Maggie Nelson Exposes Freedom’s Paradoxes

Maggie Nelson Exposes Freedom’s Paradoxes

Precisely because the context of art is complex, historically developing and contested, what she has to say can’t be reduced to a few rules or a simple formula. Invoking the category of “art,” she cautions, shouldn’t serve as an all-purpose alibi for awfulness. Yet she’s persuasive when she writes that the polemics against “Open Casket” rely on “distinctions — Black / white, men / not-men — that have difficulty bearing up under pressure (not to mention that their enactment would end up reifying the power of the very institutions the authors mean to challenge).”

Nelson displays the same eloquent equipoise when she ventures into recent debates about the ethics and politics of sex. Here the issue is not just what we should be free to represent but what we should be free to do. She quotes Laura Kipnis, who, in her 2017 book “Unwanted Advances,” writes about coming of age in the short-lived equinox between the sexual revolution and the AIDS epidemic and then worries about a new campus culture in which, Kipnis says, “the slogans are all about sexual assault and other encroachments: ‘Stop Rape Culture,’ ‘No Means No,’ ‘Control Yourselves, Not Women.’”

Nelson responds, “Insofar as my own personal and political proclivities have always drawn me away from what’s sometimes called carceral or governance feminism, and toward concepts (and experiences) of pleasure, liberation, life experience and contamination, I’m with Kipnis.” But now comes that Nelson turn: “Belittling a generation of impassioned activists and their concerns because they conflict with one’s own history or sensibility does not seem to me particularly wise; trying to shame people into sexual pleasure or liberation is probably even less effective than trying to shame them out of it.”

“On Freedom” draws on Nelson’s long engagement with queer theory to tease out the difficulties in the drive toward what she describes as “one-size-fits-all” prescriptions about when sexual relations are acceptable or abhorrent. Queer people, she says, have reason to be skeptical about calls to invite the state or the university or the boss to police intimate relations. She asks us to think about what this might mean in practice: social workers analyzing “funky sexual material” on bookshelves or walls as they make adoption decisions; becoming a “sacrificial lamb” at work because your company is panicked by a complaint; being investigated by your college because of an accusation “made by tweet.” And then the call for context: “Fear of ‘slippery slope’ logic is not an excuse for letting misconduct go unaddressed. But proximity to the above situations has led me to believe that, as we address them, we owe ourselves and each other as much specificity and attention to context as we can muster, as well as a dedication not to treat anyone as roadkill.”

The two final chapters of “On Freedom” explore the literature of addiction and the climate crisis. That addiction poses a challenge to our ideas of freedom is obvious, but Nelson wants us to start asking, too, “what can and will happen to our conception of freedom when we begin thinking it, feeling it, living it, apart from so many of our current fetishes and habits” — activities, that is, that imperil our environment.

In discussion after discussion, Nelson shows the same alertness to context, intellectual modesty and the conviction that ethical goodness is never all on one side. She doesn’t aim to provide a positive account of the meaning of freedom. But if we understand freedom, above all, through our opposition to bondage, we can learn a great deal, as her book shows, from carefully cataloging and challenging the many ways of being unfree.

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