Maggie Nelson on the Conversations She Wants to Be Having

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We have a sense, I think, of the false border sequestering art from theory. And so to remark on Maggie Nelson’s facility in mating the two is to say the least about how she does so—which is with a hurtling gusto that nonetheless invites us to pause and think. For this, her books are beloved by audiences with varying attachments to the categories that are often, imperfectly, applied to what they are reading: “memoir,” “art criticism,” “poetry,” “queer theory,” “feminism.” This is one way of saying that describing Nelson’s writing can be harder than consuming it, as one of its defining features involves unfurling the shorthand that governs—literally and figuratively—so much of our lives, including the terms we use to identify ourselves.

Nelson was raised in Northern California and moved to New York after college. While there, in the nineties, she became immersed, academically and recreationally, in the rad ideation in literature, theory, and art of the times, and was guided by her daring predecessors: the poet and novelist Eileen Myles, the artist and writer Wayne Koestenbaum, and the critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Her earliest books christened her a poet, but her writing soon demonstrated a sidewinding relation to that discipline. Her book “Jane: A Murder,” published in 2005, assembles all kinds of discursive material, making poetry out of the prosaic and vice versa, in telling the story of her aunt Jane, who was murdered as a young woman. This was the book with which, as my colleague Hilton Als wrote, in 2016, “Nelson went from being a versifier to being a writer who plays with prose and remakes the genre.” That play would be central to her 2015 title, “The Argonauts,” about her marriage to the gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge, whose hormone therapy and double mastectomy coincided with Nelson’s pregnancy. The book is about so much more as well: meditations, as in working out in thought, on pedagogy, dogma, ill-fitting idioms. Yet, much as Nelson commits to thinking a thing over from all sides, her voice is firm. “It’s easy to get juiced up about a concept like plurality or multiplicity and start complimenting everything as such,” Nelson writes, echoing Sedgwick and the philosopher Roland Barthes, after whose work the book takes its name. “This is an activity that demands an attentiveness—a relentlessness, even—whose very rigor tips it into ardor.”

As may be expected, then, the title for her recent eleventh book, “Like Love: Essays and Conversations,” yields something far more eclectic than its subtitle suggests. The pieces span nearly two decades, from the mid-two-thousands to last year, and each one is a two-hander of sorts, between Nelson and an artist or a work of art. There are lyrical and essayistic encounters with, for example, Kara Walker’s “Event Horizon” and the AIDS novel “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,” by Hervé Guibert. The conversations—with Moyra Davey, Jacqueline Rose, and Simone White, among others—are as varied as the respective ties between the interlocutors, who are in some cases meeting over video and in others exchanging long, digressive dialogue via e-mail. A reply from Björk is full of line breaks, such that each paragraph resembles a stanza of a poem:

maggie, i am craving so hard other

narratives for us, is it just laziness or lack

of imagination?

In a pair of recent conversations over Zoom, Nelson spoke with me about the performative aspect of writing, reading her old work, and becoming “lightly interested” in genre for the first time. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this book come together?

Writing can be so solitary. And then this was something that you do where you get out of your head and you try and take on someone else’s. Immerse yourself in their issues and see where they match things that interest you.

I’ve been doing that for a long time, but it had occurred to me that a lot of those pieces were entombed and didn’t feel like they joined any of my wider work. I got excited about just looking at them, culling from many things on my computer. And then there are many more conversations than the ones I included here.

People have often talked about my work as being in conversation with other people, but I felt like these were literalizations of that. Even if you’re quoting and arguing or talking with other people on the page, it’s still just your symphony.

To cite is a conversation.

Whenever you’re quoting people to bolster or argue with, there’s always some degree of repurposing. It really felt exciting to me, as it does in life when people who you’re talking to don’t have your same focus, or see something differently, or maybe even say something and you’re, like, “Oh, I wouldn’t have said that.”

There’s something very tentative about speaking with another person.

There’s a dance you do with people when you’re talking, where you’re leading and following in the conversation. In the last piece with Eileen Myles, for example, there are a lot of “yeah”s and “right”s punctuating it. And there was some pressure, say, in an editorial process, to take those out, and some were taken out.

