The freedom to stay
I am writing to you from Iceland once more, where winter is fast approaching. It has been a busy start of the semester – Bilge, Claude and I are teaching a research seminar on socially engaged art for Bachelor and Master students. It turned out to be a valuable learning experience for me. Our weekly preparation meetings generated rich conversations that have been helpful for my research as well. What is more, it has been very valuable to have a fresh look at things through our discussions with students and to explore together these complex intersections of art and theory.
My latest theoretical discovery that accompanied me on train-rides in Berlin during the summer, is a recently published book by Eva von Redecker titled Bleibefreiheit [the freedom to stay]. It is not yet available in English but you can find an interview with the author on RevDem Podcast in which she elaborates on the concept of Bleibefreiheit.
Von Redecker has recently shifted from an academic career and is growing a reputation as a public intellectual. Her first non-fiction book Revolution for Life in which she portraits various recent social movements was well received and has been translated into many languages. In this new book Bleibefreiheit, she develops a critique of the liberal understanding of freedom that is synonymous with the spatial freedom of movement and proposes an eco-feminist understanding of freedom that stresses its temporal constitution.
The idea for the book emerged during the pandemic which for many people was a time of limited freedom to travel and move through the world. It was the same for von Redecker: her long planned work trip to the American West coast was cancelled due to Covid. After the initial disappointment she was surprised herself about the feeling of relief given that she could stay at home and didn’t have to embark on the long cross-Atlantic journey. This was the initial experience that gave birth to the concept of Bleibefreiheit. Von Redecker acknowledges her privilege of living in the countryside with a vegetable garden outside of Berlin in a community of people without any care responsibilities. But precisely because staying has prerequisites, it perfectly lends itself to thinking about its relation to freedom.
Von Redecker poignantly argues that on the spatial axis there is no freedom in staying but on the temporal axis freedom is entirely about staying, more precisely staying alive. This redefinition of freedom is utterly urgent because it is a specific notion of freedom that is obsessively instrumentalized to uphold the fossil economy. Von Redecker writes: “Our common notion of freedom is ill-suited for the Anthropocene. It reacts sensitively when mobility in gasoline-burning tin cans is compromised. But it remains entirely unaffected by the question of whether there will still be birds in the future” (my translation). The yearly arrival of the swallows is a recurring theme and example in the book as well as a metaphor for how human and non-human rhythms intersect, and the grief that sets in when the disruption of this rhythm is noticed. It’s a moment of realization that freedom cannot be essentially about how far and how cheap one can fly to the other end of the world, but that freedom is about whether the swallows will be able to return next year and stay which is dependent on whether they can find enough food.
Von Redecker says: “The adjustment to imagine freedom itself as time does not transpire easily. It is not a mere mental operation; it touches all our impulses as well as our interests.” (my translation). That is because the temporalization of freedom confronts us with the destruction of the natural world, and probably even more painfully with our own mortality. Von Redecker assumes that we eschew temporality and that might be because in capitalist societies most of us experience that time is never our own. The idea of Bleibefreiheit as an abundance of free time produces a ‘utopian scent’ and hence opposes capitalist time, which is a “time of bare economic growth”. Bleibefreiheit means that it matters to continue living. What separates freedom from time in capitalist society – that is the author’s main argument – is private property. The arrogant entitlement that the terrestrial is subject to the right of disposition.
If fossil capitalism kills time at accelerating speed, what is it that multiplies time, von Redecker asks? In reference to Arendt, she associates the multiplication of time with our ability to make new beginnings – especially those beginnings that disrupt the dominant temporality. The main example here is the feminist general strike that we can see most vividly in South America and its Ni Una Menos movement. Von Redecker argues that the strike imitates birth and generates freedom – this freedom comes in shape of a transformed temporality.
There is so much more to say about Bleibefreiheit. For me it is especially interesting, because it is an illuminating theoretical figure for describing social-aesthetic practices. With the lens of Bleibefreiheit we can ask: how far do artistic practices and collective creativity contribute to an “abundance of fulfilled time”? as von Redecker puts it.