In college, I covered the walls above my bed with quotations, hand-written on scraps of white paper. Nothing very hip—think Ani DiFranco, newly discovered. Think J.D. Salinger. My sophomore year, on the last day of an introductory queer theory class, my professor gave each of us another small slip of paper, like an oversized cookie-fortune, with these words from Foucault:
Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and build up what we could be to get rid of this kind of political “double bind,” which is the simultaneous individualization and totalization of modern power structures. . . . The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate us from the state and the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries. (“The Subject and Power,” 1982)
I don’t remember whether this quotation made it above my Twin XL bed, but I did save it, rediscovering it during a visit home a few years ago and pinning it to a decade-old collage hanging above my high school desk.
My impulse to collect the words of others, to pull aphorisms from novels and songs and spread them in front of me, flared as I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It seems to answer Foucault’s call for new forms of subjectivity by working through conundrums about queer identity and its relationship to family, the state, and the body. It also constructs a textual portrait that is at once communal and insistently individual. The book tells the love story of Maggie Nelson and the artist Harry Dodge. Soon before California’s gay marriage ban, Prop 8, passes, Maggie and Harry marry. Both Harry and Maggie undergo profound physical changes: Harry (who is fluidly gendered and uses he/him pronouns) chooses to go on testosterone therapy and undergo a double mastectomy; Maggie gives birth to their son, Iggy. Nelson puts these personal experiences in conversation with theories of queerness, embodiment, motherhood, politics, and gender developed by the likes of Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Fred Moten, Susan Fraiman, Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, and D.W. Winnicott. Is falling in love with a genderfluid person, becoming stepmother to his son, and giving birth to a child of your own a radical queering of a heteronormative family structure, or a total capitulation to it? Nelson pursues this question by assembling a densely intertextual book in which the words of other writers are incorporated into the prose, their contributions signaled by their names printed in the book’s margins. The Argonauts, whose title alludes to the ship Argo being rebuilt piece by piece (an old thought experiment that asks whether the ship remains itself after being fully rebuilt), describes the book’s content and its form: a family built, bodies changing, and language assembled.
As Moira Donegan puts it, the book’s “subject matter so perfectly mirrors its form that it’s difficult to imagine how Nelson will write another book after this one; it reads like the culmination of a career.” Events do not so much unfold as flash by: the narrative is nonlinear, and rather than being set off in chapters, the book is a series of sections that are separated by paragraph breaks. These two features emphasize the work’s conceptual and material status as a kind of assemblage, organized not by the unfolding of plot but by the structuring logics of an intersubjective intertextuality, a kind of collage of experiences—interactions with Harry, Iggy, Nelson’s stalker, and other of the book’s “characters” as well as intellectual interactions with the writers that have touched Nelson, made their way, so to speak, above her bed.
This “queer momoir” is thus a conceptual and visual series of thoughts, punctuated by the white space of the paragraph break but not clearly leading to any kind of narrative action. We might be tempted to call these fragments, but I think we should call them snippets. Like Gmail’s “snippets” of email, which entice readers to click open (or alert them to avoid), Nelson’s snippets instantiate a reading experience that echoes the feel of everyday digital practices while maintaining a thematic feel that is rooted in a more analog world. The form of The Argonauts also echoes the scroll: as in scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest. Just as the book blends genres and assembles intertexts, it layers and blends media forms: the scroll, feed, and snippet as well as older forms like the commonplace book and the diary. Built from intertextual fragments, The Argonauts carries readers along in a compromised, assembled, under-construction vessel.
The Argonauts bears the trace of digital culture in oblique and impressionistic ways—as in the way it impressed itself upon me. I know that its material history is bound up in the digital—word processing, the cloud—but that’s not what I mean here. The book’s structure both echoes and capitalizes on our digital-era reading habits. My sense that I could always consume “just one more” of Nelson’s snippets bore the mark of the digital era in the handheld, pulp-made, finite and flippable codex. Our contemporary networked and digital culture hums in the background, yet is rarely more than a tossed-off temporal marker for Nelson. She mentions her “AOL home page (yes, AOL)”; she notes that “it was an act of grace that I got sober before I got wireless” (61).
In its thoroughgoing intertextuality, however, The Argonauts echoes the networked form of digital writing and publishing. Sure, the citations running across the margins also call to mind “The Wasteland,” but for contemporary readers, they scratch an itch that is often cured through Google. (People I googled while reading The Argonauts: Harry Dodge, Christina Crosby, A.L. Steiner). The Argonauts contains a trace of the hyperlink network, recalls a habit of opening tabs. It pulls readers out, spreads them around, drags them through just one more vignette, then another. It reads like a Netflix binge.
