On freedom *

A discussion between Svetlana Boym and Boris Groys

Boym and Groys discuss philosophical concepts on freedom to assess how the term is used in its various dimensions – on the state level, in people’s private lives and relating to economic aspects.
Is there such a thing as societal freedom where the state governs and rules most aspects of people’s lives? Are humans, as Sartre proclaimed “doomed to be free”? Does freedom entail an escape from the economic determinism that rules Western civilisations or is it economic activity that sets us free in the first place? Svetlana Boym and Boris Groys discuss.

Svetlana Boym: It is difficult to begin a conversation about freedom, for freedom is elusive. The Greeks associated liberty with the invisible elements, with air. No wonder they had no goddess of liberty. And nevertheless, it is in ancient Greece that this invisible air of liberty became a cultural value.

Boris Groys: I think that liberty becomes a real issue when there is a practical need for liberty. When a person wants to do something and something impedes him, the problem of liberty arises. This aspiration for liberty is always linked to some hindrance, some constraint or some obstacle. This is what’s called freedom from: freedom from violence, freedom from a regime that oppresses you, freedom from illness, from poverty, freedom from your body, ultimately (the body as the soul’s dungeon, since the body doesn’t let the soul unfold). But there is also freedom to; i.e. the problem of liberty emerges when you want to achieve something, to actualise yourself, and you ask yourself whether this is possible.

S. B: But before we can differentiate between freedom from and freedom to, the very concept of freedom needs to become a cultural value. For example, the ancient Egyptians understood freedom as orphanhood and homelessness. Only for the ancient Greeks was a free person a citizen of the polis rather than an orphan without kith or kin. In Greek the word for freedom/liberty literally meant “non-enslavement”, but the “non-slave” got to participate in the civic life of the polis. Thus liberty was not just liberation from enslavement, but also the right to political and artistic participation in the life of society. It was when the space of civic liberty decreased that the concept of inner freedom emerged and the Stoics began to search for “an inner polis, the polis of the soul”. Note that the metaphors for inner freedom are derivative from civic freedom. What do you think of this genealogy?

B. G: Freedom is indeed being defined negatively here, it is defined by contrast to what oppressed you: if you have been in a state of enslavement, then freedom is the exit from that state, i.e. freedom is perceived as something purely negative.

S. B: The question is what we understand by “negative”. For example, let’s look at the iconography of freedom. Do you remember Delacroix’s painting, where the maid Liberty wears a Phrygian cap? This is a trace of slavery, a memory of unfreedom, as it were, which is necessary in order to value the air of freedom. But freedom cannot be exclusively defined as liberation. There is a complex dialectic between the two. I would even propose to differentiate between cultures of freedom (the Western model) and cultures of liberation. Of course they need each other. All freedom must include a negative element of liberation from something, but it cannot turn into a mere liberating wind sweeping everything on its way. It has to become the air that you breathe. It makes you feel a little dizzy, it intoxicates you, but also enables you to survive.

B. G: Nevertheless, here freedom is only being defined negatively, as freedom from something. But there is also another conception of liberty, the positive one. This is our ability to change life, to change the conditions of our existence. And this liberty leads us to another opposition: it is clear that in this sense, Leni Riefenstahl or Speer were free – they were free just as every person, especially every artist, is free in case he feels that he is living under a regime which is completely reorganising life, i.e. that he is taking part in the realisation of some programme of a transcendental nature.

S. B: But then you have modified our opposition: do you mean that he is free because he identifies himself with some collective project? So have we ended up with freedom as well-recognised necessity once more?

B. G: No, I mean something else: negative freedom is freedom from another’s project. As a slave, as a vassal, as a person living in a feudal system, you submit to someone else’s will. And the negative conception defines freedom as liberation from someone else’s project. The positive definition of freedom is about the possibility to realise your own project. The moment you start realising your own project, you are faced with the limitations of this project. One of these limitations is a law-governed society. In a law-governed society, you cannot steal, kill or do anything bad, and in this sense one can say that this is a society which limits your liberty to commit crime. But at the same time this is a society which doesn’t let you do good, for (as we know from the Gospel) true good deeds, just like love, can only exist beyond law, by transforming the very human condition. This is why we need to distinguish between negative freedom, i.e. freedom from someone else’s project, and positive freedom, i.e. a person’s ability to realise her own project.

S. B: You have turned Isaiah Berlin’s categories completely upside down. For him, negative liberty is freedom from, but also a political right of the citizens of the liberal state that protects them from that state’s interference into their private affairs. This is based on Locke’s idea that human freedom is not the same as natural liberty or chaos. People enter a social contract and give away a piece of their natural liberty (away) in exchange for freedom from fear, a certain security which allows them to live out their potentialities more freely. I.e. for Locke, paradoxical as it may sound, freedom is the fence around your private property. Your property is protected both against other citizens and against state intervention. (For example, we are currently witnessing an increase in the use of the following rhetoric both in America and in Russia: “we need to go around certain civil liberties in order to strengthen security.” However, history shows that narrowing civil liberties mostly strengthens not people’s security but state power, which may not at all be safe for ordinary citizens.) The law is not only an obstacle to freedom, but also a means to realise it. (Note that I’m emphasising the law, not the market. For me they are not the same.) Not all barriers operate like prison gates. Some of them uncover and strengthen the space of our creative freedom, where we may realise our ideas without having to fear the people or the state. What you are proposing is the exact opposite of this project.

