book review

You’ve Heard This One Before

Maggie Nelson believes we react too quickly and think ungenerously. In her new book, she’s guilty of both.

Photo: Courtesy of Publisher
Photo: Courtesy of Publisher

For most scholars — I speak from recovery — academic writing is a professional genre, not a literary one, more akin to a legal memo than a novel. The famous abstruseness of what we call “theory” is usually not an effect of intellectual sophistication; more often, it’s just someone doing their job. I don’t mean that cruelly. I mean it as a rightful acknowledgment that scholars are workers, and like other workers, they have an inalienable right to mediocrity.

On Freedom, the new essay collection from the poet and memoirist Maggie Nelson, sits squarely in this genre. Its lyrical subtitle — “Four Songs of Care and Constraint” — is an overpromise; the chapters are “songs” exclusively in the sense that they have musical names: “Art Song,” “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” “Drug Fugue,” and “Riding the Blinds.” In fact, they are bits of straightforward academic criticism. They do not sing; they talk. What they say is this: If freedom-minded people are to rid ourselves of “the habits of paranoia, despair, and policing” that Nelson believes to be menacing the left — from the MeToo movement to climate nihilism — we must learn to sit with ambiguity, risk, and indeterminacy. In doing so, Nelson says we’ll be engaging in what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called “practices of freedom” — careful, patient experiments with what freedom might look like in everyday life with often conflicting results.

This is a fine, if unremarkable, thesis. But Maggie Nelson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, the best-selling author of nine (now ten) books, the most recent of which earned her wide recognition outside both academia and letters. Maggie Nelson could etch sentences into a grain of rice if she wanted to. So why write an academic book? Why fill chapters with ponderous quotations from writers who are, at the end of the day, talking about something else? Why hide in the endnotes arguments that could have appeared out in the open? I am in full agreement with Nelson’s observation that “people read much more challenging things than they are given credit for,” as she once said regarding the success of her 2015 memoir, The Argonauts. But I am not talking about the specter of difficulty; I am talking about clarity, novelty, and — forgive me — beauty.

Whatever else it was, The Argonauts was beautiful. It told the story of Nelson’s love affair with the artist Harry Dodge, with whom she had a son named Iggy. There, she threaded French philosophy and psychoanalysis through raw, sensual descriptions of being pregnant while Dodge was beginning testosterone therapy: “Each time I count the four rungs down the blue ladder tattooed on your lower back, spread out the skin, push in the nearly-two-inch-long needle, and plunge the golden, oily T into deep muscle mass, I feel certain I am delivering a gift.” Nelson called the book “autotheory,” a term she attributed to Paul Preciado’s unfortunate book Testo Junkie; a more modest term might have been “high memoir.”

Either way, it’s true: The Argonauts was full of theory, including that of Nelson’s mentor, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, by then seven years dead of cancer. The field of affect theory is haunted by untimely deaths: Sedgwick at 58; four years later, her student José Esteban Muñoz at 46; and earlier this year, Lauren Berlant at 63. These were thinkers who taught us that thinking has feelings, and this, at its best moments, is what The Argonauts delivered to its surprisingly wide audience: the emotional world of theory. Admittedly, as often happens in the “auto” genres, Nelson relied on her own vulnerability to insulate herself from close scrutiny. It was easy to miss, for instance, that Nelson named her son Igasho, a supposedly Native American name, on the flimsy justification that Dodge once told her he was part Cherokee, and The Argonauts clearly profited immensely from being someone else’s transition memoir. Still, it is one thing to dryly rehearse psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s theory of the “good-enough mother,” which tried to imagine the mother as an ordinary person, not an ideal; it is quite another to show readers what it feels like to read about de-idealizing motherhood while raising a 2-year old.

If it sounds like I’m saying Nelson writes best when she’s writing about her personal life, instead of writing essays, I suppose I am. No, the same isn’t true for many women writers, even most of them; but I do think it’s true for her. Fans of The Argonauts will find reproduced in On Freedom only that book’s inner graduate student, eager to show she has done the reading. Take the book’s thesis, drawn directly from the work of Sedgwick, whose famous essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” proposed that academic critics should soften the defensive urge to pin their objects down in favor of a slower, open-minded willingness to “confer plenitude” on them. I have read, and this is not exaggerating, some 40 or 50 accounts of what Sedgwick meant by paranoid and reparative reading; it is, within queer theory, a forest fully logged.

