Against Love: A Polemic, by Laura Kipnis
made in hell
American writer Laura Kipnis has provoked a storm in the US with a new book attacking marriage. Here, she explains why monogamy turns nice people into petty dictators and household tyrants
Sunday September 7, 2003
Marriage: The new blue-light case of the week. Everyone is terribly worried about its condition: can it be cured? Or has the time arrived for drastic measures - just putting it out of its misery? Euthanasia is a dirty word but, frankly, the prognosis is not so great for this particular patient: a stalwart social institution is now scabby and infirm, gasping for each tortured breath. Many who had once so optimistically pledged to uphold its vows are fleeing its purported satisfactions. In the US, a well-publicised 50 per cent failure rate hardly makes for optimism; in Britain, too, the Office for National Statistics report that divorce has reached a record high at around 15 per cent. But this lower figure goes with a drop in the number of weddings - at their lowest level since the reign of Queen Victoria; this should mean fewer divorces, since not getting married in the first place seems the best way - these days - of avoiding this sorry (often expensive, usually ego-damaging) denouement. Certainly, there are happy marriages. No one disputes that and all those who are happily married can stop reading here. Additionally, there is always serial monogamy for those who can't face up to the bad news - yes, keep on trying until you get it right, because the problem couldn't be the institution itself or its impossible expectations.
For these optimists, the problem is that they have somehow either failed to find the 'right person', or have been remiss in some other respect. If only they'd put those socks in the laundry basket instead of leaving them on the floor, everything would have worked out. If only they'd cooked more (or less) often. If only they'd been more this, less that, it would have been fine.
And what of the growing segment of the population to whom the term 'happily married' does not precisely apply, yet who none the less valiantly struggle to uphold the tenets of the marital enterprise, mostly because there seems to be no viable option? A 1999 Rutgers University study reported that a mere 38 per cent of Americans who are married describe themselves as actually happy in that state. This is rather shocking: so many pledging to live out their lives here on earth in varying degrees of discontent or emotional stagnation because that is what's expected from us, or 'for the sake of the children', or because wanting more than that makes you selfish and irresponsible. So goes the endless moralising and finger-pointing this subject tends to invite.
Let us contemplate the everyday living conditions of this rather large percentage of the population, this self-reportedly unhappily married majority: all those households submersed in low-level misery and soul-deadening tedium, early graves in all respects but the most forensic. Regard those couples - we all know them, perhaps we are them - the bickering; the reek of unsatisfied desires and unmet needs; a populace downing anti-depressants, along with whatever other forms of creative self-medication are most easily at hand, from triple martinis to serial adultery.
Yes, we all know that domesticity has its advantages: companionship, shared housing costs, childrearing convenience, reassuring predictability, occasional sex, and many other benefits too varied to list. But there are numerous disadvantages as well - though it is considered unseemly to enumerate them - most of which are so structured into the expectations of contemporary coupledom that they have come to seem utterly natural and inevitable. But are they?
Consider, for instance, the endless regulations and interdictions that provide the texture of domestic coupledom. Is there any area of married life that is not crisscrossed by rules and strictures about everything from how you load the dishwasher, to what you can say at dinner parties, to what you do on your day off, to how you drive - along with what you eat, drink, wear, make jokes about, spend your discretionary income on?
What is it about marriage that turns nice-enough people into petty dictators and household tyrants, for whom criticising another person's habits or foibles becomes a conversational staple, the default setting of domestic communication? Or whose favourite marital recreational activity is mate behaviour modification? Anyone can play - and everyone does. What is it about modern coupledom that makes policing another person's behaviour a synonym for intimacy? (Or is it something about the conditions of modern life itself: is domesticity a venue for control because most of us have so little of it elsewhere?)
Then there's the fundamental premise of monogamous marriage: that mutual desire can and will last throughout a lifetime. And if it doesn't? Well apparently you're just supposed to give up on sex, since waning desire for your mate is never an adequate defence for 'looking elsewhere'. At the same time, let's not forget how many booming businesses and new technologies have arisen to prop up sagging marital desire. Consider all the investment opportunities afforded: Viagra, couples pornography, therapy. If upholding monogamy in the absence of desire weren't a social dictate, how many enterprises would immediately fail? (Could dead marriages be good for the economy?)
And then there's the American mantra of the failing relationship: 'Good marriages take work!' When exactly did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of coupledom? Is there really anyone to whom this is an attractive proposition, who, after spending all day on the job, wants to come home and work some more? Here's an interesting question: what's the gain to a society in promoting more work to an overworked population as a supposed solution to the travails of marital discontent?
What if luring people into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desires were actually functional for society? Consider the norms of modern marriage: here is a social institution devoted to maximising submission and minimising freedom, habituating a populace to endless compliance with an infinite number of petty rules and interdictions, in exchange for love and companionship.
Perhaps a citizenry schooled in renouncing desire - and whatever quantities of imagination and independence it comes partnered with - would be, in many respects, socially advantageous. Note that the conditions of marital stasis are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate. And wouldn't the most elegant forms of social control be those that come packaged in the guise of individual needs and satisfactions, so wedded to the individual psyche that any contrary impulse registers as the anxiety of unlovability? Who needs a policeman on every corner when we're all so willing to police ourselves and those we love, and call it upholding our vows?
In this respect, perhaps rising divorce rates are not such bad news after all. The Office for National Statistics blames couples' high expectations for the upswing in divorce. But are high expectations really such a bad thing? What if we all worked less and expected more - not only from our marriages or in private life, but in all senses - from our jobs, our politicians, our governments? What if wanting happiness and satisfaction - and changing the things that needed changing to attain it - wasn't regarded as 'selfish' or 'unrealistic' (and do we expect so much from our mates these days because we get so little back everywhere else?). What if the real political questions were what should we be able to expect from society and its institutions? And, if other social contracts and vows beside marriage were also up for re-examination, what other ossified social institutions might be next on the hit list?
Laura Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon) and a professor at Northwestern University, Chicago.
Two isn't company
In "Against Love," Laura Kipnis considers why the institution of marriage compels us to stray -- for good reason.
By Stephanie Zacharek
Aug. 13, 2003 | In the old days, when it was time to get married, your dad would just go over to the next village with a nice-looking cow and a string of puka beads and parade them in front of the family of a nice boy. If the settlement was acceptable to them, you'd become a blushing bride -- no muss, no fuss. You might not like your husband -- you might be lucky if you could even stand the sight of his face -- but at the very least, you knew where you stood. You'd entered a contract. You'd have the babies, cook the food and keep the home nice, and in return, with luck, you'd be well taken care of and possibly not even get beaten. The world fell into place accordingly.
But somewhere along the way, feelings entered the picture. And feelings, as Laura Kipnis will tell you in "Against Love: A Polemic" always muck things up. Because of feelings, people are drawn into those cozily familiar formations known as couples. But also because of feelings -- and because, as Kipnis reminds us, Freud noted that there's a very thin line between disgust and desire -- even the loveliest comforts of coupledom can become stifling, leading first to bad stuff (restlessness, vague feelings of wanting something more) and then, possibly, to really bad stuff: In the worst-case scenarios, formerly contented domestic partners become sex-mad Hester Prynnes, scarlet-lettering all over the place. If they're lucky, they can clean it all up after the fact with a little self-knowledge via marital counseling (all the better, in some cases, to start the cycle all over again); if they're unlucky, they end up in divorce court.
