The Anthropology of Freedom, Pt. 5

All The Freedoms
(Freedoms, all of them)

I’ll stop with this one, I promise. But it is in some ways where I should begin. That freedom is an interesting problematic obviously has little to do with whether or not anthropologists can wield it as a concept (that’s just me deferring to the putative audience here). Rather it is a simple empirical fact that freedom–both as slogan and as a thing–is relentlessly present in global society–and especially in the domains of high tech science and engineering. The ideological use of the slogan to brand just about anything is (should be) fair game for many different scholars of contemporary discourse (see e.g. Wendy Chun’s work). But as a starting point, consider only the image to the right, which collects 9 pages of logos that use “freedom” to sell something.

These uses come from both the left and the right, and they have a certain visual consistency to them: images of upheld arms, liberated birds, broken chains are nearly ubiquitous. When a logo emphasizes a flag, a gun or an eagle it is more obviously right-leaning, when it uses a sans-serif font, the color green, or a raised fist, it is more likely a left-leaning cause. Revealingly, the same experiment with the word “liberty” is much more uniform in the use of red, white and blue, the statue of liberty (especially her spiky hat… what is that called anyways?) and only occasionally a broken bell. This analysis could all be done much more expertly, I’m certain, though it hasn’t really been. (Though I can’t resist mentioning a smorgasbord of a book by Svetlana Boym which is obliquely engaged in such a project of cultural and visual analysis).

But what such an analysis tells us is that freedom has a particular ideological role in the process of our collective deliberations and arguments in the global media-scape. In it’s most cynical version, the talk of freedom is simply a particularly effective mask for other interests. I am quite positive that linguistic anthropologists could capably explore the uses of sloganry like this, should they want to, and perhaps even expose something interesting about the reliance on the term; or explain how it differs from others like justice (scales anyone?) equality (rainbows and equal signs?) or sustainability (green, green, green and circular).

However, this sloganry, I submit, is not the only thing–or the most important thing–happening when people speak about freedom. There are also a very wide range of attempts to make freedom occur in the world. This is not about the word or its discursive use, fascinating though it be, but about the practices, technologies, organizations and events created in order to bring freedom into existence–to make freedom doable. I submit that many people in the world who use the word freedom both believe in it as a concept and are frustrated by its jingoistic use, and so are interested in finding ways to make it real and pursuable as a problem.

Which is to say, they are all asking, just as anthropologists might, “what exactly do you mean by freedom?”

Many such people may not even use the word freedom, probably for exactly this reason, even though they remain concerned with the problems of justice, agency, non-interference, non-domination, arbitrary power, causality and responsibility or other components of the concept of freedom. But many groups do earnestly label their efforts this way: Free Software, the Freedom Box, the Freedom Fone, Freedom to Tinker, Freedom to Read, Freedom to Connect, Free Speech TV, Free Culture, Freedom to Marry; and that’s just the tip of a large frosty beverage.

All of these things are specific projects or goals (unlike ‘free trade’ or ‘free markets’ which have somehow gone on beyond meaning anything at all). Some of these things, like the Freedom to Marry campaign(s) are straightforwardly activist and focused on specific policy issues. “Freedom to Marry” is strictly equivalent to “Right to Marry” and so involves the expansion of precise legal rights in specific jurisdictions. Something like “Free Speech TV” is focused on bringing freedom into existence (in the what seems like a roundabout way, really) by “inspir[ing] viewers to become civically engaged to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable society.”

But several things of this sort (most obviously “Free Software”) are in fact specific attempts to create freedom in non-policy senses. They are not (principally) about changing laws, or engaging in deliberation or activism towards the changing of laws, but about creating technologies, organizations, tools or infrastructures that the creators both intend and believe will result in freedom. The Freedom Box, for instance is a relatively recent project to create an alternative to “cloud computing”–it is inspired by Eben Moglen (early co-director of the Free Software Foundation) and his 2010 talk on “Freedom in the Cloud” at the, wait for it, Software Freedom Law Center. The goals of the project are more likely to be concerned less with freedom and more with privacy, anonymity, security and individual control–but it is nonetheless called the Freedom Box, not the Privacy Box or the Individual Control Box, which admittedly ring kind of hollow as names.

