a conversation with Maggie Nelson
From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 3 ("Concept and Reality").
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Maggie Nelson is a genre-defying writer, poet, and professor of English at the University of Southern California. She is best known for The Argonauts (2015), an auto-theoretical memoir of her pregnancy and relationship with artist Harry Dodge; The Art of Cruelty (2011), a critical study of aesthetics and representations of violence; and Bluets (2009), a series of brief philosophical propositions centring on heartbreak. Her many prestigious awards include the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Guggenheim Fellowship. In this interview, she talks with Chiara Ricciardone about her new book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
I thought I would start with a question about freedom in the time of lockdown. It seems like this is the perfect moment for your book to be published, because it wants to undo the binaristic relationship between freedom and obligation. And I think many people experienced a version of that undoing when we first went into lockdown: suddenly their activities were so constrained, and yet at the same time there was an enormous sense of freedom and possibility. Now [June 2021] we seem to be at the other end of that, in the United States at least: many people are feeling freer to return to normal, and at the same time there is a return to social obligations. Would you situate the insights of On Freedom in relation to the experiences of lockdown and freedom in the time of coronavirus?
It was really weird, because the book is not about freedom in the time of coronavirus, insofar as the vast majority of the book was already completed before Covid. In February of 2020, I was beginning my last edits, with the final manuscript due in September. And then, of course, in March, Covid hit. In one sense, it was good timing because the book was mostly done and it would have been really hard to think anew. On the other hand, since the book had already been about freedom and obligation, and that dichotomy exploded in the world over the year that followed, there was a lot more to see and say! But I decided that there was really no need to shoehorn a Covid narrative into it in the final months of writing and editing. It was also not lost on me that I was writing a book about freedom under exceptionally constrained circumstances.
But as with any book, if you’re onto something beforehand, you’re onto it because it exists in the culture, and it’s not going anywhere. The freedom-obligation opposition has been with us for a very long time – you know this, you’re a classicist – and obviously it’s very American as well, so it was not really a surprise to see it rear its head in the context of Covid. In some ways I felt like the Covid rendition of freedom and obligation enabled Trump and his followers to reanimate this zombie discourse about individual freedom in opposition to the public good that they had previously had trouble animating. Trump had actually had a lot of trouble harnessing the freedom discourse before that; it was not a discourse he used very much for the first three years of his presidency. I don’t think he really knew what to do with it, because I don’t think he cared. But if there had been a little fumbling beforehand, with Covid they finally got their opportunity to run with it.
One of your touchstones in the book is a quote from Michel Foucault contained in the interview “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom”: “Liberation paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom”. Was writing the book a practice of freedom for you?
I write about this a little bit in the introduction and the afterword, but I think that part of what makes a practice of freedom difficult is that it does not always feel liberatory when one is doing it. It can feel good, and the book offers a light-hearted defence of feeling good in the face of all the people – often white men, but not always – who like to denigrate feeling good. For example, I quote the American politician Barney Frank who says, “If you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” The book both tries to resist that attitude mightily, while also noting that it is a mistake to think that practices of freedom – such as understanding oneself, grappling with uncertainty and indeterminacy, and so on – have to feel good. This kind of writing does not always feel good when you’re doing it, but to have the time and privilege to write – and sometimes to even get paid for that writing – is of course a great freedom. And then there’s thinking itself, and the process of trying to figure out what you think by interacting with many other thinkers – this is a great way of continually coming up against constraints in your mind, and then trying to imagine third ways or connections that might make you feel less choked by something that feels on first encounter like you have hit some kind of dead end.
If we can’t know practices of freedom by how we feel about them – whether we feel pleasure, whether we feel pain – how do we know? How do we identify them? And how seriously are we to take feelings as sources of information and truth?
In the introduction, I touch on the widely held idea that more liberty equals more wellbeing, on this intimate relation between feeling good and feeling free. But pleasure is not the only emotion or affective state that gives us information about whether something is worthwhile or not; it is certainly one of them, but definitely not the only one. When we think about practices that we may have engaged in to change our thinking or our behaviour or our social constructs, these are likely to include very difficult moments, but when we look back on them we can feel pleased or proud; we can feel that it was worthwhile. In this respect, I think that temporality is key, along with allowing for affective variety. Allowing for ambivalence and co-existence of contradictory sensations is very important in this regard.
