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On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

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Named a Most Anticipated/Best Book of the Month by: NPR * USA Today * Time * Washington Post * Vulture * Women’s Wear Daily * Bustle * LitHub * The Millions * Vogue * Nylon * Shondaland * Chicago Review of Books * The Guardian * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Publishers Weekly So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing mome Named a Most Anticipated/Best Book of the Month by: NPR * USA Today * Time * Washington Post * Vulture * Women’s Wear Daily * Bustle * LitHub * The Millions * Vogue * Nylon * Shondaland * Chicago Review of Books * The Guardian * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Publishers Weekly So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing moments of liberation, the rhetoric of freedom both rouses and repels. Does it remain key to our autonomy, justice, and well-being, or is freedom’s long star turn coming to a close? Does a continued obsession with the term enliven and emancipate, or reflect a deepening nihilism (or both)? On Freedom examines such questions by tracing the concept’s complexities in four distinct realms: art, sex, drugs, and climate. Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Maggie Nelson explores how we might think, experience, or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. Her abiding interest lies in ongoing “practices of freedom” by which we negotiate our interrelation with—indeed, our inseparability from—others, with all the care and constraint that entails, while accepting difference and conflict as integral to our communion. For Nelson, thinking publicly through the knots in our culture—from recent art-world debates to the turbulent legacies of sexual liberation, from the painful paradoxes of addiction to the lure of despair in the face of the climate crisis—is itself a practice of freedom, a means of forging fortitude, courage, and company. On Freedom is an invigorating, essential book for challenging times.


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Named a Most Anticipated/Best Book of the Month by: NPR * USA Today * Time * Washington Post * Vulture * Women’s Wear Daily * Bustle * LitHub * The Millions * Vogue * Nylon * Shondaland * Chicago Review of Books * The Guardian * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Publishers Weekly So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing mome Named a Most Anticipated/Best Book of the Month by: NPR * USA Today * Time * Washington Post * Vulture * Women’s Wear Daily * Bustle * LitHub * The Millions * Vogue * Nylon * Shondaland * Chicago Review of Books * The Guardian * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Publishers Weekly So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing moments of liberation, the rhetoric of freedom both rouses and repels. Does it remain key to our autonomy, justice, and well-being, or is freedom’s long star turn coming to a close? Does a continued obsession with the term enliven and emancipate, or reflect a deepening nihilism (or both)? On Freedom examines such questions by tracing the concept’s complexities in four distinct realms: art, sex, drugs, and climate. Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Maggie Nelson explores how we might think, experience, or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. Her abiding interest lies in ongoing “practices of freedom” by which we negotiate our interrelation with—indeed, our inseparability from—others, with all the care and constraint that entails, while accepting difference and conflict as integral to our communion. For Nelson, thinking publicly through the knots in our culture—from recent art-world debates to the turbulent legacies of sexual liberation, from the painful paradoxes of addiction to the lure of despair in the face of the climate crisis—is itself a practice of freedom, a means of forging fortitude, courage, and company. On Freedom is an invigorating, essential book for challenging times.

30 review for On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    A return to the lens and style of ART OF CRUELTY - crystalizing on four key questions of freedom. I was specially drawn to parts 2 (on sex) and 3 (on drugs), and found the research there particularly fascinating. Nelson is brilliant, of course.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Scarpa

    "In fact, one of this book’s sleeper surprises was that focusing on freedom brought me into a full-throttle reckoning with anxiety, one of freedom’s most formidable adversaries. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise: one of the lessons of interdependence is that you can’t get to know anything without getting to know its siblings or surroundings. I would not be the first thinker (or human) to discover the distressing, if potentially fertile, kinship between freedom and anxiety, even if I ha "In fact, one of this book’s sleeper surprises was that focusing on freedom brought me into a full-throttle reckoning with anxiety, one of freedom’s most formidable adversaries. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise: one of the lessons of interdependence is that you can’t get to know anything without getting to know its siblings or surroundings. I would not be the first thinker (or human) to discover the distressing, if potentially fertile, kinship between freedom and anxiety, even if I had to learn it anew for myself. But I can say that, through repeated, often painful excursions, I have learned which habits of mind lead to more panic, more curdled and constricted heart (dread of bad scenes or surprises; the ferocious desire to ward off pain, illness, or death; attempts to control that which dwarfs one’s ability to do so), and which ones lead to vastness, empty space, blue sky, whatever you want to call it — the silence and nothingness at the end of writing and everything else. I didn’t and still don’t know what opening onto that vastness would feel like. Sometimes I feel sure I won’t know until I die. But I’m not going for a freedom drive that’s primarily a death drive; all that comes soon enough. Until then, I want to be in, all in: all heart, no escape."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lou