In your piece on Fred Moten’s essay collection “Black and Blur,” there’s this interesting gesture toward the beginning, where you’re, like, Well, I can’t call this a review, because there are certain professional structures and allergy to the kind of . . . “entanglement,” I believe is the word you used. The kind of interpersonal relationship that would preclude that genre of writing.

I respect the rules and norms set in place about people not knowing each other or whatnot. There are, as you’re well aware, all kinds of power dynamics and weird things that come in when it’s, like, this person must have absolutely nothing to do with this scene, whatever. You might get someone who has no clue about anything about queer culture being asked to weigh in on something really that was meant from queer culture to queer culture. You get these things. And I’m not really very interested in that, and never really have been. Especially with these essays on art, even if I didn’t know the person prior to having been commissioned or invited to write a piece, you do then know them and you spend time having them tell you about other ideas and looking at their sketches and watching their old movies.

We went through a moment in which the refrain was, Only somebody who is close to the representational content of the object is of an authority to write about it. And yet the essays in here seem to come alive in unmooring that identity match. Speaking of Hilton in your piece about him, you write that “it’s one thing to theorize the workings of identity and desire, as so many have done; it’s another to set those workings loose in language and let them rip. To give them mouths.” We’re all readers. We’re all quote-unquote consumers of art. How do we set those things loose without, of course, losing attention to the ethical imperative?

That is a really good question. I’d have to think about it, but I think one of my first responses might be just starting from the get-go, analyzing how you came to be writing about it in the first place. I know the process by which, in every case, I came to that person or subject or work. And I think, just with everything in life, not being overly aggressive or defensive but just being inquisitive about your position and what you’re working on and why.

People have a very different relationship to the way they conduct conversations, even conversations meant to be printed. They might not necessarily have the same sense of permanence about their words. How would you characterize your relationship to things that you’ve said in the past?

I have a more performative feeling about writing. I don’t feel like it’s setting things in stone. So I guess in some sense I don’t have a relationship with them. People always ask if I feel bad or weird or regretful or anything about earlier work, and I just really don’t have that set of feelings. Luckily, when I look back I wasn’t, to my ears, spouting anything too batshit crazy.

It’s just a condition of possibility for older conversations. Particularly in that first conversation with my friend [the poet] Brian Blanchfield, taking the temperature of how things felt around queer/trans stuff. And it was not lost on me that a lot of stuff sounded like a really different moment than where we find ourselves right now. I think it’s just you have to be willing to speak in the present.

I wanted to ask you about the title, which brings us back to Hilton, who writes of, as you quote, “mouths that need filling”—I’m not getting it exactly right—“with something like love.” And I was really caught by the alliterative symmetry of that, “like love.” I can imagine many homing in on the “love” as such a fraught and mobile term. But you are leaning in to the force of the simile and the questions that it raises. How did this figure of the simile help you think in this collection? In literature? In life?

I love Hilton’s writing because often I really don’t know what he means, and it’s very evocative. It becomes an invitation to be, like, What the hell does that mean—for something to “fill your mouth like love”? And it got me immediately thinking about [William Carlos] Williams’s famous quote that men die for lack of what’s found in poems. It’s a much more charged-up conversation than just, like, “Well, do we like love? Do we love?” I mean, “Do we like art? Do we love art?”

This question about nourishment—which obviously links to other conversations about the nature of art and survival and different communities in different times and places. In “On Freedom,” I perseverate in a different idiom about problematics of the word “care,” and it being applied in the realm of art. I don’t think caring about life and caring about art are necessarily two different things, but they’re not easily synonymous, either. And so I think that the title of the book holds that along with its positivity.

There’s a lot of ambient distaste for the idea of art as—you quote from Ben Lerner’s “10:04”—“stylized despair.” You also evoke, from Francis Bacon, this idea of “exhilarated despair.” How do you differentiate between stylized despair and exhilarated despair? Is one a more ethical relation to art than the other?

