Maggie Nelson’s lyric mediations take many forms—the scholarship of Women of the New York School and Other Abstractions, the prose poetry of Bluets, the self-searching investigations of The Red Parts, or the thoughtful essaying of her most recent book, The Art of Cruelty. In her inimitable style, Nelson asks in this latest book what compels audiences to become engrossed in the brutal work of artists ranging from Sylvia Plath to Brian Evenson to Lars von Trier, and how one might meaningfully engage with or turn away from such work.
One September afternoon in her Los Angeles backyard, she sat down outside her new writing shed with the poet Anthony McCann to talk about this art, performance, and the virtues of passivity. What follows is a partial transcript of their wide-ranging conversation.
Anthony McCann: So we’re here sitting outside of Maggie Nelson’s brand-new writing shack that’s almost ready for use.
Maggie Nelson: Indeed.
AM: And I know this shack, or the inspiration for assembling this shack, dates back a ways. That the desire for the shack, I guess is what I mean, dates back a ways. So how did you come to want the shack?
MN: How did I come to want the shack?
AM: How have you fantasized about the shack over the years and how did this shack get all real? And what are your hopes for the shack?
MN: Oh, God. I’ve wanted the shack ever since—well, Annie Dillard is the progenitor of the shack. A long time ago, when I lost my home in Brooklyn, not to a fire or anything, just to a needing-to-leave-quickly, she told me I should get a Tuff Shed or another kind of shed installed in a parking lot in Brooklyn or on the Gowanus Canal and just live in it. And I thought that was a bad idea but I investigated it anyway to see how much it might cost to have someone drop off, in four hours, a shack. Now I really know, and I’m happy to have it.
AM: What are your hopes for the shack?
MN: I’m too superstitious to talk about my hopes for the shack. My hope is just to have a place to go.
AM: Understood. A related question: How have the spaces you have written in and the tools you have used for the physical act of writing exerted themselves on your work over the years—or, from the other side, how have different works over the years demanded different working methods and spaces? I know you used to use typewriters, for example.
MN: I did. I always used typewriters to write poetry. It’s my best poetry form but I haven’t used a typewriter for many, many years even though I’ve got a new one. Ever since I started living with other people a typewriter has seemed nonfunctional—so loud, you know. But also I’ve never found the typewriter good for prose, large amounts of prose; I mean, I know people used to compose prose on typewriters but I write prose on the computer because I’m so worried about losing it. But you know oddly enough the way life is, the kind of main inspirational thoughts that buoy a whole project through—that make up its revelations or its underpinnings—usually occur to me elsewhere and like poetry get written on receipts, napkins, and shreds of paper. They are kind of the strange anchors of the thing, but the big messy work part is written on the computer. I’m actually ambivalent to conflicted about the tools of writing right now because the last book I wrote, The Art of Cruelty, was the first book I wrote on a computer that had the Internet. And I found it a vexing experience.
AM: In terms of distraction?
MN: Yeah. I mean—distraction, but it was a nonfiction book that involved a lot of research, so it was also very useful because if I was writing about, you know, say a Viennese Actionist video that I only had from memory, I would say, “I’m not really sure that’s what happened in that video. Let me go to UbuWeb and watch it again. But it definitely changed the act of writing from one in which I hunted and gathered and then went to write, to one in which the two processes were more combined. I’m not going to be wholly negative or wholly positive about this. I think I felt conflicted because my mind naturally moves very quickly, so most things I’ve ever written move quite fast between subject matters and things, and most books I’ve written delight in synthesis and in being able to move from one thing to another. But again, I’m not wholly positive nor negative about it. I’m just watching curiously, you know. But a book like Bluets was different.
AM: You used index cards?
MN: I did. I had a lot more tools like that. With that book I had Internet but I had dial-up which I had until three years ago—so I would divide my writing. Like I would make a list of things while I was writing that I wanted to look up to make sure I had the fact right, but then I would have to make a big decision to unconnect my phone and take out the extension cord and whatever, so that was a distinct part of the day. It became a part of the writing day distinct from the actual writing part.
AM: Maybe it’s time to start talking about the new book. I’ve known you for a while, and there are many things that I could talk to you about and would like to ask you about now given this formalizing gift of the opportunity to interview you. But we should probably focus on the book . . . which has been getting so much attention this summer, which I find delightful.
