... a sustained, uncompromisingly even-handed meditation ... Through twists and turns and idiosyncratic forays, Nelson pursues the ways in which care and constraint impact on any lived experience of freedom ... it is dense with references, analyses, provocations, and arguments in the style of her earlier scholarship in The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011). But it also contains the sympathetic, straight-talking, dare I say 'maternal' voice of Nelson’s best-selling auto-theory memoir, The Argonauts (2015) ... Nelson’s approach to understanding the conflicts, and what is at stake for artists and communities, is relentlessly dialectical, presenting multiple viewpoints and critiques ... Nelson has a vast capacity to embrace and 'hold' the contradictions of difficult art. This critical compassion is one of her great strengths ... Nelson is forthright and sanguine in her willingness to speak candidly about the missteps and blind spots of [the #MeToo] movement that simplistically admits only perpetrators and victims, and unwittingly erases complexity and ambiguity. Her research is profuse and rich ... Even though 'Drug Fugue' taxed me, as a reader, it had the paradoxical benefit of delivering an engrossing bibliography: I’ve had a long-standing interest in the literature of addiction, and Nelson’s chapter is a syllabus unto itself ... The final chapter, 'Riding the Blinds,' on climate change, is a gut punch and a wake-up call for anyone who needed it.
Maggie Nelson, in taking on this most American of topics in On Freedom, is always alert to the conceptual primacy of constraint, even as she allows herself no little freedom of her own ... Readers of her previous work will anticipate the engagingly idiosyncratic way in which she draws on all of her lives: as poet, theorist, critic, mother, spouse ... She pays careful attention to those with whom she disagrees, judiciously accepting some of their points while firmly rejecting others ... With patience and equipoise, she helps us parse those specificities ... Nelson displays the same eloquent equipoise when she ventures into recent debates about the ethics and politics of sex ... 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.
Nelson moves through knots of ideology on freedom via 'songs' of art, sex, drugs, and climate, drawing conclusions—some wild, some that readers might find regressive—that obliterate the binary of freedom vs. constrain ... Four cerebral essays comprise a text that the reader must stay with in order to allow any personal consensus on freedom to coalesce ... Nelson’s final 'song' on climate, 'Riding the Blinds,' gives On Freedom its clearest ring in terms of message ... Leaving off on this note clearly marks On Freedom as a rallying cry for constraint, the shadow of which then falls backwards over the previous chapters ... Nelson’s discussions of art and sex land with less finality, and in these chapters Nelson’s irritation with the current discourse is difficult to ignore ... I imagined her rolling her eyes every time she typed out a current talking point to prove she was caught up on the script before advancing her own more nuanced analysis ... Nelson makes a strong case for recalculating our positions on freedom with her own guiding principles ... These lessons are well received, but not until the third song, 'Drug Fugue,' did I recognize the joyous version of Maggie Nelson with her deliciously reckless-seeming record of thought ... On Freedom proves that Nelson continues to do us a great service as a critic, which is to herself digest, and sometimes wrestle with, copious amounts of literature and theory, some of which is infuriating to read (Paul Preciado, Jacques Derrida, et al.), and to integrate this material into a relatively short book, in an accessible, felicitous voice all Nelson’s own.
It is a necessary book ... It is flawed and of astonishing cultural significance and among the finest writing of her career ... much of On Freedom departs from Maggie Nelson’s penchant for the personal narratives of her academic origins (as in The Art of Cruelty)—in doing so, she launches spacious and probing inquiries into the theoretics of climate change; contemporary sexual politics; drug use, abuse, and disuse; and the ethical confines of art ... Her proposals in On Freedom are flawed, human, and cursory in the predictable ways I suspect make many of us nervous to read this book. To her credit, throughout these passages, she acknowledges her hesitation to approach the subject and anticipates forthcoming criticism ... demographically, she is out of touch with the vast majority of the country. But she never purports to speak for anybody else within these passages. And it matters that it’s her writing—she has something to say, lucid and brave beyond the imposed discursive limits of our time ... this is a generous guide that maps for us practical anarchies outside of and beyond our present culture’s imagination while encouraging us to continue to live in conversation with them.
It is a very serious and beautiful book about why ‘freedom’ has become such a vexed term, deployed so often in scenarios where it really means the opposite ... ‘thorny and acute’ is a good description of the book, and this is Nelson’s fundamental point. She wants to free herself—and the reader—from ‘today’s tinny stereotypes of bully and snowflake, target and troll, defender and supporter, perpetrator and victim’ ... I don’t agree with everything Nelson says in this book ... Then again, Nelson doesn’t agree with everything she says either: she equivocates dynamically around each argument, illuminating grey areas and uncertainties ... Nelson is such a friend to her reader, such brilliant company. Her book is a nuanced, exhilarating rallying cry for all those who are tired of the drab norms of our tech-topia and who long for another conversation.
