‘The mildest of all deviations across the borderline of sound understanding,’ so writes Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, ‘is the hobbyhorse’. Kant proposes that having a hobbyhorse involves:
a fondness for occupying oneself assiduously, as with a business, with objects of the power of imagination that the understanding merely plays with for amusement—a busy idleness, so to speak. For old people, those retired from business, and those in comfortable circumstances, this frame of mind, which is so to speak like withdrawing again into carefree childhood, is not only conducive to health, as an agitation that keeps the life force constantly moving; it is also charming. At the same time, it is also laughable; but in such a way that the one laughed at can still laugh good-naturedly along with us.
In her new—and long-awaited—book On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson admits openly to her own ‘hobbyhorses’, invites us to laugh at them along with her: ‘we all have our hobbyhorses’, she writes in ‘Art Song’, the book’s first chapter, noting that ‘“openness”, “nuance”, “context”, and “indeterminacy” might be mine’. I share Nelson’s hobbyhorses, and share her desire to protect them, both as sensibilities that seem integral for thinking and writing seriously about art and—just as importantly—as hobbyhorses: Nelson’s admission comes as she states that negotiating others’ preconceptions (others’ hobbyhorses) might be an inescapable part of writing about art, if not of writing full stop, even if such negotiations leave us ‘wanting to barf’.
Still, let’s ask: are these ideas important because they are indispensable to serious thinking about art and the other issues under scrutiny in the four chapters of this book (sex; addiction; climate)? Or are they important because they have been understood to be so by other people (such as the committee whose invitation to contribute to a discussion on the ‘aesthetics of care’ elicited Nelson’s nausea)? What’s at stake, art’s freedom or the freedom of individuals to choose their own hobbyhorses, even if they make us feel ill? And what about freedom itself, then? Is freedom also a hobbyhorse, a harmless distraction? Or is it something else?
In lieu of answering these questions, this book offers a different idea of freedom, one communicated in the large quotation emblazoned across the back cover of the review copy I received. Freedom, Nelson writes, is a word. Which means:
Part of the trouble resides in the word itself, whose meaning is not at all self-evident or shared. In fact, it operates more like ‘God’, in that, when we use it, we can never really be sure what, exactly, we’re talking about, or whether we’re talking about the same thing.
This claim comes just a few paragraphs into the book’s lengthy and engrossing introduction. Immediately afterwards, Nelson speculates about the radically different ways that ‘freedom’ has been conceptualised or put to use, politically and philosophically, culturally and economically, by the right as well as the left. As she notes, this led to an entrenched and understandable, but nevertheless debilitating, wariness about freedom. Then, however, comes a sentence that brings things together and determines the entire course of the book: ‘All of which leads to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous edict, the meaning of a word is its use.’
Nelson’s admitted hobbyhorses are the sensibilities recounted above but so, it seems, are words themselves—or at least a particular sense of what constitutes words, what words do: Freedom from a Pragmatic Point of View might have served as an alternative title for this work. This won’t seem especially new to Nelson’s longtime readers. In the opening pages of The Argonauts, Nelson recounts her devotion to ‘Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. What this means is deceptively simple: ‘Words are good enough’; their ability to contain and express the inexpressible constitutes a ‘paradox’ that, according to Nelson, ‘is quite literally why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing’.
Owing to the word’s ability to contain a range of meanings, and to be used in an equally vast number of ways, the range of sources that inform Nelson’s conception of freedom is suitably wide. The introduction cites Robin D. G. Kelley’s recollection that, for black communities of the 1960s, ‘free was a verb, an act, a wish, a militant demand’, not just a throwaway adjective. We read, time and again, about ‘practices of freedom’, a coining Nelson seems to take primarily from Michel Foucault. There is a kind of productive force at work here, one that is conceptualised clearly in The Argonauts but operates in a slightly shadowy fashion here (a strange economy, perhaps, given the earlier book’s relative compactness). The unsettledness of freedom’s meaning—who knows what freedom means? Who can say?—becomes the seat of freedom itself, to put it somewhat baroquely. This is so because the lack of a universal definition of freedom (‘the trouble resides in the word itself’) means that freedom only really comes into being in practice or, more accurately, in linguistic practices—that is to say, whenever people talk about freedom. And ‘talk to one another we must’, Nelson maintains, riffing on a line from George Oppen. Freedom, the word, is a ‘holding ground’, then, a placeholder for everything our talk generates, but which escapes the concepts we currently have for it.