This is something different than what Rita Felski calls “enchantment,” wherein a text either consumes us in the mise-en-scène and narrative propulsion of its world or draws us close to the tiniest details of its aesthetic shape (Uses of Literature 53-4). While reading the text, I was often aware of myself reading in my surroundings (and once, at a beautiful wooden bar looking at exposed brick and my pink cocktail, I wanted nothing more than to freeze the moment in an Instagram post). Along those lines, the book dragged me through without orienting me in. Though it built little worlds (Maggie and Harry’s apartment with the red couch and view of their mountain; poolside in Florida sipping virgin piña coladas), it did not immerse me in a fantasy life. This is not an experience of boarding the train to Hogwarts, of waiting for the killer to be revealed. As Robyn Wiegman puts it, the “episodic” nature of the book’s “narrative desire” makes it into “a performative assemblage of potentially interchangeable parts” (210). I wanted to collect the parts, organize them somehow, orient myself within them.
I wanted a map of the text, so I found a starting point: the paragraph breaks. I would transcribe the last word of each section, then visualize them in a word cloud. Having followed Nelson through The Argonauts, I wanted to know where we had been. Each end-word was a port of call. As I transcribed, I noticed that a double paragraph break, two lines of white space, separated distinct vignettes. Single paragraph breaks were more like an indentation, a pause in a cohesive section. But I decided to transcribe each end-word that preceded a white space, whether it was a single paragraph break or a double. I didn’t include the end-words in dialogue (where each voice was also separated by a line of white space) or block quotations (also bracketed by lines of white space, but contained within a distinct section). I used my phone to hold down each page while I transcribed these end-words—another digital impression on the text. (My document of transcribed words also helped tremendously when writing this essay, allowing me to jerry-rig a sort-of searchable version of the text so I could locate passages to quote. I’d been too shy to mark my book while reading—the margins were already occupied.)
I noticed a few things. Two names: Igasho, Maggie and Harry’s child, whose birth concludes the book, and Phyllis, Harry’s mother, whose death punctuates that conclusion. Who joins them? Gallop (as in feminist literary critic Jane). Michelangelo. Lamprey (as in Adam Lamprey, security detail who patrols Nelson’s home when she receives threats from a stalker). Freeman (as in Mr., the rapist from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Cordelia (Lear’s youngest?). I want to draw grand conclusions about the literary family Nelson creates with these names, but while Igasho and Phyllis, as words, develop a kind of talismanic power in The Argonauts, and Gallop signals an embodied and intellectual disposition that Nelson claims, there’s no grand pattern here. These words are evidence of nothing more than tendencies, though I want to interpret them. I look for special significance given to Iggy and Phyllis, who punctuate the book as a whole. But their names appear alongside a number of others, and not all of them coordinate with major thematic concerns of the work. In addition to Mr. Freeman and Mr. Lamprey, the word “Franzen-view” arises in my word cloud, but only because Nelson incorporates Dodie Bellamy’s critique of that author’s “evil Franzen-view” of middle-aged women (57). But Iggy and Phyllis are named twice, obliquely: two end-words mark time—3:45 (Iggy is born) and 2:16 (Phyllis dies)—and these are the only timestamps in my word cloud. In a book that disregards narrative time so blithely, the timestamps stand out.
But the most frequently used words are a bit more pedestrian: Enough, Me, Out, It. I like the refrain of “enough”; I like the way it lets us pause and feel content. Or stop and say, “no more!” Or lament that there isn’t just a little bit more.
I am not the only person to see an oblique trace of new media in The Argonauts. When Robyn Wiegman realized that her Kindle version of the text excised the marginal annotations that appear throughout the paper version, she began to wonder whether the two versions were the same, whether the paper version were more authentic than the Kindle version. In an essay for Angelaki that concludes with the confident statement, “The Kindle Argonauts is The Argonauts nonetheless,” Wiegman tries, along with a class of graduate students, to enumerate Nelson’s rules of citation. As soon as they think they’ve decoded how and when Nelson chooses to name a writer whose words she is engaging, they find an exception. I assume there is no master code governing the appearance of a name beside an intertextual reference. Wiegman does, however, note a few idiosyncrasies in the marginal notations that highlight the voices of Eve Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, and Harry Dodge. This is not surprising: Sedgwick was a mentor at CUNY, Myles her writing teacher, and Dodge, of course, is Nelson’s beloved.
