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Unpacking Maggie Nelson's 'The Argonauts'

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Image: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

In one of author Samuel Delany's imagined sci-fi worlds, "nurture streams" replace and expand the category we here on earth currently call "family." Delany doesn't elaborate much on the specifics of his alternative kinship model, but the term is ripe with promise for an expansive reimagining of the variety of ways that we find and give nurturance through our chosen social arrangements, which include, but don't privilege, biological reproduction. Though she doesn't use Delany's term, author Maggie Nelson's fiercely intelligent exploration of her own process of family making in "The Argonauts" certainly realizes its promise. Blending memoir and lyrical essay in a manner reminiscent of her widely acclaimed 2009 book "Bluets," "The Argonauts" recounts the romance and path to motherhood taken with her partner, transgender artist and performer Harry Dodge.

Both are prolific and acclaimed artists: This is Nelson's eight book since her first in 2001, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2010 Guggenheim in nonfiction and a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry. Dodge has long been on the forefront of transgender and genderqueer artmaking and performance since the 1990s, first as a prominent figure in the San Francisco Mission District spoken word/performance scene then in the groundbreaking 2002 film "By Hook or By Crook" (co-written and directed with Silas Howard) hailed as one of the first transgender narrative feature films, and more recently exhibiting both solo and collaborative sculpture, drawings, and video work with selections appearing in 2014 "Made In LA" at the Hammer Museum and the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Both teach at California Institute of the Arts.

Maggie Nelson, "The Argonauts." | Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Maggie Nelson, "The Argonauts." | Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Learn more about the complexities of motherhood in the art world on Artbound's "S9 E7: Artist and Mother." Watch now.

In "The Argonauts," Nelson lets us into their happy hillside L.A. home where they live with Dodge's 10-year-old from a previous relationship and their baby, now a toddler. While their version of family is not all that uncommon -- indeed they routinely pass as a typical straight family -- Nelson uses her experience to open up a larger and much needed discussion about what counts as family and what it means to take on the position of mother, or nurturer.

In the process of telling their story of queer family making amid a storm of competing discourses around hetero and homo-normativity, Nelson takes on a staggering range of topics -- transgender embodiment, the death of a parent, the isolating pain of child birth, cruising for validation from college professors, the step-parent/step-child relationship, the nearly universal challenge of loving a flawed but "good enough" adult mother, and the limits of language to hold our experiences, to name but a few. With each and every topic touched, Nelson employs a searching inquisitiveness at once brave and enlightening. With no chapter breaks, or even sub-headings, Nelson's restless mind leads us through these topics, stories, and critical conversation with present and remote interlocutors with a seamless precision that, like the gentle wake of the mythic Argo of the title as it glides through the water, ripples with an entire cast of external voices who give a unique texture to the book. These fellow Argonauts range from the heady critical theorists Roland Barthes and Judith Butler, to peers in her New York City and L.A. queer artistic communities such as A.L. Steiner, C.A. Conrad, Catherine Opie and Eileen Myles, among others.

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More than interlocutors, Nelson refers to this array of intellectual and artistic influences, some of whom are beloved friends and mentors, others known only through their words on the page, as "the many gendered mothers of my heart" (borrowing the phrase from poet Dana Ward, 57). It is no accident that in this book about queer motherhood and non-normative modes of kinship, the role of certain fellow artists is not one of adjacency, instead they are claimed explicitly as family. Two of Nelson's previous books are works of art criticism, and here we see her address the deeply constitutive power she feels with certain artists and works; they are clearly significant contributors to her nurture stream. For instance, describing her experience of watching "Community Action Center" (directed by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner), a self-described porno that vividly explores the mix of pain, pleasure, and aesthetic beauty through a series of sexual vignettes, Nelson reports that parts of it "made that little portal swing open: 'I think we have -- and can have -- a right to be free.' I collect these moments. I know they hold a key" (Foucault qtd, 64). Similarly liberated watching Annie Sprinkle's performance piece "100 Blow Jobs" in which Nelson hears the united voice of all of her many gendered mothers of the heart: "They insist, no matter the evidence marshaled against their insistence: There is nothing you can throw at me that I cannot metabolize, no thing impervious to my alchemy" (123). These scenes of reception recast the act of artistic consumption, from the detached intellectual scene of criticism into a more profound relation (sometimes anyway) of reception of a fundamental substance that is vital to our ability to become who we are. What would it mean to describe the thing offered in these works as a form of nurturance?

Yet, there is a risk in describing art -- especially art by women -- as nurturing; to do so would be to risk seeming somehow vapid, or lacking critical edge. And that risk is one of Nelson's main concerns in "The Argonauts": Why is it so hard to take the mother (or more broadly the caretaker of dependents of any form) seriously? Nelson first exposes the surprisingly unanimous voice of disinterest, if not disdain, running from otherwise disparate quarters of our cultural landscape: from the mainstream -- a Mother's Day issue of the New York Times that includes a categorical renunciation of the inherent banality of any writing by mothers about mothering (a genre maligned as "mommy lit"); from liberal, even feminist, academia -- she recalls attending a colloquium as a graduate student where a well-known feminist scholar was publically eviscerated by another for the "soft-mindedness" of a presentation that attempted to address the representation of the mother from her own position as one (a precursor to Nelson's own work?); and from radical queer politics, where the rise of queers with kids is hailed as the sine qua non of gay assimilationism (regardless of the actual economic or political realities of those families). After exposing the thinly veiled misogyny behind each of these examples, Nelson turns to show us what a queer, feminist, and sharp-minded account of mothering can look like, and how urgently we need it.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

