FOR MOST SCHOLARS—I speak from recovery—academic writing is a professional genre, not a literary one, more akin to a legal memo than a novel. The famous abstruseness of what we call “theory” is usually not an effect of intellectual sophistication; more often, it’s just someone doing their job. I don’t mean that cruelly. I mean it as a rightful acknowledgment that scholars are workers, and, like other workers, they have an inalienable right to mediocrity.
On Freedom, the new essay collection from the poet and memoirist Maggie Nelson, sits squarely in this genre. Its lyrical subtitle—Four Songs of Care and Constraint—is an overpromise; the chapters are “songs” exclusively in the sense that they have musical names: “Art Song,” “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” “Drug Fugue,” and “Riding the Blinds.” In fact, they are bits of straightforward academic criticism. They do not sing; they talk. What they say is this: If freedom-minded people are to rid ourselves of “the habits of paranoia, despair, and policing” that Nelson believes to be menacing the left—from the Me Too movement to climate nihilism—we must learn to sit with ambiguity, risk, and indeterminacy. In doing so, Nelson says we’ll be engaging in what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called “practices of freedom”—careful, patient experiments with what freedom might look like in everyday life with often conflicting results.
This is a fine, if unremarkable, thesis. But Nelson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, a best-selling author of ten books, the most recent of which earned her wide recognition outside academia and letters. 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? I am in full agreement with Nelson’s observation that “people read much more challenging things than they are given credit for,” as she once said regarding the success of her 2015 memoir, The Argonauts. But I am not talking about the specter of difficulty; I am talking about clarity, novelty, and—forgive me—beauty.
Whatever else it was, The Argonauts was beautiful. It told the story of Nelson’s love affair with the artist Harry Dodge, with whom she has a son named Iggy. There, she threaded French philosophy and psychoanalysis through raw, sensual descriptions of being pregnant while Dodge was beginning testosterone therapy: “Each time I count the four rungs down the blue ladder tattooed on your lower back, spread out the skin, push in the nearly-two-inch-long needle, and plunge the golden, oily T into deep muscle mass, I feel certain I am delivering a gift.” Nelson called the book “auto theory,” a term she attributed to Paul Preciado’s unfortunate book Testo Junkie; a more modest term might have been “high memoir.”
Either way, it’s true: The Argonauts was full of theory, including that of Nelson’s mentor, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, by then six years dead of cancer. The field of affect theory is haunted by untimely deaths: Sedgwick at 58; four years later, her student José Esteban Muñoz at 46; and Lauren Berlant at 63 earlier this year. These were thinkers who taught us that thinking has feelings, and this, at its best moments, is what The Argonauts delivered to its surprisingly wide audience: the emotional world of theory. Admittedly, as often happens in the “auto” genres, Nelson relied on her vulnerability to insulate herself from scrutiny. It was easy to miss, for instance, that Nelson named her son Igasho, a Native American name, with the flimsy justification that Dodge once told her he was part Cherokee, and The Argonauts clearly profited immensely from being someone else’s transition memoir. Still, it is one thing to dryly recite psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s theory of the “good-enough mother,” which tried to imagine the mother as an ordinary person; it is quite another to show readers what it feels like to read about de-idealizing motherhood while raising a 2-year-old.
If it sounds as if 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 most women writers, 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. Take the book’s thesis, drawn directly from the work of Sedgwick, whose famous essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” proposed that academic critics should soften the defensive urge to pin their objects down in favor of a slower, open-minded willingness to “confer plenitude” on them. I have read, and this is not exaggerating, some 40 or 50 accounts of what Sedgwick meant by paranoid and reparative reading; it is, within queer theory, a forest fully logged.
Such is Nelson’s approach in On Freedom: to present six or seven academics on a topic and then say of one, “I like this.” She does not often have ideas, only opinions. I don’t mean she is not an intelligent thinker; I mean she does not advance new concepts, nor is she, by her own description, interested in doing so. “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism” reads like a series of takes that have aged poorly in the five years since Nelson began writing On Freedom. Why is it worth thinking about whether actor Aziz Ansari’s advances on a woman he went out with four years ago rose to the level of sexual assault? (Nelson says they probably didn’t, if you care.) “Drug Fugue,” by contrast, is a serviceable chapter of lit-crit that is interesting only if you’re already interested in drug literature. The climate crisis chapter brings a refreshing urgency of tone, though it may be no accident that, in doing so, Nelson leaves freedom behind almost altogether.
It is the forceful first chapter of On Freedom, “Art Song,” where Nelson makes her most concerted attempt to prove herself as an essayist. She is a regular writer of art criticism and taught at an art school for more than a decade; her investment in the topic is clear, personal, and fierce. It’s here that Nelson takes up arms against the “rhetoric of harm” that On Freedom is most interested in criticizing; this argument is intended to resonate through the rest of the book. In fact, I’m going to spend the rest of this piece talking about it.
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