Against Love: A Polemic

Against Love: A Polemic

by Laura Kipnis

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Who would dream of being against love? No one.

Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions.

But is there something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion? Is this the one subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which one truth alone is…  See more details below


Who would dream of being against love? No one.

Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions.

But is there something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion? Is this the one subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which one truth alone is permissible? Consider that the most powerful organized religions produce the occasional heretic; every ideology has its apostates; even sacred cows find their butchers. Except for love.

Hence the necessity for a polemic against it. 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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
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. — Carolyn See
Publishers Weekly
In this ragingly witty yet contemplative look at the discontents of domestic and erotic relationships, Kipnis (Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America) combines portions of the slashing sexual contrarianism of Mailer, the scathing antidomestic wit of early Roseanne Barr and the coolly analytical aesthetics of early Sontag: "Aren't all adulterers amateur collagists? We're scavengers and improvisers, constructing odd assemblages out of detritus and leftovers: a few scraps of time and some dormant emotions...." With a razor-sharp intelligence and a gleeful sense of irony, Kipnis dismantles the myths of romance surrounding monogamy and makes the case for why adultery is a reasonable, often used, escape hatch. Kipnis is often most funny when at her most provocative ("Feel free to take a second to mull this over, or to make a quick call: `Hi hon, just checking in!' "), but even her moments of sarcastic humor can have a sobering effect, as when Kipnis considers the reasons behind the public's obsessive need for reading about real and fictional stories of spousal murders, noting that "perhaps these social pathologies and aberrations of love are the necessary fallout from the social conventions of love." Kipnis is adroit at detailing (sometimes with "notoriously unreliable" sexual self-reporting statistics) how our desire for fidelity is often at odds with basic human needs for personal freedom, and is terrific in dissecting how-or so Kipnis's case goes-"family values" politicians like Newt Gingrich fail miserably to live up to their own rhetoric. In the end, she concludes that adultery and fidelity have to exist side-by-side: "let's face it: purity always flirts with defilement." Kipnis balances her scintillating, on-target observations on straying with an honest sense of compassion for human experience. (Aug. 26) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Why does society continue to idealize long-term, monogamous relationships when the rates of divorce, infidelity, and unhappily married couples are so high? This is the central question posed by Kipnis (media studies, Northwestern Univ.; Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America) in her polemic against love. Kipnis claims that it is clear that one person is really not able to fulfill all our needs and desires for life, so we inevitably find ourselves bored and dissatisfied. She theorizes that society's insistence on monogamy may be linked to the Protestant work ethic and that marriage supplies a measure of social control. Who wants to work and be productive in the midst of a torrid affair? she asks. She considers the many political careers damaged by sexual revelations and wonders why the marital fidelity of government officials has become so important to the public. Kipnis writes with clarity and humor about our relationship foibles and offers provocative alternatives. Not a good read for romantics and advocates of traditional family values but recommended for everyone else, in both academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/03.]-Debra Moore, Cerritos Coll., Norwalk, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Deliberately provocative arguments, by cultural critic Kipnis (Bound and Gagged, 1996, etc.) wittily demonstrates that love might not be such a many-splendored thing. The tone's light, even playful, but the thesis is fundamentally serious. In four long chapters, Kipnis (Media Studies/Northwestern Univ.) chronicles all those aspects of love that society values-its promises of stability, transformation, and personal fulfillment-then argues that perhaps love is more complex, more limiting than conventional wisdom has it. In "Love's Labors," she criticizes the current belief that love, like weight control, is something individuals have to work at. This attitude, usually favored by therapists, changes what is essentially erotic play into another chore, the author contends: Why, if love is so normal, does it require so much propaganda, from movies to magazines? "Domestic Gulags" riffs on the limitations that commitment and couples impose, everything from circumscribed television watching to food choices. The pain caused by such love-related lapses as infidelity, guilt, and deception is the subject of "The Art of Love," in which Kipnis notes the "pothole-ridden intimacy systems" that "refuse to acknowledge their own contradictions" and hence encourage damaging self-deceptions and emotional burdens. Drawing on the recent revelations of adultery in high places from the White House to New York City's mayoral mansion, she observes in "...And The Pursuit of Happiness" that this widespread fooling around suggests we all want more than we have. "Adultery," Kipnis observes, "whatever its inherent problems . . . is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we're not quite in the ground quiteyet." All of which leaves love reeling on the ropes, though not quite down and out. An intelligent, literate, and allusive take that raises many intriguing questions, even if it doesn't always answer them.
From the Publisher
“Engagingly acerbic . . . extremely funny. . . . A deft indictment of the marital ideal, as well as a celebration of the dissent that constitutes adultery, delivered in pointed daggers of prose.” –New Yorker

