The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson


‘Tears’ (Majorca 2015) by AN Stuart

‘There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilisation and its institutions (marriage, notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilisation and its institutions, and their frustration with the assimilationist, unthinkingly neo-liberal bent of the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement, which has spent fine coin begging entrance into two historically repressive structures: marriage and the military’

Part 1

Maggie Nelson is a US writer and academic. Harry Dodge is an artist and trans man. Harry and Maggie met and fell passionately in love and had a child.

‘…the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time, but the boat is still called the Argo’. (Barthes)

Using the metaphor of the good ship ‘Argo’, the French philosopher Roland Barthes notes how phrases such as ‘I Love You’ experience slight changes in emphasis and meaning, depending on how, where and by whom they are used, while the intrinsic meaning remains the same.

‘The Argonauts’ are Nelson and Dodge, attempting to work out and understand the nature and role of Maggie as a mother and the position of her, Dodge and their family both within mainstream society and the LGBTQ community: the domestic versus the political. While ‘The Argonauts’ is about language and Nelson’s journey to find the right language for her husband and others for whom pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ have lost their meaning, this is only part of the story. The ‘Argo’ is the marriage of Nelson and Dodge, an institution shifting to accommodate new structures when those involved are outside of the male-female binary. And what of the bodies of both Nelson and Dodge, both undergoing change to accommodate and baby and gender re-assignment (‘Argo’)? All of these present a challenge.

Take also the notion of ‘Queer’ sexuality, which Nelson clearly allies herself with. Given the massive (positive) changes seen in the place of homosexuality and trans people in western society in recent years, this provides a crucial question at the heart of the book: what is ‘queer’ and what role , what subversive role does it play within modern society and within the position of the newly married Nelson and Dodge? Pondering this, Nelson notes Judith Butler:

‘How or when do new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements and when or how do they radically recontextualise them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of kinship? How can you tell or, rather, who’s to tell?

Nelson uses Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of ‘queer’ as being something shifting, morphing, accommodating anything and everything not necessarily related to gender, but something that must at the same time,

‘…given the historical and contemporary force of the prohibitions against every same-sex sexual expression, for anyone to disavow those meanings, or to displace them from the term (queer)’s definitional centre, would be to dematerialise any possibility of queerness itself.’

So, as Nelson notes,

‘…(Kosofsky Sedgwick) wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.’

By the end of the book, the ‘Argo’ undergoes one further change as Nelson hoes into labour and gives birth to her son, Iggy.

There is much to be enjoyed in this book. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, each page, paragraph carrying something to ponder, and there is some really beautiful writing from Harry Dodge about the death of his mother and from Nelson on Dodge’s early life.  The domestic scenes (which include fascinating insights into pregnancy) underline Nelson’s questioning of the dichotomy between the public self and the domestic self: nobody wants to be ‘fighting the fight’ 24-7; sometimes a person just wants to sit back, relax and live.


Part 2

‘People are different from each other. Unfortunately, the dynamic of becoming a spokesperson almost always threatens to bury this fact. You may keep saying that you only speak for yourself, but your very presence in the public sphere begins to congeal difference into a single figure, and pressure begins to bear down hard.’

Here, Nelson inadvertently highlights the main flaw at the heart of her book: she appears to be so determined not to let the pressure bear down that the changes experienced on the ‘Argo’, the questions she raises – great, interesting, important questions  – are left as just that. Nelson seems to continually shying away from coming up with ways forward from these questions, almost wilfully determined to ignore the sea upon which the good ship ‘Argo’ sails. But isn’t this the role of the academic: to work out the right questions and put forward an attempt at answering them?

 ‘Heteronormativity seems to me a natural consequence of the decriminalisation of homosexuality: once something is no longer illicit, punishable, pathologised, or used as a lawful basis for raw discrimination or acts of violence, that phenomenon will no longer be able to represent or deliver on subversion, the subcultural, the underground, the fringe, in the same way’

In the west the queer world has changed and moved on since the (relative) emancipation of its people. Queer is mainstream, the gay underground is dead. But does that mean that we should just give up trying to change society for the better?  What of non-Western cultures where the death penalty still exists, oppression and fear and violence are everyday features of the queer life? Do we, as Nelson seems to be suggesting, simply shrug our shoulders because we want ‘something both ways’? Is Nelson’s answer to this mainstreaming of queer culture really to adopt the closets which once oppressed?

Nelson shows how these closets are still in the hands of those in power who can taken them away at a moments notice (The place where Nelson and Dodge marry disappears overnight following the vote to repeal same-sex marriage laws). And on a very basic level, if we knew nothing of their past and were to view the Nelson-Dodge marriage with its (almost) 2.4 kids what would it say to us that is different from ‘Mr.and Mrs. Hetero’ and their 2.4 kids? What would it say to the confused and afraid LGBTQ teenager on the street? We are living in a time when an archaic institution (marriage) is adapting and changing to new structures and yet is being prescribed in the most traditional manner. We are talking more than ever about the fluidity of gender and yet in mainstream society we are seeing gender roles polarising with ever more ‘pumped’ men and increasingly ‘girly girls’. We see children’s play and toys and imaginations ever more regimented.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to forge something new, something different to accommodate our relationships? Create a very new, different ‘Argo’.

Despite these reservations I would absolutely recommend this book: You may not agree with everything it contains and I would have loved to have heard Nelson construct possible outcomes, possible futures, new versions of the ‘Argo’. However,  for such a small and slender tome, it certainly packs a punch.




While writing the above article I read an item on trans issues by Jacqueline Rose in ‘The London Review of Books’, in which Rose looked at the various ‘narratives’ around Trans lives and ends by looking at possible ways forward for trans/ queer activism in the modern (western) world. Considering the work of activists such as Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade, she notes:

‘Today, the official response to the regular and fatal violence meted out to trans and queer people is hate-crime legislation, tacked on to Defense Bills, which lengthens prison sentences and strengthens the hand of the local and federal law imposing them. In 2007, the Employment Non-Discrimination Bill was gutted of gender identity protection. Bill Clinton…may have liberalised the sexual life of the nation, but it was on his watch that the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limited aid and increased penalties for welfare recipients. Viewed in this light Clinton becomes, like Cameron, a leader whose social liberalism, including on sexual matters, is what allows him to drive through brutally unjust economic policies with such baffling ease.

We can no longer, they state, ‘allow our deaths to be the justification of so many other people’s deaths through policing, imprisonment and detention.‘ Trans people can’t afford to be co-opted by discriminatory and death dealing state powers. The regular and casual police killings of black men on the streets of America comes immediately to mind as part of this larger frame in which, they are insisting, all progressive politics should be set.’


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2 Responses to The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

  1. Pingback: The books which made 2016 | wordsandpictures

  2. Pingback: This week’s book haul | wordsandpictures

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