Ostensive Freedom

Freedom is the subject of Kant’s third antinomy or “Conflict of Transcendental Ideas” in the Critique of Pure Reason: on the one hand, “There is no such thing as freedom, but everything in the world happens solely according to the laws of nature”; on the other, “A causality of freedom is also necessary to account fully for . . . the phenomena of the world.”

From an originary perspective, freedom is a particularly human phenomenon inseparable from our use of representation. When Sartre justifiably calls human intentionality “free,” this “ontological” truth depends on the mediation of the relation between subject and world by representation, the communal nature of which Sartre’s individualistic concept of freedom neglects. The metaphysical néant that Sartre situates between us and the world as the locus of our freedom is a metaphor for the free space of symbolic representation we share with our fellow humans, which distinguishes our thinking from the ad hoc thought processes of even the highest animals.

In emitting the originary sign, the act that defines us as human, we turn from the “horizontal” world of appetite to a new, “vertical” dimension. In the originary scene, the sign is the first act that is not a product of the interplay between appetite and inhibition responsible for the gamut of animal behaviors. The originary model of freedom is the communication of a necessary deferral of appetite by means of a freely emitted sign. What is free is not the mere fact of deferral, but the intention to communicate it, which makes the human process of deferral more than the mere inhibition of an appropriative gesture.

The phenomenological description of the emitter of the sign as intending its referent applies to the human user of representations alone. Even in the case of an ostensive sign that points to the object it represents, the space of intention is no longer the real world but a universe of discourse in which, as human users of language sooner or later discover, the physical presence of the referent is unnecessary. In the process of representation no laws of material causality are broken; to the extent that the state of the universe at a given moment determines its temporal successor, humans have made no improvement on apes, or indeed, on falling rocks. I think Roger Penrose’s attempt to base human freedom on quantum indeterminacy is a category error. The interactive, mimetic phenomena of representation may present a mystery, but this mystery can hardly be explained by reference to a theory that applies to all matter equally.

The Girardian phenomenon of mimetic desire is not a mere extension of animal mimesis but the product of shared intention. When we see another intend an object, we are not merely directed to that object but to the other’s intention. The originary deferral of the conflict of desires makes possible the exacerbation of this conflict in our daily encounters with the intentions of others. As Richard van Oort points out, Michael Tomasello’s comparative studies of children and monkeys reveal the incapacity of our closest animal relatives to conceive and imitate intention.

Because the fundamental human freedom to intend an object on the scene of representation is first exercised in our originary use of the ostensive, it may be called ostensive freedom.

Imperative Freedom

The possibility of being subject to another’s will is in no way incompatible with the freedom inherent in human intentionality. Sartre is correct in claiming that in this fundamental sense as he understands it, all human acts are free, even when performed under duress. To take Sartre to task for the hollowness of asserting our freedom in the torture chamber is to misconstrue his point; we attribute unfreedom to these contexts only because they conflict with an ontology of the human as essentially free.

Yet Sartre’s critics have a point of their own. In the ostensive sense, we are indeed free in the torture chamber; unless and until pain suspends our access to the scene, we intend objects as freely there as anywhere else. Yet no ontology of human freedom should exclude our most familiar intuition of it. Although we may well take for granted the formal freedom conferred by our ability to intend and represent objects, we are constantly preoccupied by the threat to our freedom posed by others’ intentions. The originary event, in which we submit to the “will” of the center rather than to that of our fellows on the periphery, is the result of this preoccupation with the potential violence inherent in our mimetic capacity.

When we are trapped in an avalanche and unable to move, we do not think of this physical constraint as infringing on our “free will.” This is not, however, the case when under torture, where we not only suffer physical pain but suffer it in the service of an alien intention, nor is it true in even the most benign situation in which we are obliged to follow orders. The communication of one’s intention to another is the mode of linguistic utterance that follows the ostensive: the imperative. It is imperative freedom, freedom from another’s intention, that we measure in assessing responsibility, for example, for criminal behavior. We are not responsible for acts committed “under duress,” when we are forced to subordinate our own intention to that of another.

This negative freedom can be turned on its head; “sadists” from Callicles to Leopold and Loeb evoke a maximal notion of imperative freedom according to which one is free only when one can impose one’s will on others. All human interactions have the potential for imperativity; it can be zero, but in most life situations it is not. The obligation to submit to the constraint of another will, whether that of an individual or of the community as expressed in a law or custom, arouses our resentment. But resentment can also be provoked by the mere existence of beings not subject to our will. The possibility in all human relations that one intention will conquer the other is inseparable from the fundamental ostensive freedom of intentionality. The communal center can control the mimetic desires our intentions inevitably provoke only by strictly regulating the exercise of imperative freedom.

