“An Endless Becoming”: An Interview with Maggie Nelson on The Argonauts – Chloë Brushwood Rose

It feels as though barely anything goes unexplored in Maggie Nelson’s most recent book, The Argonauts. The now many reviews of the book in mainstream publications address its diverse and ambitious range of themes – the making of queer family, the gender transition of her partner Harry Dodge, the erotics of motherhood, and the marginalization of mothers and women in philosophy and culture, to name a few.

It’s easy to be incredibly impressed by the breadth and depth of Nelson’s thinking in this book. Her explorations and ideas are far-anging – drawing on art, theory, autobiography, politics – and they are profoundly intimate. Nelson takes risks to express what her life has really been like. As a queer woman of Nelson’s generation who, like her, went to grad school and discovered queer theory in the mid-nineties, developed an affinity for queer-punk-DIY art and community, and ended up having kids, I find that the honesty and vulnerability of Nelson’s book is its greatest gift.

There’s no question that The Argonauts offers brilliant criticism in relation to contemporary ideas and experiences that are of interest to a wide audience of readers. As Olivia Laing writes in her early review for the Guardian, the book “is about love and marriage, motherhood, pregnancy, birth and family-making, and because it is a book by Maggie Nelson, it turns every one of these concepts on its head.” Indeed, the universally positive reviews and numerous awards Nelson has received – most recently the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award – are evidence of Nelson’s ability to mobilize her own experiences with clarity and honesty to connect with lots of different kinds of people.

But, for me, as I devoured Nelson’s book in an afternoon while staying with a friend in her off-the-grid cabin, I was filled with astonishment and real joy that such a book was actually possible: a book in which Nelson doesn’t shy away from naming herself as queer, woman, mother, pervert and also never commits to any one way of understanding those positions or experiences, instead keeping open all of the complexities and transitions of “an endless becoming.” The Argonauts felt like a story I’d been waiting to read for a long time and a story I wasn’t sure it was possible to tell (let alone get reviewed by the New York Times). As I wrote to Nelson in my first email requesting this interview, to a girl like me, her book feels simultaneously long overdue, timely, and prescient.

At the beginning of the book, Nelson introduces the metaphor of “the Argo,” the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts, undergoing constant renewal, its parts replaced over time, that nonetheless remains the Argo. The Argo represents the simultaneous experiences of continuing to be oneself while undergoing constant change, of being both here and in transition without arrival, and of “asserting while also giving the slip.” There are so many Argos and Argonauts in this book: the body undergoing gender transition, possibly without a destination; the woman undergoing pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood; the queer relationship withstanding marriage and child-rearing. In this book, Nelson finds the common threads that weave together subjectivities and experiences often understood as disparate, finding ways to remind us that we are all Argonauts, indeed, that this is the often mundane condition of simply living a life. During their stay at a hotel in Florida so that Dodge could have and recover from top surgery, the then-pregnant Nelson observes, “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.”

Nelson’s writing reveals a similar kind of generosity, to the various parts of her self and her thinking, that a lesser critic might fail to see as significant and connected. She writes with an immense vulnerability, at times beautiful and at others brutal and visceral. This vulnerability is not simply about what she chooses to tell us – it’s not only about what she reveals – but is also a quality of the book’s method, its voice and address. For example, in the section above, Nelson addresses Dodge directly, inviting the reader to witness an intimate conversation that she nonetheless insists has theoretical significance. Nelson hails many audiences here: those who contribute to her thinking (the “many gendered mothers” of her heart); the reader; the members of her family. In doing so, Nelson not only invites us to witness her experiences and transformations, nakedly depicted (often literally), but also calls on us to consider the ways in which vulnerability and dependency make us better thinkers, writers, lovers, mothers, and so on, “ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.”

Chloë Brushwood Rose: You note that this book was motivated by an observation that despite writing memoirs you had never written about your own ‘queer’ life… Why write this book now? What else have you yet to write about? Are there things you keep secret?

Maggie Nelson: Well, Harry charges me with that in the book – my character doesn’t necessarily agree. I’ve never hidden any aspect of myself in my writing, at least not related to sexuality. The question of when was a good time to write about Harry and me specifically was really more of a negotiation with Harry, who is, as I note, a very private person. So I actually took that comment of his as a granting of permission as much as an accusation or complaint.

As for the “why now?” question – one has to put in enough time in relation to someone to have a relationship to write about, so that was a factor. And obviously the gay marriage movement has put enormous pressure on certain social and political questions about homo and heteronormativity, all of which coincided with certain negotiations Harry and I were having to make about our various relations to the state. So it was all just up, or time.