Welcome to the miserable world of modern marriage.
So why is Kipnis' book, which addresses this mess in unsparing detail, such a delight -- in the broadest sense of the word, that is? Reading "Against Love," I felt invigorated half the time and plunged into the deepest, most morose pit of self-pitying despair the rest of it -- in other words, I felt as if I were in love. That seems to have been Kipnis' aim. Her book isn't called a polemic for nothing, which means, as she explains in the introduction, it's designed to turn us upside-down: "Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head, even about sacrosanct subjects like love. A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger. It won't injure you (well, not severely); it's just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions."
Let's forget that Kipnis even needs to explain what a polemic is. My guess is that she wanted to stem the tide of letters from serious-minded cuddlebugs everywhere, taking pen to paper to assert angrily, "We happen to like being married!" And also to counteract the measured dullness of certain types of book reviewers who feel it's their civic duty to point out all the positive aspects of marriage that Kipnis has failed to deal with -- probably because she's smart enough to know that they're boring as hell to read about.
Instead, Kipnis goes right for the juice: The break for some kind of freedom, that desperate dash for relief from the erotic drudgery of married life -- adultery. "Against Love" could be considered a "defense" of adultery, but it's more accurate to call it an examination of the effects, both positive and negative, that fooling around can have on the fabric of our society. Because as incendiary as the title of Kipnis' book is -- and she hints broadly that it's a title with more than one meaning -- Kipnis doesn't seem to be particularly against love at all. What she's really against are our collective grand expectations of what it means to be part of a couple, expectations that don't take into account the fact that we're all human beings and thus liable to change, in highly unpredictable ways, at any moment. Our idea of marriage doesn't allow for fluidity and openness, and that may not be completely our fault. Because, in Kipnis' view, there are strong societal forces at work that depend on our swallowing, hook, line and sinker, the notion of marriage as a romantic institution. (By "marriage," Kipnis means any long-term romantic partnership, gay, lesbian or straight.) Submerged in the marital jelly of docility and numbness, we're much more productive and easier to manage. We work hard all the livelong day, and then come home, where we work hard at being married, because we all know that "Marriage is hard work." And then, before we know it, all our hard work has killed our libidos, leaving them limp and lifeless and hanging like damp, dejected rags on the clothesline of life.
Cheering, isn't it? And yet there's something bracing about the way Kipnis states the obvious without feeling the need to temper her "cons" with any of those pesky "pros." Who ever comes out and says this stuff? Because face it: Most of us who have spent any length of time in a good relationship (even one that's eventually gone bad) already know what the benefits are. What's harder is admitting that there are elements of long-term partnership that just plain suck. It's not such a stretch to believe that society at large as well as our government have a vested interest in keeping us anesthetized (but always working hard!) in the marital cocoon.
In one of her first audacious acts, Kipnis applies Marxist theory to the marriage contract. "Marx's question remains our own to this day: just how long should we have to work before we get to quit and goof around, and still get a living wage?" If marriage is just another kind of work, where does pleasure come in? Kipnis asks. But then, pleasure and leisure time are dangerous. "'Free time and you free people,' as the old labor slogan used to go," Kipnis writes. "Of course, free people might pose social dangers. Who knows what mischief they'd get up? What other demands would come next?"
Then Kipnis limns a nightmare version of married life that, you have to admit, isn't exactly wrong. This chapter is called "Domestic Gulags," and I highly recommend that you read it late at night (when the potential for self-doubt and self-loathing runs merrily high in most of us), nestled right up against your peacefully snoring, and possibly cheating, partner. If you happen to have a set of headphones and a loop tape of Vincent Price's maniacal house-of-horror laughter, you might want to set that going as well. Kipnis devotes a full eight pages to a wild and witty list of all the things you can't do when you're part of a couple, beginning with "You can't leave the house without saying where you're going" and ending with "You can't return the rent-a-car without throwing out the garbage because the mate thinks it looks bad, even if you insist that cleaning the car is rolled into the rates." (Somewhere in there you'll find "You can't wear mismatched clothes, even in the interest of being perversely defiant" and the ever-popular "You can't use the 'wrong tone of voice,' and you can't deny the wrong-tone-of-voice accusation when it's made.")
In the Kipnis marriage universe, coupled partners learn to tolerate each other, but barely. They're people with mutual needs that have to be met, but to meet them, you usually have to guess what they are first, unless, of course, they're enumerated for you regularly in a shrill lecture. And forget the fact that sexual desire in human beings is disorderly and unpredictable: We're expected to pick a partner and stick with him or her forever, claiming that we have achieved "mature love" when the sex becomes boring or nonexistent.
The point is that marriage, which ostensibly jerks us into a lockstep of manageability that should ideally last a lifetime, serves society more than it serves the human spirit. And that's where the idea of adultery as civil disobedience comes in. Kipnis isn't interested in feelings here: What she really cares about are social patterns. (More than once she sends out a message to the aggrieved partners of cheating spouses everywhere -- a shout-out along the lines of Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain.") And adultery, for all its bad juju, does have its good points.
For one thing, it completely confounds your sense of time, and, as Kipnis wisely observes, "Time organizes us as selves, from the inside out ... Even small protests against time-management are worth some attention, because screw around with time and, in fact, you're adulterating the very glue of orderly social existence."
Adultery is a form of risk-taking, a renegade act, a reaffirmation that, OK, we may be married, but we're not dead. We're humans with "messy subjectivities." Adultery is a kind of performance art (Kipnis refers to it, more than once, as "acting out") in which "conventions are defied; chance elements introduced; new viewpoints engineered."
All of this would lead you to believe that Kipnis is rather fond of adulterers as a lot, and that's probably true in theory, at least. But if you think she's rough on the poor, ordinary well-meaning Joes who are just trying to slog through their marriages by bringing home the occasional éclair for a neglected spouse (and the power of an occasional éclair should never be underestimated), just see what she has to say about the ones who stray. These are the people who succumb to the charms of a third party and who explain their behavior with phrases like "Something just happened to me!" and "I feel so alive!"
Kipnis acknowledges that love affairs can feel completely transforming; with this new third party, you can surrender to long-buried feelings; ordinary conversations glisten and gleam. "But what really keeps you glued to the phone till all hours of the night -- conversations sparkling with soulfulness and depth you hadn't known you possessed, exchanging those searching whispered intimacies -- is a very different new love-object: yourself. The new beloved mirrors this fascinating new self back to you, and admit it, you're madly in love with both of them."
Ouch. But then, if you're going to be hit with the truth, why not get it right between the eyes? If you read between the lines -- and what else are lines for? -- Kipnis isn't really pro-adultery any more than she's actually against love. (This is a polemic, remember?) But when she expands her argument, arguing that the hallowed halls of our government have much to lose if people either don't marry or don't stay married, she really gets cooking. Kipnis enumerates, with unrepressed glee, most of the politicians in recent history who have espoused family values only to be embarrassed by a naked mistress or two in their own closets. She's reasonably sympathetic to Bill and Hillary Clinton on the subject of their highly public marital woes. But she also has a long and sharp memory, and she reminds us that Hillary, while stumping for her New York Senate seat, once asserted that our leaders should "start talking about the importance of marriage."
