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  • Solitude and Freedom: A Response to Saul Newman on Stirner and Foucault
  • Caleb Smith (bio)

In a recent essay on “Stirner and Foucault,” Saul Newman brings these “two thinkers not often examined together” into a conversation about freedom, coercion, and individual subjectivity. Newman uses Stirner and Foucault to explore a discourse of freedom formulated by Kant and dominant since the Enlightenment, a discourse based on universal moral abstractions that subtly coerce the mind even as they promise to liberate it. The aim of Newman’s interrogation, as I understand it, is finally to dismantle these abstractions, and to imagine an individual freedom that would not have an “authoritarian obverse,” an oppressive shadow—a new freedom not chained to universal norms, but grounded in the world of power and practice, in “concrete and contingent strategies of the self.” My own research into the modern prison and its cultural consequences has also approached Stirner and Foucault, also on the themes of freedom, coercion, and the shape of the mind, and I’m glad to discover Newman’s work. This essay is my effort to answer its provocations.

Max Stirner’s major text, The Ego and His Own, is long, strange, and fitful—and the same can be said of its afterlife.1 Why revive Stirner now? The answer must be, at least partly, strategic. The “egoist,” Stirner writes, “never takes trouble about a thing for the sake of the thing, but for his sake: the thing must serve him” (221). Similarly, The Ego and His Own is awakened when it becomes useful, when it helps critics to oppose some oppressive structure in their own time. Newman writes with this urgency; Kant is a bogey-man in his critique because Kant’s theory of freedom seems to Newman to be shaping contemporary discourse, dispensing an “illusory” freedom, a disguised oppression, in our own present tense. But where Newman wishes to reveal the hidden constraints in a theory of freedom—a theory that, he intimates, has endured the modernist and postmodernist ruptures and affects the present—I would measure Stirner’s worth against a form of coercion that is partly hidden but not simply theoretical: the modern prison built for solitary confinement. The Stirner-Foucault connection becomes strongest and most material here, in relation to an oppressive form developed in Stirner’s time and given its definitive theoretical treatment by Foucault, a form that is being reborn and expanded right now in the United States, in “super-max” prisons and in the cells for suspected “enemy combatants” on Guantanamo Bay. If Stirner is going to be roused and put to use again, it might be against these very “concrete and contingent” institutions of solitude and unfreedom.

Concreteness, contingency, “this world”—material institutions and practices suggest themselves everywhere in Newman’s essay, but he gestures toward them as if toward something half-real. The opposite of abstract universals never quite takes a shape of its own. How might a contingent liberation be achieved by real people? How might concrete freedom feel? The trouble may be that escape from an abstract prison can only be, itself, abstract. A metaphoric jailbreak—where can we hide from such guards, except in another metaphor? But the prison is not only an idea. It is first of all a concrete coercive institution. It is an architecture, a practice and a policy with a specific history, and its history is not over. Today the United States is involved in the reconstruction of solitary confinement on a massive scale, the largest experiment in coercive isolation since the middle nineteenth century. The modern institution whose genesis was witnessed by Stirner and carefully traced by Foucault is coming back in a postmodern form. It is this return that gives the Stirner-Foucault connection its urgency now.

I don’t wish to quarrel with Saul Newman. I’ll grasp and develop some of his ideas and depart from others, but this is a correspondence, not an attempt at correction. My thoughts are offered in a spirit of collaboration.


The modern prison takes shape in the American northeast between 1815 and 1840. Two rival “systems,” “Auburn” and “Philadelphia,” emerge, but their competition masks an underlying...

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