the minnesota review n.s. 58-60 (2003)

Laura Kipnis with Jeffrey J. Williams

Style: An Interview with Laura Kipnis

A prominent cultural critic, Laura Kipnis has turned a lively eye on the politics of sex and love in a well-known essay on Hustler and in her current book Against Love: A Polemic. Kipnis began, as she tells here, as a videographer, producing Your Money or Your Life (1982), Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetration of Sex and Capital (1985), A Man's Woman (1988), and Marx: The Video (1990). Thereafter she has turned more to nonfiction, publishing Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics (U of Minnesota P, 1993), which includes essays on feminism and postmodernism as well as three videoscripts; Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Grove, 1996; Duke UP, 1999), which discusses the complex class relations of porn; and, as she focuses on here, Against Love (Pantheon, 2003), which stems from an essay, "Adultery," that appeared in Critical Inquiry 24 (1998). Kipnis has also published in mainstream as well as academic venues, including Harper's the Village Voice, The New York Times Magazine. Readers of minnesota review might recall her essay in 50-51, "Public Intellectuals Do It in Style." She currently teaches in Northwestern's Radio, Television, and Film department.

This interview took place on 9 May 2003 in New York City. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams and transcribed by Laura Rotunno, then managing editor of the minnesota review while a PhD student at University of Missouri, now a professor at Penn State-Altoona.

Williams: I just read the proofs of Against Love last week, and it's a tour de force. You write with a lot of brio. I can see how it's consistent with your earlier work, like Ecstasy Unlimited and Bound and Gagged, in that it takes up sexuality, domesticity, and politics, but in another way it's a departure especially in its style. How does it connect with your earlier work?

Kipnis: I realized after I wrote the "Adultery" essay for Critical Inquiry that one thread running through a lot of my work has involved redeeming culturally low things. I’m on some sort of cultural rescue mission, I guess. The inception of Bound and Gagged was an earlier essay on Hustler magazine, obviously the lowest of the low, culturally speaking. The adultery essay, which was the jumping off point for Against Love, also involved trying to think in a different way about another rather maligned category—"cheating"—to entertain the possibility that it might be something more than just bad behavior, to dignify something usually seen as undignified. Even my MFA thesis, back when I was a video artist, which was about mugging, involved redeeming a criminal figure, the mugger—or if not precisely redeeming, then thinking about muggers in political and economic terms, not so unlike "social bandits," a term that Eric Hobsbawm uses.

Williams: In Against Love, you're saying that a problem with marriage is that it isn't quite as good as it's represented to be—as one of your chapters puts it, that we live in domestic gulags. I can see how, in the age of "family values," it might be taken as an anti-marriage tract, against family values and for a kind of liberation.

Kipnis: I'm squinting at the "for liberation" because I worry about falling into those simplistic binaries, transgression and liberation versus repression. I'd like it to be more complicated than that. I don't think it is simply a pro-transgression argument. My work has never really been that invested in some simple notion of sexual liberation. Even the pornography book wasn't simply pro-pornography, or not in the sense that pornography is the path to some kind of sexual liberation. I've never been a sexual liberationist, even though I guess I've written a lot about sex.

Williams: It seems to me that your work is contrarian, in a good sense, insofar as you take standard positions, like the anti-pornography position, and turn them around, showing how there is something else going on, for instance with Hustler that the critical reaction stems from class disdain as much as feminist politics. It's a similar move in this book, especially in the last chapter, where you look at the way that adultery might be an allegory for our public sphere. It's a bad time for the public sphere.

Kipnis: One of the things that does get said about adultery is that it's not actually against marriage, it sustains marriage. It started because Lauren Berlant was putting together a special issue on "intimacy" for Critical Inquiry, and she asked me if I wanted to write something. I said, kind of as a joke—because we had just been having a conversation about somebody whom we both knew who had been "caught" for the third time "straying"-"well, maybe I'll write something about adultery." And she said, "great." So I started thinking about what would be an interesting way to approach the question—I had no idea what I would write. I started from the felt experience of being split, being committed to a long-term couple while also seeking these other sustaining and vitalizing things on the side. I wanted to avoid the usual moral condemnations—because really what's so criminal about seeking vitality, especially when it's missing from elsewhere in your life? What's immoral about wanting more? Or does conventional sexual morality require deadness from us, or require trading vitality for stability? And why would that be: well, obviously there are certain social benefits to enforcing various kinds of stagnation and complacency, sexual and otherwise, in the citizenry. But as I said, it was a similar move to what I've tried to do with other dissident objects like Hustler, to complicate them by asking different questions than the ones usually asked. For instance with Hustler, what are the class issues? what are the aesthetic issues? how does it relate to the laws of culture? what kinds of bargains and trade-offs are part of the social positions that we occupy, or are obliged to occupy?