And, she reminds us, Bill Clinton, with Hillary's support, signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which she calls "a custom-built stockade fence to protect matrimony against infiltration by nefarious homosexual elements and safeguard the more panicky states from having to recognize another state's gay marriages, should any state actually grant the privilege, which none had." (She also devotes a few pages to the notion that as messed-up an institution as marriage is, the fact that gay men and lesbians want in only proves how ingrained it is in us that marriage is both necessary and good.)
Kipnis has the knives sharpened and ready for anyone who believes that solid, wholesome marriages, in which all problems or even potential problems are swept under the rug by both partners, are somehow good "for the sake of the children." Kipnis cites how little we spend on education as a nation, and she also notes that one in five American kids live in poverty. "Sentimentality about children's welfare comes and goes, apparently: highest when there's the chance to moralize about adult behavior, lowest when it comes to resource allocation."
It is, after all, healthy-looking marriages, if not actual healthy ones, that keep our nation going. Which is why, among politicians and regular citizens alike, deceit is sometimes necessary (if unfortunate, considering how devastating it can be to the parties involved) in keeping up that shiny-coat, wet-nose marital appearance. "Let's recall that the marriage vow isn't only to a spouse, it's to the institution and to every strained metaphor that it sustains, and to every other relationship and household and ego defense sustained by it in turn. Clearly if there were a Starr Report on every American marriage, the institution would instantly crumble, never to recover. And what, then, of the republic? Citizens obviously have a duty to lie about their sex lives, as Clinton himself knew -- and tried valiantly to do."
Lying, cheating, getting away with all kinds of shenanigans short of murder (and sometimes even that): Is this what marriage means today? Kipnis has some problems with the idea of marriage, that's for sure. But her book doesn't offer any viable solutions: In other words, she throws the bomb and then she runs. Fast.
But you can't fault her for that, any more than you can fault most of us for either becoming part of a couple or, at one time or another, yearning to become part of one. When pressed for an alternative to love, Kipnis, like the rest of us, doesn't have an answer.
But she sure does have a sense of humor. As intellectual tracts go, "Against Love" is hugely entertaining. I can't remember the last time a Marxist-leaning academic made laugh out loud, so heartily and so often. I have not been able to decide whether "Against Love" is scary-funny or funny-scary, so I'll leave it suspended somewhere nebulously between the two.
If you're not currently coupled and don't ever want to be, run, don't walk, to the bookstore and buy "Against Love." If, on the other hand, you've already consigned yourself to what generally passes for marital bliss, "Against Love" at least offers the comfort of knowing you're not alone. Yes, you married a monster from outer space, but relax, it's OK. We're all in this universe together.
Buzz off, Cupid
Sunday, August 24, 2003
By Laura Kipnis
PANTHEON; 207 PAGES; $24
I started reading this polemic, which is really against marriage rather than love, as a happily married woman. I ended it a little more disgruntled with the married state. But no thanks to Laura Kipnis (my husband broke his foot). For "Against Love" is more an adolescent's rant than an insightful look into the real problems of marriage.
Bombarded with images of loving couples, we see love as intrinsic to our health, happiness, our very souls. But actually, suggests Kipnis, this is "society's" subtle way of coercing us. (Kipnis does not tell us who "society" is or how it "decides" to do this because personifying society is an easy way to avoid explaining how or why things happen in a complicated world; you simply say "society needs" or "does" such-and-such and leave it at that.) Love beguiles us into marriage or coupledom. But marriage entails emotional stagnation and acquiescence in the face of constant disappointment. Above all we have to "work" at maintaining a marriage once desire evaporates, as it inevitably will. So marriage produces just the right character type that a liberal democracy needs, turning us into a docile electorate and cowed workforce.
Kipnis damns marriage for smuggling the work ethic into love. Work for Kipnis means alienated labor and Fordist production lines. If we have to "work at" marriage, then by a metaphorical sleight of hand, marriage is work. Work is drudgery, therefore marriage is, too -- "a domestic factory policed by rigid shop-floor discipline" (Betty Friedan's concentration camp updated for a post-Marxist age).
As a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, Kipnis has naturally modeled her polemic on the French cultural theorists. Like them, she eschews argument in favor of a scatter-gun approach of provocative apercus. Even her style is reminiscent in its whimsical but sometimes clumsy sententiousness ("Might we entertain the possibility that posing philosophical questions isn't restricted to university campuses . . . that maybe it's something that everyone does?"). Fair enough, perhaps, in a lighthearted polemic like this. Such a method can be wittily illuminating (as in Roland Barthes' essay on the Roman haircut in films), but you can't keep getting away with airy assertion. Otherwise, the reader starts feeling the need for some solid ground, like argument, facts and figures.
Yes, I kept thinking, faced with Kipnis' catalog of the endless petty prohibitions with which couples shackle each other ("You can't not express appreciation when the other person makes the bed, even if you don't care."); that's well observed. But work is not just about enforcing or obeying rules. Kipnis seems to be unaware that for most of us, work is one of our greatest sources of satisfaction. Would she deny the fulfillment felt by pianists or skateboarders who have "worked" on perfecting their skills? She has a nice swipe at the me-generation's obsessions with self-improvement and therapy, but perhaps she, too, is a child of the same privileged hedonism, which unquestioningly values desire and its instant gratification over the slower, more hard-earned pleasures of work.
Certainly Kipnis welcomes desire as the rebel force against the stultifying compliance and conformity of marriage. Desire leads to adultery. Adultery means opting for pleasure, not work; it represents discontent, which could break out in other spheres, and so it threatens not just marriage but all the calcified institutions of America. "Hurrah for that!" cheers the adolescent in Kipnis; who needs stability? Our children? (The evidence is unclear, says Kipnis, without citing any.) We adults?
Well, yes. Instability is exciting short term but makes you dizzy over time.
Would anyone prefer living in an unstable rather than stable society? Kipnis is right: Marriage does promote stability (especially for children, though they are almost invisible in this polemic). True, our extended life expectancy poses problems for marriage because for some couples desire can't last the course. Half of all American marriages now end in divorce. (The historian Lawrence Stone points out that divorce now does for ending marriage what death used to do.)
Marriage is evolving into serial monogamy, which is equally damned by Kipnis. But serial monogamy is still probably a greater source of social stability than any other form of sexual relationship. Certainly it's more egalitarian: In polygamous societies only rich men get the women, and judging from their own reports, women seem to have been more oppressed than liberated by 1960s-style free love.
In opting for marriage (serial monogamy), we sacrifice autonomy and pleasure for security and predictability, says Kipnis. But in opting out of marriage, we sacrifice intimacy and depth for the superficial. Barthes pitied those who always read different books because they were only reading the same book over again -- all they were getting was novelty. Perhaps we should pity the libertine for the same reason. Too much novelty gets tedious.
Selina O'Grady is a San Francisco writer.
November 4, 2001, Sunday
Just because Laura Kipnis is against long-term couplehood, I would not presume to call her ''immature'' or ''unable to settle down.'' She suffers, instead, from the intellectual pathology of Foucaultism: the inability, having deconstructed social arrangements into power structures, to come up with practical alternatives.