    On Freedom is a collection of linked, highly anticipated essays about the nature, complexities and paradoxes of freedom and a heady, iconoclastic work of cultural criticism that examines the concept of freedom through the lenses of art, climate, drugs and sex. Compared to Nelson’s previous books, this certainly feels significantly more academic than just casual reading. Rather than focus on moments of liberation, the book explores how we balance our need to care for and protect others with our n On Freedom is a collection of linked, highly anticipated essays about the nature, complexities and paradoxes of freedom and a heady, iconoclastic work of cultural criticism that examines the concept of freedom through the lenses of art, climate, drugs and sex. Compared to Nelson’s previous books, this certainly feels significantly more academic than just casual reading. Rather than focus on moments of liberation, the book explores how we balance our need to care for and protect others with our need for individual space to move, think, organise, express and imagine. Maggie Nelson is one of the most esteemed writers of our day, and her extraordinary mind is in full bloom in this new work. It is a panoptic survey of a huge range of art and ideas. Nelson is one of the most exciting and original thinkers at work today, and this is one of those books that only comes along once a decade or so and that engages with the most complex, urgent and fascinating issues of our time, from the personal to the civic. It is also a hugely important thinking book that will open up new ways of understanding the world, will be read for many years to come and will no doubt make a profound impact on the world of ideas and the world of letters. Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Nelson's On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint explores how we might think, experience or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. She examines her abiding interest in the ‘practices of freedom’ by which we negotiate our interrelation with – and our inseparability from – others, with all the care and constraint that relationship entails while accepting difference and conflict as integral to our communion. For Nelson, thinking publicly through the knots in our culture – from the turbulent legacies of sexual liberation to the lure of despair in the face of the climate crisis – is itself a practice of freedom. It is a means of forging fortitude, courage and company in which she explores ideas of queerness, care and freedom yet so much more. It is an expansive, exhilarating work and a boundary-pushing, provocative read which is fascinating and thought-provoking in equal measure. She explains throughout that the contemporary discourses she has chosen are for good reason. Art is a natural fit: she’s taught art and writes about art. She calls art, along with sexual freedom, her “most native ground.” Her section on drugs and addiction is “more niche, esoteric, but as a sober person I’m interested in substance abuse—the idea of being enslaved, enthralled.” And climate “is what’s on everyone’s mind.” This book is a contribution to the cultural conversation in which Nelson takes the loftiest ideas and tethers them to the ground; she makes important things legible and there’s a warmth to her writing. Also, she doesn’t come to answers but poses questions. The book is full of thinking and feeling and nuanced analysis written in fluid prose. Highly recommended.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jillian Acreman

    I love the abundance of emotions that come with a Maggie Nelson book. It's always so thick and slow, like you're experiencing her ideas in molasses, it's just so rich! I love the abundance of emotions that come with a Maggie Nelson book. It's always so thick and slow, like you're experiencing her ideas in molasses, it's just so rich!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Andrin Albrecht

