by Sophia Metcalf
In September 2017, I ended a three-year relationship with a man who had been my best friend since my first days at university. I subsequently gave my body over to sex and alcohol. Three weeks later I was diagnosed with nodules, crippling my creative outlets for self-expression, song and drama. I was not able to speak or sing for a month, and I was trapped in silence with my grief, my desire, and my anger. I write this because there is no other way for me to talk about the works of Maggie Nelson, Jenny Zhang, and Chris Kraus except through a lens of deep feeling. These texts informed my grief, nursed it, gave my loneliness companions. They proved that one could both be highly intelligent and throw tantrums. Intelligence is not an antidote to feeling. These authors place stress on both the personal and the impersonal, the creative and the “academic,” thereby dismantling the “objective eye” which is so often employed as a bastion for the patriarchal institutional structure.
The end of love is both intensely personal and profoundly universal. For me, these texts provided instruction manuals — how to fall out of love while maintaining composure, how to be enraged like a fourteen-year-old skater boy and still “behave,” how interior and exterior can be fragmented yet perceived as a whole — to the stained glass of human experience. These authors stress that feeling deeply cannot be equated with weakness. Just because a feeling is universally felt does not mean it does not require unsanctimonious probing and scraping, nor is an individual’s experience of that feeling indistinct from another’s experience of the same feeling.
All three authors are “othered bodies.” To be othered in this instance is to exist outside of the patriarchal, white, heterosexual hegemony of North America. They are queer, female, pregnant, Asian, Jewish, and self-educated. All three are female-identifying artists. Because of Zhang’s and Kraus’s preoccupation with adolescence as a time of societally-regulated intensity, and Nelson’s transient relationship to the “self” as “an endless becoming” (The Argonauts 145), I have chosen to juxtapose the academic and the adolescent in each of these works. I begin by defining some key terminology, because it is important to understand the many ways in which these terms can be (re)possessed and (dis)owned by various disciplines, including art, academia, and feminism. I then examine two of Nelson’s academic performances, in Bluets and The Argonauts. Finally, I look at a selection of Kraus’s I Love Dick. Throughout, I use three quotes from Zhang’s prose-poem How It Feels as a companion text which deals explicitly with the extreme volatility accepted as normal during one’s adolescence, and the subsequent denial in adulthood of mental health disorders such as depression and suicide.
I will reference back to these definitions frequently and by case (adjective [adj.] versus noun [n.]) and number. I have included working definitions as well as Oxford English Dictionary (OED) citations because there are frequent discrepancies between them. The OED is a marker of the institutional control of language. By bringing in working definitions, which are based primarily in my experiences of language, I believe I will be able to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the texts at hand, as well as surreptitiously examine how and why these authors use language in the ways they do. OED citations include brief commentary as framework for the ways in which they are explored later in the paper.
Academic (working definition): Academic will here be used to refer to formal, objective, theoretical work, primarily produced by institutions.
- “Conforming to the principles of an academy of arts […] often too rigidly; conventional, esp. in an excessively formal way
- “Concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship
- “Unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal” (OED).
Definitions 2 and 3 are purposefully juxtaposed. Something academic can both be “concerned with the pursuit of research [and] education” and still considered “unpractical.” This could be considered a contradiction, but too often academic work is regarded truly as both. Feminist scholars, like bell hooks in her book, Feminism is for Everybody, have tried to bring academic language into the mainstream. Although highly complex, citational, and academic, The Argonauts, I Love Dick, Bluets, and How It Feels all attempt to ground academic feeling in text. They also demonstrate how theory can be applied to practical issues such as heartbreak, depression, and lust.
- “A. […] A member of a university or college’s teaching or research staff. B. Also in weakened sense: a person interested in or excelling at pursuits involving reading, thinking, and study” (OED; my division)
The use of the phrase “a weakened sense” is intriguing. The OED means that the second definition is less formal. The title itself is the primary concern, while what the title entails is secondary.
