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Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea


The word “freedom” is in danger of becoming a distorted and tired cliché. In Another Freedom, Svetlana Boym explores the rich cross-cultural history of the idea of freedom, from its origins in ancient Greece through the present day, suggesting that our attempts to imagine freedom should occupy the space of not only “what is” but also “what if.” Beginning with notions of sacrifice and the emergence of a public sphere for politics and art, Boym expands her account to include the relationships between freedom and ...

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The word “freedom” is in danger of becoming a distorted and tired cliché. In Another Freedom, Svetlana Boym explores the rich cross-cultural history of the idea of freedom, from its origins in ancient Greece through the present day, suggesting that our attempts to imagine freedom should occupy the space of not only “what is” but also “what if.” Beginning with notions of sacrifice and the emergence of a public sphere for politics and art, Boym expands her account to include the relationships between freedom and liberation, modernity and terror, political dissent and creative estrangement, and love and freedom of the other. For Boym, “another freedom” is an adventure that tests the limits of uncertainty and responsibility, of individual imagination and pubic culture. While depicting a world of differences, she affirms lasting solidarities with the commitment to passionate thinking that reflection on freedom requires.


Another Freedom is filled with stories that illuminate our own sense of what it means to be free, and it assembles a remarkable cast of characters: Aeschylus and Euripides, Pushkin and Tocqueville, Kafka and Osip Mandelshtam, Arendt and Heidegger, and a virtual encounter between Dostoevsky and Marx on the streets of Paris. What are the limits of freedom and how can freedom be imagined anew? Drawing upon her experience as a native of St. Petersburg, Russia transplanted to the United States, Boym dares to ask whether American freedom can be transported across national borders. With these questions in mind, Boym attempts to reinvent freedom as something “infinitely improbable”—yet nevertheless still possible.


By offering a fresh look at the strange history of this idea, Another Freedom delivers a nuanced portrait of freedom’s unpredictable occurrences and unexplored plots, one whose repercussions will be felt well into the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Wood

“The title of this book speaks clearly of its brave ambition, its invitation to see freedom as an adventure rather than an old acquisition or an empty fantasy. This would be ‘another freedom,’ not the one we half-have or the one we keep losing or the one we are always trying to impose on other people. In a series of illuminating readings of texts from ancient Greece and modern Russia, subtle studies of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Arendt, and many other writers and thinkers, Svetlana Boym shows us an array of freedom’s most distinguished failures or near-misses, and through those very stumbles she demonstrates what success could mean. ‘Perhaps,’ as she says in relation to the famous ‘Ode to Stalin,’ ‘we owe it to Mandelshtam to imagine Sisyphus happy.’”—Michael Wood, Princeton University
Isobel Armstrong

“In this new and incredibly ambitious account of the anatomy of freedom, Svetlana Boym works through the specifics of historical, aesthetic, and cultural narratives, moving effortlessly from large movements to human relationships and back again. Another Freedom is an engaging and imaginative philosophical experiment, at once intellectually gripping and moving, intensely relevant to the contemporary condition, and a major work of dazzling scholarship.”—Isobel Armstrong, Birkbeck College, University of London
Michael Holquist

“Svetlana Boym is at her personal and original best when analyzing the subtle shifts and currents in intimate relations between complicated figures, as she does with exquisite delicacy here in Another Freedom. Deploying an enormous range of scholarship that includes in-depth knowledge of the philosophical literature on freedom, Boym puts ideas into life and life into ideas. A wide-ranging work for literary scholars of all stripes, this is an exemplary, important, and original book that succeeds in finding new ways to make the argument for freedom.”—Michael Holquist, Yale University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226069739
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2010
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Svetlana Boym is the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, as well as an associate of the Graduate School of Design and Architecture. A writer, theorist, and media artist, she is the author of The Future of Nostalgia, among other publications.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Freedom as Cocreation 1