    The thing I really love about Maggie Nelson’s writing––the thing that makes her perhaps the first theorist whose entire work I want to read not because it’s necessary for an argument I myself am trying to make, but really just because it captivates me––is that, as she says herself towards the end of this book, she writes primarily to “think[…] aloud with others.” There is nothing didactic about her texts, none of the “I’ve spent years on positing this thesis, and now I’m going to defend it with The thing I really love about Maggie Nelson’s writing––the thing that makes her perhaps the first theorist whose entire work I want to read not because it’s necessary for an argument I myself am trying to make, but really just because it captivates me––is that, as she says herself towards the end of this book, she writes primarily to “think[…] aloud with others.” There is nothing didactic about her texts, none of the “I’ve spent years on positing this thesis, and now I’m going to defend it with all I have” so typical to conventional scholarly writing. Instead, they are meandering, unsure about themselves, full of gaps, counter-arguments, and unanswered questions. It’s absolutely amazing! It shows how writing can function as a tool to investigate the questions in your head further, and, even better, to make others engage with the questions in their heads as well without just falling into a “do I support or do I reject this” dichotomy. This writing-as-process is clearly most evident in “On Freedom”, and it is the reason why I’d never go as far as calling this book brilliant. It’s a conversation. You sit down with a very intelligent, well-read, anxiety-riddled, voraciously interested person, have a pitcher of tea each, and start discussing. It’s a stunningly productive discussion. It brings you to questions you’ve never thought about, gives you new perspective and secondary sources on questions you’ve already thought about a lot, lets you not enthusiastically here and shake your head there. By the end of the evening, you want walk away with the feeling you’ve just witnessed genius at work. But you’ll feel inspired, perturbed, eager to meet that person again soon to pick up the threads where you’ve left them. There’s an argument to be made that that’s even more valuable. “On Freedom” is essentially a collection of four essays on the semantics, politics, ambiguities, and problematics of “freedom” in all its highly heterogenous manifestations, alongside its––according to her inextricably connected––cousin “care”. Nelson thinks about the use of these terms, this concept, this construct, this connotation, first with regards to art (think offensiveness, think censorship, think prudishness, think safe spaces, think cultural appropriation, think racism, think critics), sex (think homophobia, different waves of feminism, the conundrum of sexual liberty versus (un)sexual safety, kinks, judicial and extrajudicial retaliation, self-identification, the different status of sex to different people), drugs (think endorphin rushes, prohibition, gendered and racialized differences in drug narratives, think abstinence, which is a subjugation to rules as much as it is freedom from increasing destruction), and climate change (think “what on Earth is there left to think if we’re on a runaway train towards annihilation, with our children and millions of species and our children’s children shackled to us”, but think also “how can we still find the motivation to act? To not panic? How can we catch a break from all this without loudly declaring that all climate scientists are Chinese socialists?) The first two are arguably more conventional essays, certainly also due to the fact that Nelson has extensively written on these subjects before; the second two feel quite a bit more like non-fiction, and also that is refreshing. There is not really anything groundbreaking in “On Freedom” as such, and it also doesn’t carry the same poetic punch as “The Argonauts”. Nevertheless, it is an unquestionably worthwhile read, especially if approached not so much as a source of information than as motivation to find more information, dig deeper and deeper, embrace ambivalence, complex theory, (political) care for the people around you, but also the simple and all the more beautiful realities of life, by yourself.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    Many of my favorite authors, perhaps pressured by the weight of politics, wrote their worst novels between 2016-2020. On Freedom, a collection of four essays centered around many of the biggest questions of our time, is fine, but wildly uneven. This is most clear in Maggie Nelson’s first essay on art. Less than making a point, it seeks to disentangle: I see it as Nelson setting the table and preparing a meal rather than addressing issues directly. I enjoyed reading it and I admire Nelson’s refus Many of my favorite authors, perhaps pressured by the weight of politics, wrote their worst novels between 2016-2020. On Freedom, a collection of four essays centered around many of the biggest questions of our time, is fine, but wildly uneven. This is most clear in Maggie Nelson’s first essay on art. Less than making a point, it seeks to disentangle: I see it as Nelson setting the table and preparing a meal rather than addressing issues directly. I enjoyed reading it and I admire Nelson’s refusal to apply knee-jerk reactions to her subject matter, but the whole thing comes off as too safe (ironic considering the Twitter mob has suggested it is anything but.) True to Andrea Long Chu’s review, however, it offers few original ideas of its own, and suffers from false equivalencies. I see value in questioning our readings of art, but Nelson provides none of her own, instead recycling the ideas of others. The most insightful point I gleaned is the idea of minority artists creating work not aligned around their identity being heralded as irrelevant or unimportant, causing immense dissatisfaction. I have heard the second essay on sexuality involves misreadings of cited authors, but at the very least this piece opens itself more to varied interpretation. Again, it suffers from leveraging quotation over insight - I don’t think that the references are wrong, but where does Maggie step in? While her stance around consent is undoubtedly going to be received as unpopular, I see this piece as much more valuable than her essay on art in that it actually feels relevant to the world and raises interesting questions about desire and narrativity. Nelson focuses on many historical depictions of femme desire that are interesting, and offers a perspective on #MeToo that I found more valid than what she addressed regarding art. I actually didn’t think she went far enough in analyzing what she wanted to say, rather than being controversial as the Twitter mob seems to suggest. A quote I liked: “Our desire to treat everyone with compassion, kindness, and forgiveness and to throw harmful assholes off a cliff is a big koan.” The final two essays are significantly better than the first half of the book, making one wonder what the editors were thinking with their ordering. The essay on drugs in literature feels like the only unique entry in the collection, offering new perspective like Art of Cruelty provided and ultimately lent as a template. While the final essay on climate change was great, I have already read a million other pieces echoing a similar sentiment. It offers a welcome arrangement of perspectives that are, again, not new. In short, this book takes the form of The Art of Cruelty as a starting point for approaching the work it addresses, but also shows where that book succeeded and this one failed. I think what I loved about AoC was that it was a subject matter I was fully unacquainted with - the topics here are familiar to all of us. To take the same strategy towards popular subjects we all have opinions on is a weakness unless deeper readings are employed. It worked for the essay on Drugs and Literature, otherwise feeling insufficient. I’m not mad I read it, and Nelson remains to my mind one of our greatest living writers. But she obviously has more to offer than this. On one hand, she is addressing topics expected of a great writer. On the other, she fails to offer new insight into this critical subject matter. Some people online are suggesting she crossed a line. To me, the problem is that she has crossed none, outsourcing risky opinions to others more qualified to answer than she is. My stance on her hasn’t changed, but I am dropping a hard “better luck next time”.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    art, sex, drugs, climate change “distinguishing between an erotics of passivity and afear of assertion can be a difficult charge. Keeping one’s desires amorphous can also create the conditions for perpetual letdown, if and when the nitty-gritty nastiness of sex conflicts with the pleasures of floating in a cloud of open-ended possibility (leading to the old “whatever I wanted, it wasn’t that” feeling).” “because it reminds us that even we ourselves don’t always know what we want, or if there even art, sex, drugs, climate change “distinguishing between an erotics of passivity and afear of assertion can be a difficult charge. Keeping one’s desires amorphous can also create the conditions for perpetual letdown, if and when the nitty-gritty nastiness of sex conflicts with the pleasures of floating in a cloud of open-ended possibility (leading to the old “whatever I wanted, it wasn’t that” feeling).” “because it reminds us that even we ourselves don’t always know what we want, or if there even exists something called “desire” that can be analyzed as separable from the situations and sensations that give it rise.” “In fact, it may be just the opposite: that a lot of what we treat as heterosexuality is actually just desire; straight people and culture don’t own it.” “Like many drinkers, I spent a lot of time trying to self-regulate (marking bottles with tape, taking restorative reprieves, positively comparing myself to more saliently out-of-control others, some of whom I served as a bartender, some of whom were my chosen intimates). But the simple idea of not ever drinking again seemed utterly impossible, a grim and untenable negation of all convivial life. I spent so much time warding off the idea that, when it finally breached, it seemed to have come from somewhere else. It floated down to me in the form of a single sentence that I wrote down on the back flap of the book I was holding in my hand when it landed: I won’t drink anymore. The relief in writing it down—and meaning it—was so total, I’d never felt anything like it. I was terrified of what it might mean. But wherever it came from, I knew, as I wrote it, that it was true. It was a vow to which I felt, almost despite myself, now sutured. Lest I’m making this moment sound like a pleasant feather that wafted down from a benevolent god, I might add that, the day prior, I had awoken at a rural writing residency so hungover from cheap wine, so dejected and heartbroken, so full of self-loathing about recent sexual encounters that had disgusted me, that, while walking to the grocery store (to buy more wine, surely), I experienced the nearly overwhelming urge to throw my body into the oncoming traffic. In that moment, which also seemingly came out of nowhere, a different sentence had floated into my head, one with nearly equal force: I won’t live anymore. Somehow I managed to cross the roadway and call a friend (there were, incredibly, still pay phones) who listened as I wept. It seems clear to me now that the following day’s sentence arrived as a corrective to and displacement of the first.”