- “The traditional clothes of academics and students” (OED).
This is an archaic definition, but one that is exceedingly helpful in a conversation about performing academia, especially in regarding non-traditional academic bodies: artistic bodies, Asian bodies, pregnant bodies, female bodies.
- “U.S., Canad., and Indian English. […] reading, thinking, and study as opposed to technical or practical work” (OED).
I include this final definition as a reminder that the OED is often a colonizing, hierarchical, and binary-creative source. It still creates problematic oppositions such as study versus practical or technical work. It also includes “Indian” English as a variant, which is broad, imprecise, and colonizing terminology that could refer to any number of “Indian” groups, such as Southeast Asian immigrants, US Native Americans, or Canadian Indigenous people.
Adolescence (working definition): The emotional quality connected with biological maturation and puberty, often causing severe mood changes, existential crises, volatility, and novel sexual awareness. A transient state between childhood and adulthood.
Adolescent (adj.): “Of an emotion, quality, etc.: characteristic of adolescence” (OED)
Adolescence (n.): “The period following the onset of puberty during which a young person develops from a child into an adult; the condition or state of being adolescent. Also: an analogous stage of an animal’s life” (OED).
Neither of the OED’s definitions are particularly useful in describing the phenomenological state of adolescence. There is no reference to the emotional fluidity and volatility frequently experienced by adolescents. Thus, the working definition will be the default definition, unless otherwise noted.
Perform/ativity (working definition): Performativity and performance used with the corresponding verb, performing. Perform(ance/ativity/ing) is linked to self-expression as it is distanced from the technical expression of feeling (acting). A theorist like Chris Kraus “performs” the academic, as she is well-read and highly intelligent, but has never been to “school” (Kraus 180). If I described her as “acting” the academic, it would entail showmanship, technique, and a distance between the actor and the art-object — that is, Kraus knowingly acts as the academic. Performance instead identifies the self with the art-object — that is, Kraus performs her academic side.
Because I personally am an actor, it is most useful for me to understand a performance as self-expressive, and to understand acting as technical, controlled, and often scripted. Within these definitions, I believe it is possible to do both, and trained actors often do (i.e. identify with the character, while still engaging technique). For the purposes of this paper, however, it is important to understand acting and performing as distinct.
Three of the texts I will use to explore the adolescence-academic spectrum deal with academia as it is mediated through art (poetry, visual art, performance art). Art academies are unfortunately often connected to academic institutions, or if not, have similar foundational principles and administrative red tape (see academic adj. 1). Both cement an archive or dictate formal standards. The artists referenced by all three writers occupied duplicitous lives within their academies (adj. 1) — because of their irreconcilably personal, non-formal works, they were frequently decried as “narcissists,” “monsters,” or simply discredited with an “um… OK” (Kraus 217; Zhang 9). Yet, their works were displayed, reviewed, and archived because they were undeniably innovative and prolific. Therefore, the reference of these artists is not only tied to questions of academia, institutions, and formalities, but also to upending canonical understandings of high art as something that must be studied and theorized, as opposed to sketches such as Emin’s IS THIS A JOKE. This opposition between what is art and what is academic is challenged by the adolescence-academic spectrum, as all three writers infuse academia with feeling, and feeling with academia, to create “the feeling academic”.
Case Study 1: Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“107. Many people do not think the writing of Gertrude Stein ‘means’ anything. Perhaps it does not. But when my students complain that they want to throw Tender Buttons across the room, I try to explain to them that in it Stein is dealing with a matter of pressing concern. Stein is worried about hurt colors, I tell them. ‘A spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing,’ I read aloud, scanning the room for a face that also shows signs of being worried about hurt colors. ‘Enthusiastically hurting a clouded yellow bud and saucer.’ ‘A cool red rose and a pink cut pink.’ As if color could be further revealed by slitting” (Bluets 41).
