On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

  • By Maggie Nelson
  • Graywolf Press
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Zak Salih
  • September 22, 2021

A refreshing, daring consideration of our most tangled social problems.

Ours, it seems, is an age of intellectual entrenchment. Gone is the pursuit of logical argumentation, replaced now by a kind of petty argumentation (inspired by social media) that’s more about having the last word than searching for le mot juste. Uncertainty, oftentimes the sign of a mind actively at work, is a sign of weakness. It’s not enough for one to say, “Perhaps.” One has to say, “It is.”

Which makes the poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s new work, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, such a refreshing and rigorous work. It is unapologetic in its acknowledgement of what it means to actually think — really, truly think — about culture and all the uncertainty that entails.

Nelson does not decree. She opens herself up to challenges, sets different viewpoints against one another. She reminds the reader constantly that she is simply “thinking about with others.” Quite often, she deploys phrases like “it seems to me” and “it’s possible that” — phrases that to some may suggest passivity but, to this reader, emphasize the idea of intellectual thought as a continual work in progress. Much like “the knot of freedom and unfreedom” — the central issue under discussion in On Freedom — knotty social issues are never untangled. The work is never finished.

“Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” Nelson asks of her subject. Indeed, On Freedom is little concerned with the modes in which we often encounter such an idea: the jingoistic freedom coopted by right-wing politics, where freedom depends on someone else’s unfreedom (think “Operating Enduring Freedom” or the coded bigotry of “religious freedom”); the aspirational idea of freedom as a “one-time event or event horizon” or “moments of liberation” that prove not everything about our existence is fixed.

Nelson’s freedom is an ethos. As she writes, “The practice of freedom — i.e., the morning after, and the morning after that — is what, if we’re lucky, takes up most of our waking lives.”

Art, sex, drugs, climate: Roosevelt’s four freedoms these are not. But they are realms “wherein the coexistence of freedom, care, and constraint seems to me particularly thorny and acute.” In thinking aloud about and with the ideas and work of writers and artists (a pantheon that includes James Baldwin, Eileen Myles, Michel Foucault, Lee Edelman, Dana Schutz, Paul Preciado, Sam Durant, Judith Butler, and Hannah Arendt), Nelson bravely prowls a minefield of questions. When does artistic expression go too far? Does art have a social responsibility to repair our lives? How can we even begin to categorize a zone as broad as sexual pleasure and desire? What, exactly, are we trying to seek through drugs — or to escape from?

The questions are fascinating, and Nelson’s critiques even more so. But there seems little grey area for interpretation when wildfires rip along towns and superstorms waterboard shorelines. It’s hard not to think we’re just doomed. And what do art and sex and drugs matter if there’s no planet on which to pursue them, however ethically?

For this reason, Nelson’s fourth chapter, on freedom’s relationship to the ever-worsening climate crisis, is the book’s most urgent and visceral. What’s called for, she suggests, is to “start thinking about freedom ecologically, which involves reckoning with the limitations and possibilities of our shared environment, rather than hoping for walls, moats, ethnostates, apocalypse retreats, treasure troves, or spacecrafts to sever us from it.”

I left On Freedom feeling equal parts impassioned and troubled. I also left with the hallmark of the best critical writing: a long list of books, films, artworks, and essays to consider. But those interested in simple, clean, neat solutions to what vexes us about the climate or culture or politics will be disappointed (as perhaps they should be for thinking such solutions ever existed in the first place).

Nelson may as well be describing her entire project when she writes, in her chapter on art, that her argument “invites a certain epistemological uncertainty.” She continues:

“It is undisturbed by inconclusiveness and mess. It takes its time, as well as the risk of appearing ‘weak’ in an environment that privileges muscle and consensus — not to mention one in which concepts such as ‘nuance,’ ‘indeterminacy,’ ‘uncertainty,’ and ‘empathy’ are regularly ridiculed, sometimes with good reason, as both-sides-ist buzzwords of the civility police.”

We urgently need more of this “thinking aloud with others,” just as we urgently need more of Maggie Nelson’s measured, empathetic analysis. Both-sides-ism be damned.

Zak Salih is the author of Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin). His writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Foglifter, Epiphany, the Chattahoochee Review, the Millions, the Rumpus, and other publications. He lives in Washington, DC.

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