Total Pageviews

Friday, 17 June 2022

Free: Coming of Age at the end of History with Lea Ypi

On 13 June 2022 SEESOX was delighted to host Lea Ypi (London School of Economics), a professor of political theory at London School of Economics and the author of the much acclaimed book Free: Coming of age at the end of history. The event was chaired by Ezgi Başaran (St Antony’s College), and the discussants were Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College) and Paul Betts (St Antony’s College). Free tells the story of Ypi as a little girl, growing up in Albania as the country transitions from communism to a free market economy.

After Başaran’s introduction of the author and the book, Lea Ypi read the first few pages to the audience and then provided some historical context. She explained that the part she read takes place in December 1990 - one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and that one of the reasons why Albania was not immediately touched by the events taking place in other parts of Eastern Europe at the time was the fact that it had a peculiar communist history, namely a history that made it believe that it was the only truly communist country in the world. This self-understanding was derived from being one of the two countries in Europe – the other one being Yugoslavia - that had liberated from the Nazi fascist occupation without help from either the Allies or the Soviets. The idea of living in a country that stands up to super powers had a central role in the main character’s identity as a child as well, believing that she is part of the only truly free country in the world because all of the others have sold out. Yet, during the time in which the changes in Western Europe reach Albania and economic protests turn into political protests, the character discovers via different responses to the protests that the two points of view that she has always assumed were somehow aligned with each other – the one of her family and the state – were in fact pulling in opposite directions. This occasion triggers a re-visiting of all other occasions of unalignment and turns into a coming of age story of the discovery of truth about freedom and non-freedom in which the character has lived both as it applies to her family and the state. At the same time, the process of self-discovery and trying to understand what freedom actually is characterizes not just the character but the country as well. Freedom, which is the central concept that animates all of the dialogues and conflicts in the book, often appears as an ideal, as an illusion and disillusionment. Through the relationships between the child and the parents, and the parents and the society, the book portrays different understandings of freedom at play, both from an institutional perspective as it is captured by the respective ideologies of two different systems, but also as a kind of moral ideal that people still believe in regardless of how it is actually captured by these different ideologies. The author noted that the reason why she chose this format, with a lot of dialogue and conflict within and between characters, was to draw attention to the agency of people, which they exercise by making moral decisions and trying to find the truth even in very constrained and oppressive regimes.Paul Betts praised the book for its sharp observations and wit, and described the book as a meditation on the meaning and limitations of freedom itself, and the story as a double disenchantment – first with communism and then with liberalism. He made three points. One was on the force of history and on the message in the book that past can never be reclaimed or re-possessed, but only acknowledged and understood. The second one was on the strong sense of place in the book and the third point was on Ypi’s sensitivity to the imported language changes

accompanying the liberalization of the country. He said that the idea of freedom is left open and ambiguous, and it is not clear if the story is really one of progress at all. The memoir, he noted, is a great achievement precisely because it speaks so directly to the political crises and soul-searching of our time, but it is in no way confined in the history of Albania or even Eastern Europe, but offers a powerful testimony of the afterlife of the hopes and disappointments of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st.

Othon Anastasakis explained how the book has resonated with him in three ways: as a reader of memoirs, as a scholar of Balkan studies, and as a Greek citizen with some more familiarity with Albania than the rest of the world. He commented on how brilliantly the author has combined different disciplines of politics, oral history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology in her story. Then, he posed four questions to the author: the first one was about whether the author views Albania as an exceptional case of transition, the second one was on how Albania managed to not get engulfed in the Yugoslav Wars despite its geographic proximity and ethnic solidarity with Kosovo Albanians and its religious heterogeneity, the third one was about the state of freedom in Albania after 1997, and the fourth one asked whether the author has found her own freedom after coming to the West.

After responding to questions posed by the discussants, Ypi answered questions by the audience about freedom as a moral ideal, about the extent to which the degree of personal agency and moral choices are different under the communist rule, about the role of Enver Hoxha vs. Stalin, on truth and reconciliation, on the limits of freedom under liberalism and the actual starkness of the transition in Albania.

Asli Tore (SEESOX Research Assistant)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.