In a review of Donald Sutherland’s biography of Stein, Hugh Corbett writes that Sutherland “has gone to enormous trouble to explain Gertrude Stein’s idiosyncrasies, unique style … [and] ‘the idea that present thinking is the final reality’…The biographer has striven desperately hard and very cleverly to explain what is, to most readers, totally inexplicable” (Corbett 106). Stein is a contradictory presence in the history of modernist composition, and her idiosyncrasies are captured here by the phrase “a hurt color” (Bluets 41). A “self-proclaimed genius,” (Poetry Foundation) she and her partner Alice B. Toklas hosted salons in Paris which frequently inspired and influenced some of the most famous creators of the early 20th century, such as Picasso and Hemingway. However, she herself was never commercially successful, and was dismissed by critics as incomprehensible.
Tender Buttons is an exercise in Stein’s “literary quest for what she called an ‘exact description of inner and outer reality’” (Poetry Foundation). At a slim sixty pages, it is daringly experimental and stylistically comparable to the stream-of-consciousness style present in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Stein’s descriptions are complicated by their complete lack of context, narrative, or grammatical logic. From “a system of pointing,” Stein continues, “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading” (Stein). Stein’s experiment is not in the construction of rhetorical logic, but in the construction of consciousness and feeling. She is trying to put her mind to the page, and Tender Buttons, despite its indecipherability, is a trace of her interior. It makes the personal universal.
Thus, Nelson’s performance of teaching Tender Buttons at CalArts is significant evidence of Nelson’s diffused self within “the feeling academic.” Firstly, Stein is not frequently read, although she is often recognized on course syllabi for her contribution to famous men. Personally, I have read every one of the men she influenced for a class, but have never been assigned her work. (I was reading a section of Tender Buttons to a friend and he remarked, “I’ve never actually read Stein. I just know that she was ugly.”) Thus, Nelson’s assignment of Tender Buttons inscribes Stein with an academic status she is infrequently granted. Via performative language (“assignment”), Nelson transgresses academic convention.
Nelson herself is performing the role of an objective academic, concealing her “feeling academic” (adj. 1) behavior just under Stein’s dense and highly theoretical text. Bluets is made up of the 240 “propositions” which were “collected across three years of slowly dwindling sadness, from 2003 to 2006, while Nelson recovered from a heartbreak while caring for a close friend rendered quadriplegic” (Francis). She teaches Tender Buttons because on an emotional level, this text is seminal for her.
Formally, Bluets also performs “the feeling academic.” Nelson crafts a series of poetic fragments, a paragraph long at most, which she calls “propositions.” The term “propositions” references Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour (1950), which he wrote in the months before he died. Because of its fragmentation, partially caused by his loss of strength due to cancer, Remarks on Colour has generally been one of the lesser read works by Wittgenstein. Nelson both re-canonizes this work through its inclusion, thereby arguing that illness or physical weakness does not negate the mind, and razes Wittgenstein’s ghost. Infamously uncomfortable with bodies, Nelson sees this form as a “miniature feminist project” as “Wittgenstein … had a lot of agony around the personal and the sexual and the bodily … It was interesting to take some of his locutions through this content that would have probably been horrifying to him” (Wood). Bluets is styled within Wittgenstein’s framework, but contains often grotesquely personal imagery. It is both academic and subjective.
It is important for Nelson to teach Stein because Tender Buttons expresses color in simultaneously personal and universal way. When Nelson describes teaching Tender Buttons, she layers the academic and the subjective. Tender Buttons appeals to her because she is “writing a book about blue” (Bluets 6). She is “worried about hurt colors” as much as Stein because she is nursing a deep affinity for blue in the wake of intense heartbreak (Bluets 41). Her discussion of Tender Buttons is not strictly academic, nor is it strictly creative or adolescent (adj. 3). It highlights her ability to be transgressive in the classroom by engaging as “the feeling academic” with her students’ intellectual tantrums — “students complain that they want to throw Tender Buttons across the room” (Bluets 41). She embraces this apparent contradiction, and uses it to upend her students’ understanding of Stein. It’s a beautiful example of how “the feeling academic” can be productive in multiple capacities.
