Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cow up a tree

I had planned to attend the Sunday service at the Church of Sweden out in Toorak. Little did I know that today was the annual Around the Bay in a Day bicycle event which made me miss the connecting tram at the Domain Interchange with a single critical minute.

Instead of eternal forgiveness I found myself drifting through the interminable construction yards of Docklands. At the waterfront I came across a cow hanging in an artificial tree, an art installation by John Kelly. Otherwise, unlike the London original, this antipodean interpretation of Docklands felt all synthetic with large empty concrete slabs, wind-tormented palm trees and disoriented Japanese tourists. Despite this I decided to linger a bit longer in this late-capitalistic architectural nightmare, to sit down for the mandatory caffè latte and smile a bit as I came to think of Obama’s hilarious speech at the Alfred E Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner: “I even spilled my soy chai latte all over my Shih Tzu”.
Latte fetishism and liberalism. Yesterday, my good friend brought up that issue again, this time in relation to a new doctoral dissertation in comparative literature by Nina Björk which has become subject to a heated debate in the Swedish blogosphere. The dissertation, “Free Souls - Ideology and Reality in Locke, Mill and Benedictsson”, sets out to prove that the liberal self was never as free or unencumbered as the great liberal thinkers wanted us to believe. First, to be a bit cynical, I have to say that to a political theorist this hardly comes across as a shocking new line of criticism.
Yet, given the intense debate that the dissertation has sparked, it may well be worth to think a bit further about it. Clearly, if we are to rightly appreciate the emancipatory potential of liberal thought, we have to separate the life and deeds of individual liberal authors from liberalism as such. As Stephen Eric Bronner repeatedly emphasized during his seminars this spring at Rutgers, a more appropriate question would be to ask ourselves if there is something in the work of these authors which cannot be reduced to their particular historical setting?
Just as it would be wrong to deny that an author such as John Stuart Mill occasionally gave expression to the prejudices of his time, I believe it would be equally wrong to try to reduce the liberal ethos into these prejudices. Rather it becomes possible to criticize these prejudices precisely because they were not shared by other liberal theorists at the time. Further, the concept of autonomy is not as much a constitutive principle as it is a regulative ideal. When we decide to treat our fellow citizens as our equals, as being independent moral subjects, we do not do so out of some obscure empirical theory but as a normative affirmation of their individual autonomy. It is not like that liberals (for the most part at least) are stupid enough to think that people exist outside all social bounds, it is rather that we do not want to essentialize people as defined solely by these bounds.


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