Adventure and the Borders of Freedom 1

Eccentric Modernities and Third-Way Thinking 7

The Public World and the Architecture of Freedom 10

Agnostic Space: Freedom versus Liberation 15

Scenography of Freedom: Political Optics and Phantasmagoria 17

Passionate Thinking, Judging, and Imagination 24

Shape of the Book 30

1 Freedom versus Liberation: Corrupted Sacrifice from Tragedy to Modernity 37

Hope or Fate? 37

Techne: Plotting Freedom 43

Mania: Plotting Liberation and Tyranny 48

Catharsis: Freedom or Liberation? 53

Warburg or the Architecture of Deliverance 56

Kafka or the Ground of Truth 66

Mandelshtam or the Theater of Terror 68

2 Political and Artistic Freedom in a Cross-Cultural Dialogue 77

Plurality or Pluralism? Svoboda/Volia/Freedom 77

"Another Freedom" and the Art of Censorship 82

Freedom in Russia versus Democracy in America? Pushkin and Tocqueville 89

Two Concepts of Liberty beyond the Cold War: Berlin and Akhmatova 94

3 Liberation with a Birch Rod and the Banality of Terrorism 103

Modern/Antimodern: Dostoevsky's Dialogues 103

Freer Freedom in Prison 108

The One I Love Is the One I Flog: Violence and Enlightenment 114

Urban Phantasmagoria: Dostoevsky, Marx, Baudelaire 119

Underground Man and Venus in Furs: Resentment, Play, and Moral Masochism 127

The Banality of Terrorism between Left and Right 141

Religion of the People and Liberation from Freedoms 152

4 Love and Freedom of the Other 159

Totalitarianism for Two, or Adventure in World Making? 159

"The Seducer's Diary": An Embrace as an Appeal to Arms 163

Kierkegaard's Interior Design: Shadowgraphy and Architecture 171

Love / Freedom: Either / Or? 173

Aestheticized Sacrifice 176

Arendt and Heidegger: The Banality of Love or Passionate Thinking? 178

The Life of a Jewess from Love to Worldliness 184

Heidegger the Fox or the Traps of Homecoming 188

Loving and Judging 191

"Judgment Is a Difficult Issue" 196

5 Dissent, Estrangement, and the Ruins of Utopia 201

Dissent in the Plural 201

Monuments to Revolutionary Estrangement: Shklovsky and Tatlin 204

Rootless Cosmopolitanism and Civic Consciousness 216

Estrangement for the world: Arendt and Kafka 224

Writers on Trial: Dissent, Legal Obedience, and National Mythology 232

Artists on Trial: Politics and Religion in the Post-Soviet Frame 248

6 Judgment and Imagination in the Age of Terror 255

The Tale of Two Arrests: Arendt and Ginzburg 255

The Banality of Evil and the Art of Judgment 261

The Ethics of Intonation and Human Error in Kolyma Tales 266

Rationing Cliches, Documenting Terror 271

Mimicry, Misprint, and Technologies of the Gulag 276

Diamonds in the Sky and the Gulag Effect 281

Conclusion: Freedom and Its Discontents 285

Freedom by Numbers? 285

Is Freedom Lost in Translation? Cultural Critique of Freedom 294

Notes 301

Index 343

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First Chapter


The Alternative History of an Idea


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06973-9

Chapter One



Hope or Fate?

In Aeschylus's tragedy Prometheus Bound, the Chorus asks the Titan to recount his "crimes":

Chorus: is there not some further wrong you did?

Prometheus: Yes, I caused humans not to fear their deaths.

Chorus: What cure have you offered for that fear?

Prometheus: I seated a blind hope in their hearts.

Hope, elpis, cannot help humans overcome their finitude, only to survive it. Yet it lays an elusive foundation for the space of human freedom, eleutheria. In fact, during the thousands of years following Aeschylus's play, the drama of freedom will play out between elpis and telos (goal, purpose, end). Telos is a necessity that will take different guises, from religious fate to the invisible hand of the market or the spirit of history, while elpis offers hope and also a wonder that opens toward that incalculable and unpredictable element in the adventure of humanity.

