In The Argonauts, the sole text in my writing seminar, Maggie Nelson bids her readers to think about Roland Barthes’ interest in the Argo—which remained the Argo, even after all of the original parts of the ship were swapped out over time. This idea resonates throughout Nelson’s memoir and, as it echoes, one is led to wonder: does it apply to people as well? The name is applied at birth, the child grows into an adult, the cells keep changing the whole time. The Argo remains the Argo, but what about the Argonauts? Do they? Are they, too, interchangeable? Replaceable?
While we’ve been slowly making our way through The Argonauts (it’s week four and we’ve made it to page thirty-two), I wanted my students to directly experience this puzzle at the heart of Nelson’s memoir: what can objects teach us about how language works? The Argo stands in as one such object: take it apart; put it back together; it’s still the Argo. Barthes later explains that this doesn’t work with language. “I love you” does not remain the fresh, thrilling phrase it is when first expressed. For that to happen, the phrase would need to be reinvented every time.
To help my students sneak up on this idea, I asked them, without explanation, to bring an object to class. They would be donating the object to the class and wouldn’t get it back, I told them, so it shouldn’t be worth more than $10 and it should be something portable. (This entire assignment sequence is inspired by Kate McIntosh’s Worktable, which I saw/participated in last fall at the Philly Fringe.) This is what they brought in:
It’s an appropriately mixed bag of stuff, some selected with more apparent care than other stuff (I was vexed by the submission of a single paper clip, a pen cap, a single earring), and some stuff provided by me in order to make sure that there was some range of choice for the next part of the performance/exercise.
At the end of class, students were instructed to select one of the objects to take home with them. They then had a week, outside of class, to disassemble or otherwise render unusable their selected objects. They could use hand tools, but I asked that no fire or chemicals be used. And so, the students went to work on this in private, all the while reading five pages or so of Nelson’s book for each session. And then, a week later, this is what they brought back:
What are we looking at, I asked them.
Trash, one student said.
Art, another student said.
Some people didn’t follow the instructions, another said.
As the conversation continued, I had the students reflect on the results as evidence of how the act of dismantling was interpreted. Were there patterns?
And what were we to make of the submission of the small piece of paper with the word “her” written on it? What was the original object? (No one could say.) How did the appearance of this gendered pronoun makes sense as an act of dismantling?
Next step: selected one of the dismantled objects to take home for a week, instructions, as before, to follow. These instructions were even more straightforward: reassemble the object. They could use tape, glue, rubber bands, paper clips, but not blow torches or hammers or other similarly sized hand tools. Another week, more talking about Nelson, how she puts her memoir together, what she chooses to work with, and how she chooses to work with it.
Here’s a sampling of the submissions (I’ll post a collective shot by the end of the week):
The hand juicer.
The students brought in their reassembled objects and they were on display for a week in the computer lab we’d decamped to for their work on another assignment (more on that one next time).
And then, this week, the quiz asked them to reflect on what they’d learned from the experience of performing in McIntosh’s Worktable. At first, some students thought I’d handed out the wrong quiz. Performance? Worktable? But, when they’d read the entire prompt, they all settled into putting their (perhaps just then forming) reflections down on paper. Here’s one response:
The Worktable is a play about ourselves, in the way that our brains are the actors and the assemblage and disassemblage are the ways the actors are performing. The actors take objects, create creative chaos, then recreate order in different ways (in the way that we all see fit and can bring to our aesthetic, as disassembling an object results in stress and stress relief, and reassembling results in new life and the resolution of stress). The surprise came ultimately from the destruction of the earring to “her,” then the reassembly to “them.” An object, like the Argo, was completely swapped of all parts and left to a singular word to represent it, then the word itself was swapped out, like an Argo of “the Argo.”
That irritating earring? It turns out to have been the catalyst for a number of insights into the creative process. What is “her”? It’s a dissembled version of “them.” What is “her”? It turns out it’s also a palimpsest rubbing converted into an invented Chinese character/gendered stick figure then translated into a gendered pronoun.
In their quiz responses, some students focus on the significance of the original object choice, how it constrains, how it determines what can follow. Others focus on how, at each stage, some members of the class were able to respond to the assignment in some previously unimaginable way. They could well be describing what happens via the act of citation.