It’s funny that you mention contradictory sensations and opposites. One of my underdeveloped pet theories is that you understand a thinker when you understand how they cope with contradiction or with binaries. So I was trying to apply this hypothesis to the way you work with various binaries that preoccupy you, like freedom and constraint. And maybe the overarching idea that suggests what you do arises from the quote from Aimé Césaire that you mention a couple of times: “I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.” In a sense, your project is to think of freedom that is rich with obligation, rather than obligation subtracting from freedom. I was wondering if you are self-conscious about how you approach binaries, if you have a set of strategies or patterns that work for you when you are trying to tangle and untangle these knots?
Oh, interesting. I think writing is quite symptomatic, so one way of understanding what one is doing is to notice how one needs to edit one’s writing. In my case, my initial drafts tend to be very frustrating to people who read them because I try to see all the ways around something – a relentless “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach in which I actively try on all these different complications or contradictions for size. And if I have made the reader feel withered away by these contradictions instead of, as Césaire has it, enriched and deepened by them, then my challenge is to be a little bit braver, to crawl out further onto the limb. I certainly enjoy trying to unconvince myself on some positions. At the end of the day, I think one has to become less afraid of being bossed around, or of bossing others around, by assertions, while also providing an ample showcase for multivalent thought, thought that is “rich with all that is particular.”
Eve Sedgwick taught me a lot about this, as she was a very non-separatist thinker who at the same time always tried to pay homage to thinkers who were very divergent from her ways of thinking. I think that this is only possible with, if not exactly a bird’s eye view, then at least a kind of hovering over the terrain – an understanding that we don’t all have to do this the same way, that we need lots of different kinds of thinkers and attitudes and approaches, that we’re not going for homogeneity. This comes out strongly in the climate chapter of my book where I’m quoting William Connolly’s summary of a part of Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World, in which she discusses a group of people coming together to oppose a logging company. She notes that despite certain points of commonality and affinity, even the victory did not look the same to all people involved. And I think that this is a really important idea to grasp. We have to be careful that the desire for solidarity does not become a form of aggression against difference.
WE HAVE TO BE CAREFUL THAT THE DESIRE FOR SOLIDARITY DOES NOT BECOME A FORM OF AGGRESSION AGAINST DIFFERENCE
I know you’re not too crazy about categorical thinking, but you do mention different types of freedom, like political freedom, spiritual freedom, existential freedom. And I’m interested in what type of freedoms you are addressing in your book, so I made the following list: freedom for complexity; freedom to disagree; freedom to agree in part; freedom to be uncertain; freedom to be multiple; freedom to be contradictory; freedom to change; freedom from narrative closures. These strike me as unusual kinds of freedoms – they’re not the ones that tend to take centre stage, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and so on. I am wondering whether for you, as a poet and an artist, these “minor freedoms” are driving at something that you have learned about creative freedom? And if not, how would you characterise the kind of freedom that you’re after?
I love your list, I think it’s so brilliant and interesting and wise. I think that part of the book’s resistance is that it does not say, “I’m after this kind of freedom and I’m going to describe it and go for it.” To me, writing that just says things without doing things is not very interesting. So it’s important to me that the writing has a certain kind of heat or style, that it’s doing something. As for what it is that the whole book is hopefully doing, I’d like it to be offering an experience of a way of thinking as much as, or more than, offering strong arguments for what freedom is or ought to be. For example, in the introduction I quote Avery F. Gordon, who lists many things that freedom is not, before concluding that freedom is “the process by which you develop a practice for being unavailable for servitude.” (She’s paraphrasing Toni Cade Bambara.) As I say, I find such entreaties moving, but that approach is not mine.
On the topic of what you called “minor freedoms”, I interviewed Jacqueline Rose recently about her new book On Violence and On Violence Against Women. I found her analysis in that book very engaging, as she argues that violence against women, but also violence in general, has to do in part with the inability to bear contradictory sensation, to bear the difficulty of our mortality and vulnerability, and the consequent need to smear that difficulty onto others. Rose is somebody who is very interested in linking the psychoanalytic sphere and psychoanalytic conflict to political outcome – the political manifestation as symptom. I only dabble in psychoanalysis, but I do think that it is compelling to note that all the freedoms that you just described and called minor, can be quite difficult to bear. They also have a relationship to gender.
One concrete example of how an increased capacity to bear difficult feelings might decrease the possibility of violence (and increase our freedom from violence) is the value of “waiting periods” for people to buy guns. These waiting periods aim to intervene between the moment of an unbearable feeling (losing one’s job, discovering an infidelity, and so on) and acting on it, be it through suicide or homicide. Inserting a “cooling down” period between the moment of the unbearable feeling and the capacity to act on it in an aggressive, deadly fashion can be key; research shows that waiting periods can lead to a 7–11% reduction in gun suicides. When you’re younger, or when you’re in a certain frame of mind, you may think of freedom as a lack of restraint, a feeling that you can just do whatever you want – freedom as pure disinhibition. And to be sure, that is one version of freedom. But the fruits of restraint, of learning to sit with unbearable feelings, of becoming more alive to the interplay between inhibition and disinhibition, are very interesting to think about, and have their own sort of freedom.