Prometheus, the great trickster, does not tempt humans with the promise of eternal salvation or an otherworldly paradise. Nor does he demand blind faith, power, or love for himself. He decides to empower humans for their own sake, not offering them gadgets but rather immaterial gifts, out of pity (eleos) and fear (phobos). Prometheus's gifts, technê and elpis, are ambivalent: technê (craft, art) refers not to tools or objects but to arts and skills, and elpis brings not immortality or security but the broadened horizons of human existence beyond immediate necessities. Like any art of freedom, they are imperfect and hardly risk-free. While the stories of liberation from captivity abound in every tradition, the dramas of living in freedom are much harder to come by and more difficult to survive. The relationship between liberation and freedom is explored in the early works of theater—Greek tragedy. There is not a god of freedom or goddess of liberty in the Greek pantheon. Instead of the myths of freedom, we find here plots of freedom; instead of gods and goddesses who personify this new concept of eleutheria, we discover imposters, demigods, and dissident Titans mediating between human and divine realms and exploring new thresholds of possibility at the edges of the polis.

Greek tragedy enacts the ambivalences that surrounded the foundation of the space of freedom. "In tragedy the city must both recognize itself and bring itself into question," argued French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Coeval with the development of the democratic city-state, classical tragedy blossomed and ceased to exist within a single century, a crucial development in the history of the West. The material of tragedy is the stuff both of myth and of the social and legal thought particular to the city-state, yet tragedy stages their conflicts in the unprecedented space of the theater. Each tragedy depicts one system of justice, or dike, in conflict with another, showing humanity at the crossroads and dramatizing the relationship between religion and civic life, questioning what it means to act and to be human.

My focus is not on what is called "tragic" in the everyday sense of the word, referring, that is, to an unfortunate occurrence often beyond one's control and the lack of a Hollywood-style happy ending. Nor is the problem of fate and the "tragic flaw" (hamartia) of the hero possessed by hubris and excessive self-confidence central to my argument. Morality tales hardly ever feature in stories of freedom. The concept of hamartia is notoriously ambiguous and is translated as "accident," "mistake," "flaw," or literally, a "missed mark" (in the context of a shot arrow). It is unclear whether hamartia originates from inside or outside, from the ethos or the character of the protagonist, or from his daimon (that stranger that cohabits with us within and without—or the unfortunate collision of the two). At first glance the plot of tragedy defeats any conceivable modern understanding of freedom of action and will. However, what interests me is not a drama of fate but a fate of drama, which delineates the space of deliberation, imitation, and play, mediating between the rules of the polis and the rituals of religion. The difference between a god and a deus ex machina is huge; gods on stage are much more dialogical than the ones in the temple. The space of hamartia, the mystery of the missed mark and the ambivalence around its interpretations, marks that asymptotic margin of freedom that differentiates tragedy from a religious ritual.

Even the word for freedom, eleutheria, is related to the border zone town of Eleutherae between Athens and Thebes, to art and religion, the history of the festival of the Dionysia and the emergence of classical tragedy. Pausanias reports that "the reason why the people of Eleutherae came over was not because they were reduced by war, but because they desired to share Athenian citizenship and hated the Thebans." They carried with them the wooden statue of Dionysus, who initially was not accepted in Athens. According to the legend, the god from the borderlands became infuriated and brought plague to the city of Athens. This is how the festival of the Dionysia came into being. Subsequently this collective festival opened a space for individual creativity, transforming ritual into theater—a space where political and artistic eleutheria opened dialogues about the boundaries of the polis. Eleutheria is a freedom of the border zone—a freely chosen "immigration" and incorporation of local and foreign gods—that also gives birth to poetry and theater.

The literal meaning of the word tragedy, "goat-song" from tragos, "goat," and odi, "ode, song," also bears traces of the transformation of sacrificial practices. Goats were associated with satyrs but also, on the days of the Dionysia when the tragedies were performed, one could hear the sounds of the goats being sacrificed. The "song of the goat" or its scream might be heard at a distance during the theatrical performances, like the sound of a distant violin of discord in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. Thus the animal sacrifice cohabited with tragedy; yet in many texts of classical tragedy we find parodic or rhetorical use of ritual practices and language. Moreover, tragedy spoke about violent scenes but did not represent them in a sensationalistic manner. Unlike contemporary horror movies, classical tragedies kept violence out of the scene and did not rely on it for theatrical effect. There was a special cart, an ekkykléma, which could be rolled out to reveal the aftermath of a violent event that had happened offstage, out of sight of the audience. The space of the theater was about the transfiguration of violence into deliberation, of spectacle into performance.