B. G: I will try to explain everything very simply. Assume I want to build a very large pyramid, like an Egyptian one. My impression is that in a democratic, law-governed society it is simply impossible to obtain funding and land for this.

S. B: But let’s assume you’ve bought a pavilion in Las Vegas…

B. G: No, what I want to build is an ancient Egyptian pyramid which has a sacral significance, elevates my soul, preserves my body for posterity, etc. This is the project I want to realise. In Egypt this was possible. And I have to say we still admire these pyramids; you can’t say they haven’t left a trace in our culture. On the other hand, under current legal conditions it would be very problematic to obtain labour and funding for such a project, and I don’t get the impression that this project is realisable. There is a whole series of good projects which may have a great sacral, spiritual, aesthetic significance, but are just as difficult to realise today as are negative projects.

S. B: Why can’t you build a pyramid if you intend to do this on your own land? Say, if you live in Nevada, you’ve bought some private land, then you may lawfully, without infringing upon anyone’s freedom, build yourself a pyramid with your own money earned by creative work. (Let’s assume you’ve written a film script and sold it to Hollywood for a million. Unlikely but not impossible…) Who will forbid you to build a pyramid?

B. G: The point is that we are integrated into a system of economic and legal relations which, as Hegel justly noted in his “Aesthetic”, doesn’t let us realise our heroic principle. In one section of the “Aesthetic” he writes that the real hero grows his grapes himself, makes his wine himself and drinks it himself. The hero shapes the world that surrounds him. Therefore cannot be a hero he who drinks tea and coffee…

S. B: …and reads a paper in the morning…

B.G. …and what’s more, needs to hand in applications. The problem is that even in Nevada I cannot do anything without handing in an application. Las Vegas was built in an era of lawlessness, when everything could be bought and there were no relations that were regulated by law. I’m not sure that the same thing would be possible today. In any case you first need to obtain permission, etc. In other words…

S. B: …heroism is impossible.

B. G: Heroism is impossible, creativity as an act of freedom is impossible. The problem is that if you live in a law-governed society, you have to obtain permission for everything, and for that you first need to ask someone. Of course, you may well obtain that permission, you’re not bound to be automatically refused. But even if you do obtain permission, you depend upon the person permitting. The problem is that you are not the subject of the decision on whether what you want to do is a violation of someone else’s freedom or not. You are not even asked – you are the one who asks others. Thus you are faced not with other people’s freedom, but with…

S. B: …bureaucracy.

B.G. You are faced with bureaucracy. If we are talking about two types of freedom: the liberation from other people’s projects and the realisation of one’s own project, then in order to realise your project today you must first obtain references, funding, permissions from a whole host of organisations. I.e. you have to spend time linking up and running in your project, etc. That’s OK, I don’t have any objections to it, but all this nevertheless indicates that freedom turns out to be somewhat problematic here.

S. B: Baudelaire, in the mid-19 century, wrote that the dandy is a hero, the hero of modernity, something like an unemployed Hercules. Nowadays even this figure of the dandy-hero is disappearing. Pop starts are not even dandies, but puppets in the producer’s hands. But on the other hand it is no accident that in ancient Egypt, in the land of the pyramids, freed men felt orphaned. Who could afford building private pyramids?

B. G: Not many people, of course. But the problem is that then, a few people at least were free, whereas now no-one is. I.e. there was a time when at least part of the population didn’t need to hand in applications to the relevant authorities in order to be able to do something. People simply took up a sword or a spear or some other “productive tool”…

S. B: The shield and the sword…

B. G: The shield and the sword, and they set out wandering… Nowadays, in order to do anything, you need to make an application and obtain permission. I repeat that I view this procedure rather positively. I just don’t have the feeling that it has anything to do with freedom. I think that freedom has simply disappeared from the contemporary world.

S. B: It amazes me that you speak of building a pyramid as if it were an aesthetic act par excellence. This is some kind of vestigial megalomania. After all there is aesthetic activity of a totally different character. For instance, you could create a miniature, write a text in a tiny print, create something immaterial – and nobody can limit you in this.

B. G: Of course they can’t. Obviously you can create some miniature objects. But in order to turn them into an aesthetic event, you need to exhibit and sell them. In order to exhibit them you need to go see a gallery owner and ask whether he wants to exhibit and sell your works. The gallery owner in his turn needs to ask for subsidies or find a collector prepared to purchase these objects. I.e. whatever you do, you need to secure the assent, sanction, permission, and goodwill of an enormous number of people.

S. B: I have a feeling that this is what you have been doing these past days in Moscow, and that’s why you are so worried about bureaucratic institutes.

B. G: It’s what I have been doing all my life. But in my case, securing goodwill is very simple. There are people who need the goodwill of the democratic masses. A director needs a lot of people to see his movies, a writer needs a lot of people to read his books. In order to organise a lecture or to publish texts such as those that I write, one only needs permission from a relatively small number of people.

