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On Freedom

Four Songs of Care and Constraint

Maggie Nelson

Graywolf Press

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ISBN10: 1644450623
ISBN13: 9781644450628


288 Pages


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So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing moments of liberation, the rhetoric of freedom both rouses and repels. Does it remain key to our autonomy, justice, and well-being, or is freedom’s long star turn coming to a close? Does a continued obsession with the term enliven and emancipate, or reflect a deepening nihilism (or both)? On Freedom examines such questions by tracing the concept’s complexities in four distinct realms: art, sex, drugs, and climate.

Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Maggie Nelson explores how we might think, experience, or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. Her abiding interest lies in ongoing “practices of freedom” by which we negotiate our interrelation with—indeed, our inseparability from—others, with all the care and constraint that entails, while accepting difference and conflict as integral to our communion.

For Nelson, thinking publicly through the knots in our culture—from recent art-world debates to the turbulent legacies of sexual liberation, from the painful paradoxes of addiction to the lure of despair in the face of the climate crisis—is itself a practice of freedom, a means of forging fortitude, courage, and company. On Freedom is an invigorating, essential book for challenging times.


Praise for On Freedom

"In her new collection, the acclaimed essayist and cultural critic takes up our 24/7 attention cycle, the complexities of the #MeToo movement and other topics, examining the ways our newfound 'freedoms' create their own burdens, opportunities and expectations."—Los Angeles Times

“Rather than define freedom in exact terms or declare what it is for, Nelson moves through knots of ideology on freedom via 'songs' of art, sex, drugs, and climate, drawing conclusions . . . that obliterate the binary of freedom vs. constraint . . . On Freedom proves that Nelson continues to do us a great service as a critic, which is to herself digest, and sometimes wrestle with, copious amounts of literature and theory . . . and to integrate this material into a relatively short book, in an accessible, felicitous voice all Nelson’s own. There are no hot takes in On Freedom. While hot takes are satisfying, they rarely finish the job. If you want to get your hands around something as vast and slippery as freedom, you are going to have to get comfortable moving through an ideological briar patch. On Freedom offers navigation tips, but Nelson’s call to action is a journey that readers must take on their own."—The Boston Globe

“What Nelson has penned in On Freedom is a mighty hymn to context and subtlety, another much-needed celebration of the motley, ungovernable, transgressive and possible. And approached as a symposium—a grand chorus—each of On Freedom’s component essays invites (perhaps demands) participation. They welcome dissent. That’s the rare and precious pleasure of Nelson’s work, her generosity.”—The Australian

“Maggie Nelson’s books crack your heart open on a marble countertop and piece it back together, but not before you’ve thought critically about your entire life. Her writing leaves you smarter, even if it sometimes contains truths that are hard to swallow.”—NYLON

“As ever, Nelson’s probing inquiry sits on equal footing with her effortlessly fluid prose, which moves between first-person, anecdotal stories and intense critical examination with the utmost readability. Ultimately Nelson’s approach is one that seeks liberation and transcendence, whether sexual, narcotic, or purely biological—something that radiates palpably from her writing, even when she delves into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche.”—

"In exploring weighty issues related to art, sex, drugs, and climate change, Nelson offers her own ideas around what real freedom might look like. Many of the hallmarks of her style are on display here . . . [and] she gets pointed as well, especially when unpacking timely topics like cancel culture and consent."—The A.V. Club

"Accessible critical theory from a verified genius."—Lit Hub

“A top cultural critic plucks the concept of freedom away from right-wing sloganeers and explores its operation in current artistic and political conversations . . . The subtlety of Nelson's analysis and energy of her prose refresh the mind and spirit.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[Maggie Nelson] traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study . . . Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance . . . Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Argonauts. She teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.