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"Freedom needs to be thought about historically"

Neoliberalism wants people to serve as ultra-flexible performers, the new fundamentalisms want fixed, Procrustean identities. Both ideologies hugely determine our present-day social existence – and curtail our freedom in that they do not see that our ideas of freedom and self-determination change over time or will not let them change. Philosopher Juliane Rebentisch calls on democratic society not to suppress the historical aspect of freedom. She talks to Ekkehard Knörer about the pressure to achieve creative personal fulfilment, about the selfie culture, the two-way movement* of freedom, and about love and art.

Interview by Ekkehard Knörer

Ms Rebentisch, your thought lies without question in the tradition of Critical Theory. Which also means you propose a very fundamental critique of the unreasonable demands made on the individual by the economic and political organization of society. In view of the present dominance of neoliberalism, however, this critique is different in its specifics from that of the old Critical Theory.
Juliane Rebentisch © Felicitas von Lutzau
Juliane Rebentisch: If we’re going to talk about the current state of capitalism, I’d like to stress that there is a simultaneity of non-simultaneity. In other words, what can be discussed with Ève Chiapello and Luc Boltanski under the title of a “new spirit of capitalism” should not be misunderstood to be the only present-day form of capitalism. That would be wrong on a global scale, but also slightly skewed in view of late-capitalist Western societies. The “old spirit of capitalism” continues to exist alongside the new one. So we have to hear brackets, as it were, around this discussion you mention.

But within these brackets, in other words for a certain segment of Western societies, it can indeed be said that what made up the constraints of the 1950s, that is pressure to conform to certain prescribed roles, no longer applies in that form in our day. Which doesn’t mean there are no constraints anymore. The pressure to conform to prescribed social roles has been supplanted, under the influence of competition, by a pressure to achieve creative self-fulfilment. Nowadays subjects are no longer normalized according to certain role models; instead, their potential for deviation is exploited. Another, perhaps more dramatic, way of putting it is: Nowadays it is specifically the individual’s potential to overshoot any specific performance (achievement and/or role) that is sought in the commodity of labour, for what is of interest is its versatile deployability.

"The focus on supposedly infinite possibilities turns the present into a peculiarly woolly timelessness."

The selfie culture can also be understood from this perspective. Every image one presents of oneself is also supposed to be saying, “I’m not the real image, just one of many. The next one will be out tomorrow.” Which also explains the mass production of these pictures. Individuals constantly have to prove one thing above all: that they’re open to the future. But this is precisely where they have to show they’re as adaptably compatible as possible. So the differences that are staged here are tamed, the potentiality “modulated”, as Maurizio Lazzarato puts it.

That aside, however, the problem with demanding performance of potentiality is that it puts subjects at a certain distance from themselves as actors in concrete social contexts. We can certainly see this as a form of alienation. The effects on individuals then recall what Hegel in his critique of Romanticism once called an “unhappy consciousness”: the one-sided focus on their supposedly infinite possibilities tends to turn individuals’ future into the present and their own present into a peculiarly woolly timelessness. 

I understand that this can be described as a form of constraint. But isn’t it all the same a form of constraint that opens up a wider range of possibilities for action, a range that can also be called freedom? Under the pressure to reinvent oneself, one can at any rate reinvent oneself within certain limits. Which can be described as an element of freedom.

Compared to a situation in which individuals have to conform to certain roles, under pain of harsh sanctions for nonconformity, the situation today does seem, at first glance, the result of a gain in freedom. This is why we cannot say undialectically: It’s all been a mistake, let’s go back, how nice it was when we all still had a clear-cut order to fall back on. What we can say nevertheless is that motives like flexibility, spontaneity, originality and difference, which once promised a gain in freedom, have since fused to such an extent with a current form of capitalism as to give rise to new forms of alienation.

The fact is that developed capitalist societies of the West are reporting a dramatic increase in depressive personality disorders, in the broadest sense of the word. This is one of the subjects of Alain Ehrenberg’s book The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. And then there’s the burnout phenomenon, which Sighard Neckel and Greta Wagner have explained sociologically in a similar diagnosis of the contemporary age. At any rate, phenomena such as spiritual emptiness, felt inferiority, lack of drive and states of profound exhaustion seem to be the flipsides of the expectation that individuals – regardless of their concrete social conditions and realities – achieve personal fulfilment through flexibility and creativity.

Hegel’s critique of Romanticism may have been unfair to the Romantics, but I think his critique of an overly abstract conception of freedom really pinpoints something about the neoliberally warped conception of freedom according to which individuals are supposed to lead their lives “freely” – no matter what their social conditions. This conception of freedom is contradictory inasmuch as it completely discounts social conditions, from which, however, de facto no one can remove themselves. One is inevitably bound to fail in any attempt to conform to the postulate of infinite possibilities in a concrete reality with real constraints. Within this ideological complex, as Ehrenberg would sum up the way in which the problem has shifted, individuals no longer have the problem of Oedipus, who comes into conflict with paternal law (and its rigidly assigned roles), but that of Narcissus, who is destroyed by an overly idealized image of himself.

