Book Review: On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint – Maggie Nelson

Posted August 10, 2021 in Book Review, Print

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On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

Maggie Nelson

Jonathan Cape

Maggie Nelson is surely one of the most lucid voices writing on art and its relationship to culture and politics in English today. Her wonderfully eclectic The Argonauts was rightly acclaimed by critics. At her best, Nelson seems unparalleled in her ability to marry theoretical density, readability and intimacy.

If anything defines her thinking, it’s an aversion to binary logic. In four extended essays on an array of diverse, yet subtly related subjects – art and the aesthetics of care; #MeToo and gender and sexual politics; drugs and literature; climate change – Nelson decries various forms of intellectual laziness and sloganeering. She’s particularly concerned about what a creeping moralism among progressives might do to art and our experience of it.


But On Freedom is no rant against ‘wokeness’. Indeed, Nelson has little time for the kind of bad faith attacks on the alleged illiberalism of campus activists. But, she’s acutely aware of how emancipatory causes can be betrayed by the means their proponents deploy to achieve them, as well as how we can become intellectually complicit with the very discourses we seek to challenge.

Nelson wants us to be both more sympathetic and rigorous as reader and interpreters. Ever the enemy of binaries, she shows, virtuosically, how being shy is by no means impossible.

Words: Luke Warde


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