  8. 4 out of 5

    Summer Brennan

    Through four chapters broken up into smaller subsections, Nelson explores the concept of freedom through the lens of art, sex, drugs, and the climate crisis, bringing her trademark brilliance and intellectual modesty to each. I found the first sections on art and sex especially good, and kept feeling the need to highlight whole paragraphs. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such nuanced and interesting takes on concepts such as who has “the right” to tell which stories in art, the #MeToo movement, and Through four chapters broken up into smaller subsections, Nelson explores the concept of freedom through the lens of art, sex, drugs, and the climate crisis, bringing her trademark brilliance and intellectual modesty to each. I found the first sections on art and sex especially good, and kept feeling the need to highlight whole paragraphs. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such nuanced and interesting takes on concepts such as who has “the right” to tell which stories in art, the #MeToo movement, and our understanding of individual sexualities through the framework of feminism. I consider it required reading.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    There's interesting stuff here but plenty that feels uninspired or wrong. Not just the standard cancel culture handwringing (which she equivocates over more than embracing) but as pointed out by many queer and feminist theorists (some of whom are mentioned here: Andrea Long Chu and Natasha Leonard), her premises are often tired, the arguments she is having passed their sell by date and her attacks on certain people (Leonard, in particular) unfair. I tended to agree with much of Chu's review of th There's interesting stuff here but plenty that feels uninspired or wrong. Not just the standard cancel culture handwringing (which she equivocates over more than embracing) but as pointed out by many queer and feminist theorists (some of whom are mentioned here: Andrea Long Chu and Natasha Leonard), her premises are often tired, the arguments she is having passed their sell by date and her attacks on certain people (Leonard, in particular) unfair. I tended to agree with much of Chu's review of the book: https://www.vulture.com/article/maggi... From a Leonard tweet: "Also learned that Maggie Nelson criticizes another of my essays, in a wilfully careless misreading. She claims I state & argue things that I wholly do not about sex & porn. It's funny, but also fucked, cuz more ppl will read her version of me than will ever read my work directly." "Also: the essay she horribly misrepresents calls upon experiences I had with an abusive ex. She ignores the abusive aspects..then claims, out of nowhere - her source being MY essay (misread)- that I “rifled” through the ex’s porn search history. Which I didn’t. Honestly fuck her." https://twitter.com/natashalennard/st...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joel Foster

    Nelson’s view of the practice of freedom through the lens of art, sex, drugs, and climate change was a provocative and at times challenging read. Her orientation to this complex word of freedom (especially in a post Trump- post truth era) is fascinating. I’m struck by her running theme that freedom is already and not yet.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Ok, there are some interesting reviews of this book so far. A lot of raves, a lot of "nothing new, nothing great" comments, and also some controversy! Aaaack! I am not sure what I am getting into (this is by far the most academic book I'm delving into this year and I may be completely out-of-my-depth) but let's see what happens. Ok, there are some interesting reviews of this book so far. A lot of raves, a lot of "nothing new, nothing great" comments, and also some controversy! Aaaack! I am not sure what I am getting into (this is by far the most academic book I'm delving into this year and I may be completely out-of-my-depth) but let's see what happens.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Iris

    To love this book, to participate “It does not require that we agree. It requires that we not abandon one another.”

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elsie

    wouldya believe she made me cry again!!!! ps dont skip the footnotes!!!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jarrett Neal

    Here's the deal: trying to write a review of a book as dense, literate, cerebral, and urgent as On Freedom is like trying to scale a mountain. It's a struggle, it leaves you breathless and fatigued, you're sure to get banged up along the way, and at some point, when you are dangling so high above the earth that death seems inevitable, you reach the top. Goal accomplished. You're exhilarated, rushed, and triumphant, and all you want to do is stand on the mountaintop and enjoy the view. Everyone sh Here's the deal: trying to write a review of a book as dense, literate, cerebral, and urgent as On Freedom is like trying to scale a mountain. It's a struggle, it leaves you breathless and fatigued, you're sure to get banged up along the way, and at some point, when you are dangling so high above the earth that death seems inevitable, you reach the top. Goal accomplished. You're exhilarated, rushed, and triumphant, and all you want to do is stand on the mountaintop and enjoy the view. Everyone should read this book, but this book really isn't for everyone. Maggie Nelson writes from a cultural and political perspective (queer, feminist, artistic, decidedly liberal) and employs such elevated academic prose that most people won't be able to comprehend a book like On Freedom. Frankly, this book is inaccessible for several reasons. But reading is expands one's mind and perspective in myriad ways, and I feel all the richer for having read it. The first chapter of the book deals with notions of artistic freedom, and I admit it was the chapter I had the most difficulty with. She seemed to be making multiple arguments at once, and I never knew where she landed. The chapter on freedom and drugs was, for me, the most readable and held my interest most, but the final chapter on climate change was a tough read. As I said, this isn't a book meant for a general audience. Anyone who wants to read it--and I sincerely hope you do--need to haul out a dictionary, power up with a snack and the beverage of your choice, and above all read slowly. I know I will return to this book at some point in the future to suss out more of what Maggie Nelson is trying to say about freedom. She makes a point of stressing that all freedom comes from constraint, and that there really is no such thing as absolute freedom; there's always limit to freedom and an obligation to safeguard the freedom of others. I thank her sharing that wisdom and wonder what kind of world we'll exist in when I do eventually pick up On Freedom again.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alex Hubbard