I don’t really think I have any secrets per se. Certainly I have aspects of my life that are private to me; which of those I will eventually violate is not for me to know in advance, for better or for worse!

CBR: The jacket cover of the book describes it as “auto-theory.” How does it describe what you are trying to do in this book better than the idea of “memoir”?

MN: The word “memoir” has connotations about “taking stock of a whole life via the act of memory” that don’t appeal to me, and don’t seem germane to the different kinds of life-writing that I’ve set forward. So I prefer life-writing, or here, “auto-theory,” which is cribbed from 70s feminists by way of Beatriz Preciado, as it points to the theoretical nature of the autobiographical ruminations at hand. And for all those who say, “I didn’t like all the theory, I just wish she’d told us more about her,” I can at least say, you were warned!

CBR: One of the things I love most about this book is how immensely vulnerable it feels, how brave and direct, and also risky. It is so intellectually rich and also so very visceral – in the first two paragraphs of the book you veer from ass fucking to philosophy. This kind of juxtaposition is not entirely unfamiliar in queer and feminist writing, but the way you write about your own body and pleasure, and as the grounds for philosophy, is unusually intimate. I liked so much that I felt I knew something of you, could hear your voice so close in my ear, in this book.

You talk early on in the book about rethinking the idea of ‘radical’ as a political or cultural position, perhaps substituting or adding the notion of ‘openness.’ This resonates with me – if radical denotes a departure from tradition, an innovation, then what could be more radical than vulnerability?

In part, the project of this book seems to be to critique the well-worn markers of radicality (i.e. deviant sexuality versus re/production), to make more room for a range of radical possibilities. Does this ring true? What are, for you, the markers of radicality in this time?

MN: I have been profoundly influenced by Judith Butler’s writings (among others) on precariousness, which is a slightly more politically charged or capacious version of vulnerability. Her Precarious Life has been very important to me; I think that would be one place to look for an elaboration of a politics built out of a shared experience of precarity or vulnerability. Black Lives Matter would be another. I am also interested in the various critiques (though not the right-wing ones) of the problem of coalescing around shared woundedness. But given the fact that we haven’t even really begun to face the wounds that have been inflicted by white supremacy and so on, you can’t just skip over them and hope for the best. Often the only way out really is through.

These days radicality seems to me to be found in the insistence that things can be otherwise in the face of the deafening chorus of pragmatists and cynics and centrists who maintain that human society somehow must persist in these horrible ways, even if it means our extinction.

CBR: How is your own vulnerability a strategy for thinking through politics in this book? How purposeful was this choice as a way to think differently?

MN: I don’t usually think purposefully about making political strategies when I write, but I do believe in putting oneself on the line. I like plenty of work which withholds the body of the writer, so I don’t think of it as, like, a requirement for compelling writing or thinking. But that withholding wasn’t the project here.

CBR: There are so many mothers in this book – the sodomitical mother, your own mother, your self as mother, Harry’s mother, and the many “many-gendered mothers of your heart.” The mother here seems to interrupt and trouble both feminist and queer politics, and also call them into relation with one another. 

How does the figure of the mother, and particularly the sodomitical mother, offer us a new kind of political subject?

MN: I did intentionally construct a layered conversation about different kinds of mothers in the book, but I also intentionally left that conversation porous and multiple to avoid collapsing into “the mother,” or the idea that “the mother” could be a specific political entity who would necessarily embody or enact anything in particular. As Adrienne Rich famously said in Of Woman Born, “I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or morally capable than any other woman.” Margaret Thatcher was a mother too, alas. I am intrigued, however, by the line of thought put forward by Jacqueline Rose in a recent piece on mothers in the London Review of Books, in which Rose notes that, politically speaking, we can choose to continue, via policies of “austerity,” a total assault on the notion of dependency itself, or “we can take for our model for our social as well as psychological well-being the complex, often painful reality of motherhood. This isn’t the same as suggesting mothers should rule the world, but it is close. What qualifies mothers for this task is that they aren’t in flight from the anguish of what it means to be human. Not that mothers are the only ones who ever have access to that insight.” This is probably a hair too essentialist for me, especially as I’m absolutely sure there are many mothers in flight from the anguish of what it means to be human, or else mothers wouldn’t be human themselves. But there’s something here to think about. It might be related to what Fred Moten has called the socialization of the maternal function, which interests me quite a bit.

CBR: I love the idea of dependency as an antidote to austerity, and I also wonder how this version of ‘mothering’ might make room for desire. You really push toward this in the book, by drawing our attention to the erotics of family life and through the image of the sodomitical mother.