First, she clears space from within the canon of psychoanalytic depictions of the mother/child relationship: "Klein's morbid infant sadism and bad breast, Freud's blockbuster Oedipal saga and freighted fort/da, Lacan's heavy-handed Imaginary and Symbolic -- suddenly none irreverent enough to address the situation of being a baby, of caretaking a baby... I don't want an eros, or a hermanuetics, of my baby. Neither is dirty, neither is mirthful enough" (20). From there she takes her discussion of mothering into places we don't expect it -- alongside heady theory, alongside rough sex, alongside devoted animal loving. It refuses to demean itself or make itself superior, to these other topics, instead nestling in and asserting its own queerness, its own sexuality even. Challenging the careful partitioning off any erotic dimension to the intimate experience of mothering, she provocatively avows that tending to her infant "isn't like a love affair. It is a love affair. Or, rather, it is erotic, romantic, consuming -- but without tentacles" (44).

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

In this complicating and recasting of motherhood Nelson doesn't downplay the primacy of caretaking, however. There is no getting around the profound labor of nurturing required to usher a wholly dependent infant into an autonomous self-sustaining individual. Watching her newly crawling baby head for a leaf, she pauses for a moment wishing she didn't always have to be the bad guy, the fun killer who removes "the inappropriate object," but she also recognizes the simple yet profound importance of that role: "You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone one adequately policed your mouth exploring" (20). "Argonauts" also deftly avoids becoming an essentialist ode to the divine power of the womb, as Nelson unfailingly maintains an expansive view of the terrain of mothering: "One of the gifts of genderqueer family making -- and animal loving -- is the revelation of caretaking as detachable from -- and attachable to -- any gender any sentient being... [there is] a long history of queers constructing their own families -- be they composed of peers or mentors or loves or ex-lovers or children or non-human animals -- and that presents queer family making as an umbrella category under which baby making might be a subset, rather than the other way around" (72).

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

At its heart, "The Argonauts" is a plea for linguistic and intellectual nuance and reminds us of the rigor and patience that it entails. There is no single thesis or tidy polemic here. Nelson thinks through her topics with textured thoroughness and a dogged resistance to simplifications, asking, "How do we explain to a culture frantic for resolution that sometimes the shit stays messy?" (53)

One of these messy areas is the insufficient, yet necessary, categorization of identity into static identifications, what Judith Butler calls "the commodification of identity." Nelson tears at static identity labels, most often the result of imprecise or ossified language, that rarely manage to express the complexity even of the one trait they seek to describe, let alone the intersection of identities that compose the whole breathing, desiring human subject who these very categories both produces and represents. On the language used in California's Proposition 8, for example: "One of the most annoying things about hearing the refrain 'same sex marriage' over and over again is that I don't know many -- if any -- queers who think of their desire's main feature as being 'same-sex'" (25). Still more complicated is the fact that even important and useful terms like "trans" and "transgender" can cover over profoundly different experiences: "For some 'transitioning' may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others -- like Harry [Dodge], who is happy to identify as a butch on T -- it doesn't" (53). Yet, Nelson is equally adamant that these linguistic shortcomings are not reason to abandon our need to communicate and understand difference altogether, or to naively think we can simply elect not to participate. In fact, her most pointed criticism is reserved for those who champion a post-identity politics, critics who dismiss speakers who name and identify the (minority) position from which they speak; Nelson rails, "Calling the speaker identitarian then serves as an efficient excuse not to listen to her, in which case the listener can resume his role as speaker. And then we can scamper off to yet another conference with Jacques Ranciere, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, at which we can mediate on Self and Other... all at the feet of yet another great white man pontificating from the podium, just as we've done for centuries" (54). As this passage makes clear, Nelson should not be misunderstood to be anti-labeling or anti-identity. Describing the work of her beloved teacher and mentor "queen" of queer theory Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Nelson recalls her famous dogma "Pluralize and Specify!" and explains that to live up to that ideal means to spend "a lot of time talking about that which is more than one, and more than two, but less than infinity. ... An activity that demands an attentiveness -- relentlessness even -- whose very rigor tips it into ardor" (62). Nelson could just as easily be describing herself.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

Illustration: Isabel Ochoa Gold.

In her hands, the prize of this kind of nuanced refusal of simplifications are soaring passages bound to expand your understanding of what it means to be with and for others. On the simultaneity of her pregnancy with Harry's medical transition: "On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming 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" (83). The rigid, gendered narratives around pregnancy and trans embodiment, are here reframed into a broader, yet still specific, acknowledgement that we all endure a constantly changing relationship to our bodies and those bodies' placement and meaning in culture; thus, the only truly defining difference of transgender bodily experience is the way these changes are scrutinized and sensationalized by others. Try employing this reframing the next time you are discussing Catylnn Jenner and observe how much air enters the room. Addressing the narrative of sacrifice stitched to the caretaking role of mother, Nelson deflates its attending hand wringing over maintaining healthy boundaries in the face of the child's utter dependency, coolly observing: "So far as I can tell, most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics" (96).

If we were to try to produce a single thesis statement of the book, it would likely circle around this last observation: an ethics of interdependence. But why on earth would we ever subject this splendidly intricate work to that kind of reduction?


 

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