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Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis

Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis

by Laura Kipnis
Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis

Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis

by Laura Kipnis

Hardcover

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Overview

In this timely, insightful, and darkly funny investigation, the acclaimed author of Against Love asks: what does living in dystopic times do to our ability to love each other and the world?

COVID-19 has produced new taxonomies of love, intimacy, and vulnerability. Will its cultural afterlife be as lasting as that of HIV, which reshaped consciousness about sex and love even after AIDS itself had been beaten back by medical science? Will COVID end up making us more relationally conservative, as some think HIV did within gay culture? Will it send us fleeing into emotional silos or coupled cocoons, despite the fact that, pre-COVID, domestic coupledom had been steadily losing fans?

Just as COVID revealed our nation to itself, so did it hold a mirror up to our relationships. In Love in the Time of Contagion, Laura Kipnis weaves (often hilariously) her own (ambivalent) coupled lockdown experiences together with those of others and sets them against a larger backdrop: the politics of the virus, economic disparities, changing gender relations, and the ongoing institutional crack-ups prompted by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, mapping their effects on the everyday routines and occasional solaces of love and sex.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593316283
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/08/2022
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 446,585
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 7.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

LAURA KIPNIS is a cultural critic and former video artist. She is the author of seven previous books, and her writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Slate, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum. Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University, where she teaches filmmaking.

Read an Excerpt

1. LOVE AND EXTINCTION
 
If you’re reading this you recently survived a massive worldwide extinction event, congratulations. Too many didn’t. Have a nice big helping of residual simmering rage (so great for the immune system!) at being abandoned by our “leaders,” at the profiteers and incompetents and liars, at a cleverly murderous microscopic entity that wants to exploit you as a host and strip your organs for parts. Along with the grief about everything that was lost. About everyone who was lost.
 
On another but not entirely unrelated subject, how’s your love life? No doubt living through an extended planetary contagion will be infecting our relation to other people’s bodies and droplets for years or decades to come. A deadly virus alters your sense of what gets transmitted between people and what threats they pose, probably long after the pathogen itself gets beaten down (and apparently we’re not getting back to status quo existence anytime soon). Will the cultural afterlife of COVID-19 be as enduring as the long afterlife of AIDS, which reshaped consciousness about sex, love, and body fluids for decades, well after the HIV virus itself was subdued by medical science and a generation of new antiretroviral drugs made AIDS a chronic disease instead of a fatal one? As everyone not insane is hoping the new COVID vaccines will likewise do, fiendish mutations notwithstanding.
 
But it’s not just viruses that mutate, so do we. Our emotions mutate, our relationships mutate. Maybe our ideas about love and what we need or can realistically give another person have mutated. We’re different than we were before, including at the cellular level. We’re cohabiting with something malevolent—for how long? Everything important is uncertain. How much that shifts the interpersonal calculus is another of the unknowns: we live our lives in profile, we’re always catching up to ourselves, violent emotions descend from nowhere derailing you (they call it trauma)—but sure, let’s hope and pray that herd immunity and mass vaccinations will make life “normal” again, leaving just the political fractures and cultural hatreds and economic carnage to deal with.
 
History will obviously have more to say on these subjects, though what may not make it into the official record is how seemingly non-intimate public events—a sociopathic president, the imminent threat of infrastructural collapse—seep into your actual intimacies like runoff from a backed-up sewer, or that the imperiled condition of liberal democracy might mean that if it were ever possible to sustain a deep human connection between two individuals (a balancing act between intimacy and disgust in the best of times), feeling expendable isn’t especially conducive to the enterprise. It has ripple effects. It’s not as though love takes place in a bubble. To put it in social science-y language: “partnered bonding behaviors” along with “solo and partnered sexual behaviors” were not unaffected, even if you didn’t contract the actual disease. Factor in the residual symptoms for those who did. Factor in the economic hits, the loneliness (two-thirds of people said they felt more lonely, coupled or not), the protracted homeschooling ordeals and magnified household neurosis, or fill in your own particulars here. Is it only me or is there a lingering sense that other people feel, well . . . more encroaching than they used to, even post-vaccination? Just seeing news photos of milling unmasked strangers still gives the risk-averse agita. Do you find yourself recoiling from nearness, in public of course, but maybe in private too? It’s not just that other people’s variant-laden “aerosolized respiratory particles” might waft your way right as you’re inhaling, but once you committed to washing your hands a dozen times a day, now you’re a handwasher, right? It’s an ontological state, an internal cordon sanitaire. Women turned out to be more dedicated handwashers than men, by the way—gender is so insidious. Back when the virus hit and shutdown commenced, maybe you were coupled, maybe flying solo, maybe some covert or indecisive combination of the two, but when the music stopped we were all face-to- face with our romantic choices and compromises, like it or not. If solo, say hello to the voices in your head, you and they were going to be spending a lot of time together. For those who couldn’t endure that prospect there were improvised domestic pods and ad hoc “polycules,” platonic and otherwise. If previously coupled, say hello to your emotional bargains, in fact say hello to them twenty-four hours a fucking day, since 80 percent of the global workforce were furloughed or working at home. Anxieties and needs were ramped way up, often taking peculiar forms. A friend’s partner insisted on washing the lettuce with soap for a solid year, despite every new finding that “fomite transmission” was not a thing. Okay sure, lettuce has to be washed, but does it have to be washed with soap? Doesn’t it taste like soap no matter how much you rinse it? I wondered if the partner unconsciously wished to wash my friend’s mouth out with soap, and about all the other subterranean forms of interpersonal violence “the novel coronavirus” was providing cover for. What’s a rational precaution, what’s an irrational bulwark against the unknown, and what’s a thin excuse for payback? Wouldn’t lettuce washed with soap taste like a reprimand disguised as a salad? Like your contempt for me on a plate?
 