I am inclined to think of those things as moods or temperaments, which makes me hesitate before I would hang an ethics on them. If one person’s doing stylized despair and someone else is doing exhilarated despair and someone else is doing absolutely not despair, I think of them more as giving us the gifts of inhabiting those moods, such that we can visit with them and make our own determinations about how long we want to stay there or what they have to offer.

There may be people out there—clearly there are—who are wholly in it for the art of insistence. I often hear behind a lot of criticism this quiet hum, as if this is the only art or the best art. And then the reverse of that is there shouldn’t be this art. If I ever dip in either of those directions, I’m pretty worried about what I’m up to. I don’t just write about anything. If someone has me in their studio and I don’t connect, I’m not going to write about it. And, if I see something I don’t like, I really have no need to write about it. If you wanted to get into ethics, I think that there is an ethics in that active attention, but I wouldn’t ride that horse all the way around the ring.

I almost regret the word “ethics.” There’s something so dutiful, I think. Like, “Ah, yes. The ethics of critical attention.”

I really like the conversation with my old friend Simone White in this book. In that conversation, we’re really both asking: Before our good acts of attention get turned into moralism, what else is available while we’re just in the muck of it?

It’s also a way of chafing against the cohering, or maybe standardizing, effect of genre. I’m wondering how you’re thinking about genre now. I was really caught by this line from Eileen Myles about being “so sick of the public account of who I am.” You are someone whose public profile or literary profile is understood as somebody who does chafe against, or finds other routes into or between, genres. How do you think this book will end up figuring into that?

In the conversation with Eileen, we’re also talking about how, whatever moment that the public account begins, it just becomes more and more boring and more and more, in some ways, dissociated from the newness or curiosity you have to find to write anything.

I am sorry, I’m pausing because I’ve never had anything I feel like of interest to say about genre at all. But it’s something that people want to talk about all the time, and I always just feel like, “I just write the books.” To me, it’s like you’re clawing through, and you’re, like, “O.K. It looks like that? O.K.” I will say that, for the very, very first time in my entire life, I’m interested in genre. But it’s taken me this long, and I’m only lightly interested. This book, I feel like, to me it’s an in-joke with myself to have “essays” on the cover, because people have been calling me an essayist for years. And in my opinion I’ve never published any essays ever. I don’t think of any of my work as essays. I don’t have any precious feeling about that genre. That said, I don’t want to be a writer of bad sentences, and I want everything to be interesting. But it’s not like a bouquet of flowers, per se.

Where essays are going for the flower?

Essays can be a million different things. You can call your shopping list an essay. I think it’s just as Eileen would say in that last essay: it’s a shitty edifice. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me.

Now I’m so bashful.

No. No. No. No.

I think it’s very scary not to have some sort of structuring framework by which to evaluate something. And yet I also think other people maybe find a lot of life in thinking of themselves in terms of genres.

That’s the thing. If you just want to work and make things look however you want, you have to get really used to people who are, like, “I picked this. I’m thinking it would be this. But it’s like this.” Or “I thought she wrote like this, but it’s like this.” And so what? Who cares? You’re hearing their edifice of what they’d hoped, their Platonic ideal of what they hoped that they were going to pick up. And I like it when I pick up something, I don’t know what it is, and then my head gets blown off. That’s my favorite reading experience. And then I’m left with a lot of bewilderment, like, “What was that?” But that’s not what everyone’s looking for.

In some ways, it’s the least interesting observation you could make about a thing that you just read: “I expected it to be something, and it was something else.”

I’m just not quite interested in policing a work or knowing beforehand what it is. I’m very interested in form or shape and structure. And sometimes they manifest with literary names, but not all the time.

I do feel like formalism is back in a big way. Do you get that sense, too?

I don’t know if you’re like this, too, since you’re a professor, but maybe you’re more serious than I am. I think probably you are. I look at things happening, and I keep a squinted eye on them so that I can know enough to know what my students are talking about, especially the ones in critical-Ph.D. land. But I squint enough so that I can expel them from the writing room when I need to just play. Because I think for most writers, whenever there is something that begins to seem like a trend, you’re just running for the next hill to take cover, find your new plot of land, where you’re going to see what can happen.