Now, at some level the people involved in these projects are engaged in exactly the kind of ethical cultivation that Foucault and Faubion articulate (See part 4)–but with freedom as the telos of that practice as well as its ground. Free Software advocates are famously devoted to a kind of acetic practice of purifying their own software environment; it has its mystics (Donald Knuth), it’s mendicants (Richard Stallman) and its dojo (The command line of the GNU/Linux Operating system). They possess the freedom necessary to engage in these practices by virtue of being either independently wealthy, academics, or well-paid during the day. But as I say, freedom is also the telos of this practice as well as its ground, and that has particular implications which are diagnostic not just of free software, but of contemporary scientific and engineering practice generally.

As an aside, these ethical subjects can be distinguished from other geeks in precisely this respect: it is possible to become a “geeky” ethical subject whose telos is not freedom, but some other goal: entertainment, economic efficiency, mastery of technology, “community” etc. And it is also possible to NOT have the freedom to become an ethical subject in this sense. And perhaps it goes without saying, but it is also possible to have freedom as a telos without at all being concerned with technology, software, science etc.

With freedom as a telos, the problem becomes not just how to behave towards oneself and others, but enabling others to have the freedom these ethical subjects seek to cultivate in themselves. At the very heart of Free Software, for instance, is the suspicion that software tools are necessary to life–for expression, creation, communication and at some level, for ethical cultivation–and that it therefore matters how they are constructed because it will affect the ability of other people to achieve freedom (or to achieve an ethics based on the freedom these tools enable in them). I think this sounds absurd to many people because it gives software too much credit–it makes it out to be the essence of life rather than a simple adjunct. But it does not sound at all absurd to really serious makes of software or devices.

Two things follow from the effort to enable other people’s freedom through the creation of software: 1) this perhaps takes the activity out of the domain of ethical cultivation and into the domain of politics (in the sense Arendt gives it), the domain of work and making, with the implication that it becomes an eminently public activity rather than a private or subjective one; and 2) it invokes exactly that concern which first Mill and then Isaiah Berlin identified: any version of freedom that forces other people to adopt a particular practice–even in the name of freedom–is not worthy of the name. Freedom is freedom from (negative freedom), not a substantive form of life imposed on others in order to make them free (positive freedom). Many who despise the most “ideological” Free Software advocates (or Free Culture, or “Freedom to Marry” people) do so on exactly the latter count: you can’t force me to be free.

But, people who create Free Software or Free Culture are not doing it sui generis; they are not attempting to impose a form of freedom they have invented, or somehow, in some ideal sense, believe exists and can only be accessed through their creations. Rather they are responding to a context in which they perceive the status quo to be one of domination.

Return for a moment to the “ideological” slogans of freedom. The de facto mode of marketing almost all new technologies is to emphasize how they will liberate us, free us from drudgery, create new possibilities for action we had never imagined, etc. (iPad 3 will make you free! Internet Freedom will topple regimes!). It is a very common intuition that what they actually do is “enslave” us, and in more than one way. First by subjecting us to a form of life, a mode of interacting with devices and other people that we had no role in cultivating and second, they dominate us in the very freedom-specific sense of creating a form of arbitrary power to which we must submit if we wish to use them. The former of these is the more ambivalent: sometimes we do want other people to invent new forms of life and to offer us the chance to adopt them. Sometimes, these technologies do enable forms of life that were impossible without them. Good/bad design, good/bad architecture, good/bad city planning all participate in a similar ambivalence. We love this city so we submit to the traffic problem; or we love this building because it enables certain forms of life so we submit to the fact that it is has bad ventilation, and so on. But it is the second of these implications to which much of the high-tech talk of “freedom” in free software, free culture, freedom in the cloud, responds today: non-domination.

Free Software is a practice of making that responds to the fact that most, if not all, new technologies are provided by corporations who possess a form of arbitrary power over their users. It is not a question of active interference by these corporations (except when it is)–active invasion of privacy or even passive surveillance (except when it is). Rather it is the fact that these entities’ power is arbitrary which angers and motivates these actors.

This is where being careful about the meaning of freedom is helpful. For those who would define freedom strictly as noninterference (strong “negative liberty” in Berlin’s sense) in the context of technological infrastructures, the paradox of the “contented slave” confronts them. It is eminently possible that we could live happily with Apple, Google, Facebook and a handful of other mega-corporations who promise not to do evil; it is possible to never experience either harm or interference from them–but we will still be subject to their arbitrary power, which is to say, they reserve the right to interfere when it serves their interests, not ours. For those who would define freedom as non-domination, then this is most certainly an unfree state of affairs.

There is an unease here, primarily for philosophers, I think, because they tend to associate power strictly with the State, and not with corporations, who are more likely to be seen as actors vis-a-vis the State. But they can be both (dominating citizens and dominated by the State; or in some cases, pace rupert murdoch, dominating both citizens and the State), and we really have no theory of freedom to adequately account for this complex relation.

