What to Do About Freedom?

Once, radical artists and thinkers shook up conservatives. Now, it’s the right gleefully transgressing a “moralizing” left. What happened?

A sea change: where radical artists and thinkers once sought to shake up priggish sensibilities—to épater the religious right—now, the right has gleefully taken up the position of “transgressors” against a perceived moralizing left. Conspicuous crosses give way to “Love is Love/Kindness is Everything” yard signs. What to make of this turn? Given the right’s weaponization of wildness, does it make sense for the left simply to promote, rather, an attitude of care?

It is refreshing, in this context, to come across two books that question the abandonment of a more transgressive left sensibility, and do so by returning to the brash feminist and queer avant-gardes that formed the authors’ own deepest source of inspiration. Could she stand attending the Women’s March against Trump—thinks Rachel Greenwald Smith—if it meant being swaddled in endless, earnestly imploring Lilith Fair sing-alongs? Why—Maggie Nelson wonders—did an invitation to join a panel discussing “the aesthetics of care” prompt in her the initial response “yuck”? Something, both imply, has been lost here.

The books containing these admissions—Smith’s On Compromise and Nelson’s On Freedom—have further commonalities: they are essayistic, written in linked fragments that allow room for a wide range of personal, political, and cultural meditations. And yet, despite their affinities, they can appear to make their arguments against left moralism for diametrically opposed reasons: for Smith, because it works against collectivist aims; for Nelson, because of its reductive understanding of the individual’s encounter with the world. To read their work together is to recognize, in fact, the risks it can pose to both.

The divergences between them begin with their relation to their subject material. Nelson’s is a recuperative project, hoping to wrest the potentialities of freedom from the term’s appropriation by an anti-interventionist right. Smith, in contrast, takes a critical stance; in focusing on compromise, she tackles a notion that she mostly abominates. This disparity in aim seems in keeping with the attitude governing the respective political-artistic movements important to each writer. Nelson’s expansiveness echoes that of the AIDS generation that defiantly asserted their presence in all its motley glory; Smith’s insistence on conflict evokes the intense “refusals” of punk, and specifically the Riot Grrrl scene of her native Pacific Northwest.

Their stylistic choices follow suit. Nelson’s voice is characteristically lush, spilling over with the words of a stunning range of interlocutors, yet with a roving sensibility always recognizably her own. Smith stays terse, focused, her sentences vibrating with the controlled intensity of a Mecca Normal song.

Behind their ’80s versus ’90s reference points, then, lies the political bane of each era: for the first, the Moral Majority of the Reagan/Bush years; for the second, the recognition of a Democratic complacency in Clinton’s neoliberal Third Way. All this can begin to explain why, irritated by the present-day left’s moralizing turn, Nelson and Smith see its dangers in such opposing terms. Most broadly, Nelson sees the idea of freedom as having too readily been abandoned, where Smith sees the abandonment of politics in the presence of that idea’s grip.

And yet, despite all this, strangely enough, each book turns out to instantiate the other’s deepest claim.

On Compromise hates compromise. Well, who doesn’t, at a time when the future of the planet can appear to hang on the whims of one man from West Virginia? And, of course, as Smith—a denizen of St. Louis—reminds us, American history is littered with unsavory, even unforgivable compromises: from the one enabling Missouri’s entrance into the Union as a slave state to the one enshrining the Fugitive Slave Law. The egregious fractioning of Black personhood built such compromises into the nation’s founding assertions of purportedly natural liberty.

The problem, of course, as Smith recognizes, is that democracy “requires compromises.” If not all will be as morally incriminating as those above, none will be pretty.

Here, then, emerges Smith’s real, and often compelling, plea: stop celebrating compromises. Stop treating them as triumphs of rationality and moderation, and, instead, recognize them as the “ugly, makeshift, disappointing” patchworks that they inevitably are.

The aesthetic language here is no accident. “A good compromise … is like a good sentence,” muses Barack Obama in a 2004 interview, “or a good piece of music. … Everybody can recognize it.” Obama speaks, Smith notes, as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue—a jazz record for people who don’t like jazz—plays reassuringly in the background. (Even Davis came to think of it as the aural equivalent of “warmed-over turkey,” invoking another American event where apparent togetherness can often barely conceal deeper fractures.) Democrats, Smith points out, are particularly prone to this sort of fantasy of fellow feeling: a vision of differences dissolved, as everyone comes together to read the same novel or sing the same song.

The Third Way politics Smith writes against, however, also had an alternative vision of how everyone might get along. This she sums up as “you do you,” or the logic behind neoliberalism.