Until she can suggest an alternative ''narrative'' that is
compelling, not just for the bohemian few but also for the many of us who find
fulfillment in committed relationships, the failure is not in our imaginations
November 4, 2001, Sunday
Brava to Laura Kipnis for her intelligent examination of modern society's infatuation with the delusional notion of ''happily ever after.'' The demise of my 28-year marriage forced me to examine the institution itself. The conclusion I arrived at is that 50 percent of marriages fail because there is something inherently wrong with our notion of wedded union.
Thank you for expressing it so well.
Published: 11 - 04 - 2001 , Late Edition - Final , Section 6 , Column 5 , Page 6
'Against Love: A Polemic' by Laura Kipnis
Friday, August 29, 2003; Page C08
By Laura Kipnis
Pantheon. 207 pp. $24
If you have a "that's not funny!" mentality, you'd better stay away from this book. If you think of "family values" as something more, better and different from simply loving the people in your family, avoid this book for fear of apoplexy. If you're a woman and your husband is cheating on you and you've just found out in the last few months, buy this book and put it safely away for a year.
On the other hand, if you've got a strong stomach, a sound mind and a little distance from some of life's ongoing embarrassing dramas, you might want to ponder this fairly long quote from Page 11 of "Against Love":
"Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up? This means all you cheating wives, philandering husbands, and straying domestic partners, past, present and future. Those who find themselves fantasizing a lot, please rise also. So may those who have ever played supporting roles in the adultery melodrama: 'other man,' 'other woman,' suspicious spouse or marital detective ('I called your office at three and they said you'd left!'), or, least fun of all, the miserable cuckold or cuckoldess. Which, of course, you may be, without (at least, consciously) knowing that you are. Feel free to take a second to mull this over, or to make a quick call: 'Hi hon, just checking in! '"
If this tirade, this list of -- what? indiscretions? disasters in the making? -- brings a tiny smile to your pallid lips, even a furtive smile, a bitter smile, a smile masquerading as a grimace of distaste, you may take to "Against Love," and it may alter some of your thinking.
Kipnis is a feminist but a renegade one. She doesn't work herself up into a frenzy about men being beasts or the nature of sin. For the purposes of "Against Love," she views legalized monogamy as a killjoy institution of the industrialized patriarchy, a dumbing and numbing of the human tropism toward pleasure. The less time we spend in bed with the dubious objects of our desire, she suggests, the more time we can keep free to spend on the assembly line or on meaningless domestic chores or mindless, unnecessary consumption.
Lest the reader attack all this as simplistic, one-sided, or an icky endorsement of "sin," Kipnis insists that this book is a "polemic." It's supposed to be one-sided; it's allowed to be simplistic. She's arguing for the sake of argument, and let others answer or not, as they choose. For the sake of this argument, the author maintains that adulterers are, or may be, courageous social pioneers, challenging the larger society much in the manner of Oliver Twist: "Please sir, may I have some more?" More pleasure, more fun, more intensity, more authenticity.
(As for me, I'm as pure as the driven snow -- though I do remember telling my girlfriend's husband years ago that she'd "just stepped out," when in fact she'd flown 8,000 miles to the island of Yap to be with her lover.)
Kipnis is flighty. She jumps from subject to subject, tone to tone. She warns the single lover against entering the home of the married lover, since all objects are in some ways animate; and the unknown yearns to be known, even if it takes a refrigerator to spill the beans. She makes mean fun of the therapists and "couples experts" who exhort us daily to "work at our marriages." (Why? Why on earth, why, when we already work so hard at work?) Do any of us ever choose to "work" at our affairs, she asks rhetorically. Of course not!
She lists all the things we "can't" do when we're married, and , indeed, the list is long and dispiriting, running to seven pages: "You can't leave the house without saying where you're going. . . . You can't leave the dishes for later. . . . You can't leave female hygiene products out. . . . You can't bring Ding Dongs into the house." No wonder, then, that so many men and women, when their libidos give them a tentative nudge, say to the cosmos, "Yes! I'm ready! Lead me into temptation and do it now!"
Of course, the individual microcosm mirrors the political macrocosm. The author takes a close look, not just at former president Bill Clinton, but the several (many?) other political leaders who got nabbed in the '90s for their peccadilloes. She's pretty merciful -- except in the case of former House impeachment manager Bob Barr.
But, she asks, why was adultery the big story, the dramatic narrative, that obsessed us in the '90s? Sure, there's a commandment against it, but think of all the lying, stealing and killing that went on in the same time frame, and those were ho-hum propositions. The individual's wish for more pleasure than is his or her "just due" has political, even existential, implications, Kipnis insists, and she insists so very wittily.
I wouldn't know anything about any of it, stuck out here as I am in the driven snow.
Adultery Finds Witty Champion, Domestic Coupledom Takes a Hit
by Baz Dreisinger
Against Love: A Polemic, by Laura Kipnis. Pantheon, 224 pages, $24.
If scandals have their seasons, nothing suits summer like a steamy dose of adultery. This season we celebrate a cuckold, Hillary Clinton, whose top-dollar memoir renewed interest in the most delicious illicit affair of the 90’s. And we malign an adulterer (and accused rapist), Kobe Bryant, the basketball superstar whose stony-faced mug shot graces tabloids everywhere.
One imagines Laura Kipnis—a professor of television, radio and film at Northwestern University and the author of Against Love: A Polemic—rubbing her hands in glee as she contemplates Mr. Bryant and his wronged wife, sad and repentant, giving yet another press conference. Her glee stems not from Schadenfreude but from delight at her own prescience: According to Against Love, public adultery scandals remain staples of American culture because adulterers are what all of us—restless, bored and numbed by the humdrum of our stable relationships—secretly wish to be. The public "impalement" of adulterers, especially Presidential ones, is a crucifixion in which others suffer for the very sin that we guilt-ridden masses yearn to commit.
The sin, Ms. Kipnis continues—brace yourself now for the book’s clincher—that we ought to commit.
Ms. Kipnis has written a joyous, incisive tract in praise of adultery—and, as her title lays bare, against love. Why? For one, because no one else has. "Even sacred cows find their butchers. Except for love," Ms. Kipnis writes. Everybody loves love: We all "prostrate ourselves at love’s portals, anxious for entry, like social strivers waiting at the ropeline outside some exclusive club." So it’s easy to accuse Ms. Kipnis of playing the devil’s advocate. It’s easy to argue that Against Love plays switcheroo with totem and taboo just to give us a little thrill.
Easy, that is, until Ms. Kipnis—a witty and pliant thinker—wins you over. Against Love proves delightfully paradoxical: didactic and playful, intellectual and entertaining, high-brow yet eminently readable. The book is a polemic ("the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z Boy lounger"), a word slapped on Against Love like a disclaimer. Polemics, often intentionally over the top, must be taken with a grain of salt. They’re not for everyone: "Feel free to leave," Ms. Kipnis graciously proposes, "if this is not your story—you for whom long-term coupledom is a source of optimism and renewal, not emotional anesthesia."
"Long-term coupledom"—Ms. Kipnis pens the phrase with one hand and holds her nose with the other. Against Love isn’t against love itself, but against love’s socially sanctioned incarnation, its "mandatory barracks": domestic arrangements in which we pledge body and soul to each other forevermore. A more exact title would have been Against Domestic Coupledom, but Against Love makes the better bumper sticker.