Williams: In the last chapter you talk about Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal. How does marriage play out in politics and the public sphere?

Kipnis: The big question of the book is, Why does "normal life" require all these supplements to sustain it? The point about Clinton, I think, is that it wasn't really adultery that got him in so much trouble, it was exposing the necessity for supplements, by risking so much for so little. I make this admittedly somewhat out-on-a-limb argument that manages to incorporate the social division of labor into the adultery situation—once a Marxist always a Marxist!—the point being that the necessity for supplements, the necessity for compensatory forms of satisfaction, is an index to the degree of alienation present. It's a revamped commodity fetishism argument, and to paraphrase Gramsci, this is not confined to the labor system alone, it's an emotional system too. I'm trying to analyze the ways that conditions of labor extend to, or provide the template for, emotional life.

Williams: I was going to ask about your relation to Marxism...

Kipnis: Whatever that means now...

Williams: Ok, you're affiliated with Marxists. We first met, I think back in 94 or 95, at MLG. You're also a feminist, but, as you mentioned at lunch, the pornography book put you on uncertain terms with feminism. So how would you align what you do?

Kipnis: I almost forgot, MLG in Pittsburgh. I don't know what my relation to Marxism is these days. All I can say is that my thinking has been significantly influenced by encounters with a particular kind of western Marxism, a lot of it via Fred Jameson's work, who was always a huge influence on me. I was actually introduced to feminism through Marxism. But to go back farther, I actually first encountered Marxism at art school. I had a lot of teachers who were Marxists, so my intellectual formation has been kind of screwy.

As far as my feminism goes, I should say that the new book is written from an ungendered position, but I don't think it's so much post-feminist as it's saying that, in regard to love and couples, gender positions aren't predictable or stable. I do think there are different kinds of mobility in gender available now as result of feminism and other kinds of social transformations. So, in the same way that I'm not sure what it means to be a Marxist now, I definitely don't know what it means to be a feminist now.

Williams: One thing that struck me about Against Love is that you adopt a distinct persona. Your writing, in your other books as well as Against Love, is certainly more lively than most academic writing.

Kipnis: That wouldn't be difficult!

Williams: In the "Art of Love" chapter, when you're talking about adultery, you say, "Note that this is a time for extreme caution," and you have "extreme caution" in italics. It's almost a campy advice tone, or parody of that tone. Or in the chapter on "Domestic Gulags," you have ten pages of questions—"You can't watch soap operas without getting made fun of. You can't watch infomercials, game shows," and they're sort of a cascade. They're very funny, but ...

Kipnis: Oh, the things you can't do in a couple? They're interdictions, not questions. They're funny, I hope, and then relentless in the end—"Shut up already," I'm sure the reader is thinking. But your question was about persona. Yes, there's a performance aspect to the writing—the voice isn't precisely "me," it's some far more vivacious and playful version of me. It's a polemic, so there are certain questions I don't have to address, or complications I don't have to go into. I can be completely irresponsible. I love it.

Williams: This book seems a conscious move away from normal academic domains, stylistically and audience-wise (it's coming out with a trade press, Pantheon, instead of a university press). What led you to this?

Kipnis: Well, it's an interesting question for me personally. I think that I would say that something's happened to my relation to writing recently, which is moving more into a condition of unconsciousness about it, or lately being more interested in creativity than theory. I trace it back to my art school origins. I started as a painter, actually, and there's something about the writing I've been doing lately which has gotten really intricate and worked over, that reminds me of my origins as a painter. I've started to write in a painterly way, dabbing at it, endless revising. But there's another aspect, something about the performance of voice that also has a degree of the unconsciousness about it, a form of play, I'd like to think.