S. B: You have shifted freedom onto some heroic, aesthetic level; to me this is nostalgia for the Gesamtkunstwerk1 . It is as if we were talking in the shade of the pyramids, and I feel that your pyramid is provided with a more contemporary history, as it were, it is no longer as ancient. This pyramid becomes something like a backgrounds for a Leni Riefenstahl film. Are you trying to say that totalitarian society, in a way, gave more freedom to the artist, because the artist, like the leader, had the aesthetic freedom of a Gesamtkunstwerk?

B. G: Yes, without any doubt. I think that’s quite obvious.

S. B: I.e. you would prefer to content yourself with the goodwill of one leader only.

B. G: First of all, the leader himself does not need anyone’s goodwill. And I’m asking myself whether in our society, there is anyone who may realise their project without suiting anyone’s goodwill. My feeling is that there isn’t.

S. B: It seems to me that you adhere to the idea that democracy is the tyranny of the majority…

B. G: The majority has disappeared. The masses have disappeared. The Church has disappeared. They are all phantoms. I am talking about individuals, every one of whom, in seeking to realise his project – for example, repair his flat, build a hen house, paint a picture – is confronted with a system of commissions, a bureaucracy, regulatory organs – all that was described by Kafka. Today’s hero is a person who is constantly looking for another person to obtain permission and support from. I don’t feel that this is a situation of freedom. At least this conflicts with the intuition of freedom such as we imbibe it with the milk of philosophy.

S. B: In other words, you have linked the idea of freedom to the idea of realising a project, maybe the project. (Could it be that freedom isn’t always the realisation of a project? Feeling free is feeling one’s possibilities and one’s responsibilities. Freedom is not prescribed, but rather given as an existential gift. In talking to you I get the impression that you resign to the impossibility of freedom. Just like in Kafka: there is a lot of hope in the world, but not for us.

B. G: But in fact, in existentialism freedom is precisely the freedom to realise a project. For Sartre, for example, in Existentialism and Humanism, Man is doomed to be free.

S. B: I don’t agree with Sartre that we are “doomed to be free”. That’s a cheap pessimism, a pose, nothing more. Camus, Jonas or Jaspers would never have agreed with that.

B. G: Man is doomed to other people’s freedom. I don’t feel that I am free, but I am constantly confronted with freedom from myself. For example, after my lectures, I often ask students about their impressions. They tell me: “You know, it was all terribly interesting, but we completely disagree with you.” I ask: “What is it you don’t agree with?” To which they reply: “We’ll have to think about that.” This demonstrates that people today are, fundamentally, not prepared to agree with your project. I.e., one the one hand, freedom to is entirely lost, and on the other hand, freedom from is constantly increasing. I think that in recent years the sphere of logical and rhetorical compulsion has been entirely taken over. When a contemporary person hears something the least bit rational, he automatically rejects it on the grounds that he is being convinced, because in this, too, there is an element of logical compulsion. I had a student who said she was going to hospital because she had read a book I had given her, and that book was so logical and convincing that she felt internal pressure and the impulse to agree with the author’s thought. Since this idea – agreeing with someone’s thought – was completely intolerable to her, she decided entirely to give up her freedom of movement. Thus, on the one hand, people today cannot achieve anything, and on the other hand they reject all forms of compulsion, including logical ones. Therefore all models of classical liberalism and democracy built on discursive consensus, such as Habermas’s model, simply don’t work, because people don’t want to be persuaded.

S. B: Yes, that’s Habermas’s idea, built on a consensus worked out through deliberations. But there is also another liberal conception of society, built on the incommensurability of models, attitudes and projects. That’s precisely what Isaiah Berlin writes about. The aim of that project is not to reach one single consensus, but to accept its impossibility and nevertheless live together without cruelty and violence. This is the liberal model par excellence.

B. G: This works! And this is precisely what determines the impossibility to realise all those projects. Because under liberalism, any project may only be realised when other people agree with it. But at some stage in the development of freedom from, such agreement becomes impossible, and therefore no projects may be realised. I.e. everyone lives with their own project, which a priori can’t become a common project.

S. B: We all live in Kabakov’s installations. Only without Kabakov. He was expelled because he came late and didn’t obtain permission.

B. G: Lenin said that socialism is Taylorism without Taylor. The liberal system is Kabakov’s installations without Kabakov.

S. B: Kabakov has been evicted from his own installations! And we have all been “assigned residence” there just like in a Soviet communal apartment. A case of space consolidation, 2 … This is what disrespect of intellectual and other property leads to… But let us return to the Phrygian CAP and the memory of enslavement. Perhaps the problem is that your students have too little memory of non-liberal existence. You and I, on the other hand, haven’t completely forgotten.. I have my own nostalgic recollections of the late 1970s. You know, I think that apart from other obvious reasons for my leaving the Soviet Union, there was also the fact that I saw Antonioni’s Passenger. I remember that I was struck by Maria Schneider’s character – a girl who spent a night with a journalist (played by Jack Nicholson) who is in a perpetual identity crisis. I hope you remember her: she was wearing a semi-transparent dress, her hair was fluttering in the wind, she had an inexpressible aura of freedom and aloofness about her. She was free inside, independent from outside forces, crossing national borders as easily as if she was turning the pages of a book. The luxury of this kind of detachment so unattainable for us, this ease of movement across space gave me some kind of exceptional creative impulse. Now we have obtained this luxury – and lost it trying to rush after the wind in Maria Schneider’s hair. Perhaps we understood it all too literally.

