In search of nuance
An interview with Maggie Nelson.
In search of nuance with Maggie Nelson Photo by Harry Dodge

“Desperately seeking nuance” could’ve been 2017’s Twitter bio, if a year could want things, write things, dream of something different. Online communication can sometimes feel like a particularly frantic game of table tennis, in which the table keeps shrinking and the bats grow holes. Of course, that tone is set, and reset, by those in positions of power; it is not easy to practice nuance when the system itself refuses to.

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Maggie Nelson has never been one to shirk a knotty problem. The nonfiction author's books, especially 2011's The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning and 2016's The Argonauts, make room for the gentle yet persistent picking apart of ideas and ideals, on the hunt for more nuanced appraisals of the world around us. Her work, which earned her a MacArthur Foundation Fellow award last year, blends art criticism, philosophy, and memoir with startling clarity.

Over the phone from her Californian home, Nelson seemed happy to dive headfirst into a discussion about nuance in the internet age. She laughed often, and was generous with her time. We talked about social media's constraints on communication, Hannah Black's letter to The Whitney, and what she's writing next.

Trying to create space for nuance is something that frames your work. When did you become so enamored with searching for nuance?

I think that I've always been somebody who — maddeningly to those close to me — has been a see-things-from-all-sides kind of a person. Bluets apes the form of the philosopher Wittgenstein — one thing I love about Wittgenstein so much is that he always begins sentences or propositions saying, "Oh but now let us consider..." or "You're thinking of it this way, when really you could..." [It’s] this kind of self-inquisition, and I've always really liked that.

From the earliest time in high school when I would write papers, I would always try and research and represent all the angles. But I think probably through reading Roland Barthes — he has this great book The Neutral — and then a lot of Buddhist texts, I've also become interested in [exploring outside of the] devil's advocate see-it-this-way-and-now-see-it-that-way [approach], as if there's two ways of seeing an issue. There's actually a third way. There are ways that reject the framing of the entire question or practice forms of refusal. You could call it nuance, but I think once that appetite starts for looking for third ways or new framings, I think it's endless. I try and do that in my writing.

Usually editors will have to try and prod me — "Well, what do you think?" — and I've tried to learn, in all my projects that engage other thinkers, that you don't want to do it in an evasive way, where you don't do your own thinking or don't make your own proclamations from time to time, but I tend to think of all proclamations as performative anyway. Of Susan Sontag or other people I admire, people will sometimes say, "But she changed her mind so much between On Photography and Regarding The Pain of Others," and you're like, Yes, because she's a living, breathing intellectual. So I don't think of those kind of rotations as inimical to thought, you know.

It feels like that the current climate is even more hostile to nuance. I'm sure we could look back and say it's never not been hostile to nuance, but what do you think?

I think that there are a few things at work. One of the difficulties about living in a time that people call "divisive" or "polarizing" is that literally what it means is that — not to be tautological — it makes people feel polarized. I don't have a problem with polarization when it's called for. I don't think being interested in nuance means that you might have some problem about taking a stand.

The post-Harvey-Weinstein wave is really fascinating because you're trying to identify a kind of behavior that is unacceptable and appalling that exists for a lot of people on a continuum. A lot of women are familiar with everything from the unappreciated leer to sexual assault. So on the one hand I think it is exciting when there is a wave, and on the other hand, it can't be an excuse to throw nuance out the window. I think there are ways in which nuance and strong tides can work together. I don't think they always have to be jettisoned one for the other.

“I think there are ways in which nuance and strong tides can work together. I don’t think they always have to be jettisoned one for the other.” — Maggie Nelson

There is absolutely a need for nuance around those conversations still. Recently a friend told me that someone put a comment on the Facebook page of an event she was doing, saying there was an abuser on the lineup, in a way that felt performative and not helpful. How do we usefully deal with instances like this together?

I think part of what we're up against — and people have written about this a lot — is that any moment is also somewhat shaped by its technologies. I think that there are forces within the internet itself. Someone once said to me that, unbeknownst to themselves, legions of people who do a lot of Twitter or snarky Facebook posts have been honing the skill of vomiting into their heads, trying to, as writers, have the last word or the "touché." When, in fact, trying to have a last word or "touché" comment is not the same skill set that you would have to have in order to keep a conversation going. So I think in some ways, people have to pay attention to what skill sets they are honing because the internet makes a fantasy land where we all would love to have the last word, or we all would love to get out of a high stakes conflicted communication with a kind of snap or a zing, but that's not how ongoing relationships live.

