Freedom is Unfreedom: How to avoid headaches when conceptual boundaries dissolve

During Professor Reginia Gagnier’s lectures and seminars at Vanderbilt this past week, she continually stressed the importance of interdisciplinarity in her work and the works of other literary scholars (and “culturalists”) in general. Nowhere is this belief made more evident than in Prof. Gagnier’s works themselves, in which the reader can witness the productive collision of disciplines on nearly every page. In her latest work on Dickens’ Little Dorrit, particularly in her treatment of the “cardboard villain” Merdle, one can discern a particularly fascinating, high-stakes, troublingly productive example of such collisions—the triangulation of literature, capitalism, and biology. Gagnier catalyzes this formulation by referencing the notion, put forward by Marx and others, that “money was freedom.” Freedom and the related notion of individuality (particularly in a Victorian framework) stand among the central notions that Gagnier wishes to problematize and then trace in this project. Merdle, as the embodiment of “the abstract character of money itself,” would in many ways seem to be the antithesis of freedom—one might sooner say he stood for the “unfreedom” of coercion and incarceration. Interestingly, Prof. Gagnier soon moves on from the seemingly binary notion of freedom/unfreedom towards a more capacious discourse—biology. For Gagnier, Merdle, through his association with money and capitalism, functions like “an epidemic” or “a contagion.” This biological trope explodes the apparent separation between freedom and unfreedom, or at least it possesses the capacity to do so: the notion of “epidemic” encompasses both freedom (the unstoppable proliferation of disease) and unfreedom (consequent death or bodily decay of the individual).

One could look at this string of metaphors and formulate, by analogy, a bevy of additional tropes, as this basic triangulation seems to offer up a proliferation of possible avenues down which various trains of thought could be pursued. (Much like the figure of contagion itself, the formulation prompts thoughts that compel and produce other thoughts, which in turn modify and sidetrack still other thoughts.) One of the more interesting pairings to arise from such a thought process is the idea of freedom as disease. Provocatively, Gagnier herself has here anticipated the reader: in her volume Individualism and Globalization, she compares the “Decadent figure” (the limit case of individualism, as it were) to “the biological figure of cancer.” In this moment, freedom, when taken to its ultimate (if not necessarily logical) conclusions becomes, in a sense unfreedom (cancer, for the individual human, could certainly be described as an ultimate “unfreedom”); but this seeming paradox is easier to swallow when couched in biological, rather than philosophically conceptual, terminology. By expanding her terms, and thus, to a certain extent, the stakes of her argument, Gagnier illustrates the necessity of interdisciplinary analogy and discourse: only by eliminating (or at least glimpsing beyond) linguistic and conceptual blinders and overly simplistic binaries can literary and cultural critics find a place at the proverbial table of policy making outside the humanist disciplines. And only by already engaging with such “outlying” disciplines can we enact such necessary complications (rather than reduce them wholesale to linguistic quibbles and failures).

-Heather Freeman

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~ by Heather on March 28, 2009.

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