B. G: Well, you know, all this started in the 1960s, with the discovery of the freedom of consumption.

S. B: It’s got nothing to do with consumption!

B. G: It’s got everything to do with it. When there’s fluttering hair, that’s consumption.

S. B: You think Maria Schneider is doing a shampoo ad?

B. G: Of course it’s a shampoo ad. But now it has turned out that consumption is a form of production. Now, in order for hair to flutter and for you to notice it, one has to view all shampoo adverts, choose the right shampoo, etc. etc. Starting in the 1960s, the sphere of consumption, including disposing of one’s free time, bathing in Roman fountains…

S. B: That’s linked with the topic of idleness and leisure, the beloved Western “leisure”.

B. G: Precisely, but that is consumption.

S. B: But also a dream of freedom, of an escape from economic determinism itself.

B. G: Right, but that dream has ended. It was there as a kind of practical ideal in the 1960s, there was even a revolution then. But the dream has ended because there emerged a new industry of top managers, an industry of tourism, this whole aesthetic of consumption, advertising etc. So it all turned into a form of relaxation linked to activity. Today resting, relaxing, is one of the most laborious and complicated forms of activity. In contemporary society, it’s the most difficult kind of work. Therefore this sphere is also integrated into a certain general industrial spasm. And this project – to find yourself at the seashore with your hair fluttering – nowadays requires very serious investment, including financial investment.

S. B: You see, you are a cynic after all. You are more cynical and at the same time more nostalgic than me. You still believe in some march of progress, whereby certain social forms are replaced by others, and it’s all not for the better. You believe in a telos of the destruction of freedom. And you restrict freedom to some aesthetic total space. Give me an example of who, among your heroes, was the most free.

B. G: Among my heroes? I don’t know.

S. B: Leni Riefenstahl? Eisenstein?

B. G: Not them, of course. I think there were surges of freedom – the avant-garde, of course. There was one such surge in the early 20 century. Maybe some people in the 1960s. But on the whole I’m a Marxist and I believe that there is – not a change of economic structures, but an increasing economisation of all spheres of life, and thereby an increasing material contextualisation of abstract ideals and conditions for their realisation. And that, indeed, is a progressing progress. Like it or not, this process is going on. And it conflicts with our notion of freedom, our notion of subjectivity as an ontological category. Nowadays we start talking by referring not to the subject, but to conditions, be they material, economic, related to production etc., within which a project may be realised.

S. B: May I ask you a question about the avant-garde? I know that you revised your ideas several times, but one of the main criticisms of you work has been that to a certain extent your concept of the avant-garde boils down to Malevich. Let’s see, who, in your opinion, is more free: Malevich or, say, Kruchenykh? Kruchenykh, unlike Malevich, never succumbed to any external telos, his only telos being play, constant play, parabasis, irony, play without end, play without telos. What is more free from your point of vieww: the model of play, or the model of historical determinism transcendence?

B. G: I’m not talking about either. I believe that at the basis of the avant-garde, the radical avant-garde, there was the observation that transferring any object from non-artistic space into marked artistic space turns it into a work of art. The Black Square, Duchamp’s objects and the obscenities created by Kruchenykh were recoded into art without any investment of labour. That’s creating art beyond labour. This seemed to be an absolute break-through without any material investment. But since then people have understood that in fact this meant exploiting labour, the labour of the working masses. Let me explain why. This transcendence, this transfer into the space of culture, into the museum is only possible once the museum has been built by labourers, once it has been provided with a social code, once its entrance is guarded by the police, once there is a ticket office. In other words, this social and existential space first needs to be bureaucratically and industrially secured through enormous investments. Only then can the avant-garde artistic act be realised. This appeared already in Stalin’s times, which, however, I describe in other terms. And once this was understood, the avant-garde disappeared, the freedom of the avant-garde disappeared, because it became obvious that it represented an exploitation of the labour of those who had built the museum.

S. B: Yes, but that was after Duchamp. At first, when he placed his urinal into the context of art, he increased its value without exploiting labour.

B. G: No, he just didn’t reflect upon this. For when he exposed the urinal in a museum, it was obvious that the museum had been built by workers, that it was guarded, that there was an institution which allowed him to do what he did. Simply he had a feeling close to that of the Egyptian pharaoh’s when the latter was only worried about his body being deposited in a pyramid. He was not interested in how the pyramid had been built. When you start thinking about obtaining space in a museum, about what the curator, the director or some foundation think about this, you no longer want ‘ready-made’ or Black Squares, you want to go and hang yourself.