Also, I think I was trying to recapture something of the experience of being in love, and writing from the psychical or libidinal position of, for example, somebody writing love letters, trying to capture the complicated act that writing is in that kind of moment. You know, where you're trying to entice and seduce somebody and win their love or keep their love, or when you know somebody's way in love with you and you're feeling incredibly charming and sexy. I was trying to reproduce that experience in the writing. So when you ask if this was a conscious move, actually there was something about this particular book that always felt less than fully conscious to me—the mythos of the contemporary artist, which any of us with art school educations are deeply formed by, means the artistic self and the Freudian unconscious live in the same place.

Williams: You went to art school in the late 70s—that was as an undergrad? I know I was forbidden to talk about personal details, which I was hoping to sell to the Enquirer, but these are historical facts, part of the cv, and I'm fascinated, as you know, by intellectual formation and how we come to do what we're doing.

Kipnis: Uh-huh. I went to the San Francisco Art Institute as an undergrad, in the late 70s.

Williams: Why did you end up going all the way to San Francisco; you're a Chicagoan, no?

Kipnis: Well, good question. Maybe because it's as far from Chicago as you can get, but also it was one of the "important" art schools at the time. I went there as a figurative painter, and within the first few weeks I was in San Francisco I heard that painting was dead, and I started getting interested in other kinds of art, which culminated in taking up video when I got to grad school.

Williams: I'm probably starting to sound old and crotchety, but I went to college in the late 70s too, and it was a more politically vibrant time, whereas now it seems politically impoverished.

Kipnis: Yes, and especially in San Francisco in the 70s. It was the early days of punk, and the San Francisco Art Institute was a great place to be. They basically just plunked you down and said, "Ok you're an artist, now make art." It was all studio courses, you just made art, then talked about it with the professors—no formal instruction. San Francisco, at the time, was really cheap and safe. Also, this was before AIDS, so it was an era—that five-minute period—of sexual liberation. It was a really formative period for me, an experience of a kind of freedom and artistic possibility and community.

Williams: You had come from a Chicago suburban background?

Kipnis: No. I grew up in the city. I should go back one more year, before art school, if you want the full story. I had dropped out of high school and gone to college for a year in the city, then I dropped out of college and worked as a cab driver for a year.

Williams: You were a cab driver in Chicago when you were eighteen?

Kipnis: Yes! I drove a cab for about six months, and I waitressed for six months, so no I didn't leave some protected suburban enclave to go to San Francisco. In fact, I still don't have a high school diploma. I was supposed to get my GED, but I overslept that morning. Don't tell my employer, please.

Williams: How much is it worth to you?

Kipnis: And I also don't have a PhD, another gap in my credentials, which does actually hurt you if you want mobility in the academic world.

Williams: So you were going to be a figurative painter but then moved into video?

Kipnis: Well, more into conceptual art and installation type pieces. Portable video had only recently come into existence, so people were beginning to shoot on portapaks, which were separate camera and deck units. Actually I didn't start doing video until I was in grad school. Then after San Francisco, I was in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York for a year. In fact, do you want a telling little anecdote?

Williams: Of course.

Kipnis: When I was at SFAI they often had visiting artists come through and you could sign up for critiques with them. And so—maybe this is also a story about the way the basic elements of my work have never really changed, they were there from the start—I had done this pretty weird slide and audio tape performance piece that had to do with. . . oh my gosh, now that I think about it, it was called "A Brief Encounter," which I also quote from in Against Love. It involved hiring a bum—this was before the term "homeless" existed—from Mission Street to come back to my apartment and dress up in my clothes, and I had someone there shooting slides. There was an audio track in the final piece that talked about romantic encounters, or sort of mocked the language of romance and merging. Yvonne Rainer, the dancer-filmmaker, was there as a visiting artist, and I showed her the piece. She was completely outraged by it, she lectured me about how morally reprehensible it was. She thought I'd exploited the bum; I kept saying "But I paid him!" But then she made a phone call and got me into the Whitney Program, which is this sort of artworld finishing school, very prestigious and hard to get into. She was one of the instructors for it. I guess she thought I could be reformed.

When I look back over my art school years, I think I got good training, but it was on a sort of ad hoc basis: someone picked me out to try to reform me or saw something in my work and told me what it was, and that's how I learned what I was doing. Or to the extent that I know.