AM: I was thinking that one thing that strikes me about the book is how it interconnects with all your other work and how it fully develops ethical concerns that are in all of your books, but does so mostly more explicitly than elsewhere and also mostly in the realm of aesthetics. I mean, it’s a book of aesthetics and ethics. But just to be more precise, I would add that one thing that also seems to characterize ethics in all of your work and in conversation with you is a refusal of, or a disinterest in, something unified or systematic, in some kind of ethics with a big “E.”
AM: I think that that refusal also characterizes the ethics of this book, avoiding ethics with a capital “E”; and the notion of space that I see throughout all your work, and that is so eloquently and explicitly discussed throughout this book, seems to relate also to that—to avoiding a system of prescriptive ethics. I want to ask particularly about your notion of “space” later, but I’ll say here just that I see that notion emerging in response to ethical questions that I see throughout all your work: questions about how to exist with others, how to deal with the calamity that pours through each of us and through others, how to stand in relation to others and to oneself, how close we can get to horror and to haunting, how close it is right to bring other people to one’s own horror or haunting and which others one can bring close to such things. I see these questions throughout your work along with another group of related questions, questions regarding how to be open to suffering in ourselves and others without indulging in what you call idiot compassion or simply indulging oneself. Also one thing I often think of in relation to your work is what one of my favorite poems of yours, “The Latest Winter,” arrives at at its end: the question of how to be open to suffering joy.
AM: These are just some examples. Long preamble! We need questions. So here—how, along the way, while you were writing this book, did you think of it in relation to your other work? For example, Jane is a work very much about cruelty, and The Red Parts is very much about cruelty. Were you thinking about this relationship to other work, or was that something that you didn’t do at all? Were you just involved in the work at hand, in the moment?
MN: I would love to—and I’m hopeful—I would love to be the writer whose writing addressed all those questions that you just named, because those all seem very interesting questions. But I have never really listed them out that way. I’m also curious as to what you say—I know that in your own writing, you are very interested in ethics and self and other. I think I have been, but I think I haven’t seen as much of a through-line in the ways as you’re pointing out, especially with the poetry, so I think that’s cool. I would hope that that is true.
I think that this book is, you know, in some ways it could be seen as the third of a trilogy—Jane, The Red Parts, and this book—in that they all address really similar concerns. I guess the writing of Bluets was a sort of interruption of the trilogy. But I think in some ways that’s not entirely true because Bluets had a lot to do with care and abandonment, which are core problems of cruelty, you know. But I think that it was kind of a great relief for me to think through these issues in this book vis-à-vis other people’s art rather than examples from my life, although I should say that, you know, this book is also written very subjectively because experiencing pop culture and experiencing the politics of one’s time, and experiencing art remain very personal experiences too, so it’s not like a lofty book existing in the ether of aesthetic theory, and it most certainly isn’t art history, but at the same time it’s—speaking of space—a nice form of triangulation, I guess, to be able to talk about these concerns vis-à-vis other artists and other people’s works, you know, as their witness.
I think that the book was probably started right after The Red Parts, as a lot got purged from that book to kind of keep it more focused on the particulars of my autobiographical situation. The Red Parts touches on pop culture more briefly—like the narrator might walk by a newspaper stand and talk about the headline she saw there very briefly. But I didn’t give myself permission in that book to go into any long considerations of any piece of art or any film or anything like that. But I did have a lot of thoughts about art-related things that I was seeing while I was writing the book. I think The Red Parts in particular was, maybe even more than Jane, about visual representation as opposed to textual representation of violence. So it was important to me that The Art of Cruelty combine the interests I’ve had in all kinds of representations of violence and cruelty, rather than just picking the most in-your-face of the genres, you know, because the differences between visual and textual experience are really interesting to me. But it’s funny, a lot of the press about it that I’ve seen, about this book, I’ve noticed has been focused on the visual art and the most extreme examples of performance art, and not so much on the work of writers from, say, Henry James to Ivy Compton-Burnett to Alexander Trocchi. Maybe it’s that literary textual examples are just not as enthralling to people as the ones that are art-life limit pushers.
AM: All those writers you mentioned are so important for the path, the cohesion the book has and the path it follows. Brian Evenson as well. But you certainly could see why some of the work of Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendietta, Marina Abramović, and Chris Burden stick out to people.