“It’s about time someone blew apart our idealistic notions about relationships and love.” –New York Post

“A timely, entertaining cherry bomb of a book. . . . Smart, witty and withering.” –The Boston Globe

“Wonderfully clever, deliciously written. . . . Kipnis blends journalistic pizazz and philosophical nerve . . . Whether you agree or not, Kipnis’ crackling colloquial style keeps Against Love rollicking forward, often hilariously. . . . It's hard to imagine even the fiercest champion of wedded bliss not enjoying the provocations of this book.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“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.” –The Washington Post

“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. This seems to have been Kipnis’s aim.” –Salon

“In this ragingly witty yet contemplative look at the discontents of domestic and erotic relationships, Kipnis . . . combines portions of the slashing sexual contrarianism of Mailer, the scathing antidomestic wit of early Roseanne Barr and the coolly analytical aesthetics of early Sontag. . . . With a razor-sharp intelligence and a gleeful sense of irony, Kipnis dismantles the myths of romance surrounding monogamy.” –Publisher’s Weekly

“Wittily invigorating. . . . [Kipnis] possesses the gleeful, viperish wit of a Dorothy Parker and the energetic charisma of a cheerleader. She is dead-on about the everyday exhaustion a relationship can produce.” –Slate

“A person would need a heart of stone not to rejoice at the drubbing [Kipnis] delivers. . . . Funny and astute . . . much of the writing is informed and bracing, amplifying ideas about social control derived from Engels, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, Raymond Williams, Foucault and Adam Phillips.” –Chicago Tribune

“[Kipnis is] a talented social satirist.” –Weekly Standard

Against Love is a wonderfully provocative book, daring and incisive, written with verve and no small amount of humor. It raises a thousand questions most of us lack the courage to ask, about domestic life and even the meaning of the human enterprise, while remaining at every instant a delight to read.” –Scott Turow

“Kipnis’s treatise reads like a brisk, sophisticated novel about the beginning, middle and end of an adulterous affair. . . . [A] bravura book.” –Times Literary Supplement (London)

“This book is trouble . . . and the worst thing is that Kipnis is so convincing. A vastly entertaining and smart work of social criticism. Kipnis demonstrates her brilliance at the [polemic] form . . . playing a heretic in the chapel of love. An unsettling and witty deconstruction of love and marriage.” –NPR, Fresh Air

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Chapter One

Love's Labors

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!"

It will soon become clear to infidelity cognoscenti that we're not talking about your one-night stands here: not about those transient out-of-town encounters, those half-remembered drunken fumblings, those remaining enclaves of suburban swinging--or any of the other casual opportunities for bodies to collide in relatively impersonal ways in postmodern America. We live in sexually interesting times, meaning a culture which manages to be simultaneously hypersexualized and to retain its Puritan underpinnings, in precisely equal proportions. Estimates of the percentage of those coupled who have strayed at least once vary from 20 to 70 percent, meaning that you can basically select any statistic you like to support whatever position you prefer to take on the prevalence of such acts. Whatever the precise number--and really, must we join the social scientists and pen-protector brigades and fetishize numbers?--apparently, taking an occasional walk on the wild side while still wholeheartedly pledged to a monogamous relationship isn't an earthshaking contradiction. Many of us manage to summon merciful self-explanations as required ("Shouldn't drink on an empty stomach") or have learned over the years to deploy the strategic exception ("Out-of-town doesn't count," "Oral sex doesn't count") with hairsplitting acumen. Perhaps a few foresightful types have even made prior arrangements with the partner to cover such eventualities--the "one time rule," the "must-confess-all rule" (though such arrangements are said to be more frequent these days among our non-heterosexual denominations). Once again, statistics on such matters are spotty.

But we're not talking about "arrangements" with either self or spouse, or when it's "just sex," or no big thing. We will be talking about what feels like a big thing: the love affair. Affairs of the heart. Exchanges of intimacy, reawakened passion, confessions, idealization, and declarations--along with favorite books, childhood stories, relationship complaints, and deepest selves, often requiring agonized consultation with close friends or professional listeners at outrageous hourly rates because one or both parties are married or committed to someone else, thus all this merging and ardor takes place in nervous hard-won secrecy and is turning your world upside down. In other words, we will be talking about contradictions, large, festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time. Infidelity will serve as our entry point to this teeming world of ambivalence and anxiety, and as our lens on the contemporary ethos of love--as much an imaginary space as an actual event. (Commitment's dark other, after all--its dialectical pal.) Meaning whether or not you signed up for the gala cruise, we're all in this boat one way or another--if only by virtue of vowing not to be.