So this is all a roundabout way of explaining that the kind of freedom that concerns those in the high-tech world, and especially in Free Software circles, is of the civic republican kind. It could, if people were better at using this language, answer the kinds of insipid concerns usually trotted out around privacy, security or surveillance, as in “Why should I worry if I’ve done nothing wrong” or the increasingly elaborate privacy controls of Facebook or “circles” of Google+ (by the way, is that circle as in “vicious” or circle as in “of hell”?). The notion of freedom as non-domination is about whether or not there is arbitrary power over your privacy, your security or your surveillance–not about your actions or your fine-grained ability to control who sees what about you. Though it does not account for anyone who desires to be dominated because it “makes my life easier”–that I have no explanation for yet.

If freedom is defined as non-domination then, a different more interesting problem confronts us: how do you make power non-arbitrary? From the perspective of political theory, non-arbitrary power is familiar, if not easy to achieve: it’s the rule of law, it’s democratic accountability, it’s the balance of power, it’s the public sphere as a check on power. But is this also how we make a corporate power non-arbitrary? What about a technology?

Free Software is a very particular (techno-legal) way of attempting to make power non-arbitrary. It is about designing and creating legally protected objects whose technical detail and structure is visible (open source) and whose legal existence is communal (Free Software license), and which commons is implicitly managed by organizations devoted to maintaining this form of freedom (formal enterprises whose goal is the collective maintenance of free software). That is not the only way to create non-arbitrary power, perhaps not even the best way. But that is it’s goal. It does this within the context of State power, but it achieves it through privately ordered groups of people who seek to bring freedom into existence this way.

My point, at least for the anthropologists, if not the philosophers, is that this is an example of how freedom is made doable in a concrete, empirically specifiable way. As far as I know, none of the Free Software advocates, nor any of the lawyers who observe it, talk about freedom in this philosophically precise way (with the possible exception of Lewis Hyde’s recent book). So it is not the case that the philosophical concept of freedom somehow determines or descends into the empirical realm to order the actions of people. Rather, there is an intuition, a context, perhaps a mode of ethical cultivation, which is attempting to achieve results that can be accurately understood with this set of philosophical distinctions. It is in this manner that freedom can be understood as a problem in the world, and anthropological inquiry as a form of empirical philosophy.

And that is all I got.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

11 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Freedom, Pt. 5

  1. Thanks, Chris. IMHO, you’ve got a lot. Like I said in that article on persuasion I mentioned, once you challenge the tried-and-half-true critical frame of social or cultural systems imposed on people and recognize how much human activity involves people making choices about what they want to do and other human activity designed to influence those choices, your sense of how society works undergoes a sea change. You find that wailing and moaning, gnashing of teeth/crocodile tears about the iniquities of this or that status quo aren’t nearly as compelling as trying to figure out how people with at least some freedom to choose negotiate their choices.

  2. “Rather it is a simple empirical fact that freedom–both as slogan and as a thing–is relentlessly present in global society–and especially in the domains of high tech science and engineering.”

    I seriously doubt that Freedom is a thing, unless it is the name of a spacecraft or race horse. Freedom is a state of being, transitory and relative. Freedom fighters fight for freedom, but then don’t know what to do with it when they win it. Frequently, the first thing that the revolutionary leaders do is to kill off or isolate the revolutionaries, because to win freedom means to limit the freedom of the winners and losers.

    From the anthropological perspective, I feel that we see something that is transitory and relative too hard to conceptualize in the field when we are seeking clues to socio-cultural regularity.

    Judging from our profession’s stand on “ethics” — freedom (academic, speech, scientific inquiry) are assumed to be the natural right of being an academic researcher and not subject to limitation by society or even colleagues. That is way our ‘ethics codes” are theoretical and not practical nor enforceable.

    I think John McCreery put it well in his comment in Part 4. when he said ” freedom is not liberation from external authority imposed from outside the self. It is, instead, liberation from the desires that constitute the self, leaving the body free to go with the flow of nature instead of fighting against it. ” Or as Kris Kristofferson wrote

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
    ‘n nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free”

  3. @Barry, Saying that freedom is a “state of being, transitory and relative” doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement. If its about being, then its a thing. Lots of things are transitory and relative, like my money. I’ll maintain that it is a thing simply because I’m interested in how people make things, and when I ask, most of my informants insist that they are creating freedom.