MN: If you look at the writers, you know, and some of the visual artists too, people like Francis Bacon, they tend to have written about their own work. A lot of people like Evenson and others have spent a lot of time articulating what they’re doing and why they’re writing. They’re writers, so they’re articulate; there are threads to follow. But I think that the anxiety most people have, which the book takes up to some extent, circulates around the question: “Does entertaining ourselves via violent spectacles make us crueler people?” This is kind of the main question that people are frustrated that the book doesn’t answer head on. And it doesn’t answer it because of what you say, because of its need for little ethics with a small “e,” not a big “E.” A big “E” ethics would answer that question. With a smaller one, it would be impossible to do so. But I think that that question is much more compelling to people when they have a very graphic video game, for example, where there’s some demolition of someone’s body or something at hand. It becomes harder to talk about when you get into these more subtle realms, when you’re talking about things like brutal honesty or other areas of the book that are more subtle in their way.
AM: I wanted to return to the notion of space that I see as so important in this book especially, but that I see developing throughout your work. One of the many ways it comes up—space—is when you talk about Jacques Rancière and The Emancipated Spectator—and the example of the students and texts, the importance of having a text in the room because of the space it creates around the text. That is just one of the many instances of space given in the book. You draw a lot of attention to works that, even if they do contain cruelty, create space around themselves and are different from works that aim deliberately at obliterating such space—between the work and the viewer, listener, or reader. If you had to describe how you’re using the term to somebody who hasn’t read the book yet, how would you describe it?
MN: That’s a good question. It’s a hard question.
AM: Which I realize—because it has so many very particular instances.
MN: I would say it has two parts. One is a more qualitative, ethical, maybe abstract part, which is also maybe a temporal part—it’s kind of related to the Roland Barthes concept of the Neutral, which I make so much of. In The Neutral, Barthes explains that we’re always talking about the right to be heard and to have others listen to us, but we talk less about the right to be silent or to turn away. Kind of the right to have nothing to say, the right to choose to practice aversion to the things which we don’t think will be of benefit to ourselves or to others. That’s a potentially ethical notion of space which also exists in time, in which one can turn toward and then away, speak, listen, or choose not to speak or listen. The other idea of space is more the kind of Wittgensteinian part in a way, and is much moreliteral—like in the Wittgenstein passage I quote where he talks about how anytime you draw a line on a plane, you’ve kind of made a form of a boundary, but you haven’t yet said, as he says, what that boundary is for, so it makes a game. But the game could be do we stay outside a line, do we cross a line. I think that a lot of the works I’m talking about often make a kind of space in that way that doesn’t, like you say, attempt to collapse the distance between the viewer and the object, or make overtly clear what’s to be done with the lines they have drawn. And now it occurs to me that there’s also the emotional sense of space, which comes up in the last part in the book, where I’m using the John Cage phrase, where he asks how best to love someone and then answers, “Give them space!” Then he says, in the next line, “but there is no space!” I think I’ve always found, and anyone who loves anybody has likely found, that you often know that a situation would probably get better if we could give each other space—space is so often the answer. But I think there are very compelling reasons why as humans we perceive attachment in such a way that we feel that if we don’t have it, it might be fatal to us to not to be attached. And we fear that space will sever attachment, which, sometimes, it does. I don’t know. It all kind of links into the next thing I think I might be working on, which has to do with freedom, dependency, and space—about the impossible (personal, cultural) fantasy of being someone who need not depend on others.
AM: Such a person would be actually totally limited in their possibilities. I don’t know if they would have any.
MN: Yes. It’s a kind of perennial issue, how and why people so often choose attachment or collapsed space even when it might be toxic to them rather than choose no attachment or space that would feel lonely-making or threatening. In The Art of Cruelty this question is kind of cast between Brecht and Artaud. Brecht is the space-maker and Artaud is the space-collapser. But I don’t think the book is strictly Brechtian in any shape or form because his interest in space-making was part of a whole system about alienation and dialectics that aren’t necessarily priorities for me.
AM: It also seems like the Brechtian way can veer in a less nuanced application towards collapsing space, by predetermining the audience’s experience. But another distinction that I really like in the book is the distinction between vertical and horizontal; a vertical aesthetic or approach being about revelation.
