. However, Taylor’s concept of freedom also remains tied to a concept of the subject as a given, determinate structure of interests, goals or desires. Freedom still refers to the capacity of the subject to act in pursuit of a given set of fundamental interests, rather than the capacity to alter those interests. In other words, Taylor’s concept of positive freedom overlooks the important sense in which a person is deemed free only to the extent that they are able to distance themselves from the structure of values with which they grew up and to acquire others. Any defensible account of freedom must allow for the possibility that agents will act in ways that lead them to alter their desires, preferences and goals, and even for the possibility that they might consciously question certain forms of self-understanding which sustain their accepted goals. Such questioning may occur in isolation, but it is more likely to arise in the course of a movement for change in the relevant area of social life, or in the context of exposure to other ways of thinking and acting. In these ways, for example, feminist criticism of assumptions about the respective capacities of men and women to affect and be affected may raise questions about the traditional distribution of affects, or an influx of immigrants in a formerly monocultural society may challenge the core values of both residents and newcomers.



Liberal political philosophy now takes note of this dimension of freedom, insisting that freedom must include not just the individual’s capacity to act without interference and in accordance with his or her fundamental values, but also the capacity critically to evaluate and revise those values. Liberalism, it is now argued, guarantees not only the individual’s right to

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choose their own conception of the good, but also their right to revise and reformulate that conception. Thus, James Tully uses the term ‘critical freedom’ to refer to this capacity to ‘question in thought and challenge in practice one’s inherited cultural ways’ (Tully 1995:202). Moreover, if we accept that a person is defined by the values and beliefs that determine their structure of strong evaluation, then a possible outcome of the exercise of such critical freedom is that one becomes a different person:

Our conceptions of the good may and often do change over time, usually slowly but sometimes rather suddenly. When these changes are sudden, we are likely to say that we are no longer the same person. We know what this means: we refer to a profound and pervasive shift, or reversal, in our final ends and commitments…

(Rawls 1993:31)

In contrast to the traditional concepts of negative and positive freedom, critical freedom thus concerns those moments in a life after which one is no longer the same person. It is the freedom to transgress the limits of what one is presently capable of being or doing, rather than just the freedom to be or do those things. In the course of a life, individuals make choices which may significantly affect the range, nature or course of their future actions: the decision to become a parent, to embark upon one particular career or course of study, or to leave one’s country of birth and live in another culture, are all cases of significant action upon one’s future actions. To the extent that these events may have the effect of opening up certain paths and closing off others, and to the extent that the individual’s capacities to affect and be affected will change as a result, they are possible occasions of ‘becoming’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the term. They are limits beyond which an individual’s desires, preferences or goals may be irrevocably changed. It is no objection to point out that all moments in a life carry this potential, since for Deleuze and Guattari the possibility of becoming-other is indeed present at every moment. It is realised in those moments when a qualitatively different kind of transition is involved. Following Deleuze’s mathematical model of qualitative multiplicity, we might consider a life as a series of points at which decisions are made, or events are experienced. The critical points will then be the distinctive as opposed to the ordinary points upon a curve: they are the ‘events’ that ultimately determine the shape of a life. In these terms, a life will manifest more critical freedom the more it is capable of variation of this kind. To be capable of such variation does not imply a commitment to experiencing it at every opportunity, just as radical change in the circumstances of a life does not necessarily imply critical freedom on the part of the subject.13

Deleuze and Guattari do not offer a concept of persons but a concept of assemblage which can be applied equally to social or to personal identity.

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Different identities can be specified in terms of the lines or processes that make up different kinds of assemblage. As individuals or collectivities, they argue, we are composed of different kinds of ‘lines’: molar lines that correspond to the forms of rigid segmentation found in bureaucratic and hierarchical institutions; molecular lines that correspond to the fluid or overlapping forms of division characteristic of ‘primitive’ territoriality; and finally, lines of flight that are the paths along which things change or become transformed into something else.

The manner in which differences between these lines may be used to express different kinds of personal transformation is demonstrated by Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, The Crack Up (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:198–200). Fitzgerald distinguishes three different kinds of transition from one state or stage in a life to another: first, there are the large breaks between youth and adulthood, between poverty and wealth, between illness and good health, between success or failure in a chosen profession. These, Fitzgerald writes, are ‘the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside’. In his own life, they include an adolescent illness which affected his college career, an encounter with class difference in the form of a failed relationship, the rise of cinema and its perceived effect on the novel, and the onset of alcoholism. But these are not the most significant breaks: the important breaks are those almost imperceptible cracks which affect a person’s concept of self. These are the subtle shifts of feeling or attitude which distance the person from his or her former convictions. They involve molecular changes in the structure of a person. They are, in Fitzgerald’s words, ‘the sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it’. A person does not recover from blows of this sort, he writes, ‘he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about’.

In the autobiographical case recounted in the novella, the subject is confronted with a particularly severe break-down which involved a loss of faith in his former values and the dissipation of all his convictions. He seeks to effect what he calls ‘a clean break’ with his past self (Fitzgerald 1956:69–84). By this means, he resolves to become ‘a writer only’ and to ‘cease any attempt to be a person, to be kind, just or generous’. Fitzgerald’s novella recounts an experience of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘becoming-imperceptible’. The desire to be like everyone else and to go unnoticed is connected to a desire to reduce oneself to a minimal set of traits on the basis of which to forge new connections with the world: ‘To reduce oneself to an abstract line, a trait, in order to find one’s zone of indiscernibility with other traits, and in this way enter the haecceity and impersonality of the creator’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:280).

Of course, in many senses of the term, Fitzgerald’s subject remains the same person after as before, but not in the senses that matter for the liberal

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concept of freedom. The subject of Fitzgerald’s novella no longer has the same interests nor the same desires and preferences. His goals are not the same, nor are the values that would underpin his strong evaluations. As a result, the kind of freedom that is manifest in a break of this kind cannot be captured in the definitions of negative and positive freedom. By contrast, Fitzgerald’s experience of the ‘clean break’ is precisely what interests Deleuze and Guattari. Such a break amounts to a redistribution of desire such that ‘when something occurs, the self that awaited it is already dead, or the one that would await it has not yet arrived’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:198–9). This kind of sudden shift towards another quality of life or towards a life which is lived at another degree of intensity is one possible outcome of what they call a line of flight. It is on this kind of line that critical freedom is manifest.

We noted at the end of Chapter 3 the dangers associated with lines of flight: Deleuze and Guattari’s argument is not that lines of flight will always turn out badly, but that they may do so, for example in the absence of productive connections with other forces, or in the aftermath of an allencompassing or too-abrupt refusal of one’s past or prior self. In view of these dangers, it is apparent that critical freedom is indifferent to the desires, preferences and goals of the subject in the sense that it may threaten as much as advance any of these. As a result, whereas the normative status and the value of liberal freedom is straightforwardly positive, critical freedom is a much more ambivalent and risky affair: more ambivalent since it involves leaving behind existing grounds of value, with the result that it is not always clear whether it is a good, or indeed by what standards it could be evaluated as good or bad; risky because there is no telling in advance where such processes of mutation and change might lead, whether at the level of individual or collective assemblages.

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Date: 2015-01-11; view: 948


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