Declarative Freedom

In Hobbes’ Leviathan, the natural human potential for imperativity engenders the “war of every man against every man” unless stayed by a central, constraining force. Having learned from experience the social order’s vulnerability to the mimetic contamination aroused by human intentionality, Hobbes takes us directly from the “state of nature” to monarchy without passing through the intermediary stages that occupied the near-totality of human history.

Egalitarian tribal societies impose strict limits on imperativity; they operate on the principle of the open-ended exchange of “gifts” analyzed by Marcel Mauss in his groundbreaking Essai sur le don. Hobbes’ state of nature reflects a breakdown of the advanced Maussian order of the Middle Ages under the intensifying pressure of market exchange. We tend to remark in Hobbes’ social contract nothing but the abandonment of all individual sovereignty to the central power. Yet Hobbes’ scene does not begin, like the originary event, with all appetites focused on a central figure. If the potential sovereign occupied the center of the scene from the outset, the event would be ritual rather than political. On the contrary, the universal abandonment of sovereignty must be preceded by a period of time during which the group has not yet come to a decision. Before the sovereign can be chosen, the group must hold a meeting during which specific proposals are made and discussed. In Hobbes’ scenario, the choice of an absolute monarch is the outcome of free political discussion during which decision-making is intentionally suspended until the assembly has come to a conclusion.

The political freedom thus exercised is of a third type that we call, following our linguistic schema, declarative. The deferral of action that is inherent in language is thematized in the declarative sentence, whose entry into the communal scene puts to conscious use the deferral of appetite that at the origin was a mere facilitating factor in the production of the sign. Political freedom is the freedom to express not orders but propositions, ideas whose real or potential correspondence with reality I assert and that my fellows are free to supplement and contradict. Political freedom is neither freedom from another’s imperatives nor freedom to impose one’s own; it is the freedom to help choose the imperatives by which one will be governed. Unlike either the authoritarian imposition of one will on another or the Maussian tissue of reciprocating gestures that dominates premodern societies, true political debate encapsulates the resultants of the multiple vectors of individual will in new ideas.

Discursive Freedom

Market exchange differs from Maussian exchange in that it is made up of independent transactions among individuals, in principle freely entered into, none of which directly concern the community as a whole. As the locus of a real or potential exchange of goods, the market has existed from the outset. But only in the European Renaissance did it come into its own as a social force–the ancient economy’s dependence on slavery prevented the emergence of a true market in antiquity–and only in the nineteenth century did its independent potential for social organization become apparent. For as long as the goods, services, and “labor power” exchanged in the marketplace consisted predominantly of the age-old necessities of life, the market’s potential stimulus to creativity remained hidden. It is only with the emergence of modern consumer society, beginning in the mid-19th century and reaching maturity a century later, that there emerges among the participants in market exchange a new mode of freedom that we may call discursive.

Although political debate is not a mere exchange of atomic propositions, political dialogue is a scene of contestation, as is the related genre of legal discourse. All stories that are told there are typically contested, and the narrative as a whole is not under the control of any of the parties. In contrast, what the modern marketplace offers to an increasing number of its participants is the construction of an esthetic persona structured by consumption choices that both reflect and contradict at will the reality of one’s productive role in the economy. The free marketplace as the locus of an unplanned multiplicity of atomic transactions bears within it the seed of this development, in which the forces of supply and demand induce producers to provide consumers with an increasing variety of goods and services from which they compose their personal “artwork.” Given a degree of economic productivity sufficient to liberate desire from life’s necessities, its circulation in the marketplace endlessly generates new degrees of freedom for our self-creation to exploit. Discursive freedom permits the individual not simply to intend a representation of the world as it is or as he thinks it should be, but to offer himself to the world as an esthetic totality, a sacred central object.

Thus the originary ostensive freedom to intend an object in principle generates for each member of society the discursive freedom to become an object of intention–an “object” that has not lost its freedom to intend other objects. The freedom of the periphery to intend a center has become the freedom of the peripheral self to intend itself as a center. This entry into a chastened version of the realm of freedom hopefully marks not the end of history, but the end of our disastrous yearning for it.