There has to be a concept of “real self-determination” or “real emancipation” in every critical theory of society as a countervailing image – against spurious forms that are actually forms of self-alienation. But the question to be asked of any critical theory is also: Are there any bases for this de facto self-determination that already exist in present-day society – or is it impossible (this would be more Adorno’s position) for any such bases to exist because society as a whole is a context of delusion? Where might the potential be found to initiate this emancipation?

I don’t think it’s necessary to assume a context of total delusion in critiquing distorted conceptions of freedom and the very real consequences thereof. But it can be said that the ideological context you’ve just outlined is presumably so successful and takes on features of a context of delusion because the corresponding discourse thinks it can distance itself from all ideology – seeing as it is fixated on individual achievements or failure. It generously grants individuals freedom of creative self-fulfilment, however, in exactly the same measure as it discounts the question of the social preconditions for such freedom. Social antagonisms are not only reduced to their mere factuality, thus negating their conflict potential, but also the individualizing perspective on poverty and misery combines with a naturalization of the differences produced by the social order – and this is a process which itself, of course, as Alenka Zupančič once very aptly wrote, has to be understood as an “ideological-political process par excellence”.

"I think it’s wrong, in terms of the theory of freedom, to assume a final state of reconciliation: this assumption divorces the experience of freedom from history."

In my opinion, we should look for signs of incipient emancipation from this complex not so much in an anticipation of a complete concept of freedom, for instance a final state of reconciliation, as in the aforementioned symptoms of crisis. I actually believe there can already be healing when those concerned abandon an overblown ego-ideal and recognize the objective limits of their power. This would also surely be the first step towards their possible politicization.

I think it’s wrong, by the way, in terms of the theory of freedom, to assume a final state of reconciliation because that’s an assumption that divorces the experience of freedom from history. But freedom has to be considered historically, and in such a way that its historicity can enter into the concept of freedom itself, in other words that the historical mutability of our conceptions of a self-determined life can be understood as being itself part of our freedom of self-determination. Against this backdrop, I would also defend elements of freedom from the social sphere as elements in which we distance ourselves from our own socialization, from our own self-conceptions, in order to apprehend ourselves anew at this distance from ourselves – and again in the social sphere. This is a definition of freedom that seeks to capture the productive tension between the poles of freedom from and freedom in the social sphere.

This tension runs through individual lives not least because they are finite beings, hence all their self-determinations can only be fallible: our relation to ourselves and the world can turn out to be false or limited, no longer correct, in the light of new experiences, so that an adjustment is necessary. Such a conception of freedom that defends the two-way movement of freedom between freedom from and freedom in the social sphere – and consequently its historicity – is therefore very different from the one that is, in a bad sense, unbounded, which on the whole totalizes freedom from the social sphere into a model of freedom. The alienation to which the latter leads is not only an alienation from the social sphere and from the self as agent, but also, in consequence, from one’s own historicity.

However, a conception of freedom that conveys both poles of freedom from and freedom in the social sphere will draw attention to the fact that, among other things, experiences of alienation from socially based self-images can be used to liberate oneself from these images. In other words, they can drive a change not only in one’s conception of oneself, but also in the social sphere in which it is to be experienced. That was true of the old static role assignments of the 1950s, but it’s also true of the ego-ideal of ever-flexible and creative self-fulfilment that falsely abstracts the individual from the social sphere.

Then to put it concretely: How does one “resozialize” oneself? How can we recover this dimension of community in the social sphere?

I have a certain hope, grounded in the principles the Enlightenment, in the power of criticism, wherever it takes place, whether in academia or in public, in newspapers or magazines. I believe there is something to be gained from drawing people’s attention to the fact that the problems they have as individuals do not actually occur individually, that they have a social basis.

I’m presumably not mistaken in assuming that you don’t consider social media a place that offers any avenues to emancipation by dint of their structures? Or might there be a way to harness for this purpose the structural transformation of the public realm that is associated with social media?

To answer in very general terms: Technologies are never good or bad in and of themselves. It always depends how they’re used. But then one has to talk about the formats and the companies behind them, for they organize the social sphere of social networks in certain ways (alternatives to which can certainly be imagined). In view of the context we’ve just described, Facebook, for example, seems more part of the problem than part of the solution.

In her thesis, one of my students has just described how she uses Facebook, namely as a kind of diary. There is something to that: you can actually see how flexible subjects hold themselves together through their continuous self-documentation, which does indeed have a stabilizing function here. Nevertheless, this self-documentation is also subject to constant re-editing: in other words, the history of one’s own self is likewise continually optimized, adjusted, rewritten. Not least, in all likelihood, because this presentation of the self that serves to help the subject understand herself takes place here, unlike in a diary, under the semi-public gaze of her Facebook friends, which latently co-determines what gets presented and what does not.

