Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Free Speech" as Externalized Thought


In Political Spaces and Global War (trans. Elisabeth Fey, ed. Adam Sitze [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010]), Carlo Galli suggests that demand for the “positive ‘freedom of’ speech and criticism” is created by the modern state form’s neutralization of domestic political space. “The neutralizing action of State sovereignty,” he writes, “relegates political energies . . . to the Subject’s interior in order to render them politically inoffensive” (58). The state’s neutralization of public space encourages the development of interior space, thus creating “the Subject’s initially secret conscience” (59). As Galli sees it, Hobbes actively promotes the idea of such an “interior reserve.” “This situation,” he continues, then “quickly gave rise to a new demand and aspiration” to liberate these interior thoughts (59).

In this sketch, the movement of state repression interestingly seems to bring about a lasting elevation of “speech and criticism” among “political energies” of an undifferentiated kind. "Energies" that are unspecified at the beginning of Galli’s description go verbal in order to go underground—they are translated into a form that can survive mentally—only to re-emerge at the end of the cycle, without shedding their linguistic specificity, as a newfound concern for “'freedom of' speech and criticism.” It is as though having lived so long on thoughts, Galli’s citizen comes to value verbal forms of freedom—its loyal companions during state-induced quiescence—more than before. This is not to say that post-Hobbesian political actors are uninterested in political behavior generally, nor that speech and criticism are not also themselves actions, but that they are now and for the first time also interested in freedom of speech and criticism in and of themselves. By going through Hobbes, Galli’s genealogy differentiates itself from the one in which modern freedom of speech descends from, or revives, the supposedly high value of public rhetoric in classical days. In the latter model, the free speech of the individual extends or potentially intersects with debate among political elites: if not part of the political process itself, it is consonant in principle with the (supposedly) reasoned discourse of parliaments, courts, or groups of deciders. But in Galli's account (and Galli does not linger over the implications of his different model, but we can), free speech after Hobbes is based on something that is not public and is at odds with publicity: “interior” thought, paradigmatically thoughts of political dissidence that could lead to strife and conceivably civil war.

“Freedom of speech” thus involves the paradoxical desire that interior thoughts be able to appear in public without becoming public, without becoming “of” the public. This desire (that something public not be public) sounds contradictory because it really is hostile to the public space, which it sees as having a certain consistency, and which it does not want to be itself. The core being defended here is something that cannot exist in space maintained by the state without transforming that space against its will. The historical construction known as “free speech,” then, is strictly speaking revolutionary, because unlike the goal of equality under the laws of the state, it doesn’t assume the value of maintaining the state. It does not perform equality: it performs autonomy.

Image: Obama's hand; an imitation of Luc Tuymans?

2 comments:

Vicki said...

Hi Rei,
I like this very much, and it recalls some of the issues I was trying to think about while not finishing my prospectus. I wonder if the desire for free speech to not become "'of' the public" is also a way of protecting its own status as non-coercive, something that would seem to complicate its performance of autonomy. Though there might be/probably is a political or social goal to such speech, the speech should be able to exist regardless of such a goal in order to be "free" and "interior." (The dissent was important even when not spoken, could survive because it was not spoken.) Part of the threat of the public space is that it subsumes things, so making political thought public, speaking to a public, means allowing those thoughts to be absorbed into that space, thus giving value to it (by participating verbally, even though not doing so would be read as failure). The autonomy created by dissident thought is different from that created by dissident speech, maybe more ideal and more imagined. (I keep reading "that space" in your last paragraph as "that something.") Thanks for posting!
--VH

R said...

ah Vicki, this is perfect and brilliant. You unfold what is so hard to think about in the desire to externalize without loss. Any notion of "without loss" (inside or outside) is probably fantasy, but to pursue it a little longer the thought would need to be noncoercive as well as noncoerced. And that contradicts the performance of autonomy. But this fantasy of sort of having it all for a moment may be there in the impulse to speak the thought (to "freedom")?