Williams: Sometimes they seem accidental, but they are also a function of the institution, in Bourdieu's sense that we are picked because we reproduce the terms of the institution.

Kipnis: No, I don't think it's accidental. But I don't agree that reproducing the institution entirely accounts for what happens either. I guess I think work gets selected that's in a dialogue with the work that preceded it in some interesting way, and if we're talking about the art world or academia that does take a certain ability.

Williams: But that's the basic argument against people on welfare, that they haven't demonstrated ability and get what they deserve.

Kipnis: This gets complicated. We have had this disagreement in the past, haven't we, about questions of merit in academic success. I guess I think merit is a confluence of things, but not everyone does have ability as a writer or a scholar, however ability is assessed. That's a whole other discussion.

Williams: So you were at San Francisco Institute of Art, and then went to the Whitney. Just to keep the timeline in my head, this was about 1980?

Kipnis: 78 to 79.

Williams: And then you went to grad school where?

Kipnis: Nova Scotia College of Art.

Williams: Where you got an MFA?

Kipnis: Yes.

Williams: So you don't have a PhD, but where did you become versed in theory?

Kipnis: I'm completely self-educated in theory. I basically have had no formal education at all.

Williams: When did you conceive of yourself as a video filmmaker? At Nova Scotia?

Kipnis: I first started shooting video at Nova Scotia. I didn't have a plan and I didn't really conceive of myself in terms of medium—I became a video artist because I was working in video. It's one of the reasons I ended up moving out of video and into writing, because the medium question was never the crucial question for me. I was only ever interested in it just as a vehicle of expression. When I was doing slide and audiotape pieces, it was the most convenient technology available. Video just put them together in one format. What I was doing got called video essays, a term I heard after I started making them, and then I started to get asked to write essays about the videos. But it was always the ideas that interested me, not the medium.

Williams: You have several of the videoscripts in Ecstasy Unlimited, like Marx: The Video. As I mentioned before, it touches on some of the same things that Against Love does. It seems a little more programmatic ...

Kipnis: My juvenilia...

Williams: But you were dealing with Marxism, and you mentioned Jameson before. What are some of things that influenced you?

Kipnis: Well, to complete the education, such as it was, right after I got my MFA, I ended up at one of the first MLG summer institutes, where I first encountered Fred and his work. He was just starting to circulate early versions of his postmodernism essays, and I think The Political Unconscious had just come out. Encountering Fred's work put a lot of things together for me. There was the logic of the symptom as a method, first of all, but it was also something about the way Fred makes these large moves between different spheres and puts them into homology or analogy with one another. You don't get from Fred's work much about personal life or the sexual or gender issues particularly, but you do get some way of thinking about the relations between the personal and the political via the mediation of the culture, so that was really transitional and formative for me. It also gave me a certain way of thinking differently about sex and gender. But, I think the big lesson I learned from Fred was something about taking speculative leaps, vast leaps without a net. He does it much more elegantly, of course!

Williams: So, to continue the timeline, you went to the Whitney and then?

Kipnis: My first entrée into academia was getting a fellowship at University of Michigan; I was in the Michigan Society Fellow for three years. I was a video artist, but I had also just published my first essay, which was in the High Theory/Low Culture volume that Colin MacCabe edited. He had seen a videotape of mine, at the MLG, I think. Or maybe he saw it later, but in any case he asked me to write an essay about the work I was doing in video. These were the early days of popular culture studies, around 1984. I was someone considered "interdisciplinary," since I was both writing and producing video art, which was something they were interested in supporting in the Society of Fellows, and which led to getting my first tenure track job at University of Wisconsin, Madison, in Communication Arts, which had a couple of big guns on the faculty—David Bordwell and John Fiske—fighting the film versus TV battle, and formalism versus cultural studies, which luckily I managed to stay out of.

Williams: And then you moved to Northwestern?

Kipnis: Yes, in 91 I went to Northwestern, in Radio/Film/Television.

Williams: And you're at NYU this year?

Kipnis: I taught there this last year, and also for a semester a couple years ago, in Performance Studies. I don't really have an actual discipline anymore. I’ve tended to follow themes more than disciplinary issues; there are through-lines in my work, but the medium has changed. I haven't done a videotape since 1990 and I'm not really that interested in shooting video anymore, and what I'm writing doesn't particularly fall into any discipline. I suppose it would be categorized as American Studies or cultural studies and its aftermath, but those aren't disciplines.