Wiegman also points out that the book ends with rhyme, the only instance in the text (212-3): “I know we’re still here, who knows for how long, ablaze with our care, its ongoing song” (143). For Wiegman, this move signals a turn from death to the present, an awareness of finitude to an emphasis on the ongoing now. Less poetically, I also see Nelson emphasizing form as such, returning readers to the artful construction of language. As she builds up to this concluding gesture of poetic making, Nelson’s prose structure also takes on a more legibly artful form. Although the book moves back and forth through time in a seemingly-arbitrary way, it concludes in a clearer pattern. At the end of the book, Nelson is giving birth to Iggy. She narrates this experience in a consistent voice, but it is suddenly interspersed with passages narrated by Harry. These vignettes, lifted from Harry’s emails to friends, introduce a new form of intertextuality to The Argonauts. If one of the tensions in the book concerns Nelson’s ability (narratively and ethically) to tell a story that is Harry’s, too, then that tension is at least partly resolved when Nelson gives space to Harry to speak for himself. He does so by recounting the last moments of his mother’s life, responding to Nelson’s second-person address to him throughout the book. And if Harry’s voice is a response, is more his own than Maggie’s, then so too is Eileen’s, is Eve’s, is Fred’s, is A.L.’s, is D.W.’s. The book thus culminates not in a temporal endpoint, but with a marking of time’s passing: life and death meet, generations pass batons. The ending’s poetic lilt doesn’t come out of nowhere. Nelson’s been building it ever since she went to the hospital and Harry visited the hospice house in Detroit (128-9).
Although Nelson is often treated as a formal renegade whose work defies categorization and comparison, she is not the only writer doing something like autotheory, and her influences extend beyond the “many-gendered mothers of the heart” she names in The Argonauts. In multiple interviews, Nelson has mentioned Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie as an influence. And as Daniel Peña observes, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is a central precursor to The Argonauts. Starting from experience—quotidian and intellectual, embodied and emotional—Anzaldúa pulls together multiple languages and mythologies to develop a queer Xicana theory of borders and borderlands. Borderlands are the place of “los atravesados”: “the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (3, emphasis original). The Argonauts began as an essay on Eve Sedgwick, whose A Dialogue on Love describes her therapy sessions with a blend of her narrative voice, her poetry, and writing from her therapist himself. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red blends narrative and verse, as well as loose translations of the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros and invented testimonies from Stesichoros’s blinding by Helen. Retelling the myth of Geryon, Carson explores violence and gender while sustaining a poetic dialogue with Gertrude Stein. Like autotheory, autofiction also resists the distinction between memoir—as a kind of straightforward disclosure of self—and artful creation. Chris Kraus is famous for this in works such as I Love Dick and Summer of Hate, and her recent After Kathy Acker reveals the extent to which Acker lifted passages from her diaries—alongside the words of Dickens, Hawthorne, Burroughs, Genet, Deleuze, and others—to create her literary collages. Kate Zambreno similarly weaves life writing together with literary criticism and theory, blending her life with those of modernist women artists in Heroines. As I start to think about writers who do similar things I feel as if I could go forever, a feeling that leads me back to Julia Kristeva’s pronouncement that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations” (66).
There is something deeply personal and specific in the intertextual assemblage Nelson constructs, and as with Acker, the constellation of intertexts nearly always exceeds a reader’s grasp. Though the marginal references seem to offer a comprehensive bibliography, they simultaneously tell you all that you do not know. Moreover, Nelson does not cite all the thinkers she incorporates into the text, “thereby referencing while upending the formal practice of academic legitimation” (Wiegman 210). The names in the margins are more playful incantation than bibliography. They are not a map that can lead readers to their own mastery of Nelson’s reading life; they are a portrait. In an interview with Maggie Lange, Nelson “mentioned identifying with Foucault—who, when asked to describe his sexuality, said, ‘I identify as a reader.’” The book’s dense citational practice—which calls to mind Laur M. Jackson’s definition of “citation as a loving practice”—enacts the notion that what we have read makes us who we are. Encounters with language are hardly distinct from encounters with people; they are as much a part of moving through the world as a plane ride, a broken bone, heartbreak. There is something at once radically individual and richly communal about Nelson’s intertextual assemblage: so many voices in conversation, but only she could have brought them together.