In connection with that interplay, the subtitle of your book is Songs of Care and Constraint, and both care and constraint come together powerfully in your discussion of motherhood in the “Art Song” chapter. On the one hand you say that with motherhood there’s “no possibility of a no”, which makes it an extreme case of constraint and obligation – there is no evading that need to which mothers have to respond. At the same time, you critically engage with the figure of the mother as an idealized model for selfless care provision. So, my question would be: where do you feel the freedom in mothering?
The ideal of mothers as sources of selfless care provision for others misapprehends from the start what is actually going on with mothering, which is far from simple. It totally overlooks, for example, the sadism leveled against mothers (this is something Jacqueline Rose has written brilliantly about). As Rose points out, to expect the mother to be a selfless care provider is to set the stage for sadism toward them if and when they fall short of this ideal – which is precisely what they will do, because no one – not even a perfect mother – can protect their child against suffering.
As for the kinds of freedoms inherent in motherhood, one thing I have learned is that what begins in ordinary devotion for utterly dependent beings has to move into cultivating a sense of autonomy and responsibility in beings who will eventually become adults. And this process is an infinitely difficult negotiation between the desire to protect and the necessity of letting others make mistakes for themselves and learn from them. That’s not necessarily freedom for the mother, but it does provide mothers with a rich and tense forum for fathoming the problem of autonomy – the dialectic, as it were, between dependency and autonomy.
In that same section, you refer to a desire for “a redistribution of the burdens and entanglements that have heretofore lodged in the maternal”. And this put me in mind of another Foucault quote from his work on practices of the self: “My role – and that is too emphatic a word – is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed.” It made me wonder what your role is in relation to your reader. Do you see your role as helping the reader to negotiate their own freedom, insofar as you lay out the options and choices and offer ways to navigate questions that seem initially so binaristic and constraining?
In my experience, writers or artists don’t typically think about their audience very much, because any idea of an audience is always a kind of fantasy. This is certainly true in my case. If I’m trying to help anyone in my writing, it’s me! Also, given how contentious and unresolved the topics I write about are, I never presume a reader will agree with me, nor do I presume that I’m there to persuade the reader. So the writing process is a more self-centred activity that is about figuring something out that’s really bothering me and trying to think it through as best as I am able. And I can’t think something through without writing it through. Writing it through is the thinking it through.
I want to ask about the way that you complicate the discourse around consent, which I think is going to be one of the flash points of the reception of the book, and also one of its most useful contributions. The first thing that struck me in what you wrote that is underappreciated in, for example, the #MeToo movement, is something like: that sex is inherently risky, and there’s something really to be valued in that vulnerability. On a social level too, you seem to say that overprotecting against sexual harassment risks activating other oppressive structures – we like to imagine that sexual harassment complaints are always being brought against powerful white cis-men, but often we’re actually invoking racist discourse or heteronormativity in ways that harm different sorts of vulnerable populations. And the third lesson that I took away was that real freedom, sexually speaking, doesn’t lie in a perfected ritual of question and consent – you learn this from bottoms and BDSM – but in learning to really ask for what we want to have done to us. What else did I miss?
I would just add that it’s also about bringing attention to the fact that we often go to sex to touch spaces where we don’t have to speak, or where we actually desire non-autonomy, or where we don’t know beforehand what we want done to us. Those desires don’t have to be coagulated into a named sexuality, like “bottoming” or whatever. But if such urges remain unacknowledged, they can be a source of a lot of trouble. It can be like: I go to this place or engage in this activity in order to be unmastered. And then, when I feel unmastered, I feel upset. That’s a very complicated psychic situation; it is part of what makes sex so enthralling, and so difficult, and so potentially dangerous.
So is there something that we can replace the discourse of consent with? It’s become so important, if not hegemonic, in the way it’s being taught on college campuses to incoming first years.
There are smarter people than me in terms of thinking about what we should do about sex education; I hear and see them in my kids’ schooling. If I had prescriptions to offer, I would offer them! As a critical thinker, I think it’s more my job to note that every era has its idea of ethical sex and what its parameters are, and that while it’s possible that we are getting closer to something more ethical, it is also true that – as Foucault taught – we are also always producing sex, and that all notions of what ethical sex is produces an outside, so it behoves us to keep an eye on what we’re producing. I don’t think consent is bad, generally speaking, for college-based seminars, or for my two boys to learn about. I support it. But you don’t want to produce a situation in which people think they’re doing something bad if the sex they prefer does not have that contractual, verbal element.