The ’60s’ movements, according to Smith (following David Harvey), were “so focused on freedom as a value” that they paved the way for policies where government withdrew in favor of “the liberty of consumer choice.” Radical art and politics had once sought to question the hegemony of the market. Now this aim has ceded ground to what Smith terms “compromise aesthetics”: “literary fiction” just innovative enough to win awards yet cozily at home on bestseller lists; hipster youth refashioned as brand-hawking influencers; and, in her own realm of criticism, a preference for “postcritical” practices rooted in openness without an excess of judgment.

As Smith is well aware, many such gestures evolved as deliberate reactions to a perceived overemphasis on “purity” of stance on the part of avant-gardes and movements for change. For her, however, such anguished quests to avoid all compromise and the sunny embrace thereof form two sides of a coin: both mistake political questions for matters of individual behavior. If moralism inevitably begets Trumpian gestures of gleeful “transgression,” Third Way “post-politics” fares no better in paving the way for the repressed’s violent return.

Smith is at her best in limning alternatives to these options. And she does so by showcasing avant-gardes, from the heyday of modernism to her own punk past, that combined democratic openness with an avowed allegiance to fierce debate. In a standout chapter, she writes powerfully of Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, the journal in which Ulysses first saw print, and specifically of its sprawling “Reader Critic” section. There, “A Boy Reader, Chicago” might find his thoughts next to Emma Goldman’s, the only requirement being an “intensely passionate” engagement and commitment to strong ideas.

In a probing chapter on the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, however, matters become more complicated. On scrawled sheets of paper, Smith finds Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna agonizing over how best to grow the movement. She ends up, Smith argues, going for the individualizing mode of “you do you.” Hanna, that is, refused to adopt a top-down, unified approach, even as she wondered if doing so might enable a more consistent attention to the already vexing issue of inclusivity in a largely white, middle-class group. Smith’s critique here clearly parallels similar queryings of the limits of liberal individualism, from arguments against meritocracy to the legal claims of actual (rather than imagined) critical race theorists.

Smith takes things further still, however. Her frustration with liberalism, she states, at times leads her in the direction of what she bluntly terms (without reference to the likes of Viktor Orbán) more “illiberal” modes. Politically, this means she expresses kinship with the writings of the theorist Chantal Mouffe, herself inspired by Carl Schmitt.

“Liberalism” and “democracy,” for Mouffe, far from forming a natural whole, are ideas in perpetual conflict with one another. Smith takes this to mean that the former needs to stop getting in the latter’s way. Sometimes, Smith admits, she feels as she does at the Women’s March, watching an amorphous mass of people straggle toward what turns out to be a dead end: “Why doesn’t everyone just shut up and listen to the person in charge?

Yet the frustration here, as Smith at times seems more aware, is not with the liberalism side, but with democracy. The world she strives for, she explains, is one in which all large conflicts between warring factions will have simply been eradicated as the “structural symptoms” she believes them to be. Any remaining compromises, then, will entail merely the sympathetic, minor “give and take of living together,” a phrase she uses again at the end of the book to describe her marriage.

The personal, then—Smith’s bugbear throughout the book—ends up serving as a model for political life. Smith is, in fact, surprisingly willing to consider this possibility. Her annoyance with personalism itself turns out to have an autobiographical origin, in her experience with a hippie-style education in Portland: “I wanted to learn something,” she complains, not simply “be free.” “Is my intellectual critique of compromise,” she wonders more than once, “merely a justification for my own tough shell?” Her edgy temperament, and the frustration with others it brings, has, she shows, led to an ongoing threat of loneliness and alienation. For all its animus toward the private, Smith’s book thus ends up giving a surprisingly intimate, and moving, portrayal of the dangers of compromise’s outright rejection as well.

Care and freedom overlap, but they can also get in one another’s way.

In sum, Smith is a remarkably—even appealingly—misanthropic collectivist. As such, however, she would find plenty of company in Maggie Nelson’s book. For Nelson, the experience of recalcitrant individuals like young Rachel—whose desires don’t match up with her teachers’ sense of what “freedom” means—is, far from being a reason to abandon the notion of freedom, a way into talking about freedom in serious terms. These terms, in her book, have very little to do with the kind of familiar divide COVID has rendered so stark, between “I get to do what I want” and caring for those around us.

In the realm of art, however, that framing of the options has led to what Nelson questions: both to the idea of an “aesthetics of care” and, more controversially, calls to remove from exhibition works seen as causing emotional harm. The long opening chapters of Nelson’s book, to the extent they argue for some of the dangers of such arguments as well as those of #MeToo, might thus appear to speak from a familiarly liberal perspective.