Nelson finds this pragmatic approach to freedom necessary in accounting for the questions tackled in each of the book’s four chapters. Whatever Nelson herself has in mind, however, the structure of the idea appears to me inescapably bound not just to Wittgenstein but to the more famous, if less fashionable, account of freedom given by Kant himself. For Kant, ‘freedom’ is not a concept that brings together phenomena we’ve experienced in the world (the way we might have a concept of a table, for instance), but a limit-concept, a horizon that is necessarily beyond experience but whose very beyondness structures what we can perceive and know.
Kant’s name is totally and—given the many overlaps with Nelson’s mode of theorising—perhaps oddly absent from On Freedom: for him freedom was also very much like ‘God’, a special kind of concept (Kant reserved the term ‘ideas’ precisely for such weird cases) that had no empirical equivalent in the real world but which humans seemed to need to make sense of things. Even if Kant himself is nowhere to be seen, Nelson neatly cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s very Kantian reading of Paul Cézanne to make clear what she means: ‘That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see ideas or freedom face to face.’ For Kant, given that freedom cannot be experienced or intuited, we can’t follow a simple blueprint in seeking it. We can, though, act as if freedom were attainable. This is partly what Kant means by categorical in his famous ‘categorical imperative’: not acting hypothetically (if I want to be free, then I should do this or that), but categorically: I will act as though I were free and will expect others to do the same, so far as I have any hope of happiness for humanity. It’s little surprise that similar ‘as if’ constructions abound throughout On Freedom, informing Nelson’s understanding of how humans might act in the face of apparently insurmountable challenges. Nelson’s explicit source for the idea is the late anthropologist David Graeber, but she expands on Graeber’s argument by intoning, ‘I believe the border between acting “as if” and actually “being so” to be blurry if not illusory’.
Nelson’s argument, then, is that it’s possible for freedom to be lived, but not as a universally applicable principle, only in moments of transgression or experimentation (or, as it happens, beatitude: the book is curiously invested in the pleasures of indifference, of not caring). When Nelson is most attentive to these moments, it is genuinely pleasurable to go along for the trip, to ‘ride the blinds’ as the final chapter about living and acting in the midst of climate crises puts it. On Freedom, though, never really considers the possibility that to act ‘as if’ might come with its own set of problems. As Jacques Derrida (a key source for the book’s third chapter, on drugs and the literature of addiction) noted, the entirety of Kant’s thought—from epistemology to aesthetics—is facilitated by this form of analogy. Derrida was aware that appeals to the ‘as if’ might function only to reinforce the dominion of the human subject who wills or imagines things thus: we can be free, in Kant’s world, only if our freedom is facilitated by the intentional operation of hitching ‘our’ experiences to an idea we know has no reality. For Kant and other white supremacists living in late eighteenth-century Europe, this was fine, part of the ‘peculiar fate’ of human reason: humans found themselves on earth, compelled to reason beyond their own limits and to fashion ideas that allowed those limits to be retrospectively emboldened. ‘Freedom’ was a sketchy way of reconciling the world’s messiness with the belief in its perfectibility. But now?
On Freedom’s own peculiar fate lies less in the elevation of freedom as a means of enacting this reconciliation, and more in the ambiguity, touched on above, that characterises Nelson’s approach to the word: ‘freedom’ is at the same time the word that brings everything together, and one word among others. ‘Freedom’ becomes just another name for something that takes many monikers, as Nelson’s ‘hobbyhorses’ (or the names for them) proliferate beyond those she explicitly mentions: ‘experience’, ‘survival’, ‘living on’, ‘riding the blinds’, but also ‘art’, ‘experimentation’, ‘writing’, ‘publication’. Freedom—as practice, rather than concept—becomes a kind of catch-all term for all of these modes of ongoingness, and it is not really clear what separates one from the other. Of course, this is all part of the point: it’s hard, it’s impossible in fact, to distinguish the idea of freedom from its many practices. As with the paradox that The Argonauts names as the possibility of writing itself, ‘freedom’ becomes the word for the very inability of ‘freedom’ (the concept) to hold us in check. Using the word ‘freedom’—continuing to talk—is not an application of a universal measure a but an unfinishable ‘test’ that sees whether, and where, freedom still works.
