Maggie Nelson’s newest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, is an exhaustive survey of the “productive antagonisms” that emerge from contemporary discourse on freedom in an attempt to redefine our understanding of the concept and help us forge new lines of thought. Divided into four essays, on art, sex, drugs, and climate change, On Freedom is an ambitious and unconstrained book written with good intentions but executed with mixed results. Although it is an undeniably frank attempt to think through a myriad of contemporary issues from one of our leading public intellectuals, sometimes its lack of commitments makes it flounder. At other times, however, indeterminacy generates room for necessary conversation.
Like The Argonauts, Nelson’s highly acclaimed 2015 memoir, On Freedom brims with references to critical theory, cultural criticism, and philosophy. Nelson became a MacArthur fellow shortly after the publication of The Argonauts, and this is her first book since, so one can imagine the excessive literary pressure for this book to dazzle. Those looking for The Argonauts part two will be disappointed. In this text, Nelson mostly steers away from personal accounts, opting to take a more scholarly approach reminiscent of her 2011 book The Art of Cruelty.
Nelson’s impulse is to ponder, her goal to unravel the freedom/unfreedom knot and wallow in the threads. In doing so, she releases herself from philosophy’s obnoxious burden—that freedom needs a fixed definition in order to be adequately scrutinized. The result is a meandering that becomes central to her formal method. What she calls “weak theory” guides her practice. Weak theory, she says, “emphasizes heterogeneity, and invites a certain epistemological uncertainty. 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 the approach comes off as needlessly dissecting issues that feel fairly settled in the public sphere, but careful inquiry also has the benefit of opening spaces for discourse that may have otherwise been shut down too early.
Leaning into “weak theory” works best in “Riding the Blinds,” the book’s final essay about climate change, where extreme binary thinking (the world is doomed / the world can be saved) isn’t particularly helpful in understanding our fate with respect to the dying planet. This essay, by far the most personal, is also the most affecting, because it springs from Nelson’s subject position as a mother. Here, she ponders what it will mean for her son to inhabit a world characterized by what Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers calls the “technologically sophisticated ruins of our dreams.” Writing through her anxiety becomes both an opportunity to confront her grief about environmental destruction as well as a way for her to reframe her panic-stricken vision of the world. Nelson recounts staying up late at night wading through the depressing details of our self-destruction and having “somatic freak outs.” Ironically, it’s her young son who tries to calm her down—“Don’t worry so much, Mama, or else life isn’t any fun!” he says.
Here we see how a fixed and fatalistic vision of the world is not only fruitless, it comes undone through the practice of “weak theory.” At Travel Town in Griffith Park, Nelson observes her young son on a playground train; the runaway train is a metaphor for our world in peril. Still, she can’t help but bask in the happiness of spending the time in the park with him. How can these two conditions—the beginning of the life of a young child and the end of the world—sit simultaneously? Uneasy, provisional answers must fill the void.
“One of the intellectual and emotional vexations of the climate crisis,” Nelson writes, “is that it strands us in a state of bewilderment as to whether our moment is mundane or exceptional.” She contrasts ecological “doomers,” who see our times as “exceptional” with those like Kathryn Yusoff who offer a more historized perspective on the environmental crisis: “the Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.” Again, we see Nelson pushing past her own psychological limits by challenging her privilege as an upper-class white woman who might instinctively believe that our moment is “exceptional” due to the fact that her sheltered demographic has never had to cope with these kinds of crises. In considering writers who have not shared her life experiences or history, she recognizes that the social and cultural structures of her subject position could be what underlie her perhaps faulty assumptions.
The value of “care,” as opposed to “freedom,” is threaded through each essay. In “Riding the Blinds,” Nelson juxtaposes the “freedom” of oil companies and other corporations who trash the environment for profit with the collectivity and care needed to create new conditions where our craving for “air-conditioning, solitary driving, disposable wrapping, plastic straws, hamburgers, or frequent airline travel” is either eradicated or transformed.
The idea of care also arises when Nelson discusses Guy McPherson, a climate scientist turned certified grief recovery counselor who has “made a career of helping people accept their imminent extinction.” McPherson likens this acceptance to a form of freedom because it is the “only freedom left to us.” McPherson even goes so far as to compare the underpinnings of his therapeutics with the thinking of Viktor Frankl, the influential psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, who argued that they can take everything away from you, but they can’t take away your freedom. To me, there’s something off-putting about comparing climate anxiety to Frankl’s statements about Nazi concentration camps. Along those lines, there’s a fair amount of New Age, quasi-Buddhist, California-inflected pontificating that goes on in the book that feels somewhat removed from the daily concerns of the vast majority of working people. At the end of the day, only the most privileged among us are going to see therapists for climate-related disorders.