    I put off reading On Freedom for so long because I was so excited about it, I didn't want to start it because I knew starting it would lead to finishing it. I wish I hadn't waited so long, because finishing the book was my favorite part of reading it. On Freedom is a different read from Nelson's more personal writing. But the dense critical essays aren't really my issue with this book. Rather, it seems like Nelson is using a lot of (admittedly well researched!) language and references to make ult I put off reading On Freedom for so long because I was so excited about it, I didn't want to start it because I knew starting it would lead to finishing it. I wish I hadn't waited so long, because finishing the book was my favorite part of reading it. On Freedom is a different read from Nelson's more personal writing. But the dense critical essays aren't really my issue with this book. Rather, it seems like Nelson is using a lot of (admittedly well researched!) language and references to make ultimately boring, antiquated points. If you want to understand Maggie Nelson's argument about artistic freedom, you could pick up pretty much any contemporary op-ed on the topic and get the same points quicker. Toward the end of the book, Nelson ruminates on the nature of writing as a form that is both urgent and also immediately dated. A more generous reading of On Freedom might make the argument that these essays just came too late. I'm not certain if that's the case with On Freedom, but I do hold out hope for her next book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alex Cummings

    This is an extraordinary and daring piece of work. In Nelson I feel an instant sense of recognition, though her voice is stronger, sharper and smarter than mine. Through several rambling, unpredictable essays, Nelson takes on what freedom means in terms of art, sex, drug and addiction, and climate change. Some of her arguments, especially in favor of a renewed attention to joy and agency in sex in contrast to what she perceives as a recent overemphasis on domination and violence, will probably s This is an extraordinary and daring piece of work. In Nelson I feel an instant sense of recognition, though her voice is stronger, sharper and smarter than mine. Through several rambling, unpredictable essays, Nelson takes on what freedom means in terms of art, sex, drug and addiction, and climate change. Some of her arguments, especially in favor of a renewed attention to joy and agency in sex in contrast to what she perceives as a recent overemphasis on domination and violence, will probably strike some as ill considered (some would probably put it more strongly), but I appreciate her willingness to take on big and difficult subjects with a dexterous intellect and empathy for the actually-lived human experience. Some of her arguments might succeed more than others, depending on the reader, but I would recommend it to almost anyone.

  17. 4 out of 5

    El

    4.5 Occasionally a little bit dense and meandering for me (though I did enjoy both of those aspects - the acknowledgement that most things are nuanced and complex is both vital and very, very difficult to keep in mind most of the time), but the last chapter on the climate crisis was my favourite and I would in particular recommend that one for wide (and repeat!) reading. She pulls from the work of other writers, theorists, academics, activists and more to face each issue she writes about from mul 4.5 Occasionally a little bit dense and meandering for me (though I did enjoy both of those aspects - the acknowledgement that most things are nuanced and complex is both vital and very, very difficult to keep in mind most of the time), but the last chapter on the climate crisis was my favourite and I would in particular recommend that one for wide (and repeat!) reading. She pulls from the work of other writers, theorists, academics, activists and more to face each issue she writes about from multiple angles, and how they come into conflict sometimes, and how to live within that conflict and nuance, and not back down from it. Within a polarised, reactionary world, sometimes meandering nuance can help us to understand each other, and how to both understand our present, and move forward.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Michael Padden

    I love Maggie Nelson. This book is so compelling and the paradoxes that she presents will have me contemplating how freedom should and does function in our lives for a while. I especially can’t wait to dig into the bibliography of the Drug Fugue chapter. Nelson understands that creativity comes from limitation and does an amazing job of telling us how expansive that limitation can be.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Karola Karlson

    I sort of liked Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts" for its poetic language and urgent humanistic message. "On Freedom" however, while tackling important matters, was almost impossible for me to read due to the inconsistency of argumentation and purposelessly overflowing syntax. It feels like the book lacked a professional editor who could have asked at times (= on every page of the book) "what do you mean by the word 'it" here?" or "how does the following example relate to your argument" or had tol I sort of liked Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts" for its poetic language and urgent humanistic message. "On Freedom" however, while tackling important matters, was almost impossible for me to read due to the inconsistency of argumentation and purposelessly overflowing syntax. It feels like the book lacked a professional editor who could have asked at times (= on every page of the book) "what do you mean by the word 'it" here?" or "how does the following example relate to your argument" or had told that "we can remove half of this sentence as it's just rambling irrelevant to the context."

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jon Paul Roberts

    nelson's essays/'songs' are totally enrapturing. it may take me a few re-reads to truly understand the meaning in some sections or to appreciate the intricacies of her arguments, but perhaps that is what makes the book so special, that it cannot be understood in its entirity right away. in fact, just before this book came out, i read a review in which the major complaint was that 'on freedom' couldn't be read and understood in a single afternoon. is that really the criteria for critical searching nelson's essays/'songs' are totally enrapturing. it may take me a few re-reads to truly understand the meaning in some sections or to appreciate the intricacies of her arguments, but perhaps that is what makes the book so special, that it cannot be understood in its entirity right away. in fact, just before this book came out, i read a review in which the major complaint was that 'on freedom' couldn't be read and understood in a single afternoon. is that really the criteria for critical searching? if ideas around freedom could be easily and readily formed into something bite-sized and easily digestible chunks, then it wouldn't be worth reading about. instead, nelson allows the complexities of freedom, both 'freedom from' and 'freedom to', to sit uncomfortably next to each other, to challenge and contradict. since finshing it, i am already seeing the ways in which the ideas of the book are being illuminated as i go about my life, the ways in which things fall into place a few days after i read them. it seems to me that books like this are a rarity and we need more of them.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Owen Cantrell