S. B: However, if you look at this from an even more Marxist point of view, then it’s an expropriation of the expropriated. Where do these museum workers get their money from? From very rich people. Then it’s better for them to invest their money into a museum than into something else. Museums essentially expropriate the expropriated, they liberate us by investing into art some capital which otherwise would have been used in a much worse way. I see a certain liberating function in this. Remember how Komar and Melamid launched a project with elephants in Thailand? They taught the elephants how to paint, “liberating” them from physical labour, and at the same time helping the residents of the Thai village quite a lot. The village was going through a crisis because of the development of the global economy and, if I’m not mistaken, the local logging industry plummeted dramatically; chopping down trees for export (which the elephants had been involved in) no longer yielded any profit. Komar and Melamid taught art to the elephants (as far as I know most elephants became followers of Jackson Pollock and chose abstract expressionism). Thus this desolate village became a tourist’s centre with all the trappings of a tourist economy. Here’s an example which shows that art has a liberating force if the artist is able to re-appropriate the space of capital.

B. G: This depends on what you consider labour. Before, the elephants roamed around in peace; they weren’t even really working. Now they have to stand still for eight hours a day and paint something.

S. B: But the elephants were being killed! They had been roaming around idly before… they died.

B. G: Right, that was normal life. That’s what freedom is. Whereas we know from Foucault what it means when you are assigned to move a paint brush around a canvas for eight hours on end.

S. B: I disagree. I think the elephants were transferred from a state of chaotic nature onto another, higher plane of freedom [Laughter] an aesthetic one. The elephants got an unbelievable enjoyment out of this activity. You must relate to this.

B. G: I don’t. In fact that’s ideology.

S. B: Well, I do identify with the elephants in a way.

B. G: I also identify with them. Writers are supposed to get unbelievable pleasure out of the act of writing. In fact this is not the case at all. I can judge from my own experience. Sitting in front of a computer or a typewriter is terribly uncomfortable, your eyes hurt, your back hurts, your arms hurt, everything hurts. You sit there for a whole hour like mad, frowsting, feeling bad. In fact this is an inhuman form of existence, there is nothing good in it. It’s exploitation. The same goes for the elephants. Why should they be doing this?

S. B: Wait, you didn’t finish: either you’re a complete masochist, or you reach a moment when suddenly it starts to go well… A certain ecstasy…

B. G: There’s no ecstasy at all.

S. B: A pleasure?

B. G: No pleasure either.

S. B: Now let’s get back to freedom and talk about its effects on the rhetoric of the contemporary media.

B. G: In this situation I think that all talk about PR should be viewed from the perspective of the rhetoric of suspicion that dominates the contemporary media and contemporary culture. Taking this into account, that talk can’t be taken seriously. Here I agree with my friend Peter Sloterdijk, who talks about the contemporary media arena as a space reminiscent of the arena of ancient Rome. And this situation of “mediatic gladiatorhood”, of the mediatised duel as an object of contemplation, interest and admiration, is what characterises the contemporary world of the media.

S. B: I have a certain meta-suspicion about the politics of suspicion. Do we need to scuttle after every tendency, to run after the Komsomol with our trousers pulled up, as Mayakovsky wrote3? Every type of society is pluralistic inside, we can discern alternative, lateral phenomena, which contradict and resist the state’s telos. For example, I am interested in a concept which I know you won’t like: that of aesthetic liberalism. This is a model of confrontation and counterpoint not through binary opposition but through potential moves, through the development of alternative spheres. Our role as intellectuals consists in choosing who to “walk together” with and where to (pardon the expression)4. There could be a freedom from the mainstream without complete marginalisation.

B. G: I am indeed more than sceptical of what you’ve just said, because, just like you of course, I have a certain experience of discussing all these issues: I simply know that unsuccessful people who are outside the mainstream, be they painters or writers, in fact want to have more success and become part of that mainstream.

S. B: But not at any cost.

B. G: What do you mean, not at any cost? They want it. And they value your critical texts only to the extent that they raise their chances of success by stimulating a discussion about them which makes them more interesting to the public. I don’t think one can heave oneself out of this process. But generally I am not very interested in the question of what to do. I prefer to refrain from any action; I am more interested in observing and describing processes which I see happening, without wanting to interfere with them.

S. B: Do you have any feeling of responsibility? I am interested in Hannah Arendt’s work right now because she doesn’t oppose the concepts of freedom and responsibility. It is when we define certain borders and cast some anchors of responsibility, that we create a space of freedom. This is not just a limitation, for once we’ve defined this space, we can play in it. Responsibility remains an important problem for me, and this is why I don’t want to reduce aesthetic and political freedom to each other. I wouldn’t want to limit myself to an abstract level in speaking about freedom, but to distinguish between abstract and concrete, between Freedom (with a capital F) and freedoms (as political rights), to preserve a certain distinction between public and private, between aesthetic and political.

B. G: I do have a feeling of responsibility, of course. Even a highly developed one. When I write something I think of my reader – and in particular I think that contemporary readers are absolutely not interested in what I write. Because people nowadays don’t want to read, they want to express themselves. Therefore a priori they don’t want to read what you write, and disagree with it from the outset. But life is transient, a new generation appears, and there is the figure of the future reader who will read these texts simply because he will find them interesting, because he will be interested in what happened in our time. Therefore I feel responsible to him, in the sense that I try to express my thoughts as precisely as possible.

