LITERATURE— MAGGIE NELSON
In her new book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson refracts gender theory through the prism of her experience forming a non- heteronormative family.
Maggie Nelson’s new book, The Argonauts, is wholly complex and pleasurable, cross-connecting forms of autobiographical, theorhetorical, and epistolyrical inquiry. I don’t think she would have it any other way. As we’ve come to know each other over the past eight or so years, we’ve weaved in and out of each other’s lives, consciousnesses, personal spaces, and workplaces. I was first introduced to her through her memoir The Red Parts (2007), and later had a raucously memorable time at her book launch for Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2011), which keyed me into spectacularizations such as the amazing Bernadette Mayer and Kim Gordon fucking her guitar.
The cyclical configurations connecting us as artists were ushered in by the inevitability of a queer community. We’re both, at times, performing professionalization— sometimes, together, we’ve felt the burden of contradiction regarding such conceits and constraints. As pedagogues, I feel we connect deeply (maybe it’s just that I want to take her class). We consider future without futurity. We seek the pleasures denied to, or hidden from us.
In 2012, I asked Maggie to write a short essay for a zine I wanted to self-publish, mostly because at the opening for my installation Puppies and Babies she had made me cry just by talking about the work. It may be true that we were both precariously emotional for different reasons, but the experience brought us closer together. I wish Maggie was writing this introduction, but nonetheless, I hope you enjoy reading us. Please feel free to get back to us with any questions or problems.
A. L. STEINER: It’s so bizarre to be mediated.
MAGGIE NELSON: I know. Suddenly there’s a third person here with us.
ALS: Or a disseminated audience, or an imaginary fandom. I know you do have a lot of fans though, that’s the thing.
MN: As do you.
ALS: We could get into that. ( laughter) In your new book, The Argonauts, you write that artistry trumps mastery; I guess it comes from your relation to some of Barthes’s writing. I was wondering about that, in terms of your process. I want to start there, because that relates not only to the way that I’ve experienced your writing, but also to a life philosophy.
MN: In that part of The Argonauts I’m telling the story of an encounter I once witnessed between art critic Rosalind Krauss and feminist critic Jane Gallop, in which Krauss kind of scolded Gallop for talking about photography without being an art historian. I note that both critics made recourse to Barthes, who also wasn’t an art historian, but I say, “artistry trumps mastery.” When I wrote that line, I was thinking of a part of Barthes’s The Neutral where he addresses a comment from a student who has reservations about what she sees as his uninformed use of a Buddhist parable in one of his lectures. He responds: “I thank her, but this observation reveals a misunderstanding about the way I proceed when I ‘cite’ (I call) a knowledge [...] When I cite from Buddhism or from Skepticism, you must not believe me: I am outside mastery, I have no mastery whatsoever [...] My aim = to be neither master nor disciple but, in the Nietzschean sense (thus with no need for a good grade), ‘artist.’” There’s a lot to talk about here—like, whether a white French guy lecturing at the Collège de France can so easily disavow a position of mastery when presenting Buddhist parables—but still, I love his response, as it articulates the kind of permission I need to grant myself in my writing, to touch things other people sometimes think you’re not supposed to touch.
ALS: Yeah, because we’re not scholars. I’ve been told that, categorically.
MN: The Argonauts, like so much of my writing, tries to break down whatever’s left of the partition between “ivory tower scholarship” over there, and lived, embodied life over here. In this phase of the breakdown, the speaker is not going to be able to maintain a position of mastery. It’s going to get subjective and maybe a little messy. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think things through or read texts seriously. But I have not been in the academic world for a long time, so that’s not the bar by which I’m measuring my thinking or writing.
ALS: Your writing does this a lot—it’s the unknown area or parameter of permission, where artistry exists in the
formulation of research, if we’re going to formalize it. For me, it’s really important to think in terms of multiplicity, but not to become attached.
MN: What kind of attachment do you mean?
ALS: Where one stands in relation to the story that one is telling. The goal is to tell it not only through the personal body, but through a multiplicity of voices. So if you make a proposition, to then become attached to it feels detrimental to the proposition. For instance, you write, “I don’t want to represent anything. […] I have also never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position or orientation.”
MN: I see what you’re saying. Often people will go, “But you said this in your writing!“And I’m like, Yeah, I did, but that was a performative moment—I’m not writing in order to come to a thesis that I will then go around the country defending. That’s the artistry part, because creative work, in my experience, privileges performativity over fixity. The Argonauts is nonfiction, but my hope is that it has enough artistry that by the book’s end, the experience of it has generated something greater than the sum of its parts. That larger thing has a lot to do with the context the work creates—the families of relation it has drawn, on its own terms.