Wendy Brown makes the point that consent matters most when we’re adjudicating between people who have an inequity in power. And yet, the rearrangements in power that we’re likely going for are not necessarily going to be adjudicated by the state. I was looking at Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex this morning, and she has written a lot about the limitations of the state to undertake that kind of rearranging. So I think that what you’re asking is the right question, but maybe it isn’t one that is to be answered by juridico-political, and certainly not carceral, adjudication.
I am keen to turn now to the final chapter of your book, “Riding the Blinds”, in which you explore freedom and obligation in relation to climate change. In it, you describe what you consider a “more sensible” or “more grown-up” conception of freedom than those you see dominating the current discourses surrounding climate change, such as ideas around breaking the rules, defying the limits, and so on, rather than learning to negotiate with the various material constraints that we face. But, some would say, the material constraints on our freedom to consume whatever we desire will be removed by technological innovation, so the problem of climate change can be addressed by techno-fixes. While it is easy to dismiss some of this talk as science fiction, it looks like, for example, aliens are in fact real. So, what role do you see for these technological dreamers? What if the material constraints on our planetary freedom aren’t real?
When it comes to technology, I don’t think of it as an either/or scenario. Technological success simply changes where the constraints are, so if you learn how to cure cancer, then cancer ceases to be a constraint on a life when you’re diagnosed with it. Where I am wary, and where I think the techno-fix peril lies, is that the techno-fix discourse is not simply the continual rearrangement of constraints, but is frequently aligned with what Bruno Latour has called an “Out-of-This-World” attitude. For Latour, this attitude signifies the abandonment of even the pretence of a shared earth and common future. Insofar as such a thinker envisages life on Earth, their attitude would be something like: build a moat, build a castle, protect what’s mine, and keep out the climate refugees. And the other popular line of this kind of thinking involves the belief that we have irretrievably fucked up life on Earth, so we might as well take the ultra-rich among us and start over in bubblesuits on some Mars terrarium where we can’t go outside as we can never breathe the air on a planet as it’s not habitable for us.
To me, this is just panic and nihilism. It has no basis in scientific fact (see, for example, Sim Kern’s recent piece in Salon titled, “No, billionaires won’t ‘escape’ to space while the world burns”). Latour sums up all these interlocking attitudes as rooted in “a desire to get rid of the burdens of solidarity as fast as possible.” This desire has nothing to do with technology or even the idea of a techno-fix; rather, it’s a panicked urge to shed or deny our interdependency and to outrun the consequences of our actions. Anyway, the fact that it takes thousands of people on Earth to keep just a handful of astronauts alive in space for short periods of time should give the lie to fantasies of “Out of This World” autonomy.
I think this example really highlights the way that discourses of freedom are animated or underwritten by how the person is conceived. Are people abstract bearers of rights? Are they sovereign selves? Are they subjects? Or are they something else? And I keep coming back to your repeated discussions of entangled selves and what it is “to consent not to be a single being” (you quote this line from Édouard Glissant in the book). It made me wonder whether you’re really writing about a robust idea of freedom or whether you’re writing about something much more delicate, such as our radical interdependence – and how not to fuck that up?
Absolutely. This was the whole thing that I was trying to lay out in the introduction. You can come at it through different channels, but there I tried to lay it out in the particular history of the United States, through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ idea of white freedom and black freedom. Coates uses black freedom as the shorthand for a freedom that recognises interdependency, and white freedom for a kind that does not. And in my opinion, there is only the interdependent version – the other one is just a denial or a disavowal. The problem, however, is that while interdependency is a great fact, it does not actually tell us very much about what we are to do with it. Slogans of interdependency can be helpful and inspiring, but people can get freaked out when they recognise not only how much work it is, but also how imperfect it is, in terms of not all forms of life necessarily getting what they want. Think of Timothy Morton’s comment that being nice to bunny rabbits means not being nice to bunny rabbit parasites. Sometimes the parasite is sacrificed for the host, and that is very messy stuff.
One of the first things I did when thinking about this book was to collect slogans about freedom (there are whole websites devoted to pretty much every quote about freedom ever made!). What became very clear is that they really do bifurcate into slogans of interdependence along the lines of “no one is free until everyone is free” and slogans of individualism along the lines of “I’m free, fuck you!” I don’t entirely set aside individualist mantras because I think it is a mistake to presume homogeneity of thinking or feeling, even within communities that are presumably devoted in some kind of historical or spiritual sense to communion or commonality. This leads to people saying things like, “How could it be that so many Latino men voted for Trump?” This is a really bad formulation.
