Critical Inquiry 9 (1):45-76 (1982)

In turning to the language of freedom, I am not automatically freed from the dangers of reduction and self-privileging. "Freedom" as a term is at least as ambiguous as "power" . When I say that for me all questions about the politics of interpretation begin with the question of freedom, I can either be saying a mouthful or saying nothing at all, depending on whether I am willing to complicate my key term, "freedom," by relating it to the language of power. The best way to do that is to get power in from the beginning, by making a distinction taken for granted by many earlier thinkers and too often ignored today: freedom from as contrasted with freedom to; freedom from external restraints and the power of others to inhibit our actions, and freedom to act effectively when restraints disappear.All the freedom from in the world will not free me to make an intellectual discovery or to point a picture unless I have somehow freed myself to perform certain tasks. Such freedoms are gained only by those who surrender to disciplines and codes invented by others, giving up certain freedoms from. Nobody forbids by interpreting the original text of Confucius' Analects or the Principia Mathematica, yet I am not free to do so, lacking the disciplines—having not been disciplined—to do so. The distinction can lead to troublesome complexities, but in its simple form here it cuts through some of the problems that arise in power language.Every critical revolution tends to speak more clearly about what it is against than about what it seeks. The historicists against impressionism, the New Critics against historicism, the new new critics against intentionalism and the authority of canons, the feminists against misogynous art and criticism–clearly one could write a history of modern criticism as a glorious casting off of errors. But it is rightly a commonplace among intellectual historians that all revolutionaries depend on their past far more than they know. Revolutionary critics are enslaved by a nasty law of nature: I can say only what I can say, and that will be largely what I have learned to say from the kings I would depose.Everyone who tries to forge any kind of ideological criticism must struggle with these complexities. Nobody ever knows just what powers have been rejected and what voices heard. But at the moment it seems clear that what follows here, both in its emerging clarities and remaining confusions, results from my somewhat surprised surrender to voices previously alien to me: the "Mikhail Bakhtin" who speaks to me, muffled by my ignorance of Russian, and the feminist criticism" that in its vigor and diversity and challenge to canonic views has—belatedly, belatedly—forced me to begin listening.Wayne C. Booth's most recent work, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, won the Laing Prize in 1982. He is working on a book about ethical and political criticism of narrative. A new edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction will appear in 1983
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DOI 10.1086/448188
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