During this interview we tried to place Maggie Nelson in a broad contemporary context. We asked if she saw herself as participating in a formal movement along with writers like Claudia Rankine and Ben Lerner, whose writing can be placed somewhere along the axes of critical social analysis and lyric observation. She said she doesn’t really think about that stuff when she writes, though. Such questions must belong to us readers. Maggie Nelson has written nine books—most recently The Argonauts, which traces the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge and the birth of their son, Iggy, amidst a life of reading and theory. She teaches at Cal Arts. Her answers are mostly longer than our questions, but not by much. We choose to think of that as a reflection of how complicated her books are, and how much we love them.
LIT: The second paragraph of The Argonauts expresses an idea that it never stops pursuing: “Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” Do you think this idea of expression, particularly as it relates to gender expres-sion and identity, has any resonances with the project of queer and trans* visibility? Do you see the book as participating in that project?
MN: Sure, yes. I mean, people often ask me what the book is “about,” and I often give them that opening Wittgensteinian line, and say that the book rotates his comments in the light of questions about gender and sexuality (and interdependence, and care, and so on). Visibility is a really important word and concept for a lot of people, with good reason; but for me, not so much. I am glad for attention that my writing receives and would likely be depressed were it to enter a vacuum, but the writing isn’t in service of visibility, or I don’t consciously feel that way while composing.
Under your question I hear the thrumming of something else, though, something along the lines of what José Muñoz meant when he said, “we have never been queer,” or what Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti mean when they say “we have never been human,” or at least, we have never been only human. I hear these comments as intrinsically linked to the Wittgenstein, and I’m interested in them.
LIT: “We have never been human”? “We have never been queer”?
MN: They’re different statements from different contexts. Muñoz is arguing for a notion of queerness which isn’t tangible or delineatable, as in “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Braidotti is quoting Donna Haraway (who is riffing on Bruno Latour’s “we have never been modern”); both are interested in how nature is an invention of culture, how the line dividing human from animal is dim to negligible.
LIT: Susan Stryker recently gave a talk here about the history of trans* studies. At the time of the talk, I had been thinking a lot about your book in preparation for this interview, and so the talk actually reminded me a lot of The Argonauts. The history she gave of trans* studies was a personal history because she helped to found the field, and because she sees trans* studies, especially in its early stages, as being inevitably rooted in individual experience. She set up this dichotomy between the two types of learning she was doing—one in her Berkeley PhD program, another in the queer scene of San Francisco—and then argued that part of the work of founding the field was bringing the more embodied learning she had to do as a navigating life as a queer woman, into her academic life. In The Argonauts, blurs the same line, but from the opposite direction—overlaying a world of ideas, words, and theory onto a world of more physical non-linguistic experience.
MN: You could put it that way. But I don’t think, unlike some people, I have ever really experienced the dichotomy as a dichotomy, either from within or without, which is likely a result of the fact that the people with whom I’ve most studied and hung out with have never hewed to that kind of binary. Even when I was a dancer and spending most of my days in “embodied land,” I found my performance friends to be brilliant thinkers, people like my old friend Adrienne Truscott. And non-academic mentors to me like Eileen Myles were always utterly challenging on the highest intellectual level. Then when I decided to go to PhD school I sought out mentors like Wayne Koestenbaum, Eve Sedgwick, and Nancy Miller, people who’d been laboring in the trenches (dancing in the mosh pit?) of embodied criticism for some time. So my intellectual labors have thankfully never suffered from feeling academic in the stodgy, abstract way I hear people complain about.
LIT: At the end of that same lecture, Stryker spoke about the beauty of monsters, which for her have always been important to trans* thought. She said “monster” offers a unique kind of beauty and pleasure. “It undoes you,” she said. Monsters have a claim to the ecstatic, the rapturous, whereas other creatures that work with an aesthetic guided by the idea of perfection can only achieve elegance. It’s not the same exactly, but I thought it also has interesting resonances with the Wittgenstein quote. Like how underneath this huge capacity language has to say and not-say, we still have this desire to break and rebuild it.
MN: I am interested in undoing. Less so in monsters, though I get the appeal. I think I’m probably interested in undoing and elegance, both.
LIT: Aren’t they in conflict, though?
MN: No, I don’t see them as being in conflict. But I’m really talking about my own writing process, not what I think about language as a whole. I’m not really talking about getting rid of monsters either—I think we’d need to sit down over a bunch of beverages for me to know what you’re getting at with the monsters. I’m just saying, I like trying to represent undoing in language, which invariably engages mess and bewilderment (and not always of the most pleasant kind—as Butler and others have made clear, the most painful emotions, like radical grief, often undo you the most completely, though love and desire are right in there). But my preferred aesthetic is not, like, imitative fallacy, where I try to write messily or write in a confusing style to mirror my subject. I prefer to head into the eye of the storm armed with a native taste for precision, fool’s errand as that may be. This is likely why Wittgenstein recurs so often in my writing; I feel an extraordinary kinship with his need for precision (so do jillions of other writers, it should be said).
LIT: The Argonauts has a complicated relationship to futurism. In particular, you articulate a critique of Lee Edelman’s “no future” anti-reproductive thesis, and make an argument for the queer value of pregnant bodies. Studying Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, I really want to get behind your intervention, which mostly has to do with opening up queerness to bodies and relations other than those of cis-gender gay men. But I guess I struggle to imagine a future that is both queer and reproductive—what could that look like?