    As for Kris Kristofferson (wasn’t that Janis Joplin, or did she just sing it?), the idea of liberation as subjection to Nature is Augustinian freedom (except he called Nature God) and it too has a very long history. But that erases distinctions rather than introducing them…

  4. By “thing” I assume a material, physical object. As for money, when it is in gold, a coin or paper form it is a physical representation of a transitory state of being called “trust.”

    Money is an IOU promise. When you purchase a good or service your money is a symbol of trust accepted by the seller that you are giving him/her something of equal value to what you are taking from him/her. If you are selling, you are accepting the promise, that is, trusting the buyer, by accepting “money” as a symbol of equal value to the good or service you are giving up.

    When your money moved over to the computer and became bytes is became very transitory, its value very much more relative, but its function — to symbolize trust remains.

    Both “freedom” and “trust” are important ideals which help to motivate human behavior and provide context for human interaction. But you can’t eat either one. They are soul food, not physical food and therefore NOT a thing.

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” I take this as meaning, not subjection to Nature but, surrender of self (ego) as in the Buddhist sense of nirvana or in the Christian sense of the Christ’s agony in Garden, or the zealot bombers suicide.

    These are personal and singular acts and beyond the general interest of the anthropologist. What should attract the attention of the anthropologist is the aftermath of the event when the act becomes public property and is transformed into myth or legend — carrying an ethical or moral significance. This, for me, is where and when the concept emerges from the reality of the act and takes on its metaphorical reality. But it is a symbol not a thing.

    This is one the key difference, as far as we know, between MAN and other species. Chimps will fight over a thing, MEN will kill and die for a symbol, such as “freedom” (as defined by the group and its mythology). A symbol’s exact definition is relative to other definitions because it is defined by the group’s mythology, not a universally held mythology.

    It was Kris who wrote the song “bobby magee” and did the original recording. Janice turned it into the hit.

  5. Can humans create trust? If they can, that is all I am interested in… I have no stake in the nature of its materiality or physicality. It is a thing if humans can attempt to make it or control it. If you are suggesting that trust or freedom is a feature of matter which humans only accidentally participate in, then maybe we are arguing, otherwise you are just drawing a line in the Silica.

    But maybe the point isn’t clear– I’m not interested in the ontology of freedom, I’m interested in it as a problem to which people direct their interests and activities–i.e. try to solve. That some people do this by trying to make new things strikes me as something an anthropologist can study. But maybe I am wrong about what anthropologists can study.

  6. hi chris

    interesting thread. a pity i have only just crossed it.

    just thought i’d put my two cents in. a few years back i edited “culture and well-being: anthropological approaches to freedom and political ethics” (pluto press), with contributions by james laidlaw, michael lambek, wendy james, nigel rapport or neil thin – topics included (virtue) ethics, justice, happiness or existentialism.

    the relationship between well-being and freedom (or indeed, happiness, or justice, or whatever) is certainly not straightforward. my own interest in the concept derives from its operationalisation in economic and development theory and practice: well-being is what theories of distributive justice or intergenerational welfare are aiming for these days (e.g. Sen, Partha Dasgupta, etc.)

    the project was certainly in many respects ethnographic. many contributors set out to provide ethnographic context to what ‘well-being’ might look like in PNG (Hirsch), Sudan (James) or among Jain communities in India and elsewhere (Laidlaw). there were also some comparative efforts (Lambek), who suggested that an anthropology of well-being (perhaps also freedom) is likely to lean towards, and find congenial, theories of virtue ethics.

    my own interest was a little more ‘theoretical’: not what anthropology can contribute to political theory and philosophy by way of ethnographic contextualisation, but what do political theory and philosophy look like when they are organised internally to make questions of well-being (or justice, etc.) visible to themselves; that is, what is the anthropological epistemology of ethics and freedom in Western political theory. this is a comparative project of sorts too, although the terms of the comparison are the (internal / indigenous) theoretical resources of our political imaginations.

  7. @ Ckelty Very good question. “Can humans create trust?”

    I will assume that the answer is “Yes!” First, it is biologically necessary for the survive the human child and thus the species. Second it is a key element in the formation and stability of the family unit which has been the core social unit in the evolution of the species. Third, human institutions are built on trust and MAN has developed many formal procedures, processes and instruments (e.g. law, courts, contracts, oaths etc) have been created and used to establish and recognize “trust” by setting up and formalizing the elements of the trust relationship.