The birthing story in my book, for instance—it was really important to me to find the right context for it, to find the right thing to juxtapose it with so that it would gain in meaning, so that it would be bigger than one layer of testimony.
ALS: I completely relate. To objectify that experience is not the point. I can’t justify showing something without the context of possibilities and relations around it. In your book, it feels like the writing builds speed when the physicality of the body enters the story.
MN: Interesting. I did want it to have a certain speediness at moments. When I decided to interweave the birth story of my son with the deathbed story of Harry’s mother—I couldn’t believe I was—
ALS: —tackling that?
MN: Yeah. Birth and death. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding, pairing them together so directly. But on the other hand, I thought, Let’s just try it.
ALS: That’s what I felt about my installation Puppies & Babies (2012).
MN: I remember what you wrote to me about the impetus for it—you said it started as a sort of joke: “The joke coming from the fact that sometimes I’d find myself shooting puppies/dogs and babies and what for? Were they part of my ‘work’? How did/could they fit in to the highbrow genre of labels often attached to my work— installation- based, for mature audiences, political, etc.?”
So what did it feel like, once you moved past the joke and just went for it?
ALS: Oh, amazing. But also because I had a dream conversation about it through your writing of the essay for the show’s zine. When I was constructing the installation, it still felt very much like, Really, am I gonna go there?
MN: This is what I like so much about your work. You acknowledge the fear that you might be pushing toward a place that you aren’t sure will be a good one to go to— in the case of Puppies & Babies, into the sentimental, or banal, or clichéd, or whatever. You push on anyway, you respect your impulses, until you find/make something completely worthwhile.
ALS: The unsustainability of the binary—normative on one hand, and transgressive on the other—is what we’re both investigating, to some degree. While reading your books, there are moments where I’m not sure that what you’re writing about is okay. Then, on the other hand, in The Argonauts, there are instances of loving the transgression embedded in your musings of sodomitical maternity, of delight in cracking open the book and swiftly encountering an ass-fucking scene, for instance, as Anna Joy [Springer] deftly observed at your book party.
We’re aware that contemporary language is oppressive; we fail or refuse to describe our experiences under patriarchal oppression within a system of capital- centric devastation. What does it mean for words to be “good enough” as you muse regarding D.W. Winnicott’s work?
MN: The normative/ transgressive dichotomy is so deep. I remember a student I had a while ago, a trans person deeply invested in anti- assimilation, who was saying to me quite plaintively one day, “I just don’t see how to keep resisting the normative!” So I asked him, “Can you name what it is, exactly, that you feel like you have to resist?” And he said, “Well, I don’t want to get married or have a baby.” After he left my office I just kept thinking, Well, that’s weird, ‘cuz I’m married, and I have a baby. And, while it would be silly to disavow the normative politics of such things, I do believe we’re entering a time when the presumption that simply rejecting certain behaviors or bodily enmeshments—with each other, with the state—will deliver one into a radical state of resistance, queer or otherwise, is untenable. It’s decidedly not good enough. I wanted The Argonauts to ask deeper, or at least different, questions about radicality—questions that don’t just have to do with refusing procreation. I mean, how is that going to make the world a better place for everyone?
ALS: There is no answer to that, which is why the inquiry continues. We first talked about radicality together in 2011, in Philadelphia. We were talking about equality, freedom, and normativity as nationalist sentiments, a locational positionality. How is a body or person “equal” to another, or even more so, to anything else? Is it about sameness, or likeness, being “as good as,” or assimilating?
MN: Right. This is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. In Philadelphia you gave this presentation on some really interesting things about freedom. I have my notes on it somewhere. You were doing something visual.
ALS: The visual thesaurus.
MN: Right. Maybe, instead of my finding my notes, you could re- explain the idea behind it to me now?
ALS: Well, this visual semiotic web was sandwiched between reacting to the intersections of judgment, choice, consumption, agency, voice, and broadcast. I’d opened with a quote from Gregg Bordowitz: “Today, waves of sensation overwhelm the individual dispossessed of any grounding framework for experience. We are awash in emotions, subject to suggestion, organized by panic, moved by anxiety. […] If there is anything new to say about the current ethos, it can only be described as the unprecedented intensification of a conflict between stimulus and cognition. A resolution to this conflict seems possible: we must defeat the time- honored oppositions between feeling and thought, sense and understanding. Is that achievable? Is that desirable? Do we have a choice?” The larger question for me is parsing what’s inside and outside of conditions. Conditions lead to decisions, whether passive or active decision- making processes are at stake, creating interconnectivities and dependencies. There is no “freedom,” only the signification of freedoms that may arise in specified enclosures. In his talk “An Ecology of (Eloquent) Things,” which I watched online, Fred Moten discusses building a “difference engine […] critical transcendence of private property and of monocultural violence….”
