Why is Maggie Nelson writing this way, I wondered, after reading the first pages of her new book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. Nelson has written cultural criticism before, but she is better known for her memoirs The Argonauts and The Red Parts, existential inquiries that describe her experiences of sex, childbirth and violence while also drawing on cultural theory and philosophy. On Freedom makes only passing reference to her own life and the knowing first-person narrator of the earlier books has tipped into a state of dizzy uncertainty, crowd-sourcing every observation, including the subject of the book. ‘I had wanted to write a book about freedom,’ she begins,
but before long I diverted, and wrote a book about care. Some people thought the book about care was also a book about freedom. This was satisfying, as I, too, felt this to be the case. For some time, I thought a book on freedom might no longer be necessary – maybe not by me, maybe not by anyone. Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise or weaponised word?
Nelson consults some friends. One of them finds the notion of freedom patriarchal; ‘That’s a white word,’ another says. This prevarication continues for many pages.
Nelson explores the concept of freedom, or care, in four ‘songs’, otherwise known as essays. Their subjects are, broadly speaking, art, sex, drugs and climate change. She avoids lyrical writing, adopting instead a stentorian official voice whose broad conclusions about life being a bundle of contradictions are dangerously close to parody. She quotes other writers extensively and rarely makes a declarative statement herself; a single page of her introduction contains references to Wayne Koestenbaum, Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Judith Butler, Fred Moten and Wendy Brown. In as far as this amorphous work can be defined, On Freedom is an example of a recent genre that takes as its subject the phenomenon of mass scolding on the left – you could call it ‘cancel culture’, though she doesn’t – and makes a plea for a less punitive reaction to repugnant ideas and psychologically difficult experiences. Nelson wants to articulate her way out of the censorial controversies of the liberal culture wars without sounding like a reactionary. This theme has been explored in other books – Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything; Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances; John McWhorter’s Woke Racism – but Nelson is unusual in wanting to be read as a good-faith actor. She signals her allegiance to the etiquette of political correctness and believes in its values, but she thinks we should find a middle way, one that doesn’t generate a long list of social pariahs. She also believes there are realms of life that aren’t meant to be taken over by caretaking or therapy, including education, politics, art and sex.
I have several theories as to why this book is written in such a fatally boring register: one is that Nelson thinks her own identity (white, cis female, pansexual, Gen X, academic and writer, MacArthur genius) is a discredited subject position, and so she makes her opinions part of a larger chorus and blankets herself in disclaimers. She calls this ‘thinking aloud with others’ and frames it as a ‘practice’. Another is that such a book, by its nature, has as its primary source material half-baked internet think pieces. This traps Nelson into relying on the straw man of public opinion, with the result that her sentences often begin with constructions like ‘Many people’ or ‘A lot of the time’. ‘One’ is very busy in On Freedom, because she seems to want to avoid the commitment of the first-person pronoun.
A writer can get caught up in the sentiments of her milieu, which in Nelson’s case appears to be a world of panel discussions, graduate student workshops, grant applications, affect theory and self-help jargon. Late in the book she makes a parenthetical observation about academia, ‘a field known for articulating liberatory possibilities in language that often excites little to no felt sense of them’. The verb ‘perseverate’ keeps appearing, so does the term ‘doxa’, as in the phrase ‘doxa-rearranging pleasure’. I missed The Argonauts, which began with Nelson having anal sex. That book, about her marriage to the trans artist Harry Dodge and the children they raise together, questioned whether the nuclear family can escape its patriarchal history and applied Nelson’s extensive reading to lived experience. This book is a laboured consideration of ideas that have been run through the wash and weren’t in any case the most urgent or compelling of the day.
