The Happy Hypocrite 6, an experimental art writing journal, guest edited by Lynne Tillman (Book Works 2013), dedicated to Nelson Mandela, on the theme of Freedom, has contributions by artists, poets and writers of fiction, theory and essays, mostly, but not exclusively, American. The journal is beautifully designed and has a good amount of stimulating material.
One highlight is Lynne Tilman’s interview with Thomas Keenan on the construction of human rights language. They discuss the assertion by protestors during Libya’s Arab Spring that they were human beings and not sheep suggesting that that the rights and liberties of citizenship were not self-evident and needed to be claimed. I liked this recognition of human rights as something that is fragile and needs to be approached as a movement towards becoming that involves struggle. Paul Chan’s sequence of visual poems ‘Really New Testament’ stimulated with their philosophical asides on artistic expression framed within beguiling language art. I also enjoyed Lynne Tilman’s Parnoids Anonymous Newsletter from 1976, Chloé Cooper Jones article on the connection between morality and art through Socrates’ ‘The Apology’, Robin Coste Lewis’ long poem, ‘Felicité’ and Sarah Resnick’s story, ‘Time Spent’. The latter piece dealing with issues of domestic work and independence.
The lack of a working definition of Freedom and the editor’s insistence that stories are ways of thinking is a hindrance to a more considered exploration of the theme in global or historical terms. Some contributions are rather woolly and divorced from the real world of differing definitions of the word. Competing concepts and notions of freedom are clearly economic as well as moral and religious. It is here that loss of rights and division has rent more global unrest and difficulty.
Following Milton, Blake and Hazlitt we might argue that freedom stems from the ability to dissent and hold contrary, heretical views and not be detained or imprisoned for doing so. Freedom is thus not about market choice but rather the right to think and act differently to the State and religious orthodoxies. Blake’s assertion that he belonged to the Devil’s Party deepened Milton’s assertion, in Areopagitica (1644), that freedom stemmed from the rights to know, utter, think, argue and choose, into full recognition of heresy as the main bulwark against State and religious orthodoxy. The United States Supreme Court in its defence of the First Amendment refers to Milton’s justification of the rights to freedom of expression and speech. Human trafficking and slavery, the enormous gap between urban affluence and rural deprivation remain chilling facts of life. It is also possible to argue that we are still in the pre-feminist world where only a few of the Women’s Movement Manifesto demands from 1970 have been realised and several parts of the world deny basic rights of independence, education and morality to women.
Yasmin El Rashidi’s ‘An Imaginary Letter to a Bureaucrat: on permission to publish’ about the right to State funding for a not-for-profit literary quarterly to offer ‘a space for free expression’ in Egypt rather than the permission to publish was disappointing. I do not think that this is either a right or something that is useful. This bourgeois mentality could be offset by independent samizdat publication and the radical tradition of pamphleteering, which historically have won rights. Similarly Craig Owen’s Imaginary Interview ‘The Indignity of Speaking For Others’ from 1982 could more usefully have been used as the start of an essay on the politics of representation now. Notwithstanding my comments there is much to savour and argue with. Congratulations to the editor and Book Works for producing such a provocative journal.