A Generally Mixed Response to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


I am no stranger to the work of Maggie Nelson. I’ve been following her writing for years now, and when I heard that she was to release a fragmentary, book-length essay on the subject of gender and identity, I was greatly enthusiastic. It seemed like a project that would very much play to her strengths, and this was a subject on which I was greatly interested in hearing her voice.

I did have a little trepidation, though, as I’ve never read a book of Nelson’s that I was unambiguous about. I felt that her prior book-length fragmentary essay, Bluets—the book of Nelson’s that was her greatest market success prior to The Argonauts and probably which I like the best—though showing very much brilliance, was generally too loose, a little too flimsy and too easy to work as a whole. But I recommend it to you—give it a shot.

Likewise, I found that Nelson’s later book The Art of Cruelty had very much to recommend it. This is a book-length study of “cruel” art (what a great subject), and indeed, Nelson’s vivid writing did introduce me to a number of hugely interesting writers and artists that I had never known, and I found her often insightful on their work and the quandary of “cruel” art in general. Unfortunately, I found a lot of her conclusions to be half-baked and poorly reasoned, and it was clear to me that about halfway through the book she had run out of things to say and just began repeating earlier sentiments. Nonetheless, I also recommend this book to you!

Nevertheless, knowing how much good I had found in these books, I definitely wanted to read The Argonauts, a book which has gotten blazingly positive reviews in just about every place one might look for reviews of books.

So here’s my take. (And if you’d like to read a more positive take, I recommend this one here as the best I have read.)

I think the book gets off to a good start with its very beautiful and poetic evocations of Nelson’s relationship with Harry, an artist who is undergoing a masculinization of his body. Indeed, I think this is where The Argonauts is the strongest: when Nelson is teasing out the dilemmas of her life, be they with Harry, or when she is portraying her own feelings about being a mother (and a step-mother to Harry’s child), or on other topics, even being a writer. Here, the book is very honest, sincere, and deep. Nelson’s writing is clear and often interesting.

But The Argonauts is not simply a book about Nelson and Harry: it is also a book that seeks to engage with gender and feminist theory, to delve in to the popular literature surrounding motherhood, and to make its own original statements about these topics.

I think I found Nelson’s discussion of her own complex feelings around her attempts to get pregnant, and then her life as a pregnant woman, a woman who had just given birth, and a mother the most interesting parts of The Argonauts. I appreciated her ability to examine the myths surrounding motherhood and the image of the mother in our culture. In these sections she is engaging everything from her own parents and childhood memories (difficult territory for her) to popular perceptions of motherhood and even such traditionally dicey areas as lactation. She does it all with aplomb, depth, and a careful irony that gives a certain casualness to her ideas while not shortchanging them at all.

I also like the way Nelson has chosen to integrate citations from the likes of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Anne Carson, William James, Susan Sontag, Eileen Miles, and many, many more of an eclectic cast of thinkers. (And, this being a Maggie Nelson book, I have come to expect to discover a new constellation of artists and writers that I had never before known—I appreciate the introduction to many such thinkers that I will surely find out more about.) She works their words into her sentences, only letting you know that they aren’t her words by italicizing them and including the name of the thinker in the margins of the page. This makes the citation feel effortless, and oftentimes and interjection is a nice moment of frisson in the context of the work—a little piece of thought that both seems to fit in natively but also makes you pause and reflect. And in most cases she has isolated particularly interesting utterances and reflected how they inform her own life with care and depth.

So, a lot of good for The Argonauts, but I do think this book has some very serious problems that ultimately make it a failure. The biggest issue is that while Nelson provides a very able introduction to many of the issues surrounding gender and identity—I can see this book as “it book” making trans issues legible to people who have probably never knowingly met a trans person in their lives—I didn’t find Nelson’s thinking on the subject original or provocative at all. At this point in my life I’ve read quite a few books on this subject; more than that, I’ve profited greatly from them and discovered an identity in no small part through them. This would include very conservative instances of the genre, like Jan Morris’s Conundrum, up through much more radical statements, like Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”, Sandy Stone’s The War of Desire and Technology, and Juliet Jacques’s Trans (which, full disclosure, I read in manuscript and made suggestions on), among many more.