Case Study 2: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
“Place me now, like a pregnant cutout doll, at a ‘prestigious New York university,’ giving a talk on my book on cruelty. […] How did you handle working on all this dark material [sadism, masochism, cruelty, violence and so on] in your condition? Ah yes, I think […] Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks” (The Argonauts 91).
Nelson’s The Argonauts explores the pregnant body as “other” in several instances throughout the text; in each iteration of this theme, she highlights the dualism inherent in pregnancy. The pregnant body is at once one and two human persons. The carrying of that child “disrupts our usual perception of an other as a single other. The static of facing not one, but also not two” (The Argonauts 91).
As an academic, Nelson already occupies a contradictory role in that she is female, expressive, and feelings-based (n. 1A&B). Although The Argonauts is highly structured in that it flows basically on a linear timeline, from Nelson meeting her partner to after the birth of their first child, its content is again concerned with phenomenological experience of living in the body of a pregnant human person.
In the above section, Nelson is once again engaged in a type of performance. This performance occurs in a double ownership. To begin, it belongs to Nelson, academic, writer, person. As an academic, Nelson is not required to pay attention to the practical or technical work of her body (n. 3). The mind wears academia just as the body wears maternity suits. This is taken as evidence of Nelson’s status as a “feeling woman,” in apparent contrast to her ability to be an objective academic (n. 2).
The idea of a “call” back “to the body” (The Argonauts 91) is inherently performative. It suggests an identification with something outside oneself. In this case, Nelson was highly identified with her so-called “dark material,” which the interviewer believes is unfit for a pregnant woman (The Argonauts 91). The interviewer’s effect is the same as that of the house lights coming up: it frames and elevates spectacle as something distinct from normal life, which in this case is embodied by a patriarch — non-pregnant, non-queer, and academic (n. 1A).
A “calling back to one’s body” also indicates a self-awareness and insecurity which I would like to associate with our working definition of adolescence. More so than in Bluets, The Argonauts talks about physical desires and self-consciousness in equal measure. The text itself, as well as academic writing on a whole, is self-indulgent in the same way adolescent emotion is often perceived. (Is this irony?, she asks, as she writes about her solitude’s companions.) Although one’s research within a university should be compelling for oneself, there are many academics (n. 1A) whose work is bluntly masturbatory: ontologically interesting, but existentially pointless.
The use of the term “adolescent” on a pregnant body is productive in that the negative stereotypes of both pubescent bodies and pregnant bodies are largely the same: mood swings, the dance of “projection and communion,” physical hunger, and inexplicable and drastic sexual feelings (Wood). Both pregnancy and adolescence bring a new awareness of one’s body as distinct from the bodies of others. “No means no” campaigns in sex education classes establish physical boundaries just as clearly as an ultrasound blurs them. Also, like adolescence, pregnancy is a transient state between two definitions of self: in Nelson’s case, from the queer writer or academic (n. 3), to the mother. It is this transient state that Nelson refers to as “static” (The Argonauts 91); it is distinctly visible and yet not decipherable as anything other than a label (pregnant) because it is not a state, but rather the visible evidence of her “endless becoming” (The Argonauts 145).
Including adolescence in this analysis gives another avenue for interpreting performative gesture in The Argonauts. This scene could be replayed as a bildungsroman, if one simply imagined Nelson as an extremely well-read, queer 14-year-old. In this reading, the interviewer’s question regarding “dark material” is an act of erasure, but instead of the erasure of Nelson due to her “condition,” it is of Nelson’s “more general oxymoron, the woman who thinks” (The Argonauts 91). It is also evocative of a theme that Zhang discusses in How It Feels: that darkness (depression, suicide) is untenable for “fourteen-year-old girls. … I was told that my problems were minor, my tragedies imaginary, and worst of all — I was told I hadn’t lived enough to really want to die” (Zhang 4). Nelson’s academic (adj. 2) merit is put on trial because of her transient state; in the same way, adolescent existential crises are framed by their seemingly inescapable impermanence.