Its lyrical subtitle is an overpromise; the chapters are 'songs' exclusively in the sense that they have musical names...they are bits of straightforward academic criticism. They do not sing; they talk ... This is a fine, if unremarkable, thesis. But Maggie Nelson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, the best-selling author of nine (now ten) books, the most recent of which earned her wide recognition outside both academia and letters. Maggie Nelson could etch sentences into a grain of rice if she wanted to. So why write an academic book? Why fill chapters with ponderous quotations from writers who are, at the end of the day, talking about something else? Why hide in the endnotes arguments that could have appeared out in the open? ... If it sounds like I’m saying Nelson writes best when she’s writing about her personal life, instead of writing essays, I suppose I am. No, the same isn’t true for many women writers, even most of them; but I do think it’s true for her. Fans of The Argonauts will find reproduced in On Freedom only that book’s inner graduate student, eager to show she has done the reading ... She does not often have ideas, only opinions. I don’t mean she is not an intelligent thinker and, sometimes, a formidable stylist; I mean that she does not advance new concepts, nor is she, by her own description, interested in doing so ... why should we listen to yet another emissary of Generation X complain about 'a world drunk on scapegoating, virtue signaling, and public humiliation'? It simply doesn’t matter anymore whether complaints like this are legitimate. Maybe they are. But they are also boring ... disappointing is when a writer of stature and skill who genuinely wants us to think more carefully, as I believe Nelson does, manages not to extend that care beyond the limits of what she finds interesting, right, or true. The higher critical act, if we want to go in for that sort of thing, is not to position the subtlety of one’s own views against the crudeness of those who do not share them but to draw out like water from a rock the nuances that exist within the ideas one finds the most noxious, the most strident, the most difficult to dignify.
It’s probably appropriate, in a book about freedom by one of our most radical and forward-looking thinkers, that the conclusions should be at once so adventurous and so unexpectedly old fashioned ... tremendously energising ... Nelson isn’t interested in engaging with historical thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who staked their lives on how to avoid one person’s freedom resulting in another’s captivity, but she engages deeply with these questions herself ... Nelson’s book is written as part of a conversation with friends and mentors. She has a gift for bringing on to the page serious intellectual debates that are full of personalities figuring out what to do with their lives. She’s less interested in defining freedom for subsequent generations than making an urgent intervention. This is invigorating because she opens the conversation to her readers as fellow interlocutors – she describes it as 'thinking aloud with others' – in an astonishingly moving way ... The climate section was for me the least satisfying, perhaps because we have less freedom to diverge in our opinions here. The unsatisfactoriness is probably fitting as a way to experience our present impasse – arguably we need to embrace intellectual limits as well as material ones, buckling down behind an orthodoxy. But somehow also the lack of interest in wider intellectual traditions that characterises the book gave the writing a thinness here. There’s a kind of magpie delight to Nelson – she quotes without giving writers their own contexts. It feels strange to have Foucault given centre stage without some sense of his complex, shifting intellectual background or without a sense of Nietzsche and Pierre Hadot behind him. It feels strange, too, for the perspectives she brings to bear to be so broadly the perspectives of liberal humanism (indeterminacy, subjectivity, ambivalence) but for the book to claim so determinedly that the needs, desires and trajectories of the liberal humanist subject are no longer available to us ... Arguably, this is a central dilemma of our age. And arguably, what makes this book so exciting is precisely the balancing act that enables Nelson to tear everything up at the same time as she retains faith in the values (desire, artistic freedom, difficulty) that shaped her. Reading it, I had a visceral experience of seeing how this can be done in good faith, how we can think as Nelson does about sex and art while also believing in the necessity for a new order ... We have to hope this book will act as a call to thought, allowing other writers to return to freedom with all its messiness and difficulty, ushering in a collective conversation about the genealogy of freedom and the future of the liberal humanist subject, helping us to find out what to do with these times that may turn out to be good after all.
The book comprises 'four songs of care and constraint': in effect, four essays (I struggle to think of them as songs, not least because their musicality seems to me to be gravely in doubt) ... Only the first two essays come close to working, if by this we mean that they make some kind of vaguely perception-shifting argument ... Do these seem like slim pickings, ideas-wise? If so, then all I can tell you is that I felt the same disappointment myself on finally making it to the end of On Freedom, a book that is close to unreadable at moments ... Like The Argonauts, Nelson’s account of her life with the artist Harry Dodge, it is clotted with jargon and arcane references to Foucault et al. Unlike that book, however, it comes with no element of memoir, and thus with no narrative urgency. Its pace and tone never change ... [A] stifling, boring, impenetrable thicket.
