Maggie Nelson and the Evolving Politics of Liberation

Maggie Nelson and the Evolving Politics of Liberation

A Way Out

Maggie Nelson and the changing politics of liberation.


In July 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign released an ad titled “Role Models.” It starts off with what appear to be exterior shots of a single-family home in the rural Midwest and then of an inner-city rowhouse. Next we see children, representing numerous target demographics, watching TV inside dimly lit living rooms as candidate Donald Trump’s voice emanates from a bright screen. Some of his greatest hits ensue: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters, OK?

It’s like incredible!” and “Blood coming out of her… wherever.” As the children’s innocent faces are illuminated by the on-screen Trump mid-sound-bite, we are meant to be aghast, worried about their moral development (and maybe also their eyesight). However, by the time “You can tell them to go [bleep] themselves” rolled around, I remember thinking to myself, “This is a terrible commercial, at least if it’s meant as an attack ad. Everyone I know has someone they want to tell to go fuck themselves. What stops us? We need the job, the favor, the reference, the free babysitting from the in-laws.” Trump—encased by wealth and shamelessness—needed none of those things. He was bound by nothing. For some, a vote for Trump was a chance to inhabit that boundlessness, to tell the rest of the world to go fuck ourselves.

In an essay for The New Inquiry published that same summer, the late scholar Lauren Berlant wrote about this sense of limitlessness that surrounds Trump and its undeniable infectiousness: “You watch him calculating, yet not seeming to care about the consequences of what he says, and you listen to his supporters enjoying the feel of his freedom.” So much so, in fact, the very word is now indelibly associated with Trump and his political ilk, starting with the Freedom Caucus, which buttressed his initial candidacy. How “freedom” became the purview of the right is one of the questions that drove the poet and critic Maggie Nelson to write On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, the long-awaited follow-up to her experimental 2015 memoir The Argonauts. “In just a few brutal, neoliberal decades,” Nelson writes, “the rallying cry of freedom as epitomized in the Freedom Summer, Freedom Schools, Freedom Riders, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Liberation was overtaken by the likes of the American Freedom Party, Capitalism and Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom,” and so on. “That’s a white word,” Nelson’s friend says about freedom. How did we get to this point? Nelson asks.

Yet for all the space she devotes in the book’s introduction to her worries over the right-wing co-optation of “liberation” (as a political slogan, if not an actual politics), the book’s essays tend to find Nelson chiding the left for what she considers its overcorrections and overreaches. In “Art Song,” she writes with alarm about the calls to remove offending works of art. In “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” she raises concerns over the handling of Title IX cases on college campuses. In “Riding the Blinds,” her essay on climate change, she worries that we are too preoccupied with shaming people over plastic straws and hamburgers. For Nelson, the left has not only watched helplessly as the right has claimed freedom as uniquely its own; it has eagerly handed over the baton. “Paranoia, despair, and policing,” she explains, “have come to menace and control even the most well intentioned among us.”

Across her book’s four “songs,” Nelson strikes a mostly familiar chord, relitigating many of the events that have become grist in the national conversation about cancel culture. While she artfully hedges to soften her blows, Nelson also takes sides, devoting considerable space to the consequences of shaming, call-outs, and other rhetoric on the left she finds at odds with freedom, be it freedom of expression or desire. Yet while she claims that “indeterminacy” is one of her “hobby horses” and “a form of freedom,” her essays are also disappointingly predetermined in their own conclusions. Despite whatever meandering paths she might take, Nelson almost always ends up right where she began: convinced that the left is holding itself hostage and too scared to ask for a way out.

In her 2011 book The Art of Cruelty, Nelson criticized the historical avant-garde for its tendency to adopt something that the art historian Grant Kester calls “the orthopedic aesthetic”: the idea that there is some hidden malaise within all of us that must be shocked out of place, sometimes violently so. She quotes André Breton’s maxim “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” as an example. Reflecting on The Art of Cruelty 10 years later, Nelson finds herself having to readjust her thesis as she now observes a growing body of artists and curators making “care” rather than cruelty a central facet of their practice. She cites an article in Artforum by the critic Helen Molesworth after the 2016 presidential election, in which Molesworth credited the Black Lives Matter movement with introducing a new aesthetics of healing and care into contemporary art practices, noting specifically “Simone Leigh’s therapeutic workshops with women in the movement at the New Museum in New York; the new lexicon of ‘self-care’; Karon Davis’s elegiac show ‘Pain Management’ at Wilding Cran Gallery in Los Angeles and Lauren Halsey’s spiritual funk fest ‘Kingdom Splurge (4)’ at Recess in New York; the eloquently reparative albums of Dev Hynes and Solange; and the emergence of the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago and the Underground Museum in Los Angeles (which offer yoga and meditation, respectively, as part of their programs).”

