The Argonauts

I’m taking my first ever Women & Gender Studies class this semester (prior to this spring, I was just learnin’ from the school of life). When I looked at the course offerings for Spring ’18, it seemed very on-brand for me, plus I really like the professor. If you’re not familiar with the discipline, well, neither are any of its scholars, really! It’s a controversial field that is necessarily interdisciplinary, drawing on literary studies, history, sociology, anthropology, law, psychology—you name it. Honestly, we can’t even all decide on a name (Women’s Studies too narrow? Gender Studies too broad? Are we being inclusive enough?)

In my class, we’re reading all the hits! Butler, Rubin, Crenshaw—all the rad ladies that you’ve come to know and love if Gender Studies and intersectionality are indeed your jams. We recently read the 2015 “theory memoir” The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which was a pretty fascinating read.


The Argonauts tells the nonlinear tale of the romance, marriage, and journey to parenthood of Maggie Nelson and her partner, artist Harry Dodge. Although, conceptually, if a romantic partner texted me lines of Barthes, I would vomit and leave that person, it’s a cute look on others.

The writing and organization of the book read a tad pretentious, but it’s clear that Nelson has a brilliant mind for theory—the theoretical passages, paraphrased or quoted, are woven seamlessly into the narrative. Since I have to co-lead a class discussion on The Argonauts, I thought I’d post some of the questions that came up for me while I was reading:

  1. What is the benefit of the book’s organization (or lack thereof)? What, if any, are the detriments? While I found the lack of structure frustrating at times, it made for a very fluid read—but even if I took a ten-minute break, I had to backtrack slightly because I always felt I had lost my place. Is the form deliberately “deconstructed” to mirror the methodology of the critics whose work Nelson employs?
  2. Is the genre-fluidity of the novel a comment on gender-fluidity and of the way we are conditioned by society to categorize?
  3. Is it ethical to share so much about someone else’s journey? Do you feel that Nelson has appropriated Harry’s experience for the purposes of her writing? Obviously, as they are spouses, she had permission, but is it possible to meaningfully capture or understand the experience of the other?
  4. Nelson describes in detail her unconventional journey to pregnancy. Despite how unconventional her family is and journey was, is there anything essentialist about her portrayal of pregnancy and motherhood?
  5. The section about Nelson and Dodge’s wedding occupies only a page and a half of the book. Is that a visual representation of the author’s views on marriage? Is Nelson commenting on the heteronormative nature of the institution of marriage and how, like gender, it doesn’t work as a prescriptive one-size-fits-all for every family?
  6. Bonus Question: Would you find it romantic or insufferable if your significant other texted you lines of Barthes?
image source

Further Reading:

Object Lessons, Robyn Wiegman

Gender Trouble, Judith Butler

Embodied Avatars, Uri McMillan

Exposed, Stacy Alaimo

Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader