A Review of Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

Tenured in the art of balancing multiple simultaneous perspectives, Maggie Nelson, in her new book of essays, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, refuses today’s call for certainty and partisanship. Nelson, equal parts critic and poet, prefers instead a Socratic approach that teases out the ethics, truths, and possibilities of freedom in the overlapping but distinct realms of art, sex, drugs, and climate change. In doing so, she doesn’t so much aim to unknot the multivalent concept of freedom as she prefers to inspect the knot itself to consider what freedom might be made of and just how tangled our ideas of it have become. Nelson’s interest in freedom—even her decision to focus on such a fraught and loaded word—tethers language to praxis. She resents the right-wing co-option of freedom as both term and idea, but she isn’t satisfied either with simply reclaiming the word, writing, “I’ve long had reservations about the emancipatory rhetoric...that treats liberation as a one-time event or event horizon.” Freedom, in other words, is a practice rather than a goal. 

On Freedom presents one model for such a practice, in which Nelson regards the mediums of language, philosophy, and restraint (as in resisting or disregarding altogether the urge to be right) as the means. But she also advocates for time in a practice of freedom, in which collaborative thinking, perspective, and meaning can bloom. Some readers may cringe (as indeed some critics have) when Nelson evokes social controversies of the late 2010s like a certain painting at the 2017 Whitney Biennial or the question of Aziz Ansari’s sexual behavior, both of which played out in real time as Nelson wrote On Freedom. Perhaps more interesting than dismissing these incidents as dated and done might be to ask ourselves what we can learn in hindsight: what did—and do—we want as outcomes in ethically murky situations? Nelson reminds us that our understandings and opinions evolve as we do, and that the world changes because we do. Worthwhile art, she says, sticks around long enough to shift in meaning over time. Wisdom lies not in dwelling in fixed ideas of the past or abandoning history altogether, but in recalling the dynamic agency that can help us to get out from under static concepts of power that keep the status quo so fixed. In a chapter on sex, Nelson cites at length Monica Lewinsky’s slow burning self-excavation as an example of the hard work and time it can take to fully grapple with the circumstances that shape us, a process we may never finish. Freedom, for Nelson, rejects labels and prolongs arrival. Instead, in returning to freedom again and again on the journey of our becoming, we infuse every moment with potential for discovery, for renewal, for redemption.

 No doubt some may feel Nelson is equivocating, or perhaps being too pollyannaish or even conservative. Some may feel Nelson avoids the subject, removes the call for accountability, or evades responsibility. But for others, her defiance of certainty may ease the rabid desire to name, categorize, and judge. What’s possible if we decide to not know, to take time, to change our minds, to think and rethink and rethink again? Perhaps the discomfort of living with ideas and circumstances that cannot be cleaved into Manichean halves means we must bear the weight of our own power. Unsettling certain boundaries means we ought also to question our own.

Nelson’s characteristic willingness to examine herself—a practice that defines so much of her philosophy and oeuvre—models, too, what a practice of freedom might entail. Though On Freedom is decidedly less poetic than The Argonauts (2015), she again attends to her own intricate and specific contexts within larger cultural and political problems. Care, she posits, cannot be applied in the broadest possible terms, and so social movements often fail to live up to expectations of care on an individual level because care is personal, relational, and, often, hard work. Care requires attention to the self and to others, which makes the process joyful and worthwhile as much as frustrating, difficult, even painful. Care, too, demands deep vulnerability, something which even Nelson deems uneasy work. We watch her venture into unpopular critical territory with a certain intellectual ease, though she smarts sharing feelings and is trepidatious around sentimentality. In other words, she’s human, just like the rest of us, and it’s refreshingly relieving to see her chide herself about her desires even as she places the breadcrumbs for us to follow along the forest floor, singing—at times boldly, and at times hesitantly—along the way.  

So why songs? That Nelson asks readers to regard the four sections as songs, rather than essays, chapters, or even notes, feels like a meaningful gesture against singular knowledge or understanding. Songs say something and cannot possibly say everything. Songs stand among others, they accumulate, they mean something to us initially and then change meaning for us over time. We hold multiple songs in our heads at once. We return to some of the same songs again and again, sometimes forever. We repeat songs, remix and sample and cover them; we sing or play songs by ourselves and with others. Songs, too, overtly relate to time, and here Nelson’s four songs underscore the context with which this book is written: things take time, Nelson says, and freedom—like art, like climate change, like relationships—exist of and over time. Freedom lies in the long commitment of returning to songs of care, alone and with others, even when that process hurts and especially when it heals.

Jenna Crowder is a writer and editor living in Maine. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Art Papers, Boston Art Review, BURNAWAY, Liminalities: a journal of performance studies, and Temporary Art Review, among other publications. She is currently working toward her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.