This is, however, where Nelson’s own grounding in feminist/queer avant-gardes is crucial. On the one hand, that background simply primes her to see that marginalized groups will always be especially vulnerable to censorship, as recent bills targeting critical race theory show, and, hence, to have a particular concern with what happens when institutions take up a policing role. On the other, however, she is not simply lamenting the loss of an old “transgressive” sensibility that was bound up, as she is well aware, with an idealization of (often male) acting out and disdain for the feminized realm of care. Her concern lies only with the flipping of this script, so that, for the left, as the “aesthetics of care” panel suggests, “care” has become the paramount value and “freedom” a merely suspect one. The strongest claims of On Freedom concern how the very conflict between these values may be inseparable from their irreducible entanglement.

As social media demonstrates daily, the moralized stance of victimization is capable of being every bit as charged by aggressive intensities as the “toxic” one it aims to replace. (Indeed, Nelson’s book falters only in the occasional moments when she succumbs to this outraged mode herself.) To recognize this is, as Wendy Brown pointed out long ago, to express a basic Nietzschean insight: the instinct for freedom here simply appears in a different and arguably narrower form, as the stance of sheer resistance—“no”-saying rather than “yes”-saying, in Nietzsche’s formulation. Here we see, however, the link of the very punk attitude of antipathy and denunciation that powers Smith’s On Compromise to its own sort of moral fastidiousness.

To adopt the classic liberal distinction, such a “negative” attitude knows what it wants to be free from, but what does it want to be free for? What might we actually want, were basic needs at last to be met? It is this question of wanting that is Nelson’s true subject, and one she explores with unfailing rigor.

Her chief focus, in traversing it, is difference. Some people will want things that others find disturbing; some want things not even necessarily conducive to their own well-being. Of particular interest to Nelson: some find sociality itself to be a drag, and find greater “solace or sustenance” in “nomadism,” “unpredictable or uncouth identifications,” or “exile” than in the care and “refuge” offered by well-meaning others, who imagine such folks are just looking for the right place to call “home.” Such gestures thus spurn the liberal hand-holding Smith deplores just as her punk collectivities do, serving as a crucial reminder of how such models can fail difficult individuals as well.

Perhaps liberalism’s true sleight of hand, its “compromise,” lies in its insistence that no conflict at all could exist between individual aims and collective ones. While it makes this assertion by way of the market, its socialist counterpart does so by way of the state or political community.

And yet, as Nelson well knows, simply to pull these aims apart acts to deny that we are always at once variegated beings and enmeshed in a world of mutual dependence. She thus finally rejects both the liberal (including liberal feminist) version of self-empowerment and the old “bad-boy” transgressive one (which we now see reappear on the right), for their complacent sense that “freedom” means no more than self-affirmation: Smith’s “you do you.” The experiments in freedom that Nelson details—whether they involve art, sex, drugs, or simply a movement to elsewhere—are, rather, radical gestures of opening oneself to the world, ways of courting serious vulnerability and risk in the name of an expansion of one’s purview. As such, however, they are always bound up with the ever-present potential for unfreedom as well.

This entanglement between freedom and danger is no doubt clearest in the chapter on drugs, a showcase for Nelson’s clear-eyed refusal either to lionize or pathologize her often startlingly unfettered subjects (most memorably, perhaps, the obliteration-seeking heroine of Ellen Miller’s 1998 novel Like Being Killed). It is perhaps most moving, however, in the one on sex.

“Many girls,” Nelson writes—“deeply compelled by their desires” but without much “practice in articulating them”—find ways to inhabit situations in which their own agency can be experienced as uncertain. “‘Emergent desire,’” she dubs it, “the magic of attracting rather than aiming. As I describe it, I recognize it as one of my favorite feelings.” Nelson is the rare writer able to see all the dangers this position creates, while still recognizing its link to what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the one thing which we seek with insatiable desire”: “to forget ourselves,” “to do something without knowing how or why.”

“Riding the blinds,” Nelson will later call this desire, using a term for the itinerant practice of hopping trains, which reappeared in song lyrics to suggest a dangerous but often alluring form of escape. Here, to follow out your profoundest impulses turns out to entail the opposite of shoring up a bounded liberal self.

Nelson’s worry, then, regarding #MeToo—and here she makes clear she means only its more “gray-area” manifestations—is that its disgust at male behaviors can push us further away from the question of women’s own complicated wants.

The desire to keep a space open for exploration fuels her concerns about recent art-world disputes as well. As she notes, the way that works of art can be treated today as forms of harm can oddly mirror the older discourse of avant-garde “shock,” with each portraying the viewer as coerced into a certain response, whether for good or ill. (Some of us still remember punk’s version of this dictum of salutary coercion in Forced Exposure magazine.) The possibility that art might represent an especially crucial space, for creator and viewer alike, for a more indeterminate kind of encounter is thus elided by both.


