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  • Spectres of Freedom in Stirner and Foucault: A Response to Caleb Smith’s “Solitude and Freedom”
  • Saul Newman (bio)

I am grateful to Caleb Smith for his response to my essay “Stirner and Foucault: Towards a Post-Kantian Freedom,” and I particularly like the way he links my discussion of a post-Kantian freedom to strategies of resistance against contemporary forms of incarceration. Already, back in the early 1970s, in response to a series of prison revolts in France, Michel Foucault was talking about the emergence of a “carceral archipelago”—a network of punitive institutions, discourses, and practices that had been progressively spreading throughout the social fabric since the late eighteenth century (297). It was as if the prison had become a metaphor for society as a whole—with the same techniques of surveillance and coercion appearing in schools, hospitals, factories, and psychiatric institutions. Today, unprecedented technological developments have made possible an intensification of social control to levels beyond what even Foucault could have imagined—the proliferation, for instance, of surveillance cameras in public spaces indicates a blurring of the distinction between the institution and life outside. Indeed, in light of the new forms of incarceration that are appearing today—the extra-legal detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for example—perhaps we should take note of Giorgio Agamben’s disturbing insight that what is paradigmatic of modern life is not the prison, as Foucault believed, but rather the camp (20). The slogan posted above the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay—”Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”—is chillingly and ironically reminiscent of another infamous slogan, the one posted above Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One Free”).

Given this proliferation today of spaces of incarceration and detention—which are, at the same time, becoming virtually indistinguishable from everyday life—questions of freedom and emancipation, always central to political discourse, are perhaps more crucial now than ever before. It is here that Smith raises some very interesting questions about how Stirner’s and Foucault’s emancipatory strategies might be useful today in challenging contemporary institutions, and practices of incarceration, particularly solitary confinement. As Smith shows, solitary confinement has been employed as a punitive tool since the inception of the modern prison in the early nineteenth century, and is now undergoing a massive resurgence in prisons in the U.S. It was originally believed that if prisoners were isolated within their own individual cells, not only could they be more easily controlled and supervised, but their very “souls” could be redeemed through a process of self-reflection. Solitary confinement thus served as a sort of moral experiment upon the subjectivity of the individual inmate—an experiment in which the criminal’s soul was constructed as a discursive object to be corrected and reformed. A similar approach can be seen in contemporary practices of solitary confinement in detention camps, where the psyches of inmates are carefully monitored in an effort to unlock their “secrets.” Smith is right in suggesting, moreover, that this has become a “postmodern” form of punishment—one that relies on sophisticated and subtle techniques of psychological manipulation, rather than clumsy physical coercion (though of course, as we have been amply reminded by events in Iraq, the latter has by no means been expunged from contemporary carceral practice).

However, the question remains as to what sort of strategies of freedom are effective in resisting these new postmodern regimes of punishment? Smith suggests that the post-Kantian or “postmodern” notion of freedom that I have theorized in my paper—one that is derived from the interventions of Foucault and Stirner—is not only somewhat limited in resisting “concrete” practices of incarceration, but, because it is based largely on a notion of individual autonomy that may be achieved even within oppressive conditions, may actually sustain these very practices. There are three separate, yet related, points that Smith is making here: firstly, that, despite my emphasis on concreteness and particularity as opposed to abstract universals, I have to some extent ignored concrete practices or institutions—like the prison—and have thus remained within the very abstract world I am attacking; secondly, that my attempt to theorize a notion of freedom and individual autonomy—”ownness...

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