I would characterize myself as a very unserious professor, which is to say that half the time it’s a matter of vibes or something.

A vibes-based professorship.

Vibes-based professorship. It’s working so far.

I think students also get tortured a little bit by trends. They’re worried that their work might not be of the moment, and they’re worried their sensibility might not be welcome. I want them all to have a place. I want them all to do what their sensibility leads them to do as well as they can.

How do you feel about teaching now? How is it going for you?

I love teaching. I’ve taught for almost twenty-five years, and it’s just been a constant in my life. It’s a privileged window in which you get to stay in touch with what people, like, eighteen to, I don’t know, thirty-five, or what’s going on with them. In this book, it was really important to me to begin it with this conversation with Wayne Koestenbaum and end it with this conversation with Eileen Myles, to whom I dedicated the book. Because when I was a young person, very young, very young, they both showed me the way, and it was so important to me.

I wanted to take us back to the preface. There’s this quote from James Baldwin in the first paragraph: “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” At the risk of being a little too cute, I wanted to ask: What anguish, what language, are you vomiting up these days?

I loved waiting to see where you were going with talking about vomit and then saying you thought this was going to be too cute. I was, like, “What is cute about vomit?” I forgot that Baldwin says “artists,” when, in a way, I’m talking in this introduction about being a critic. I think, with Baldwin and with Hilton and other people, [Susan] Sontag, that distinction is blurred in the work, which is the work I admire most. Something could rise up, not just for the artist, as any personal anguish, but also for the critic who’s seen something that they want to tell you about.

The thing about what comes up is that you never know what’s going to come up. You don’t know what you’ve eaten yet. You don’t know what form it’s going to take. Not to beat this metaphor into the ground. If I’m taking things in or living like I am, things are rising up in me to say, and I don’t worry so much about when that will happen.

That’s as good of a description as any for engagement with art, having an aesthetic experience, being open to surprise and having things happen.

I wish I saw a lot more art. But I think that what I have lost in terms of a horizontal spreading I’ve gained in that I have the time and space to do deeper dives. You learn a lot with the deep dive, so it’s always worth taking the time.

Reading gets described as a very visceral experience in a lot of your work, and I’m wondering if it has always been that for you.

As opposed to?

I guess cerebral, to the extent that we want to entertain that distinction.

I mean, I think everything is. I feel like, when we read, we get distracted, we want to throw books across the room. We get tired. We get excited.

Your ideal reading experience is one that blows your head clean off. Have you had any of those experiences lately?

I’m teaching a class right now in criticism, and two books I really liked have been this Ian Penman book on [the German filmmaker Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman’s book “My Mother Laughs.” That’s not about criticism, but I really thought that was terrific. Those were my two favorite books of the summer, and there’s a little book by David Kishik called “Self Study: Notes on the Schizoid Condition” that I thought was really terrific. Things can blow your head off for all different kinds of reasons.

Your work garners a great deal of marvel for the breadth and creativity of its citations. And yet you’ve expressed embarrassment about being treated as, in your words, “a big reader,” and I was wondering who or what you were thinking of in comparison, or what would count on your terms as a “big reader”?

It’s a cliché, but the longer you go on in life, I feel, the more that you know you haven’t read and the more conscious you are of the time that you’re spending in traffic or scrolling or whatever. I don’t actually feel regret about it, per se. This is not a wistful or sad orientation. It’s more of an observing one.

I went to graduate school because I was, like, “O.K., I read a lot about Freud but actually never read any Freud.” And then, when you go to the source text, they’re actually typically so much more anarchic and wild and interesting than you were led to believe by the glosses. I think I have a lot of reading ahead of me. A lot of things that just stand as big open kingdoms that I haven’t yet entered.

There’s this feeling in the air that nobody’s reading or everyone’s anxious about how much they are or are not reading, whether audiobooks count as reading. And I almost wonder if that’s in some way a tacit acknowledgment that reading does demand so much from us in that visceral throwing-a-book-across-the-room way.