Case Study 4: I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick deals even more explicitly with intersections between adolescence and academia, measuring both along the magnitude of lust. It consists of 250 love letters written to art critic Dick Hebdige. Many of the letters express feelings of unrequited love and desire, in which Kraus positions herself as the “Dumb Cunt,” continuously expressing lust and love for a man she has met only a handful of times (Kraus 27). Yet her text is riddled with references to high art and academic texts, redefining, reclaiming, and asserting the “Dumb Cunt” as an intellectually dominant position. Kraus’s descriptions of her love for Dick feel like a modern Romeo and Juliet. The letters are hard, sexual, determined. Her identification with Dick is extreme to a point of the two sharing a one-ness. The response she receives is just as tragic as Juliet awakening to Romeo’s death — a single-page, Xeroxed copy of a letter he composed to her husband. The kind of adolescent desire Kraus expresses is typical of pubescent poetry, but atypical of “a hag” (Kraus 28), or an academic (n. 3). The only resolution is for Kraus to become “the feeling academic,” wherein her expressions of lust become transgressive as they occupy the rift between academia and adolescence.
“Monster” is the second-to-last section of I Love Dick; it frames part of Kraus’s experience within the experience of Hannah Wilke, a performance artist and professor in New York City, whose career began in the 70s and ended with her death from cancer in 1993. Wilke sought to “universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art” (Kraus 211). She frequently injected her own image into her work, and used materials such as “washing machine lint” and “chewing gum” to fashion “tough, ambiguous depiction[s] of traditionally female imagery” (Kraus 211, 213). Kraus examines Wilke’s rise to frame, and the subsequent destruction of her art/body (which were often one and the same). Art critics described her work as “narcissistic,” denying her agency by ignoring that “the point was … [to] reveal the circumstances of one’s own objectification” (Kraus 215). Kraus’s discussion of Hannah Wilke’s work is thrilling because it is duplicitous: both review-like and novelistic, historical and current, political and personal.
Even as Kraus recognizes Hannah’s destruction by art communities for her “narcissism,” “debasement,” “bad feminism,” and refusal to use “a certain kind of theoretical language” (Kraus 215-17), she herself engages in these practices, referencing artists and the Kierkegaard third remove in the same breath as her unrequited and inexplicable adolescent obsession with Dick. She also writes about Wilke’s ex-partner, artist Claes Oldenburg, who censored her posthumous show to “protect his privacy” (Kraus 218). Oldenburg ordered a huge portion of Wilke’s work removed from the show, fulfilling the title of one of Wilke’s later works, Eraser, Erase-her (Kraus 218). The parallel between Wilke and Kraus here is evident. Dick requested that Kraus not publish her letters to him, so that he could maintain his privacy. A similar anxiety of erasure permeates Kraus’s book in her recognition that Dick’s relative art-world credit and power could cause the complete erasure of her work.
This fear is a commonality between academics and adolescents (n. 1B). As Zhang writes, “what is so embarrassing about being a poet [is] that you might be filling the world up with more crap. That your pathetic little thing is not interesting to anyone but yourself” (Zhang 9). As an academic, and as an adolescently-feeling-hag (n. 1B), Kraus recognizes the possible impermanence of her creation, as well as its imaginable insignificance. This is even more urgent for Kraus than for Nelson, because unlike Nelson, Kraus did not have a career as a writer or academic prior to writing I Love Dick. She had never attended university, and had been a filmmaker all her life, dependent on her husband’s money. Her references to Wilke are performative, because as someone who did not go “to school,” she is not meant to enjoy “high” art, let alone use it as a mediation for her own insecurity (Kraus 180). In this academic performance, she transgresses the boundaries which link academia and art within their own universe, and uses her self-taught theory to dismantle the “art history that had already labelled Wilke dumb, her imitators smart” (Kraus 216). This same art history repeatedly dispossesses women and minorities of rights to expressions of their experience, because it does not recognize alternate truths.