By comparison, I felt that Nelson’s assessment of gender, sexuality, and identity in The Argonauts was very boilerplate, and I didn’t feel that it offered me very much personally, in contrast to many other writers on similar subjects. For instance, early in the book Nelson spends some time fretting that increasing acceptance of homosexual behavior will rob queerness of its political edge: “There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure and incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its institutions.” Nelson continues: “This is not a devaluation of queerness. It is a reminder: if we want to do more than claw our way out of repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.”

I think this is a fairly rich topic, one that I have spent more than a little time contemplating. But Nelson’s cursory and generally easy-to-agree with statements do nothing more than introduce an issue that, at this point, has generally been pretty well introduced. And Nelson’s somewhat cartoonish statement of the issue—though pleasingly ironic—is too heated and preening to offer very much substance. Reading it made me wonder: hasn’t queerness (at least the homosexual variant) just about lodged its critique of Western civilization at this point? What more does it have to get across to straight culture, and, with the general triumph of homosexual marriage across most of the developed world, hasn’t it more or less made its political mark? And why should we even be equating “sexual deviancy” with radicality—aren’t there other more interesting ways to be radical? I’m not sure I know the answer to these questions, they would have been interesting things for Nelson to delve into, but she quickly forgets about this strident line on queer culture and moves on to other targets. And this suggests a general failure of The Argonauts: again and again Nelson reaps the rhetorical benefits of the easy statement on the hot-button issue, but she never follows up with the much riskier and more difficult matters of digging into the premises of said statement and saying things that not everyone would agree with.

(And, again, she probably does the best on this front when engaging the ideas of motherhood, particularly the mothering advice of paediatrician DW Winnicott, probably not every intellectual’s go-to theorist on motherhood.)

Nelson’s playing to the crowd includes the sacrificial flaying of some great white male thinkers, and, again, here I encountered some problems. First let me say that I am in no way opposed to reappraisals of the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, or even Slavoj Zizek (who is far less canonical than Baudrillard and Lacan and who has been attacked very, very much). These sorts of thinkers are clearly dominant forces in their disciplines, and I would like nothing better to read an insightful reappraisal or critique of their work—indeed, wasn’t it by doing just that to their predecessors that these thinkers got to be where they are now? If anything, the world of cultural criticism is too full of easy veneration and fawning recitation of the teachings of the masters. So hack away.

However, what you cannot do is what Nelson does when she attempts to critique Zizek. Nelson’s attack on Zizek is either intellectually duplicitous or lazy to the point of messiness—I’m not sure which one, but either way she gets the basic facts wrong.

In the context of talking about her difficult efforts to be artificially inseminated (which, by the way, Nelson describes quite beautifully and sensitively) she finds a very long and complex essay of Zizek’s where he talks about the question of reproduction detached from the sexual act. (It’s right here to read if you want to see it.) She quotes the following from Zizek, declaring it what he thinks is “the type of sexuality that would fit in an ‘evil’ world”:

In December 2006, the New York City authorities declared that the right to chose one’s gender (and so, if necessary, to have the sex-change operation performed) is one of the inalienable human rights—the ultimate Difference, the “transcendental” difference that grounds the very human identity, thus turns into something open to manipulation . . . “Masturbathon” is the ideal form of the sex activity of this trans-gendered subject.

The problem is that this is complete untrue. If you read the essay, it is quite clear that Zizek isn’t condemning non-reproductive sex as “evil,” and he most certainly isn’t saying anything negative (or really anything at all) about transgender people. The essay isn’t even about transgender at all, and Zizek’s use of the term—once in the entire essay—is accidental.

Continuing her critique, Nelson tells us that Zizek is claiming that “the transgendered subject is barely human, condemned forever to ‘idiotic masturbatory enjoyment.'” Unfortunately, the only true part of that sentence is that Zizek does write the words “idiotic masturbatory enjoyment” in his essay—the rest is a complete fabrication. In this essay, these words don’t apply to trans people at all (they appear far, far before Zizek has even brought up transgender), and Zizek certainly doesn’t say anything remotely like calling trans people “barely human.” It very much seems that Nelson just cherry-picked a few quotes from Zizek without actually reading the work.