Such is Nelson’s approach in On Freedom: to present six or seven academics on a topic and then say of one, “I like this.” She does not often have ideas, only opinions. I don’t mean she is not an intelligent thinker and, sometimes, a formidable stylist; I mean that she does not advance new concepts, nor is she, by her own description, interested in doing so. “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism” reads frustratingly like a series of takes that have aged poorly in the five years since Nelson began writing On Freedom. Why is it worth thinking, again, about whether actor Aziz Ansari’s advances on a woman he went out with once four years ago rose to the level of sexual assault? (Nelson says they probably didn’t, if you still care.) “Drug Fugue,” by contrast, has the character of a perfectly serviceable chapter of lit-crit that’s interesting only if you’re already interested in drug literature. The chapter on the climate crisis, “Riding the Blinds,” brings a refreshing urgency of tone, though it may be no accident that in doing so, Nelson leaves freedom behind almost altogether.

It is the forceful first chapter of On Freedom, “Art Song,” where Nelson makes her most concerted attempt to prove herself as an essayist rather than a memoirist, academic, or poet. Nelson is a regular writer of art criticism, and she taught at an art school for more than 20 years; her investment in the topic is clear, personal, and fierce. It’s here that Nelson takes up arms against the “rhetoric of harm” that On Freedom is most interested in criticizing, and this argument about thinking is intended to resonate through the rest of the book. In fact, I’m going to spend the rest of this piece talking about it.

The “rhetoric of harm” goes something like this: Depicting harm through art can be harmful to marginalized people, and artists who refuse to be held accountable for that harm end up furthering it, regardless of their own views on the matter. Nelson doesn’t like this line of thinking. She worries it places undue restraints on artists’ freedom to “give expression to complex, sometimes disturbing dimensions of their psyches”; that its hair-trigger condemnations eclipse “the slow work of looking, making, reading, or thinking”; and that it reflects a “homogenizing logic of paranoia” that divides art into good and bad, right and wrong.

If Nelson’s argument sounds like one you’ve heard before, or perhaps have made yourself, that’s because it is. I will grant that Nelson prosecutes this argument with a level of care unbecoming of the genre, which can ironically be found all over the very internet whose deleterious effects the author likes to decry. But why should we listen to yet another emissary of Generation X complain about “a world drunk on scapegoating, virtue signaling, and public humiliation”? It simply doesn’t matter anymore whether complaints like this are legitimate. Maybe they are. But they are also boring.

It doesn’t help that Nelson’s two main examples, to which she frequently returns in “Art Song,” are both from 2017: Sam Durant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a large-scale replica of gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men that was eventually removed following protests and negotiations between the museum and Dakota elders, and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a sort-of-abstract oil painting of Emmett Till exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York that became the object of national controversy when the artist Hannah Black demanded in an open letter posted on Facebook that the painting be removed and destroyed. Scandals in the art world brown like bitten apples; to discuss them now, as relevant as they may be to the point at hand, feels like an unsolicited rehashing. If there’s one thing everyone should be able to agree about that letter now, it’s that people sure did talk about it then.

But fine, let’s talk about it. Nelson criticizes protesters for applying “the language of physical harm” — for instance, “a slap in the face,” as one person described Durant’s installation. It’s one thing, Nelson says, to argue that neo-Nazis chanting slogans through the streets are engaged in violence. But to say that an oil painting by Schutz, a white woman, perpetrated “violence against Black communities,” as some protesters put it, or that Durant’s installation reinstated “the violent power of sovereignty,” as the scholar Arne De Boever wrote — Nelson sees an insidious logic at work here, as if art could have power analogous to “a militarized state.”

I agree. Violence is a difficult word these days; it means too much and rarely enough. But watch what Nelson says next. When protesters and academics equate a work of art with violence, she writes, their arguments mirror “a classic prerequisite not only for censorship but also for the persecution of artists.” Nelson’s example is the artist and porn star Annie Sprinkle, who was once jailed on charges of sodomy after making a zine depicting her penetration by an amputee’s stump. This is a surprising comparison. When a scholar like De Boever argues, in an academic monograph with a likely print run of a few thousand, that Durant’s gallows “reinstated” state violence against the Dakota nation, should readers consider this speech act on par with a sex worker’s literal detention by the police, simply because it “plays into the same arguments” historically used to persecute artists? Equating art with violence is bad, but equating rhetoric with violence isn’t? Who is calling who the state now?

Undeterred, Nelson argues that, unlike an act of violence, even the most offensive art has a “diffuse audience with no reducible target,” carries “no expressly malign (or even discernible) intent,” and poses “no imminent danger to its audience.” But isn’t that exactly what protesters were saying — that racism could be diffuse, benign, and slow-acting? True, Nelson’s picture of art does not sound like a slap in the face; it sounds more like city officials blithely allowing the runoff from the local power plant to slowly alter the quality of a municipal water supply until low-income residents begin to develop chronic illnesses.