AM: And you contrast that with horizontality, which would be about looking at art and art-making in terms of expanding the possibilities of perception and so on, or redistributing the sensible, and so on. I think there’s a Massumi quote that’s about this in the book.
MN: Yeah, yeah. About what new ideas can be thought.
AM: And what new feelings can be felt. These being the criteria for what we should be talking about when we talk about works.
MN: The vertical/horizontal thing is really important. A lot of people are into that idea. It’s not a new idea of mine of any sort.
AM: But I’m interested in how that relates to space.
MN: Yeah, I think the reason why the book has the subtitle “A Reckoning” that it has, and also the reason why the book The Red Parts is called The Red Parts and why it has the epigraphs that it has is that I have had a longstanding bee in my bonnet about vertical revelation, or teleological revelation; it really is a concept that has bothered me for a long time, and obviously it has biblical import. But I think it’s also . . .
AM: Also with Modernism.
MN: And with Modernism. It is also psychological and relates to how we understand ourselves as people—this idea of drilling down to the base of ourselves to find our one deep truth. And in a way, annoying as that idea might be, it’s also maybe the least toxic example; there are very toxic modes—the notion of revelation and all of its attending concepts like purity, rebirth, hygienic violence, all kinds of things that are bothersome to me. This book is kind of like a love and hate letter to a lot of avant-garde art because a lot of the things I write about I really love, and yet a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds them regarding what they think they’re doing is so frustrating to me compared to the parts that I do like. I think this comes out in that passage about Jenny Holzer. I really like Lustmord as a piece—not necessarily its intervention qualities, but just as a written piece. I think it’s really brutal and really interesting. But then I quote that magazine editor saying why they ran it in the German newspaper, why they printed it in women’s blood on the page, and you hear the editor explaining that they meant the work to be like holding a gun to the reader’s head, that Holzer is making you decide, are you victim or killer. That explanation seemed to me totally ridiculous and offensive.
AM: I was talking to someone this morning who really loves that piece. I read her the quote from the editor and she was very dismayed.
MN: Well, you can’t necessarily hold Jenny Holzer responsible. I mean, we’ve all had stuff said about our work or in an introduction to it, where you sit in horror in the audience while something’s being said that you don’t agree with. But this reminds me of a related thing—I was talking to a radio interviewer the other day, and he was explaining to me how and why he felt that the written Holzer piece was not just unsettling, but really—I don’t know what word he used—just not OK in some way. I’ve been reminded in writing this book, and in people reading it and talking to me about it, how artwork that one oneself has a very strong negative reaction to, that one kind of presumes is the reaction that most sane people would ever have, that even amidst a group of friends some people will say, “Oh, I don’t think there was anything wrong with that at all.” Then you’ll have to just go from there. Those radical differences of opinion need not lead into some bog of moral relativism or some such—I mean, you might always be able to find some fool who wants to justify mass murder or something. But in the case of art, in which there are (usually) no harmed victims per se, the different responses make a space for conversation.
AM: In the course of writing the book, you spent a lot of time with a lot of different works, a lot of different artists of a lot of different types. Were there people whose work you had admired whose work you feel like you’ve turned away from now? I don’t know if this is the kind of question you want to answer. And is there work that you were more ambivalent about that you’ve grown closer to? I mean you’ve spent a lot of time considering all these works: a lot of drafts, a lot of reviewing and rereadings.
MN: One of the hard parts about writing a book like this is that as you do research you have experiences, which leave you with a certain memory of the pieces. As you start writing about them, you can begin to stray quite far from the pieces themselves—so I think you have to be very, very careful if you don’t want to just use them for your services, if you really want to stay interacting with them. It’s like what I earlier said about the Internet—I would often rewatch the thing I’d just written about because miraculously you rewatch it, just two days later, and you don’t feel the same way about it. This is partly why the book describes multiple viewings in a few cases, like with Family Tyranny, that Paul McCarthy/Mike Kelley video. Multiple viewings change things.
AM: It’s so important in the book, that part about Family Tyranny.
