Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

Caged Songbird

Caged Songbird in Yuen Po Street Bird Garden


Against Love: A Polemic

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

And why has modern love developed in such a way as to maximize submission and minimize freedom, with so little argument about it? No doubt a citizenry schooled in renouncing desires – and whatever quantities of imagination and independence they come partnered with – would be, in many respects, advantageous: note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate. – Laura Kipnis

About a year ago I decided that perhaps I should educate myself about this ephemeral concept of romantic love. Not so difficult, as one of my favorite authors, bell hooks, writes extensively on the subject. But of course there was that one book that seemed so absurd I had to go for it. Against Love: A Polemic. Really, could Kipnis pull it off?? And if she managed to convince me of the idea that adulterers are in fact “freedom fighters” (as one review put it) what would that say about me? Well, fast forward a year – my little side project was interrupted by life (no, I wasn’t dedicated enough to lug these books to Hong Kong), but resumed a few months back. I finally resolved to sit down and check this one out.

I have to say that upon reading Against Love, Kipnis is an author who has earned my solid dedication. My reaction at page 10 was… “someone is trying way too hard to be edgy”….pg. 20…. “wow, these are some fascinating theories”…. pg. 30…. “what an incredible framework”…. pg. 40 “her way with snark!!! I LOVE IT!” … pg. 60, telling anyone in range that they HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

I may not always agree with Kipnis, to the point of having been infuriated more than a few times with The Female Thing: Dirt Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. At the same time I love her sharp perception, that snarky way of cutting to the quick and the widely ranged dabbling in political and psychological theory (Citing Marx, Weber, Freud and Wilhelm Reich among others here.). In Against Love Kipnis draws parallels between capitalism and love, establishing the framework of the “emotional economy”, to some extent implying that relational transgressions stand in for the political, which has become so passé in today’s climate. The quaint, patronizing manner that idealism and working for change are regarded with today is something she alludes to more than once.

According to Kipnis, love has been co-opted by the language and culture of the capitalist work place. A breezy critique of marriage is leveraged, mining theorists who put forth that “the only social purpose of compulsory marriage for life is to produce the submissive personality types that mass society requires.” Definitely something to research further. Ultimately, adulterers are regarded as the people who are bold enough to dream and try to realize emotional “utopia.” I strenuously disagree with this premise – what kind of utopia leaves some people out in the cold (ie, those hurt by infidelity)? Not one of my imagining, anyway – firmly putting me in the “moral trumping” category (as she puts it – though my own “righteous prig” is so much more colorful). If one were to really take this line of thinking a step further it seems that those who conduct (modern) polyamorous relationships are the ones trying to establish utopia, yet they don’t warrant mention. They are willing to face up to an entrenched system and openly say “this doesn’t work for me”, looking for a new solution and actively involving others in doing so.

But oh how appropriate, the honeymoon with Against Love didn’t QUITE last. The dazzling start waned for me as she segued into the point of the book: “the domestic gulag” and the question of infidelity. I was faintly amused as she shook the finger at those of us sitting there reading and thinking “I would never do this” with the none of these people thought so either, dearies (ok, so not quite verbatim). While I’m not at all interested in a critique of love that trumpets the virtue of adultery, I was disappointed at how the book completely fell apart and lost its focus by the end. It spiraled into an ever widening train wreck, from infidelity to a survey of the sex scandal drenched 90s of American politics, which doesn’t seem all that different from the last decade either (Or the past week, with the latest news of Weiner. Wiener indeed.) And while part of the point of this is to illustrate that in all the white knuckled determination of Americans to “preserve marriage” this is 1) utterly hypocritical and 2) all this relational transgression really does say something I think but oh my god my eyes have glazed, do we have to relive Bill Clinton and the oval office all over again?!

But all right, there really were some amazing threads of thought here which I loved despite the organizational train wreck. For instance, that it’s all a-okay to preach about keeping miserable marriages together for the children and enacting policy that promotes marriage as an exit out of poverty, however ill conceived these concepts may be. And yet when it comes to enacting policy that is serious about alleviating the impact of poverty or raising the quality of life of children, the United States ranks quite dismally.

And as this feminist looks askance and grits her teeth at the constant cultural pronouncements replete with evolutionary psychology that “prove” shaky conclusions, who can forgo such lines as these?!

Harkening back to some remote evolutionary past for social explanations does seem to be a smoke screen for other agendas, usually to tout the “naturalness” of capitalist greed or the “naturalness” of traditional gender roles. Man as killer ape; woman as nurturing turtledove, or name your own bestial ancestor as circumstance requires. (When sociobiologists start shitting in their backyards with dinner guests in the vicinity, maybe their arguments about innateness over culture will start seeming more persuasive.)

Or cutting, incisive lines like these:

Using love to escape love, groping for love outside the home to assuage the letdowns of love at home – it’s kind of like smoking and wearing a nicotine patch at the same time: two delivery systems for an addictive chemical substance that feels vitally necessary to your well-being at the moment, even if likely to wreak unknown havoc in the deepest fibers of your being at some unspecified future date.

Against Love introduced me to some incredible concepts concerning love and political economy and one I’m going to follow up on. As usual, Kipnis challenged me in certain ways, while in other ways the book just fell flat. So often I wish she’d take these cultural critiques and ask the deeper questions behind them but perhaps her aim is to set us on that path rather than do the digging for us. And hey, accuse me of doe-eyed naiveté but she didn’t convince me that love isn’t worth the work. If anything, it only strengthened my conviction. Don’t ask me how that happened. I’m still trying to puzzle it out myself.