Though this new turn to care, often led by Black artists and curators, is hardly hegemonic, Nelson argues that it represents a paradigm shift within the avant-garde in which care is “displac[ing]—arguably for the first time in art history—a certain aggression or machismo from the notion of vanguardism (itself a military term).” At first glance, this is something Nelson feels she should want to celebrate, so she’s surprised when, in 2016, after being invited to speak on a museum panel devoted to “the aesthetics of care,” she finds herself repulsed: “Why, I wondered, was my first response to ‘an aesthetics of care’ as something that would extend beyond an animating principle for certain artists, yuck?” What most distressed her about this new development, she realizes, was not the notion of care itself or its appearance in art forms, but rather the potential for certain artists to be labeled “uncaring.” We should be gravely wary, she contends, of “diagnosing some art (or artists) as ‘caring’ and some as not, with the latter treated as capable of wounding, traumatizing, or otherwise inflicting harm—harm for which the artist’s (or curator’s or publisher’s) freedom then becomes subject to blame.”

Here, Nelson has in mind the cases of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till’s body, at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), a sized-to-scale replica of a composite of seven historical gallows, including one used to execute 38 members of the Dakota tribe in 1862, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Both works were met by calls for removal by Black and Native artists and activists, followed by accusations of censorship and then countless thought pieces on the controversy. Nelson comes down on the side that says these calls for the removal of art portend an unfree intellectual climate, one in which an ethos of “care” will reign and those labeled “uncaring” will be censored or even jailed. “Alleging that a work of art has such a singular purpose or effect,” she warns, “and that that effect poses a threat to individuals or society, is a classic prerequisite not only for censorship but also for the persecution of artists, up to and including their imprisonment.”

Reading these lines, I thought back to an article written by the art historian Aruna D’Souza for The Paris Review, in which she pointed out: “The same people who defended Schutz’s right to paint whatever she wanted—and the Biennial curators for giving her a platform to show the painting—had no problem signing petitions demanding the Guggenheim to remove a video of fighting dogs from their landmark show of Chinese contemporary art.” What d’Souza is picking up on here is a double standard that feels obvious to at least some of us: When calls for the removal of art are accompanied by accusations of racial insensitivity, the response tends to be, like Nelson’s, hyperbolic. To associate Black and Native art activists with agents of the state, holding the power to imprison whomever they deem uncaring, even as a thought exercise, is of course absurd and offensive, not least of all in the context of a book on freedom that does not meaningfully engage with mass incarceration. But the fact that this threat feels so real to Nelson, that she sees a slippery slope from being considered a bad ally to being sentenced to life without parole, testifies to how intensely uncomfortable shame is as an emotion, particularly for white artists who want to feel like they are on the right side of these issues. No wonder, then, that freedom from shame occupies such an outsize position throughout these essays in how Nelson defines freedom itself.

From art, Nelson turns to sex, or more accurately to recent feminist writings on sex. She perceives a “current mood” among feminists, a weariness over the broken promises of 1990s sex positivity that has descended, she fears, into full-on backlash. She quotes the feminist writer JoAnn Wypijewski, who in a 2018 article for The Nation remarked, “What remains [of liberation] is a simulacrum of freedom: at one end, the ultimate symbols of marketable feminine sexuality protesting objectification; at the other, legions of ordinary joes opening e-mails urging, ‘Get bigger, last longer, become the beast she always wanted.’” The capitalist co-optations of sexual liberation, from Cosmo to Beyoncé to the hyper-commercialization of Gay Pride parades, have left feminists feeling disenchanted—and who can fault them, Nelson asks, at least at first?

Nelson is not unsympathetic to these concerns, and she cites the “outpouring of stories from the #MeToo movement testifying to widespread, ongoing sexual harassment and violence” as just cause for why some feminists today might be tempted to “rue the idiocy, however good-hearted, of those sex positives who thought they had changed things but for a variety of reasons, failed to deliver.” Yet this is largely where any sympathy ends, and in short order, Nelson becomes downright irate. She believes that much is lost by focusing on sex positivity’s co-optation, most notably the decades of activist work around queer sex positivity that was forged against the moralism that accompanied the AIDS crisis. “To presume their legacy dissolved into a fizzled-out, market-friendly version of empowerment is a startling impoverishment of what it still has to offer.”

What it still has to offer, Nelson believes, is a corrective to what she observes as a moralizing tendency within contemporary feminism, particularly as seen with the #MeToo movement. The impulse to purge sex of power dynamics, worries Nelson, can result in “kink shaming” (she excoriates one writer for taking issue with her boyfriend’s BDSM porn) and might turn us off from our own pleasures.