S. B: I.e. you don’t want to change the world, even via your reader’s perception?

B. G: What does “changing the world” mean? To change the world means that when my readers will have read me, they will draw conclusions. But it is not known what conclusions they will draw. People draw the most unexpected conclusions out of what they read. Look at the examples of such well-known authors as Marx or Christ.

S. B: You know, I adhere to something like a Hippocratic Oath. The most important thing is not to damage a reader who is already ill. This is what I mean by feeling responsible.

B. G: But the problem is that people can use anything to harm themselves. Give them any object, and they’ll use it commit suicide or kill someone. There practically isn’t any object which can’t be used to kill, including a book as a material object, which you can hit someone over the head with. You can do damage by any means, any way, from any point of view. My only responsibility as author is to express as truthfully as possible what I observe with my own eyes. What conclusions will people draw from this? I think each one will draw the conclusions peculiar to his or her own nature.

S. B: But what kind of text do you propose to your reader? Open or closed? Do you care? Is your own interpretation the most important thing for you?

B. G: Whether they will perceive my text as open or closed is very hard for me to say. It is hard to say how my text will be received, what readers’ conclusions will be: human nature is, on the one hand, extraordinarily monotonous, and on the other hand it is extraordinarily diverse. All people are roughly the same, but at the same time they are all different. Therefore it is difficult to say how they perceive you.

S. B: Speaking of diversity and monotonousness: do you think the concept of freedom differs from culture to culture? How? In other words, are there different Russian, German or American concepts of freedom?

B. G: I don’t think there are. As an author, I have a sharp sense of my readers’ freedom. I absolutely do not assume that I can influence them in any way. I have the feeling that they are completely free from me. Their perception, their conclusions are absolutely autonomous from what I may have written. In fact I have a very radical conception of freedom; for me this is first of all listeners’ and readers’ freedom. I expect an absolutely free perception. Therefore I do not have any desire to impose, influence or interfere with anything, because I do not consider this possible in any respect. Thus I respect readers’ and listeners’ freedom to the maximum. Therefore I exclusively and entirely concentrate on my own freedom in expounding what I consider to be correct for myself. Without paying any attention to readers and listeners, who are absolutely free to draw their own conclusions from this. I am convinced that independently of the town, village, country etc. we may be in, we are all roughly in the same situation, which in this sense is precisely a situation of freedom.

S. B: I would distinguish between two conceptions. On the one hand, there is the supra-human conception of a freedom which is almost independent of human actions. For me this also comprises the Platonic and Hegelian conceptions of freedom, as well as the idea of the I “free market”. On the other hand, there is the existential conception of freedom, where the human element cannot be instrumentalised in such a manner, and a human being is not reduced to some spirit of history or invisible hand of the market. For me liberty is linked to Man, to his sensation of his own mortality, of his limits, his responsibility, his possibilities. Freedom is a concept of human, not pyramidal scale. The “freedom of the market” is a pure metaphor, an anthropologisation of the economy, on the one hand, and a relativisation of human functions on the other hand. Nowadays, in the clash between existential-political and economic models of freedom, economics and its models of freedom, e.g. freedom as an “economic flow”, evidently have the upper hand. In our time, unfortunately, philosophers look to economics for new metaphors of liberty. What do you think about it?

B. G: I’m very sceptical. Indeed this is highly fashionable, and it doesn’t only come from the right, i.e. from traditional liberalism, but is also being very actively introduced from the left, usually by way of a very peculiar reading of Deleuze, where his “body without organs” practically coincides with capital. In fact the idea that capital is absolute freedom can be found in Marx’s early writings, where he says that capital is a purely negative force which destroys all fetters, overcomes all borders, destroys all dependencies. I believe that both the young Marx and the post-Deleuzian theoreticians heavily overestimate capital’s freedom. If we look at the real functioning of the economy, we see that it strongly depends upon the bureaucracy, upon law, upon regulation. We see that economic processes are extremely dependent on political decisions, on the policy of national banks, on state policy, on rules regulating the functioning of the market. These rules result from expressions of political will. All economic projects need to obtain permission from governments or international bodies. In other words, economic activity is not free – it is the sum of individual economic projects which need to be permitted and legitimated just as much as any other.

S. B: At some point economic activity meant social mobility, it freed people from the hierarchies of feudal society, gave them a new status, and thereby, of course, played a liberating role.

B. G: That’s an illusion.

S. B: Whereas now, economics has, in a sense, created a hierarchical society of its own, with corporations etc.

B. G: Not just corporations. We know that this whole economy only begins to function in a highly artificial environment, where there are already legal and banking systems etc. which, in their turn, reproduce this artificial environment. A little change is enough to change everything in this environment. And contemporary corporations are more and more dependent on politics: they need to fulfil various requirements on all levels – not just political requirements, but also social, ecological and many other ones. In order to do anything in contemporary society, they need to take into account a lot of different interests.

S. B: In which sphere should we seek freedom, then?

B. G: It doesn’t exist!

S. B: So what are we talking about then, a phantom? Even if freedom is disappearing (which I’m not convinced of), its ghostly, mythological place remains. We have discussed the aesthetic and the economic sphere, but we have not talked much about politics. I think that you have simply excluded the political sphere from your reflection about liberty.

