On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint
(Graywolf Press, 2021)
It is a necessary book. This is first what I will say. It is flawed and of astonishing cultural significance and among the finest writing of her career. On freedom? She does not position herself as an authority so much as she acknowledges her self-interest in it. Yet much of On Freedom departs from Maggie Nelson’s penchant for the personal narratives of her academic origins (as in The Art of Cruelty)—in doing so, she launches spacious and probing inquiries into the theoretics of climate change; contemporary sexual politics; drug use, abuse, and disuse; and the ethical confines of art.
Her proposals in On Freedom are flawed, human, and cursory in the predictable ways I suspect make many of us nervous to read this book. To her credit, throughout these passages, she acknowledges her hesitation to approach the subject and anticipates forthcoming criticism. She knows who she is; she knows the audience for whom she writes. I will level with you: I thought I would have to write a critical review before I started reading. I looked myself square in the mirror and asked myself, “Is this what you believe in? Is this something you are prepared to do?”
Now that I’ve finished, I don’t find it particularly relevant or productive to. Of course her whiteness, her class, and her academic background compound to limit her perspective and analysis: demographically, she is out of touch with the vast majority of the country. But she never purports to speak for anybody else within these passages. And it matters that it’s her writing—she has something to say, lucid and brave beyond the imposed discursive limits of our time. Reassure yourselves—her interest in freedom is not entirely unexpected: she is only expanding upon the same ideas and intellectual framework she has outlined in numerous books and essays written to critical acclaim over the past 16 years.
If not this then what does Maggie Nelson aim to teach us: many truths can exist alongside one another, and that they do does not strip them of their individual merit. What connects On Freedom to her earlier writing (and might prove challenging to readers hesitant to stretch their speculative limits) is when she repeatedly champions this indeterminacy in lieu of fixed resolutions. In “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” when addressing the feminism and sexual politics of Monica Lewinsky vis-à-vis #MeToo, she acknowledges “it would clearly be so easy for her to gain applause by putting all her chips on one party line.” This applies to Maggie’s politics too—it would be so simple to regurgitate the same politicized moralism that decorates leftist Twitter discourse than to write something risky and new, engaged in rigorous intellectual play. Instead, she implores us to consider whether mainstream political doxa is so absolutely without error, so beyond the need for deeper scrutiny and evaluation that it does not warrant transgressive criticism; at the same time she assures us that its moral underpinnings are not so fragile, nor off base, that they cannot withstand rigorous inquiry too.
She contributes some of her best writing (ever) in “Riding the Blinds,” an earnest, hopeful meditation on motherhood, interdependency and the Gaia hypothesis, and impending ecological collapse—subjects that often test the scope of our human imaginations, of which we only ever understand in parts. Here she draws an extended analysis of her son’s boyish interest in trains where she examines the role the Industrial Revolution played in this sixth mass extinction of life on earth and the symbio-parasitic relationship that exists between our culture’s unfettered consumption of energy and our contradicting drives towards death and to be free.
This is a useful analogy: the Americans I know who live free ride trains; they exist at the margins of our present reality at the helm of mischief, in the throes of alternative time, apart from regulatory conventions of American professionalism. Many of them die from this. In a practical sense, much of their labor, like Maggie’s, is emphatically queer: they tag trains to affirm their alternative identities; they forsake heteronormative familial dynamics instead for permeable, self-selective communities, clans, and cliques; they organize and consume the resources pooled by most contemporary harm reduction networks, like needle exchanges and fentanyl test strips (similar to the way early gay organizers responded to another uniquely American health crisis—the onset of HIV/AIDS).
More specifically relevant: they collectively author the “Basic Crew Change Guide,” a haphazard living document passed from hand to hand that warns hoppers against yards with active hogs, aggregates freight routes and schedules, and offers other useful bits of specialized hobo knowledge. It is an eternally evolving tome, necessitating regular and ongoing revisions, and in doing so, it engages readers against a continuum of past, present, and future knowledge and time. I can only understand On Freedom as a “Crew Change” of its own: this is a generous guide that maps for us practical anarchies outside of and beyond our present culture’s imagination while encouraging us to continue to live in conversation with them.
How else can I put it? We find ourselves living amidst a number of compounding hells we will not survive: a global pandemic, a mounting series of environmental disasters, increasingly polarized and deadly domestic political debates, our passing lives, our tenuous personhoods. On Freedom grants us the freedom to theorize, make great art, dissent and argue with each other, fuck it up, live in love, forgive one another, and grow together despite all the shit. In this latest accomplishment, Maggie Nelson invites us back into a world that is miraculous, unresolved, and imperfect—one that is real; one that is ours.