Part of the reason why I don't do social media, or why I don't write for blogs or anything that is more immediate, is that as a writer, I do a lot of drafting of things that are full of a lot of self-righteousness and full of a lot of flimsy comebacks. The Argonauts in its first go-round was a full of a lot of [that]. Especially in autobiography, it's very easy to write scenes where you want to show the stupid thing that somebody said to you once. That's the kind of stuff I end up editing out, and usually end up feeling really grateful that I edited it out, so that the book could keep thinking further. So I guess because I burn through a lot of that, because I think any human would, I kind of keep with longform things that are outside of a news cycle, because for me [social media doesn’t enable] the kind of thought or writing pattern that would be most fruitful for where I want to go to as a writer.

It's funny that you alluded to there being something at the heart of the internet that is possibly hostile to nuance, because I was trying to brainstorm that, and I was like, Well, you know, it is made up of ones and zeros.

Absolutely, right. Whatever, everyone's said it all so it's not really fascinating to say it again but I think it's just not a place where people are [open to nuance]. There are so many verbal cues in a conversation. [Conversely,] say you're fighting with your partner, while they're talking all you're thinking of is, in a kind of defensive, paranoid state, what you're going to say: "Oh there you go, doing that again." Any couples counselor will say, “You're not really listening to that person, you're just waiting to pounce.” And when you do that, your fight is going to escalate and it's not going to work out well. It seems to me there's a kind of paranoic reading style on the internet where people just read something waiting to see what they could [respond to] because they're not talking to somebody whose feelings or body language is being received.

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I like the way that books can take a long time to write; they occupy a kind of space-time that is fascinating to me. I don't want to be old fogey-ish about it at all, but I don't see people not reading books. I see people still appreciating book time.

We need the creation and circulation of new fantasies to be able to manifest them. That’s one of the reasons I was really drawn to your writing — it is always reaching for new ideas and questions. Is that something you are aware of when you are writing: creating and circulating new fantasies?

No, I think that is the kind of work that is best done not straight on, you know? I think I'm more of a Beckett-like thinker — an "I can't go on, I will go" kind of a person. I believe what you are saying is true about imagining presents and futures, but the form that my optimism often takes is an attention to the things I think are good that we have right now.

Both leftists and rightists kind of trade in stock about nostalgia. On the left, the idea that capitalism has penetrated everything so we're doomed [and] all life is a commodity. On the right, we're all lost and in need of restoration of some kind of order or path. In both of those versions, there's an inattention to what we already have that we want to keep. I think my writing kind of bears down on moments or things rather than [doing] a lot of imagining. I'm not a very imaginative thinker. But I think the amazing thing about writing is that you can do that bearing down, like Octavia Butler and all the masters do, [with] speculative thinking — and you can get to a feeling of possibility or freedom by bearing down on the present, too.

In search of nuance with Maggie Nelson

You often think on a micro level, concerned with words and categorization, and whether they keep us stuck or free us.

William James said it best when he was talking in The Principles of Psychology about how thinking or consciousness is kind of like a bird in that it takes flight and lands from branch to branch. We see the points of landing, maybe those are the categories, but most of the time is spent in the flight. That's when he starts talking about we should have a word for the feeling of "of" or the feeling of "but" or the feeling of "if."

My experience with The Argonauts was really gratifying because, in a world which acts like we can't have solidarity or sociality without fixed identity, I've only met people through that book [who were] excited about all the space they felt, about unfixed identity. Many people will say that that's how they experience their life, that's how they live — [they] perform strategic identifications, but mostly they're in flight. That's really moving to me, when people can recognize that instead of just taking these paltry narrative takes that are given by mainstream newspapers or Hollywood, or anything that focuses more on these heavy moments of landing.

Hopping from branch to branch is the way that our minds work. We suddenly, seamlessly, flash between something academic and something visceral. That is what it feels like to be inside a body.

I would think so. A lot of people ask me about my writing, like, "Are you really thinking about Judith Butler when you're entering the shower?" And I'm like, "Well, yeah, I am.” But not because my head's swimming in an ivory tower while my body undergoes all these things. Your mind is an organ: whatever you put in will what your mind thinks about. Whatever you're reading, whether your stocks are going up or down in the paper, whether you're reading theory — all of it is metabolizing into your system.

I'm glad we touched back on The Art of Cruelty again, because I would love to hear your thoughts on Hannah Black's letter to the Whitney. Many responses I’ve heard from white art fans have involved outrage at a call for the destruction of a piece of art. Which feels like another example of nuance not necessarily operating. The way I've come to think about Hannah Black's letter is that it is a work of art. It reveals something about the structure of the art world. How can it really be offensive to say something that feels like it should be said?

I guess I would say that, after having written two books about my aunt’s murder, which struggled to re-present the mutilation of her murdered body, and then also a book of criticism called The Art of Cruelty, which focuses on the inevitably unruly effects of presenting violence and cruelty in art, I have become pretty intimate with these issues — though Black’s letter of protest obviously links to a different set, having to do with racial history and questions of “rights” to certain material.

