The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

“I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. 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—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

“And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.”

“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?”

I think (Judith) Butler is generous to name the diffuse “commodification of identity” as the problem. Less generously, I’d say that the simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth — whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth, whatever ideas spout from her head — certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian — or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a “postracial” future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present— as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that he has imputed to the speaker. 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 a keynote by Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, at which we can meditate on Self and Other, grapple with radical difference, exalt the decisiveness of the Two, an shame the unsophisticated identitarians, all at the feet of yet another great white man pontificating from the podium, just as we’ve done for centuries.

Shame-spot: being someone who spoke freely, copiously, and passionately in high school, then arriving in college and realizing I was in danger of becoming one of those people who makes everyone else roll their eyes: there she goes again. It took some time and trouble, but eventually I learned to stop talking, to be (impersonate, really) an observer. This impersonation led me to write an enormous amount in the margins of my notebooks—marginalia I would later mine to make poems.

Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of “totalizing” language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia. Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that “it is language which is assertive, not he.” It is absurd, Barthes says, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by “add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.”
My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way, I edit myself ito a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

  • An Excellent Read

Fascinating Text About Motherhood, Identity, and Love

It’s hard to characterize this book, which feels like a Roland Barthes text written in an entirely different era by an entirely different voice. Nelson confronts the reader with challenging ideas about identity, motherhood, sexuality, and her own contradictions and half-steps. Highly recommended!