The Personal, the Political, and the Academic: Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts
While Maggie Nelson’s 2015 The Argonauts was published to critical acclaim, it quickly became apparent from the reviews it received that the book strongly resisted any familiar label. It’s a book you can’t really pigeonhole because it does several things simultaneously; at times it has the confessional tone of a memoir, the privacy of a diary, the critical approach of an academic article, and the lyricism of a poem. On the one hand, Nelson quotes complex theoretical works from writers like Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze on topics like feminism, gender theory, and psychoanalysis; on the other hand, she juxtaposes them with her very immediate personal experience on the same topics. This juxtapository writing style is a way for Maggie Nelson to emphasize the necessity of dismantling harmful norms like patriarchy and heteronormativity, while contextualizing her lived experience within these norms from what is a distinctly phenomenological angle, in the framework of theoretical ideas that dominate discussions around these issues.
In combining all the different styles of prose in one book, Nelson has created a piece of writing that, while it may seem to randomly jump from one topic to the next, ultimately derives from her very personal experience and perception. It is this very distinct perspective that makes this collage of ideas a unified text. In that regard, one of the quotes by Gilles Deleuze that Nelson uses may provide the most insightful way of understanding the nature and functions of The Argonauts. In the second half of the book, while talking about the experience of being pregnant, Nelson writes, “rather than a philosopher or a pluralizer, I may be more of an empiricist, insofar as my aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced” (Nelson 128). This is a quote from the preface of Deleuze’s and Parnet’s book, Dialogues, where Deleuze discusses a particular type of empiricism which is derived from his stance of phenomenology, in his 1968 book, Difference and Repetition. Phenomenology is a theoretical approach that became prominent during the early 20th century, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person point of view” (Smith). When discussing Difference, Stephan Günzel talks about how Deleuze judges the writings of Sartre, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty (32), and while responding to the ideas on phenomenology of these three writers, particularly Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze derives the term “transcendental empiricism” (32). On the subject of this term, and particularly the quote that Nelson uses, Günzel writes that “it is here that we can find Deleuze's core understanding of phenomenology” (38-9). This particular definition of phenomenology preserves the focus on an individual’s experience, while still allowing that experience to be an important factor in the way larger ideas are perceived. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson allows her personal experience to directly connect to theoretical approaches to feminism and gender.
When quoting Deleuze’s idea of transcendental empiricism, Nelson distances herself from the labels of philosopher and pluralizer, and instead adopts the Deleuzian view of phenomenology. Often, the pages of The Argonauts are comprised of academic quotes, on feminism or gender theory or sexuality from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, followed by Nelson’s confirming or refuting these ideas, which often leads to examples from her personal experience. Olivia Laing points to this by writing “the Nelsonian unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph, a mode that allows for deep swerves and juxtapositions, for the interspersing of anecdote and analysis.” This style of juxtaposition is evident, for example, when she is contemplating her living situation, with one paragraph recalling “I was so happy renting in New York City for so long because renting [. . .] allows you to let things literally fall apart all around you,” (Nelson 14) followed by her quoting Susan Fraiman: “Many feminists have argued for the decline of the domestic as a separate, inherently female sphere and the vindication of domesticity as an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic, and a public” (14). Then she offers her personal view on this, saying, “I’m not sure what this vindication would mean, exactly, though I think in my book I was angling for something of the same. But even then I suspected that I was doing so because I didn’t have a domestic, and I liked it that way” (14). The rest of the book follows this pattern. After she has quoted several theorists on the subject of pregnancy and motherhood and what it means for women, at the end of the book she describes her own experience of giving birth to Iggy:
The instances of her juxtaposing similar theory to her experience become more personal, as she talks about pregnancy, homosexuality, and gender fluidity, where she has to look up on the internet the pronoun she should use for her husband. The result for the reader is an intimate portrait of the struggles of a couple that is directly affected by the issues that movements like feminism tackle.
Nelson quotes and discusses ideas by feminist writers, gender theorists, as well as artists, but what sets The Argonauts apart in its attempts to “savage the norms that so desperately need savaging” (39) is its phenomenological aspect. In these norms she includes, amongst others, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and Freudian ideas of women and sexuality. In some ways, her approach echoes the famous phrase used in the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, “the personal is political,” but at the same time she writes “I don’t want to represent anything” (Nelson 120). The Argonauts is not a manifesto, nor does it stand for all the social issues that it deals with, but instead offers an intimate peek into a specific and personal situation. Nelson does not claim to have all the answers, as evidenced by the aforementioned paragraph where she is unsure of the pronoun she should use when talking about Harry, or when she questions her own position as a pregnant woman: “What about my pregnancy—is that inherently heteronormative?” (16). But she does give her account of the ways in which the norms, that she wants to savage, have hurt her and Harry. As Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition, “The work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become 'experience', transcendental empiricism or science of the sensible” (56). As an exercise in phenomenology, The Argonauts captures the lived experience of a lesbian woman becoming a mother and her relationship with a transgender man. This experience exists within the context of a social struggle against societal norms that have facilitated the oppression of people like Maggie and Harry. The result is a book which supports women’s rights and a fair and honest way of thinking about women, sexuality, and gender identity, without claiming to be the sole representative of such a wide-ranging movement. In an interview with Paul Laity, she says:
As such, The Argonauts aims to connect to readers one at a time, with each time being an intimate discussion on the important issues that it focuses on, all the while inhabiting an atmosphere where Nelson’s lived experience is available to the reader.
Ultimately, the different literary modes that Nelson employs in her book allow her to explore a number of social issues without them being in any way distant from her own life. The fact that all the quotes by philosophers such as Judith Butler and Gilles Deleuze are followed not only by her own comments, but also by the way the concepts brought up in these quotes are directly applicable to Nelson’s life, makes them tangible for the reader. Some of the more abstract notions are interpreted either through Nelson’s experience as a woman and a mother, or through her experience of her living with a transgender man. This way of interpretation embodies the “transcendental empiricism” she borrows from Deleuze, which represents a phenomenological approach to these issues. Nelson makes these major political issues of the past several years as personal as they can be made, with an honesty that goes beyond making a statement, and depicts her own reality, which desperately needs the savaging of the norms which threaten its very existence.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton, Columbia UP, 1994. Print.
Laing, Olivia. "The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson review – ‘one of the sharpest thinkers of her generation’". The Guardian.
Laity, Paul. "Maggie Nelson interview: ‘People write to me to let me know that, in case I missed it, there are only two genders’". The Guardian.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Melville House Books, London, 2016. Print.
Smith, David Woodruff, "Phenomenology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.