So, I think that if you’re in an interdependent system but you still value feelings of autonomy, you’re going to have to learn how to flip constraints and to figure out how to find feelings of autonomy that matter to you within that interdependence. This echoes Brian Massumi’s idea that freedom “is not about breaking or escaping constraints. It’s about flipping them over into degrees of freedom.” Anarchist theory is helpful here, in that anarchist theory understands that there will always be tensions between individual desires and communal needs, and that this tension must be worked with, not wished away.
WHILE INTERDEPENDENCY IS A GREAT FACT, IT DOES NOT ACTUALLY TELL US VERY MUCH ABOUT WHAT WE ARE TO DO WITH IT
I think that this question of how we think about freedom, and how that’s bound up with how we think about persons or selves plays out in an interesting way over the divisions of the book. I was struck by how the first three sections on art, drugs, and sex can be seen as a kind of reckoning with the legacy of sex, drugs and rock and roll as the sixties programme for liberation. And you’re looking at how those individual liberties have been articulated, how they have or have not flowered, and how new constraints are complicating how we think about them. But the last section on climate change is different as it’s deeply concerned with the collective, as well as with a kind of “ultimate” constraint, that is the potential for the end of the human species. Clearly many things carry through all the chapters – the focus on entangled selves, your desire to undo the binary of freedom and obligation, and so on – and yet at the same time there’s something distinctive about that last section. How do you think about the relationship between the divisions of the book?
The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty talks about how we have all thought modern freedom via fossil fuels and our ever-expanding usage of these – whether or not we have known it. And the great reveal, so to speak, is that these freedoms have all been imbricated with certain natural limits which are now coming to an end for us. So I do think that it’s a huge gestalt change. Furthermore, it has its own terms. You’re not negotiating with, say, another person who may or may not want to have sex with you – you’re negotiating with what the glacial ice is going to do, no matter what we say or want. And we are only beginning to think through what this negotiation may involve.
To take an example, a friend of mine who has spent time in certain forestry meetings once described to me how certain conversations and solutions can be very successful for very different stakeholders, so long as they could all agree at the outset on the facts of what the scientific reports were telling them about what was happening in the forest or with the river. After that, they could all make their claims and adjudicate between them based on what they needed or wanted to have happen with the forest and the river. But this is something that climate denialism has withheld from us – we can’t even get to the stage where we can adjudicate between different stakeholders, because over half of Americans can’t admit that what’s happening is happening. And this is a very hard situation. It’s a very, very painful situation. There’s this shared terror about extreme weather events to come, along with deep and profound feelings of sadness at the fact that we have had so much trouble in just talking about the problem, much less solving it. And this generates despair, because how are we going to work on it if we can’t talk about it? If we can’t even admit it?
So I think the last chapter is definitely different than the other three in that it is grappling with something that sets its own terms and does not really care what we think of it. It’s about the humility of intellectual life, as all of our excitement about our thoughts and our technologies are dwarfed in the extreme by planetary, even cosmic, forces that vastly exceed our control. That brings up a lot of humility, a lot of awe, a lot of reverence.
You have been working your way towards a question that I wanted to close with. One of the famous quotes about freedom that you probably came across in your research is from Thucydides’ rendering of Pericles’ funeral oration in which he tells the Athenians, “Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” You’re saying that we need humility, we need reverence, and in the book you talk a lot about the ongoing patient labour that is required of us in numerous domains. What do you make of Pericles’ formulation?
To be honest, courage has not been one of my big words. I hate it when people say things to me like, “Your writing has been so brave”. I’m always thinking, “What is the thing they think I should feel ashamed about, that I somehow missed!?” But, and at the risk of being super cheesy – and to go back to the Jacqueline Rose stuff – it does take courage to be vulnerable and to admit vulnerability. And, to quote 12 step programs, it does take courage to change. Our defence mechanisms want to keep us on various insufferable and unsustainable tracks – whether this is in relation to fossil fuels or other habits of mind that no longer work for us. So I think that Pericles’ freedom-happiness-courage triad probably would not have my full support. That said, there is definitely a certain courage and freedom in just admitting our earthly condition, our mortality, our body, its decay, its vastness and its paltriness. I’m into all that! I’m into that being the condition of our lives. Every day I think about the story of Mara challenging Siddhartha, “Who will speak for your enlightenment?” And Siddhartha puts his hand on the Earth and says, “The earth is my witness” (becoming, in that moment, the Buddha). I’m very moved by that kind of down-to-earthness. It’s very exciting to me. And it has a lot of freedom in it.
Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint is published by Jonathan Cape.