It’s in the nature of a plague that everything becomes allegorical; as in the Middle Ages, so too in the COVID years. There was so much to interpret: so many data points, so many fault lines, love foremost among them, whether you clung to it, quested for it, or just gave up. Humans invariably represent what’s invisible—love, pain, evil, death—in picturable ways, said C. S. Lewis. Freud called it displacement: why do we argue about how the dishwasher is loaded when the real outrage is that there’s been no sex for a month? (See his chapter on dishwasher-loading arguments in Cascade and Its Relation to the Unconscious.)
 
Let’s say you’d previously done the best you could at the coupling enterprise, balancing the loved one’s charms and solaces against their annoyances on an inner spreadsheet, engineering togetherness-regulation by means of “busy lives”—demanding jobs and hobbies and workouts, energetic socializing, kids, travel, maybe the occasional fling/flirtation/ online dalliance—along with couples therapy as required (if affordable). Sometimes polyamory worked, refreshed things. Or swinging—even evangelicals are doing it these days! Also “throuples.” Whatever the geometry, every couple is a finely tuned calibration of ambivalence and commitment, and whatever jerry-rigged solutions you’d previously engineered, COVID scrambled them, scrambled open marriages and secret trysts—if you’d been stepping out you’d better step back in, leaving distraught third parties to fend for themselves, as more than a few took to print to publicly complain about. (“We were planning a new life together. Now our only contact is a snatched phone call during his daily run.”) So long to work spouses and other supplements: all respites were going to be virtual at best if you had any compunctions, though maybe not everyone did (the adultery site Ashley Madison reported an immediate spike in new users during lockdown months).
 
Against the backdrop of sirens and existential dread, you were shuttered with your own and possibly another person’s “coping mechanisms.” This could be revelatory, and not always in the good way. It turns out that sequestration for months on end amplifies people’s (and okay, your own) habits of personality, not to mention their actual sound effects, all of which advertise to a sometimes-unbearable degree the biologic and acoustic facts of domestic intimacy. When The New York Times ran one of its periodic updates on the state of coupled relations under quarantine (everyone was dying to know how other people were managing the unmanageable), it was quite a cacophony. “If I never have to hear my beloved husband on speaker phone again after this it will be too soon. And let’s not even discuss the sound he makes while drinking iced coffee . . .” Or “When spouse’s chewing sounds like the tell-tale heart gnashing beneath the floorboards, and my sentences become increasingly punctuated by curses, it’s time for serious thinking . . .” A sizable cohort of otherwise loving couples appeared to be growing seriously repelled by their mates under confined conditions.
 
