constellations #70: possibilities and limitations
You might remember that a couple months ago I wrote about Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom and also Olivia Laing’s Everybody and the ways those two books are in conversation with each other about the concept of freedom.
In that newsletter I included something On Freedom quotes from the social theorist Brian Massumi: that “freedom always arises from constraints — it’s a creative conversion of it, not some utopian escape from it.”
That stuck with me. It’s easy for me to picture “freedom” as the elimination of all restrictions, some nearly impossible, far-off — yes, utopian — place. And so I found this idea exciting and challenging: What would we do if we didn’t think we had to wait for utopia in order to begin to feel free?
Or, to put it more plainly: What happens, in general, when we are working towards something good, if we assume constraints as a given? How can I focus on the good that can happen in the face of ongoing challenges, rather than assume that what I’m hoping for can only exist in the absence of them?
On Freedom also quotes Foucault, saying something similar: that liberation doesn’t eliminate power relations, but instead “paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom.” I like how dynamic, how conversational that concept feels.
There is an angle on this whole liberation-in-limitation idea that feels inherently kind of regressive — it can read kind of Orwellian, you know, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” all that, in the wrong light. Like the idea that gender stereotypes are good, actually, because they make it clear who does what (a position I heard endorsed by a friend second-hand recently, which shocked me. No thanks!!!) That’s not the angle I’m interested in, though. It’s useful for me think: There are some limits that are simply limiting, some power relations that are simply disempowering, and I don’t mean to disregard those.
But I was thinking about all this recently in reading an essay by the writer Alicia Kennedy, about the relationship between lifestyle journalism and climate catastrophe. (Alicia is a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has a great newsletter about food and cooking and writing that I highly recommend.)
In the essay, Alicia argues that “lifestyle media, so long siloed away from the dirty business of politics, needs to engage with the realities of the world.” What we eat, why we eat it, how we access it, whether we have access to it: These are political questions, environmental questions, social questions. We have a responsibility to think about these things, she argues, and food writers have a responsibility to help us get there.
Recipes could be part of that process, she says: “They can force a reckoning between the false universality of the American supermarket and one’s actual regional food system.” But they can only do that, she argues, by directly challenging our norms about eating animals and importing ecologically destructive products. “Rather than think of this as a restriction,” she continues, “it can open up possibilities for variations.”
There it was, that concept again. Restrictions and possibilities. I haven’t eaten meat in about a decade, so I did intuitively feel a connection to what she was saying here. I rarely think about my own practices around vegetarianism as restrictions, or impediments, or just generally a bummer. It feels like a rational response to the state of the world, to me. And more so, it feels for me like acting on the world as it is — with its cruelty and environmental destruction intact — rather than a choice made in anticipation of a forthcoming world where those problems don’t exist. It opens me up to a conversation, rather than closing me off. It involves creativity. It helps me pay more attention.
In other words, this kind of choice, which may seem to some like a loss of freedom, “actually houses possibility for pleasure and connection,” as Alicia writes. As is often the case with me and Foucault (and with apologies to my undergrad anthro professors) I didn’t entirely understand what was meant by “practices of freedom,” to which On Freedom refers so often. But what Alicia describes here feels close.
And, of course, big-picture, the crises that the essay points out are global and systemic, and our individual practices of freedom are a response to those problems, or a way to live within them; they alone will not solve them.
But the essay has made me think about other, unconsidered habits of mine that might seem like freedom but are actually reproducing a very unfree status quo. And they made me think about where I might encounter these practices of freedom on an even more personal level. “I think maybe I feel unsettled because that’s who I am, not because I’m not in the right place,” I wrote to some friends last year, after I had left DC and before I had decided to go somewhere else. It was an unsettling time, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that on and off for years, I had always been having an “unsettling” time. “So then the question becomes,” I wrote, “where do I want to be while I’m feeling unsettled?” I didn’t know it then, but that feels like a response to the idea of freedom arising from constraints. If I took that feeling as a given — if I didn’t need to figure out the place that would immediately root me, stabilize me, free me from my instability — what else could I seek out instead? And wouldn’t that be a kind of freedom?
(On an even smaller, sillier note: Last month, Matt and I spent a weekend in a cabin in Vermont on a goat farm. It was delightful. We did not have cell reception. I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. Having no access to ~ the discourse ~ didn’t feel like a restriction at all … it actually felt very freeing.)
Anyway, I think this concept is rattling around in my brain so much lately because the limitations and the constraints and the crises seem so present, so immense. There have been days when my belief in our ability to care for each other in the face of looming disaster, of institutional and interpersonal cruelty, of systemic injustice, feels unshakeable. But I wouldn’t say those days are frequent, or increasing in frequency. Obviously, these days, most limitations don’t feel like an invitation to seek out pleasure and connection! They feel like harm, like cruelty. And they feel unshakeable. So it’s helpful to be reminded of our capacity for subterfuge — of the possibility of “creative conversion” of restraints into freedom, as Massumi puts it. Here’s to that.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: In Transit by (my friend!) Dianna Anderson; a little bit of Virology by Joseph Osmundson; X by Davey Davis; so much Steely Dan (which I wrote about for the NPR Music newsletter); Baby by Petrol Girls; Stay Proud of Me by NoSo; the first season of The Bear; the second season of Hacks; this interview with Krista Tippet from On Being; my first MRI, and subsequently, the requirement to wear a walking cast boot on my left foot every day for at least three weeks* (ugh!); vegan black raspberry ice cream on a difficult day; plain seltzer and bitters; a few really sweet meals with friends at home; this very touching essay from my high school English teacher
Thanks for reading. I hope the possibilities for pleasure and connection feel abundant for you. See you next month.
*I’m fine, it’s kind of an old injury, but I’m currently sourcing recommendations for wide-leg pants!