She says we are closing ourselves off from “a different kind of freedom drive—one that longs to be self-forgetful, incautious, overwhelmed.” Sometimes in sex, she adds, quoting Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman in Sex, or the Unbearable (2013), we “desire to be non-sovereign, and sometimes not-autonomous.”

As an example of how this thinking has, in her estimation, slipped away from us, she analyzes a 2018 article by Monica Lewinsky in Vanity Fair, in which Lewinsky revisited her relationship with Bill Clinton and the subsequent impeachment scandal from the vantage point of #MeToo. When the affair first came to light, Lewinsky refused to call their relationship anything other than consensual: “In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency—‘owning desire.’” Looking back on it two decades later, amid the national conversations about power, sex, and consent, Lewinsky finds herself reevaluating: “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.” Yet she stops herself from fully ceding the label of “consensual” that she initially attached (and, to a certain extent, still does) to the affair. For Nelson, Lewinsky’s reluctance is an act of freedom, an “unwillingness to submit” to allegations of her insufficiency as a feminist and a centering of her own desire, irrespective of the circumstances that elicited it. “I can easily imagine,” Nelson writes, “someone cheering Lewinsky on—Hey, sister you’re almost there! You’ve almost entirely let go of the ruse of your agency and pleasure!”

I understand Nelson’s frustration with the obtuseness of certain corners of the Internet during the #MeToo movement, but I found myself wishing she had chosen to spar with interlocutors on a more even playing field as she makes her case here and elsewhere in this essay. She makes much of a short-form book review by Moira Donegan and one anonymously penned essay published nine years ago in a small online feminist magazine. When she does engage with scholarly works in feminist and queer studies, it is often in the form of one-off quotations that feel designed to add heft to her assertions. Together, it all has the effect of misrepresenting those who might meaningfully question Nelson’s thinking on this subject, which leaves you wondering: What is she so afraid of?

In “Drug Fugue,” Nelson takes up the question of substance abuse, the desire to feel free, and how the two come together messily given the brutal realities of addiction and the racialized War on Drugs. “Part of the desire to feel high,” she tells us, “is the desire to feel free, however briefly, from the burdens of agency, subjectivity, sovereignty, autonomy, relationality, even humanity,” though we know that substance abuse is at the center of many individual unfreedoms.

Describing her own relationship to alcohol and her choice to become sober, “Drug Fugue” finds Nelson inching closer to the intimate and hybrid style that made The Argonauts compelling and readable. Drawing on personal experience, Nelson resists any narrative that might glamorize the experience of substance abuse or reframe it as the “embodied practices of freedom.” Nelson asks us to sit uneasily with the twin truths that transgression, in all forms, has a political potency tied up inexorably with freedom and that, for some people, this very freedom becomes their cage. “People take drugs,” she writes, “because they want to escape their heavy and painful conditions, but sadly find themselves reburdened and enslaved by addiction (addictus = ‘to give over, to surrender; also, to be made a slave’).”

“Drug Fugue” is also a critical study of the literature about drug use and addiction, with an emphasis on how our narratives about each are shaped by the categories of race and gender. Nelson revisits Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro,” his much-derided study of the beatniks as seekers of Black “hip”-ness, as part of a legacy of “white folks making audible their apprehension that the systems that have given them dominance have also drained something vital from them,” something that can be reinvigorated through drugs, ideally sourced from “a kif den in Tangier, a jazz club in lower Manhattan, or a shamanistic ceremony in Mexico.”

Nelson also writes about the complicated legacy that women authors have in relation to drug literature, which has been largely dominated by male writers like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter Thompson. Nelson observes, “One of the reasons that male drug use and/or addiction can so easily mesh with the ‘hero’s journey’—that ancient narrative structure characterized by quest, trial, transformation, and triumphant homecoming—is that the hero’s journey is, by definition, a sojourn away from domestic sociality.” When women abscond in the night, leaving the baby at home, Nelson notes, the reactions tend to be very different.

I would be remiss not to mention that Nelson spends a great deal of this chapter discussing her intellectual indebtedness to the scholar Avital Ronell and her book Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania (2004). Despite its title, Crack Wars is not about the crack epidemic of the 1980s or the War on Drugs, but about Emma Bovary and her addiction to romance novels, as well as what Nelson calls her “toxic maternity, food issues, trashy reading habits, [and] overspending.” Placing Flaubert’s heroine at the center of her study of addiction, Nelson argues, is “a sly feminist gesture” on Ronell’s part, an insertion of women into a canon of freedom writing that they have been excised from.

