Epidemics of the Will
Alexander Beaumont

Before I make any comments on ‘Epidemics of the Will’, I should explain that my approach to Sedgwick’s essay grows out of my work on the valences of freedom as a political concept in the wake of experiments with the term by schools of theory and praxis influenced by the development of poststructuralism – particularly British cultural studies – during the 1980s and 1990s. In the course of my research, I have found in this intellectual tradition a highly productive critique of the ways in which freedom has been exploited in the contemporary conjuncture as a means of producing disciplinary subjects who accord with the particular requirements of a neoliberal model of political economy. At the same time, this critique has, it seems to me, been limited by its tendency to assume that political possibility is thus to be located in the capacity of unfreedom to expose and undermine the way in which freedom has been rendered amenable to new, totalised mechanisms of governmentality that are only the more insidious for being predicated on voluntarism. This tendency is quite apparent in ‘Epidemics of the Will’, and later on I will be setting out in terms that are necessarily polemical, given the brief amount of time I have, my misgivings about its potential as a form of praxis. 

Before I do this, however, I want to ask two fairly simple questions. First, do Sedgwick’s comments on the growth of addiction discourse during the historical moment in which she was writing account for the complexity of the discourse as it has developed over the last twenty years? Second, did they even account for how this discourse was developing outside the USA at the time she was writing? The 12-point plan has always seemed to me a peculiarly American phenomenon; indeed, as Pat O’Malley had suggested, where narcotics are concerned there has been a growing tendency – especially outside the USA – to speak of drug use and misuse, rather than addiction.(1)1) Pat, O’Malley, ‘Drugs, Risks and Freedoms: Illicit Drug ‘Use’ and ‘Misuse’ Under Neo-Liberal Governance’, Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 09/120, 7. Social Science Research Network Electronic Library. n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013. Of course, Sedgwick’s comments in ‘Epidemics of the Will’ are not limited to the particular form addiction discourse took in relation to narcotics. Nonetheless, her decision to reproduce, in however ironic a fashion, the kind of semi-religious idiom that was synthesised with the language of psychiatry when the twelve-point plan was developed during the 1930s – an idiom reflected in the critical significance she attributes to the “healthy free will” characterised by “consolation, repose, beauty, [and] energy”(2)2) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 132. – demonstrates the influence of the neoconservative ideology underpinning the ‘War on Drugs’ on the development of addiction discourse in the USA during the late twentieth century. Significantly, however, the explicitly moral tenor of this ideology didn’t take hold in other Anglophone countries in quite the same way. Instead, a ‘de-moralised’ discourse owing more to neoliberalism has developed, taking the form of a tolerance which exploits the disciplinary potential of a carefully bounded freedom in order to keep individual behaviour in check. Crucially, the pathological language surrounding this discourse isn’t one of addiction, in which behaviour engaged in freely has led paradoxically to an inability to exercise free will; rather, it reflects a more thoroughgoing instrumentalisation of rational choice theory in which the ‘abuse’ of a given substance becomes equivalent to the ‘abuse’ of the faculty of choice itself.

O’Malley accords a significant degree of importance to this distinction, and is clearer than Sedgwick in aligning the question of drugs policy with the concept of freedom, as well as the latter’s uses to an emerging neoliberal disciplinary regime. Opposing American to British and especially Australasian approaches to drugs discourse, he argues that 

two forms of liberal freedom can be contrasted, each associated with different technologies of government and techniques of the self: a neo-conservative, classical liberal freedom of independence, sobriety and moral responsibility; and a more morally relative neo-liberal freedom of choice, involving enhanced autonomy, activity and self fulfilment. While they share much in common, notably a faith in markets and competition, and a dislike of state based ‘interventionism’ associated with the welfare state, the differences and tensions encompassed in the New Right alliance was fertile soil for divergence.(3)

3) O’Malley, ‘Drugs’, 6. In a sense, Sedgwick might be described as writing during an historical moment when an addiction discourse predicated on a neoconservative understanding of freedom was being gradually replaced in the USA by a use/misuse discourse predicated on a neoliberal understanding of the term. Indeed, what seems to be happening at the moment, as states such as Colorado vote in favour of what is sometimes called an “evidence-based” approach to drugs legislation, is a process not so much of liberalisation but neoliberalisation, in which the moral content of addiction discourse is finally displaced by what is billed as a progressive, libertarian approach in which, as O’Malley puts it, "the risks” of drug use “appear as probabilistic events triggered by the failure of the user to take necessary avoiding steps”(4)4) O’Malley, ‘Drugs’, 14. Sedgwick writes that "so long as ‘free will’ has been hypostatized and charged with ethical value, for just so long has an equally hypostatized ‘compulsion’ had to be available as a counterstructure always internal to it, always requiring to be ejected from it”. But she also writes – correctly – that “the compulsion behind everyday voluntarity is driven, ever more blindly, by its own compulsion to isolate some new, receding but absolutized space of pure voluntarity”.(5)5) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 133-134. This space of “pure voluntarity” is, I would suggest, equivalent to the space of “pure freedom” celebrated by libertarian thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, and – for good or ill – it is taking on a putatively progressive form in the kind of pop-libertarianism currently in vogue in the United States. The key point, however, is that, despite its purported progressivism, the free will around which this agenda is organised is absolutely not charged with ethical value; nor, I might add, is it charged with political value.