I wish I could say that this was the only instance in which I got the feeling that Nelson was loading her arguments to score some cheap rhetorical points, but that is not the case. Indeed, based on the very cursory readings of thinkers like Freud and Zizek in The Argonauts, I would have to conclude that Nelson is out of her depth in attempting to critique them—either that or she is not putting in very much effort. I don’t know what the truth is—Nelson strikes me as a very intelligent, open-minded, well-read thinker—but insofar as the thought presented in The Argonauts, this is the conclusion I have to reach. And this is unfortunate, because this book very much does aspire to play in the realm of theory and make a few theoretical statements of its own. I think this is the flip side to Nelson’s very free and often energetic use of brief quotations throughout her book. As I’ve noted already, it has its strengths, but it does expose her to the appearance of a lack of rigor.

Moreover, many of the feminist critiques of mainstream culture that Nelson makes in The Argonauts too often read like something I would expect to find on The Huffington Post or some other generator of clickbait. They are just too one-sided, too spring-loaded with cynicism, lacking the sort of empathy, generosity, and patience that Nelson admirably has in such great quantities for those she regards as allies and fellow intellectuals. Again and again Nelson presents situations where she assumes bad faith on the part of people that I find it hard to believe bore her or her partner any ill intent whatsoever. Not only that, but she takes a tone toward straight culture that’s a sort of preening chic pride that I find very, very counter-productive. It’s the kind of condescending, no-win critique that slams a straight person for their perceived ignorance of trans/queer/feminist culture while also never giving that person the opportunity to “do the right thing” by dismissing them out of hand. I think it’s important to love yourself and take pride in what you are, but not at the cost of armoring yourself within a stylized coolness that implicitly casts aspersions toward those who are not what you are. That tone very much grates on my ears, both in real life and in books, and from what I’ve gathered about Nelson from interviews and profiles, that’s not really who she is. But more importantly, it prevents The Argonauts from taking a more pluralistic approach that gives a truly complex, multi-faceted picture of the question at hand. And this is to shortchange Nelson and her inquiry.

I appreciate that there are frustrations with trying to live a queer life in a largely straight culture—I’ve experienced these plenty of times myself. And I understand that sometimes a person will reach their limit with said frustrations and do something that they momentarily feel entitled to but are later ashamed of. I get it. And, in some very honest moments in this book, Nelson owns up to just that, and I commend her for that honesty and self-awareness. Unfortunately there are other moments in this book that bespeak unfounded assumptions, an unfocused anger, and a mocking pride that may have been satisfying to write but that are not at all interesting as reflections, and that will only be counter-productive in promoting the sort of understanding of trans culture that would make life easier for Nelson and her partner.

Then there are things like this:

Harry lets me in on a secret: guys are pretty nice to each other in public. Always greeting each other “hey boss” or nodding as they pass each other on the street.

Women aren’t like that. I don’t mean that women are all back-stabbers or have it in for each other or whatnot. But in public, we don’t not at each other nobly. Nor do we really need to, as this nod also means I mean you no violence.

Suffice to say, having presented as a man nearly every day of my adult life, I am unfamiliar with this practice, and I certainly don’t feel the need for reassurance that fellow men are not waiting to commit violent acts upon me.

I am tempted to chalk this up as an isolated moment or a piece of irony that doesn’t quite work, but the problem is that there are multiple instances of such things. Nelson is a better writer than this. Very obviously she is. She should have taken the care to remove such things.

This reminds me of something I once read in an interview with Deborah Eisenberg. Deborah Eisenberg said that she spends “most of my time trying to tear away banalities.” It really struck me, because if a writer like Eisenberg spends so much time pulling away banalities, then we all must need to do that. Indeed, writing banalities like the above quotation is part of the writing process, they are in all writers’ manuscripts. They’re just the things that come out as your work your way toward good writing. And we must pull them out relentlessly. I think that a blind eye to her own banalities is an issue with Nelson’s writing. I feel like I could lodge this critique of all of the work of hers I’ve read. And I wish she had been more careful here; these sorts of things dilute her style, which tends to be very refined and very smart when it is not dropping things like the above.

I think I’ve said enough about this book. And I think, as promised, a profoundly mixed take. Having written out my feelings on this book, I think I’ve just convinced myself to read Nelson’s next book; I’ll probably find a lot in there that I like. But I gather that certain aspects of Nelson’s style will just grate on me, and this is part of who she is as a writer.

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