That’s Nelson’s image, not mine, taken from a passage in the book’s climate essay. There, she argues that when queer writers criticize the having of children (she cites a few, including me), we are being callous in the face of the possible extinction of humanity thanks to climate change. Blasé indifference to future generations, Nelson writes, is “arguably no different from dumping a bunch of toxic waste guaranteed to poison whoever comes into contact with it,” then disclaiming any responsibility for your actions “because you won’t know the sickened people personally or won’t be alive when they get sick, or because you just aren’t that into people anyway, especially small ones that cry on airplanes.” The italics are mine; the murder charges, maybe not.

You see the problem with this kind of argumentation: False equivalences abound, on both sides, and the question devolves into not just which equivalences are false but which false equivalences are, as it were, falser than others. Is racism like art? Art like climate change? An open letter like the police? Nelson writes, “Acting as if the world neatly divides … into problematic, ethically turbulent, essentially dangerous people who should stay ‘over there,’ and nonproblematic, ethically good, essentially safe people who should be allowed to stay ‘over here’ is not our only option. After all, what I’ve just described is a prison.” So which is worse, you tell me — a protester calling Scaffold a “slap in the face” or Maggie Nelson comparing that rhetoric to incarceration?

Unfair, I’m being unfair. Nelson is using a metaphor, which is when you use one thing to describe a different thing. Surely it cannot in every case belittle the horrors of mass incarceration or the cause of abolition to refer to something that isn’t a prison as a prison. That would make a prison of language, which has freely tended toward abstraction since we crawled out of the caves. The first words were all false equivalences: The word fire is not a fire. Okay then: Nelson is not saying the rhetoric of harm is a physical prison; she is being expressive, like an artist. “Expression needs context,” she writes. We must be able to distinguish “being called a cunt in a sex game with your lover, from being called a cunt by your boss during a meeting, from seeing the word cunt spray-painted on a wall as you’re walking by, from calling your own cunt a cunt, from reading a paragraph like this one.”

This is an excellent observation, and a perfect example. In writing it, Nelson is both illustrating and exercising the freedom of expression, by which I mean not just her legal right to say what she wants the way she wants to but also the freedom, inherent in the nature of language, for words not to mean what they say. The freedom not to mean things — this is what Nelson will freely extend to works of art while in the same breath denying it to those who would advocate that these same works of art be removed or destroyed. If the protesters had wanted to be open to interpretation, they should have tried being paintings.

Hang on, Nelson replies: “It is disingenuous to argue, as has often been argued to me, that when we call for art to be censored, we aren’t really calling for any of that, based on the premise that, since we lack the power to carry out such demands, they are best understood as inert performance designed to garner attention that a critique without such demands wouldn’t receive.” In other words, it is disingenuous to say protesters were being disingenuous; betting that institutions will “refuse to cave in to our demands” is a poor excuse for organizing. That’s a reasonable retort. Let’s say the protestors really did want the art removed. Nelson calls this “censorious,” noting that the ACLU considers censorship to occur “whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal, political, or moral values” on others. Yet surely the left should try to impose its political values on others; if I’m not mistaken, we call this winning. The real question is how to do it without resorting to the gulags.

But Nelson feels especially protective toward art. She recalls her 20-odd years of teaching at the California Institute for the Arts, which boasts a very broad freedom-of-expression policy: “CalArts does not censor any work on the basis of content,” period. According to Nelson, this policy largely worked: “Sometimes provocative student work glistened with punk or even revolutionary spirit; at others, its transgressions sank into the mean-spirited or clichéd. The pedagogical task at hand was not to discipline people for their failures, but to help them make more interesting art.” This was not always easy, but it was worth it, for Nelson, to learn to forgo the knee-jerk reactions of “suppression, shaming, or ejection” in favor of the more patient labor of “radical compassion.”

Radical compassion sounds good, and it certainly makes sense for an art school, whose mission is to safeguard not just art but also, and arguably more fundamentally, an educational environment. Professional training presumes both the existence of a profession and a difference between itself and that profession; art students are not taught to be art students but to be artists. One supposes the Whitney Biennial, which courts the attention of not just New Yorkers but the entire international art world, might be held to different, possibly higher standards than a student showcase; one at least hopes that a culinary student has more freedom than the chef who made what’s in one’s mouth.

Let’s say something obvious. People have the right to make art. People have the right to write books. They also have the right to go to school for those things. (In fact, the state should pay for it!) What people do not have a right to is having their art exhibited in museums or their books published by publishers. The latter is a privilege, by which I mean largely reflects its bearers’ material resources, connections, and luck, and only to a much lesser extent their talent. It can be argued, and has, that this privilege should be redistributed to members of historically marginalized groups; good, but that would not be freedom, just back pay. Institutions like these, the museums with arms dealers on their boards, the publishing houses owned by multinational conglomerates — freedom is not to be found within the matrices of their financial decisions.