That Ronell has influenced Nelson’s views on gender, drugs, and disorderliness is nothing concerning, but she also uses these passages to weigh in on the sexual harassment allegations levied against Ronell, to such an extent that one begins to wonder whether Ronell is being cited or rather used to incite. In 2018, Ronell, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, was found responsible for sexually harassing a former graduate student in a widely publicized Title IX case. Nelson addresses the matter head-on, and while she admits that Ronell’s “professional misdeeds seemed to me real,” she characterizes the outcry that followed in ungenerous terms and accuses Ronell’s critics of sexism: “The voracious appetite for her public humiliation was instructive, insofar as it demonstrated how quickly the celebration of female thinkers and artists who explore extremity and transgression can turn into sanctimonious repulsion if and when their relationship to such things turns out to be contaminated.” Recalling Nelson’s professed concerns about the left, you start to question whether she thinks the pendulum has swung too far because it hit some of her heroes along the way.

If “Drug Fugue” departs from the book’s first two chapters by introducing a certain degree of skepticism about the promises of liberation, by the time we come to “Riding the Blinds,” Nelson has completed the task and now asks us to relinquish certain freedoms altogether, or rather to see giving them up as an act of self-liberation. “Riding the Blinds” is about the climate crisis, or rather how we talk about the climate crisis, which Nelson believes is not immaterial to how we might address it and stem its impact. She finds that debates over conservation and environmental protection are too often framed as “a struggle between those who value freedom” and “those who value obligation,” between people “who want to drill, baby, drill, and those who want urgent action on the climate.” Nelson makes strong points here about the everyday language of environmental awareness and asks why restraint is never thought of as a “choice,” as an exercise in freedom.

Who On Freedom’s intended audience is becomes especially confusing in this chapter. Nelson spends considerable time in “Riding the Blinds” critiquing academics in feminist studies and queer theory. Specifically, she writes about the discourse of “reproductive futurism” as articulated in books like Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place, and Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble. Queer critiques of “reproductive futurity” argue against making children the center of our political language around enacting change. In critiquing heteronormative time scales, queer theorists argue for radical action in the here and now. Though this work “has been crucial,” Nelson notes, “to recognizing, and sometimes enacting, forms of kinship and temporality not based in the heterosexual, privatized, white, nuclear, or even human family,” she feels their ideas have put many in her intellectual community at odds with the cause of climate change activism. “As often happens in academia,” she continues, “such critiques have at times slid into a knee-jerk dismissal of anything perceived to be contaminated with reproductive futurism.”

Nelson also takes issue with Haraway’s well-known slogan “Make Kin Not Babies!” and her appeals to, as Nelson explains, “fuse the queer capacity for nonbiological kinship with ecological concerns about overpopulation and anthropocentrism.” I share Nelson’s anxieties about Haraway’s anti-natalist arguments in Staying With the Trouble, as efforts to address the climate crisis centered on population control have found happy bedfellows with xenophobic and white supremacist ideologies. Yet I am not convinced that an overdependence on feminist technoscience and queer theory is getting in the way of governments’ and corporations’ acting on climate change.

Here, Nelson returns to another theme central to her earlier essays: She asks her readers about the political utility, or lack thereof, in shaming. To “mock those who find freedom in air-conditioning, solitary driving, disposable wrapping, plastic straws, hamburgers, or frequent airline travel,” she insists, will not achieve the desired effect or entice skeptics to join the struggle. What instead should be our goal “is to invent new norms that feel palatable—desirable, even—to people, not to shame them for their cathexis to comforts and ways of living in which we share.”

Yet Nelson’s digs about straws and wrapping paper also feel like a form of mockery, making it unclear what differentiates counterproductive shaming from constructive criticism, other than the perspective of the person doling it out. This is not to say that legitimate critiques of shaming do not exist. One could argue that to focus on individual behavior rather than policy is a distraction at best, complicity at worst. Yet the structure of On Freedom does not allow Nelson to do much more than redirect heat back to its source. In the introduction, she says that when she sat down to write the book, she “began to amass my piles,” and On Freedom—even more than Nelson’s previous nonfiction works—is very much an assemblage of quotations, lines extracted by a poet seeking language rather than argument. The effect is a lot of minor squabbles with individual writers and texts, short points followed by shorter counterpoints, the shaming of shamers, a feedback loop one longs to be freed from.

There is a passage in The Argonauts where Nelson says to her partner, the artist Harry Dodge: “I told you I wanted to live in a world in which the antidote to shame is not honor, but honesty.” Thinking back on this line, it becomes clearer to me what makes On Freedom so impenetrable as a text. One wants to see Nelson be more honest, to admit to the very human fear of being disliked or declared uncaring by people whose opinions matter to her. Instead, we meet a brick wall, a defensive crouch, whatever the opposite of vulnerability is.

No one loves being criticized; it makes you feel exposed, fearful, misunderstood, ashamed, confused about who you are. And yet these are also the raw emotions that feed great art. One would think that a poet would want to feast on them.

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