MN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t know why I’ve spent time watching it several times, but that’s beside the point. To get back to your question: When the book first started, I had a lot of material written about Sylvia Plath and Francis Bacon, those two figures. I had always wanted to write a book actually only on Sylvia Plath, called My Sylvia Plath, which I really wasn’t going to call that, but it was after Susan Howe wrote My Emily Dickinson, which had made an impression on me. But I don’t think I need to do that now, or maybe I think this is that book, in a way. Anyway, Plath is incredibly expensive to quote from, so I would never write a book with this many quotes from Sylvia Plath again so as to avoid contacting her estate. But the point is, Plath is someone whose work always deepens for me. I have various relationships to it, but I like going back to those poems. She’s the kind of artist that people always think that they have down, she’s the most easily caricatured poet, and so it’s always satisfying to come across some poem of hers in a new way. I mean sometimes they’re relentlessly the same and you feel like, “My God, get on to a different tone, this is just relentlessly the same, the same tricks.” Other times I’ll come upon some poem that’s just really very odd. And then there’s Francis Bacon. It’s frustrating, writing about paintings, in that you can’t always go see them, or even if you do see them, you can’t keep reseeing them. I’ve maybe seen Francis Bacon paintings in person three times. I went all the way to New York to see the retrospective at the Met, which I then wrote about. That happened with Joan Mitchell when I was working on the New York School book. Thank God, it was just luck really that I was writing about her and suddenly there was a Joan Mitchell summer where she had a retrospective at the Whitney and two gallery shows. I think it’s exceptionally important to go have that experience of the work.
AM: Those Bacon crucifixion paintings do not look the same on the Internet.
MN: No. Thinking about your question more, I’d say the artists in the book fall into a lot of different categories for me. There are people whom I didn’t know very well before I wrote the book, like William Pope.L and a few others whom I kind of came across later in the game, and whom I feel that I have just started with. And then there are some people like Ivy Compton-Burnett or Alexander Trocchi, some writers whose books I love very much but they have many other books that I haven’t yet even read, so that is exciting to me. I mean there’s a lot of people I just want to know more about. There are people—I don’t know if I’ll name them—there are probably some people in the book that I felt like I’d had enough of. I probably have had enough of Chris Burden, but that’s just because the culture’s very fascinated by Chris Burden and I kind of had second thoughts about writing so much about his work, given how much has already been written.
AM: I love your descriptions of the Burden work in the book.
MN: I’m glad.
AM: That piece 220 and also Through the Night Softly.
MN: Some of those pieces that are the less well known ones I think are really interesting. 220 is really fascinating. So I would say for the most part I still will return to and am still excited by many of the artists in the book, except for the people that I’ve always been pretty down on, like Lars von Trier. You could tell me that a new Lars von Trier movie was the most amazing movie on the planet, but I just feel like life’s too short at a certain point. I’d rather go see Planet of the Apes.
AM: I wonder if you had any thoughts connecting those passages in the book about space to what gets called “relational aesthetics” or “the relational turn,” and the at times reflexive-seeming participatory portions of so many of the performances one sees in the worlds of art, music, theater, dance, writing you name it these days. It seems to me that some of the thoughts on space in this book might apply to that kind of work.
MN: I think probably my most childish but held-onto disobedience, probably like many people’s, is not wanting to be told what to do or think. At the same time, I like reading about when a lot of Buddhist monks came to the United States in the ‘60s and ‘70s and were trying to get people to sit down together and meditate on their pillows, and all these hippies said “Ah, no thanks, I want to stretch out instead.” Some of these monks were kind of appalled that Americans had this idea that freedom was incommensurate with discipline in some way, or that freedom was incommensurate with doing something all together, even if that just meant meditating together facing in the same direction. So in some sense I feel split, and I understand that there are times and places when being invited to do something seems reasonable. In the case of a meditation hall, you more or less know what you’re going there to do, which is sit and meditate. I think that I, like many people, have been to many performances where they’ll say, “Now we’re going to get the audience involved.” And most everybody I’ve ever been at any such performance with then turns to each other and says, “I hate this part,” or “I’m leaving now,” or whatever. I think there’s still a little bit of a confusion when you go see some kind of performance, since a lot of people have as kind of part of the bargain that they’re going to be able to be in the position of witness and that that’s also exactly what they came out to go do, which is often how I feel. It wouldn’t be so bad really if you could easily refuse, if your decision to not participate were acceptable—I think what gets bossy about it is when people presume that they’re doing something ethically interesting or experientially interesting and that your choice to employ the neutral, to turn away, would mean anything about your . . .
