Light Notes: The Sources of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts

Talk by Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

In her 2015 book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson combines an account of everyday life in her queer household with reflections on literature, cultural criticism, gender theory, language philosophy, and more. At one point she cites Susan Sontag’s famous dictum, “‘In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.’” Nelson sides with Sontag’s refusal of interpretation, suggesting that prestigious cultural texts should not be treated reverentially or abstractly, but should instead be folded back into the stream of experience. But Nelson goes further than Sontag, suggesting that "even an erotics is too heavy." In this essay, I consider Nelson’s efforts to keep things light in The Argonauts, an approach characterized by her reliance on personal anecdote and a glancing treatment of literary and philosophical sources (reflected in their reproduction in greyscale in the margins of her text). I trace Nelson’s attempts in the book to displace both a hermeneutics and an erotics of art with an aesthetics of notation, or observation.  


Heather LoveHeather Love teaches English and Gender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard), the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”), and the co-editor of an issue of Representations (“Description Across Disciplines”). Love has written on topics including comparative social stigma, compulsory happiness, transgender fiction, the ethics of observation, spinster aesthetics and reading methods in literary studies. Her book "Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory" is forthcoming in September 2021 from the University of Chicago Press.