November 2021

Arts & Letters

A tightening knot: ‘On Freedom’

By Oscar Schwartz

The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, September 22, 2021. © Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

Maggie Nelson’s essay collection argues against the false binary of freedom and obligation

Maggie Nelson is frustrated with how we talk about freedom. Or more specifically, she’s frustrated with how we define it in opposition to obligation, as if they’re contradictory. If freedom means personal liberation, reckless abandon, death-drive selfishness, then obligation has come to mean the opposite: care, self-sacrifice, duty, willing subjection. Nelson, an American poet and essayist best known for her theory-heavy memoir The Argonauts, has been watching this divergence materialise in our culture for around a decade, only for it to be thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. The narrative is now supposedly simple: those who want to be free are incapable of care, while those who care willingly forgo their freedom.

This binary runs along a political faultline, too. To the right goes freedom; to the left goes obligation. This, in particular, annoys Nelson, as it means that many of her peers, those on the left, have rejected freedom as an irredeemable aspiration admired only by the corrupt, patriarchal and capitalistic. Instead, they practise love, caregiving, mutual responsibility. And yet, when Nelson looks at the world – and more specifically at social media – she sees people who are supposedly motivated by this civic-minded benevolence slipping into “something oppressively moralistic, more reliant on shame, capitulation, or assuredness of our own ethical goodness in comparison with others, than on understanding or acceptance”.

In On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Nelson offers a corrective – a reclamation of freedom’s “remaining evacuated possibilities” for her wayward allies. Freedom and obligation are not opposites, she argues, or even different sides of the same coin. Rather they are entangled in a Gordian knot. Freedom needs obligation’s constraint. Obligation requires the freedom to authentically care. Try to pull these two apart and the culture unravels. To stick together, we must embrace the knottiness, tolerate the intractable and ease into indeterminacy.

Maybe this is why Nelson describes the four critical essays that make up this book – on art, sex, drugs and climate – as songs and not essays. Perhaps they are supposed to convey the melodious back and forth of her thinking through this knotty problem, or poetically enact a negative capability that she believes is required of free and caring subjects. In some moments, On Freedom achieves this. Her ideas ambulate in what Hannah Arendt, herself a great theoriser of freedom, called “thinking without a banister”, a courageous undertaking where all ideologies are stripped away so that the writer can ascend freely and perilously towards some new philosophical plateau. At other times, though, these songs, which are really just essays, read more like a constrained rehashing of old ideas, kind of like being stuck on a treadmill.

That inertia is partly due to what Nelson sets her critical eye on. In the first essay, “Art Song”, she spends a good amount of time scrutinising two artworks that caused cultural scandals in 2017: Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, an abstract painting of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American victim of a lynching in 1955, and Sam Durant’s Scaffold, a replica of gallows used, notably, in the 1862 massacre of 38 Dakota men. Both works – one exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York, the other at a sculpture garden in Minneapolis – were met with vociferous opposition, some arguing that they inflicted violence on the marginalised communities the works represented. Artist and critic Hannah Black wrote an open letter calling for Schutz’s painting to be destroyed. Native American activists called for the removal of Durant’s sculpture, a request to which he assented.

Nelson takes issue here. She says that when people call for prohibition or destruction, even in the name of racial justice, they are stripping an artwork of its “status as art”. That is, a work instead becomes “hate speech” or “physical assault”. Anyone who cares about art or wants to make it, Nelson thinks, should be wary of this ontological sleight of hand, as it inevitably narrows the field of creative possibility. (After all, it is precisely this logic, she points out, that conservatives use when they call for art to be destroyed or prohibited on the basis that it is “not art” but obscenity or communism.) This is not to say that an artist can make anything they want with no consequence, just that our criticisms should first acknowledge art as art and then proceed from there, with vicious intensity if need be.

This is a fine, if unremarkable, take. But a critic should choose their subject matter carefully, and Nelson made a bad choice here. The Schutz and Durant scandals are pre-eminent instances of how outrage culture can destroy critical discourse. Back in 2017, endless takes on these two artworks fed the algorithmic engines for weeks, becoming increasingly deranged and distant from the art itself, until eventually it was just hot takes all the way down. For some, the “censorship” was evidence of the “woke mob” demonstrating their penchant for petty fascism. For others, the works exemplified the art world’s essential white supremacy. To this day, every time these scandals, and in particular the Schutz affair, are dredged up there is another relitigating of precisely the same talking points. Perhaps Nelson thinks she can float above the discourse or offer some way out of it. Instead, she has provided grist for the outrage mill. Two scathing reviews of On Freedom, widely shared on Twitter, focused almost entirely on her analysis of these historical scandals, casting her as an ungenerous, out-of-touch reactionary. Nothing about this feels song-like or emancipatory.

In the essay about sex, “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism”, Nelson again elects to weigh in on the discourse, turning her attention to #MeToo. And again, she worries about a certain condemnatory vibe underpinning this movement. Justice for victims of sexual violence is important, she says, but seeking it out shouldn’t create a culture where we only ever focus on how others are doing sex wrong, “judging their behavior or desires as flawed, delusional, or dangerous”. Instead, we should spend more time asking ourselves the “far more crucial and challenging question of what we ourselves do or want to do”. (Nelson argues quite compellingly that we could all learn from the BDSM community, who engage in sex where the knot of freedom and obligation is attended to with great care, where liberated desire is matched by a safe word.)

Nelson is a phenomenal writer of unwieldy desire and the most compelling moments in this book come when she reflects on her own journey towards queer sexual liberation during the AIDS epidemic. Mainstream culture, she recalls, was telling her and her friends that their desire was a “death warrant, and that if it killed you, you deserved it”. And yet they continued to have sex and then care for one another as people became sick and died. The lesson she learnt, and the one she hopes to impart on the younger generation, is that in a frequently awful world, seeking desire is inherently dangerous and comes at a cost. We oughtn’t recklessly pursue sex with no concern for others, but nor should we fantasise “a world in which our safety is guaranteed, or one in which the success of an encounter is judged by whether we got away unmarked”. It is not just the orgy, in other words, but what we do the morning after.

Striking this balance between freedom and care is what Nelson calls the “ongoing practice of freedom”. One such practice, she proposes, is attention to context. The way we interpret sex and art changes over time and across cultures. We owe it to ourselves and each other to acknowledge this relativity and not imagine that our milieu or our moment has some moral “primordial impeccability”. I was thinking about context a lot while reviewing this book, how freedom means something different in America, where the book was written, than it does in Australia. These differences have been amplified in the past year and a half. In the United States, a culture maniacally committed to personal autonomy could be held at least partly responsible for more than 700,000 COVID deaths. Here, a culture of safety-oriented dutifulness has left us with a number almost 37 times less than that per capita. But, of course, statistics don’t tell the whole story and there will be harder-to-measure consequences of the pandemic beyond the body count. What changes in a population once they have experience of complying with authoritarian measures such as indefinitely closed borders, 9pm curfews, playgrounds wrapped in police tape? What will happen to the regimes of control the government has developed in the name of health? What happens to a culture in which cries of “freedom” become synonymous with craven libertarianism and far-right extremism, or are regarded as always and necessarily compassionless?

Nelson spends little time on pandemic fallout in her book, but the final chapter is devoted to the climate crisis, which no doubt enacts a similar cultural dynamic. On one side there are freedom-loving folk who want to “drill, baby, drill”. On the other are those who value obligation and want urgent climate action, even if it radically alters our way of life. (Nelson admits to leaning towards the latter, even fantasising occasionally about an environmentalist dictator who could benevolently steer us away from self-destruction.) The problem with this binary, she argues, is that freedom is reduced to self-serving hedonism, and obligation to moral hectoring: “Neither helps us seize the moment to shed some of freedom’s more exhausted – and toxic – tropes and myths, or to experiment with its next iterations.”

On precisely what these next iterations are, though, Nelson remains frustratingly vague. From what I can gather, for Nelson freedom can be at best a frame of mind that avoids nihilism, denialism and capitulation, and instead embraces indeterminacy. Freedom lets us confront our grim material reality while also believing in some semblance of human agency. Freedom, in the end, is an internal feeling of liberation that helps us accept that we live in a fallen world and yet choose to go on nonetheless.

Arendt, in her own key essay on freedom, took issue with such an inward-looking formulation of the term. She thought that “inner freedom”, a concept that emerged to allow oppressed peoples to maintain spiritual liberty while still materially enslaved, is in the end a politically stagnant position. “To be sure [freedom] may still dwell in men’s hearts as desire or will or hope or yearning,” she wrote. “But the human heart, as we all know, is a very dark place, and whatever goes on in its obscurity can hardly be called a demonstrable fact.” With these essays, Nelson is trying to shine light on this dark place. She wants to enlist us, her readers, into the collective project so that we can come “to love all the misery and freedom of living and, as best we can, not mind dying” together. In the end, this cry for communal freedom comes out sounding something like the language of self-care.

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a Melbourne-based writer.

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