Your read on Black’s letter as a work of art is an interesting one. I can’t help but notice, though, that your question, “How can it really be offensive to say something that feels like it should be said?” could apply to Schutz’s painting as well. People get offended by things other people say and do and make. That’s part of sociality. Personally, however, I have been trying to train myself for many years now to avoid shutting down the expression of others, not as an abdication of ethics, but rather as my own ethical practice.

I’m also curious about your implication that people are missing the nuance in “the painting must go” — is it that, because you’re reading the letter as a work of art, you disassociate it from any literal demand or call that it makes? That’s interesting, though likely not in line with Black’s intent. Anyway, I’m super interested in Jared Sexton’s read on the letter, especially when he says, “Three times Black declares, at the crux of the dispute: the painting must go. Indeed, but even in our most profound agreement we cannot help but ask: Go where?” Because, fucked up as our shit is, here we are.

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My point re missing nuance is that responses to the letter that see it as fascist are incredibly misjudged — they neglect to take into consideration the context of the systems we live within. While the letter carried a lot of weight and power, there was no danger that the painting be destroyed.

I see what you're saying. But again, it sounds like your respect for the letter’s rhetoric depends in part on your conviction that it would have no efficacy, that the painting wouldn’t be removed or destroyed. I’m not as sure, given the current climate. I mean, it’s not hard to see why she feels the way she feels. But these days, in which so many seem not to know how to deal on any front with the burdens of human and non-human relations, including the brutal distributions of power and force which can accompany them, with much else besides a can of gasoline and a match, I’m hoping to chart a different path.

My respect for the letter comes not from my conviction that it wouldn't have an impact — that would be an odd reason to respect something — but from its fearless stance in the face of centuries of institutionalized racism: To openly criticize a world in which you are part of can have economic consequences, as Black has pointed out on Twitter. If the art world will not let go of the painting, which, given its institutionalized racism, I suspect it is not yet ready to, then perhaps the letter should hang next to it. To see the painting without reading the letter lands us back at square one. What are your thoughts on that?

I hear you, and I’m all for fearlessness. I guess I just don’t see anything that terrible about the idea that people might come to stand before an ethically fraught and heavily protested piece of art without there being a lot of explanatory, justificatory, or critical wall text tacked up next to it by museum administrators to shape our response while viewing. I don’t like the feeling of being chaperoned, even — or especially — when something feels ethically turbulent. Maybe I’m old school that way, I don’t know. I’m into Parker Bright standing there with a “Black Death Spectacle” shirt on. But spare me more wall text and "contextualization," please! It's hard enough to find places in this world to allow oneself the time and space to see and think for oneself without 1,000 voices from the internet rattling our brains.

“Some of my most transformative experiences, or some of the closest I feel I’ve ever come to touch a feeling of flow, have all come from reading books.” — Maggie Nelson

Let's talk about language again. A friend once said that we’re just these lumps of cells making mouth-sounds at each other, and hoping that those mouth-sounds are going to mean the same to the other person. Does language stop us from moving past categorization? Or fixity? How much freedom do we really have with language?

That's partly way The Argonauts is framed as this conversation between my partner and myself about language — that's the inside joke of the beginning pages of that book, where I'm saying that Wittgenstein’s whole point is that language is not just denominative, fixed to objects, but that language is defined by its use-value, so if you say "scissors" in an operating room, it means "Give me the scissors." Language is a toolbox, it's not necessarily an Adamic — like Adam in the Garden of Eden — [thing,] like, "Aha, I see apple, I name it 'apple.'" One function of language is that it is denominative and fixative, and it has many other features; I wouldn't love literature if language only reproduced fixity.

Some of my most transformative experiences, or some of the closest I feel I've ever [come to] touch a feeling of flow or alternative realities or possibilities, have all come from reading books. I am definitely a language lover — I started off in poetry, and poetry is kind of the art of how to use [language], it's a laboratory for all the different things that language on a micro level can do. I think I've taken that interest more into structure in larger projects. But I am definitely still fascinated by what can be done — but again, I don't think you can really do it by trying to do it head-on. I think you just have to follow the content or the form of what you're interested in. You can't hide anything about the way you think in language, so I think that all the ways that you are customarily thinking or feeling or being when you're not sitting down to write, they all emerge when you write. So I think that's why it's worthwhile to angle yourself toward the kind of thinker that you want to be in all spheres, because your habits of thought will come out in your language.

I was interested to read that you started out in dance. Over the past three or four years, a lot of the electronic world that I write about has become intertwined with dance. I just saw a show by the artist Xavier Cha that was part opera, part dance, part play, part poetry, and part experimental score. It reminded me of your work in that it was fractured, but it all made sense together. It's really interesting to me that there has been this movement towards dance in underground scenes.