MN: Around the time of the gathering in Philadelphia, I was supposed to be writing a scholarly book, which I still want to write, about freedom, emancipation, liberation, and their relationship to one another. In some ways, The Argonauts interrupted that project; in other ways, it’s a continuation, or an episode, of it. Our culture generally opposes enmeshment and interrelation with others to the individual, autonomous freedom to do whatever you want. Others, with all their needs and concerns, just bring you down, man! The whole writing of this book involved showing draft after draft to my partner Harry [Dodge], and thinking hard about all of the relations I was sketching out, including my relation to a radically dependent being: my son. Eventually, the writing of the thing felt like passing through the crucible of Foucault’s notion that freedom never exists outside power, that freedom is not an undifferentiated promised land one gains access to vis- à-vis a one- off liberation, but is better understood, experienced, as a practice. His whole trip is to “emphasize practices of freedom over processes of liberation.”
ALS: At the beginning of The Argonauts, you ask: How
I wanted The Argonauts to ask deeper, or at least different, questions about radicality— questions that don’t just have to do with refusing procreation. I mean, how is that going to make the world a better place for everyone?
can a book be both free expression and negotiation?
MN: Yeah, at that moment in the book, I was experiencing “free expression” and “negotiation” as painfully oppositional, but I guess one could also ask, What expression isn’t a negotiation of some sort?
ALS: More recently, we had a conversation about autobiographical inquiry. It’s central to a lot of the questions relative to our respective works. The more you look at my work, and the more I read your work, the more it becomes apparent that it’s a slow highlighting and unfolding of the different forms that autobiographical inquiry can take.
MN: Your work is so interesting to me on this account, in terms of its mix of fictive performativity—as in allowing people to play characters—and regular old autobiography, as in the snapshots in Puppies and Babies. Then add to that a kind of exalted performance of the self, like your own appearance doing topless car-washing at the end of your and A.K. Burns’s film, Community Action Center (2010).
ALS: Maybe that could be explained through your text:
The aim is not to answer questions, it’s to get out, to get out of it.” It’s not about not knowing but about thinking of togetherness, not only of people, but also of images in relation to things. Obfuscation is contemporary capitalism’s greatest accomplishment—understanding the systemic solely in service of itself. The physical emptying out, the birthing, happens and suddenly you’re starting over.
MN: That’s a Gilles Deleuze/Claire Parnet quotation, from their collaborative book Dialogues. They don’t specify what one is trying to get out of—that’s kind of the point. I think we all know the feeling. Which reminds me of the part in The Argonauts where I talk about going to see Community Action Center at REDCAT here in LA. I write that it made “that little portal swing open for me,” the portal that reminds me of our right to be free. I write, quoting Naomi Ginsberg (as quoted by her son Allen in Kaddish): “I collect these moments. I know they hold a key. It doesn’t matter to me if the key must remain perched in a lock, incipient. The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.”
You’re at the window and the sunlight is coming in and it’s not like you’re entirely free, but you touch something that feels like you got out, you got out of it. I know there are a lot of problems with this kind of formulation, as if we lived in some sort of prison and all we could hope for are glimpses of sunlight at the window, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you can’t
plan for those moments, and you never really know what you’re going to see or do that will make you feel one of them. Should you be lucky enough to have them or keep having them, you’re going to keep knowing, on an experiential level, that life can be otherwise. A debased version of this could be people who do acid or something and then they’re like, “I’m never going to forget the way I felt when I was high,” but as soon as they come down they do forget, or realize the revelation was ersatz, or had no sustaining power. What I like about certain experiences of art is that if they’re really good, you can keep going back to them, and keep getting that feeling. You can attempt to figure out how and why the work gives that freedom-feeling and, to some extent, you will figure it out, but in another sense, it remains a mystery.
ALS: It’s that openness, or it could be an emptiness. How and when and why and where is there a way out, when we can’t imagine the other side of the out? It’s like being able to take a leap into a place of the familiar unknown… I don’t know if that makes any sense. Do we aim toward something that is unmanageable and unimagined? Does a lived practice extend itself to the point where one’s reality has to fall apart? You talk about that really clearly: If I give birth to this baby, I’m going to fall to pieces. You know that’s coming. That’s a really profound place that can’t be experienced in any other way: the process will be solitary and unique.