Lastly, the title of this section, “Monster,” is taken from a conversation Kraus had with Warren Niesluchowski, “an artworld personality and critic, a smart and cultivated guy” (Kraus 217). Niesluchowski agrees with Kraus in believing that Wilke became a kind of monster, but claims she became the wrong kind. “The problem was, she started taking everything so personally … her work was no longer art” (Kraus 217). Spoken by a male art critic, this reinforces the division between art and revolutionary expressions of counterculture experience which historically serves the patriarchy well, as it insists in the performance of a mind-body dualism whereby the mind (the head, the male) always has control over the body (the sensual, the female). However, this division cannot exist in the adolescent body. Puberty affects the mind as much as the body, and thus transgresses this artificial barrier between the two. One’s body becomes irreconcilably mechanized toward the destruction of a previous self, entering a transience with an uncertain end (perhaps adulthood?). A “female monster,” like Wilke, and like Kraus, “take[s] things personally as they really are” (Kraus 218). It is “the self as machine” (Kraus 218). The monster, the adolescent, erases the patriarchally enforced mind-body dualism, and forces sensuality and logic into confrontation.
The works of Zhang, Nelson, and Kraus interrogate the patriarchal constraints placed on the other-bodied academic. They highlight the rift between academia and life by revolutionarily occupying it — by embodying and performing “the feeling academic” (n. 3). They also radically displace the position of subjectivity in academic fields from secondary to primary. This shift is arguably a feminist project, as it shifts away from the mind-body dualism traditionally constructed by institutions. By inscribing the poetic with the ability to connect and construct as viscerally and vitally as with the theoretical, Nelson, Kraus, and Zhang inspire a new kind of story-telling which does not separate intellect from feeling, but rather unites them under a single understanding of the phenomenological experience of otherness in academia.
I am performing my academic self when I write about these texts academically. It would be significantly less performative for me to simply assemble the quotes from these texts, read them aloud, and cry. However, where those two experiences of myself intersect and intermingle, I believe, is the closest experience I’ll have to my full truth. After months of writing and thinking, the annotations of my companions in reflective solitude provide as much information about my state of being as any fully self-authored texts. Writing about feeling is not a rejection of academia — it is an augmentation. In the margins of Nelson’s Bluets, I wrote (in response to #86), “Reading maggie nelson is like getting repeatedly sucker punched in the gut the upside being every breath feels like a blessing” (Metcalf Bluets 33). These texts got me through some of the hardest months of my life. I hope this analysis gives other women exposure to these authors, other women whose intelligence insists that sadness can be solved.
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Francis, Gavin. “Bluets by Maggie Nelson Review – heartbreak and sex in 240 turbocharged prose poems.” The Guardian, 8 June 2017.
Kraus, Chris. I Love Dick. Semiotext(e), 1998.
Metcalf, Sophia. “Derrida.” Self-published, 13 Nov 2017.
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009.
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Poetry Foundation. “Gertrude Stein.” 2017, Web.
Stein, Gertrude. “Tender Buttons.” Bartleby, 2000, Web.
Wood, Gaby. “Murder is red, heartbreak is blue: how Maggie Nelson found a new way to write about trauma.” The Telegraph, 27 May 2017.
Zhang, Jenny. “How It Feels.” Poetry Foundation, 2015, Web.
Photo: Tracey Emin, Is This A Joke, Embroidered Blanket, 2009. http://www.themilanese.com/?p=7777