Ms. Kipnis’ argument is clear and pointed. When it comes to relationships, the mantra is "Love takes work." But when, she asks, "did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love"? Love, that thing of joy and leisure, has become more labor than pleasure, thus making Marx’s Capital the marriage manual of our time. Sex, that act of passion and spontaneity, is transformed by long-term relationships into mechanical procedure, performed on occasions when duty calls. "When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees," Ms. Kipnis asks, "is this really what we mean by a Good Relationship?"
Only adultery—Ms. Kipnis’ superhero in the scarlet-lettered cape—saves us from emotional paralysis. Adultery resuscitates flaccid souls and comatose libidos: "Using love to escape love," Ms. Kipnis calls it. "It’s kind of like smoking and wearing a nicotine patch at the same time."
With Against Love, Ms. Kipnis—a video artist turned essayist and social critic—has written a follow-up to her last book, whose title also reveled in shock value. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America argued against the criminalizing of fantasy in America and defended porn as a functional outlet for it; Against Love sets its claws on the social institution, marriage, that reins in our fantasies and unfettered desires. This dynamic—human desire repressed by social convention—ought to sound familiar: Ms. Kipnis is riffing off Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in which society’s handmaidens are sublimation and repression.
Freud and Marx, with his analysis of labor’s psychological effects, belong to Ms. Kipnis’ holy trinity of theorists; the third is Foucault, who famously explored society’s subtle means of policing its citizens. What is marriage, Ms. Kipnis asks, but the ultimate in state-sponsored social control, leaving us tamed, bored, repressed—in short, easily manipulated and passive citizens? Domestic coupledom—like soma in Huxley’s Brave New World—is "boot camp for compliant citizenship"; adultery, on the other hand, turns us "from upstanding citizen to crafty embezzler: siphoning off ever-larger increments of this precious commodity, time, from its rightful owners—mate, job, children, housepets."
This is fairly radical stuff, and Ms. Kipnis seems aware that many would dismiss it as hyper-intellectual cant. So she has a strategy for making believers of us: She mostly avoids high-brow name-dropping, skips elaborate argument and historical exegesis—but dazzles us with a barrage of metaphor.
Adultery is "the municipal dumpster for coupled life’s toxic waste of strife and unhappiness." It turns us from laborers to "amateur collagists" or "scavengers and improvisers, constructing odd assemblages out of detritus and leftovers: a few scraps of time and some dormant emotions are stuck together to create something unforeseen, to have new experiences."
Domestic love, on the other hand, is "denture adhesive. Yes, it’s supposed to hold things in place; yes, it’s awkward for everyone when it doesn’t; but unfortunately there are some things that glue just won’t glue." Coupledom’s "enforcement wing" is self-help culture and therapy—the "world’s most expensive lubricant," because therapy tries to get it out of us, that thing we’ve been bottling up and which needs to be released. Therapy absurdly informs us that the solution to the problem of marriage feeling like work is to work harder at marriage.
Tolstoy claimed that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Ms. Kipnis would strenuously disagree. She sets forth a Chomskian universal "grammar" for unhappy coupledom: It includes the "You always/I never routine"; its euphemisms are "compromise" or "getting along"; its basic unit of speech is the interdiction, which produces a long list of what you, you poor coupled sap, can’t do (a gem: "you can’t be simplistic, even when things are simple").
Against Love goes national with a trip to the White House: Monicagate, for Ms. Kipnis, is a prime example of "spousal politics," in which a politician’s worth is measured by his qualities as a husband. Bill Clinton’s highly charged infidelity hearings were a "national bloodletting" in which, Ms. Kipnis observes, a nation of would-be adulterers failed to ask the most profound question of all: Why, for heaven’s sake, was our President "risking so much for so little"?
We didn’t ask because the answer is too unsettling. Grappling with Mr. Clinton’s motives (the source lies somewhere in his "other" head) would mean grappling with the fact that good sense, good logic and "good" marriages only take us so far. Desire, on the other hand, reigns supreme; hence Ms. Kipnis’ paean to it.
But here’s a pressing question: Ought desire to reign? Ms. Kipnis’ clever metaphors and shrewd analyses are a pleasure, but they leave us vacillating between extremes. Is there only the misery of domestic coupledom or the ephemeral joy of adulterous lust, Kevin Spacey in American Beauty or Diane Lane in Unfaithful? It’s rather fitting that a book about the insatiability of desire left me mildly unsatisfied, hungry for some solution to the problem Ms. Kipnis wisely lays out.
To be fair, I was warned: Against Love is a polemic, and polemics hardly ever offer middle-of-the-road solutions. "Maybe no one can be against love, but it’s still possible to flirt with the idea," Ms. Kipnis says in closing. And intellectual flirtations, like polemics, "oscillate between affirming and denying the genuineness of their positions." This is not cop-out, but cunning strategy: If Ms. Kipnis blazes forth with fire, brimstone and academic gravitas against love and marriage, she’ll be dismissed as an extremist or—heavens no!—a radical feminist. Flirtations, however, make us smile, not retreat.
Flirtations titillate, but they’re doomed to end. And so we return, hot and bothered, to the mundane shelter of our daily lives. When we cool down, we remember the other word for a flirt: a tease.
Baz Dreisinger, an adjunct professor at CUNY, is working on her first book.
This column ran on page 18 in the 8/18/03 edition of The New York Observer.
by REBECCA MEAD
Monogamy, marriage, and other menaces.
Issue of 2003-08-11
In 1643, John Milton published his “Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce,” an essay addressed to the members of the English Parliament, in which he deplored matrimonial laws that imprisoned the unhappily married in “a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption.” But the “Doctrine of Divorce” is also the reverse of what its title suggests: in defending divorce, Milton offers a meditation on what a marriage worth the name might consist of. In his tenderest phrase, Milton (whose own first, unhappy marriage must have been instructive in these matters) writes, “In God’s intention, a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage.” Milton would have understood “conversation” in a broader sense than we do now. The word derives from the Latin verb conversari, which means to live together, with connotations of habitual proximity and coöperation. Milton is not referring to marital chatter about school districts or visits to the in-laws or the follies of the Bush Administration, or even the familiar, forlorn spousal inquiry “What are you thinking about?” The conversation of true marriage, he suggests, is an intimate, easy, fruitful intercourse: not talk but life itself.
In a droll, overstated new book, “Against Love: A Polemic” (Pantheon; $24), Laura Kipnis describes a different kind of marital conversation. “As is true of all human languages, the language of coupledom is governed by a finite set of rules that determine what can be verbalized and how,” she writes in a section titled “Couple Linguistics 101.” “Close observation reveals that this is a language comprising one recurring unit of speech: the interdiction.” Kipnis spends the next ten pages of her book enumerating some of those interdictions, “a catalogue of strictures, commands and punishments so unending that you will begin to wonder why no one has yet invoked the Geneva Convention when it comes to couple relations”:
You can’t leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container, make crumbs without wiping them up (now, not later), or load the dishwasher according to the method that seems most sensible to you. . . .You can’t not make the bed. You can’t not express appreciation when the other person makes the bed even if you don’t care. You can’t sleep apart, you can’t go to bed at different times, you can’t fall asleep on the couch without getting woken up to go to bed. You can’t eat in bed. You can’t get out of bed right away after sex. You can’t have insomnia without being grilled about what’s really bothering you.
In Kipnis’s characterization, the domestic captivity that is marriage is complete and relentless, with surveillance, repression, and prohibition built into its very structure.