    I enjoyed this book, but it's a little uneven. On Freedom is divided into four "songs" focusing on art, sex, drugs, and climate change. I found the first two sections interesting and illuminating--but started to really lose steam by the second two. This may just be my areas of interest, however. The book varied between pretty accessible and basically an academic treatise, so it's definitely not for everyone. I enjoyed this book, but it's a little uneven. On Freedom is divided into four "songs" focusing on art, sex, drugs, and climate change. I found the first two sections interesting and illuminating--but started to really lose steam by the second two. This may just be my areas of interest, however. The book varied between pretty accessible and basically an academic treatise, so it's definitely not for everyone.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Doctor Frost

    THINKING OUT LOUD, WITH OTHERS Published at Ruminate Magazine online In the 1960s, the rhetoric of “freedom” permeated American leftist culture: “Free your mind,” “Free the land,” “Free South Africa,” the Freedom Riders, and the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Since at least George W. Bush’s time as President, right-wingers have arrogated it to themselves: freedom fries, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Religious Freedom Act, the Freedom Caucus, and “Freedom’s never free.” Today on the right THINKING OUT LOUD, WITH OTHERS Published at Ruminate Magazine online In the 1960s, the rhetoric of “freedom” permeated American leftist culture: “Free your mind,” “Free the land,” “Free South Africa,” the Freedom Riders, and the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Since at least George W. Bush’s time as President, right-wingers have arrogated it to themselves: freedom fries, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Religious Freedom Act, the Freedom Caucus, and “Freedom’s never free.” Today on the right, freedom as an ideal seems in retreat under the influence of Donald Trump. During his campaign in 2016, Trump supporters coined neologistic terms of despotic endearment such as the imaginative “Trump the Allfather,” the rather dull, “Trump the Patriarch,” “Trump the King,” “Trump the Godfather,” and the fascistic and terrifying “God-Emperor Trump.” “Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” writes Maggie Nelson in her new book, On Freedom. Despite its weaponization and the threat to its existence from anti-democratic forces, Nelson says it is not her way to diagnose “a crisis of freedom” and propose solutions. The intellectual method of this poet, essayist, critic, and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, is to focus her attention where the thicket of our inherited ideas is its thorniest, where mutually antagonistic concepts, practices, and values are knotted. This is where her subtle and nuanced thinking is at its best. In On Freedom, she “bears down on the felt complexities of the freedom drive in four distinct realms—sex, art, drugs, and climate—wherein the coexistence of freedom, care, and constraint” seems most acutely tangled and wherein you find “marbled experiences of compulsion, discipline, possibility, and surrender,” and which commingle “sometimes ecstatically, sometimes catastrophically.” Nelson is our day’s ur-thinker for nuance, our own private Susan Sontag. She calls her method “thinking out loud with others,” for she quotes liberally from other writers. It makes her text a rich palimpsest, dense with significance. A phrase is introduced—for example, “freedom and fun,” from the founder of the Proud Boys description of the group’s mission—and then the phrase is re-used in multiple contexts serving to connect those contexts—like an ideational version of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative.” Other examples include: “insubordinate conviviality,” from Manolo Callahan, “will to power,” from Friedrich Nietzsche, “a big koan” from Pema Chödrön, and “practices of freedom” from Michel Foucault. With this ever-growing technical vocabulary, by the end of the book, she can brick together paragraphs of extraordinary profundity and reach. Consider the art world. A handful of presumptions about what is and is not ethical have congealed there in recent years: “Depicting violence in art, or certain kinds of violence in art, harms others; there exists some kind of ethical imperative for the artist to acknowledge [this] harm, even if she does not agree with the premises… ‘not caring’ about, not responding to, or not agreeing with one’s critic’s, including not making or doing or saying what those critics would prefer you make or do or say, is ethically negligent; treasuring the freedom to make the art you feel most driven to make correlates to the generalized claim ‘to do as one pleases’,” with the latter’s off-putting connotations. The 2017 Whitney Biennial exhibited a quasi-abstract oil painting of Emmett Till in his coffin, titled Open Casket by Dana Schutz, who is white. A furor resulted, the intense wrathfulness of which will shock those who do not share in the indignation. Among the many people outraged was Hannah Black, who wrote in an open letter to the Whitney Museum that the painting should be removed and destroyed. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” Also in 2017, artist Sam Durant, who is white, exhibited—at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, located on the former homeland of the Dakota people—a large outdoor sculpture that replicated parts of seven historical gallows, including one in which thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in 1862. “These works led many to feel as though white artists (and institutions) could use a little (or a lot) more insight and accountability, and less unthinking, uncaring freedom, especially as the latter coincides all too well with the logic of white supremacy, with all its ignorance, impunity, and carelessness,” Nelson writes. Nelson approaches these two cases in the most nuanced way, amounting to an intervention on an orthogonal—or perhaps higher—plane than those weighing in on one side or another, in one frame or another, from one ideological perspective or another, from one kind of moral-emotional eruption or another. It seems to Nelson (and she convinced me) that the works of art by Schutz and Durant summoned—without artistically preventing re-enforcement of—the legacy of an all-too-well known homicidal construction of freedom. The art works re-presented the acts of violence perpetrated against Black and Indigenous people and failed to prevent causing “enforcement of a vicious construction of freedom.” Nelson says we can judge the works as harmful and are free to judge that they should be suppressed or destroyed, but we can also judge them as harmful without concluding they should be suppressed or destroyed. One engages more seriously with the above issues, Nelson argues, when one does not turn toward questions of the freedom of artists and curators. Her work teaching at an art school serves as an example of which direction to turn to when you turn away from attempting to curtail an artist’s freedom. The permissive policy for exhibitions of art at California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) has “ended up featuring in other universities’ sexual harassment training.” But “because we weren’t there to shut each other down, we had to learn how to communicate our pleasures and displeasures differently,” she writes. “The amount of time I’ve spent politely workshopping hyperviolent work steeped in unexamined misogyny can seem like wasted hours of a life…. But I value its lesson that, without suppression, shaming, or ejection as go-to options, we learn to fellowship differently.”