How is the “mother who likes to fuck” (I’m thinking of Joan Nestle’s great piece by this name) a particularly significant political figure?

MN: I guess I’m feeling some resistance to extracting political strategy or political argument from the book too directly; I’d rather leave that to readers. How sodomitical maternity can or will play out as a political force is unknowable to me – I’ll look up the Nestle, but in our current climate, “mothers who like to fuck” sounds to me like more of a porn category (the MILF) than a saving grace in the face of climate change, economic inequality, and racialized violence. That said, the discourse in the book about accepting dependency, the finitude of mothers, allowing people their benign variety of desires (as Gayle Rubin had it), and the importance of caretaking, all seem to me politically crucial, and with broad ramifications.

CBR: Later in the book, you talk quite a bit about your own mother’s anxiety and juxtapose this with, first, Sedgwick’s observation that reparative practices are often developed by the most paranoid-tending people and, second, Sprinkle’s performance 100 Blow Jobs in which she embodies the practice of alchemizing anxiety as a reparative act.

How do you think about the relationship between your mother and your ‘many-gendered mothers of the heart’? How do these ‘many-gendered mothers’ help you recuperate something of value in your own mother’s anxiety?

MN: Part of setting my mother forward here – and bless her for her infinite patience with me – was to complicate any idealization (or degradation) of “the mother” with the presence of an actual mother – my actual mother – who is perfect and imperfect both. (As am I, as are we all.) Probably I’ve sought out and depended on so many many-gendered mothers of my heart in order to relieve my mother of the burden of fulfilling all functions – a demand which, as I quote Kaja Silverman saying in The Argonauts, is an impossible one, and one which typically generates rage and disappointment in a child. Once we recognize that what we want from our mothers is basically impossible, something new can happen. Easier said than done, of course, but we can try.

CBR: I’m very interested in the ways you write about pedagogy in this book, from your perspectives as both student and teacher/professor.

Why do you think pedagogy, and particularly your experiences as a graduate student, emerges as a part of this story, the “queer part” of your story? Is there something about pedagogy that is inherently queer, or performs queerness? 

Is there a feminist or queer pedagogy at stake in this book? A pedagogy of the body?

MN: I don’t typically go in for definitions of the inherently queer – I think it squashes the queer to nail it down too exactly, which is why questions of that nature in The Argonauts are most often posed as questions (i.e., “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself?” I ask, because who knows?). But I would say that my most important teachers in my life have tended to be feminists and queers. I guess they’ve had the information I most needed. And I like the phrase, pedagogy of the body – it reminds me of one of my favorite books, my body, the buddhist, by Deborah Hay. What is the body if not our teacher? Even, or especially, if what it has to teach is our morality?

CBR: The body as teacher, yes, and then you also talk a lot about your teachers’ bodies. I’m thinking here about your discussion of the encounter between Jane Gallop (and her body) and Rosalind Krauss, but also about your observation about the corpulence of many of the “many gendered mothers of your heart.” Their embodiment seems important to you, perhaps a part of what they have to teach? What do the bodies of others teach us?

MN: I’m tempted to say, everything.

Chloë Brushwood Rose is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. Her research examines themes of gender, representation, and object relations in a range of contexts that foreground aesthetic experience and learning, such as digital storytelling, autobiography, and visual research methods. Her scholarly work has appeared in several journal publications, including Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society; Visual Studies; and Gender and Education. Chloё is co-author of the forthcoming book Community-Based Media Pedagogies: Spaces and Relations of Intersubjective Listening (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor of several book collections, including Land|Slide: Possible Futures (PUBLIC Books, 2015), And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac, 2009), and the Lambda short-listed Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002). Chloё is a member of the Public Access Collective and editorial board, which publishes the journal PUBLIC (www.publicjournal.ca). Find her at http://cbr.blog.yorku.ca/

Maggie Nelson is the author of five books of nonfiction and four books of poetry. Her most recent book is The Argonauts, a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language (Graywolf Press, May 2015). Her 2011 book of art and cultural criticism, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W. W. Norton), was featured on the front cover of the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, as well as named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Editors’ Choice. Her other nonfiction books include the cult hit Bluets (Wave Books, 2009); a critical study of poetry and painting titled Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007; winner, the Susanne M. Glasscock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship), and an autobiographical book about sexual violence and media spectacle titled The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press, 2007; named a Notable Book of the Year by the State of Michigan). Her poetry books include Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007); Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull Press, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001; finalist, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award). Her poetry has been widely anthologized, including in the Best American Poetry series.