||A Review of: Against Love: a polemic
by Ron Stang
"To begin with, who would dream of being against love?"
Laura Kipnis asks at the start of her 200-plus-page polemic Against
Love. "No one," she answers. "Love is, as everyone
knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over
our thoughts and life decisions." But "love is boss, and
a demanding one too: it demands our loyalty. We, in turn, freely
comply-or as freely as the average subject in thrall to an all-powerful
master, as freely as indentured servants."
Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University and
author of Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy
in America and Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender and
Aesthetics, has placed a bombshell under perhaps the one last great
unquestioned subject, that which everyone aspires to and
venerates-romantic love. As she puts it: "Is this the one
subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which
one truth alone is permissible?"
Kipnis asks, what really is love? Glossed over by emotional flights
and soul-stirring longings, enraptured by, and attracted to another,
love at base is really about, take your pick-control, manipulation,
the loss of freedom, of individuality, the surrender to a
state-sanctioned institution, and subsequent consignment to
psychological realms of ambivalence, boredom, feelings of sameness
Sound pretty awful? It is. For who cannot claim that once a romantic
"pact" is entered into, spontaneity and the sense of
having a choice somehow, somewhere, diminish or die out altogether?
That no matter how much one professes her or his love for the other,
underpinning the arrangement are established systems of behavioural
control comparable to Orwellian Thought Police-wherein the police
officer is one's significant other or marriage partner? Because,
after all, no matter how much you may be "in love" with
someone you can't spontaneously have a fling with that attractive
stranger you pass on the street. To do so would constitute a challenge
to that system of control, which in some cases is backed by the
power of the state.
And hence Kipnis's concomitant meditation on that conduct which
completely opposes all commonly-accepted values of love-adultery.
Yes, the nasty adulterer, "playing around, breaking vows,
causing havoc." Or, "maybe not just playing around."
Adultery, Kipnis argues, may be the way love's dissenters or
"refuseniks" act out against the "gulags" of
coupledom and its ultimate goal, domesticity. Adultery therefore
can be "a de facto referendum on the sustainability of
monogamy," or a form of "utopianism" in its
"sensations of desire, and fun, and play, in love, in
transgression, in the rejection of drudgery and work (because) no
one works at adultery, do they?" as they, alas, do at
"relationships." Yet, within the closed circle of society's
attitude towards love, even adultery is not without its paradoxes.
What are these adulterers escaping to? "Well," says Kipnis
in this wry and often delightfully sardonic book, "it appears
that they're escaping to love."
If adultery is play and escape, then romantic love is its antithesis:
the "salt mines." Thus another leitmotif of Kipnis's
treatise-that companionate love or coupledom (and surely we all
have been told this at one time or another) requires a certain
amount of labour; as proclaimed in the familiar relationship
counselling banner, "Good Marriages Take Work". This
prompts Kipnis to ask, "Wouldn't a happy' state of monogamy
be one you "don't have to work at maintaining? After all,
doesn't the demand for fidelity beyond the duration of desire feel
like work," indeed work as "currently configured by 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?" Yet as far as love goes, "trying
is always trying too hard: work doesn't work. Erotically speaking,
play is what works."
But love's dystopia not only requires work, it is toil within a
ready-made imprisoning gestalt. At one time husbands may have
controlled their wives but, says Kipnis, "modern gender relations
rests on a system of mutual controlwe spouses belong to each
other." Locked-in, we keep each other under surveillance. And
for anyone who scoffs at the commitment-phobe's protestations of
losing liberty upon entering a relationship, Kipnis sets out a
nine-page, often-hilarious litany of what couples cannot do: "You
can't leave the house without saying where you're goingYou can't
be a slobYou 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)You can't leave the bathroom
door open, it's offensiveYou can't watch soap operas without getting
made fun ofYou can't be impulsive, self-absorbed, or distractedYou
can't eat what you want: goodbye marshmallow fluff, hello tofu
meatballs." "Thus," plus a myriad other examples
from the quotidian routine of coupledom, says Kipnis, "is love
The goal of relationships, the author concludes, is for each of the
partners to reconcile the other to this system of control, and the
fact that "virtually no aspect of everyday life is not subject
to regulation and review, and that in modern love acceding to a
mate's commands is what constitutes intimacy, and that the better'
the couple the more the inhabitants have successfully internalized
the operative local interdictions."
Sure, Kipnis agrees, domesticity has its rewards-companionship,
shared living expenses, joint childrearing, and occasional sex.
"But if modern love has power over us, domesticity is its
enforcement wing: the iron dust mop in the velvet glove."
Since everyone accepts love, and since questioning it might be
viewed as heretical, there is no effective way of addressing its
inherent problems. Kipnis says adultery may be "acting out"
on discontent, but why people are discontented is a question
"simply never asked."
Of course, as with a totalitarian political system, love isn't
without its cynics and satirists, so long as their critiques don't
ultimately subvert the system. Hence popular culture and its anti-love
films (from Double Indemnity to Sleeping with the Enemy), television
sitcoms (Married With Children), and time-honoured stage
comedians-"would stand-up comedy even exist without the figure
of the spouse to aim jokes at?" But even in the greatest
romantic films, after the final embrace fade-to-black must always
be the signature shot. Because, says Kipnis, "If the camera
kept rolling, who knows what horrors we'd see?"
With no avenues of dissent-free love of the Sixties having been
dismissed as an anachronism and "even gays, once such paragons
of unregulated sexuality, once so contemptuous of whitebread hetero
lifestyles, now demanding state regulation too," and with those
who individually express dissatisfaction with romance condemned as
"unrealistic" or admonished to "grow
up"-dissatisfaction with love is expressed through
"cheating" or adultery. Whereas in the 19th Century social
reformers like Paul Brown or William Godwin critiqued the role of
marriage in town hall debates, and utopian communities advocated
new forms of love and living arrangements, today scandal-hyped by
the media-turns politicians' dalliances (Gary Hart, Bill Clinton,
Gary Condit, et al) into the new forums for ethical debates. But
unlike in town halls, "outrage substitutes for thought and
vicariousness for social criticism, expos for principled discussion."
Love may indeed be the last great unquestioned institution. Still,
is Kipnis's commentary not a little over the top? It's a polemic,
she confesses, and "Polemics aren't measured, they don't tell
both sides of the story,' they overstate the case." But can a
commitment based on love be simply reduced to a series of controls?
Doesn't one enter this kind of partnership voluntarily, agreeing
to the trade-offs? Moreover, isn't this system of "mutual
control" the flip side of "honouring" one another,
as in a pledge between two individuals? And how different is it
from the loss of freedom one has in, for example, a job or a business
contract? The ultimate end result of Kipnis's seeming advocacy of
carnal and emotional spontaneity might be anarchy and anomie, and
its rather harrowing implications for societal cohesion and even
the future of humanity.
Kipnis seems to recognize this on one level. "Polemics aren't
necessarily unconflicted (not are the polemicists)," she says
at the book's beginning. And at the end, "Maybe no one can be
against love, but it's still possible to flirt with the idea."