AM: Refusal to be emancipated?
MN: Yeah. Refusal to be emancipated or something like that. I think the idea of taking one’s medicine can partake of the logic of revelation, of the vertical. For example: the idea that “here’s this violent spectacle but it promises revelation,” I think in some ways bears a loose relationship to “here is this thing that you may think you don’t want to do, but you’re going to have a revelation about social community from it.” It’s not necessarily—I don’t really fault the people with their ambitions. I think that it’s all very difficult. I firmly believe that we currently suffer from a general sense of disenfranchisement away from the means of production and subsistence of our lives. This is the goal of corporate America, and it’s very, very real—and it can be hard for people to see because it comes all dressed up in the language of what I would call faux freedom. So I completely understand the urgent sense that we need to be more involved. I think that it’s just nobody ever likes to feel like somebody else knows the route to your emancipation, and if you’d only participate with them, you would find it. Or maybe some people like it, but I never do. I think that you must take your own route to awakening, that you have to follow your own way—things have to sound true to you or feel true to you, I think, for you to throw your bag in with them in a certain way. I don’t think art does a very good job of convincing people of anything. What do you think?
AM: I think I tend to feel the same way about that kind of work. I would add that often lately it feels at this point like people are doing it because you have to, which adds to that feeling of “forced emancipation” or “forced”—and therefore false—“community.” I also don’t think that any community engendered in a piece of art is a community, it is an art piece—it’s too safe to be a real community. But on the other hand, art can be a good place to experiment with anything. Mostly I tend to think, with you and with Rancière, that there is nothing inherently bad in spectatorship, that spectatorship is active, that it isn’t passive. And also that “passive” doesn’t equal “bad” or “couch potato,” and that so much that is crucial can happen from having an object between you and I that we can then talk about. There is a tendency for these kind of practices to remove that common object; it is often their explicit goal—I believe, sometimes, against the good intentions of some practitioners. The end result of such practices, the way they are tied up in the end in their documentation and the artist’s descriptions of the piece, ends up sucking everyone’s experience up into the piece so that in a sense there is no audience, and therefore the artist has total control over what the piece means. I mean that there’s no one outside of it who gets to give their impression of what it was from the outside; their experience has been absorbed totally by the piece and is now inside it. They can say what their experience was but it is not their particular experience of the outside of the piece, it’s their partial experience of the inside. Both situations are intersubjective, but differently—and importantly so.
MN: Nobody gets to say what it was. That’s interesting.
AM: But I certainly don’t think that’s always true. I’ve certainly been at performances where the participatory element came up and I was cringing a little bit and then it was just very beautiful. I’m thinking about a singer—she’s from Mexico City; she lived here for a while, Carmina Escobar—who does stirring experimental performances. The sounds that come out of her are stunning, disturbing, and beautiful. I remember that to close one performance she did the participatory thing, and we had to go and get in a circle and make noises and press our ears to each other’s chests and listen to the sounds coming out of each other’s bodies. After watching and hearing the sounds coming out of her that were just so marvelous and uncanny, to then all listen to each other’s voices resonate like that—it was very odd, and richly pleasurable and very moving. And I was so very grateful for it.
MN: I’ve had those experiences, too. Once again, it’s not an up-or-down thing. And I call my feeling childish because there are times at which—well, think of that community arts program for high school students that you and I have both taught at—I recall one time when these salsa dancers visited the all-camp assembly, and at the end of their performance they picked people in the audience to come down and dance with them on stage. I will never forget watching one of my shyest students interlacing her hands behind the chair and literally tying herself to her seat with her sweatshirt with the hopes that she wouldn’t have to—
AM: That they wouldn’t get her.
MN: Yes, so they wouldn’t get her, you know. [Dog barking]. This dog might come and give us a problem. Anyway, participatory events are not all created equal, but I think that I agree with you that looking in your way, at your own speed, and on your own time—there’s nothing wrong with it. Our attention is so distracted these days that just being able to do that is very exciting. Do you want to move inside?
AM: I think that’s a great place to end.
MN: Okay, we’re done.
AM: Now all the dogs in the neighborhood seem to have noticed us. They’re massing behind us. So thank you, Maggie.
MN: Thank you, Anthony.