Zombies don’t seem to shit. And they are absolutely null as lovers. In my cosmos of pop horror, we have, at the top, the aristocratic vampire, then way down in the middle manager region, the serial killer, masked or unmasked, and finally, at the bottom, the lumpen prole zombie. Of course, the zombie originally had some dignity, some whiff of the escaped slave, the marooned undead, but that was before it became a mere target, as dramatically interesting as a dartboard.
The missiles are still there. They exist, now, at the periphery, in their cobwebs, and doubtless, like the fabled gun in Chekhov’s notion of drama, they will go off at the last act. But it won’t be, I think, because of freedom, or somebody’s idea of freedom.
Anthropologists, however, were not sure. There was a school – and not only on the right – that held that freedom was a unique product of ancient Greece.
I, the great King Tabarna, have taken the grinding stones from the
hands ofthe female slaves and the work from the hands ofthe male
slaves, and I freed them from contributions and corvee. I have
loosened their belts and given them to the Sun-goddess of Arinna,
The fashionable term in the litcrit world at the moment is fugitive. I associate the fugitivity thematic to Fred Moten, but the term is part of a semantic field involving flight that started in the Cold War era. Such ur-Cold War texts as Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux took an eclectic approach to concepts, and stole the lines of flight and territorial notion from the ethology at hand – which, on the right, was popularized by writers such as Robert Ardry. It is out of such materials that the canonical Cold War notions of freedom have been reconfigured.
This re-emplacement of freedom opposes the conceptual structure that posits the notion of positive and the negative liberty a la Isaiah Berlin. The latter, of course, negative liberty, the freedom to be left alone, was used to attack the former, which was the freedom to thrive in relation to the increasing wealth of one’s society. That attack defined the “Free World” in general against the Communist world. We keep on rocking in the free world by defending ourselves from the state and pulling ourselves up from the bootstraps without state interference. The intellectual structure created by the Cold War liberals has slowly become less plausible in the neo-liberal era. I find it fascinating that the New York Review of Books, one of the great organs of Cold War liberalism, has recently published attack on both the idea of the counter-enlightenment (by Kwame Appiah) and the idea that positive and negative liberty really conceptuallly divide the discourse on freedom (by Pankaj Mishra). Surely for those oracle watchers looking for shifts, this is one – as significant as the #metoo driven fall of the Old Boys.
I don’t claim that Daniel Snell has been moved conceptually by Deleuze and Guattari, but it is true that his book, Flight and Freedom in the Ancient Near East, presents us with a different geneology of freedom that echoes the, ahem, position of freedom now. To be all serious as shit about it. Snell takes aim at a tradition that locates the “Western” conception of freedom in Greece, and that still goes by the bannering notion of freedom announced, in the Classical Liberal era, by Lord Acton’s 1877 essay, Freedom in Antiquity. Acton defined liberty in high Victorian terms: "the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion." Which is a fine definition. But is it anthropologically pertinent? The history of the project of tracing freedom from Antiquity to the Modern Age seems to be, as well, the history of defining what the “West” is. The West is a construct that is both different and universal – its the conceptual infrastructure of colonialism. By a retrospective annexation of ancient Greece, the project moved forward to other, more contemporary, annexations.
Snell does not dispute the interesting Greek articulation of freedom. He ponders the etymology of eleuther – the Greek for free. – which some etymologists connect to leudhero, belonging to the people. Snell prefers, however, another etymological suggestion – that the word is related to the future of to go, eleusoma. In Sumerian, the word for freedom, amargi, is related to movement: return to mother. Which gives us andurārum, returrn to an earlier status. It is the turning and returning, the movement, that interests Snell.
Snell’s idea is that freedom, in the Mesopotamian context, has to do with escape – fugitivity – and debt. Although early Mesopotamian societies did sponsor slavery, the majority of the laborers were serfs. Freedom, for the Mesopotamians, is imbricated with debt. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors was the ultimately emancipating principle. To put this programmatically (and hyperbolically), jubilee precedes emancipation.
This is a line of thought that is echoed by David Graeber in his book on debt. It is a line of thought that rearranges the field, so to speak. To cut along the joints of the concept of freedom, here, we do not look to definitions deriving from the Victorian sense of property, or the Eighteenth century fetishism of contract, but we look at the real, felt bonds of ordinary existence, with an emphasis on bonds – debts – and the way enslavement and escape are related as two parameters of the socially lived experience of freedom and its lack.
The “return to the mother” as an image for escaping debt is certainly a little surprising from the psychoanalytic point of view, but from the feminist critique of patriarchy, it makes for an intriguing intersection between an economics founded on debt and credit – our current situation – and overturning the domination of phallocentric rules.
“An early example of the concern for freedom appears in a royal
inscription from pre-Sargonic Lagas that may be dated around
2500 B.C.E. The ruler Enmetena boasted that he "canceled
obligations for Lagas, having mother restored to child and child
restored to mother. He canceled obligations regarding interest bearing
loans." His language plays on the literal meaning of the
term for the freedoms he was establishing in that he mentions
restoring children, the etymological origin of the term for freedom or "canceled obligation."
These notions of freedom seem much more relevant to our daily lives as we crawl out of the ruined year of plague. Perhaps it is time for our political philosophers to catch up with Enmetena.