  23. 4 out of 5

    kirsten

    We all know how I feel about Maggie Nelson. "As a problem gets harder to solve, ignoring it becomes all the more tempting. Ignore it long enough, and eventually it becomes unsolvable. Giving up can then seem to deliver a measure of relief, in that it appears, at least for a moment, to liberate us from the agonies of our failing efforts. But such relief cannot last, as the unsolved problem will continue to create problems and cause suffering. This suffering rarely feels like freedom." "Ambivalence We all know how I feel about Maggie Nelson. "As a problem gets harder to solve, ignoring it becomes all the more tempting. Ignore it long enough, and eventually it becomes unsolvable. Giving up can then seem to deliver a measure of relief, in that it appears, at least for a moment, to liberate us from the agonies of our failing efforts. But such relief cannot last, as the unsolved problem will continue to create problems and cause suffering. This suffering rarely feels like freedom." "Ambivalence about responsibility for our own freedom does not mean we are stupid, self-destructive, incapable, or desirous of harm. It means we are human. And part of being human is not always wanting every moment of our lives to be a step on a long march toward emancipation and enlightenment. It also means contending with desires to circle or enter dark rooms." "Ethical exchange asks us to contend with the fact that others do not usually speak the exact words we want to hear. They speak their own words. Often, they aren't even close to what we want to hear, for all kinds of historical and personal reasons. (Sometimes, they choose not to speak at all.) All of this can be terribly frustrating - enraging, even - yet it cannot be wished away, any more than we can wish each other away." "It's also an ethical matter, insofar as Sontag's question reminds us that the world doesn't exist to amplify or exemplify our own preexisting tastes, values, or predilections. It simply exists. We don't have to like all of it, or remain mute in the face of our discontent." "Increased awareness of our entanglement can offer sustenance, but it can also confound and hurt; if and when we ascertain that our well-being is linked to the behavior of others can offer sustenance, but it can also confound and hurt; if and when we ascertain that our well-being is linked to the behavior of others, the desire to impugn, control, or change them can be as fruitless as it is intense. Coming into full, acute knowledge as to how one's needs, desires, or compulsions might conflict with those of others, or bring others pain-even those one loves more than anything in the world-does not necessarily spring the trap."

  24. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    My first Nelson. Not an easy read, but worth it. Brilliant, but not stunningly so. Yes, some useful insight on pretty much every page. Some call her work "fragmented", but for me it was more "faceted". Sometimes you wonder where she's off to, leaving her initial statement behind without proof. But by the end of the chapter she's back at it, and wraps it all up. An "Ahhhh!" moment. Like any profession, or professor, she has a particular jargon. But she rather effortlessly (at least for me) explains My first Nelson. Not an easy read, but worth it. Brilliant, but not stunningly so. Yes, some useful insight on pretty much every page. Some call her work "fragmented", but for me it was more "faceted". Sometimes you wonder where she's off to, leaving her initial statement behind without proof. But by the end of the chapter she's back at it, and wraps it all up. An "Ahhhh!" moment. Like any profession, or professor, she has a particular jargon. But she rather effortlessly (at least for me) explains those words quickly, and their meaning stayed with me throughout the reading. Nelson's "Notes" are actually additional text to the main text, not Footnote citations. She does refer/quote quite a broad range of authors and artists. Oddly there wasn't anyone that I then just HAD to read right now/next. Also, while there are no Footnotes, there is an *extensive* Bibliography at the end (30-40 pp? - sorry, my copy is already back at the local PL - and my thanks to our PL for quickly adding this to the collection with an pre-order!). The problem with that is there is no page citations. That works fine in some situations, but just citing "The Collected Works of Langston Hughes" is pretty useless - there are currently 16 volumes to the series! Where do I begin? There are numerous other books on my TBR piles, but at some point I will be returning to Nelson's other publications. I'm torn between "The Argonauts" and her two books about her murdered aunt.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    It's always a pleasure to think along with Maggie Nelson, but this one didn't quite hit me the way her other stuff has. Not totally sure why. The text is so dense with citations and quotations from other writers that sometimes it feels like I lose her argument. The chapter on addiction felt like a missed opportunity to dig into the philosophical complexities around addiction's relationship to the idea of freedom: to what degree does it make sense to say that an addicted person is free and making It's always a pleasure to think along with Maggie Nelson, but this one didn't quite hit me the way her other stuff has. Not totally sure why. The text is so dense with citations and quotations from other writers that sometimes it feels like I lose her argument. The chapter on addiction felt like a missed opportunity to dig into the philosophical complexities around addiction's relationship to the idea of freedom: to what degree does it make sense to say that an addicted person is free and making choices freely, what are the implications to our idea of free will, etc. Instead it was basically notes from a seminar she teaches on the literature of addiction. Cool to read but not really that illuminating in terms of the ideas presented or how they relate to the book's themes. That said there's a lot of beautiful ideas in the book. I loved the framework she comes back to of thinking of her subjects as knots whose threads need to be carefully untangled as opposed to the maddeningly simplistic and Manichean tendencies of much current discourse. Anyway, I'd solidly recommend reading it but for me personally was a bit disappointing as it didn't live up to the level of the Art of Cruelty which is one of the best works of cultural criticism of this century.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dan Curiosity Hour