Super interesting. It makes me sad that I don't live in New York anymore because I am sure that all the interesting stuff is going on there. I always found dance both physically rewarding and intellectually very interesting. I think some of the smartest people I've ever met were dancers. Somebody was telling me about something in the Bay Area where Judith Butler just did a dance with somebody, and my friend Jack just did a dance thing with Boychild. I know Matthew Barney is working on a piece right now that's utilizing a lot of dancers from the improv scene that I used to know about in New York. I think, for me, dance on a very personal level was a vacation from the linguistic. It seems very obvious that I probably could and should pursue some kind of marriage of the two, but I actually really value dance for its non-linguistic status.

People always talk about bad dance and bad poetry as being particularly insufferable forms of art. In my formative years in New York, I ran open mics at the Poetry Project, and I went to Judson Church every Monday. I regularly saw so much dance and poetry that was not curated to be the "best," it was truly experimental. It just gave me enjoyment of people trying things out.

[With my own books,] to me they're all kind of gestures in space that I made and left behind behind me in a world that I don't feel that worked up about. It's not really about masterpieces, it's about flow. I learned a lot from [writing my books], and I learned a lot from dance about composing in the moment. I did a lot of improvisation, and I think that kind of skill set is very related to what thinking is. With writing, you get to go back and do a lot more work than you do in an improvisation performance, but I think there are a lot of freedom skills I learned by letting myself speak with my body in public, that I feel like I've kept with me.

Thinking with your body in public — yes! I feel like that is very much the spirit of a lot of the works I've been seeing here. There's a great collective called FlucT that say they don't think about themselves as dancers but as psychoanalysts. I see a sense of community with the work that you do.

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That's really interesting. I miss dancing. In my body, I actually have dreams that my extension is the same as it used to be, or I could do all these things. Then I wake up and I realize it's all gone.

In search of nuance with Maggie Nelson

How are you spending your days at the moment? Are you still teaching?

I am. I moved from CalArts, which is an art school outside of L.A., to USC this fall. That's been fun, just for a change. My days.... gosh, I am making a tuna sandwich right and trying to figure out how much writing I'll be able to get done before I have to pick up my kid at 2.30. Time is always tight, but it's also made tighter by this particular time we're living in. I always think of this line by Emerson, where he said, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it." This is a bad time, clearly, politically in so many different ways, but in terms of my own [time] and all the forces that agitate against thinking and art-making and nuance, they're always going to be there in different forms. And so I try — even though I complain like everybody else — and take responsibility for my days.

I don't want to eat into too much of your writing time, but I have a question that I have to ask: what is the writing you're working on?

I'm not really sure what it will be like — I never really know what my books will be like — but I think right now I'm working on a book that's a little bit going for the notion of liberation and freedom — similar to rotating that concept around like I do in The Art of Cruelty with cruelty. It's not quite as art-related, it's probably a little more philosophy- and theory-related. But at the moment it's not very autobiographical — that could always change.

When I was writing The Art of Cruelty, by the time I'd finished it, there kind of became a shadow subject throughout the book which was about the freedom to walk out of something. It's kind of back to Rancière and The Emancipated Spectator, and some of those questions that I had there, and also about, in a more political sense, what it means to live in a time or country where [there's] a surrender of self-government, [which] is obviously very appealing to many people in a new upswing of desiring fascism that we've seen before. I'm interested in the emotional structure of that.

Those moments in The Art of Cruelty where you were talking about your very personal response to works of art in the moment, and then your changing response to certain pieces over time, was so freeing. The biggest problem that I feel in the world that there are so many deliberate restrictions to people gaining knowledge, and the fact that you were offering ways in is really generous. An early editor always told me, "You have to assume intelligence of your readers, not knowledge." We should all have access to thinking in these loose, free ways.

You bring into being who and what exists in the world by what people put out into the world, by what people consume, by what they know and talk about. I think, as we can all see playing out right now, if you pour a bunch of poison and toxicity into the bloodstream and presume that's what people need and want, then that's what you're going to get.

With the publishing world, all my books, I turn in when they're whole and say, "Do you want this or not?" but it's never occurred to me to write something that met what somebody else thought was something people needed to read. This doesn't always happen but The Argonauts was an astonishing experience because that book was rejected, as all my books are, as too niche, or only for academic feminists, or whatever. And then a lot of people found something in it. I've seen the cutest things online, like of younger people making lists of all the references and giving links to all of them, teaching themselves things through the book, and that's how people learn things. That's how I learned things! That's how I learn things everyday still. Getting people excited about that, as opposed to thinking that it's a drag, is really cool.

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In search of nuance with Maggie Nelson