I don’t have anything original to add to the discourse around the demise of reading. [The writer and musician] Brontez Purnell was visiting my class last semester, and it was just so great. He was just saying, “I’m not ashamed of scrolling. Are you guys ashamed of your scrolling?” I like this idea that we don’t have to approach everything we do with an “Oh, God, I hate that I’m doing this.” That we can actually just be more cognizant and curious and then also accepting of what we are doing.

I read a lot of books in New York City when there weren’t smartphones, and I took the subway everywhere. That’s not my life anymore. But wherever I can make space to have encounters with books that take time and trouble—those constitute the most transformative and sustaining experiences, really, that I have.

I recently returned to “The Art of Cruelty.” I opened to a random page, and it took me to the piece that was prompted by the marketing for that 2007 film starring Elisha Cuthbert, “Captivity,” which is part of the genre we might call torture porn. In a line that leaped out at me, you write, “It isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore.” And you call it something of a “dead end” and a “bore.”

And you’re, like, “Wait a minute. This is what I do.”

You do clarify that you’re not necessarily generalizing. You’re talking about yourself, but I do wonder if you still feel that way.

No, I don’t feel that way. I don’t even know if I felt that way then, entirely. That book is interesting. It was written at this really different moment, even a very different political moment. The book grew out of the Abu Ghraib moment. I don’t really talk about it very much, because the book is really about art, but I was involved with these same questions that Sontag and others had about “What does looking really do?” Which obviously has continued as a discussion about various death spectacles.

But I think that sense of “It’s already offering its own critique,” or “It’s kind of already analyzing itself,” or “It already was kind of part and parcel of this feeling of a kind of . . . ” I don’t know if I would say “despair,” but a frustration that the logic of shock was not going to hold.

It does hold a little bit, it’s not binary, but I’m just saying the mood of the book was there. I’d also just moved to Los Angeles, and there was a certain cynicism. I had moved to West Hollywood, which was very strange. I didn’t really know L.A., and I don’t really know why I moved there, in the belly of the beast of a lot of marketing such that I’d never seen before. And that film was unfortunately one of the first campaigns that I was being immersed in, and it felt to me very related to what was going on with imagery of torture elsewise.

The postering in L.A. is a whole other level of intensity.

The horizon-blotting-out billboard where you can’t look at anything else. I’m over it now. I’ve adapted. I also don’t live in that part of town, but it was pretty jarring when I first got here.

I can well imagine. I would say, though, that it does feel like there’s a kind of revival of the quandary you were thinking through in that book for the past few years. Obviously, the tradition of Black political writing has had a long discourse about the efficacy of witnessing that got, again, revived during the uprising of 2020. And then I can’t help but think about what’s going on in our most immediate contemporary moment. There are those who would say that seeing, witnessing, is a lever of doing. And then there are many who are seeing that argument put under pressure once again. You haven’t thought about the book in a minute, but I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought to that pressing question of the book, considering our collective witnessing of what’s being done—

—I wouldn’t write the same book the same way now. In my mind, that book is the third of a trilogy. The other two being a book called “Jane” and a book called “The Red Parts.” And they’re all about sexual violence and about ways of narrativizing or spectacularizing. I wouldn’t even say “witnessing.” I would just say “commodifying,” or something, the problem. That book was also married up with my own job at the time—lecturing about art history—because my interests in art were broader than that.

I would never say witnessing is not a lever of doing, or that it doesn’t have value in and of itself, or that it can’t be something really problematic in and of itself. I think it’s just more that famous Sontag quote, which I don’t quite have at the tip of my tongue, where she says something like “The problem with compassion is that it withers.”

There’s a window of opportunity about what to do with it. I know a lot of people have reached a kind of horror-saturation fatigue, and are not seeing, and have to ask themselves hard questions about—What is all the looking? Is it changing what I’m doing? Am I doing the same, either something or nothing? Also, that book was written at a really different moment with the Internet. It was, I think, written on dial-up. I’m kind of a slow adapter, so it was not a smartphone-era book at all. There’s so much that’s changed since then.

