In her slim but sprawling memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson recounts her romantic relationship with Harry, a woman transitioning to man, and her own pregnancy, while liberally interspersing their story with reflections on the nature of gender and sexuality.
Nelson, to her credit, feels no compulsion to portray the female body as a sex object or something pretty to gaze at. She demonstrates that the female body, for all the charm attributed to it, can be just as vile as the male.
Here she is when her midwife demonstrates that she’s already making milk: “In one stunning gesture, she took my breast into her hand-beak and clamped down hard. A bloom of custard-colored drops rose in a ring, indifferent to my doubts.” Milk is the most pleasant of the substances she describes emitting.
She doesn’t hide her pleasures in sex, either: “[Y]ou spread my legs with your legs and push your cock into me, fill my mouth with your fingers.”
In the face of those who condemn her sexuality or her lack of shame around it, she is defiant, challenging popular conceptions of, for example, the sameness at the core of a lesbian relationship. “[W]hatever sameness I’ve noticed in my relationships with women,” she writes, “is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”
Throughout, she calls out the patriarchy she encounters, from the cab drivers who tell her how women should live, to the man at a lecture of hers who asks how she can write about dark subject matter while pregnant.
If The Argonauts was simply this, a frank memoir of a woman’s romance, pregnancy, and academic career, it would be perhaps half its length, and much more compelling. Unfortunately, much of this book is made of smatterings of theory indulging in the worst of identity politics, like her knee-jerk dismissals of outside commentary or tendency to read vast significance into personal anecdotes.
“How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution,” she wonders, “that sometimes the shit stays messy?…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 try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”
Sure, good point. We shouldn’t rush to impose our narratives on others. Lord knows, in the past fifty years we’ve made great (but incomplete) progress towards turning the “neutral” viewpoint into something more inclusive than the merely white and male.
But imposing our views of reality onto others isn’t inherently wrong. Every effort to accurately represent reality—whether it’s a scientific model, a newspaper article, or a book of theory as loosely organized as The Argonauts—inevitably distorts it. The ideal response is not to let every individual have his or her own “version of reality,” but to strive to find the version of reality that most closely represents the thing itself. Some views of reality are more realistic than others; not everything is a matter of one’s taste or “personal journey.”
In more concrete terms, the proper response to bigots is not to express indignation that they dare challenge your version of reality, but to tell them why their version of reality is wrong. Don’t tell a homophobe that it’s wrong to have an opinion different from that of the gay rights movement; tell him (if he’ll listen) about the many gays who live lives of peace and wholesomeness, who raise families, work and worship beside their straight neighbors.
An appeal to objective reality is often seen as a right-wing position, but it’s not. After the discrediting of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s sensational article about a rape at the University of Virginia, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote in the socialist journal Jacobin that personal narratives can only go so far. “The strength of leftist critique,” she wrote, “is that it concerns itself with the broad, the historical, the powerful, the structural. Contrast this with right-wing accounts of politics, which focus on individual choice and disposition, private and personal interests, and folk-legendary tales of bootstrapping.”
Holding a personal narrative against greater standards isn’t shellacking, it’s fact-checking.
Nelson strays further onto shaky ground when she presents a pat response to critics of identity politics. Responding to criticisms of gender theorist Judith Butler, she writes:
[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth…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 has been 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…and shame the unsophisticated identitarian….
In summary, Nelson argues that criticism of identity politics hinges on 1) defining the argument by the identity of the arguer, then 2) dismissing the argument based on that identity.
But much of identity politics does derive its legitimacy not from the quality of its arguments but from the identity of the arguers, and the simplistic dualism of privilege and oppression they’re placed in. We see this right after the excerpt above, when Nelson complains about academics “at the feet of another great white man pontificating from the podium, just at we’ve done for centuries.”
Now, I’ve rolled my eyes as much as the next guy at hilariously aloof white men saying I can’t see why we don’t all move beyond this, as if overcoming centuries of tragic history is an attitude problem. But to dismiss the arguments of white men, who may happen to be great, based on their identity is cheap rhetoric. Let’s stop defending it with rebel cool.
(And come on—white people aren’t that bad. They gave us liberal democracy, which, for all its flaws, is the best form of government we variously colored, hairless apes have yet to experiment with.)
This book unwittingly proves many conservatives talking points about academic leftists—that they’re navel-gazing, that they’re in the throes of adolescent rebellion, that they’re ivory tower intellectuals with no relation to reality.
Academia is home to many genuine agents of change, whose research helps bolster the case of people calling for the change in the streets (and in congress). Research—like the American Psychological Association’s studies suggesting that homosexuals make perfectly fine parents—does more for the gay rights movements than any number of navel-gazing memoirs. The personal may be the political, sometimes, but The Argonauts stretches that saying to its limits and reveals its absurdity.
It may be unfair, anyway, to expect coherence from Nelson, as she seems content to abstractly theorize without following her thoughts to their conclusions: “I have…never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position.”
The Argonauts. By Maggie Nelson. Published in May by Graywolf Press. 160 pages. $23.00