Kipnis teaches in the department of radio, television, and film at Northwestern University, and an earlier incarnation of “Against Love” appeared in 1998 in the journal Critical Inquiry. In Critical Inquiry, her lively prose was buttressed by footnotes invoking names familiar from the nation’s cultural-studies curricula: Herbert Marcuse, Jean Laplanche, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, and, of course, Marx and Engels. Those references have been considerably pruned in the book-length version, though the germ of their ideas still informs the text. The result is a deft indictment of the marital ideal, as well as a celebration of the dissent that constitutes adultery, delivered in pointed daggers of prose. In a typical flourish, Chapter 2 begins, “Adultery is one way of protesting the confines of coupled life; of course there’s always murder.” Reading Kipnis is rather like sitting next to an engagingly acerbic guest at a dinner party—great fun for an evening, if somewhat curdling to the digestion.
Kipnis, alighting upon the psychotherapeutic bromide that relationships take work, asks, “When did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love?” It’s an interesting question, but she doesn’t answer it. Instead, she takes the metaphor of work at its word, characterizing ours as an age “when monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factory policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline.”
And this, of course, is where Marx comes in: “If love is the latest form of alienated labor, would rereading ‘Capital’ as a marriage manual be the most appropriate response?” (One could charitably take that “rereading” to be a nice little joke about the preoccupations of cultural-studies academics, rather than an expression of it.) Pursuing the analogy of love and labor, Kipnis declares that marital fidelity inevitably evolves into what she calls, after Marx, “surplus monogamy: enforced compliance rather than a free expression of desire.” Submitting to the repressive regime of marriage, then, is an enactment in miniature of a larger and more tragic social conformity.
Much of the book consists of an argument against companionate coupledom, the condition to which—or so popular culture, legal systems, and religious institutions insist—we all aspire. “Domestic coupledom [is] modern love’s mandatory barracks,” Kipnis says. “Domestic coupledom is the boot camp for compliant citizenship.” In support of her case, she cites the familiar divorce statistics showing that half of all American marriages end in divorce; the resigned verdicts passed upon the institution of matrimony by such authorities as Sigmund Freud (“One does not venture to declare aloud and openly that marriage is not an arrangement calculated to satisfy a man’s sexuality, unless one is driven to do so perhaps by the love of truth and eagerness for reform”); and the well-rehearsed argument that romantic love as the foundation of an enduring marriage is an invention of modernity, unknown to ancient Greeks, courtly lovers, or the centuries’ worth of marriageable sons and daughters who served as currency in parental property transactions.
The structure of contemporary marriage, with its expectations of lifetime fidelity, belongs to the apparatus of state control. A population that willingly polices itself through the interdictions of married life, Kipnis argues, has given up any revolutionary strivings, and will submit to other repressive social orders—capitalism, say—without protest. “Let’s imagine that to achieve consensus and continuity, any society is required to produce the kinds of character structures and personality types it needs to achieve its objective,” she writes. “What mysterious force or mind-altering substance could compel an entire population into such total social integration without them even noticing it happening, or uttering the tiniest peep of protest? What if it could be accomplished through love?”
The hero of Kipnis’s story is adultery. Conducting an adulterous affair amounts to a courageous insurrection against an inhuman social order. “Adultery is the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic,” she says; it is, in fact, the “anarcho-syndicalism of private life.” And she has the revolutionary’s disdain for ameliorist measures. Addressing marital dissatisfaction through divorce and remarriage amounts, in her view, to a submission to cultural norms: serial monogamy, the approved cultural therapy for the failure of monogamy proper, is “liberal reformism writ familial”—the participants change, but the institution survives intact. Kipnis, who, unfortunately, feels the need to preface her book with the explanation that a polemic is inherently extremist and not to be taken entirely seriously, suggests that the structure of marriage might be rethought. “It’s generally understood that falling in love means committing to commitment,” she writes. “Different social norms could entail something entirely different: yearly renewable contracts, for example.”
Given the census data on divorce, Kipnis suggests, the reasonable thing to do would be to factor the likely demise of half of American marriages into policy decisions. Instead, the public has been subject to lectures on marital rectitude by politicians like Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, who have either transgressed their own nuptial vows or vowed marital fidelity successively to different women. Kipnis devotes much of her book to the way that adultery, in the nineteen-nineties, burst out of the private sphere and into the political, creating a new political style, which she describes as spousal: “Would you want to be married to this politician?” Bill Clinton was hardly the first adulterous United States President, but his transgressions, she suggests, occurred at a moment when the self-deception upon which the concept of monogamy is founded could no longer be sustained. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal provided an arena for the national ambivalence about marriage: “If there were a Starr Report on every American marriage, the institution would instantly crumble, never to recover.”
Kipnis is disappointed in Clinton for failing to embrace his inner adulterer and for capitulating to the ruling marital order with his denials, apologies, and efforts to patch things up with his wife, now Senator Clinton. (Yes, he would want to be married to thispolitician.) A better role model, she thinks, is Steven R. Johnson, the ranking Republican in the Indiana state senate. When he was found to have committed “inappropriate” relations with one of his interns, he admitted to the affair, expressed regret, was removed from his committee chairmanship, and was ultimately separated from his wife. In the midst of all that, he issued a public statement saying that, “in a very strange sense,” he had been given “an opportunity to start my life again.”
Kipnis considers this quickening newness to be adultery’s highest good: “It is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we’re not quite in the ground yet.” She is extremely funny on the allures of extramarital romance, describing the overdetermined encounter at the academic conference (“You slowly become aware of a muffled but not completely unfamiliar feeling stirring deep within, a distant rumbling getting louder and louder, like a herd of elephants massing on the bushveld. . . . Oh, God, it’s your libido, once a well-known freedom fighter, now a sorry, shriveled thing, from swaggering outlaw to model citizen, Janis Joplin to Barry Manilow in just a few short decades”) which leads to the secret phone calls, the elaborately concealed meetings, and the flushed exchanges. She’s gimlet-eyed about the myriad self-deceptions of adultery—the conviction that one’s lover has the powers of understanding of Socrates, the sexual technique of Casanova, and the capacity for sympathy of Mother Teresa—and about the arrangement’s narcissistic rewards. “What really keeps you glued to the phone till all hours of the night—conversations sparkling with soulfulness and depth you hadn’t known you possessed, exchanging those searching whispered intimacies—is a very different new love-object: yourself. The new beloved mirrors this fascinating new self back to you, and admit it, you’re madly in love with both of them.” Though Kipnis is aware that adultery has its own contradictions (it couldn’t exist without marriage, for starters), she is won over by what it offers: a rekindling of sexual desire.
Indeed, for someone with such a skeptical eye for the supposed eternal verities, Kipnis gives lust a free ride. “We’re inherently desiring creatures,” she says. “And sometimes desire just won’t take no for an answer.” For all her insistence on the historical specificity of our notions of romantic love, Kipnis treats the kind of sexual desire that surfaces during academic conferences as if it were transhistorical and transcultural, rather than being conditional upon the ready availability of a range of alternative partners and effective contraception, both of which are historical novelties, particularly for women. Kipnis is at her most incisive when writing about what she considers to be the desire-free zone of a long-term marriage. “Embarrassing, isn’t it, how long you can go without it, if you don’t remember to have it, and how much more inviting a good night’s sleep can seem compared to those over-rehearsed acts,” she writes. “Even though it used to be pretty good—if memory serves—before there was all that sarcasm. Or disappointment. Or children. Or history.”