One of the things that becomes interesting to track across the conversations in your latest book, but that’s also implied in conversation across your other books, is this increasing, maybe, skepticism from others with this mode of constant questioning, of interrogating and unsettling, blah, blah, blah. There’s this moment in “The Argonauts” which I really love, when you’re writing about a friend’s feminist-theory class that’s growing disruptively tired of dismantling identities. So much theory of the eighties and nineties was this mode of interrogating which was ostensibly meant to liberate subsequent generations from either identifying or being identified in a certain way. The notion that the inheritors of that are a little bit impatient with it, or there’s something there that actually isn’t sustaining to them, is very interesting to me.

I do think there is a lot of exhaustion with some earlier modes that seemed exciting at the time, but I think that’s as it should be, because people kind of run something through to its logical extensions and then just kind of say, “Well, that was an interesting joyride. Where’s the next car to pick it up?” I think people, a lot of people, students and otherwise that I know, are pretty tired of feeling really bad. And so they’re asking a lot of questions, as Fred [Moten] says, about “How can we make this feel better?” And it doesn’t mean anything easy. And, like I say, it doesn’t mean just being, like, “Oh, make everything like love.” It doesn’t mean that at all. But I do see that kind of everywhere. And I do feel on the playing field with people in terms of figuring out, especially post-pandemic, how we don’t have to make things worse than they may already feel.

You have this lovely piece on Hilton, and I went back and read his piece on you, and he writes that your work “picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs.” I was thinking about this notion of certainty which remains under pressure in a lot of your pieces. Are there moments when you do feel the need to insist or feel a kind of recourse toward certainty or a need to show your hand in a certain way? Are there terms that you won’t contest either for yourself or for others or for the way that you read or interpret a piece of art?

Well, I’m pretty allergic to charges of false consciousness. Just as a kind of guiding rule, I would not really focus on terms that others use. I recently interviewed [the philosopher] Judith Butler for City Lights about their new book, “Who’s Afraid of Gender?,” and I felt I really saw them in that book, which is doing what, I think, a lot of people are trying to do, which is really trying to draw communal attention to the terms that we can agree on together. Not that you would never contest them. No, there’s no term I wouldn’t contest personally, because I’m a contestor.

We both know that contestation is part of any political or even aesthetic movement worth its salt. But, at the same time, I think the forces are so egregious that to lose sight of our solidarities is really a recipe for our failure.

I did have a Butler-related question, about our lost hold on the word “performativity,” as both Butler and [the British philosopher] J. L. Austin would have us think of it, in terms of language making reality. I feel there was such a value in the way that they had us think about that term, that this reconfigured meaning of “fake” or “false” doesn’t help us understand in the same way.

The title “Like Love” has built into it a question about performativity. Is it “love” or is it “like love”? And, if it’s “like love,” is that a performance of love? And how do you tell what’s the real thing, right? Maybe here in the pages of The New Yorker is where I tell the world that my undergraduate thesis, when I was but twenty, was titled “The Performance of Intimacy.” I was very interested at that time in literary performances of intimacy—not as false but as embodied and made manifest. At the time, I participated in a lot of dance, and there’s not a distinction in dance between a performance or a gesture that’s real or that’s fake. You’re doing it, you’re gesturing, you’ve moved into the space, and you’re moving your body and you’re making a claim.

All of which is to say that I think the use of the word “performativity” that Butler is always railing against now as a misinterpretation remains important to me, because I think Butler is talking about our lived, embodied lives together and paying close attention to what we do with each other. And I think that is a realm in which true and false are not the most . . . you don’t get the most bang for your buck, let’s just say, with those ideas.

You mention, as you put it, “frustration—which sometimes threatens to tip into rage—that you feel when the conversations you’re having are not the ones you wish you were having.” I guess this is a rather absurd question to ask at the end, but I’m wondering: What are the conversations that you would like to be having more often?

I’m here for the ideas. The conversations we don’t want to be having are the ones that proceed from rotten starts. And it really matters politically, obviously, as well because . . . I can’t remember the Toni Morrison quote, but people set the terms, and then you’re playing defense for the rest of your life, and it’s just a waste of our time. But then you have to get out from under it very quickly. ♦


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