constellations #64: on (on) freedom
I read two books on the theme of freedom recently. They both came out in 2021: Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, which came out in August, and Olivia Laing’s Everybody: A Book About Freedom, which came out in April. They’re two very different books, but they’re both about freedom, and the two writers cite each other and cite similar thinkers, so it feels to me like the books are in conversation with each other.
On Freedom is broken into four long essays, each on one theme: art, sex, drugs, and climate. The essays are deep and dense and fun (imo) to work through — she’s interested in where discourses of freedom show up in those areas of culture, what kinds of conflicts they create, and where and how those conflicts expand or curtail or help us understand freedom. I don’t feel convinced by all the arguments in this book — I had a lot of fun reading the sharp critiques written by Charlotte Shane and Andrea Long Chu, for example — but I found the book enormously pleasurable to read and think about. (Madeline and I made a bookclub of it, FaceTiming after reading each section — which, if you can swing it, is really the ideal way to read this book, in my opinion.)
Everybody’s exploration of freedom is more about embodiment: How can the body be a place of imprisonment? Of liberation? How do free and unfree bodies relate to each other? Her narrative is loosely centered on the life of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, but it’s got broadly thematic sections too (illness, sexuality, prisons, gender-based violence, grids, activism) and she weaves through lots of artists and writers from the 20th century: Andrea Dworkin, Agnes Martin, Malcolm X, Susan Sontag, Bayard Rustin, Freud, Foucault.
(To call Reich “controversial” is putting it lightly; but, for what it’s worth, Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting” — and its phenomenal music video — is based on Reich’s work, so.)
It’s a curious time to think about freedom. I guess it always is. But the demands of a global pandemic, the isolation and quarantining, the debates about wearing masks and getting vaccinated and individual liberties … it feels clear that “freedom” means different things to different people, and is experienced differently by different people. Both of these books come at these kinds of questions — where does my freedom bump up against your freedom? how is my freedom limiting someone else’s freedom? — but both kind of obliquely; thankfully, I think, they give no blanket answers. It’s always contextual. It’s situational.
In the first section of On Freedom, Nelson writes about the relationship between art and care. What responsibility do artists have to care about their audience? To care about the impact of their work? To not cause harm? In Everybody, Laing quotes the painter Agnes Martin. "It is not the role of the artist to worry about life, to feel responsible for making a better world,” Martin once said. The Center for Fiction put on an event with Nelson and Laing after Everybody came out, and in it, Nelson brings up this quote. The two writers talk about whether they agree with Martin — maybe, maybe not. But also, Laing notes quickly, Martin “wasn't facing down climate change.”
One useful thread I took away from On Freedom: We often situate freedom as the opposite of all limitation — but what if, instead, we acknowledged limits as a given? What does freedom look like then? Nelson quotes social theorist Brian Massumi: “Freedom always arises from constraints — it’s a creative conversion of it, not some utopian escape from it.” She quotes Foucault, who argues that rather than eliminating all relationships of power, liberation actually “paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom.” Those practices, Nelson notes, are really what she’s after. Other threads: Freedom isn’t the opposite of obligation; risk is inherent in connection; safety is not guaranteed. Her work always reminds me of the space that false binaries take up in my mind, and how it’s worth it to root them out, to push against them, to see if they fall apart. To refute the terms.
One useful, central thread from Everybody: What does it feel like to feel free? Laing gives one such answer, given by Nina Simone to an interviewer in 1969: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean really, no fear.” The interviewer starts on another question, and Nina Simone leans in and interrupts: “Like a new way of seeing! A new of way of seeing something.”
One way to try to look simultaneously through both of these lenses: Our bodies have limits; our current social realities limit the freedom of our bodies. But that doesn’t mean that that feeling, that new way of seeing, that lack of fear isn’t still worth pursuing — that it can’t or doesn’t exist simultaneously with those limits, that we can’t hope to bend those relations of power towards our freedom.
Matt has been listening to a lot of Devo recently. (When it’s safe to do karaoke, he says, “Whip It” is his first choice. There are few things to which I look forward more — possibly nothing.) “Freedom of choice / Is what you got,” goes one song. “Freedom from choice / Is what you want.”
Thinking about art and freedom also has me thinking about this profile of the rapper Saba that my friend Jenny Gathright wrote in 2017. The piece is about Saba’s ascent as an artist, but also about how he and similar artists in Chicago were carving out careers independent of commercial industry forces — trying to keep their freedom as artists intact. In Nelson’s book, she wonders about artists’ freedom to push or cross boundaries, to provoke, to fail; this feels different, for many reasons, than the practices of freedom these artists are focused on. It feels captured in the headline: ‘To Be Rare, True And Free,’ which comes from something Toni Morrison wrote in the foreword to the 1973 Black Photographers Annual and has stuck with me since I first read it. “She says the work is liberated, the way all art should be,” Jenny writes about Morrison’s description of the photography collection, then quotes her directly: "Not only is it a true book, it is a free one. It is beholden to no elaborate Madison Avenue force. It is solely the product of its creators and its contributors. There is no higher praise for any project than that it is rare, true and free. And isn't that what art is all about? And isn't that what we are all about?"
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Nothing Sacred by Angela Carter; Caprisongs by FKA twigs; Jenny Hval’s whole discography; the new Pedro the Lion record; the podcast Normal Gossip; The Thing; the new Macbeth movie; the documentary Framing Agnes; homemade M&M cookies; this essay about sobriety; this poem about crying; quality time with my brother, and thus an endless parade of episodes of The Office; Amy Schneider’s continued incredible streak on Jeopardy!; this video of Dylan in Japan in ’94 doing “Hard Rain”; Turnstile’s Tiny Desk (home) concert
This time last year I was: writing thank-you notes & gossiping
Thanks for reading. I hope for freedom for us all, whatever that means to you right now. See you next twenty-fourth.