... sparing but powerful testimony about her own path to sobriety ... If Nelson is advocating for anything, it’s that the practice of freedom should be spacious enough for its contradictions, its reversals, its sprawling expressions, its ragged edges; getting comfortable with this complexity is essential to finding our way through it. Many will be soothed, nourished, even thrilled by this proposition, which, for a book about a term as loaded as 'freedom,' is refreshingly flexible. Embrace ambivalence! Dwell in the muck! Others, though, will find it to be a capitulation or an easy way out ... On Freedom. is ultimately a book that asks us to boldly and generously enter the minefield, to pick up what we find useful, to be pushed and provoked, to polish and discard and reinvent, and then to decide, alone and, ideally, in communion, where to go next.
Far less memoiristic than The Argonauts, On Freedom is more focused on cultural criticism and philosophizing, exploring its capacious topic through the frames of art, sex, substance use and climate change. Nelson's applications of these restrictions to her seemingly limitless topic feels savvy ... reading this book feels like being in the presence of an inspiring professor, someone who has a great deal to show you, but ultimately wants to show you most of all how to think for yourself ... By the end of her theorizing, Nelson has breathed fresh air into the title notion, and in her openhanded treatment has given her readers a chance to consider freedom more freely.
While her intellect is the driving force of On Freedom, Nelson decenters herself to build a canon of radical thought with reference to artists and thinkers too numerous to name here. Tapping into her own experience lightly, if at all, she gets to the marrow of being ... In defense of what should be obvious — we are beholden to each other and the planet that sustains us — Nelson encourages readers to examine 'how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment,' therein finding meaning, purpose and joy in an age of justifiable anxiety.
Nelson can leverage her lyric sensibility to marvelous effect when she writes about people who matter to her, as happens sporadically in On Freedom. But the general absence of autobiographical narrative in the book inadvertently reveals the trouble with her dialectical approach. Her preferred method is one of synthesis and accretion, putting quotes and observations in fragmentary conversation with one another ... she is the sole source of intellectual tension and hesitant to commit to any stance without an excess of caveats and concessions. The resulting equivocation stalls her rhetoric. Rather than stating what she means, she errs on the side of caution and emphasizes what she doesn’t. The use of fragments, too, felt better suited to the emotional gravity and interiority of her more intimate work. But in this latest work of criticism, the instinct to break as often as to link works against her. A traditional essay shape would force transitions and connections; here, short sections stand alone, as if complete, yet don’t cohere. Prevarication is especially relentless in the first chapter ... I’m...unconvinced of the benefit in abstracting possibilities that conflict with the reality of the example ... Most galling, perhaps, is Nelson’s refusal to take seriously art’s role in the concentration of wealth, or of the power such wealth confirms ... This distorted perspective about who threatens whom, or what, and what that threat actually consists of, is endemic to established writers with lucrative careers and secure platforms ... it’s debatable which is a better example of that paranoia: someone protesting a work of art, or Nelson writing thousands of words about the threat that could have been posed by...protest, but wasn’t ... On Freedom made me reflect, again, on the spell of white rationality and the fetishization of conceptual thought that swerves back into the realm of the theoretical rather than exit into the material. It is a book that leaves readers with no permissible action, only a patronizing invitation to manage their own feelings (as if their feelings are unfounded or unexamined by definition).
On Freedom is an academic search, peppered with viewpoints from all the sources Nelson has consulted—and there are many ... When she works her own experiences into her treatise, however, it sings ... Nelson is at her most effective when sharing such individual segments during this discourse sprinkled with words such as phantasmagorical, perseverating, opprobrium, astralized, and inchoateness. I admit to keeping a dictionary handy, and pausing to wonder what the readability score might be on tests such as Flesch-Kincaid, Cloze, Gunning Fog, Coleman Liau, SMOG, or Fry. Her analysis of the Anthropocene in relation to the steam engine becomes poetic as she watches her son playing with trains and wonders how long dead dinosaurs can fuel their comfortable lifestyle ... One wishes for a fifth song of care and constraint, one on freedom in the COVID-19 era in regard to masking and vaccinations ... Maggie Nelson’s special talent hook is her mental acumen.