“Against Love” invariably depicts the diminishing of sexual desire as a loss, and although it is a taboo of contemporary culture to admit to feeling otherwise, this was not always the case: it isn’t hard to see why women exhausted by years of dangerous childbearing might happily have greeted the ebbing of sexual desire, particularly that of their partner. Kipnis does pay lip service to the functions of marriage beyond the sexual—“Companionship, shared housing costs, childrearing convenience, reassuring predictability, occasional sex, insurance against the destabilizing effects of non-domestic desire”—but her enumeration seems delivered in the spirit of those legally required disclosures of pharmaceutical side effects. Unfettered sexual desire, for her, trumps all other inclinations. That view, as it happens, puts her in the company of the conservative churchmen against whom Milton railed in his divorce tract, since just about the only ground on which a divorce could be granted in the mid-seventeenth century was that of adultery. To Milton, this amounted to a sacrilegious reduction of marriage to nothing but a venue for sexual relations: “What is this but secretly to instruct us, that however many grave reasons are pretended to the married life, yet that nothing indeed is thought worth regard therein but the prescribed satisfaction of an irrational heat?” Kipnis’s celebration of this irrational heat leaves no room for the notion that the first achings of desire might evolve within marriage into less thermal satisfactions.
“Falling in love is the nearest most of us come to glimpsing utopia in our lifetimes (with sex and drugs as fallbacks),” she writes. But what if utopia was not merely glimpsed in the heady, vanishing moment of falling in love but was actually the project of enduring love? What if the expression of that love was the ongoing construction of a better world in domestic microcosm—of Milton’s meet and happy conversation? Rather than seeing each individual marriage as a cog in a tyrannical industrial machine that manufactures large-scale social docility, we might re-reread Marx to come up with an alternative understanding of how the language of work might relate to the language of love. Perhaps love isn’t necessarily the alienated labor of the factory floor. Perhaps it can be the kind of work that Marx argued was displaced by the inhuman character of industrialization: the meaningful, satisfying work of the farmer or the artisan who remained organically connected to the fruits of his labor, and who was ennobled by this effort. Conducted with imagination, the labor of this love might be so gratifying as to be indistinguishable from play.
Posted on Sun, Aug. 31, 2003
Defending adultery as popular uprising against mind control
By Laura Kipnis
Pantheon. 207 pp.
With all the uproar lately about removing the Ten Commandments from privileged state forums, Chicago-based media scholar Laura Kipnis deserves credit for singlemindedness.
She aims her weaponry at just one: "Thou shall not commit adultery." Instead of trying to lug it out of the lobby of American sexual behavior, she machine-guns it for 200 pages. By the time she finishes Against Love, her wonderfully clever, deliciously written "polemic" in favor of adultery as "the nearest thing to a popular uprising against the regimes of contemporary coupledom," the Commandment is Swiss cheese. As for the putative sin in question, it becomes (take your pick) revolutionary theater, liberation sexual theology, Maslow-driven peak experience, or antiauthoritarian protest.
A kind of younger, more libidinal Susan Sontag whose books and sentences combine Freud or Heidegger with down-to-earth jabs about faked orgasms or nose-hair etiquette, Kipnis blends journalistic pizazz and philosophical nerve (though in a freewheeling style that sometimes leaves it to the reader to place premises, inferences and conclusions in logical order). As she did in Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender and Aesthetics (1993) and Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy (1999), Kipnis, a video artist and professor of radio/ TV/film at Northwestern University, explores links between politics, sex, art, media and work, faulting us for mainstream ideas that ignore romance's political dimensions.
Although "Love" gets title billing, Kipnis' real target is marriage, which she considers an antiquated, falsely sanctified institution that clashes with our desires, interests and even metabolism, yet escapes criticism. While "the rebellion of desire against social constrictions was once a favorite cultural theme," she notes, today we seem to lack reformist instincts about matrimony. In the mid-19th century, she writes, "marriage was perceived as an inherently shaky institution."
Plenty of thinkers then, Kipnis recalls, explored "conjugal reform... . Demands to abolish marriage and institute free love were reigning topics of public debate, promoted by assorted freethinkers, socialists and transcendentalists... ." She cites marriage reformer Paul Brown's caustic 1830s observation on eternal marital fidelity: "Now if any person were to make so rash a bargain about any other sort of transaction, our laws would rate him non compos mentis and from thence make the obligation void."
According to Kipnis, "toxic levels of everyday dissatisfaction, boredom, unhappiness and not-enoughness are the functional norms in millions of lives and marriages." In a 1999 Rutgers University study, only 38 percent of married Americans who participated described themselves as actually happy, and she says a 50 percent divorce rate "is now established as a permanent feature of the socio-personal landscape." To Kipnis, "a 'happy' state of monogamy would be defined as a state you don't have to work at maintaining. After all, doesn't the demand for fidelity beyond the duration of desire feel like work?" She tartly adds later that "no one works at adultery, do they?"
Yet scholars argue that marriage began as a private agreement and "economic institution" between individuals and families, with the Church and the state imposing their authority (as through licenses) only later to advance their own interests. Some historians contend that love marriages began with the rise of the bourgeoisie, and view romantic love as "a learned behavior that became fashionable only in the late eighteenth century." Why, then, Kipnis asks, should the constraints of marriage go unchallenged when "all evidence" denies, in her judgment, that "love and sex are obtainable from one person over the course of decades, and that desire will manage to sustain itself over thirty or forty or fifty years of cohabitation"?
Why not, she suggests, "yearly renewable contracts"? Why must love mean "committing to commitment"? Why must it commit us to merging?
The traditional answer, for Kipnis, is political. Marriage is one way for the state to control citizens and their property. With Freud, she grants that some "basic repression is necessary for any civilization to survive." Yet any number of alternate ways for couples to interact, she believes, would provide equal civic stability. Compulsory monogamy, she maintains, is "not a desire, but an enforced compliance system."
"Has any despot's rule," Kipnis wonders in regard to monogamous marriage, "ever so successfully infiltrated every crevice of a population's being, into its movements and gestures... . What a feat of social engineering to shoehorn an entire citizenry (minus the occasional straggler) into such uniform household arrangements." Society enforces it, Kipnis writes, by classifying desires for romantic freedom as "pathologies," such as the "inability to settle down" or "immaturity," even though "most of us eventually pledge ourselves to unions that will, if successful, far outlast the desire that impelled them." Marriage's effect on love is simply to "maximize submission and minimize freedom."
Heard enough? Kipnis isn't finished. Marriage is thus a failed institution, a "form in decline," its enemy "ineradicable" desire, which makes "you feel what you'd forgotten how to feel, which is alive." For Kipnis, it "becomes hard to refute the idea that something's missing, something that adultery in its fumbling way attempts to palliate." Adultery is therefore not a sin - it's a solution, "a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we're not in the ground quite yet, especially when feeling a little dead inside."
"Adultery," she asserts, "is to love-by-the-rules what the test tube is to science: a container for experiments. It's a way to have a hypothesis, to be improvisational." She further describes it as "a de facto referendum on the sustainability of monogamy," "one way of protesting the confines of coupled life."