B. G: Indeed I exclude the political sphere from the outset, because there you can only do what voters, the bureaucracy etc. have sanctioned you to do. There is simply no freedom here at all.

S. B: Would it be right to say then that in your view, the historical period in which freedom became a cultural value (from ancient Greece onwards) has come to an end in our time?

B. G: I think we can only talk about situational, contextual liberty, i.e. about how we experience something or are able or unable to do something. For example, I experience readers’ complete freedom from me, his freedom of interpretation, as important factors for my activity, i.e. I understand that I cannot control my readers. This phenomenon is what I perceive as liberty. I encounter liberty as an enemy. Therefore I can say that indeed we feel other people’s freedom; but the point is I don’t think that we feel our own freedom.

S. B: So for you it doesn’t matter whether you do work in Russia or in Germany?

B. G: Of course it doesn’t. I think we only ever experience freedom as other people’s freedom. The point is not that other people’s freedom sets limits to our own freedom. We don’t have any freedom, we only have our projects, our needs, our necessities. Other people’s freedom is what doesn’t let us realise our projects; freedom is what makes life difficult for us, because it’s always other people’s freedom. It’s not for nothing that contemporary French philosophy is the philosophy of the Other, not the philosophy of identity or one’s own subjectivity.

S. B: And yet, you too can become this Other.

B. G: No, no. That was just a dream. Like Rimbaud said: “I am another”. Wanting to become someone else, i.e. to become free, is a romantic dream just like that hair fluttering in the wind.

S. B: Pardon the classifying impulse, but in this case you fit into the mainstream of Russian post-modernism. In my opinion Russian post-modernism has paid little attention to the ideas of de-centralisation of power and perception of the Other which are so important to French post-modernism and contemporary Western thought in general. The Other has remained alien and “other” in the pre-post-modern sense of the word. I notice that for you, the Other’s freedom is an obstacle, not a border which we can somehow play on.

B. G: Of course, without any doubt. That’s why I say that freedom is my readers’ freedom from what I write, and this freedom…

S. B: …inspires you?

B. G: No, it doesn’t really inspire me. I think in general that Man isn’t made for work. But this freedom is the condition without which my text couldn’t have appeared in the form in which it has. In this sense the Other’s freedom is a premise for what you do yourself.

S. B: Remember that in Russian this concept hardly exists, since the law is very weak and no liberties are protected. I personally believe that other people’s unfreedom may be even worse for us than their freedom.

B. G: Yes, that may well be so. I don’t know if it is. I don’t know contemporary Russian literature as well as you do. But I do have an instinctive feeling. I don’t know how to explain this, but in Russia there doesn’t seem to be a radical understanding of other people’s freedom such as it exists in the West, realising itself in literary and artistic production. Instead, there is still an expectation that you can influence people, convince them of something, explain something to them. There is also a certain expectation of some secret hermeneutic community, the idea that the Other thinks roughly the same as you. And if he doesn’t, he is just pretending, making a show. There is no feeling that the Other is in fact absolutely free from all the premises at the basis of your writings, that he is absolutely free to interpret your texts just as it occurs to him. I do have this feeling, and I certainly proceed from it. I have the feeling that this premise makes Western texts more radical, because they are less calculated to arouse readers’ sympathy, understanding or agreement. They hover and rise all by themselves, as it were, like kites, they don’t need an additional source of energy.

S. B: Yet there is a different definition of freedom. For Hannah Arendt, freedom is a possibility of a new beginning, “a miracle of infinite unpredictability,” which is only available to human beings in this life, not in any other.

B. G: There is an unpredictability here, but one that has itself been predicted. Basically, you don’t expect anything new. Unpredictability is when you expect something, and then something unpredictable happens. I don’t expect anything from the reader anymore, so any reaction is OK, predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It doesn’t surprise me or confirm anything. I think this is a kind of psychological indifference which, however, does not mean the absence of a feeling of responsibility. Responsibility for my text remains, but it is being redefined, as it were.

S. B: Our conversation is also becoming predictable. You keep talking about the impossibility of freedom, and all I can do is disagree and express a romantic hope for new possibilities and surprises. They can stem from…

B. G: … the weather. For example, this horrible smog in Moscow right now.

S. B: Not just from the weather. There can be surprise simply in talking to an intelligent person from time to time. Literature and art, too, allow us to live out many lives. And I would like to open up these possibilities, limited though they are, to other people. In an aesthetic and existential sense, freedom is not the absence of borders, but a bounded but flexible state. It allows you to play with the borders of knowledge. In the political sense, freedom has always been linked not to all-out permissiveness, but to the borders of the polis, to the possibility to play a part on the stage of political life, to rights and to social justice. For me the absence of borders is not freedom, but fear and predictability. Thus I think that radical gestures are predictable in their radicalism. The radical gesture knows that it will end, it doesn’t presuppose anyone’s co-authorship. But it is only through co-authorship in the widest sense of the word, through co-authorship with the world, that we can experience surprise and pleasure.

B. G: The point is not whether one is radical or not. I feel that we live under conditions of readers’ sovereignty, and this creates a state where you cannot convince the reader of anything, as a matter of principle.