In addition to the decibels, you were impounded with your mate’s (and okay, your own) particular forms of characterological stuckness, like No Exit minus the nympho. (Or the lesbian. Or the impotent guy.) Wow, there are so many ways that people’s inner lives just refuse to budge, so many ways that we use each other as convenient projection screens, as showcased in the rotelike repetition of domestic argumentation: the “who did what to whom” argument; the “why did you say x” argument; the “tone of voice” argument; the “you always” argument; the “you said you’d” argument; the “we already discussed that” argument. The “you’re not talking about me you’re talking about your mother” stratagem. The endless intractable little habits and compulsions, the hamster wheel of ancient calcified wounds and grudges—it’s almost like there’s some buried streak of deadness at the core of every living human psyche, getting a head start on the mortality thing. Yet what is it to actually be alive was a question the nefarious virus put on the table. The anti-maskers had an answer—life behind a mask was no life. Lockdown was no life. It turns out that viruses themselves are dead but not entirely dead, which is something I hadn’t previously known (we’re all amateur epidemiologists now). Well, scientists don’t actually agree—it depends what you mean by life, they say authoritatively. Viruses are just deeply weird entities, it emerges. Unlike bacteria, which are at least self-sufficient, they’re entirely dependent on whomever they invade, and can only reproduce in coupled states, by manipulating an unwitting host and coopting the cellular machinery of a more complex creature. Like codependent mates, they’re also quite conniving, having evolved spikelike proteins which latch on though maybe not everyone did (the adultery site Ashley Madison reported an immediate spike in new users during lockdown months). Against the backdrop of sirens and existential dread, you were shuttered with your own and possibly another person’s “coping mechanisms.” This could be revelatory, and not always in the good way. It turns out that sequestration for months on end amplifies people’s (and okay, your own) habits of personality, not to mention their actual sound effects, all of which advertise to a sometimes-unbearable degree the biologic and acoustic facts of domestic intimacy. When The New York Times ran one of its periodic updates on the state of coupled relations under quarantine (everyone was dying to know how other people were managing the unmanageable), it was quite a cacophony. “If I never have to hear my beloved husband on speaker phone again after this it will be too soon. And let’s not even discuss the sound he makes while drinking iced coffee . . .” Or “When spouse’s chewing sounds like the tell-tale heart gnashing beneath the floorboards, and my sentences become increasingly punctuated by curses, it’s time for serious thinking . . .” A sizable cohort of otherwise loving couples appeared to be growing seriously repelled by their mates under confined conditions. In addition to the decibels, you were impounded with your mate’s (and okay, your own) particular forms of characterological stuckness, like No Exit minus the nympho. (Or the lesbian. Or the impotent guy.) Wow, there are so many ways that people’s inner lives just refuse to budge, so many ways that we use each other as convenient projection screens, as showcased in the rotelike repetition of domestic argumentation: the “who did what to whom” argument; the “why did you say x” argument; the “tone of voice” argument; the “you always” argument; the “you said you’d” argument; the “we already discussed that” argument. The “you’re not talking about me you’re talking about your mother” stratagem. The endless intractable little habits and compulsions, the hamster wheel of ancient calcified wounds and grudges—it’s almost like there’s some buried streak of deadness at the core of every living human psyche, getting a head start on the mortality thing.
 
Yet what is it to actually be alive was a question the nefarious virus put on the table. The anti-maskers had an answer—life behind a mask was no life. Lockdown was no life. It turns out that viruses themselves are dead but not entirely dead, which is something I hadn’t previously known (we’re all amateur epidemiologists now). Well, scientists don’t actually agree—it depends what you mean by life, they say authoritatively. Viruses are just deeply weird entities, it emerges. Unlike bacteria, which are at least self-sufficient, they’re entirely dependent on whomever they invade, and can only reproduce in coupled states, by manipulating an unwitting host and coopting the cellular machinery of a more complex creature. Like codependent mates, they’re also quite conniving, having evolved spikelike proteins which latch on to the human host cells, allowing them to take over and do whatever they please with you.
 
You almost have to respect a microscopic entity that baffles everyone to such a degree, brings the entire world to its knees. Indeed, everyone was now talking about the evil new virus as if it had a personality; anthropomorphizing it. It was more intelligent than other viruses, very canny in fact (the long infection window, the asymptomatic transmission), it was efficient and adaptable—it sounded like someone you’d hire to run a company or want to date. Though it soon became clear what an opportunist it was, how adept at taking the shape of the societies it descended on, mirroring us to ourselves. Not just a disease, also a master diagnostician. “The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are,” said Ralph Ellison, and kudos to COVID, for patiently explaining things to us, like a hostile shrink. If it didn’t kill you, it interpreted you. It took things away, just to see how you’d cope: your social life, your toilet paper, your necessary distractions. It supplied worse things, like doom scrolling. There was a new lab-rat quality to daily life, we were being experimented on by something malign. It exploited the already exploited, enriched the wealthy while further impoverishing the poor, mocked the old, killed off people of color at twice the rate of whites, preyed on the obese, who were already preyed on by Big Food and already the butt of shame. A small surprise was that men were more Love and Extinction 11 vulnerable than women, but the evidence had been pointing to that for quite a while. Was the perfidious virus also a crypto-conservative— will it make us more relationally reactionary, as some think HIV did to gay culture, for which legalized marriage rather than the anti-domestic ecstasies of anonymous backroom sex became the signature program? Fear of disease and fear of freedom aren’t exactly strange bedfellows. COVID too invited traditionalism, goading us into self-isolating in our pods, re-upping on monogamy, ditching the outside flings. If you were single you were supposed to stop hooking up and fear potentially interesting strangers, close down all ingress routes like a Cistercian nun. Feeling a little pent up? You could always sublimate your animal urges into frenzies of online moral shaming—Twitter was like the Moscow show trials on an hourly basis, a citizen’s firing squad. The masked ranted about selfishness, the anti-maskers ranted about freedom; everyone was morally outraged by everyone else. I was outraged about the endless moral outrage and ranted about that.
 
And what will all this mean for the future of love? Maybe it’s worth pondering before the next random pathogenic bat defecates on the next ailing pangolin, or a hot-wired virus escapes from a secret research lab fridge in Wuhan creating another inadvertent bioweapon, or whatever the hell happened (we’ll obviously never know).

Table of Contents

1. Love and Extinction 3

2. Vile Bodies: Heterosexuality and Its Discontents 55

3. Love on the Rocks: “Codependency”and Its Vicissitudes 105

4. Love and Chaos 151

Coda: Antibodies 193

Acknowledgments 209

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