Freedom’s Stakes

By Greg Barnhisel

This doesn’t mean, for Nelson, that, say, white artists might not do well to spend some time reflecting on the role played by the politics of race in their work (thinking less of their “right” to portray anything they please than of their “desires” here, as Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda suggest). It does mean, however, recognizing the fact that artists and critics of color have themselves not always preferred to do so. For Nelson, to emphasize freedom in these situations means resisting a certain instrumentalizing logic that can link today’s political moralizing to “capitalism’s own fixation on quantifiable results,” as well as to the pharmaceutical logic of “fixing” problematic human beings once and for all.

Perhaps most powerfully, Nelson suggests we might think of art­, along with other practices not oriented toward a set goal, as its own form of “care,” care for the practice itself. We do not recognize such activities as care precisely because they do not entail care, in any direct way, for other human beings. Yet given the enormous and often thankless labor that the making of art requires, as well as the fealty to engaging the nonhuman world, it seems wrong to see it as mere solipsism. It is, however, crucial to recognize its difference from the other sort of care, and the fact that the two may and do often conflict—as, she notes, anyone married to an artist and needing the dishes done might attest. As a mother, however, she is under no illusions that the alternative, care for others—the stance more often promoted from a politicized perspective—is always a purely enriching experience either for the caregiver or recipient of care.

Neither care nor freedom are utopian practices, then, yet both are essential. They overlap, but they can also significantly get in one another’s way.

The remarkable thing about this argument is how politically astute it is, despite Nelson’s claim, contra Smith’s, that hers is not primarily a political book. Specifically, Nelson’s sense of an irreducible tension between two genuine values here evokes the arguments of Smith’s own guiding light, Chantal Mouffe. Mouffe does see liberalism and democracy, or freedom and equality, as in irreducible tension with one another; unlike Carl Schmitt, however, she sees this fact not as liberal democracy’s inevitable undoing but as its constitutive condition and, ideally, the source of its dynamism. This depends, however, on an underlying consensus about and willingness to support the political structure in question, without which politics as necessary “agonism” risks dissolving into the “antagonism” threatening US politics today.

Mouffe, who also writes against neoliberalism, is thus in no way a fan of its “post-political” view that the old conflicts had simply disappeared in favor of a market-friendly compromise. But she is equally insistent that, given the impossibility of rationally adjudicating among opposed and serious values, no “final ‘big night’ of liberation,” as Nelson (citing Frédéric Lordon) has it, no end to the uglier sorts of compromises, remains in sight. Because of her more capacious attentiveness to human differences, Nelson is finally better able to face this possibility:

The response to “you must listen to me” or “you must care for me” or “you must respond to me”—whether you’re addressing an artist, an institution, your lover, your child, or your representative in Congress—can always be “no” … . In which case, you’re going to need a plan B. … For once we truly acknowledge that there are other people in the world—which is harder to do than it sounds—we must reckon with the fact that we cannot control them, even as we depend upon them. … Such lack of control is frightening—enraging, even. It is also … the beginning of political life.

In Smith, in contrast, for all her genuinely acute analyses, political life begins—and ends—with the Schmittian affirmation that she won’t make nice with her boorishly Trumpy neighbor down the street. What she might do, were that neighbor a nonwhite Trump supporter, or a frustrated former Democrat—someone not clearly “friend” or “enemy,” in Schmitt’s terminology—remains unasked.

Nelson, at the end of her book, does take a more directly political turn, with “Riding the Blinds,” a chapter on climate change. Here the titular idea takes center stage: the reckless leap onto a moving train, suggesting freedom in its most elemental, charged form. Historically, lives have depended on it, but Nelson also sees a tiny echo of its siren song in her young son’s adoration of trains. With trains, however—and cars, and planes, and all our cherished technologies of escape—begins the problem of our carbon dependence. And thus we are back to the question COVID, too—along with Smith’s book—seems to pose: is it time, perhaps, to put this whole “freedom” idea to rest?

Whether faced with climate catastrophe or pandemic, after all, many gravitate toward a tendency identified in studies of addiction as well: “future discounting,” or the tendency simply to write off a non-immediate tomorrow in which one may regret one’s more wanton actions today. What might it look like, however, to let that future in? As Nelson notes, a different danger rears its head: a paralysis or anxiety so insurmountable it can make any action in the present impossible to conceive.

Here, then, the question of freedom inevitably returns. Little can seem more maddening than our failure to act on all that we do know about the warming earth. Yet even so, we will still always, Nelson suggests, have no choice but to ride the blinds—to be uncertain about the precise contours of what awaits us, even as we need to be able to make decisions now.

Freedom is thus revealed as no more or less than the condition to which our imperfect knowledge necessarily condemns us. As such, it remains the strangely doubled source of our responsibilities and our joys.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image by Luca Nicoletti / Unsplash