While following some aspects of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy, my reading belongs to a lateral poetics. In my view, the parables of freedom develop laterally vis-á-vis the central plots of tragedies; they spring from the moments of nonrecognition between men and gods, between laws and actions, potentialities and realizations. The margin of freedom is that excess that was neither banned nor resacralized. I focus on two works that meditate on the bonds and boundaries of freedom and mark the beginning and end of classical tragedy: Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound and Euripides' Bacchae.

It is customary among scholars of tragedy to contrast the tale of two cities, Athens and Thebes. The story of Athens is about building roads to civilization, developing the architecture of the polis with its boundaries and measures, claiming a limited victory against undifferentiated nature. The story of Thebes is the road away from civilization, the return of the slain (repressed) dragon. Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes, slays the serpent, only to be turned into a serpent at the end of the story in an act of Dionysian revenge. In both works the protagonists of the plots of freedom are neither mortals nor gods, but the mediators and go-betweens whose identity crisis and borderline predicament help creative mortals (the tragedians) to explore their own, newly discovered and mysterious freedom. Both tragedies deal with "corrupted sacrifice" and result in an ambivalent or even "corrupted" catharsis opening on the theater of reflection and wonder.

Prometheus's story is about technê, the human arts of freedom that develop out of blind hopes, while the Dionysian one is about mania, the blinding, orgiastic madness that would liberate mortals from the human condition itself. The former is about humanization and its discontents and the latter about dehumanization (or divine animality) and its no less troubling complications. Aeschylus's Prometheus is a powerful Titan, a master of mêtis (cunning) who tries to help humans and finds himself temporarily powerless and "bound" up with the human condition and its pains. Euripides' Dionysus is no less cunning, but he is also a resentful "upstart god" who comes disguised as a mortal and attempts to corrupt and unmask the very nature of human justice for the sake of divine revenge and power, and to bring about the destruction of civilization.

Nietzsche observed that Prometheus is but a mask behind which lies Dionysus. In some way Prometheus and Dionysus might uncannily be echoing one another as liminal heroes /gods, "resident aliens" in the human world that mark the geographic frontiers of the Greek universe. Prometheus's brother Atlas is a burdened global border guard, carrying the world on his shoulders; Dionysus himself is a wanderer between East and West, a cross-dresser and a border crosser. For Greeks he is both a stranger and a native, a returning exile claiming to be more native than the natives. Perhaps they can also combine to form the two faces of the god of the threshold, Janus? What matters for us, however, are not characters but actions and plot, and the actions of Prometheus are the inverse of those of Dionysus. Prometheus wishes to make humans coauthors of their existence and unwittingly finds himself sharing human pain; Dionysus woos mortals with a promise of shared divinity that results in animalization. The Promethean promise is a heroic version of "human, all too human," while the Dionysian one is that of a superhumanity with instant gratifications. Prometheus is a good dissident but a bad politician, as Plato observed. He would not function well in ancient or modern bureaucracy. Dionysus is an orgiastic liberator who becomes a vengeful despot. In other words, the Promethean technê leads to deliberation while Dionysian manias promise deliverance.

Of course, the relationship between technê and mania is hardly that of an agonistic binary. Both concepts are ridden with ambivalences that become manifest through history. The Greek conception of technê emerged in opposition to nature (physis) and chance (tyche) and engaged human creativity and play as well as the art of making (poiesis). Technê came to mean both art and craft, theoretical and practical skills becoming a foundation of antiutilitarian (theoretical) and utilitarian (and technological) knowledge. In his desire to discredit both democracy (beautiful and multifarious like female fashion, but transient and leading to despotism) and poetry (an imitation of imitations), Plato believed that, for politics, utilitarian crafts and medical techniques are more important than art or imagination. In my understanding, technê by no means encompasses a mere technological prosthesis or a foundation of technical or technocratic knowledge. Rather, it is a foundation of the arts of freedom, offering a horizon of meanings as if before and beyond a binary difference between productive and unproductive practices, between arts in the plural and art in the singular. The arts of freedom produce an imaginary architecture of the border zone space, not a walled boundary.