Sometimes it’s terrible when you can actually reexperience things over and over. Like photography. We live in a culture that attempts to suppress the value of chance, the space allowing one to miss something, the intangible or fungible.
MN: What was it like to finish the big tour of Community Action Center? Was there some kind of come down, after all that effort directed outward?
ALS: No, it was more shifty and slippery than that. I felt like maybe that was it, that there’d be nothing after it. That anxiety, you know: Is there any more that I can discover through the work that I do? I don’t feel panicky about it. It’s just the returning question.
MN: I’ll often have something that’s bothering me, but then after working it out in a book, I usually feel I have exhausted the problem. Not solved it; I’m just exhausted with it. I thought about normativity and radicality enough, and now it’s time to go on to the next thing. I never know if I’ve gotten anywhere with it. I just know that I’ve unraveled the knot of it enough so that it doesn’t feel as tight or constraining or perplexing as it did at the start. Maybe this is a debased form of freedom, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cop- out, the whole “I’m just trying to pose the right questions” thing, even if the questions
really are rhetorical or unanswerable. In a conversation, we’re not going to decide what art does or should do, or how it is or is not going to help the planet. Not right here, right now, and that’s okay.
ALS: You write about the “pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again […] because such revisitations constitute a life.” That position is now more palpably urgent, or at least seems so.
MN: Do you really think so? It seems to me there are lots of situations right now that require a sense of urgency that human beings don’t seem to be able to manifest; I’m not sure that endlessly revisiting one’s previous revelations furthers us along that road.
ALS: That is the condition. What we’re looking at is the inability of our species to respond. As much as we’re responding in the tertiary cracks, filling the holes. One of my students asked, “What language do we use? First postmodernism… now what?” I don’t know… accelerationism, posthumanism, abolition? There are people making up shit. ( laughter) Language actually does feel urgent and the value of my own practice feels really confusing right now, because it’s so enmeshed with things that are, at best, peripheral, adjacent. We know the casino crapital game is over, there is nothing outside of it. What we have wreaked, we will now reap.
MN: Are you saying that your interest in cultural politics or sexuality might not feel like the most dire arena to focus on right now, politically speaking? Obviously that dichotomy need not be there—in fact, one of the main characteristics of much of the work I admire is its capacity to give a felt sense of how and why and where cultural, political, racial, and sexual politics touch, and how the so- called personal, or the embodied, infuses all those spheres and is infused by them. I wanted The Argonauts to contribute to that tradition.
ALS: Most definitely. The intersectional or the intrasexual feels like a response to a lack, filled by the consciousness that narratives have to embody. For instance, Harry’s voice in your book is present, but I had no idea if the entries were Harry’s words or your own composition.
MN: Those are definitely Harry’s words! After his mom died, he sent an email to a bunch of friends describing her death, which wasn’t really his normal relational style, so it made him worry that he was oversharing. But sometimes witnessing a death brings that out in us—we’ve touched something sacred or liminal, and we want other people to know about it, for inscrutable but urgent reasons. As a writer, I feel like that all of the time. So in pairing his words with my labor story, I was also trying to highlight a momentary kinship between Harry and me, a desire we both had, even if for a moment, to give testimony and share it with others. I thought what he wrote was so beautiful, so I just lifted it in its entirety (with permission). To tell you the truth, though, when I first did it, it brought up all these closet fears I have that Harry’s a better writer than I am, and now everyone would know. ( laughter)
ALS: All we’re doing is expressing our fears right now.
MN: This whole book was written under the spell of reading a lot of Moten’s work, in particular his book with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. In it, they talk about the importance of three questions that have taken on talismanic importance to me. They are: 1) What do we not have that we need? 2) ( To be posed prior to the above): What do we have that we want to keep?, and 3) Without calling something to order, how can you still sing?
Part of my project here was to depict a lot of crap, the tensions that can attend daily life, relational life—as my friend Eula Biss, one of this book’s first readers, sagely said, “You put the arg back in argonauts!” And there is a fair amount of “Arg!” here. At the same time, I wanted to get at this hum, this sense of love going on. This was a challenge to myself, because often we are very practiced in seeing only the parts of our lives or the world that are driving us crazy. You know, the parts we want to change, not the parts we want to keep. So I wanted to see if I could write myself into deeper intimacy with both things.
ALS: This is a quote from your book that I recently used in a public talk: “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours? [...] A becoming in which one never becomes, a becoming whose rule is neither evolution nor asymptote but a certain turning, a certain turning inward.” I was thinking about the space between fiction and the personal; I don’t know if you ever find out how people feel.
