Given that I’m focusing a good deal on questions of self-directing agency these days, I picked up Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves to see what he might have to say. What I find appealing in Dennett, inasmuch as I understand him (and I’m not that far yet), is that he doesn’t treat freedom as a given, but rather something produced or developed. Freedom is the result of a non-teleological development or genesis, not an intrinsic feature of our being. This is not to say, of course, that teleology does not also emerge or come into being, just that it isn’t already there at work from the beginning. At any rate, where Rousseau says “we are born free, but everywhere we are in chains”, Dennett says “life is born in chains but occassionally becomes more free.”
(Aside: The Desert looks like a volcanic Martian landscape from up here). Much of where Dennett seems to be leading resonates with a productive debate Joe Hughes and I have been having for the last year or so. Joe takes umbrage with my characterization of objects, following Latour, as actors. According to Joe, only rational agents act. Or rather, only where there are reasons as a ground is action possible. As a consequence, nonhuman objects can only “behave”. In response to Joe, I argue that humans themselves seldom (if at all) act in this sense (shades of Nietzsche, Freud, but also Bourdieu in this rejoinder). What we call reasons are, under this argument, constructed after the fact, and are seldom, for that matter, accurate (ie, they seldom reflect what really led to the behavior of the person).
Joe “love-hates” this rejoinder, believing it to be very powerful and demanding of a response. However, it has led us to a third possibility that I believe is potentially very powerful. Rather than a sterile debate between those positions that would claim that we are automatons or epiphenomena of the unconscious or habitus and those positions that claim that we are a priori free and self-directing, we can instead argue that freedom is produced or generated. In other words, the ex post facto reasons we give for our action were never really reasons for that action (the past action we’re seeking to account for), but can become rwasons for future action. For once these reasons are formulated they becoming agnecies within the network of our cognition. On the one hand, then, there is a sort of transcendental illusion we suffer from in positing reasons formulated ex post facto as the grounds of our past action. In the other hand, though, this illusion is virtuous as it leads to the production of reasons that can function as grounds for future action. With time and reflection we thus become more self-directing. And this process, of course, takes place at the level of individual persons and societies. In systemese, this would be an element of the self-reflexivity characteristic of certain technological systems, social systems, and animal systems.
At yet another, more abstract, self-referential level, Dennett makes a fascinating observation. Dennett writes,
perhaps there are two kinds of normal people (setting aside those who are truly disabled and could not possibly have free will because they are comatose or demented): there are those who don’t believe in free will and thereby don’t have free will, and there are those who do believe in free will and thereby actually have free will. (12 – 13)
For Dennett the debate is not between whether we are determined or free, but between whether we believe we are determined or free. And this is because the belief will function differently in the network of our cognitive system in each case. Thus, for example, if I believe it is impossible for me to learn mathematical topology or write a great work of philosophy I will never try to do so and therefore will never do so. By contrast, if I believe these things are possible I might make some progress towards these aims. It’s the belief that is crucial.
The relevance of this point to political discussions is immediately evident. Incrementalists are those who believe that significant change is impossible and that therefore we can only take small, compromising steps. As Latour says, “we will never do better than a politician.”. As a consequence, their belief becomes not only a self-fulfilling prophecy (because we don’t believe significant change is possible we don’t even try), it also becomes a confirmation of the absence of freedom to produce change in the world (because change never arrives).
By contrast, belief in the possibility to produce real change is a “transcendental condition” for producing real change because it organizes action in the pursuit of real change. As the French student protesters of ’68 wrote in their graffiti, “be realistic, demand the impossible!”. This doesn’t guarantee that significant change will actually be produced, but is only a condition for the production of real change. As a consequence, a significant dimension of political activism oughtto include the production of belief in freedom and the possibility of producing real change. Much of this would take place by preserving and relating those moments where the impossible did take place through the agency of collectives as in the case of labor triumphs when all odds were against them, successful micro and macro revolutions, revolutions in ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere, and civil rights triumphs in race and gender politics. It is important to preserve these impossible events not to celebrate them in a sort of hagiography, but as a reminder that the future is never closed, that we are never as suffocated by reigning relations as we might think, so that we might believe in the efficacy of our agency.