All of this gives the book its remarkable scope, and contributes no little to its temporal oddness and at times excruciating self-awareness. On Freedom is a book that reads like a daring and exhausting, if not exhaustive, exercise in self-scrutiny; readers might feel like they are witnessing a conversation that has reeled off and away, presented in the shape of a book that has evidently been written and rewritten many times; at points, seemingly cobbled together and at times lucidly synthesized, concerned in any case with its own gestation to an almost singular degree. On Freedom’s first sentence employs a variation on the past perfect tense preferred by Nelson’s autofictionalizing contemporaries: ‘I had wanted to write a book about freedom.’ The final section of the introduction contains a paragraph beginning: ‘This book has taken me a long time.’ The Afterword winds back to the idea, reflecting upon it in introspective detail: ‘the moment of composition is not commensurate with that of publication or dissemination. This is part of writing’s power. It also occasions certain temporal anxieties for the writer.’
These anxieties result in an intensely and happily open-ended work. Nelson has spoken before about her conscious attempts to experiment with different referencing styles: readers tend to love The Argonauts’ marginal citations, cribbed from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. On Freedom giddily revives the discursive endnote to an extent that most academic books would struggle to get away with, and it’s here indeed that a lot of the book’s thinking takes place. Nelson draws on Foucault’s idea of ‘patient labour’ to conceptualise these strange durations. On Freedom’s awareness of its own contingency is also integral to the book’s argument: this is not the book about freedom, just a book about freedom. Though at times frustrating for the reader, this openness sometimes results in radical shifts of perspective, such as when Nelson voices the possibility that freedom is nothing other than the ways it gives itself up and over to something else: ‘In fact, it increasingly seems to me that the goal of our patient labor is not our own liberation per se, but a deepened capacity to give it away, with an ever-diminishing attachment to outcome.’ Take the book and do what you want with it.
In light of these possibilities, Nelson’s repeated adamance that her book is not about political freedom appears genuinely baffling. Nelson takes this stance, it seems, because she wants to hold the practices of freedom she identifies away from the supposed teleology of political freedom, the idea that there might be a ‘big night of liberation’ when the world’s ills are finally righted. ‘This book is about that experiment unending’, Nelson states; about modernity’s long project giving way to a postmodern splintering of disconnected and unbridgeable narratives and temporalities, we might have said in a different time. Holding politics aside from her other concerns, however, creates the need for some unlikely and unconvincing contortions. In the chapter on art, for instance, Nelson writes disapprovingly of attempts to strip artworks of their ‘ontological status as art’ by taking them first and foremost as political statements: ‘It must become “hate speech, pure and simple”, “a slap in the face”, or “pure filth”, so that new rules might apply’.
I admired much of On Freedom for its attempts to resist easy conflations between art and politics, but here Nelson’s indignation results in a weird apotheosis of its object: some writers might attribute an ‘ontological status’ to art but for the theorists Nelson relies on throughout (Jacques Rancière and Fred Moten appear particularly important) ‘art’ is not an identifiable entity but instead an after-effect of a particularly open and indeterminate—yes, free—way of experiencing the world. Positioning ‘art’ as a category that is at risk from cancel-happy critics, Nelson herself turns the radical contingencies of the aesthetic into the dumb certainties of culture-war discourse. Is there really such a thing as l’affaire Schutz, as Nelson provocatively names the responses that were generated around the open letter Hannah Black wrote in response to Dana Schutz’s Open Casket painting? What would it mean to turn this complex matrix of responses and readings into an ‘affair’? In its least considered parts, On Freedom gives us one kind of answer: separating ‘ontological’ art off from its drearily censorious reception fundamentally limits the scope of ‘proper’ responses that are allowed to inform a particular discussion, and does very little to broaden our sense of artistic freedom.