MN: I don’t know what it looks like, and wouldn’t want to hazard a description—you know, “we have never been queer”—but I think we’re already living it, in many ways. Think of Preciado, whose Testo Junkie takes us through the thought experiment of seeing all reproduction, homo or hetero or whatever, as forms of technology; think of the kinship structures so many people already live under which aren’t the nuclear family. If marriage stops being incentivized as a structure to create and take care of children, I don’t think the desire to create or take care of children is going to wither away. These things can be uncoupled. Nor do I think there’s anything terribly wrong with two people being principally responsible for the caretaking of children, should that be the kinship structure they choose. I do think there is something wrong with a system that offers more care to humans who choose such a structure. One queer goal, so far as I understand it, has always been to get people what they need regardless of the structures, partners, households, outfits, orifices, so-called “lifestyles” etc. they prefer. I don’t see how reproductive justice and the thriving of small beings threatens this goal; to my mind they go hand in hand.
LIT: We’d have to get rid of state-sanctioned marriage.
MN: That would be a good start. But that alone isn’t going to bring us a system whereby people get what they need, so we need all hands on deck.
LIT: The book was first published on May 5, 2015, and the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges a little over a month later on June 26. What incredible timing. Did the decision at all influence how you viewed the book or its reception?
MN: No, because that decision was just one of a series of decisions coming down throughout the book’s writing (the book explicitly discusses, for example, Harry’s and my getting married the day before Prop 8 was passed in CA, etc). So the book was always a self-conscious time capsule about what was going on between 2007–2015 on this account. But I don’t see the gay marriage decisions as being make-or-break for the book’s content, because I don’t see the marriage decisions as being at the heart of the book’s issues, nor our culture’s, really. The inquiry/fight/love goes on, in other words.
LIT: In The Argonauts you talk about how your relationship might appear to be hetereosexual from the outside (related to me to questions about trans “passing”), but that despite not performing a kind of typical or expected queerness you can still identify as queer / live queerly. Do you think there has been too much emphasis on performance / performativity in queer theory and literature? If so, what’s the alternative?
MN: No, I wouldn’t diagnose too much emphasis on performativity / performance (and what such terms really mean, say for Butler, is a deep conversation). Nor do I personally see The Argonauts being about “passing for normal,” though I’ve heard many people talk about it that way. I don’t really have a clue about what living queerly is, and I’m super uninterested in policing such a thing when it comes to myself or others. I’m interested in people living their lives without being violently disciplined, by the state, by police, by their peers, their parents, the cops in our heads, etc. Not that we can come into being without a measure of subjection or discipline; I get that. But generally I have a universalizing view about queer issues, as per Sedgwick—I’m interested in the freak in everyone, more than I am in reifying a certain category of person with particular traits to be assigned particular rights, etc.
LIT: A lot of the people who are doing the most exciting writing right now seem to be experimenting with a similar verse-essay form. Your work often receives the label “autotheory,” but it seems like the book also participates in something more generally fashionable—the mixing of two speech registers, the analytical, in which the “I” is barely visible, and the lyric, driven by the need to articulate individual perspective and experience. Claudia Rankine’s last two books, for example. Or Andrea Brady’s Wild Fire. Anne Carson has been doing it for a long time. To a certain degree, Ben Learner’s Mean Free Path and Angle of Yaw do something similar as well. Do you see your books in conversation with that larger literary trend?
MN: I’m a big fan of Ben’s and Claudia’s, and Anne Carson has been immensely meaningful to me for many years (and I’ll look up Brady now). It’s cool with me if we’re all onto something, though I’m not sure it’s particularly new. The notion of the fashionable sounds to me like a real thought-killer, so I’ll leave that estimation to others.
LIT: There’s something of the “undoing” aesthetic in the form, it seems. Maybe that’s a retrospective label.
MN: What form? I see some similarities in the above work, but the forms each author uses from one another—or really, the different forms within each author’s own oeuvre—differ so much, it would be hard to generalize.
LIT: Relatedly, you wrote that your teacher Eileen Myles’s effect on her readers highlights the fact that “literature, at its best, creates its own audience, rather than serving any existing god.” It might be hard to perceive how your own books do this (I think they do), but do you feel like the book has had to teach some critics, or even friends, how to read autotheory as a new genre/form?
MN: Nah, I don’t teach (save when I actually teach). People dig it or they don’t, that’s fine with me. “If you enjoy it you understand it,” Gertrude Stein used to say. I don’t worry about teaching people. At the risk of sounding old school, I’m in the expression business, or the articulation business. The interpretation/ understanding business is the reader’s business. Generally speaking, though, I do think the most interesting books teach you how to read them as they go, which isn’t about authorial intent as much as it is about surprise or disobedience or idiosyncrasy being built into those works, so you can’t really cruise through them on auto-pilot.
LIT: You’ve said that you studied Confessional poets like Plath and Sexton before getting to Eileen Myles and the New York school. Both schools developed a kind of personal poetry. How do you feel like the role of autobiography in poetry has evolved?
MN: That’s too big for me right now. I think Dottie Lasky or CAConrad would have a good answer. There’s so much poetry, and I’ve kind of stepped off the flag of charting its currents, for the moment.
LIT: A related question might be, do you think about the creation of a first-person character while you’re doing the writing itself?
MN: I think more in terms of maintaining a sound or a tone than a character.
I have friends, like Eileen Myles, who explicitly see a character as they write their autofictions or what have you—Eileen has talked about her Eileen character as a comic book figure moving between frames of a storyboard, for example. I don’t see it as visually as that; I just hear the person talking, hear the sound of the tone or rhythm, and try to make her tone or sound somewhat uniform—not in the sense of “the same,” more like, the book is all one snake, and it can have different moments in the pattern, but it has to stay together as one skin.
LIT: Lastly, what are you working on now?
MN: No comment (said in a cheery way!).
—Introduction and interview by Jake Orbison