I began by framing The Argonauts as a digital text that evokes the hypertext and the feed, and now I want to turn to a major effect of that form to suggest that The Argonauts enacts a mode of reparative reading. In her seminal essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” Eve Sedgwick argues that a “paranoid” mode of interpretation has become axiomatic in cultural criticism, both refusing and hiding other forms of knowledge. In contrast to a paranoid mode, which unearths, goes against the grain, pares away, and outwits, a reparative mode adds, collects, attends, and makes. And sometimes, it doesn’t know what it will do. Nelson is an ideal figure for thinking through such a reparative mode because her writing enacts a kind of queer reading practice that is embedded in the form. Indeed, if as a reader of The Argonauts you are concerned about which citations you recognize and which you miss, “you can never be paranoid enough” (Sedgwick 127).
Informed by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, Sedgwick characterizes reparative psychological processes as ones in which “it is possible . . . to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ . . . something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in return” (128, emphasis original). Violence is never set aside in a reparative mode, whether it be psychic or literary, for while Sedgwick names hope and love as two kinds of reparative practices, she notes that both experiences can be “fracturing, even . . . traumatic” (146). Indeed, “to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity of enmity or oppression” (128). By contrast, reparative forms of knowing are fundamentally rooted in experiences of brokenness.
Nelson’s title, The Argonauts, indexes a constellation of reparative practices. The physiological shifts of pregnancy and testosterone therapy are embodied types of shipbuilding: in what ways have I changed? In what ways am I the same? Sitting in a restaurant, passing as a straight couple, Nelson reflects that “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” (83). From the beginning, changing bodies are inextricable from language. Falling in love with Harry complicates Nelson’s “lifetime devot[ion] to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed” (3). For Harry, “words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow” (4). If the body is a kind of Argo, then so is the book itself. The sequence of un-indented paragraphs, the thick network of intertexts: these formal features suggest writing is building and replacing, that quoting is how we access our own words. We build texts and selves from gathered fragments.
According to Sedgwick, “practices of reparative knowing may lie, barely recognized and little explored, at the heart of many histories of gay, lesbian, and queer intertextuality” (Sedgwick 149). Campiness, for example, is not necessarily an ironic performance that reveals how gender itself is a construct. Viewed from a reparative position, camp’s “juicy displays of excess erudition” are “additive and accretive” practices of assembling “surplus beauty, surplus stylistic investment” (149-50). A reparative reading practice can also teach us to recognize unfamiliar kinds of knowledge and beauty. As an assemblage that exceeds the interpretive mastery of its readers, The Argonauts invites its audience into a mode of reparative reading that echoes the “great invitation” of Eve Sedgwick’s work: to “pluralize and specify.” As Nelson puts it, “this is an activity that demands an attentiveness—a relentlessness, even—whose very rigor tips it into ardor” (62). Responding to the impoverished vocabulary for reparative reading practices (Sedgwick 150), Nelson’s formal features suggest a number of productive terms: feed, scroll, network, assemblage, net, sustenance (Sedgwick 150), care, many-gendered mothers, and that term that appears most frequently at the end of her paragraphs, enough.
Donegan, Moira. “Gay as in Happy.” n+1 vol. 23 (Fall 2015). https://nplusonemag.com/issue-23/reviews/gay-as-in-happy/.
Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Blackwell, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry vol. 8, no. 4 (Summer 1982). 777-795.
Jackson, Laur M. “Out of Cite.” The Awl. 11 Aug 2016. https://www.theawl.com/2016/08/out-of-cite/.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Translated by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. Edited by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press, 1980.
Lange, Maggie. “Maggie Nelson Writes Books Like She’s Hosting a Party.” The Cut. 31 Mar 2017. https://www.thecut.com/2017/03/interview-maggie-nelson.html.
Paige, Abby. “Queering the Momoir.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 26 Apr 2015. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/queering-the-momoir/.
Peña, Daniel. “The Argonauts is a Direct Descendent of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and No One is Talking About It.” Ploughshares. 9 May 2016. http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/the-argonauts-is-a-direct-descendant-of-anzalduas-borderlandsla-frontera-and-no-one-is-talking-about-it/.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press, 2003.
Wiegman, Robyn. “In the Margins with The Argonauts.” Angelaki, vol. 23, no. 1 (2018). 209-213.