Despite these attempts to decouple freedom from political programmes, there is nevertheless a teleological impulse at work in the very act of jettisoning the belief in progress, one that betrays Nelson as a kind of optimist in her own right: ‘I feel certain that such querying leads in the right direction’. Given Nelson’s sustained interest in the pleasures of passivity (a line from Sontag appears to be a favourite: ‘The world simply is’), this optimism is one of the more grounded aspects of On Freedom. One gets the feeling, at times, that Nelson might like to call the whole thing off, write instead a theodicy of the word that would redeem the dying world. What happens, though, is that—just when Nelson wants freedom to be a term that preserves itself on the basis of its own impossibility—freedom once again becomes a kind of all-encompassing conceptual apparatus, one with troublingly universalising implications: the word’s ungroundedness means that it can swallow up every critique of freedom going. ‘That’s a white word’, Nelson quotes a friend saying, early on; the author ultimately accepts the derision, if only because, on her reading, freedom’s whiteness would be part and parcel of the fact that the word exists in the world, and would be testament, paradoxically, to its irreducibility to any one particular use. (Freedom’s condition of possibility, to put it in Derrida’s ‘pseudo-transcendental’ terms, is also its condition of impossibility, the fact that it might become something entirely different, as our various culture wars do well to demonstrate.)
If this is the internal, auto-immunizing logic of On Freedom, however, I’m not sure it holds water when the book is placed in the wider contexts it seeks out. Nelson is happy to go along with the potential whiteness of ‘freedom’ because it attests to the word’s freedom, but—to put it simply—the black writers on whom the book draws with some regularity (among others, Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Simone White) have tended to think about the issue in a significantly deeper way. This creates problems, needless to say, when ideas from contemporary black studies are incorporated into this book’s architecture. Although the differences are many between the writers just mentioned, for none of them is freedom an ‘idea’ whose inability to be experienced structures our actual, lived experience. For none of them is freedom just a word.
The problem of freedom, as it has been diversely recognised in contemporary black thought, instead arises when you put that relation under strain, when you no longer take refuge in the gaps—find care in the constraint, as Nelson wants us to do—between experience and idea. Rejecting this solution, however, means finally getting rid of the idea that we can go along with concepts and play their language games so long as it seems practicable enough to do so. There is no pragmatic point of view here. For Hartman, words of black life must bear ‘the incompatible predications of the freed’; they index the afterlives of slavery. Moten rejects a ‘pragmatic’ insistence on one signifier in favour of a proliferation of names for the ongoing black radical tradition, an endless process of ‘renomination’ that makes every concept ‘underconceptual’. White’s work in Dear Angel of Death (namechecked by Nelson in a late endnote) is at once to offer the most thoroughgoing account of the freedom articulated Moten’s underconceptual breakdown—what the poet and theorist Nathaniel Mackey terms the ‘creaking of the word’—and to explore how that conception of freedom is undone by less comfortable forms of sociality found in contemporary black music and writing.
None of this is to say that Nelson fails to think through the complexities of her book’s central idea. On Freedom attends to otherness and difference in ways that seem necessary; it’s aware that the ‘narcissistic apprehension of other human beings’ which characterizes much contemporary culture is in reality a ‘nonapprehension of them’, that there do not (if only because there cannot) exist authorities capable of demanding and enforcing people to change. Nelson is right to idenitfy and question ‘the urge to seek and valorise care in everything’, even as she celebrates practices of care that allow themselves to be recognised. Her refusal of easy forms of collectivity demands us to think more rigorously about what unites and separates us. So committed, though, is On Freedom to its central premise—the pragmatic openness of the word itself—that it never quite stops to address whether freedom is in fact restricted to ‘freedom’, whether we might not be better off giving it away.
Christopher Law is a writer from Glasgow. His writing has been published at the Verso blog, Review 31, Postmodern Culture and Modern Language Notes, and is forthcoming in liquid blackness and European Romantic Review.
Maggie Nelson, On Freedom, published by Jonathan Cape, 9 September 2021.