ALS: I liked your attempt. It goes back to autobiographical inquiry because the stories are coming from around us, as much as they’re coming from inside us. Narrative is symbiotic, systemic, dependent. I know I can’t make anything without someone else.
MN: I feel like I shellack over other people’s experiences all the time. I think we all do. It’s not like once you get the news that this isn’t a good way to approach others, you just stop doing it, you know what I mean? We started this interview talking about eschewing mastery, but I feel like ninety- nine percent of my day, in order to shore up my ego, I’m dishing out some kind of monologue of mastery over my colleagues, or students, or the New York Times, or the dumb person who I just talked to. Or I might gain sensitivity in one arena, while I’m still
dishing it out in another. Maybe I’ve done that here. I wouldn’t be surprised.
MN: When you were touring Community Action Center, I’m curious about what you learned from all these Q&As in terms of this notion of mastery or unmastery, of performing or actually being really open, while also having these strong provocations that you wanted to put out there. Sometimes I sense that I’m getting more and more defensive in those situations, or I’ll cease to be in a productive interchange with the person and just become like, Get me out of here! I’m not always as good at trying to aikido the moment into a third possibility that neither the questioner nor I have yet thought of together. I’m wondering if you figured out that art while you were on the road.
ALS: The aikido, yeah. I guess I just never feel like I’m right, but I also never feel like the other person is necessarily right.
MN: We get to be in our wrongness together.
ALS: Totally. Speaking from my experience of it, Community Action Center allows for things to be wrong. I realized that a lot when I did the next project, More Real Than Reality Itself, and interviewed several activists who had been in prison. Ericka Huggins was one of them, and in her interview she stated that “women and radical, black and radical don’t necessarily go together.” These are binaries of radicality that are feared, and projected to be in sympathy; the real truth is that if they were, societal structures and our humanness would look very different.
A.K. [ Burns] and I concluded Community Action Center asking, “What did you think of that, because that shit was crazy, right?” Only a little piece of it is us, and the other pieces are so many other people. I went into it with complete curiosity and questioning. Overtly political work is inevitably politically problematic. That’s another form of precarity I added onto my fully precarious life! That dedication line in the piece, which you mention in the book, “Dedicated to the queerest of the queers,” outlines this for me.
MN: Yeah, I want to hear what you have to say about it.
ALS: The film is dedicated to those who are so fucking outside that even other marginalized bodies can’t see them. Expressions, embodiments that aren’t allowable, permissible. The space that the late Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera demanded. Bodies that affect perception.
MN: I like that idea, that it was more of a gesture toward those who are not representable, rather than about creating a kind of queer pyramid, which is how I read it at the time (and thus how I represented it in my book). But now, hearing you talk, it sounds more like a spin on José Muñoz’s line in Cruising Utopia, “We have never been queer,” by which he means to emphasize that the true value of queerness, for him, lies in its futurity, its promise, not in its achievability or actuality in the present. To be honest, I’m not really sold on this futurity, just as I’m not sold on Lee Edelman’s “no future” stance either. I’m more of a lay Buddhist, I guess, always trying to burrow into the present, see what can be found there. But again, I like your clarification of your dedication, especially as it gets back to the question that begins The Argonauts, about the relationship between what can be represented and that which exceeds representation.
ALS: One frustrated comment someone overheard in front of my installation Cost- benefit analysis in the 2014 Whitney Biennial was, “I just don’t get this lesbian thing!”
MN: ( laughter)
ALS: The assumption that there’s something to get. If you see a whole “lesbian thing,” then it’s worked—you “got it.” I’ve done my job. But the question isn’t “What is a ‘lesbian’ thing?” I actually don’t know what it is. It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s like a mass of whatever you think I’m putting out there. You know, I’m not concerned with the viewer knowing who I am and vice versa, which isn’t possible, but rather who we are, in relation to each other.
MN: In some ways I agree—but how can we even know that when we put work out there to strangers? Sometimes when people tell me about a strong relation they have felt to me via reading my work, it can feel more alienating than when I imagine the work setting off into a void. Maybe this is just because it’s so amazingly difficult to give each other credible reports from our interiority. Or maybe it’s because there’s something deeply solitary about writing, even when it promises or depicts relation. That’s probably why I took the time to write out, in The Argonauts, some of the profound effects that your work has had on me. That kind of attention seems like it beats coming up to you at a party and saying, you know, “I love your work.”
ALS: I love your work.