Kipnis takes her argument one step further. She believes adulterous rebellion against marriage might lead to "breakouts" against other ossified political institutions. As she puts it: "If other vows were up for examination, if social contracts could be renegotiated, what other areas of dissatisfaction would be next on the list?" For her, "domestic coupledom is the boot camp for compliant citizenship."
The oddity throughout this full-frontal attack is Kipnis' rapturous descriptions of the excitement of adulterous love, which sound every bit as over-the-top as the conventional love stories Kipnis derides. (If the author herself didn't engage in an explosive affair that ripped up her established relationship, well, she's got great sources.) On she goes about how connected one feels. How reinvented. How fascinating. The italics are hers.
And she concedes that "love is the nearest most of us come to glimpsing utopia in our lifetimes." It becomes plain that Kipnis doesn't deny visceral love so much as pseudo-love, kept alive by the artificial respiration of marital norms. Against Love would be more accurately titled Against Settling - marrying anyone not absolutely corroborated (by romantic DNA?) as your eternal, ever-desirable soulmate. Kipnis, though, sometimes comes across as skeptical that lasting love and desire ever happens, remarking that "second, third, or fourth marriages don't necessarily revamp the couple form; usually they just serialize it." That flies in the face of a truth Kipnis willfully (as polemicist) ignores: However rare it may be, two people sometimes really find each other magically compatible and love each other passionately and forever.
Whether you agree or not, Kipnis' crackling colloquial style keeps Against Love rollicking forward, often hilariously. She labels the "mature love" that's "supposed to kick in when desire flags" as a "denture adhesive." Her reply to the question, "What can't you do because you're in a couple?" stretches for eight flinty pages of stream-of-consciousness sentences on the order of, "You can't leave the house without saying where you're going... . You can't go to parties alone." And Against Love offers strong critical insights as well.
Kipnis rightly wonders why we applaud transgression in artists, but not in lovers. She jokes about the sudden enthusiasm of homosexuals for marriage just as heterosexuals are "bailing out of matrimony in droves," comparing the homosexually betrothed to "a new wave of civic-minded immigrants, eager to move in and spruce up abandoned neighborhoods." But she adds an incisive point: She'd rather see everyone fight "to uncouple resource distribution from marital status," opposing a U.S. legal system that, she reports, still confers more than a thousand federal benefits on married individuals that it denies to singles.
It's hard to imagine even the fiercest champion of wedded bliss not enjoying the provocations of this book, at least on Millean grounds that sharp criticism, ably countered, fortifies one's beliefs. Give Kipnis a (somewhat scarlet) letter "A" for "Audacious" as she marches - with or without significant other - to her different drummer.
What's love got to do with it?
The curse of couplehood
By Sharon Ullman, 9/14/2003
Against Love: A Polemic, By Laura Kipnis, Pantheon, 207 pp., $24
We watch fascinated as Kobe Bryant weeps during a televised confession of his "adultery," his grimly forbearing wife desperately stroking his hand. And apparently the only social crisis facing America is whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. Clearly, something about marriage (and its frailties) is afoot in the land. Into this peculiar mess comes Laura Kipnis's timely and entertaining cherry bomb of a book, "Against Love: A Polemic." Reading "Against Love" is like watching a great episode of "Sex and the City" -- only with Samantha narrating instead of that dreary moralist Carrie. (Translation for those without HBO: Imagine saying your nastiest thoughts about love and marriage, being funnier than you usually are, and feeling no guilt.)
Kipnis, a Northwestern University media studies professor, takes her polemic charge seriously. Noting that "even sacred cows find their butchers. Except for love," Kipnis defends her intentionally provocative assault by commenting that "modern love may be a company town . . . but are we such social marionettes that we automatically buy all usual stories, no questions asked?" From here, the author launches into a smart, witty, and withering offensive against both the titular object, love, and, more profoundly, its supposedly inevitable end (in all meanings of the word), marriage -- or permanent monogamous coupledom. (Kipnis does not discriminate; everyone who buys into the ideal is equally suspect.) According to Kipnis, adulterers are actually the sharpest social critics. Indeed, they are the revolutionary theorists propelling a reevaluation of this "domestic gulag," as Kipnis so sweetly calls it. Arguing that "domestic coupledom, modern love's mandatory barracks" is actually occupied under protest, she calls our attention to "those furtive breakaway factions periodically staging dangerous escape missions, scaling barbed-wire fences and tunneling for miles with sharpened spoons just to emancipate themselves -- even temporarily. . . . Yes, adulterers." Those who resist monogamous coupling are bringing down the Berlin Wall of a suffocating social institution that deadens the soul (and libido), whose social uses are suspect and whose overthrow is long overdue. If current statistics are right, should such clandestine fugitives turn out to be Kipnis's only buyers, she may still have a bestseller -- even if she sells books only in Washington, D.C.
Which is, of course, her point. We live in an age that wallows in romance and proclaims fealty to marriage above all else yet simultaneously manifests a national divorce rate above 50 percent and a public political culture rife with marital scandals. And, as she observes, the high divorce rate does not even address those who stay married but remain deeply miserable.
Focusing on themes such as "the work ethic," the connection between national politics and marital ideology, and everything you can't do when married, Kipnis dissects our schizophrenic relationship to coupledom in skillful chapters that playfully demand that the reader think seriously about long-held assumptions. For example, why do we accept the mantra that relationships have to be hard work? "Yes," Kipnis sniffs, "we all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we've been well tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy . . . Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock?" Kipnis does not believe that this metaphor is accidental. Because we are ensnared by a work ethic designed to keep a dissatisfied populace from rebelling, domestic coupledom, she argues, acts as the first line of defense to uphold both traditional capitalism and the emerging disruptive global economy.
Kipnis also sharply examines the current political obsession with marriage and its depiction as "the new disease of the week: everyone hunting for a miracle cure . . . Keep gays out. Keep heterosexuals in, with electrified fences, if necessary." The author echoes previous commentators in noting that "marriage has long provided a metaphor for fidelity to the nation." Consequently, "if contracts and commitments can be overturned merely on grounds of dissatisfaction . . . then what of governments? What happens when the romance fades and you start to see things more clearly?" Marriage here is the roach motel that maintains civic stability -- once you get into either, you can never really get out.
Happy couples seeking to dismiss Kipnis on the grounds that "she's wrong" miss the point; this is a polemic, after all. She's well aware of the ambivalence her subject produces, no less in herself than in her readers. A better criticism is that Kipnis is not actually noting anything new here. For all the historical evidence she presents to demonstrate that our romantic pretensions are relatively recent, it is also true that society's shift to romantic ideology and lifetime monogamy has been steadfastly accompanied by comparable earlier concerns and critiques. Those currently demanding a constitutional amendment defining marriage as something between a man and woman might check out the similar failed attempt to ban divorce through constitutional amendment in the early 20th century. And the contemporary witticisms attacking romance and marriage, so gleefully recounted throughout the book, can be matched (sometimes word for word) if you dip into the popular culture of almost any earlier period of modern western society.
Still, every generation needs its own commentary, and Kipnis provides a particularly smart and bracing one for ours. While professors are not supposed to write books just for fun, Kipnis comes dangerously close here. She obviously had a good time with this polemic; so will many readers.
Sharon Ullman is an associate professor of history at Bryn Mawr College and author of "Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America."
On the new book "The Female Thing", here
On "How to Become a Scandal", here