S. B: That’s only valid for the West.

B. G: I think it’s valid everywhere. I would say that everything we do is a kind of self-documentation: we are documenting our own life project. How people perceive this self-documentation, how they interpret it, is their problem. I see my activity as a documentation of my own existence.

S. B: And what is the aim of your self-documentation? Transcendence, or the art of memory?

B. G: There is a double aim. Firstly, it is a socially accepted form of existence. Contemporary society is built so that it allows you to document yourself and even pays you for it. So it’s a certain form of survival in society. Besides it gives rise to a feeling of intellectual responsibility, a desire to do your job well, although you are not paid for this desire. The very fact of documentation is paid for, but you don’t get extra payment for doing it well. Thus it is a desire that has an exclusively moral motivation, and I undoubtedly have that desire. I try to do well what I do, whenever I can, whenever I have the time. That’s all I can say. What I can’t say is what it will all lead to.

S. B: I started by comparing freedom with air: it is invisible but we cannot live without it. I have been walking around Moscow these past days, and I cannot breathe because of the omnipresent smog. I mean this literally, I have been suffocating. This is smog, not a metaphor of what is happening around me. But it is here, in Moscow, that I have understood how badly we need what is invisible and what very often we cannot even define properly.

B. G: Well, I have just come from Austria, where everything is flooded and one couldn’t breathe either. It was so damp that my bones hurt. I think the difference between us is that you want to preserve a hedonistic perception of life, you want to enjoy life. You mentioned Kant. Last semester, my students and I discussed a very interesting reflection of his to the effect that there are people who think one should keep living because life is pleasant. Kant comments that this opinion is pathological. You have to live in order to fulfil your moral duty, for if you don’t live you cannot fulfil this duty. Moral duty demands that the subject of its fulfilment be alive. Then Kant writes that life in general is highly unpleasant and therefore, if Man were guided only by a pathological desire to live, quite quickly he would commit suicide. But since we have to fulfil our duty, since we have to work, we also need to live, alas. I also subscribe to this Kantian point of view.

S. B: To the extent that I am a hedonist, my hedonism is mystical. I believe that the path of knowledge is a path of surprise and unpredictability; to follow it we need to remain open to the world. We may not always understand where this path leads us, but nevertheless we have to follow it.

B. G: To me everything very quickly becomes clear, but one has to keep dragging out one’s existence.

S. B: There is a mystical sensuality of life.

B. G: Let me tell you an anecdote from my own life. When I was living in Piter5 I once found myself in some dismal outskirts, not knowing how to find the address I was looking for. And then I saw someone lying on the roadside. To find out whether it made sense to ask him for directions, I asked: “Do you live here?” Upon which he rose up, shook off the dirt, looked at me attentively and said: “No, I don’t live here, I vegetate here.” I think this is a very precise description of the contemporary situation.

S. B: This means that you are striving towards some kind of freedom outside life, whereas I want to attain freedom through life…

B. G: Outside life, of course… The only freedom is freedom from life.

S. B: For me, on the contrary, the only freedom is freedom within life. There simply is no other freedom, because in any other space this experience simply becomes obsolete.

B. G: Nothing of the kind. If, for example, you write, then you work for a time and space outside life.

S. B: Oh well. Text as the only form of immortality left to us?

B.G. You emigrate from life, you work for a space outside life. Therefore the freedom you practise is a freedom which is transcendental in respect of life; it is anti-vital, it is inimical to life. And therefore the only decent freedom is freedom from life. To live is to learn to be free from life.

S. B: I think it’s time for us to emigrate back into life from the transcendental abroad. Otherwise we may lose our only chance for freedom, which can only be had here and now. But of course freedom implies a dream (no transcendence, just a dream) about the possibility to live several lives; a hope for new beginnings and for immortality which we retain until death. Every new text which drives you into ecstasies (I know you wanted to repress ecstasy but it will return anyway) is a new beginning. After death all this falls to our readers’ lot.

B. G: To hell with those readers.

* In Russian there is no difference between “liberty” and “freedom” (though there are also two different words for “freedom” which have very different connotations). The authors are aware of the different traditions of usage of the two terms in English but did not focus on them in this conversation; therefore the two terms are used interchangeably. [Translator’s note]

"Total work of art". An all-embracing aesthetic project which, in Groys's view, is precisely what the totalitarian regime amounts to. One of Groys's best-known books is entitled Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin. [Editor's note]

A Soviet bureaucratic term used when a flat was forcibly turned into a communal apartment. [Translator's note]

In fact this is a quotation from Sergey Yesenin's poem "The Rus' that's staying behind" (1924): [...] "Friends! Friends! / What a schism there is in our country, / What sadness in the cheerful bustle! / That must be why I, too, want / To run after the Komsomol / With my trousers pulled up. "[...] [Translator's note]

This is a reference to "Those who Walk Together", a pro-presidential puritan youth movement engineered by the Kremlin and sometimes dubbed Putinjugend. [Translator's note]

A stable colloquial alias for Saint-Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad/Saint-Petersburg. [Translator's note]

Published 16 July 2003
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch
First published by Neprikosnovennij Zapas

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas © Svetlana Boym / Boris Groys / Neprikosnovennij Zapas / Eurozine


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