    What a thought-provoking work! It's timely to think about and explore the idea of what freedom means and the limitations of freedom (and ways it is abused). This is a topic I've considered for awhile, but after reading this book, it's hard to stop thinking about and mulling over the many angles to consider freedom. An important read! Note: I voluntarily requested, read, and reviewed this book. Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sending me a temporary digital advance reading cop What a thought-provoking work! It's timely to think about and explore the idea of what freedom means and the limitations of freedom (and ways it is abused). This is a topic I've considered for awhile, but after reading this book, it's hard to stop thinking about and mulling over the many angles to consider freedom. An important read! Note: I voluntarily requested, read, and reviewed this book. Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sending me a temporary digital advance reading copy/advance review (ARC) galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. As always, my opinions are my own and do not represent my co-host or the podcast. I request, read, and review many books prior to publication to explore possible future guests for the podcast. I wish we could interview the author of every one of these books because I'm so impressed by the creativity, thoughtfulness, and wisdom shared through the temporary books I get through NetGalley. I find the idea of simplifying any book into 1-5 stars to be quite silly and reductionist, so I don't participate in that game and instead, just give five stars to each book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Meredith S

    Thoughts provoked, but also unsettled. I admire MN’s willingness to take on thorny subjects (“art song” and “the ballad of sexual optimism” particularly) — the sensation of feeling your own mind change on a long-calcified opinion, how refreshing. But. Closing the book some 7 hours after starting it, I feel a bit too conscious of the my unanswered questions — what happens when intrapersonal “freedoms” collide, or when life experiences diverge from hers (the child-rearing framework surfaces frequen Thoughts provoked, but also unsettled. I admire MN’s willingness to take on thorny subjects (“art song” and “the ballad of sexual optimism” particularly) — the sensation of feeling your own mind change on a long-calcified opinion, how refreshing. But. Closing the book some 7 hours after starting it, I feel a bit too conscious of the my unanswered questions — what happens when intrapersonal “freedoms” collide, or when life experiences diverge from hers (the child-rearing framework surfaces frequently). I suppose it’s plainly stated that these are “songs” rather than “solutions”, and ones that shine brightest through a lens of rigorous background in theory (that I don’t have). Is there such a thing as tooooo much nuance? She can critique with surgical precision (woe betide the academic who hears word that she’s taking on their writing, for it surely isn’t good news), but the conversation in each of the 4 sections can run so far afield at times that, for me, it really strains at the ostensible overarching theme.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

    So much respect for Maggie Nelson. She writes difficult books about difficult topics, resisting all pressure to supply an easy answer, or shorten her beautiful periodic sentences. Something interesting happened, though, as I read this. For the first three quarters of the book, I read in awe, transifixed by her erudition and clarity of vision. However, in the last essay, I felt an added dimension in my response. As she writes about climate change, the most inherently dispiriting of her topics, sh So much respect for Maggie Nelson. She writes difficult books about difficult topics, resisting all pressure to supply an easy answer, or shorten her beautiful periodic sentences. Something interesting happened, though, as I read this. For the first three quarters of the book, I read in awe, transifixed by her erudition and clarity of vision. However, in the last essay, I felt an added dimension in my response. As she writes about climate change, the most inherently dispiriting of her topics, she evokes such passion that the reader feels inspired and ennobled. There is beauty and there is hope, although we have to be, in the words of Amanda Gorman "brave enough to see it."

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    Wow. Nelson is extremely well-written, and I have to admit that I don't feel confident or knowledgeable enough to write an informed review of On Freedom. All I can say is that Nelson knows her stuff. On Freedom is biased and opinionated, but grounded in research and supported by the literature. Of the four areas examined, art, sex, drugs and climate, I resonated with the climate section and agree that we have a collective responsibility to care for the earth. The section on art was interesting a Wow. Nelson is extremely well-written, and I have to admit that I don't feel confident or knowledgeable enough to write an informed review of On Freedom. All I can say is that Nelson knows her stuff. On Freedom is biased and opinionated, but grounded in research and supported by the literature. Of the four areas examined, art, sex, drugs and climate, I resonated with the climate section and agree that we have a collective responsibility to care for the earth. The section on art was interesting and thoughtful. However, I found the section on sex too progressive (or regressive?) - especially regarding non-consensual contact and the MeToo movement - while I found the section on drugs too conservative. In all, an interesting read and one that will make you think.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

    Nelson’s beautiful writing balances history, theory and personal experience in a way that engages the reader where drier, more “academic” writers would not. In this book, she turns to the wide-ranging subject of freedom, which she manages by focusing on four not-unrelated themes: art, sex, drugs, and climate. I was a little reluctant to pick up a book about freedom — are others a bit sick of that word these days? — but Nelson did not disappoint. In the book’s second section, on the subject of se Nelson’s beautiful writing balances history, theory and personal experience in a way that engages the reader where drier, more “academic” writers would not. In this book, she turns to the wide-ranging subject of freedom, which she manages by focusing on four not-unrelated themes: art, sex, drugs, and climate. I was a little reluctant to pick up a book about freedom — are others a bit sick of that word these days? — but Nelson did not disappoint. In the book’s second section, on the subject of sex, Nelson writes: “Part of being human is not always wanting every moment of our lives to be a step on a long march towards emancipation and enlightenment. It also means contending with desires to circle or enter dark rooms.” Who can deny this truth, even though it skirts — very, very slightly — on the precarious edge of “so-and-so was asking for it”? These are the moments for which I turn to Nelson: the return of rejected half-thoughts, now beautifully realized by an eloquent writer. The only reason On Freedom is not a five-star shoo-in like The Argonauts, The Art of Cruelty, and The Red Parts is that its four sections appeal to varying degrees. I loved the first two sections; unfortunately, I just was not as interested in the subject matters of the book’s second half.

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