The section on art begins with a prompt about ‘the aesthetics of care’ that Nelson received before a panel discussion. Her first response was ‘yuck’. ‘I’ve never gone to art looking for care,’ she writes. ‘In fact, I’ve often felt that art’s not caring for me is precisely what gives me the space to care about it.’ She circles for a while before specifying what is actually under consideration here: the ‘reparative turn’ in art, a phrase she borrows from the affect theorists Eve Sedgwick and José Muñoz. ‘The 20th-century model imagined the audience as numb, constricted, and in need of being awakened and freed (hence an aesthetic shock),’ she writes. ‘The 21st-century model presumes the audience to be damaged, in need of healing, aid and protection (hence an aesthetics of care).’ She goes on to make generalised points about art that purports to care for us – that it’s best to be wary of anyone claiming the moral high ground; that opinions and technology change with the times; that art comes from the unconscious and suffers when restrained by the thought police – and lands on two specific controversies where art was thought to be especially uncaring.
The first is Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The painting was based on a photograph of Emmett Till, the black boy lynched by white vigilantes in Mississippi in 1955; Till’s mother chose to leave his casket open as a statement about the brutality of racism. Schutz is white, and her painting sparked protests because, as one letter put it, ‘it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.’ The curators didn’t remove the painting from the show. The second controversy was occasioned by Scaffold, a 2012 sculpture by the artist Sam Durant (who is also white), a replica of the gallows used in the largest single-day mass execution in US history, when the army hanged 38 Dakota people in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. In 2017, the sculpture was installed in the garden of the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, a little over an hour’s drive from Mankato, on Dakota ancestral land. After an outcry and a meeting with tribal representatives, Durant and the museum agreed to dismantle the sculpture and bury it. ‘I will not make this type of mistake in my work again, I hope,’ Durant said.
‘These works led many to feel as though white artists (and institutions) could use a little (or a lot) more insight and accountability, and less unthinking, uncaring freedom, especially as the latter coincides all too well with the logic of white supremacy, with all its ignorance, impunity and carelessness,’ Nelson writes, using the passive voice, as she often does, although it’s clear she agrees with this view. She weighs up the pros and cons of censorship, offers a broad defence of freedom of expression and a basic explanation of the importance of protecting forms of speech we might not like. ‘My hope is that we can undertake such a reckoning while also remembering that we go to art – or, at least, many of us went to it at some point – precisely to get away from the dead-end binaries of like/don’t like, denunciation/coronation,’ she writes. More platitudes follow. We learn that ‘art can, after all, be many things at the same time.’ She suggests that the claims of the danger contained in an artwork are often exaggerated, that art rarely destroys or saves lives. Real totalitarianism, she implies, comes from the state. She maintains that self-righteousness and bellicosity are not the best registers in which to argue for a more caring world (‘One has to find one’s way,’ she writes, twice). Some art will disturb some people: ‘This seems right.’
Artists like Durant will decide they made a mistake and agree to destroy their work; others will defend themselves more vigorously. ‘“Shut up already” can at times be the right response, be it directed at others or oneself,’ Nelson suggests. One does not have to render a verdict on every single piece of art to be on the right side of history; rolling your eyes or writing a negative review can be a better way to engage with art you find morally compromised than protesting against it. As Nelson writes, uselessly, ‘attending to these freedoms while engaging the grave issues that have necessitated their interrogation has become our charge.’
‘The Ballad of Sexual Optimism’ is the most compelling section. Nelson allows herself to express her own opinions, arguing with less circumambulation that caring can too easily cross into policing and that sexual freedom, for any human, will at times result in discomfort, powerlessness, inequality, pain and unwanted sex. For some people, she adds, this might even be kinky. She begins by quoting an anonymous essay that ran under the initials ‘C.E.’ in an academic journal in 2012. C.E. is tired of their freedom and of the idea that sexual experience brings liberation or empowerment. ‘Work on your shame, perhaps even fight those that shame you, and it follows that you will be free,’ C.E. writes sarcastically. ‘This optimism is what I position myself against.’ Nelson calls this ‘the dystopian let-down’. She observes what we know already: ‘Nothing stays avant-garde forever; you have to keep moving.’ Sexual knowledge can’t be transferred between bodies or generations. Each human is condemned to figure out sex for herself. ‘Accepting that, rather than insisting that the most successful or ethical sex moves us incontrovertibly away from difficulty, pain or even revulsion, can give us more space to accept our motley selves, sexual and otherwise,’ she writes. She goes on to criticise some opinion pieces she has read online and refers, in shorthand, to the article about an anonymous woman’s unpleasant sexual encounter with the comedian Aziz Ansari.