So just as a thought experiment--though it will never happen to you and certainly never has--please imagine finding yourself in the contradictory position of having elected to live a life from which you now plot intricate and meticulous escapes: a subdivision getaway artist, a Houdini of the homefront. You didn't plan it, yet . . . somehow here you are, buffeted by conflicting emotions, and the domesticity you once so earnestly pledged to uphold now a tailor-made straitjacket whose secret combination is the ingenious (and hopefully undetectable) excuses you concoct to explain your mounting absences (or mounting phone bills for you long-distance strayers; thank God for those prepaid phone cards, an adulterer's telephonic godsend). When defenses are down, or some minor domestic irritant unaccountably becomes an epic dispute--which happens even in the best of times, not only when you're preoccupied by thoughts of where you'd rather be and with whom--or when the yearning becomes physically painful, or you're spending an inordinate amount of time sobbing in the bathroom, this turn of events may raise fundamental questions about what sort of emotional world you want to inhabit, or what fulfillments you're entitled to, or--for a daring few--even the nerve-rattling possibility of actually changing your life. (Alternatively, forego hard questions and just up the Prozac dosage, which will probably take care of that resurgent libido problem too.)

A note on terminology: while adultery traditionally requires the prior condition of a state-issued marriage license for at least one of the parties, for the purposes of the ensuing discussion any coupled relationship based on the assumption of sexual fidelity will count as "married." And with gay populations now demanding official entry to state-sanctioned nuptials too, no longer is this the heterosexual plight alone: welcome aboard all commitment-seeking queer, bi, and transgendered compatriots. But gay or straight, licensed or not, anywhere the commitment to monogamy reigns, adultery provides its structural transgression--sexual exclusivity being the cornerstone of modern coupledom, or such is the premise--and for the record, you can also commit it with any sex or gender your psyche can manage to organize its desires around; this may not always be the same one that shapes your public commitments.

An additional terminological point. As our focus will be on "social norms" and "mainstream conventions" of love rather than exceptions and anomalies (and on the interesting penchant for inventing conventions that simultaneously induce the desire for flight), for the purposes of discussion terms like "love" and "coupledom," or "coupled" and "married," will often be used interchangably. Though coupledom is not always the sole outcome of romantic love, nor does love necessarily persist throughout coupledom's duration; though not all couples have joined into legal marriage contracts with the state; though a few iconoclasts do manage to love to the beat of a different drummer, let's agree at the outset that the sequence "love-couple-marriage" does structure prevailing social expectations, regardless of variations in individual practices. Feel free to make whatever semantic adjustments are required should some idiosyncrasy (or prolonged adolescent rebellion or bad luck streak or terminal ambivalence) on your part necessitate a different terminology. "Domestic partners," "significant others," even you "commitment-phobes": keep reading. There are a million stories in love's majestic empire, and yours is in here too.

And while we're clarifying terms, a note on gender. These days either partner can play either gender role, masculine or feminine, regardless of sex or sexual orientation. Thus, gender will not be a significant aspect of our discussion. Whoever waits at home, whoever "has their suspicions," is the wife. Whoever "wants more freedom" is the guy. And if the married-male/single-female configuration is still the most prevalent adultery form, all indications are that female straying is on the rise: clearly all that was required were more opportunities for women to get out of the house. (And more academic degrees: sociologists report that the higher a woman's education level, the more likely she is to have affairs; when the female partner has more education than the male, she's the one more likely to stray.) While feminism typically gets the credit (or blame) for propelling women out of the domicile and into the job market, let's give credit where credit is due: thanks must go too to economic downturns and stagnating real wages--although if it now takes two incomes to support a household, maybe this was not exactly what the term "women's liberation" was designed to mean.

And, finally, a note on genre. This is a polemic. If there is scant attention paid to the delights of coupled fidelity and the rewards of long-term intimacies or the marvelousness of love itself, please remember that the polemicist's job is not to retell the usual story, and that one is well rehearsed enough that it should not need rehearsing once more here. Should its absence cause anxiety, if frequent bouts of sputtering are occluding your reading experience, just append where necessary.

