Graywolf Press ($27)
by Christina Schmid
Maggie Nelson’s latest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, takes readers into the messy middle between liberation and obligation, where stories of damage and desire, complete with an ever-evolving cast of victims and villains, wrongdoers and the wronged, abound. Throughout, Nelson invites us to step out of dyadic thinking, suspend binaries, and hold space for discomfiting complexities and complicities. A supple thinker, she challenges us to stretch, asking in so many words, what would it take to hold this truth, and this one too, and that one over there? On Freedom is an exercise in “thinking aloud,” sifting and sorting, processing and parsing “the hold that certain ideas have on us, as individuals, a culture, a subculture.” Freedom is one of them.
Rather than a one-time, capital-L Liberation, the freedom Nelson has in mind consists of daily, mundane practices, the patient labor involved in honing a capacity for being free. This may involve, in the words of David Graeber that she returns to more than once, us acting—defiantly, irresistibly—as if we were already free. In the absence of readily available freedoms, as if becomes key: As if opens the door to speculation and to performative acts of make-believe. What might such acts of freedom look like? Not like hedonism or carelessness, not like denials of the material restraints of human existence, but like an ongoing rehearsal aimed at conjuring ways of being free that never negate “the web of relationality” we are all enmeshed in or ignore the pull of desire as life force and force field.
Nelson’s inquiry unfolds in four essays, one each on art, sex, drugs, and climate change. In each of these four sites, freedom is complicated: Creative license meets ethical accountability; the triumphant rhetoric of sexual liberation gives way to intimate disappointments, calls for safe spaces, and the wounded sisterhood of #MeToo; narratives of addicts as childlike victims collide with stories of transgressive if misguided drug-abusing villains; and freedom, untethered from any sense of reciprocal responsibility, looms large amid the ecocide known as global warming. When does a sense of entitlement to freedom morph into a convenient justification for causing others harm? When does the perceived justice of a cause grant immunity from facing the hurt inflicted on others, human and nonhuman alike? Nelson’s four chapters trace the contours, variations, and possibilities of this question in a song, a ballad, and a fugue, but it is the final essay’s title that most resonates: “Riding the Blinds” refers to the spaces in between train cars where freight hoppers hope to avoid detection, a precarious perch where the sound of metal wheels thrumming on the rails permeates bodies, and where passage means more than destination, more than arrival.
Parsing her prose into songs not only resonates with literary precedent but locates Nelson’s thinking in the body’s voice and breath. Raced, gendered, classed, abled, sexed and sexual, desiring and wounded, maternal and material, porous and open—the body, cathected to the comforts of a fossil-fuel powered way of life whose cost is catastrophic for the planet, is present always, not just as a theoretical reference point, but as the locus, the condition, the physical constraint of our experience: of freedom, unfreedom, and, in a riff on Aime Cesaire, a universal that is rich with the particular and vice versa. The body holds the knot, an entangled pursuit of shared vulnerability, a knot that weaves desire for freedom together with a longing for care.
Though wary of composing neat narrative arcs herself, Nelson is an astute observer of the stories we tell, blind spots and all, and of what mindset and structure of feeling they bring forth. “Concentrating solely” on “aspects of our disempowerment” does not “deliver us” to empowerment and freedom, she notes while writing about sex, consent, and #MeToo. “Each sexual exchange . . . is going to resemble a certain wandering in the woods, because of the fundamental unknowability of ourselves and each other, and the open questions of what any new interaction might summon. This inchoateness is not just a by-product of sexual experience. It is part of what makes it worthwhile.”
Rather than rely on ready-made scripts, she proposes we learn “to inhabit and articulate sexual experience outside the dyad of the wrongdoer and the wronged.” What if we dropped the need for storyline altogether and tended to the particular? Welcome to the messy middle, where practicing freedom promises an unending experiment.
In “Art Song,” Nelson reflects on the currency of a reparative aesthetic that aims to heal past rifts and trauma. Such good intentions are commendable, of course, but Nelson asks if they are a guarantor of good art. In a cultural landscape dedicated to repair, can there also be space for art that refuses to take up the burden of how your work may make others feel? Or for art that courts the unraveling of conscious intentions, eager to delve into the spaces beyond, in Erin Manning’s words, the triad of volition-intention-agency? How much freedom should creative license grant, and when do artists and cultural workers face the threshold of the forbidden, the taboo? Though Nelson finds clear words on recent art controversies, her restless mind keeps churning, asking, speculating. This, too, is the shape freedom can take.
A meandering meditation, On Freedom is not invested in presenting an air-tight argument to settle the matter once and for all; the text and Nelson’s thinking breathe. Unapologetic, she calls her writing “weak theory,” an approach reminiscent of Julietta Singh’s vulnerable reading, a porous and open-ended form of engagement forever at odds with fantasies of mastery. It bears comparison as well to Laura Marks’s haptic criticism that imagines an erotic shimmering in the space where words brush up against the very skin of the object under scrutiny, and to Dian Million’s “felt theory,” which insists on the significance of lived experience and felt knowledges passed between generations of Native women. Nelson’s book partakes in the project these thinkers share: to challenge the deracinated Enlightenment subject’s putative freedom, a freedom achieved only in subjection to an ideology of separation and autonomy. Singing of care and constraint in the same breath as she invokes freedom, Nelson invites us to imagine different desires, new ties of interdependence that we tend to eagerly.