Williams: Its aftermath?

Kipnis: You pounced on that! Well, aren't we already post-cultural studies? I haven't really thought about it exactly because I'm not so invested in disciplinary questions, though I would be happy if there were a discipline that would want me. Even in performance studies, where I was teaching this year, I'm anomalous. I suppose the work I'm doing now combines performance studies with cultural studies, as it’s social performance that interests me; the love book and the next book I'm doing on scandal are both about how people negotiate through culture and perform roles within it.

Williams: That brings me back to the style question. When we were talking earlier you were saying that you wanted to do a kind of creative nonfiction in critical writing. I can see how that ties to the same motivation that took you to art school, not to write an academic book but one that makes people experience the uncertainty and excitement of falling in love, as well as the difficulty of actually being domesticated.

Kipnis: Here's what I could say about that, and this returns to the art school experience once more: I'm very interested in experimentality and experimentation, at two or three different levels. One of the arguments I made about adultery is that it's a way people try to have experimentality in the midst of ordinary, normal life, meaning I'm kind of re-locating the avant-garde from an autonomous realm of high culture into the sphere of everyday life, finding these pockets of experimentality in everyday life. So that's one part of the argument.

Williams: You suggest it's a political or utopian impetus that people have, but the underside of that is it's entirely individual.

Kipnis: Right, but we then don't have a lot of other choices of how to reorganize personal or social life these days, do we? There aren't big social movements. Let me just say a couple of other things. There's the issue of experimentation at the level of argument, but additionally I was trying to produce a style—this was the conscious aspect of the writing—that would enact that kind of experimentality at the level of the text and in the writing. So there are places where the writing is very controlled and then there are places where it spins out of control into these quasi-poetic reveries.

I also think of it as an experiment in how to do social theory these days—finding a language that was more expressive and experimental, but that also engaged with social or cultural theory. So maybe I would call whatever discipline or field I'm in experimental social theory. The serious part of this book is that it's trying to revive a tradition of radical social theory that's in decline, unfortunately. A chunk of the book reprises Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, particularly the first chapter. It's sort of a mélange of Frankfurt School, Jameson, and a dash of Foucault.

Williams: How does what you do relate to other work now? I mean, there have been a lot of people writing memoirs, but I think you would probably want to distance yourself from this.

Kipnis: Absolutely, down with memoir!

Williams: Do you see your work as fitting with a general trend or movement in criticism? There does seem to be a movement pushing away from what was high theory—its aftermath, as you put it.

Kipnis: Well, it's funny: one of the recent things I've written was an essay for a volume Michael Bérubé edited on Cultural Studies and Aesthetics; it's a kind of screed against the academic memoir called "The Cringe Factor," about the terrible writing getting produced under the rubric of "memoir" by academics. I'm just not much interested in first-person writing, at least for myself. What does interest me is the aesthetics of writing, but in modes that transform personal experience into some other kind of form or language. What doesn't capture my interest about most first-person writing is the untransformed quality of it, which I think ends up producing flat prose. I think of personal experience as raw material for something else to occur, to undergo some process of aesthetic transformation—and it's the transformation that's interesting, not the experience itself. The transformation is what produces style. This book does feel like a very personal book to me, and I mean less the content, but the style, something about the reworking that it involves. I don't know if that makes sense.

Williams: It does. One question that people are probably going to ask is whether it's autobiographical, meaning that you were burnt by marriage or are fixed on sex.

Kipnis: I think it would be more true to say I write about discourses of sex, more than sex itself. It was one of the complaints about my porn book—there wasn't enough sex in it! And no, actually I haven't been burned by marriage.

Williams: I know you don't like talking about personal things. Why not?

Kipnis: Well, going back to what I said, I think of it as raw material. I had a teacher in art school who said something critical about the kind of work that leaves the bay leaves in. (This could apply to work that's overly citational too.) It's like when you make a stew: you're supposed to take the bay leaves out. I think the personal is the impetus, the raw material for something else. Just to tell everybody your personal story, there's just something incredibly limited in that. I'm interested in a wider canvas. There are exceptions—Michael's book [Life as We Know It] is an exception, I think Carolyn Steedman's book Landscape for a Good Woman is an exception—but memoirs mostly tell a narrower story than I want to tell. Also they’re invariably so steeped in narcissism! Telling your personal story can't help but be self-congratulatory, there's a degree of falseness because you're trying to put the best face on something, even when you're doing it under the banner of honesty or self-critique. So the invariable falseness and narcissistic preening seem like not great attributes to me. That's one reason not to go on about your personal life.