Of course Facebook can be used differently. But I fear I’m not very optimistic about the potential of this form of public presentation of the self. I think a great deal of attention is drawn into bubbles here in which people meet up who are constantly meeting up within their own social strata anyway.

"In consumer culture as a “like” economy, difference is expressed merely as compatibility."

In this regard, moreover, social networks are interconnected with consumer culture through the “like” economy. In fact, the ever more refined individual distinctions that are provided a platform on social networks are in this respect, paradoxically enough, not least an effect of algorithmically developed similarities with others: When individuals are offered consumer products beyond the horizon of what they are already familiar with, the offers are based on the buying behaviour of comparable consumers. From this angle as well, difference turns out to be merely the way in which compatibility is expressed. In this sense, the problem of conformism that troubled the old Critical Theory returns in what Andreas Reckwitz recently called the “society of singularities” – that is to say, in what was thought to have done away with the problem of conformism (like that of ideologies) for the time being.

Facebook’s primary interest seems neutral: to keep users on its pages for as long as possible. That works with similarity as well as with difference – as long as the similarity doesn’t bore the users and the difference doesn’t lead them to discontinue the communication. So it’s definitely not a matter of radical difference, but modulation. With that in mind, I’d agree with the theory of the filter bubble you mentioned: Social media users seek and produce at most moderate deviation from their own views and milieus. However, that doesn’t strike me as being particularly specific to social media: only in very rare cases do people generally look for radical differences from themselves, which goes for other media and their daily lives as well. At any rate, some comparative studies suggest that the filter bubble problem may actually be smaller on Facebook than in other contexts.

That may be. However, Facebook is no substitute for public discourse, in which we are confronted with differences which we have not sought out ourselves and which are not sought out for us either on the basis of similarities. 

"From the perspective of democratic theory, we should embrace a conception of self-determination in the light of its fallibility."

Let’s broaden our outlook for the purposes of the Goethe-Institut’s Freiraum (“Free Space”) project. After all, we find ourselves in a situation in which we’re experiencing a very different kind of backlash – on a smaller scale in Germany, on a larger scale in Europe, especially Eastern Europe. In view of new fundamentalisms and de-democratization trends in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, don’t we need to stand up for a positive idea of freedom and emancipation against all scepticism and not just throw in the towel? 

Of course we shouldn’t throw in the towel! Why would we? On the other hand, though, I don’t think we need any preconceived utopia of a successful life for that, if that’s what you mean by a positive idea of freedom and emancipation. On the contrary, I think that from the perspective of democratic theory we ought to embrace a conception of self-determination in the light of its fallibility. Against the neo-fundamentalisms with their imposed identities and against neoliberalism with its imposed flexibility. Inasmuch as the former tend to negate the mutability of relations to the self and the world, and the latter their need for social concretion, both suppress the historical dimension of freedom. And I’d say that providing space for this dimension is not the most inessential mark of a democratic society – if it is really worthy of the name (and not that of post-democracy).

In order to open up the political prospect of an alternative to the right-wing alternative to neoliberalism, we must also certainly admit, for starters, that there is a connection between neoliberalism and the shift to the right, at least in Germany, France and the US; that shift must also be viewed as a reaction to neoliberalism. Therefore, as far as possible, we shouldn’t forget the insights of the critique of neoliberalism. Progress is made not in spite of, but thanks to, criticism. 

So do you see within society, as you now so critically, even bleakly, describe it, places in which freedom can be experienced to a certain extent without alienation? There are, after all, some classic answers: in love, in other words in a private sphere, or in art…

Self-determination remains privately and politically a challenge, if only because we are finite beings. But this is why the normative question of the individual and/or social good, the question of self-determination, can be asked in the first place. It is only because individuals in their lived interaction with the world can come across differences from themselves, from their respective roles as participants in a social practice, that they can behave critically or affirmatively towards them. In other words, the experience of such a difference is a precondition for a self-determined appropriation or modification of the practice, which always determines us. But that alone cannot be equated with freedom or an unalienated state.
But the special ethical status of art and love can be grounded in this context as well – though not in the terms of an anticipation of reconciliation, as is the case in the theories you mentioned. Now if I were to put this formulaically, I’d say: Art is a sphere in which, unlike in practical everyday contexts, we can take delight in experiencing a detachment from ourselves. And love is the sphere in which we find recognition both in our respective social suchness, our social identity, and – especially in erotic respects – in our potentiality. In this respect, because it is to a certain extent directed towards both poles of freedom (freedom in and from the social), love is the sphere in which we experience the most comprehensive form of recognition. In this understanding, the two-way movement of freedom is socially accommodated in a special way in love that is alive and evolving over time.

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