Is it the end of the world? Has the world already ended many times? Nelson points us to possible answers and interpretive trajectories, but never commits fully, instead allowing the reader and writer to meditate together in the unknowing that yields useful existential contemplation. Even if this feels like familiar territory, this painstaking approach marked by twists and turns of thought feels raw, palpable, and earnest.
What does it mean, though, when indeterminacy comes at the expense of position, or to put it another way, at what point does the practice of “weak theory” break down? Nelson recognizes that we live in particularly polarizing times, and the pressure to voice which side you’re on of any given issue is intense—“New attentional technologies (aka the internet, social media) that feed on and foster speed, immediacy, reductiveness, reach, and negative affect (such as paranoia, anger, disgust, distress, fear, and humiliation) exacerbate this pressure.” The flip side of the problem is that there is also a palpable hesitancy to take sides on political issues, especially if that position is “unpopular,” for fear of backlash that comes in the form of public shame, humiliation, and material losses. There are times, however, when taking sides becomes a political necessity.
The book’s second essay, “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” is a brooding examination of the relationship between sexual liberation and the #MeToo movement. Here, in contrast with “Riding the Blinds,” “weak theory” and a reluctance to commit to a position feel counterproductive. Overvaluing ambivalence yields utterances like these: “we need [to experience] sexual encounters in frames beyond that of sin, abuse, violation, or trauma,” and “we need to be able to lodge our complaints without overvaluing complaint as a habit of mind, especially as such a habit can make it harder for us to forgive our own mistakes, or deepen our self-understanding” and “determining what constitutes power or privilege in any given encounter between two consenting adults is by no means settled or easy business.” While these assertions alone may hold some truth, they have the unhappy effect of questioning victims and reducing those who support them to people who are vengeance-hungry, simple-minded sheep who “just can’t understand” the nuances and varieties of sexual experience. The result of these statements accrued across the chapter is an inaccurate representation of those on the forefront of seeking justice for victims of sexual harassment and assault.
The way Nelson characterizes Avital Ronell’s relationship to her graduate student who charged her with sexual harassment is telling of this misrepresentation. Ronell is a brilliant theorist who was found guilty of sexual harassment in 2018 in a Title IX case at NYU, where she is a professor. Nelson claims the graduate student charged Ronell with “toxic pedagogical care.” This is an example of how the little things, the turns of phrase, the questioning, add up. Nelson makes the fair point that the public has a voracious appetite to see women in power “taken down,” especially women like Ronell whose work often centers on sexual transgression. These women, she argues, need to be put in their place, since the public can’t handle their “messiness.” At the end of the day, though, a demand for justice, in this instance, doesn’t make you stupid, and it certainly doesn’t make you a prudish moralizer. It would have been better if Nelson would have just accepted Ronell’s abuse of power unequivocally and gone from there, because by not doing so (keep in mind that Ronell was found guilty), not only does she lose credibility, but we are also able to clearly see the limitations of “weak theory.”
These problems are compounded when Nelson discusses a 1993 interview with Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun famous for her book When Things Fall Apart. Buddhist circles are not immune from the problems of sexual abuse. When Chödrön is asked about her teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, who was accused of sexual assault, she defends him without reservation. The interviewer asks Chödrön if she knew then what she knows now, would she have warned women to stay away from Trungpa? Chödrön responds by saying that “she would have encouraged potential students ‘to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.’ ” Nelson writes, “near the end of the interview, Chödrön offers the interviewer a final assessment: ‘My personal teacher did not keep ethical norms and my devotion to him is unshakable. So I’m left with a big koan.’ ”
Injustice wearing the cloak of spirituality is injustice, not a koan. No one wants to throw Pema Chödrön under the bus, but at the very least Nelson could have pushed back against these straightforward cases. Instead, she leaves the reader with endless equivocating and sometimes outright apologia—“Our desire to treat everyone with compassion, kindness, and forgiveness and to throw harmful assholes off a cliff is a big koan.”
There were too many places in the book when I found myself asking but what does Maggie Nelson think of this? Instead, I got what Michel Foucault thinks, what Lauren Berlant thinks, what Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks—the list goes on. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of On Freedom is that it is incumbent on us to think through the areas of life where definitive judgments of right and wrong are appropriate and areas where reserving judgment is the best course of action. Maybe this boils down to the complicated task of establishing a personal set of ethics invested in personal liberty as well as the rights of the larger community. None of this is easy stuff and I admire Nelson’s willingness to tackle such a vast topic. In the end, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the vacillating, all the unwillingness to commit to positions was, in fact, symptomatic of the very unfreedom surveyed in the text.
On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. By Maggie Nelson. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2021. 288 pp. $27.00.