In this way, we see that the relationship between governance and freedom continues to be at the heart of what Sedgwick identified with her term “epidemics of the will”; however, today, instead of witnessing the kind of morally-inflected maladie de la volonté bequeathed American neoconservatism by nineteenth-century addiction discourse, we see a more advanced, more thoroughly rationalised and rationalising logic taking hold, in which freedom becomes both the ideological lodestone of contemporary political discourse and also the means by which the subject is governmentalised most clearly. As Mariana Valverde, writing specifically about alcoholism, puts it: “[G]overnance of […] addiction [is] not characterized by the government of substances as much as by the attempt to use substances (and, more recently, addictive behaviours) to govern the realm of freedom”.(6)6) Mariana Valverde, Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 28. What’s more, she adds, this attempt to govern the realm of freedom so often takes the form of a knowing conspiracy on the part of contemporary society to maintain the ideological status quo: “We know”, she writes, that 

deep down […] freedom is just another word used by the authorities to govern us, to sell us things, to persuade us to accept coercion of all kinds; but we nevertheless find it impossible to do without the belief in freedom […]. It is […] the potential for the ironical displacement not of this or that theory of addiction but of the very idea of a quest for personal freedom that distinguishes today’s epidemics of the will from those of earlier times.(7)

7) Valverde, Diseases, 21.This points to a crucial way in which Sedgwick’s analysis forms a kind of vanguard to political conversations that have become important areas of critical activity twenty years later: specifically, the engagement with Foucault’s late lectures on governmentality and how these have been interpolated into discussions about the relationship between neoliberalism and postmodernity. However, it seems to me important that this discussion has led to an emerging sense that a subject position of radical alterity, nested at the heart of an hegemonic discourse, no longer leads inevitably to provocative critique but often to disenfranchisement and even death. Sedgwick’s comments on addiction anticipate the focus on biopolitics which, though initiated by Foucault well before the publication of Tendencies in 1993, has since become a key characteristic of critical inquiry. And one of its major interventions has been to wonder whether the kind of oppositionality described by Sedgwick and taken up by poststructuralist critics more widely – the kind, that is, predicated on discursive irruptions and lacunae rather than collective belonging and political mobilisation – is actually capable of doing the work of politics in the twenty first century. Indeed, one complaint that a post-Marxist critic might make of poststructuralism and its intellectual inheritance generally is that, for all its focus on the politics of class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, textuality and so on, its critique is actually predicated on an insufficiently theorised concept of the political itself. This isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the critical potential of such strategies has been blunted; however, it might suggest a more circumscribed role for “poststructuralist politics” qua the political in future.

In my opinion, this situation has arisen as a consequence of the reluctance of critics in these areas to work with the ideas of freedom and authority, which together constitute the field of the political in the work of writers such as Hannah Arendt. It has long been a critical strategy of poststructuralist theory to cast light on subject positions that are structured by these concepts but which have little or no stake in the space they demarcate – the space, that is, of politics – and I think that the consequence of such a strategy has been a tendency to locate a species of freedom precisely in the concept of unfreedom. Such a tendency is evidenced quite clearly in ‘Epidemics of the Will’ when Sedgwick speculates that 

smokers could unite to claim rights, not as embodiments of that ultimate freedom, the freedom to smoke, but rather as addicts, as people who define themselves as not having freedom with respect to smoking[…]. It is only by making something like this claim to, or acknowledgement of, the pathologised addict identity that smokers, as a body, could, paradoxically, empower themselves in legal, economic, and ideological contestation against the tobacco companies.(8) 

8) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 141.Now, this may very well have been true for smokers at the time Tendencies was published; after all, there was (and remains) a financial imperative for such a subject position to exist. But what happens when there is no such imperative? When a subject becomes, from a biopolitical point of view, expendable? Well the result then isn’t, to echo Foucault, that the subject is made to live, but that she is allowed to die. For why should a subject who holds no place in the space of politics, who is structured by the political field but not recognised as belonging to it, be granted, in Sedgwick’s words, “affordable or free, high-quality, nonjudgmental health care”?(9)9) Sedgwick, Tendencies, 141. The addict is certainly a subject position; but she’s also, crucially, a civic person. In the process of rationalising the subject, however, neoliberalism has led very often to the peeling back of markers of civic belonging, and this process has unsurprisingly mapped quite neatly onto existing hierarchies of power determined by class, race, gender and sexuality. The risk with the hypothetical strategy Sedgwick outlines at the end of ‘Epidemics of the Will’ is that it assumes – complacently, perhaps – that such markers of civic belonging exist as a matter of course. But in the neoliberal order, once the subject has no utility, she is perfectly expendable. She may locate a kind of political possibility in the unfreedom of her pathology, but if this can be described as a species of freedom at all, it’s the freedom of Agamben’s homo sacer – which is to say, no freedom at all.

Sedgwick is right to encourage us to attend to the paradoxes of freedom in the present conjuncture, and in this respect ‘Epidemics of the Will’ continues to be an important intervention, if for no other reason than that it confronts us with the fact that freedom has become a fundamental tool in the care of the self. But as Nikolas Rose suggests, freedom has also become the basis for all modern and contemporary models of governmentality, to such a degree that “values and presuppositions given the name of freedom and liberty have come to provide the ground upon which governmentality must enact its practices”.(10)10) Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 11. Nikolas is a good deal more optimistic than Sedgwick about the opportunities this affords contemporary society – though it also has to be said that he looks at governmentality rather more from the point of view of the governing logic than the governed subject. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that his point about the significance of freedom as a concept need necessarily be cast aside, and I think it is worth asking of Sedgwick, of queer theory and of poststructuralism generally what might be made of freedom, not simply as a critical tool, but as a concept that could also, if appropriated and reconfigured by a political discourse which was prepared to acknowledge its radical uses, provide the basis for a new politics predicated on inclusion, pluralism and belonging.

Alexander Beaumont
Department of English, University of York