Like technê, mania is double-edged and refers simultaneously to insanity and divine inspiration: in the first instance the manic transcendence of boundaries destroys civilizing forms while, in the second, it can contribute to the adventure of creativity and experimentation, an invention of new forms and play. Mania is about being beside oneself, out of one's mind, with one's demons. The issue in our examination is what kind of plot results from Dionysian transcendence or Promethean transgression and whether one can return to the space of shared humanity. In other words, what matters is how it all ends: whether in a mythical deliverance from worldly conditions or in a deliberation about them. The ambivalences and interplay of technê and mania will be explored throughout the book.

In my version of the myth, male demigods and go-betweens are protagonists in this drama; however, when it comes to mere mortals, female protagonists are often more distinguished freedom fighters who occasionally challenge both. While deprived of explicit political rights, even in Athenian democracy, women were among the audience in the tragic theater. In tragedies female protagonists often take more risks, experimenting with different systems of justice (Electra, Antigone), with cruelly executed "parodies" of ritual sacrifice (Clytemnestra), or with prophecies and warnings about impending catastrophes (Cassandra). As for the heroes of technê and mania, there is a paradoxical link between the mania of inspiration and the technê of theatrical creation, which is a landmark of Promethean-Dionysian artistic "coproduction": they are both at once actors and authors of their plots of freedom and liberation.

With reference to experiments in freedom, the legendary biographies of the tragedians themselves offer an uncanny twist on Promethean and Dionysian predicament, and a tension between technê and mania, as well as between theater, politics, and religion. Aeschylus was born in 525 BCE at Eleusis, the home of the cult of Demeter and the birthplace of the famous Eleusinian mysteries. According to legend, one day after consuming delicious local wine, Aeschylus fell asleep and Dionysus himself appeared to him in a dream inspiring him to compose for the Dionysian celebration. Aeschylus creatively interpreted his dream and instead of participating in cultic celebrations transformed them to create the first authored theater. He had his fair share of mania—in his case not madness, but divine inspiration, which he put to creative use. However, the epitaph on Aeschylus's tombstone, possibly his own composition, celebrates his life as a citizen and a soldier, participant in the Battle of Salamis, with no mention of his literary glory. Aeschylus knew the laws of the biographical genre of his time.

Aeschylus witnessed the rise of Athenian democracy and remained its admirer. Yet he was accused of impiety for revealing the secret rites of his native city Eleusis, the Eleusinian mysteries, to foreigners. The charge may have been a political fabrication, and Aeschylus was acquitted on the ground that he was not "initiated," in other words, he used the elements of the rituals for his poetic and tragic storytelling, not for religious or mystic purposes. Legend also has it that Aeschylus met his death in Sicily when a large eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it. Uncannily, in this legend we find the motifs of the Promethean story—the rock and the eagle, as if the mortal creator of the first literary version of the Prometheus story had died from the Promethean curse. And contrary to his epitaph, he is remembered most today for his tragedies, not for his military exploits.

Euripides' life, like that of Aeschylus, is filled with legends and motifs from his tragedies. He was born on the day of the Battle of Salamis and lived in a cave in Salamis much of his life, mostly reading and composing tragedies. As a child, Euripides served as a cupbearer to the guild of dancers who performed at the altar of Apollo, and later he may have served as a priest of Zeus. He was also exposed to the great thinkers of the day and was admired by Socrates. Like Aeschylus he was put on trial for impiety, in his case, on the accusation of Aristophanes, the conservative comedian. Supposedly Euripides, too, used his literary skills to argue that his characters, not he himself, exposed dangerous views. Euripides was a subject of frequent ridicule and at the end of his life abandoned Athens to live in Macedonia at the court of King Archelaus. In less than eighteen months, a tragic accident occurred in which, as if mistaken for hunting prey, the playwright was torn to pieces by the king's hounds. The legend of his death evokes the death of Pentheus in the Bacchae, torn to pieces as if he were an animal. It seems that tragic plots migrated into life—especially when it came to the death of these early authors of tragedy. And yet their works survived, and so did the legendary stories of their lives, early experiments in writing and living in the fragile democracy.


Excerpted from ANOTHER FREEDOM by SVETLANA BOYM Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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