Nelson thinks people should learn to articulate what they like sexually instead of focusing on what offends them. She remembers when the primary fear of a sexual encounter was contracting HIV. For someone her age, the Aids epidemic brought with it an understanding of risk that, she implies, has been lost. Like the sex educators who use the term ‘safer sex’, she argues that we will never be entirely safe in sex, especially in the grey area of ordinary relationships:
I find it truly stunning when people making blanket calls for increased institutional intervention and/or sexual policing appear utterly sanguine about or ignorant of its history, freely insinuate that those who disagree with them are would-be or covert abusers, don’t ever seem to imagine themselves on the wrong end of the stick, and appear saturated with a conviction of their own primordial impeccability.
She turns to the idea of power, which is integral to the articulation of wrongdoing in contemporary sexual politics, especially among Nelson’s cohort of academics, who might have engaged in teacher-student relationships. She agrees that the analysis of power in the workplace ‘has been exceedingly important’, but questions whether the most ethical sex is sex ‘stripped of as many power relations as possible’. ‘Not all women take kindly to being told that certain people inevitably have power over them,’ she writes. ‘If I hit on a guy after being super turned on by his charismatic performance and he responded, “Sorry, I know you think you want this, but due to the implicit power I hold over you because of my celebrity and gender privilege, it’s simply not possible for you to know what you want,” I would be livid.’ She concedes, however, that professional accomplishment and even fame do not seem to grant women equivalent sexual status (she quotes Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders: ‘A male groupie is not someone who’s going to offer you a blow job’). She cites instances when adulation backfires, when the powerful person is revealed to be just another needy human being, and argues that ‘a deepening conviction of our powerlessness can at times make us insensitive to the power we do have, even as we demand such an accounting from others.’
The section on drug addiction is essentially a review of some addiction memoirs. At a time when mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic and a flood of venture capital into the field of psychedelic drugs are changing the intellectual models that have been used to describe and categorise ‘drugs’ for the past sixty years, this seems like a missed opportunity to say something interesting. Nelson, who doesn’t drink or take drugs, focuses instead on the well-worn contradiction that the substances which free us from ordinary consciousness and its discontents can also entrap us. ‘Freedom gains meaning in relation to its limits,’ she writes, and ‘drug writing provides us a rich place to contemplate the at times manic inhabitation of this enigma.’ Her final essay summarises the climate emergency in a long doom scroll that includes her son asking her at bedtime, in italics: ‘Mama, is it true that if we don’t stop using gasoline, the earth will become as hot as Venus and kill me?’ And then he adds: ‘Or will I just get shot?’
Nelson isn’t active on social media but, perhaps without realising it, she is writing about the social media economy. She doesn’t acknowledge the pseudo-reality of ‘our times’, the way the web is structurally engineered to shove a bouquet of the dumbest arguments in human history in our faces several times a day. She treats the sum of these arguments as an inflection point, not pausing to wonder if the political strife that worries her is ersatz. She acknowledges, at points, the web’s rampant ahistoricism, but doesn’t consider its inflationary nature. Do people feel strongly about the conflicts she describes? Or are these just the chimeras of the spectacle-generating machine? The unreality is easy to discern when the subject is conspiracies about critical race theory or QAnon or Covid vaccines, but it’s more difficult to recognise the exaggeration of beliefs as characteristic of the medium that synthesises them.
In any case, once an attention economy feedback loop reaches a certain anthropophagic phase there is no getting outside or ahead of it, except perhaps by trolling. There’s just an endless … perseveration, a word I have now looked up in the dictionary. Reading books like this, I feel like a Philip K. Dick character in the grip of wild-eyed madness. I want to run around telling the authors to snap out of it, to stop wasting their time and their Sontag quotes and so much earnest aggrievement on retweeted dross. But it’s hopeless: every day we read or watch what the machine has anticipated we will want to read or watch, and we add our opinion about it to the other opinions, and now we write books about it too.