But as far as the personal dimension of the love book, the book is written from a lot of different positions. It shifts points of view, so I think there's no one story or one position.

Williams: What you were saying about bay leaves sounds almost like T. S. Eliot's modernist aesthetic, where he says that the writer is a catalyst, who effaces his or her personality.

Kipnis: Oh no, I feel that every moment in the book reflects my personality entirely, but not necessarily in ways that are reducible to some autobiographical fact. One of the things that I worry about with the book is that people will want to reduce it to autobiography, not just because it's the genre in dominance these days, but also because that’s a convenient way of avoiding the political argument.

One of the responses to Bound and Gagged that pleased me was being told that I write about sex differently than most people do, because it's not personal. It's not about my life in some direct fashion, though no doubt it is in more indirect ways—I mean in fact I'm very ambivalent about pornography and I think I was trying to work that out in the book. In Against Love, I think autobiography is embedded at the level of style, in the humor and in the intellectual style, and the way points are made, in the kinds of analogies I tend to use. I guess what I'm saying is that it's autobiographical at the level of form. That's where personal expression interests me, not boring people with my sad life story. Obviously I have a complicated relation to love—though who doesn't?—and the book comes out of that also, but it's what energizes the style.

Williams: That leads me to a question about psychoanalysis. In Against Love, it seems like you have it both ways: you sometimes parody psychoanalysis and you're quite harsh, and funny, about therapy culture. But on the flip side, you use psychoanalytic categories and psychoanalysis has obviously been important to your thinking.

Kipnis: Well, I do think that Freud is god. But also The Political Unconscious has been a big source for my work, as a radical way of tying psychoanalytic methodology to political critique. I'm definitely critical of therapy culture, although how can any of us not be participants in it these days? But it’s also an issue of normativity. I think I use the term "remedial socialization" at one point about psychotherapy; it's indispensable but it's also clearly one way social conformativity gets disseminated.

Williams: One way to see Against Love is that the model of marriage or coupledom that you're assuming is a bourgeois model, the psychoanalytic mommy-daddy-me of those who might go to a therapist. You do a sort of avant-gardist or modernist critique of it, but working-class people might experience marriage and coupledom differently. I can picture the book getting a big reception among people who are in the professional-middle class, who are more likely to know something about psychoanalysis or go to a therapist.

Kipnis: There are two issues. One is that I don't think there's any particular model of coupledom or love to hold out as an alternative. So the argument is that adultery becomes a default structure critique. Adultery occupies a structural position of protest in relation to dominant forms of coupledom and marriage, which is structurally equivalent to the relation of the avant-garde to dominant mainstream institutions. Or that's how I set up the argument.

As far as the class issue, it's true that the model is mainstream norms and middle class coupledom, but who doesn't that apply to? You asked if this applies to a working-class marriage? But if the premise of modern coupledom is embodied in the phrase "good relationships take work" or "good marriages take work," if the work ethic now applies to relationships too, basically it applies to anybody in employment, to anybody participating in work culture. To the extent that there is a permanent underclass, a non-working population, I'd be hesitant to extend the argument there.

As far as making class differentiations, it's a kind of given in academic culture now that you don't make sweeping universal statements, that we're all supposed to carefully differentiate by class, race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. I'm doing something rather different in this book, which is making generalizations, and yes, I do make pretty sweeping arguments. I'm sure that’s going to be criticized, but at the same time I'm arguing that there can be a value to being able to generalize that gets lost in our propensity to make ever more subtle distinctions. Let's remember that something like 98% of American homes have television. There is a mainstream culture that we all participate in; it’s not like therapeutic culture doesn't penetrate all class strata. People may navigate their ways through mainstream culture differently, but everybody's getting the same message. Everybody's watching Oprah, everybody's watching soaps and domestic sit-coms, so the same norms and messages about what it is to be a proper human are being disseminated to all of us, whatever subcultures we inhabit. I might be making more generalizations than some academics are comfortable with, but at the same time let's not ignore the sheer pervasiveness of these homogenizing norms in our zeal to celebrate differences.