    But maybe most of all and the closest to home is the assumption made by anthropologists and anthropology itself that the field worker must establish “rapport” (trust) with the subject before meaningful research can begin and must maintain that trust if research is to proceed. Isn’t this core concern in the AAA’s Code of Ethics?.

    Trust can be created in the minds of others vis-a-vis oneself, but it takes time, effort, and consistency. As an applied anthropologist, I have seen how this process works in a number of different contexts. I have seen how important it is to building and maintaining relationships to support shared interests and achieve shared goals.

    But trust is a very fragile configuration of feelings and actions and it can be destroyed in a moment, as anyone who has broken up a partnership, or divorced, or fired someone or been fired from a job, or turned down for credit. Or as the Republicans don’t seem to understand, lower the US government’s credit rating.

    Trust is the relationships, the symbols that represent the relationships, and the actions that are required by the parties to the relationship to demonstrate their commitment that become the focus for an anthropology of trust.

    I suggest that the same holds true for an anthropology of freedom. As you implied above, “freedom” must be defined in terms of relationships regardless whether it is the presence or absence of specific relationships.

  8. @Alberto Can I just say first, before anything else, and in a distanced, objective voice, why is it so freaking hard to find what should be obvious? I’ve been collecting books and articles on this subject for like 9 straight months, and that volume has never, ever shown up on a search of any kind. Do we blame Pluto Press? Do we blame me for being a lousy researcher? Do we blame society? Arrrrg. Do we blame creative anthropologists for relentlessly connecting up two or more notions for comparison such that it becomes impossible to find work on any one of them? I do not know. But it sucks because it is responsible for the anxiety that you do not have the book that has already answered the question you are pursuing…

    Regardless, I’m especially happy to know that it exists and will rush over to the library forthwith to scavenge it for more ideas 🙂

    I think I share your interest in the “anthropological epistemology of ethics and freedom in Western political theory” though I don’t think I would put it that way. Faubion’s book asserts something similar, which is that philosophers are as much resources as informants for him. And I think it generally becomes uninteresting to assert that anthropologists relationship to philosophers is to provide empirical data that challenge the claims of philosophy. Very little philosophy seems to me to be at all vulnerable to attacks from the so-called real world, and this is often its strength. Rather, I think the relationship that interests me is a methodological one. Namely that the kind of “introspection” which philosophers engage in is often be informed by their own experience of the world, a practice which to philosophers is indistinguishable from simply living a life, but which for anthropologists is in fact formalized into a method. Anthropologists, by contrast often stop short of philosophizing, and are variously, in ways that track their degree of commitment to a positivist or realist epistemology, content to simply present that experience to their peers.

  9. @ckelty i doubt very much the book will answer the question you are pursuing 🙂 it does have some good moments, though. (i have somewhere pdf files of the proofs, in case you cannot get hold of a copy.)

  10. @ckelty

    Thanks for an interesting series. I don’t have the energy to really pick this post apart, but I wanted to flag that your free software example highlights the relationship between “freedoms” and the definition of various “spaces” “publics” or “commons”.

    The legal regime underlying most software is that of “Creative Commons”. If you think about it, freedom to act must imply some locus of action, and some definition of the limits of that locus, this is a minimal necessary definitional implication.

    I think that the problems of thinking freedom are related to the lack of thinking of its surround, negative space, or locus. This is like the notion of agency: it is always embedded deeply in material relations, and so has a relation to it’s locus, but it is seldom discussed in these terms. Presumably every form of agency implies a space of public for it: Driving, with a motor vehicle, goes along with the definition of roads, traffic rules, insurance policies etc… a series of spaces for the “freedom” or agency of driving, and without which driving could not really exist.

    What is more, since these spaces must be socially extensive enough to “contain” a social practice, they must be communicated in some regularised way. This implies a mode of communicative action associated with a freedom or form of agency embedded within a regularised social practice.

    So in a sense any notion of freedom is incomplete unless viewed in relation to its implied spaces and loci and a model of stabilising communication that propagates this. I wrote something obliqeuly along these lines in a paper “Finding our Subject: Media Practice, Structure and Communication”.

    Thanks for the series.

  11. “It is nonetheless called the Freedom Box, not the Privacy Box or the Individual Control Box.”

    I was at the talk Eben Moglen gave last summer at DebConf proposing the FreedomBox, and it’s interesting to note that the name “FreedomBox” was forwarded as a kind of default name; Moglen said something to the effect that he couldn’t think of anything better yet.

    It struck me then, and continues to do so, how taken-for-granted that kind of talk is in Free Software circles. (Though Debian might be a bit of an extreme case.)

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