... elastic, imaginative ... allusive, blunt, funny essays ... Nelson is clearly aware of the pitfalls of this approach, and the danger of deemphasizing the violent misogyny that saturates our culture. But for Nelson, talking about trauma and fear without also talking about pleasure and choice impoverishes women's sexual lives ... is by turns taut and discursive, precise and atmospheric, combining fierce intellectual kick with an openness to nuance. Nelson has a perpetual orientation towards not either/or but both/and. I am sure this book will offend some readers ... There is a lot of vulnerability in Nelson's writing, and I don't mean in the way she shares intimate and painful details of her life, though that is there as well. After nearly every point, she will complicate it — probe its weak spots and limits, ask what she's not seeing, contradict herself. While she is sharp, she is rarely certain. She doesn't write, as so many people on the internet are conditioned to do, from a position of defensiveness, an assumption of bad faith readings, a desire to make her words sleek and unassailable. The result is not fuzziness but precision, a hyper-awareness of moral shading. In On Freedom, Nelson is doing what feels like intellectual echolocation: putting out calls and seeing what answers.
Maggie Nelson combines...gray areas with the complexities of our current moment ... a compelling analysis of a divisive human concept ... The keys for Nelson—acceptance, nuance, context, continued exploration, ongoing work—hint at solutions to reframe freedom in a country obsessed with liberty; to address and expose harmful sex and power but to also push further to reveal new truths and voices; to allow art to be art; and to come to terms with our planet’s fate and act in more meaningful ways ... On Freedom skillfully illustrates that very practice, emphasizing how to recognize the choices we have and what to do with them.
Fans of The Argonauts' intimacy may feel locked out by this new book’s more academic tilt, but Nelson does find ways to personalize and concretize abstract concepts, weaving in her son’s love of trains, her wild whiskey youth and subsequent embrace of sobriety, and her growing grief as she immerses herself in the study of global warming ... Nelson has a counterintuitive bent, but she always rides on the side of empathy and messiness ... By laying down narrative pathways that are convoluted and contradictory, riddled with trip wires and tangents, Nelson nudges us toward feelings we don’t want to acknowledge. It’s as if she wants to write us the freedom to choose our own intellectual adventure.
... more academic, less personal (than Nelson's last book) ... The last section, 'Riding the Blinds,' is the most vivid and accessible, taking up the topic of climate change and how to deal with the terrifying prospect ... If you approach this book expecting another Argonauts, you’re likely to be confounded or disappointed. But if you approach it in a Nelson-esque spirit, with an open, curious mind, you may stumble at times over the dense language and academic theory, but you’ll also find lots to keep you engaged—provocative ideas, thinkers you’ve never heard of and a vast encyclopedia of cultural references, from the teachings of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron to the Allman Brothers’ 'Ramblin’ Man.'
In the book’s best passages, her patient buildup in defining others’ concepts leads to some full, complex insights; in its weaker sections, Nelson hops from idea to idea or gets mired in the heady theory ... Nelson resists the binary, showing how diminishing and impractical it is to divide thinking into absolutes ... The section on sex, titled 'The Ballad Of Sexual Optimism,' also stands out. There, punchier and firmer declarations emerge ... Despite what the book’s cloying title might suggest, Nelson pulls back on a certain breathy muchness that can appear in her writing. One hallmark of her style that remains—and is turned up to the nth degree—is her tendency to equivocate. The lyrical clarity found in her cult favorite Bluets is here replaced with clauses tacked on clauses, paragraph-length parentheticals, and long em-dashed interruptions. The frequent amendments and caveats occasionally work to her benefit, in that they delineate exactly what she’s saying and nothing more; but other times, they have the effect of Nelson muscling into a crevice so small that one questions the benefit of fitting inside it. Across Nelson’s work, there’s the sense of her swinging the pendulum from one end of the discourse to the murky middle; here, for better and worse, it feels like she’s dragging it.
Although art, sexual freedom and drugs are more natural subject areas for Nelson, the section on climate change is, to my mind, the most edifying ... Part of what makes her writing so compelling is a comfort with uncertainty ... It is a delight to spend time with Nelson’s erudite mind. She admits, however, that On Freedom is 'littered to a fault' with quotations. At its best, the effect is of being privy to an engaging conversation, but at times the citations feel poorly integrated. Nelson’s prose sings most when the critical theory is grounded in personal experience.
[An] expansive and sharp-eyed study ... Skillfully reading the works of such critics as Eve Sedgewick and Hannah Arendt, Nelson outlines the complexities at the heart of her subject ... Patient and 'devoted to radical compassion,' Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance ... Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.