Williams: I see what you mean. Still, insofar as adultery becomes a kind of liberatory force or political feeling, isn't it a kind of bourgeois luxury? It becomes another consumable entity, like Nike's, that make us feel free.

Kipnis: I don't say "liberatory"; I say "experimental." Maybe it feels rebellious, which is a different thing than political. It's an instance of desire taking pathways that are not the one prescribed by normal institutions like marriage; and desire expressed outside of those institutions is seen to pose a social threat. Listen, it's not me saying this. It’s the Right! Look how much hysteria and anxiety non-sanctioned sex causes on the Right! That's politically interesting, isn't it?

Williams: Do you think that—and this is the Today show question—marriage as an institution should end?

Kipnis: According to the last census, it's on shaky ground. But I'm not endorsing any answer or solution. It's not an advice book; I'm not telling people how they should lead their lives. I'm trying to ask a different set of questions. Why is it that normal coupledom has gotten so invested in restrictions and rule-making and interdictions and mutual policing? Foucault was very useful in trying to think about coupledom as a disciplinary regime—marriage as a modern form of enclosure. Given the ways in which, as we all know, falling in love has such a utopian aspect to it, how is it that the work ethic, and the language of the factory, has become the predominant way of talking about love? Adultery, for all its problems and contradictions (and I'm really not some kind of enthusiast about adultery), has certain impulses in it that are interesting to think about, instead of just dismissing as bad behavior—the impulse toward experimentality, toward a non-productivist, non-work ethic way of experiencing love.

Williams: To close, I wanted to ask about your new book, which I was surprised to hear is already half-done. What it's on?

Kipnis: It's about scandal. It's called Scandalous Americans, and it's modeled on Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.

Williams: Great title.

Kipnis: Oh, thanks. It looks at four cases of scandal from the 90s. It also sort of takes off from the last chapter of Against Love, which is about the political adultery scandals of the 90s. I'm interested in the ways people use the public sphere to act out very personal issues, to dramatize social contradictions, often in ways that end up using the nation itself as a key element in the scandal. And which at times end up having an effect on the political process itself.

Williams: What are some of the cases?

Kipnis: One of the chapters is an expansion of an essay I published on Linda Tripp. She's a great example of somebody who does this rather horrifying thing for strange, inexplicable reasons—taping her girlfriend—and does it in a national, public context, which ends up having an enormous effect on the political process, on national history. One of the other cases is about Judge Sol Wachtler, who used the judicial system to organize a complicated scenario of self-punishment, by staging this bizarre stalking episode. There's a performative aspect to all of these cases: somebody does something flamboyant and contradictory in public, the rest of us play audience. The cases all spin out in ways that have unpredictable effects. The opening of the book goes: "People do some really odd and contradictory things in public. Other people watch and pronounce stinging judgment. We call these kinds of public performances scandals."

Williams: Who else do you deal with?

Kipnis: One chapter is on David Brock, the gay Republican journalist, who actually was more of a scandal-monger than a scandal himself. He and Linda Tripp are the two figures responsible of the Clinton impeachment, since Brock was responsible for unearthing the Paula Jones story. And the last chapter expands on an essay I published in Social Text a few years ago on Daniel Ortega's step-daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, and her sex abuse accusations. That chapter now deals with two step-daughters, Zoilamerica and Soon-Yi Previn, the step-daughter who married Woody Allen. It's called "A Tale of Two Step-Daughters."

Williams: Did you interview some of the people? I'm thinking of the first chapter of Bound and Gagged, where you interviewed Dan DePew, who was convicted, as you argue, essentially for fantasy. Did you talk to Wachtler or any of the others?

Kipnis: No, they’re all based on the public record. I think the scandal protagonists themselves would be the last people on earth who could offer you any insight about why they did what they did. Acting out isn't an entirely cognitive process. They might produce a lot of explanations or rationales, but the book is written from the point of view of the audience watching the drama unfold. There's a great quote from Brecht, I think it goes something like "If you want to understand the laws of motion, you don't ask the tennis ball." So no—no interviews.




Jeffrey J. Williams is editor of the minnesota review.