And you know what? I agree with Nelson. I agree that art is “a place to engage in open-ended experiments with extremity, wildness, satire, defiance, taboo, beauty, and absurdity, to make space for anarchic gestures and urges that might otherwise rip apart (for better or worse) social norms or fabric.” I’m just far less convinced that this only describes art. Take Nelson’s comments about social media, where, she writes, one finds “a chorus of disembodied strangers standing at the ready to trash-talk not only your work but also your appearance, your attachments, your demographic markers, your family, and more.” One of her examples of this disinhibition is, bizarrely, the joy many of us felt at the viral video of white supremacist Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched. But it is easy to blame “new attentional technologies” for fostering rage and paranoia without noticing that these technologies represent a historically new level of abstraction in language. Twitter, too, is full of experiments with wildness and satire; think of trolling, an absurdist practice as expressive as any oil painting. Do people mean what they post? Well, do people mean what they paint?

A drawing by Parker Bright of his protest in front of a Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney in 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Parker Bright

Or consider Hannah Black’s open letter to the Whitney. I am sorry to be talking about this letter again; Hannah, I’m sorry I’m talking about this letter. But here goes. Did Hannah Black mean it when she wrote of Open Casket, “The painting must go”? Let’s assume “yes.” What does it mean to say she meant it? In the first place, the letter was not a real letter; it was not, as far as I know, written onto a piece of paper, sealed in an envelope, and delivered to the Whitney’s doorstep. In the second place, it was an open letter, meaning its putative addressees — the Whitney curators and staff — were not its true audience; it was, like all open letters, a bit of theater. The letter presumed, in other words, it would be multiply interpreted; in fact, according to one interpretation (this one), it planned to be.

I am not saying the open letter was a work of art. I am only saying it is difficult to prove it wasn’t, and more importantly, that Nelson should have to prove it if she is going to deny it the slow interpretive attention she asks readers to give to artistic work. It should never be assumed that the thing one defends has a monopoly on the qualities that first inspired one’s allegiance to it. For a critic, it is easy to attack, harder to understand, hardest to understand one’s attackers. Yes, the rhetoric of harm can be paranoid, flattening, and reductive; yes, it can reify “tinny stereotypes of bully and snowflake, target and troll, defender and supporter, perpetrator and victim.” But reifying something doesn’t actually make it real; it only pretends to, and hopes you won’t notice the difference. The rhetoric of harm is just that — a rhetoric. It does not really divide the world into victims and perpetrators of harm, either literally or metaphorically. Where is its army, its police? No, a rhetoric only tries to impose its categories on the world, and that — the failure of language to manifest what it names — is what deserves our critical attention if we are to move beyond tiresome debates over whether the internet is tearing the left apart.

It is unfortunately true that those who wish for more nuance usually want less of it instead; this is what’s happening when liberal pundits feel sorry for Nazis. More disappointing is when a writer of stature and skill who genuinely wants us to think more carefully, as I believe Nelson does, manages not to extend that care beyond the limits of what she finds interesting, right, or true. The higher critical act, if we want to go in for that sort of thing, is not to position the subtlety of one’s own views against the crudeness of those who do not share them but to draw out like water from a rock the nuances that exist within the ideas one finds the most noxious, the most strident, the most difficult to dignify.

The critic should do this work not just because it will further her understanding of the world (good), or because it is far more interesting (better), but because it will crack open a view onto unconscious processes within herself that are only available through (forgive me) the infinite regard of other people. This is what I’ve been trying to show you, modestly, in my back and forth with Nelson. I can only say she is being disingenuous by risking disingenuousness myself; I place on her arguments a demand for logical consistency that I implore her, at the same time, to spare other people. A few paragraphs ago, I apologized to you for talking about the Whitney letter, and then I apologized to Hannah Black. But Hannah isn’t here right now; I’m only pretending to address her, for dramatic effect, while in fact I’m still talking to you, and you’re not here either, so I’m really just talking to myself, and if I’m being really honest, I’m not talking at all — I am only, God help me, writing.

The freedom not to mean it, or to mean it only sometimes — whose freedoms are these? Mine? Yours? I’ll tell you a secret: I am generally in favor of the artistic freedom to provoke and offend, except when I am not. I am generally opposed to the censorship of troubling or controversial speech, except for when I am not. How do I quarter that orange? Well, I exercise judgment, or at least I try to — which is to say, I gather the indeterminacy of a thing into the inconsistency of having an opinion about it. Indeed, opinions can be formed no other way. When I make a judgment about a work of art, or a political act, or a book like this one, I change not knowing what to think about it into not knowing why I think it. Like all of us — like you, like Maggie Nelson — I do this every day. It is, if nothing else, a practice of freedom.

You’ve Heard This One Before