Adulterers: you may now be seated. Will all those in Good Relationships please stand? Thank you, feel free to leave if this is not your story--you for whom long-term coupledom is a source of optimism and renewal, not emotional anesthesia. Though before anyone rushes for the exits, a point of clarification: a "good relationship" would probably include having--and wanting to have--sex with your spouse or spouse-equivalent on something more than a quarterly basis. (Maybe with some variation in choreography?) It would mean inhabiting an emotional realm in which monogamy isn't giving something up (your "freedom," in the vernacular) because such cost-benefit calculations just don't compute. It would mean a domestic sphere in which faithfulness wasn't preemptively secured through routine interrogations ("Who was that on the phone, dear?"), surveillance ("Do you think I didn't notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?"), or impromptu search and seizure. 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--or work as currently configured for so many of us handmaidens to the global economy: alienated, routinized, deadening, and not something you would choose to do if you actually had a choice in the matter?

Yes, we all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we've been well tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy. Work, work, work: given all the heavy lifting required, what's the difference between work and "after work" again? Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock? Good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn't work. Erotically speaking, play is what works. Or as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it: "In our erotic life . . . it is no more possible to work at a relationship than it is to will an erection or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you know it has gone wrong, that something is already missing."

Yet here we are, toiling away. Somehow--how exactly did this happen?--the work ethic has managed to brown-nose its way into all spheres of human existence. No more play--or playing around--even when off the clock. Of course, the work ethic long ago penetrated the leisure sphere; leisure, once a respite from labor, now takes quite a lot of work itself. (Think about it the next time you find yourself repetitively lifting heavy pieces of metal after work: in other words, "working out.") Being wedded to the work ethic is not exactly a new story; this strain runs deep in middle-class culture: think about it the next time you're lying awake contemplating any of those 4 a.m. raison d'etre questions about your self-worth or social value. ("What have I really accomplished?") But when did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love--and does this mean that collective bargaining should now replace marriage counseling when negotiating for improved domestic conditions?

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 designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery--is this really what we mean by a "good relationship"?

Back in the old days, social brooders like Freud liked to imagine that there was a certain basic lack of fit between our deepest instincts and society's requirements of us, which might have left us all a little neurosis-prone, but at least guaranteed some occasional resistance to the more stifling demands of socialization. But in the old days, work itself occasionally provided motives for resistance: the struggle over wages and conditions of course, and even the length of the workday itself. Labor and capital may have eventually struck a temporary truce at the eight-hour day, but look around: it's an advance crumbling as we speak. Givebacks are the name of the game, and not just on the job either: with the demands of labor-intensive intimacy and "working on your relationship," now it's double-shifting for everyone. Or should we just call it vertical integration: the same compulsory overtime and capricious directives, the dress codes and attitude assessments, those dreaded annual performance reviews--and don't forget "achieving orgasm."

But recall that back in the old days the promise of technological progress was actually supposed to be less work rather than more. Now that's an antiquated concept, gone the way of dodo birds and trade unionism. How can you not admire a system so effective at swallowing all alternatives to itself that it can make something as abject as "working for love" sound admirable? Punching in, punching out; trying to wrest love from the bosses when not busily toiling in the mine shafts of domesticity--or is it the other way around? It should come as no surprise, as work sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports, that one of the main reasons for the creeping expansion of the official workday is that a large segment of the labor force put in those many extra hours because they're avoiding going home. (Apparently domestic life has become such a chore that staying at the office is more relaxing.)

So when does domestic overwork qualify as a labor violation and where do you file the forms? For guidance on such questions, shall we go straight to the horse's mouth? This, of course, would be Marx, industrial society's poète maudit, so little read yet so vastly reviled, who started so much trouble so long ago by asking a very innocent question: "What is a working day?" For this is the simple query at the heart of Capital (which took three volumes to answer). As we see, 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? Or more to our point, if private life in post-industrialism means that relationships now take work too, if love is the latest form of alienated labor, would rereading Capital as a marriage manual be the most appropriate response?

What people seem to forget about Marx (too busy blaming him for all those annoying revolutions) is how evocatively he writes about feelings. Like the feeling of overwork. The motif of workers being bled dry keeps cropping up in his funny, mordant prose, punctuated by flurries of over-the-top Gothic metaphors about menacing deadness. The workday is a veritable graveyard, menaced by gruesome creatures and ghouls from the world of the ambulatory dead; overwork produces "stunted monsters," the machinery is a big congealed mass of dead labor, bosses are "blood-sucking vampires," so ravenous to extract more work from the employees to feed their endless werewolf-like hunger for profit, that if no one fought about the length of the workday it would just go on and on, leaving us crippled monstrosities in the process, with more and more alienated labor demanded from our tapped-out bodies until we dropped dead just from exhaustion.

From the Hardcover edition.

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